Malcolm Forbes: To Wish For More

The most liberating thing you can do for another person is to pay them a decent salary.

Jeff Cunningham
Jan 19 · 14 min read
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Malcolm Forbes CEO of Forbes Magazine

“To measure the man, measure his heart.”
― Malcolm Forbes

was the year Malcolm Forbes declared war against three bitter foes — anticapitalists, Fortune Magazine, and eating establishments that didn’t allow Cuban cigars. Victory would be his within a decade with the help of a navy, airforce, and an army of toy soldiers.

Laughter could be heard from the top of the TimeWarner building. Forbes was the number three magazine in a one-man race. Restaurants allowed plumes of cigarette smoke but drew the line at the pungent odor of a hundred dollar Havana. To no avail. Malcolm Forbes was an owlish introvert, he reported to a less talented brother whose claim to fame was being born first. A voice in his head must have said “try, try, and fail again.” Even Forbes questioned his bigger than life ambitions as he quipped so often it became legendary, “I was loaded with sheer ability, spelled i-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e.”

The adversaries missed, to their later regret, that Malcolm Forbes was used to being underestimated. They did not realize they were in the company of a gamechanger, an “ultra achiever” who metamorphosed from living on the edge to bounding across the chasm of eternity. The surprise was Forbes didn’t realize it either. Nothing in manner or demeanor foretold the transformation Malcolm Forbes was about to undergo. At age fifty.

“When you cease to dream you cease to live.”

He wasn’t keeping it a secret. Forbes had been tempting fate at every turn, especially turning on a motorcycle at 90 mph or a hot air balloon at 1,000 feet, and if he was in China, even better. As Chinese authorities cautioned him not to release the balloon, he did exactly that, hollering from the basket, “balloons don’t have reverse gears.” The race to immortality had begun. Long before he became the real Mr. Big, the world began to speak to him and its message was “go for it, you have one life and you have nothing to lose but your boredom.” In old age, he penned an epitaph that summed it up nicely, “while alive he lived.”

“People who never get carried away should be.”

Respectively, in his quest for the triple crown, the standings were — glorious success, satisfying triumph, and abject defeat. Although he batted .666, outstanding even for a media magnate, Forbes was nothing if not a perfectionist. In heaven, where he would undoubtedly be playing bridge with Larry Tisch, former CBS chief executive, and Ace Greenberg, head of Bear Stearns, if you whispered, “by the way, Malcolm, capitalism won, and Fortune lost,” he would ask, how about the cigars?

If you’re in the market for a role model that took neither himself nor life too seriously but thought the universe revolved around people who left the world in better shape than they found it, you could do no better than to start with Malcolm Forbes.

The Awakening

“Putting pen to paper lights more fire than matches ever will”

The James Joyce version would be titled “Portrait of the Artist as a fifty-year-old young man.” Middle age was an excuse for Forbes to become the boy he always wanted to be, a trait common to game-changers from Ben Franklin to Bono (who acquired Forbes Magazine for a brief moment in time). He sought to transform his persona into something refreshingly new, at least in the staid world of gray pinstriped executives. The shocker was that by aiming at boredom, poseurs, and play it safe moneychangers, Malcolm Forbes developed a vision for entrepreneurs who resembled him in risk-taking, courage, and vision. As a result, he helped bring about innovations from fintech to electric cars, charter schools in Harlem, and women in the C suite. It also the recipe for a powerful business magazine.

Forbes didn’t have to bring a bludgeon. His weapon was to thumb his nose at fabulist pretensions in the magazine, especially his column with more deadly accuracy than a Navy Seal sniper. Forbes vaunted above petty adversaries who clung to their coveted spot in the establishment to become the most lionized business magnate of his time. In the process, he relaunched Forbes Magazine as “the Capitalist Tool.” He lifted the veil on wealth by showing it was inconclusively the result of moxie and aspiration, not coupon clipping.

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Malcolm Forbes in motorcycle gear

The man who created the “Capitalist Tool” heralded an era of unblushing free-market entrepreneurialism. He rode two passions through all sorts of weather, a celebrator of life and innovator in spirit. As a result, Forbes's story can read like an irrational mix of contradictions. His Don Quixote quest for the triple crown of “loving father, sagacious publisher, and daredevil motorcyclist” was one of many quirks we misunderstood. He was on a journey to discover did people make the future or the other way around? When he examined the likely route his life was going to take, he opted for Robert Frost’s “the path less traveled by.” It had its treacherous moments, but in the end, it was the stuff of Faberge Eggs, all hearts and diamonds.

