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Out of Empire-building and Personal Crises Emerges a Mellowed Norton Simon

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At 6 a.m. the California sun casts an eerie pastel glow over the Pacific Ocean lapping at the deserted Malibu beach outside the home of Norton Winfred Simon.

Shivering in a pair of boxer trunks, Simon plunges in for his daily swim. He is a little plump at 180 pounds, slightly round-shouldered, his face deeply etched in downward strokes rendering his sad eyes sadder, emphasizing the large adenoidal nose, the slightly floppy ears.

Now, an hour later, dressed in an open shirt and trousers, he is seated in a comfortable leather swivel chair behind a desk in his study. His face is alive, the hazel-blue eyes flashing. Locked in place at his ear is his constant companion—the telephone. Norton Simon, multimillionaire corporate swinger, world-renowned art collector, is operating:

“I claim you made a hell of a mistake,” he complains to a broker about stock negotiations involving a major oil company. “I also claim there’s a lot of things you get sloppy on. [The voice roller-coasters between a squeak and a whisper, an almost-lisp during the sibilants.] Well, get rid of the goddam thing. If you got screwed on two dividends, that’s your problem.”

Moments later, Simon is on the phone to an art dealer: “What price did you think you can get it for? Three fifty? [Restless free left hand jiggles change in his pocket.] Do you want to buy it as my agent? If you can—at three fifty—I’ll buy it…”(He did—a major impressionist painting for $350,000.) With Al Toffel, one of his top aides, Simon discusses a big charity party that actress Jennifer Jones, Simon’s wife of five years, is about to throw: “I can just picture what’s going to happen when Jennifer has to put the damn tables together…Wait a minute, who cares what color the tickets are?”

Simon push-buttons an interior designer who is decorating an adjoining beach house the Simons are converting into an office and guest residence—”When you left, you and Jennifer were on Cloud Nine, and I wanted to bring you down. [Left hand fusses with a gold pendant Jennifer gave him for his recent 69th birthday—Star of David on one side, a St. Christopher’s medal on the other.] I will show you very rapidly how the kitchen in this house is large enough. We don’t want two kitchens operating, one in each house…”

Larger than life? Movie cliché of the big-time industrialist manipulating empires on the telephone? Larger than life, perhaps. Cliché, no. There is nothing stereotypical about Norton Simon. Rich enough to move with untrammeled freedom (his personal wealth is estimated at hundreds of millions), possessed of a restless intelligence and an ardent capacity for outrage—Simon defies pigeonholing.

Today he has emerged from a long series of personal crises and seems at the peak of his energy and powers. Typically, he is embroiled in controversy. Two years ago he negotiated a deal with the ailing, nearly bankrupt Pasadena, Calif. Museum of Modern Art. Simon would take over the museum’s $850,000 in debts and refurbish the rundown $6 million structure. In return, he would have five-year rights to hang his collection of old masters, 19th-century impressionists and early-20th-century paintings and display his European and Southeast Asian sculpture.

It was an offer the precariously situated museum could hardly refuse. In essence, it was a typical Simon maneuver—not unlike his many corporate takeovers. “It was in the best Simon tradition—an extension rather than a capture,” said one art expert. “He moved crabwise and was able to preserve the legal continuity of the museum, uphold its tax-exempt status and solve the housing problem for his art works.” It is now called the Norton Simon Museum of Art at Pasadena.

The takeover stirred a protest over the transformation of the only museum in southern California devoted to contemporary art. “An extraordinary loss,” said Paul Brach, a dean at the California Institute of the Arts.

“Who knows, contemporarily, who’s a great artist and who’s not?” Simon demands, his face animated, almost pugnacious, like a small boy itching for a fight. “I’ve heard people talk about a contemporary Rembrandt—the Rembrandt of today. That’s a lot of crap.”

Two years after the takeover the museum is freshly painted, the leaks in the roof are gone, the air conditioning repaired, some galleries carpeted. But even more impressive is the concentration of what art critic Thomas Hess calls “the best active private collection in the world”—a dazzling survey including works by Raphael, Renoir, Picasso, Maillol, Rembrandt, Henry Moore. It is impressive enough to charm Pasadena’s conservative populace and blunt outside criticism. In short, Simon had scored another coup.

Norton W. Simon is used to winning. He was born in Portland, Ore., where his father, Myer, ran a department store almost wiped out by the 1921 depression—a lesson not lost on the young Norton. The family moved to San Francisco when Simon was 16.

He flirted briefly with college (University of California at Berkeley), then headed for Los Angeles where he played the stock market well enough to emerge from the 1929 crash with $35,000. “I had ideas about the world,” he has said. “And they got very directional. The direction was making money and achieving success in the money world.”

