Whatever Happened to Ted Turner?
"Isn’t that the thinnest billionaire’s wallet you ever saw?" Ted Turner gloats on a drizzling day in New York. "I’m really proud of it.”
He holds out the wallet, a slender, black, rather unpretentious affair, as this reporter cranes for a closer look, neglecting to mention I’ve never seen a billionaire’s wallet before. It contains Turner’s driver’s license, two credit cards, lists of his appointments for the next couple of days (he doesn’t use e-mail), a few phone numbers and about $1,000 in cash — though what on earth for, he doesn’t say, since he never shops.
The tycoon-turned-philanthropist has removed the wallet from his blazer to show me a printed card with his "11 Voluntary Initiatives," an oddly naive reinvention of the Ten Commandments that he concocted some 15 years ago, including such vows as "I promise to care for Planet Earth and all living things thereon, especially my fellow beings."
He leans forward, adamant about reading each one. "Listen, these are important,” he insists. "I worked on them for a long time."
It’s a rare burst of energy from this man who once epitomized it. At age 73, there’s almost no trace of the frenetic, hyper-kinetic mogul once known as the “Mouth of the South” and “Captain Outrageous." His antics (from keeping a pet alligator as a student to almost losing his life in a 1968 sailing race) and innovative empire-building (turning a tiny TV station into a nation-spanning “superstation" and launching the first global TV news network, CNN) have made him the stuff of legend, putting his present absence from the media scene in stark relief.
Without him, we wouldn’t have an all-cartoon channel or an all-movie channel — maybe not even cable television itself, with all its glorious target programming, its 24-hour sports, passionate punditry and unreal reality.
"He’s a genius," says former CNN president Tom Johnson. "He was exceptionally important in the media landscape. We shall not look upon Ted Turner’s kind again."
Even his onetime friend, former Time Warner chief Gerald Levin, who ousted him in a putsch that severed their relationship, acknowledges: “Some people have transcendent notions about changing the world. Ted believed, in his unstoppable fashion, that he could — and did. He was and is maddeningly gifted with a spark of genius.”
Many pundits expected that spark would help him outlast his older rivals (Viacom and CBS Corp. chairman Sumner Redstone, 88, and News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, 80) at the summit of the media. But unlike them, he has moved on, giving up the executive life to "save the world,” as he puts it, an endeavor that began with his unprecedented $1 billion gift in support of the United Nations in 1997. This, along with other philanthropies he’s launched, has been his mandate for much of the past decade — more than a mandate, a mission. That he made the best choice for the world seems certain; whether he made the best choice for himself is less clear.
"He really misses it a lot,” says his daughter, Laura Turner Seydel, 50, chairman of the board of the Captain Planet Foundation, referring to his role at Time Warner. "It was his baby. I think he’d still be there if he’d not totally gotten screwed."
Turner goes to bed right after dinner most nights, switching off the light around 9, following an hour of reading.
This onetime social gadfly, who hobnobbed with President Carter and Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev (whom he still cites as his hero), has a relatively quiet social life. "I have several good friends but not one [in particular],” he says. "I never think about who are my best friends; they’re all my best friends. I confide on certain things with my family, my close girlfriends, Phil [Phillip Evans, vp and chief communications officer of Turner Enterprises]. I have good relationships with a lot of people. In fact, I don’t have very many enemies, [though] I’ve lost a lot of good friends who passed away."
Turner doesn’t pay attention to TV anymore, other than CNN. "I don’t watch entertainment,” he says. As for CNN’s sister network, HLN, "the News and Views Network” featuring Nancy Grace: “I haven’t watched in years. I want to see serious news.”
Instead, he spends an average of an hour and a half each day reading nonfiction — The Economist from cover to cover, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal whenever he can, along with substantive tomes including environmentalist Lester R. Brown’s World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse and Catherine Crier’s Patriot Acts: What Americans Must Do to Save the Republic.
As one might expect from this, he’s hardly devoid of political opinion: "I like Obama. I don’t know who could do a better job. He’s got an incredibly tough situation, and a good heart and mind. I’d like to see him rally support a little better. He’s alienated a lot of people — not deliberately or anything." By contrast, “Certainly the Tea Party people are mean-spirited. It’s so heartbreaking to have [them] say that global warming is a hoax.”
After reading, Turner retires. In addition to taking medication for an irregular heartbeat, in mid-2011 he learned he had sleep apnea, a disorder involving abnormal interruptions in breathing. “I’ve had it for years, a rare form; I’m using the [positive airway pressure, or PAP] machine at night, and that’s helped some,” he says.
He wakes around 4 a.m., “takes several pills, like most of us," then gets up at 6 and does a light workout. He drives a Prius and adds, "I haven’t been in a store to buy anything for five years" — even clothes.
He says all this with little of the flamboyance that was once his mark. His depleted energy troubles some of the 300 former staffers and executives who remain intensely loyal and who reunited with him for a cocktail reception at Atlanta’s Hilton in November. Several acknowledge the man they found was quite different from the human tornado of the past. “I don’t know if it’s because of what happened at Time Warner or if it’s just getting older,” says one. "But he’s definitely changed."