The Contrarian

“There is never enough time unless you are serving it.”

One has to stop and ask the child’s question, why? Forbes was given a life of ‘mind your manners and count your bonds.’ Brooklyn born, the third son of a well to do journalist, Princeton graduate, and unaccustomed to the spotlight. He was neither unfriendly nor incurious, but decidedly bookish, owlish, and introverted — reported to Bruce Forbes, his big brother who happened to be bigger physically. He was bullied and overshadowed. Big Bruce also had voting control. Life sucks, right? Not a recipe for chutzpah or legendary greatness. So how did the transformation come about? Chef destiny performs her magic when we aren’t looking. It was like scrambled eggs in the hands of Forbes’s favorite chef, Andre Soltner of Lutece. It all comes down to what we want, how much time there is to get it, and the speed limit. Risk-taking gets us there faster, but you must be willing to break the law of convention.

The contrarian streak began early. In World War II, casting aside the value of a name that would have placed him in the officer ranks, Forbes enlisted as a buck private, took a hit, came home on a stretcher. He could add a Purple Heart and Bronze Star to his war memorabilia. Then the changemaker leaped into the arena as a New Jersey governor candidate, perhaps prematurely. He quipped afterward, “I was nosed out by a landslide.”

When he took over Forbes Magazine after Bruce died of a heart attack, the magazine could be folded in one’s breast pocket. It was a penny saver to the Yellow Pages of Time, Fortune, and Business Week. But not for long. As his son Steve wrote, “Barely surviving the Depression, Forbes had limped along during the 1930s and the war years overshadowed by its competitors.” Malcolm Forbes turned Forbes Magazine into the best-read and most love/hated business publication in America. According to Advertising Age, “He expanded the magazine his father created in 1917 into a publishing powerhouse whether measured in circulation, advertising revenue, or trepidation with which CEOs awaited stories about their companies.”

Uncommonly Common

“Only a handful of companies understand that without TOP people, you cannot succeed.”

Malcolm Forbes was not just a man on a mission. He had a common touch that reflected those he brought along for the ride. When he took over the reins, he named Jim Michaels the editor. According to Warren Buffett, “the best editor in business journalism.” Michaels was as “untelegenic” as Mr. Magoo, whom he resembled. That would be an image problem at Time Magazine, where Michaels would have been given a copy editor’s job. At Forbes, Malcolm made Jim Michaels the top dog. He contributed mightily to the business zeitgeist changes in his forty-year career and turned throngs of cub reporters into brilliant writers that went onto fame, but never Fortune Magazine. Michaels’ brilliance lay in being different, unconventional, and decidedly contrarian. Malcolm and Michals were more than simpatico. They didn’t finish each other’s sentences as much as Michaels would write the sentences Malcolm inspired.

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https://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/04/business/04michaels.html

Forbes did have a pet peeve. Safety-seeking “CEO types,” those gray and timid souls who may have held the title he sported were nothing like Malcolm. I recall he wrote about a defense contractor with corruption problems, “Generally speaking, not too dynamic,” finding a way to make a pun of the company name. It cost us a cool million bucks in advertising, which went to Fortune. When I told Malcolm, and as his publisher, the repair job fell to me, he said, “that’s why we need you.” I never felt better about taking a hit.

Forbes focused the lens onto an ethos the go-go 60s had missed. A generation had come along that conflated the corruption of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policies with business in general. Capitalist Pig was the epithet hurled at business leaders, and like many today, they hid in expensive bunkers waiting for the storm to pass. It never did. But the flood that would have engulfed them never took place if it had not been for Malcolm Forbes and the legions of courageous writers of Forbes Magazine. The first volley began when he captioned the magazine, “the capitalist tool.”

Malcolm Forbes believed passionately when business is conducted within a moral framework, it transforms lives, pays for groceries, college, healthcare, museums, bar mitzvahs, and Mother Teresa’s children’s meals. How much does a Senator Warren contribute to good causes while she wails against income inequality and wealthy techies? Her Capitol Hill staff were unpaid interns until she switched her comp philosophy when running for president. Did Bernie Sanders think about income inequality as he purchased his third beach house?

“It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.”

