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."
The reformed drinker, who embarrassed himself after winning the 1977 America’s Cup with a drunken performance at a news conference, no longer touches a drop. "I quit completely a year ago, but prior to that, all I’ve drunk is a glass or two of wine,” he says. “I haven’t been a heavy drinker in years — not even a moderate one. I didn’t like the way it made me feel." He gave up without joining Alcoholics Anonymous: "I never needed to."
Turner sees a psychiatrist friend once a month, though he qualifies, "I’m not in therapy; it’s just somebody to talk to." He took lithium for a few years but now blames it on a psychiatrist who wrongly diagnosed him as manic depressive. What he has, he says, is “a mild to moderate case of anxiety. But I don’t suffer from depression. The word doesn’t exist for me.”
He may lack the ebullience of his earlier years, yet Turner shuttles endlessly among his 28 properties — 14 of them ranches with 55,000 bison — traveling hundreds of thousands of miles per year on his private Challenger jet, making numerous speeches when he’s not communing with nature in the "wilderness," as he puts it. With nearly 2 million acres, he was America’s largest landowner until his friend, Liberty Media chairman John Malone, surpassed him. (“He said he was sick of me being No. 1 in land ownership. But he didn’t give $1 billion to the U.N., so he can afford it,” Turner quips.) He retains, according to Forbes, a $2 billion net worth.
His energy may be flagging, but some drive keeps propelling him forward, in an unending race to achieve more — or outrun his inner demons.
The 2001 departure of Jane Fonda from his life, after a 10-year marriage, may have fueled this. He admits it shook him profoundly and perhaps contributed to the sense one has of his being emotionally adrift, no matter how vast his accomplishments. Often, during our conversations, he tunnels down a track of his own — spending 15 minutes on his Voluntary Initiatives, for instance — as if his mind is full of his own thoughts and private obsessions.
He has replaced Fonda with a new arrangement, alternating among four girlfriends, each of whom gets approximately a week per month of his time. "Pretty much, that’s the general rule,” he says.
One, novelist Elizabeth Dewberry (His Lovely Wife), is with him here in New York, where he’s spending some time for U.N. Week. Charming and refined, she assures me in the few seconds we get to speak that Turner is affectionate and fully loving, whatever Fonda’s statements may have implied to the contrary. But Dewberry’s history is almost as complicated as her lover’s: She was married to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who wrote a somewhat extraordinary e-mail to his colleagues when she left him for Turner. "She will not be Ted’s only girlfriend,” he mused. “Ted is permanently and avowedly nonmonogamous. But though he has several girlfriends, it is a very small number, and he does not take them up lightly, and he gives them his absolute support when he does. And Elizabeth’s leaving me is as much about the three weeks a month she is alone as it is about the week a month she is with Ted."
Turner doesn’t name the other women in his life. When asked if they are OK with this division of spoils, he hesitates. "Sort of.”
He misses intimacy, he says, but recognizes: “I’ve been married three times, and with my background in baseball [Turner owned the Atlanta Braves], I remember the first rule of the game is, three strikes and you’re out. I regret that I wasn’t more successful with my marriages, but it is what it is.” Is he lonely? He pauses. "Maybe a little.”
Ensconced in a vast windowless basement at the U.N. for a conference on women and children’s health, Turner appears isolated in the very locus of his passion, even with Dewberry and his colleague Evans at his side. He barely moves, rarely talks. His deafness contributes to this: He wears two hearing aids and says: "I’m hard of hearing. I miss a lot. It’s really tough."
With a mind that still bubbles with invention and an IQ of 128 (“in the 97th percentile," he says), he has turned his unequaled gaze on the nonprofits that have become his abiding love: The U.N. Foundation, established with former Democratic Sen. Timothy Wirth of Colorado as its president to promote the aims of the U.N.; the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which he co-chairs with former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, championing projects such as the conversion of reactors around the globe; and the Turner Foundation, which among other pursuits bestows ecosystem- safeguarding grants.
"I’d been thinking about doing something to help the U.N. for a long time,” he explains about the first of these, founded with his $1 billion gift (a third of his then-fortune). "I was really upset and disappointed that the U.S. at that time had trouble paying its bills. And going back, I was concerned about the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and worried that if there was another world war, it could be the end of civilization. The U.N. had such lofty goals to eliminate poverty and stop war and cure diseases and help refugees — things that no one country could do.”
