The Unfinished Business of Armand Hammer : After a Lifetime in the Public Eye, He Still Worries About His Place in History

Donald Woutat covers the oil industry for The Times.

THE LETTERS ARE on file at Occidental Petroleum headquarters in Westwood, an ordinary office building on Wilshire Boul evard where Howard Hughes once kept shop. Today its star tenant is Dr. Armand Hammer, the amazing figure who built Occidental and who, at age 89, attacks life from the perspectives of oilman, Sovietologist, peacenik, art collector, free-lance diplomat, medical philanthropist, civic activist and doting husband.

Though the meticulously maintained list of awards Hammer has received may qualify for a world record, he hasn't yet landed the big one: the Nobel Peace Prize. But for several years now, as Hammer has accelerated his pace instead of slowing down, colleagues say he has received more and more nominations in the prescribed form of letters to the Nobel Institute from world leaders, holders of the peace prize and others. The writers often send copies to Hammer, who turns them over to aide Rick Jacobs.

The staff at Occidental answers questions about a Nobel for Hammer about as readily as an apprehensive pitcher talking about a no-hitter in the seventh inning. Hammer's aides only reluctantly acknowledge the existence of any letters of nomination, and they reject as "inappropriate" a request to read them. This may be less a case of superstition than of recognition that the process is supposed to be secret and that some individuals have been criticized for going after Nobels the way political candidates go after elective office.

But a man with close ties to Hammer confides that, over the years, "there's an enormous number of people who've nominated him, and we're talking about serious people. Carter, Begin, Teddy Kennedy. He was neck-and-neck with the (International) Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War in 1985, but it went to them instead."

The Hammer file is presumed to be open again in Oslo after the tireless octogenarian added significantly in 1986 to his exhaustive list of accomplishments: arranging and paying for emergency medical aid to victims of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, helping to win the release from the Soviets of American journalist Nicholas Daniloff, securing freedom for ailing Soviet Jew and scientist David Goldfarb.

The Chernobyl disaster encompassed what Hammer describes matter-of-factly as his two main goals in life: forging a lasting peace between East and West and finding a cure for cancer. Occurring as it did in the Soviet Union, where Hammer's ties are deep and long, Chernobyl--with its implications both for cancer and for East-West dialogue--served to recharge his humanitarian batteries, friends say.

"He's remarkable, and even more so post-Chernobyl," says Dr. Robert P. Gale, the UCLA bone-marrow transplant specialist whose telephone call to Hammer in Washington on April 29, 1986, led to the emergency mission to the Soviet Union by Gale and his medical colleagues. "This has given him a fresh breath."

While the Chernobyl accident, the Daniloff affair in September and the Goldfarb rescue in October all occurred too late for inclusion in the lavish, five-pound book of color photographs, "The World of Armand Hammer," commissioned by Hammer and Occidental Petroleum in 1985, they are recounted in Hammer's latest autobiography, "Hammer," published last month by Putnam. And the Chernobyl episode stands to receive full treatment in a feature movie being developed by Columbia Pictures in conjunction with Occidental's film production company, Armand Hammer Productions. That he feels the need to tell these tales so elaborately and so frequently--the chairman of Occidental has written or collaborated on four books about himself--is one of the confounding aspects of Armand Hammer. When it comes to style, this is clearly no Mother Teresa.

While the world's view of Hammer seems overwhelmingly favorable, there are those who view him with puzzlement or even disdain. They raise the question of whether his humanitarian acts are just a vehicle for self-aggrandizement. President Jimmy Carter's former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, says of the industrialist: "I always considered him to be a pretentious self-promoter."

Gale, an admirer of Hammer, poses the question himself: "Is his seeking an accord between East and West merely an attempt to get the peace prize?"

HAMMER COMES ACROSS as a friendly, gracious man with a sense of humor and no obvious guile. He lives, by millionaire standards, without much pretension in a Holmby Hills home once owned by Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini. The 10-room house (11 counting the indoor pool where Hammer goes skinny-dipping each day) is the one that his third wife, Frances, now 85, owned when they married in 1956 and Hammer left New York for a supposed retirement in the sun.

Befitting a man with three respected art collections, his walls are covered with paintings and his tables with art books. But true to his opinion that great art should be in museums and "not on rich men's walls," his home collection includes such esoteric material as a large, Hammer-commissioned portrait of Frances holding Britain's young Prince William on her lap--painted from a Polaroid taken by Hammer's pal, Prince Charles. On a side table in the living room, there's a small print of Rembrandt's "Juno" (he gave the original to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976) with the goddess's stern face scissored out. Glued in its place is a photo of Frances, smiling broadly.