Forbes understood the vanity that passes for political ranting. Although he, fortunately, missed the era of foolish pretense we live in today, his answer would be to look at the facts. Business is the thing that happens when people get together and transact. It doesn’t matter whether you sell a car to a neighbor or build a cluster of cloud computing facilities. If you provide a valuable service in a competitive economy, the outcome benefits all. Malcolm Forbes would say, “the most liberating thing you can do for another human being is pay them a decent salary.”

He believed each of us has an obligation to promote free enterprise. In that regard, he measured wealth differently from most of us. He didn’t want to be included, at least numerically, in the Forbes 400 rich list. As he saw things, money meant enjoying, owning, and collecting, to be sure. But it also meant hiring people, loaning money (I took two loans out during my early days, bought a house, paid bills). It also meant encouraging the human spirit to seek greater horizons. In this case, he used wealth to donate, take people under his wing, and build a great media empire. He would restate Ben Franklin’s “do well by doing good” to “you can really do some good once you do well.”

How Rich?

Still, how rich was he, people ask?

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Malcolm Forbes and Elizabeth Taylor at his 70th birthday

Wealth was Forbes’s partner, not his persona, until he threw a birthday party in Morocco in 1989, the year before he died. Elizabeth Taylor was his girlfriend and date, the only person ever to call him “Malc.” What began as fun and frivolity soon degenerated into a hothouse of carping, cursing, and craven opinion, all due to an air conditioning snafu. As a result, People Magazine described the gig, “Not since antitrust spoilsports put the kibosh on the Gilded Age has an American capitalist reveled so openly in the pleasures that money can buy.” It put a pall on the idea of going for the brass, and Malcolm Forbes’s legacy got tarnished in the telling. As I relate in my chapter on the “Party of The Century,” the giant stumbled but didn’t fall. What began as generosity turned into a melee of ugly that showed we misplaced the better angels of our nature.

“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.”

Malcolm Forbes was born with a few shekels, it’s true, and he’s not exactly a comeback kid. But he turned a small fortune into a major empire that excelled in succeeding. How he did it and where he learned the tricks of the trade, how he became such a spectacular entrepreneur despite a great deal of discouragement is the subject of my research. But suffice to say, like many of the greatest achievers, he never learned to say “it can’t be done.”

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Forbes in a Turnbull & Asser Shirt, with his collection of Faberge Eggs

It is one reason the American public fell in love with Malcolm Forbes. His love of living, the joy of giving, endeared him to many in the way Teddy Roosevelt had a captivating effect on his Paris crowd. Even as a major media magnate, his lifestyle was at odds with wealth. He drove a Maserati when the average tycoon was in the backseat of a Cadillac. Malcolm told me, “Kids give high fives. What would I do with a stretch limo?” His lunch was literally a happy meal. When dignitaries weren’t in residence, he would eat a McDonald’s (with a grand cru Bordeaux, of course).

“The biggest mistake people make in life is not trying to make a living at doing what they most enjoy.

In his book, Fact and Comment, he told a story that revealed the inner man was basically your next-door neighbor. He noted, “The other day, I learned something that I guess housewives learn early in life. Don’t go supermarket shopping when hungry. Recently, a fabulous new A&P opened up near home, and I went down around noon Saturday to pick up two wee, needed items.” His eyes lit up as he grabbed bunches of “endive to clams to ice cream and bakery items.” When he rang up the roster of goodies, “The $2 mission turned into a $49.12 extravaganza.” For all his success, he could laugh at himself, his vanity, his joie de vivre, which caused so much merriment and occasionally, distress to employees and sons.

“People who matter are most aware that everyone else does too.”

People are surprised to learn of Forbes's philanthropy. For those who worked with him, it was his best if least-known quality. Among the terms of his estate were some juicy items the gossip columnists neglected to print: “millions of dollars each year to charities, including the largest donation to curing AIDS in history. He was in London the day before he died doing, what else, playing bridge at a charity tournament. Malcolm Forbes even surprised his 750 staffers a week after his death in one last, grand act of kindness and generosity. In his will, he left them all an extra week’s pay and had forgiven all loans, up to $10,000, paid to any company employee.” Thank you, Malcolm.

How rich? As in many ways, Malcolm Forbes was a very rich man in human terms.