He says this is his focus now and, whatever his daughter’s opinion, he appears uninterested in the media environment he helped build as founder of Turner Broadcasting System and Cable News Network.
"It’s been 12 years since I’ve been gone, but if you only had one news network, and there really was only one when CNN was there, would you make it a serious news network?” he ponders. “When you’ve got dozens — or many — then you can go in different formats. You could go right-wing like Fox News, you could go after a segment of the market and maybe you would be more successful than if you were going for the whole market." Looking back, even he admits: “CNN wasn’t perfect. We spent several days when Jessica McClure fell down the well, and we covered O.J. [Simpson] driving around L.A. But those were such interesting stories."
Now he has sold his shares in CNN parent Time Warner, whose plunging stock price following the AOL merger in 2000 cost him $8 billion of his estimated $10 billion fortune. Other than a solar-energy project he recently developed with the Southern Co. in New Mexico and his chain of 44 restaurants in 16 states, Ted’s Montana Grill (which showcases the bison he breeds), business doesn’t entice him.
Except for brief shots across the bows of erstwhile rivals such as Levin and Murdoch, Turner has said goodbye to all things media, where he once reigned and in which role he told his executives to spend “whatever it cost” to cover the Gulf War, refusing to buckle when President George W. Bush called his top news executive and pleaded for him to withdraw CNN’s reporters from Baghdad.
Turner only partly regrets his severed friendship with Levin, the man who effectively fired him from AOL Time Warner, as it was known then. "I mean, it’s pretty hard to love someone who fired you, particularly from a job you really liked," he says. “But I don’t hate Jerry. I don’t even hate Rupert."
As for Murdoch: "He should resign or step down" if News Corp. did indeed break the law. "When I was a publisher of CNN, I took responsibility for the actions of the network. If they broke the law by wire-tapping, that’s illegal, [and if Murdoch knew] he’d have to go to prison. If anybody else did, they’d be going to prison."
Murdoch’s critics would embrace Turner’s return to the fold, but just when the media needs him most — when he is one of the few people who could challenge his former nemesis (whom he once compared to Hitler) for supremacy, turn the various Housewives and innumerable Kardashians on their heads and maybe even reinvent TV as we know it — he has exited, probably never to return.
Ted Turner sprang unformed onto the business stage at age 24, following the death of his father, Robert Edward Turner.
The older Turner was a wealthy but brutal patriarch who beat Ted with a razor strap as far back as he can remember. "In the old days, they didn’t have safety razors, they had straight razors,” he explains, sitting in a bland, borrowed office at his U.N. Foundation’s midtown Manhattan headquarters, the day after the U.N. gathering.
"The way you sharpened a straight razor was with a leather strap that was in every barbershop. Not only that, people had them in their bathrooms. It made the knife very sharp — that’s where the phrase came from, ‘razor sharp.' He hit me with the strap."
Each time, Ted refused to succumb to his father’s authority, until one day the older man lay face down on a bed, exasperated, and told his son to spank him. Turner, then a child, broke down sobbing. But as tears gushed forth, he refused.
"That’s right — I couldn’t,” he says. “Because I loved him."
On March 5, 1963, under the influence of alcohol and pills, battling depression and worried about a $4 million purchase that had expanded his Turner Outdoor Advertising into the largest billboard company in the south, Turner senior shot himself dead at age 54. He left behind Ted and his mother, Florence, a housewife. (A younger sister, Mary Jean, had died from complications of systemic lupus erythematosus, an immune system disease, at age 17.)
The suicide shattered the family, but it’s something Ted acknowledges having contemplated too. “I’ve thought about it and decided against it — in the past, not recently," he says.
Devastated, he nonetheless seized control of his father’s enterprise. He already had dropped out of Brown University to join the company. Now he made the first of many brilliant moves, using the threat of lawsuits to regain control of assets his father had sold just before his death.
During the next few years, he would build on what his father had created and grow the company into a fledgling empire, in a way that bears uncanny parallels to his dark twin Murdoch, a man similarly summoned to take over his father’s business at age 21 when Keith Murdoch died of cancer in 1952. The Murdochs ran newspapers in Australia; the Turners operated billboards in Georgia. But each son took the opportunity to shine.