Greeting visitors, Hammer enters his library carrying a vase of freshly cut roses from Frances' garden. On the wall is a painting by her, a copy of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers." Noting that the original sold recently for $40 million, Hammer says he likes his wife's version better. "I'll sell it for $39 million," he offers with a grin.

The line is all the better because making a buck continues to be one of Armand Hammer's greatest skills. But that is only part of Hammer, who has many sides. He's been described in print as a Republican and a Democrat, as highly secretive and as all too visible. Some liberals are suspicious because he is a capitalist; some conservatives think he is a communist. His humanitarianism tends to bloom where there's money to be made. He fights cancer with philanthropy and hangs art in the world's museums; yet one of his companies is held responsible for the cancerous fallout from Love Canal, and he is vilified in his adopted hometown as one who would despoil the coastline for a few barrels of crude.

It all adds to the riddle. But his succession of good works and the breadth of his activities place him so far out of the mainstream that he is held in awe by all manner of influential people. The publicists for his book collected gushing blurbs about Hammer from so many of the rich and famous that there was room for only about one-third of them on the book jacket. The complete list, ranging from former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Vice President George Bush and from Art Linkletter to Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers, is contained in a pamphlet distributed with press material about the book.

Yet today, despite all the accomplishments and accolades, Hammer is bothered by lingering doubts in some quarters about his political loyalties and is still angry about his guilty plea in a Watergate-related case. At bottom, he seems profoundly interested in the world's final report card on Armand Hammer.

"I felt I had to leave a record that would be me," Hammer says of his latest autobiography. "A lot of articles have been written about me, and I felt I should tell my story honestly and candidly, and I think I've done that."

WITH RICH DETAIL drawn from voluminous records and diaries, his book fleshes out the familiar broad outlines of his life. His father, Julius, was brought by Jewish parents to this country from Odessa in the late 1800s, became a physician and pharmacist and helped start the American Communist Party. He named Armand for the lover in a play by Alexandre Dumas fils "or so he said," Hammer recalls. "It is fairly obvious that he must also have had in mind the symbol of the Socialist Labor Party--an arm and a hammer."

Armand, raised on New York's Lower East Side, became a millionaire by reviving his family's pharmaceutical business while attending medical school at Columbia University. At 23, faced with a six-month wait to begin an internship, he decided to travel to the Soviet Union to help victims of a typhus epidemic and to collect $150,000 owed the family business for material shipped there. It was an unlikely mix of humanitarian and business motives of the sort that has characterized his life ever since.

He stayed for nine years and became a trader, bringing much-needed grain to the Soviet Union in exchange for Soviet goods. That brought him to the attention of Lenin, and Hammer--who skeptics still insist was being used by the new Communist leaders--was subsequently set up in various businesses, including the ownership of the Soviet Union's only pencil factory.

About that time, Hammer also embarked on what turned out to be an interesting love life. He met a beautiful Gypsy singer, Olga Vadina, who "in a matter of days" left her husband to marry the young American. When he saw her for the first time in a cabaret, he says, "she sang romantic Gypsy ballads in a low, sexy voice. She stared straight back into my eyes and her smile was like fire." In 1929, she bore Hammer his only child, Julian.

With Josef Stalin coming to power, Hammer sold his enterprises to the Soviet government in 1930 and returned to New York with his new family. It has been estimated that he subsequently sold artworks acquired in the Soviet Union for a profit of $11 million, partial seed money for subsequent careers during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s as an art dealer, whiskey distiller and livestock breeder.

By the mid-1950s, Hammer's first marriage was over--Olga had moved to Hollywood in an unsuccessful effort to revive her singing career--and his second marriage, to a New York socialite, was falling apart. A sensational divorce case ensued, complete with allegations of voyeurism, which Hammer relates in detail. He immediately married Frances, a banker's widow who was wealthy in her own right, and they headed for her home in Los Angeles.

With Eisenhower in the White House and Hammer nearing age 60, he intended to retire with his new bride and began looking for ways to invest his money. Occidental Petroleum, known as "Oxy" in the industry, was a nearly moribund oil company with a handful of employees and a net worth of perhaps $34,000. A share of the stock could be had for 18 cents.

