Malcolm on the Mississippi : Forbes the Fortunate's Ultimate Biker Bash All in Good Fun, Business

Times Staff Writer

It was the entrance every kid who saw "The Wild One" fantasizes about.

The boss got word that a certain teen-age girl was sequestered at a ritzy Minnesota summer camp, just up the road from where his motorcycle gang was hanging.

"Let's ride," or something to that effect, he said.

A few minutes later, eight big bikes growled single file through the pink and blue dusk, wound down a forest-fringed road and sputtered to a stop in front of a Bavarian-style chalet.

Startled summer campers stopped and stared. With nervous camp directors eyeing the emblem emblazoned in gold and red on his leather jacket, the boss approached the object of his visit.

A shy 13-year-old stepped forward, at once mortified and delighted.

"Grandpa!" she said, as the gang's three photographers reflexively recorded the scene.

Then, after a brief tour of the camp and a few hugs, the leader of this peculiar pack, 69-year-old multimillionaire Malcolm S. Forbes, fired up his hog and led his "Capitalist Tools" gang thundering back up the road toward the little town of Bemidji, Minn., the first stop on a weeklong run down the length of the Mississippi River to New Orleans.

Talk about a power trip.

In the '60s, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper prowled the land on Harleys looking for the meaning of America. In the '70s, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" took readers on a cross-country ride in search of the meaning of life.

The Necessary Rider

Somehow, then, it seemed to make marginal sense that a motorcycle trip at the end of this decade be spent meditating on the meaning of Malcolm.

And so it was time to join the Capitalist Tools as they mounted a fleet of Forbes-owned motorcycles near the Canadian border, clicked on radar detectors and took off on a breakneck-paced vacation, playing follow the leader behind a quirky guy on a Harley Davidson painted the colors of '80s: gold and "money green."

The day before, while a team of Forbes' employees delivered the motorcycles to Minnesota, the group of riders gathered at Forbes' 400-square-mile Trinchera Ranch in southern Colorado.

The lineup of the Capitalist Tools varies from trip to trip, but a look at some of those along on the Mississippi River run gives insight into how Forbes works.

Dr. Jan Engzelius is a Norwegian physician who went to prep school with Forbes' youngest son. Another Tool is the son of a balloon pilot at the Forbes' Chateau in Balleroy, France.

And a third happened to pull up next to Forbes at a stoplight in Manhattan around 3 in the morning. Forbes admired the 20-year-old Harley the young architect was riding. They raced through the streets for a while and Forbes invited him on one of the weekend rides he leads from his New Jersey estate. Before long, Forbes had him on retainer to design a structure at the ranch. Riding and ballooning with the Capitalist Tools is a perk of sorts.

On Forbes' trips, the boss pays all bills. But Errol Ryland, 50, carries the cash and credit cards, and oversees logistics. Twenty years ago, Ryland was chief game biologist for the state of Colorado. Forbes hired him to oversee a little project. The plan was to fence in the entire spread--a slab of land bigger than many national parks, more than 10 times the size of Manhattan--and turn it into a wildlife refuge.

The state quickly informed Forbes that the thousands of elk, bear and deer there weren't his to corral. But Ryland and his wife stayed on; he now oversees two subdivisions on the ranch, a Forbes subdivision in Missouri, and operations on the island Forbes owns in Fiji.

Like other Tools, he also finds himself hobnobbing with Donald Trump and Henry Kissinger, the CEOs, heads of state, and celebrities who frequent Forbes affairs at the family's New Jersey estate, the magazine's New York offices or on Forbes'151-foot yacht.

Besides the veteran Tools, three guests--including a photographer for a German magazine and the publisher of American Iron, a magazine for Harley Davidson aficionados--came along on the trip as temporary Tools of sorts.

Greeting everyone at the ranch, Forbes loaded them into green-and-gold Carryalls and led a tour of his 400 square miles of mountains, forests and meadows. Lightning crackled on the surrounding ridges; Forbes pointed out the sights with the gracious exuberance of Willie Wonka guiding visitors through his incredible chocolate factory.

"Be it ever so humble . . ." he said, stepping into a 15,000-square-foot home spanning a running brook (complete with drawbridge) and topped with curlicue facades that looked like cake decorations.

Loosely based on the Russian Czars' winter palace, the house was the creation of a previous owner, Forbes said. But the furniture and ceiling-to-floor art--Frederic Remington sculpture, sunbursts of bayonets from the battle of Waterloo, 19th-Century landscapes and paintings of flowers done by Forbes' former wife--represent his own eclectic tastes as a collector, he said.