After consolidating the billboard company, Turned acquired several local radio stations, then made a giant leap with the 1970 purchase of a UHF station. Six years later, he turned it into the country’s first “superstation," with the breathtaking use of a satellite to transmit programming to cable companies throughout the U.S., launching Turner Broadcasting System.
What Turner did, says longtime colleague Scott Sassa, now Hearst Entertainment & Syndication president, was create “disruptive media.” At any given time, Sassa explains, executives in power tend to “develop systems and ideas. What Ted did was no different than the Internet: He exploited a newly available technology — satellite — and so changed the order of what happened.”
While doing this, Turner married Judy Gale Nye, then divorced; he subsequently married Jane Shirley Smith, only to divorce a second time in 1988, leaving him with five kids whom he cherishes but who have said he was a tough father — certainly an absent one, even if generous.
I lived at my office,” Turner explains, especially after he acquired the Braves in 1976 and spent most evenings at ballgames. “That put me on an 18-hour day. I was never home for dinner.”
Turner bought the Braves for more than $10 million, partly to guarantee programming for his burgeoning TV empire. As it grew, in 1986 he made a roughly $1.6 billion purchase of the MGM library for its films (giving him the material to found TNT and Turner Classic Movies) and bought the Hanna-Barbera studio in 1991 (allowing him to create Cartoon Network).
But Turner’s most brazen move came in 1980, when he founded CNN.
In 1978, he had pitched the idea for CNN at the Western Cable Show. Several TBS insiders were afraid it would bankrupt the company, especially given that cable reached only about 10 million homes at the time and this meant charging 15 cents per subscriber per month. Total cable fee revenue at first was only $18 million, nowhere near enough to cover the network’s expenses. Advertising sales helped, but not entirely.
On July 1, 1979, having hired two top execs — Reese Schonfeld and Burt Reinhardt — Turner decided to go ahead with the network nonetheless, moving into a former golf clubhouse in Atlanta as headqua rters. He persuaded Daniel Schorr to join him as CNN’s first brand-name journalist, then sold WRET to Westinghouse for about $20 million to keep CNN afloat. Turner continued to hire the best newsmen, who would come to include Lou Dobbs, Bernard Shaw and Wolf Blitzer, and convinced them to follow him to Atlanta.
CNN’s prominence today makes it easy to forget that it was almost stillborn — not least when the satellite it required simply disappeared, forcing Turner to mount a life-or-death legal battle to get a slot on another one.
Throughout CNN’s emergence, nobody believed an all-news, all-the- time network could function — except Turner. But he was convinced that audiences wanted a venue where they could find information whenever they wanted, and from the beginning proclaimed his faith in the enterprise, announcing, “We won’t be signing off until the world ends."
He never achieved his goal of having a bureau in every major city around the world, but his foreign coverage was unrivaled — and so was his belief in objectivity, even when it led to criticism in the early 2000s that he was showing the Iraqi point of view. "He had a near-fanatical belief that we should be fair," Johnson says.
In those years, Turner was at his dazzling best. "He was the most inspirational person I’ve ever worked for,” says Arthur Sando, his longtime marketing executive. “He leveraged everything he had for what he believed in. He was a leader, had a great heart and tremendous vision. He was honest and loyal, with a terrific sense of humor."
In October 1996, Turner Broadcasting merged with Time Warner, valuing the former at more than $8 billion, with Turner becoming vice chairman of the parent company under Levin. But Turner was a rare voice of dissent opposing Levin’s desire to merge with AOL. For the latter (who declined to comment on specifics), this would be his greatest legacy — and later failure; for the former, according to his 2008 memoir Call Me Ted, it flirted with disaster. Against his better instincts — in a way that seems oddly out of character — the executive capitulated and gave Levin the support necessary to carry through his deal.
It was the beginning of the end for Turner’s role at Time Warner.
As Levin and his new partner, AOL’s Steve Case, restructured the company, they envisioned a reduced role for their associate. "When I merged with Time Warner, I knew there was a fair chance I wouldn’t be there forever, because that’s normally the case: The entrepreneur doesn’t make it through [the transition]," Turner says. Still, it came as a shock in 2000 when Levin called to tell him most of his responsibilities were being reassigned. Technically, he would remain vice chairman until 2003, but, as Turner says in his book, “For the first time in my life, I’d been fired."
