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Sidney Harman dies at 92; owner of Newsweek and high-fidelity sound pioneer

Sidney Harman, husband of former Rep. Jane Harman, dies of complications from leukemia. His long career included government, the electronics industry and journalism.

By Robin Abcarian, Los Angeles Times

8:22 AM PDT, April 13, 2011

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Sidney Harman, a philanthropist, polymath and pioneer in high-fidelity sound for homes and cars who tried to resuscitate an icon of American journalism when he bought Newsweek last year, has died. He was 92.

Harman died Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., of complications from leukemia, according to a statement from his family on the website of the Daily Beast, which Harman merged with Newsweek. He was married to former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman of Venice.

The path of Harman's long career took him from the electronics industry to government, academia and, finally, the Fourth Estate. His passion for the arts and philanthropic impulses led him to provide funding for Washington, D.C.'s Sidney Harman Hall, a popular performance space. An indefatigable reader and thinker who was fascinated by creative geniuses, Harman also at age 92 founded the Academy for Polymathic Studies at USC. From heart, he could recite long passages from Shakespeare, or Abraham Lincoln or Maxwell Anderson, and would often embroider a thought or regale dinner-party guests with an apt quote.

In November 2010, when Harman was being hammered by critics skeptical of his deal to merge Newsweek with Barry Diller's Daily Beast website, he offered, in an interview, a quote from Lincoln's speech before Congress in 1862: "The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation."

Harman's name is familiar to nearly anyone who grew up in a home with a high-fidelity stereo sound system. In 1953, he founded Harman/Kardon Inc., with Bernard Kardon, a fellow engineer with whom he worked at a New York electronics firm that specialized in public-address systems. They tried to persuade their boss that the new field of high-fidelity sound was a promising business opportunity. He passed. Harman and Kardon soon developed an aesthetically pleasing home stereo system with cutting-edge sound. They became the first manufacturers to put an amplifier, preamp and radio tuner into a single unit that looked like a piece of furniture. At their early trade shows, they set up a hotel room to look like a private living room, then played Frank Sinatra records on their hi-fi. "Where is he?" confused customers would ask, a story Harman recounted in his 2003 memoir, "Mind Your Own Business."

"I have vivid memories of our living room being covered with these ugly speakers that my mother of course hated -- PA system speakers and wiring," said Barbara Harman, whose mother was Harman's first wife, Sylvia. Her father would play test records -- "a train going from one end of the track to another, or you'd hear a drop of water hitting something and splashing. All the kids in the neighborhood would come in and everybody would sit around and go, 'Wow.' "

In 1956, Kardon retired, and Harman took sole control of a company that burgeoned. By the late '60s, Harman International Industries was flourishing, and Harman was a millionaire.

Always politically liberal, he became active in the civil-rights movement after a county in Virginia shuttered its public schools rather than obey a court-ordered desegregation ruling. His daughter Barbara recalled that he shuttled between Long Island and Virginia at his own cost, to teach black students denied a quality free public education.

In 1970, while running his company, he became president of Friends World College, an experimental school "without walls" on Long Island. Students, he wrote, would take greater responsibility for their own education and work collaboratively with teachers. When a crisis erupted at one of his plants, a ramshackle side-view-mirror factory in Bolivar, Tenn., Harman got a chance to test his theories in the real world.

"Somehow, I had not recognized the disconnect between what I was learning about supervision and responsibility at the college and the very different way I supervised and managed my employees," he wrote in his memoir.

The moment of clarity came soon after the day a buzzer signaling a regular coffee break to the line workers at the Bolivar plant failed. Managers decided to reschedule the break for later, once the buzzer got fixed. But, he recounted, a worker named Nobi Cross announced, "I don't work for no buzzer. The buzzer works for me." The workers took their regularly scheduled break -- after all, they wore watches -- and "all hell broke loose," Harman wrote.

Harman quickly intervened and wound up establishing a groundbreaking program aimed at improving conditions for employees. Workers could earn idle time by producing their quotas faster and go home earlier. For the mostly African American work force, Harman established an on-site school, daycare and a worker-run newspaper, uncensored by management. The "Bolivar Experiment" proved so successful at what was dubbed "participatory management" that the company had to restrict visitors.

He often credited his company's success to three things: All the products were built in factories it owned, the products were marketed globally, and the company treated its workforce with respect.

In 2001, after a worker at Harman's Northridge plant was killed by her husband, Harman and his eldest daughter, Lynn, the company's corporate counsel, established one of the first workplace domestic-violence-prevention programs.

In 1977, he was picked by President Carter to be deputy secretary of Commerce and pocketed $100 million when he sold his 25% stake in Harman/Kardon to the conglomerate Beatrice Foods. Beatrice drove the company into the ground, and when Harman left government a few years later, he bought most of it back for $55 million.

In 1980, at 62, Harman married his second wife, Jane, 27 years his junior. Though he had relinquished day-to-day control of the company, in 1992, after a recession and millions of dollars of losses, he charged back to run the place. He was 70.

The same year, 1992, Jane Harman was elected to the first of nine terms in Congress. He would later bankroll her unsuccessful primary run for California governor in 1998.

Sidney Harman was born in 1918 to American parents in Montreal. One of nine children, including a twin sister, he grew up in New York City. He graduated from the City University of New York in 1939 and received a doctorate from New York's Union Institute.

During World War II, he joined the Army and put his sound-engineering expertise to work at a top-secret installation in Watertown, N.Y.

He helped develop a "sonic deception" project that was used at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and in the Pacific. Various military activities were recorded, then played on powerful PA systems. "The object was to persuade sentries at enemy listening posts that a significant activity was underway, coming at them from the direction of the broadcast, while in fact the real action was developing from a different direction," Harman recounted in his book.

An avid golfer, he loved looking so much younger than his age. "How do I do it?" he once asked. "Good genes, lack of interest in eating, great interest in athletics and staying in physical condition."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com