Such Beautiful Shirts

On a day he invited everyone who worked for him to his home for lunch and celebration, he gave a house tour. When we got to his dressing room, I saw his white-collared, colorful Turnbull & Asser shirts made in London. The fashion house has dressed Ronald Reagan, charlie Chaplin, Laurence Olivier, Pablo Picasso, James Bond, and The Great Gatsby. You may recall the scene with Daisy Buchanan and the shirts. In the scene, Gatsby takes the colorful shirts ordered from England out of his cabinet and throws them on the bed. Daisy bends her head into the shirts and begins to cry. “They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobs. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

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The Forbes Yacht, The Highlander

Like the houses and the cars, and let’s not forget the island in Fiji, the English shirts sounded like flaunting wealth. On a birthday aboard the yacht, Barbara Walters said to Malcolm, “with everything you have, yachts, houses, an island, what do you wish for?” He was irrepressible. Without skipping a beat said, “I know it sounds odd, but I wished for more.” When you know people are talking, the only way to win is to say it before they do.

Americans who travel to a foreign country for the first time don’t understand the locals, just as the chorus of social activists didn’t get what Malcolm Forbes was about. Perhaps public image got in their way since that is all they care about. Forbe’s mix of business and pleasure was performance art, just as his recasting the magazine as the most influential in business, as an example to everyone else that “To live long and achieve happiness, cultivate the art of radiating happiness.” He curried attention, used it to gain influence, and changed how business is conducted. His dream was simple: make things better, bigger, and share.

“Failure is success if we learn from it.”

While Forbes lived, he enjoyed life and beckoned those around him to come with. Nothing he did was left in a closet, including his street life. He took a priceless collection of Faberge Eggs and put them on display in a public gallery on the first floor of his building, which Andy Warhol told his son Kip was a waste of good retail space. The story of Malcolm Forbes and his eggs has a second chapter. Once a few of us asked him what happens if, down the road (the implication was after he left the scene), the magazine went under? I thought the idea was preposterous. He didn’t.

Malcolm understood markets. He replied, “my sons can always sell the Faberge Eggs.” Again, ridiculous. Both came to pass. The nine imperial eggs went on the auction block in 2004. The suggested hammer price was north of $100 million, roughly more than 10 times what he paid. Visitors had no idea what they were worth or that Bolsheviks assassinated the Czarina before she had a chance to enjoy them.

“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”

Coda

You may be thinking, where are the wings on this angel? While Forbes did not author every business accomplishment we take for granted today, there is a case to be made many would not have seen the light of day without his endorsement of the causes he wrote, preached, applauded, and supported. Without his optimism that rallied the troops of business against the bureaucrats in Washington D.C., it is entirely possible America would look more like a failed European socialist state today.

I worked with Malcolm Forbes and his sons for nearly 20 years, and they were the most exciting years in my career, and I would argue in business history. The role Forbes Magazine played was a major contributor to the dynamism of the 80s and 90s. We could say we have Malcolm Forbes to thank for many of the things we take for granted, cell phones, the internet, electric vehicles, a cure for AIDS, full employment, women in the C suite, even charter schools in inner cities.

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The four Forbes brothers: Tim, Robert, Steve, Kip

“Let your children go if you want to keep them.”

Malcolm Forbes enjoyed the well-earned nickname of “the happiest millionaire” until he died of a sudden heart attack on February 24, 1990. Robert, Forbes’ second eldest son (and who inherited Malcolm Forbes’s shirt collection), eulogized his father by emphasizing his playful nature: “He was so many things to so many of us. Boss, confidante, raconteur, balloonist, columnist, happiest millionaire, leader of the pack, source, mentor, friend, super this, mega that, father, grandfather, father-in-law, uncle, cousin, and sparkling naughty boy.”

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them.”

Malcolm Forbes was born with a silver spoon, but he turned it into something alchemists dream about, gold that shines so brightly it lights the way. Former President Ronald Reagan said in his tribute: “Malcolm was truly a dear friend, and we will miss him sorely. We hold our memories of him close to our hearts and are thankful to have known him.”

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

All you have to do is dream

Jeff Cunningham

Written by

Author of “Be Somebody — Extraordinary Lives” (published 2021); 2019 Telly Award for Documentary @IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher @Forbes

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

The ordinary habits of extraordinary people

Jeff Cunningham

Written by

Author of “Be Somebody — Extraordinary Lives” (published 2021); 2019 Telly Award for Documentary @IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher @Forbes

Be Somebody: Extraordinary Lives

The ordinary habits of extraordinary people

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