Friends persuaded Mr. and Mrs. Hammer to invest $50,000 each in the company. This was spent drilling one well in Fresno County and another near San Jose, and the enterprise promptly struck oil at both. Hammer was hooked, and the initial exercise in luck and instinct was to be repeated, with giant oil discoveries in Libya in the 1960s, the North Sea in the 1970s and Colombia in the 1980s, most of them on tracts where the world's biggest oil companies had failed to turn up anything.

It has been a controversial company, run by Hammer in autocratic fashion and in violation of many principles of modern management. The place was long known as a revolving door for No. 2 executives who ran afoul of the boss, and for years there was no clear plan to succeed the aging chairman. Hammer was flying off to Moscow or elsewhere with increasing frequency on self-instigated peace missions, giving away paintings to museums and money to cancer research, or chasing down quirky business opportunities in unlikely Communist countries. He even got caught in the Watergate web and pleaded guilty to making $54,000 in illegal contributions to the Nixon campaign. Still, he kept firm control over the rapidly changing cast of characters back in Los Angeles.

In 1981, with Hammer approaching his 84th birthday, financier David Murdock launched a takeover attempt from his base as largest shareholder. Hammer (who owns less than 1% of Oxy's shares) quotes Murdock as telling him bluntly: "You're too old to be running Occidental."

That struck no sympathetic chords at Oxy. The board of directors, which has nine of 16 members over 70, is probably the oldest in American industry. Murdock was ultimately bought out.

Once considered a renegade company because of Hammer's capitulation to the Libyans in 1970 on a pricing controversy--a development that vastly strengthened OPEC--Oxy kept finding oil. Hammer used the cash to buy other companies: Hooker Chemical, Island Creek Coal, Iowa Beef, Cities Service and, last year, MidCon. How Hammer's empire would have fared without the skyrocketing oil prices of the 1970s is anybody's guess. In those days, it didn't take a genius to succeed in oil.

With each acquisition, Hammer's press statements would track Oxy's movement higher and higher on the Fortune 500 list of the nation's largest companies. Now it's No. 19, with 51,000 employees and $15 billion in revenues. The investment community has quit complaining about Ham

mer's age and started complimenting his strategies and recommending the stock.

Hammer hopes to stay until he or the price of Oxy stock hits 100.

AT A LUNCH AT The Madison hotel in Washington, Hammer orders grapefruit juice, oyster stew and scallops. A colleague orders rabbit. In a gravelly voice straight out of the Lower East Side, Hammer tells a joke.

"Fellow has some pet rabbits and pet lions, and he keeps them in the same cage. Another fellow says, 'Good heavens, how do they get along?' First fellow says, 'They get along fine, although every once in awhile we have to get new rabbits.' "

Hammer travels to Washington about twice a month and has been coming to The Madison for years, partly because he can get a meal in his room in the middle of the night. After an evening in which he announced a gift of Raphael drawings to the National Gallery of Art, he had set the alarm for 8 a.m. but awoke at 5 and persuaded Frances to take advantage of the round-the-clock room service. Later, there were meetings at the State Department and three hours with a reporter and a photographer.

That afternoon, he was ushered into the suite of Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while a middle-aged man in shorts touring the halls of the Senate gawked: "Was that Armand Hammer who just walked in there?" Pell fished out his red French Legion of Honor pin to match Hammer's, then the two men posed for photographs before chatting privately.

Hammer's limousine headed across town to the Soviet Embassy, where he passed through three heavy steel gates and was greeted warmly in the spare, red-carpeted lobby by Ambassador Yuri V. Dubinin. Under a giant portrait of Hammer's erstwhile acquaintance Lenin, Dubinin praised his visitor while the diminutive Hammer stood off to the side, beaming.

Later, Hammer explained the conversations: "One of the things that concerns Sen. Pell is if an arms treaty is signed, it might be difficult to get the Senate to ratify it. So when I saw Dubinin, I explained that to him. He asked me what could hold it up, and I said it was their preponderance of conventional forces. I suggested the Russians consider reducing their conventional forces by 100,000."

To hear Hammer tell it, an arms treaty or summit meeting might not be on the horizon if it weren't for his connections and his private diplomacy to offset the belligerence and egos of world leaders. And his book asserts that the $1 million in medical assistance he paid for after Chernobyl, when the Soviets had rejected U.S. government aid, helped set the stage for a more open relationship between the two nations and thus enhanced the chances for world peace.

"The world is safer today than it was before Chernobyl," Hammer declares.

As for his other goal, curing cancer, Hammer has been working on it since at least 1968, when he gave $5 million to polio-vaccine pioneer Dr. Jonas Salk to establish the Armand Hammer Cancer Center at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla. He is also head of the President's Cancer Panel, which parcels out federal funds for research, and he has a longstanding personal offer of a $1-million reward to anyone who finds a cure for the disease.

Most of his philanthropy is directed at the cancer effort, which has accounted for "tens of millions of dollars" of his generosity over the years. He says he doesn't know how much money he's given away altogether, but lately, he says, "my annual income is about $10 million, and I give away about $9 million. Sometimes I give away more. I'm mortgaged several years ahead on pledges."

Last year, Hammer stumbled across the work of Dr. Steven A. Rosenberg at the National Cancer Institute, became convinced that it represented a breakthrough and gave him $100,000. It was an example of what UCLA's Gale calls Hammer's "home run" approach to medical research. "He wants cancer cured tomorrow."

Salk says: "He doesn't think about things, he does them. He's like an artist. He doesn't sit in front of the canvas and wonder whether to paint. He's highly creative."

Updating the status of the cancer war, Hammer offers the sort of comment that causes friends and critics alike to roll their eyes: "Thanks to my intervention with Dr. Rosenberg and my assuming the chairmanship of President Reagan's Cancer Panel, we are closer to finding a way to eliminate cancer than we've ever been."

If that sounds like the lion's share of the credit goes to Armand Hammer, he explains just what a sole layman can do in the long-running battle against the disease: "The role is leadership."

From his lips, such remarks sound reasonable enough. Committed to print, some consider them preposterous. But one of Hammer's best friends, who used to host his birthday parties before they became star-studded mega-events at the Kennedy Center or the Beverly Wilshire, rejects the idea of Hammer as a man on the hunt for glory.

"I won't say he doesn't enjoy the attention," says Arthur Groman, 72, a Los Angeles lawyer who has been on Oxy's board longer than Hammer. "He loves it. He still has enormous zest for life. But I don't think he's nourishing a great need for approbation. People say, 'Is he arrogant?' He's a very modest man. Look at his home. He has no pretensions. He does all these things because he believes in them."

Groman says, for example, that it wasn't mere showmanship when Hammer took it upon himself to fly UCLA lung specialist Daniel Simmons to Moscow to offer help to dying Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in 1984. He had performed a similar act earlier, for a less renowned patient.

"Years ago, before he was a famous man, I had a bad back and was moaning and groaning in bed one night about 8 o'clock when this guy knocks on the door," recalls Groman. "He'd flown this guy over from London. He was apparently an attendant to the Royal Family. He gave me what can only be described as some kind of chiropractic maneuver, sort of whacked my back, and I haven't had a problem since."

Whatever Hammer needs or doesn't need, his reaction, body and soul, to the Watergate incident amply demonstrated his concern about how the world views Armand Hammer.

One of the enduring images of Hammer is as a sickly man, pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair for sentencing in 1976 while heart-monitoring equipment was set up in the next room. Court-appointed physicians had confirmed that Hammer, then 77, was in peril because of anguish over the case. He was sentenced to probation--and promptly recovered.

Eleven years later, flush with good health, he recalls, "As soon as it was over I was a new man."

He only pleaded guilty, he says, because his lawyers told him he didn't have a chance "in the Watergate atmosphere." Now, he discloses rather vaguely in his book, he has come up with new evidence about the Watergate episode, compliments of former Commerce Secretary Maurice H. Stans, that shows that his donation was never used in the campaign. He hopes to get the conviction set aside.

"That's the only blemish on my name, and I'm determined to remove it. It's the only time I've ever been accused of something like that," he says in an interview.

Similarly, Hammer makes much of having won FBI clearance to head the White House cancer effort. He proudly says the clearance, and the appointment itself, prove that President Reagan no longer thinks he's a communist--a suspicion once relayed to Hammer by Menachem Begin.

Meanwhile, Hammer complains that presidential underlings blocked his access to the Oval Office during the Carter and Reagan administrations and tells stories of crashing important diplomatic events to which he wasn't invited. Brzezinski, whom Hammer calls "the dean of the Russian-haters," pleads guilty to having tried to deal Hammer out: "I did what was necessary to keep him out of the White House."

But dismissing Hammer as a mere self-promoter is clearly farther from the mark than likening him to a saint.