It is one of the “great mysteries: Why Ted was fired when he was the largest shareholder and unbelievably supportive of Jerry Levin,” Johnson reflects. Even Turner remains perplexed, as if he hasn’t fully come to terms with it all these years later. “I thought I’d been doing a good job — I’d been Time’s man of the year [in 1991],” he says. “No one else there had been man of the year. They fired the only one who had."
The firing marked the conclusion of Turner’s career as a business icon and the commencement of his work as a full-time philanthropist, the work that is central to this third chapter of his life and such a remarkable departure from the young man who set out to make a fortune.
Through his foundations, Turner has gone from being the brash businessman and consistent Republican (even when his style seemed distinctly unconservative), to the progressive provocateur able to alienate even the entrepreneurs who most adored him, to the man he is today: tall and ramrod straight, but with a slight stoop to his shoulders as if the world weighs heavily on him; a solitary, almost messianic figure.
His passion to “change the world" led him to consider running for president against Bush the second in 1999 (either as a Democrat or Independent), his daughter says, noting her father planned to set aside $75 million for his campaign, fully aware he might lose, and only opted not to run because “Jane Fonda told him she’d leave him if he did. So he didn’t — and she left him anyway.”
This arch-conservative, entrepreneurial giant and military-school graduate had done a 180-degree turnaround to become one of America’s most iconoclastic liberals.
It’s evident in the very symbols of his heroes that he keeps in his Atlanta office. Over the years, Horatio Nelson and Alexander the Great have been replaced by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. — whose Ebenezer Baptist Church, appropriately, is within walking distance of Turner’s base.
Turner was twice divorced when he learned fonda had split with her second husband, liberal politician Tom Hayden. He’d briefly met her years earlier and admired what he saw, so he called her. At that time, the actress was too shattered to think of dating but suggested Turner phone again six months later. He did so, to the day, and they embarked on a romance that would lead to marriage in 1991, when he was 53 and she was 54.
She influenced him in “lots of ways,” he says. “She’s as opinionated as me, if not more. In areas like the status of women, she probably was even a little stronger than me, though I was always very much in favor of people’s rights and equal treatment for women."
Fonda’s decision to leave him in 2001 was devastating. At the time of their divorce, Turner reportedly said it was fueled by her announcing, “I’ve become a Christian.” Their settlement, according to other reports, involved his paying her $40 million. And then he had to let her go. “I couldn’t do anything else. What am I supposed to do, sit down and cry? I did for six months,” he says. “And after that, you gotta go on.”
It’s intriguing to compare their responses to the marriage. At The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast in December, Fonda said she had spent too much of her life “being defined as so-and-so’s wife.” (She declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.) By contrast, “Ted’s still in love with her,” Johnson says. "I’ve thought many times he would love to have her back. They were such an unbelievable couple. It’s almost as though they discovered in each other the person who had the ultimate in shared values — not to mention great sex."
The two still speak “about once a month,” Turner notes, praising her recent book, Prime Time. Rather than blame her, he blames himself, admitting life with him can be difficult: “[Jane said], ‘I want two homes — a winter home and a summer home; I don’t want 10.’ And she couldn’t take the travel. Really, it’s much harder for a woman than a man."
Today, without Fonda, on some deep level Turner is alone — no matter his numerous loyalists, four girlfriends and dizzying accomplishments. It’s something he regrets, and that perhaps feeds his insecurity, evidence of which comes and goes throughout our conversation.
He constantly blurts out such things as, "I pushed up against the limits of what a human being could do. And look at my accomplishments. I mean, I won the America’s Cup; I won the World Series; I think I won over 1,200 prizes. I have 46 honorary degrees."
"He is very insecure,” Johnson confides. “After he was named something like Time’s man of the year, he held up the magazine in front of several people and said, ‘See, Dad, I made it after all!'"
It’s been nearly 50 years since his father died, and now Turner is starting to contemplate his own mortality. His daughter Laura says he speaks frequently of his funeral, repeatedly changing the plans — he’s talked of having Willie Nelson sing “To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” or having his ashes scattered over his properties or being laid out Native American-style and “having the birds pick the skin from his bones.”
"Most super-achievers don’t make it to 73,” Turner reflects. Once virulently anti-religious, doubt rather than certainty defines his thinking now. He calls himself “a little bit religious — that says it pretty well. But I’d like to think there’s somebody looking after us."
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