In 1931 he invested $7,000 in a defunct orange juice bottling company and switched to canning tomatoes. Within 10 years sales rose from $43,000 to $9 million. Simon began buying stock in the Hunt Brothers Packing Company, a San Francisco firm. In a quick double maneuver, he sold his company to Hunt, then with the proceeds bought a controlling share in Hunt. As president, he reorganized the firm, changed the name to Hunt Foods, saturated magazines with advertising and within a decade had boosted sales nearly 700 percent to more than $100 million.

It was a pattern he was to repeat again and again. Slowly, he would buy shares in a company, enough to provide access, then he would increase his shares, demand a place on the board and, eventually, move to effective control. With that technique, Simon acquired in succession the Ohio Match Company, a diesel engine firm, a can-making operation, the McCall publishing empire, a steel firm and the Canada Dry Corporation, as well as a large block of stock in Northern Pacific Railroad. By 1968 the Simon interests had been merged into Norton Simon, Inc., now ranked 112th on FORTUNE’S list of the 500 largest American corporations.

In his rise to conglomerate status, Simon’s abrasive style hurt feelings. “I wanted to like him, but he wouldn’t let me,” one bloodied executive remarks. Adds an associate: “He’s a corporate iconoclast. He stirs things up with a big spoon. Sure he can be ruthless. He can be coldly analytical. Very little emotion plays in his business dealings.”

Something else, however, set him apart from the image of the acquisitive, power-seeking American entrepreneur. There was an inner struggle, an angst that led Simon to describe himself once in the Dostoevskian sense as “the suffering man.”

“Some people are born with peace of mind. I was not,” he said of the struggle with himself, which often erupted in outbursts of temper and took its toll in a 30-year bout with ulcers.

The other side of that was an intellectual curiosity and sensitivity that prompted Simon to introduce psychology into the executive suite (he has undergone therapy himself over the years) and, with his wife Lucille, to begin in the mid-’50s his love affair with painting and sculpture.

By 1969 the various skeins of Simon’s existence were becoming unraveled. His son Robert committed suicide. That same year Simon divested himself of all interests in Norton Simon, Inc., remaining only as a consultant. “It wasn’t fun anymore. The bureaucracy was running me more than I was running it.” His wife of 37 years divorced him in 1970. (They also had a son Donald, who is an investor in securities and real estate.)

It was in that period, because of or in spite of his personal problems, that the congenitally shy Simon “went public.” As a member of the University of California Board of Regents, he stepped up his attacks on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, who he was convinced was out to scuttle the state’s educational system.

With typical unpredictability, Simon entered the 1970 primary campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. George Murphy, spending $2 million in just three months. He lost, but succeeded in making Murphy an easy target for Democrat John Tunney in the general election. (A lifelong Republican, Simon has contributed heavily over the years to liberal candidates in both parties.)

Not unlike the times themselves, the early ’70s were for Simon a period of self-searching. “I began to become conscious of who I was—an existentialist, really,” Simon recalls. “When you discover what you are, rather than being it and not knowing it, it eases the pain. In the old days I felt intimidated by people and felt I had to act in some form to intimidate them in turn. It wasn’t me. It was my act.”

If today Simon seems “mellower” than ever, it has more than anything to do with the attractive, 50ish Jennifer Jones. The two were introduced by friends in 1971. Jennifer’s second husband, film producer David O. Selznick, had died in 1965, plunging her into a long period of reclusive depression. “Norton and Jennifer came together like two castaways on a beach,” says one friend. Simon courted her assiduously for a month and they were married on a yacht in the English Channel at 4 a.m.

The liaison, by all standards, has been a triumph for both. “Norton is more relaxed, at ease with himself and enjoying life more than in the 23 years I’ve known him,” says friend and fellow UC regent Fred Dutton.

Simon agrees. “Both of us were struggling. Both of us had a lot of conflicts. Together we’ve gone through a tremendous period of growth. We help each other.”

Jennifer Simon adds, “Norton has expanded my thinking, turned me around. He’s taken me beyond the narrow movie world I lived in almost exclusively. Norton is like the great wind that sweeps the beach—he puts you in the middle of a hurricane and you come out with your consciousness expanded.”

Their lives revolve around the home at the beach. The walls are an ever-changing exhibit of the world’s great works of art. The “museum” effect is softened by Jennifer’s touch—flowers, including her beloved orchids, bowls of huge yellow lemons, brightly colored cushions, rugs and patterned furniture.

The Simons usually dine at home, entertaining occasionally, watch television and are in bed by 11:30. Their close” friends reflect both their varied interests: Franklin D. Murphy, chairman of the board of the Los Angeles Times; Harold Williams, dean of the UCLA business school; David Mahoney, president of Norton Simon, Inc.; Lauren Bacall, Cary Grant, Joseph Cotten.

None of this is to say that Norton Simon is settling back. He’s up at dawn for the swim, on the phone dealing in the money and art markets (“Numbers are for me a form of communication—they help explain what’s happening in the world”).

For Simon, nearing his seventh decade, life is a series of new beginnings. “You’re either a dead tree, a barely living tree or a growing tree,” he says, leaving little doubt about the kind of tree he knows he is.