UCLA's Gale, answering his own question about any Nobel motivation for Hammer's peace missions, says: "I have spent hundreds of hours with him over the past year, and I don't believe that is true. People tend to look for self-serving motives in his actions, but no one should doubt for a second that he is sincere."

Hammer provides a moving account of the rescue of David Goldfarb and his wife, Cecilia, after their son, Alexander, contacted Hammer in Moscow through an open letter published in the Wall Street Journal. The elder Goldfarb, 68, a noted geneticist, was seriously ill but had been refused permission to join his son and seek treatment in the West. The Goldfarbs were released after Hammer prevailed upon old friend Anatoly F. Dobrynin, the former Soviet ambassador, to intervene.

Today, his father out of the hospital and living in New York, microbiologist Alexander Goldfarb reflects: "There is nothing wrong with people enjoying publicity, nothing wrong with people acting out of self-interest. Dr. Hammer saved my father's life. I had the chance to observe him at a dramatic moment. Whatever his self-interest was, he was obviously very emotionally involved."

"He's rather mysterious to me, still," Goldfarb adds. "My immediate impression was of a simple, ordinary man. But when you see him operating, he is always surrounded by extraordinary circumstances. There are many past Nobel laureates who deserved the prize much less than him."

A more detached view comes from another scientist, Salk, whose Salk Institute has benefited from Hammer's generosity for nearly 20 years.

"He uses his money to get his name around, that's clear," said Salk. "He recognizes the name value of the dollar, and he's gotten a great deal for his money. If he wants a Nobel Prize, then he wants a Nobel Prize, and I wouldn't doubt that for a moment.

"But my answer to that is, 'So what?' I have great admiration and respect for his exemplary life. It may be self-aggrandizing. But look at his life in balance and he will have left the world a better place in which to be in many different ways.

"He likes to be rewarded in accolades. That's the quid pro quo for him. You take that away and you don't have Armand Hammer. It would be like taking the nose off his face. He's a complex man. You have to see Armand Hammer as a whole."

Says Hammer: "You're right, I have been public-relations-minded, and if I have something to say, I want to say it. I want to be sure it receives wide circulation. That's why I wrote this book."

Of the Nobel, he says: "At my last birthday party, Cary Grant--or was it Gregory Peck?--got up and nominated me for the peace prize. Begin has recommended me. But I have done nothing actually to try to get it. I would certainly give the money away if I got the prize. Nobel himself was a great industrialist, you know. . . . If it happened, I'd be greatly honored. But I don't think about it."

It was Gregory Peck, but the actor has no standing to make such a nomination under the Nobel rules. Neither does Ann Landers, who was once reported to have received a jade necklace from Hammer along with a note asking her to help him get nominated for a Nobel.

"That was absurd," says an Occidental executive, laughing. "Hammer gives those necklaces away all the time. He has a jade mine in Wyoming. It's not very good jade. And you don't really think the Nobel committee would give a damn about a letter from Ann Landers, do you?"

WITH "THE DOCTOR," as he is called, now in his 90th year, health naturally is a pre-eminent concern, and Hammer is a phenomenon worth examining on that basis alone. Salk calls him "an exemplar of the aging process."

"I'm sure we all scrutinize him and wonder just what his potential is," says Arthur Groman. "But I have seen no deterioration of any kind. If we'd had a mandatory retirement age, we wouldn't have Cities Service, we wouldn't have MidCon."

Or much else. Hammer turned 65 in 1963.

He swims regularly, eats properly and naps often--perhaps too often. Oilman T. Boone Pickens Jr. tells of Hammer falling asleep and snoring loudly in the middle of negotiations on a plan whereby Occidental and Pickens would team up and take over Cities Service in 1982. That deal never came off, but Hammer must have had one eye open. Less than two months later, Occidental moved on its own to buy Cities Service, leaving Pickens empty-handed.

In long interviews, Hammer sits stiffly with knees apart and feet on the ground, scarcely changing position. He is apparently just conserving energy. He walks slowly but without seeming difficulty. "The naps," he says, "are what save me."

"My arteries are in great shape," he boasted the other day before heading off to his monthly appointment with a cardiologist. Among the tomes on medicine, philosophy, business and other fields in his library are "Dr. Morrison's Heart-Saver Program" and "Feed Yourself Right."

But arteries aside, what accounts for Hammer's drive? Why is he going strong a quarter of a century after most people have retired? As Salk explains, something else propels him from within--some complex impulse that is reflected in his altruism and his ego alike.

"Armand Hammer is a man with a purpose," Salk says. "It is that which keeps him alive."

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