Documentary Evening

That evening, after some Ping-Pong, pool and a dinner prepared by a chef from the Culinary Institute of America, Forbes suggested the evening's entertainment: a documentary--narrated by the late Sir Laurence Olivier--on the 1985 "Friendship Tour" the Tools made through Thailand on motorcycle and in an enormous, elephant-shaped, hot-air balloon.

Over the years, Forbes has had 10 balloons made for similar tours, including a huge bust of Beethoven for the German trip and a Sphinx for Egypt. The trips, he said, are good-will gestures--unofficial diplomatic missions.

"The spillover of publicity is very useful for the magazine," Forbes conceded. And he enjoys the entree, the dinners with kings and queens that his outrageous balloons and motorcycle caravans guarantee.

But he said he would make the trips even if there were no bottom line payoff--even, perhaps, if they weren't largely tax deductible as business expenses.

The next day at 7 sharp, Forbes went room to room awakening guests. At a quarter till 8, they walked a hundred yards to a waiting helicopter and rose up over the ranch for an eye-level view of the 14,000-foot peaks surrounding the spread.

Landing a half-hour later at an airport in Pueblo, Colo., they strolled 50 feet down a runway and boarded a green-and-gold Boeing 727 with "Forbes Capitalist Tool," painted on the tail.

Perusing the Mail

While flight attendants served breakfast on gold-rimmed china, Forbes sat at a table editing his "Fact and Comment" column, catching up on his reading--from the Wall Street Journal to Super Moto Cross Magazine--and sorting through the mail the jet's crew had delivered: A thank-you note from the former king of Greece for the Harley Forbes gave him; a letter from Nancy Reagan thanking him for letting the former first couple stay in Forbes' Christopher Wren-designed house in London while they were there (Why hadn't he dropped by the Reagans' new Brentwood home when he stopped in to see Liz recently, Nancy wondered?)

In the main cabin of the plane, a thickly carpeted room with leather chairs and sofas and paintings on the walls, the gang pulled on red-and-gold Capitalist Tools vests over their leather jackets; guests put on red Capitalist Tools T-shirts.

When the plane touched down, the bikes--Harleys for the most part, with a Yamaha, Kawasaki, and Honda Gold Wing thrown in for good measure--already were lined up on the tarmac. Within 20 minutes, the Tools were roaring through a neighborhood of modest homes and neatly groomed lawns, a sight of sufficient interest that two toddlers on Big Wheels stopped dead in their tracks.

On the road, the Tools fall into a pace. Eat a quick breakfast, fire up the bikes--try to keep up. Forbes plows ahead with a singularity of purpose. Side trips--to the headwaters of the Mississippi, for instance--are kept brief.

The atmosphere is generally relaxed. At gas stops, the bikes' cassette decks blare a cacophony of rap, blues, rock, country and classical music. The younger guys dance on their bikes and clown around.

But when Forbes' Electra Glide Sport coughs to life, the Tools scramble like firefighters responding to a major alarm. If Forbes decides to make a left turn from the right lane, seven bikes go whipping through traffic to make the turn. The itinerary is set and Forbes ensures the gang sticks to it. If the bikes are dirty at the end of a day, they get washed.

At meals, conversation weaves back and forth from a recent dinner with the mayor of Paris in the Eiffel Tower, for instance, to the day's weather, motorcycles and cars--like the 1930 Cadillac V-16 Forbes recently bought. "They're sooooo cool" he said, as he sat at the head of the table, smoking a long Havana Monte Cristo cigar.

When a woman at the Bemidji resort said her husband is a general and probably could get the Tools a tour of a B-1 bomber at a Minnesota air base, Forbes thought that sounded like fun. As it turned out, though, the base was 200 miles away from the river the tour was following.

"We may have to move the Mississippi over," Forbes commented. Some of the gang looked up nervously.

It goes without saying that Forbes is buying. (The Los Angeles Times, however, pays its ownway on stories. But he polls the table for wine preference.

The first evening, he and one other Tool raised their hands for red. Everyone else voted for white.

"Red it is," someone quipped. Forbes ordered white.

The next night all but one person voted for red, and Forbes, whose well-stocked New York wine cellar has been featured in gourmet magazines, settled on a couple of bottles of St. Emilion.

"You know, it's almost illegal to sell this wine so young," he chided the waitress. Then he took a sip and proclaimed the vintage "deeelicious."

Forbes often pans New York's top restaurants in the reviews he writes for his column. But he found a ham-and-cheese sandwich at a small-town coffee shop "excellent"; the lemon bread at another modest restaurant "the best bread I've ever eaten."

Here and there, folks recognized Forbes. A waitress asked for an autograph. The publisher of a small newspaper heard he was in town for lunch, rushed over, took his picture, pinned a chamber of commerce pin on his Capitalist Tools vest.

