Have you heard of Sidney Harman ?
No ? Well , I hadn’t either until recently when I read the January issue of Vanity Fair magazine . It contained an interview with him and it made fascinating reading . Mr. Harman was in the news because he had bought the ailing Newsweek magazine from the Washington Post for the sum of $ 1 while assuming its $ 50 million of debt . The Vanity Fair article gave a capsule history of this remarkable man and got me so interested that I looked him up at other sources.
Mr. Harman graduated with a degree in physics from Baruch College and joined the Daid Bogen Co. , a manufacturer of loudspeakers . He rose to become General Manager but quit along with the Chief Engineer , Bernard Kardon , to form the Harman/ Kardon Co. Together they developed the first integrated hi-fi receiver and later the first stereo hi-fi receiver. These and other business successes saw Mr. Harman enjoy a net worth estimated at $ 500 million in 2010.
But Mr. Harman was more than just a successful businessman. A true Renaissance Man , he studied physics, engineering and social psychology; was a classical music fan and jazz aficionado; recited Shakespeare by heart; was a civil rights and antiwar activist; created programs to humanize the workplace; was the president of a Quaker college on Long Island and served as President Carter’s deputy secretary of commerce. He was at one time Professor of Polymathy at the University of Southern California . Polymathy is the study and inter-relation of great and varied learning and Mr. Harman was certainly qualified to teach it .
He was a philanthropist who gave millions to education and the performing arts . A liberal minded man who was born to Austrian Jewish parents , he himself subscribed to no religious faith but was , at one time , sympathetic to Quakerism. A golfing, tennis-playing health enthusiast, he leaped out of bed every morning to do calisthenics and was a scholar of boundless energy and utopian ideas. He lived by his principles and was not afraid to speak out for what he felt was right and to put his money where his mouth was .
In buying Newsweek ,, he went against the advice of friends and well wishers , all of whom thought it was a lost cause and that he would lose a great deal of money. Even his wife was initially resistant to the idea , fearing that it would damage his reputation . Undeterred , he went ahead with the acquisition because he felt it was a serious undertaking with a decent shot at success . As for his reputation , he said ” .. if I do have this reputation , it’s in large measure because I’ve never given a goddamn about it . You don’t develop a reputation that permits you to survive against this high level of doubt if reputation is all you worry about . “
Impressive as all his accomplishments are , there are two other things that I most admire about the man .
One is that he remained true to his beliefs even after he accumulated his fortune . I have seen too many people changed by riches , abandoning their youthful idealism as they move up in the world. Not so Sidney Harman . A liberal who spoke out against the Vietnam War , he continued to support progressive causes all his life .
Even more admirable , in my eyes , is that he continued to be vibrant and active all his life . Most people slow down as they enter their seventies , sometimes even earlier . Guess how old Sidney Harman was when he bought Newsweek.
Seventy ? Nope.
Eighty ?? Nope .
Ninety ? Nope .
He was almost ninety two . Ninety two !!
At age 85 , he published his memoirs and he was active in business in his nineties. The Vanity Fair article quoted him as saying ” When I die – if I die – I will have spent every goddamn moment living it up . In terms of my own mortality , I spend no time whatsoever worrying about it . What good will that do ? ” He said would like the words ” Still Curious ” to be inscribed on his tombstone .
It’s a lesson for the rest of us about how to make the most of life’s possibilities.
Post Script : Sidney Harman passed away in April 2011 due to complications from acute myeloid leukemia . True to form , he kept news of his illness private until a couple of weeks before his death . It’s people like Sidney Harman who made this nation great and who are sorely needed now.