No Autocrat as Publisher
"I never had him second-guess me, ever," said William F. Thomas, The Times' editor from 1971 to 1989. "He'd put you in there, and he let you do it — and if you weren't performing, out you went."
Chandler changed The Times so dramatically and became so identified with the paper that when he left the publisher's office at age 52, and again when he relinquished his corporate titles five years later, employees at The Times and Chandler's peers throughout the industry were both stunned and puzzled.
"Everyone wondered why, at so young an age, he would step away from something that he had had such an enormous impact in building," Louis D. Boccardi, former president and chief executive officer of Associated Press, said more than a decade later.
Arthur O. Sulzberger, who was then publisher of the New York Times, said that although he initially shared his colleagues' "surprise and disappointment" when Chandler left, "I later realized that I shouldn't have been so surprised. As long as I knew him, Otis had an adventurous spirit and the courage to pursue it."
Chandler had always had an active life outside the newspaper business, and in his final years as publisher, close friends and associates knew that the lure of those interests — combined with fatigue, restlessness, health problems and major changes in his personal life — were inexorably leading him away from The Times.
But it was fitting that his departure was so surprising to so many, for he had long been something of an enigma to his fellow publishers. Big, blond and broad-shouldered, Chandler looked more like a Muscle Beach habitue-turned-movie star than a corporate entrepreneur on a journalistic mission.
Sulzberger recalled decades later that he once walked into Chandler's office "and found him hanging upside down in the doorway, like a bat. He said it was good for his back."
Chandler was an exotic, at times mythic figure among the nation's newspaper executives, most of whose exertions and excursions outside the boardroom were generally limited to golf courses and cruise ships.
"There is something about him that suggests if Otis Chandler hadn't existed, Ernest Hemingway would have created him," the Christian Science Monitor said in 1980. "When he strides out of a meeting to shake hands, it is like looking up at a California redwood."
Anthony Day, The Times' editorial page editor from 1971 until 1989, once said: "After I had been working for Otis for a few years, it occurred to me that I was working for a prince, a man who had been raised to be a prince."
Chandler, he said, loved being publisher. "But he also had a prince's sense of entitlement, a sense that perhaps I don't have to do this every damn day," he added.
Surely, Chandler was the only publisher of his — or any — generation to have been profiled not only in Time, Newsweek and Editor & Publisher but in such magazines as Road & Track, Strength and Health, and Safari Club — and to be depicted on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in his bathing suit, riding a surfboard made of newspapers through the curl of a massive whitecap of dollar bills.
A go-anywhere, ride-any-wave surfer for more than 60 years, Chandler also hunted big game on safaris, raced high-speed cars and motorcycles on official tracks and urban freeways and was always looking for new challenges, preferably those with some measure of risk.
"I like living on the edge," he said in a 1999 interview, five months after his 71st birthday and two weeks after he suffered minor head injuries when he spun out in one of his Ferraris near the vintage-car and wildlife museum he owned in Oxnard.
By his own count, Chandler had at least half a dozen brushes with death over the years, and that didn't include his bout with prostate cancer in 1989 or his mild heart attack in 1998.
While he was hunting in Mozambique in 1964, an elephant charged him, his wife and their guide. When the guide missed his shot and ran off in a panic, Chandler shot the elephant in the leg at a distance of 10 yards, deflecting the animal just enough to send it thundering past them.
In 1995, when he was 68, his motorcycle collided with a tractor in New Zealand, leaving him with part of the big toe on his left foot missing, another toe severely damaged and the rest of the foot largely numb.