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July 19, 1982 12:00 PM

Forbes: an advertisement for capitalism

In his 17th-century London mansion, where he arrived from New York the night before, Malcolm Forbes finds barely enough time during breakfast to down his mixed grill, hobnob with such guests as the Duke of Gloucester and U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John J. Louis Jr., and submit to a British TV interview. Then it’s off for a brief spin on his Harley-Davidson, and back to the airport with a party of 34, bound for Tangier. That night in his waterfront Moorish palace, beneath the intricate stucco ceiling of his grand hall, or minzah, he plies his guests with savory lamb, Havana cigars and belly dancers before getting down to the business behind the frivolity: the opening of an annex to his Moroccan museum, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of toy soldiers. “As with eating peanuts, you do get addicted,” says Forbes, explaining how an impulse purchase of a box of World War I soldiers at auction grew into 75,000 little warriors.

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. Forbes is a throwback to the 19th century. In his privately owned business magazine, Forbes—a self-proclaimed “Capitalist Tool”—he trumpets the virtues of free enterprise with the zeal of Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford. Malcolm still routinely reports to his opulent Manhattan office, but at 62 he largely limits his editorial chores to writing a regular column. Instead, with the help of the $10 million or more that the fortnightly earns annually, he lives it up like Diamond Jim Brady—and in the process rarely fails to publicize his magazine. As he told a gaggle of reporters at a 1973 preview of a $25,000 balloon that he was about to pilot cross-country: “What in hell has this to do with a business magazine? The answer is, ‘Nothing at all.’ It’s just for the fun-ness of it.” But, he noted, “You people wouldn’t be here today to write about the editor of Forbes magazine if it weren’t for the balloon.”

Balloons, motorcycles, toys and historic houses are just a few of Malcolm’s favorite things. His collection of 10 Fabergé imperial eggs—the ornate Easter gifts made for the Russian Romanovs—is valued at more than $10 million and rivaled only by the Kremlin’s. His holdings of toy motorcycles and toy boats are among the largest in the world. His far-flung real estate includes 400 square miles of Colorado, a French château and one of the Fiji islands. On his 126-foot yacht, the Highlander, the guest book has been signed by Prince Charles, Nancy Reagan and a long list of movers and shakers. Forbes acquires friends much the way he does properties: pursuing what he likes and picking up bargains before they become fashionable. “Malcolm recognized me before anyone else, which is something I will always appreciate,” says Henry Kissinger, who met Forbes when he was just a Harvard professor and, now that he is world-famous, cheerfully continues to attend Malcolm’s parties.

A gleeful collector, Forbes trusts his instincts. “One of the great games we all play is what he’ll like next,” says son Robert, 33. “You can’t predict.” For instance, in 1969 Malcolm paid $3 million for a 250-square-mile chunk of southern Colorado because, says Robert, “it was pretty.” Once he owned it, Forbes decided to create a wild game preserve at which wealthy hunters could bunk at a deluxe ranch house and stalk elk and deer. He was all set to fence his preserve when the state attorney general spoke up. Malcolm owned the land, but the animals on it belonged to the state; Forbes would have to drive them off before enclosing his property and restocking it with his own creatures. Not buffaloed for long, Malcolm began carving up the land into vacation and retirement lots. Shrewd marketing and soaring land values have turned Malcolm’s whim into a bonanza—real estate has proved so lucrative that his company recently bought 80,000 additional acres in Colorado and 12,000 acres in the Ozarks of Missouri for further subdivision.

Malcolm’s first serious acquisition came when, as a Princeton undergraduate, he learned of the availability of a note handwritten by Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War: “Tad wants some flags—can he be accommodated?” “I’d read about it in Carl Sandburg’s history,” Malcolm recalls. “The idea that I could have that note in my possession was irresistible to me.” He bought it for $1,200, payable in installments. Compared to later additions to his American autograph collection, it was a bargain. In 1978 he paid $70,000 for the expense account that Paul Revere submitted after his famous ride, and $85,000 for the Enola Gay log of the mission that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima.

Describing his dad’s passion for collecting, son Kip, 30, says, “It’s total gusto and enthusiasm, not like putting pins into butterflies.” Forbes doesn’t pursue rare books or abstract art. Just as his favorite literary device is the pun, his artistic taste tends to the trompe I’oeil—such as photorealist paintings or a table with tablecloth cunningly carved out of the same block of wood. “My interest is not that of an academic collector,” Malcolm readily admits. “I didn’t grow up exposed to old masters. My father didn’t found the Mellon museum.”

What his father founded was the magazine that allows Malcolm to indulge his tastes. Scottish-born B.C. Forbes arrived in America in 1904 possessing a sterling reputation as a reporter for a South African newspaper—and very little else. Within seven years he was one of America’s top financial journalists, with a widely read column in the Hearst papers. In 1917 he started Forbes magazine, and after a few birth pangs exacerbated by World War I, it began to grow. The rewards allowed B.C. and wife Adelaide to raise five sons in an Englewood, N.J. house that was comfortable but not extravagant. “My father preached a respect for money, in the sense of a penny saved, a penny earned,” Malcolm recalls. “He didn’t believe in overtipping. We earned our allowance.”

Third son Malcolm’s ambitions vacillated from the start between politics and publishing. “In fifth grade someone else in my class was interested in public life, and I regarded him as a potential rival for the Presidency,” he remembers. Yet at 15 he was also publishing a mimeographed alternative to the official student newspaper—and he was asked not to return to his prep school when he innocently printed an off-color joke and then refused to submit future issues for censorship. (The joke: “And then there was the college professor who kissed the streetcar goodbye, jumped on his wife and went to town.”) At Princeton, after failing to be elected to the Daily Princetonian, he again started his own publication, the Nassau Sovereign, which lasted until 1950.

After graduation, Malcolm traveled to Lancaster, Ohio, where with his father’s help he purchased a weekly newspaper. It seemed an unlikely place to relocate, but his motivations were as much political as editorial: Ohio was the birthplace of more Presidents than any state save Virginia. The year, though, was 1941, and his priorities were reshuffled by Pearl Harbor. Classified 4-F because of his nearsightedness, Malcolm acquired a pair of the recently invented contact lenses and managed to join the infantry. In 1944, having suffered a serious leg wound in Germany (he still limps slightly), Forbes returned to New Jersey to work for his father and begin his own political career.

At B.C.’s death in 1954, Malcolm, already a Republican state senator, was preparing for the 1957 gubernatorial race. He won the GOP nomination but, losing the election, soon returned full-time to Forbes. “It took a little adjustment for me to reassert my prerogative,” he recalls. B.C. had divided control of the magazine between himself and his eldest brother, Bruce. “My father knew I had the editorial ability, but primogeniture is an old tradition in Scotland,” Forbes says. After Bruce died of cancer in 1964, Malcolm eventually bought out all the family stock and assumed complete control.

Like its chairman, Forbes has a reputation for strong opinions, sharply expressed. “It’s a good read, and everyone on Wall Street sees it, but you take what it says with a grain of salt,” says one leading financial columnist. “As for Malcolm himself, you wouldn’t cock your ear to hear what he says. If he didn’t have that magazine, I don’t think anyone would care what he did.” Forbes rarely intervenes in editorial decisions. James W. Michaels, editor since 1961, recalls only one story killed by Malcolm in the last two decades: a snide look at elaborate corporate entertainment. “He felt strongly that since he does so much of it, it would come as very bad grace appearing in Forbes,” Michaels explains.

Despite Malcolm’s editorial self-restraint, no one at the magazine ever forgets who’s boss. When employees arrive in the morning, they pass a large portrait of him in the lobby—hardly unusual, except that he’s decked out in motorcycle regalia. Should they be summoned to his office, they can’t help but notice that the newspaper articles he clips are in a diamond-studded Faberge folder and his pencils bristle from a ruby, diamond and nephrite Faberge vase. He rings his personal assistant and two secretaries with jade Faberge pushbuttons. On his 50th birthday he gave each employee $50 and subsequently declared the Friday closest to his birthday an annual company holiday. Some thought his imperial style was stretching a bit far, but Malcolm shrugs: “It can be interpreted as an ego trip, and there’ll be some who make fun of it while they enjoy it, but I don’t care. I’m happy I’m around.”

Malcolm’s extravagant self-promotion is less amusing to his wife, the former Roberta Remsen Laidlaw, whom he married in 1946. Preferring horses and dogs to celebrities, Bertie, 57, spends the summers on a 35-acre spread in Wyoming. “Malcolm once said we’d have to sell the Jackson Hole cabin,” she recalls. “I said, ‘If it goes, I’m going with it.’ I’d spend all my time there if I could.” But Forbes social commitments compel her to return each fall to Far Hills, N.J., where she waits out the hard Wyoming winter in their eight-bedroom prerevolutionary house on 40 acres. Still, she prefers not to venture into Manhattan and loathes the limelight. “Malcolm and I are opposites that way,” Bertie says. “He loves to be photographed and I hate it.”

Of their five children, sole daughter Moira, 27, has been the most independent. Married to a law student crippled by an auto accident, she edits three weekly newspapers in suburban Philadelphia. Malcolm Jr., known as Steve, is, at 35, a shrewd businessman who is company president; he and wife Sabina are raising four daughters not far from his parents’ New Jersey home. Robert, a former Forbes photographer, now manages the company’s real estate and lives in Manhattan with his wife, Lydia. Christopher (“Kip”) cultivates advertisers, tends the family art collection, and lives in a house on his parents’ estate with his wife, Astrid, and their daughter. Tim, 28, is single and a documentary filmmaker. According to Malcolm’s will, Steve stands to become chief executive officer and majority stockholder, Kip will get the publisher’s title and a quarter of the stock, and the others will share the remaining stock and the bulk of Malcolm’s noncorporate possessions. Unlike his own father, Malcolm is giving the final say to one son. “The intention,” he explains, “is to be sure the business stays in the family.”

Impressive as Forbes’ credentials may be, they are overshadowed by his greatest creation: his own persona. The syndicated columnist Suzy once observed, “Maybe Charlton Heston could play Forbes, but Malcolm does it better.” Not nearly as powerful as a David Rockefeller or as rich as a Daniel K. Ludwig, Forbes is nevertheless celebrated for living the popular conception of a millionaire’s days. “Business and pleasure overlap,” says son Robert. “As Dad grows older, he wants to make sure he’s getting the most out of his time.” Yet, because he rarely plays without playing to an audience, it appears at times that the public projection has taken over the private man.

“It’s a Peter Pan thing,” Malcolm has said when asked to describe the appeal of ballooning, and much about him does recall the storybook character who refuses to grow up. But even more strikingly, Forbes resembles another children’s favorite, the Wizard of Oz—a small, private man who hides behind a smoke screen of dazzling special effects.

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