Forbes invariably stopped to chat. And people chat back, apparently unoffended that his famous collection of Faberge eggs alone is probably worth more than a decade's payroll at the local paper mill.

Forbes has never had pretentions about his wealth. He earned it the old-fashioned way: He inherited it. As a 1977 biography by Arthur Jones explains, it was Malcolm's father, B. C. Forbes, who tugged furiously at his boot straps, hauling himself up from the lowly rank of printer's assistant in his native Scotland to a position as the best-paid columnist in America and eventually the creator of the financial magazine bearing the Forbes family name.

The third of five sons, Malcolm Forbes didn't fall into his father's footsteps until he had wandered a few other paths, graduating from Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, dabbling in newspaper publishing, winning a Bronze Star and Purple Heart in World War II and serving seven years in the New Jersey State Senate.

After B. C. Forbes' death, Malcolm gradually assumed responsibility at the magazine; most observers give him credit for building it into the feisty, full-fledged competitor with Fortune and Business Week that it has become.

Adventurous Image

Clearly, the magazine's success stems at least in part from the image Forbes has created for himself as the generous, hearty-partying, hip-shooting, archetype of the renegade capitalist. The adventures and social affairs nurture that image.

"These are very effective tools," Marshall Loeb, managing editor of Fortune magazine, said of the high-profile events. Forbes, he said, "is very smart, and he uses that, plus his charm and persuasiveness to be a most effective salesman. He has made himself into a celebrity. Therefore, an invitation to one of his parties is highly prized by potential advertisers and other people."

On Aug. 19, Forbes will turn 70, and the bash he's throwing for 600 guests at his lavish Palais Mendoub in Tangier, Morocco, already is supplying fodder for the New York gossip columns. It's also attracting the sort of questions folks occasionally ask about this schmooze school of American business.

For instance, in a column headlined "Just Good Friends" the July/August edition of News Inc. ponders the propriety of so many of the nation's top media moguls and reporters accepting invitations to the bash, including free transportation on Forbes' corporate jet, a chartered 747 and a chartered Concorde.

Forbes scoffs at such concerns. "The idea that people who own major companies and have enormous wealth are going to be had by a ride on an airplane is naive," he said.

Naturally, movers and shakers at some of the country's most influential publications are friends of the Forbes family. But these folks wouldn't think of letting personal relationships influence editorial content, "not if their publication has integrity."

Financial Insight

And the affairs at which Forbes and his sons socialize with CEOs of corporations they write about not only give the editors financial insight, they help the magazine humanize the realm of business, Forbes said.

Several former Forbes staffers, however, contend that the magazine has a subtle but pervasive aversion to hard-hitting stories on Malcolm Forbes' friends, especially if those friends own printing presses.

"We don't pull stories that are unfavorable," Forbes said, adding that the magazine routinely offends corporate heads. He will, however, enforce his own values, he said.

Referring to one incident that became public, Forbes conceded that he replaced a critical article on his friend, Australian publishing mogul Rupert Murdoch, with a more favorable piece.

"I'm not going to have Forbes magazine saying (Murdoch) is a dummy, when he's one of the ablest men in the business . . ." he said. "Those things are a matter of judgement. When I feel my judgment is superior . . . I'll express it."

Sometimes those judgments take the magazine on strange editorial twists. Current and former Forbes staffers were amazed by the July 10 issue in which Forbes denounced as "asinine" a story from the previous issue that had discounted the significance of the AIDS epidemic.

If he would have seen the article, he would have killed it, but he was out of town at the time, wrote Forbes, who two years ago handed Elizabeth Taylor a check for $1 million to fight AIDS.

"We're not above saying we made a mistake when we made a mistake," he said.

Such matters seemed far afield, though, as Forbes blasted alongside the Mississippi, whipping around lumber trucks, leaning into tight turns, and kicking up billows of dust on remote dirt roads.

With Forbes in the lead, Tools who fell behind sometimes found themselves wailing down the two lane roads at 90-95 m.p.h. At those speeds, an encounter with a deer or raccoon, even a dead raccoon, can make a rider look as if he went head to head with a grizzly.

On the first day of the ride, the publisher of American Iron tried stopping to help another biker, hit the brakes too hard and dumped his bike at speeds that one witness put at about 60 m.p.h. Amazingly, he came out alive, and was back in the saddle two days later, although parts of his arms looked like the stuff found in a supermarket meat department.

The Tools loaded the bike into the green-and-gold pickup that was trailing them and hauled it to a shop in the next town.

"If they can't fix it, we'll buy another," Forbes said.

The Biker's View

Oddly, the requisite concentration on a motorcycle brings the surrounding countryside into clear focus. