Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 2003, pages 24, 86
Mortimer Zuckerman: Two Voices, But Both Talking About Himself
By Richard H. Curtiss
According to Alison Beard of Britain's Financial Times, "multi-millionaire Mortimer Zuckerman always seems to have at least two conversations running in his head at all times. He answers a reporter's questions in one breath, then asks an assistant about materials he needs for another meeting in the next. One dialogue is in the present with you, the other is about the future with himself."
The more one tries to figure out Mortimer Zuckerman—financier, media-mogul and man-about-several-towns (New York, Washington, DC and Boston)—the more confused one gets. Aside from his complete self-absorption, Zuckerman generally knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, and does it extremely well. As an international financier, he lost a lot from the "dot.com" mess, but not nearly as much as most of his contemporaries. While many of the high-finance fliers never recovered, Zuckerman now is right where he was before.
He also does things quite differently from anyone else. For years he basked in the reflected glory of beautiful women who were extremely intelligent or ambitious self-promoters. He didn't get around to marrying until he was 59, when most men are nearing their dotage. But Zuckerman and his wife, Marla Prather, the director of the National Gallery of Art's 20th Century Art Department who is two decades his junior, produced a daughter, Abigail, before they separated.
Mortimer Zuckerman's parents, Abraham and Esther, owned a tobacco and candy store in Montreal. Abraham had health problems and died when his son was 17. Mortimer earned his BA and MA at McGill University, in Montreal, then went to the United States in 1961 and earned an MBA at the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. Although he earned another degree, in law, at Harvard, Zuckerman never took the bar exam or practiced law. By this time, he was more interested in finance.
After law school Zuckerman joined a Boston real estate firm, Cabot, Cabot and Forbes. After working there for seven years, he and his colleague Edward Linde left Cabot, Cabot and Forbes and formed their own company, Boston Properties, in 1970. Together they won a $4 million settlement against their former firm over a real estate project, and parlayed the settlement into a series of complex, but generally highly profitable, dealings.
The two men are still partners though they are quite different from each other. Zuckerman generally seems to have the more prestigious office, attending a variety of highly publicized events, while Linde works full-time on their real estate affairs.
In high finance, associations come and go, sometimes resulting in acrimony and permanent animosities. Zuckerman and Linde, however, have managed to work together without problems from the time they first met. Neither infringes on the other's turf. Zuckerman does have some other long-term associates, such as Fred Drasner, his partner in media operations.
Zuckerman has long been associated with high-profile girlfriends. One of them was Gloria Steinem, who has written extensively about women's empowerment and also—cuttingly—about Zuckerman. Other girlfriends included reporter Betty Rollin, actress Blair Brown, writer and reporter Ariana Stassinopoulos Huffington, and screenwriter Nora Ephron.
Zuckerman moved beyond real estate with his 1980 purchase of The Atlantic Monthly magazine, to which he quickly added a regular bylined column. Although he enjoyed his new plaything, he soon began to lose his employees when, according to other media colleagues, he "kept meddling with the product." This didn't bother Zuckerman, however, who in rapid succession acquired U.S. News and World Report, and New York City's last non-Jewish-owned newspaper, the Daily News.
Interestingly, an earlier contender for ownership of that newspaper was Robert Maxwell, who was born in Eastern Europe, and was deeply involved in international intrigue during and after World War II. Maxwell, who also was interested in the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, earlier had attempted to buy the Daily News.
For reasons that never have been explained, however, Maxwell seemed to have had a lot of difficulty obtaining the necessary financing. His quest ended after he went sailing in the Mediterranean. His yacht anchored briefly in the Canary Islands, and Maxwell went ashore to eat. Upon his return the yacht set sail again. Later that same night Maxwell fell, slipped or was shoved overboard. After his body was found, an autopsy was performed in Spain before Maxwell was hurriedly buried in Israel. One of the most puzzling stories of the late 20th century, questions about Maxwell's death undoubtedly will be asked for many years to come.
Maxwell's demise left Zuckerman working hard to become the new publisher of the New York Daily News. This time no slippery deck intervened, and Zuckerman went ahead with the purchase—which, however, has not been without problems.
Zuckerman continued his unhappy relationship with his editors in most of his media purchases. The numbers who have resigned or were forced out over the years is an unfinished story.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz quoted remarks made by Timothy Noah, a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report, commenting onZuckerman's firing of editor James Fallows: "The bottom line is that Mort has been sabotaging his own magazine and it's been sickening to watch." The journal's national affairs editor, Steven Waldman, noted: "The better the magazine got, the angier Mort got. That's the psychology here I can't pretend to understand."
This, perhaps, is Mortimer Zuckerman's strangest characteristic. He seems to be jealous of anyone else, and insists on running his own show. According to Daily News staff members, Zuckerman will come to the office with stories from caf... society and demand space for the flimsiest or most trivial tales merely because he has heard gossip on the subject.
Zuckerman's interest in Jewish affairs has increased in recent years. He has always had money to fund his pet projects, from The Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, to the America-Israel Friendship League. But his fondest hope was to become head of the Council of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (CPMAJO).
Already having paid his dues, in a sense, through his generosity to Jewish causes, Zuckerman was willing to pay a lot more for the privilege of being chairman of the CPMAJO. Indeed, it seemed that his campaign was on track, until some Jewish insiders pointed out that his new bride was not Jewish. This apparently became a severe stumbling block.
By that time Mortimer and Marla Zuckerman's child was five years old. Whether through serendipity or opportunism, the couple decided to separate. Zuckerman took a townhouse near his apartment so that his daughter could visit whenever she wanted—and the way was cleared for him to accept the CPMAJO presidency.
A disciple of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Zuckerman is deeply involved with the Jewish lobby in working to remove Palestinians to Jordan, "or some small space elsewhere in the world," wrote Alexander Cockburn in the June 1, 2003 Financial Times.
Mortimer Zuckerman has the money to spend on what's important to him. Unfortunately, therefore, Zuckerman now is a serious obstacle on the road map to peace.
Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.