Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Richest Man I Ever Met

I've met some interesting well-known people in my life. I shared drinks with noted baseball manager Leo Durocher. Durocher was a man of many quotes including "nice guys finish last" and "show me a good loser and I'll show you an idiot." Durocher was at home in a bar and that's where I met him. I also met writer Ralph Ellison, who lit up when I told him I had read "Invisible Man." I was working as a night manager in a hotel and was still on shift when he checked out in the morning and he introduced me to his wife as "the young man who had read my book." One of the more interesting persons I had a chance to have dinner with not once but twice was John Kluge. When I met John Kluge in the late eighties he was listed as one of the richest people in the United States. Yep, I had pot luck dinner with a billionaire and I can't remember what I made.

John Kluge passed last week and the memory of those two dinners came back to me and seemed worthy of sharing with a larger audience. John Kluge had a huge estate in Albemarle County in Virginia and was two weeks shy of his birthday. He was 95. Kluge was born in Germany and came to America via Ellis Island in 1922 at the age of 8. He went to Columbia University. Kluge said he learned his business acumen working for frugal businessmen after college. “These guys were so tight that they didn't have buffaloes on their nickels, they rubbed them so hard,” Kluge recalled. “And they wouldn't have a dime in their pocket, because that's too much money to carry around.” John Kluge made his fortune through his purchase of radio and television stations. In the 1950s, Kluge poured $6 million into the Metropolitan Broadcasting Corp. The company, built on the remnants of the old DuMont Television Network, owned television outlets in New York and Washington, D.C. He built the company on syndication rights from older shows. I used to watch his channel 5 WNEW out of New York City all the time when I was growing up.

Both dinners at John Kluge's house were very mellow affairs; there must have been about ten or twelve people sitting at the table and we all got a chance to listen to the man tell his stories and ask him questions. I had decided that I was going to try and lay what I thought would be a good question on him. As a radio show host I had recently come across an LP of African Pygmies playing puddles. This may not sound like much but to hear the ker-plunks in various pitches as the Pygmies literally dance in the water was an amazing sound. So I asked the richest man I ever knew if he had ever heard Pygmies playing puddles and he said yes! It was years latter that I found out one of his main interests was in aboriginal art and culture so of, course he had heard and seen the Pygmies do their thing. In the course of conversation when a city was mentioned he would say "oh yes, we have a house there." The house was not lavishly decorated but before dinner when I was looking at the art I realized much of what I was seeing could have been in a museum. He didn't drink cognac, a simple vodka on the rocks was his choice. I think the thing that impressed me most was that he had made his money by hard work and that made him a man of the people, someone with whom anyone would have something in common.

So here's to you John Kluge, I'll never forget you.

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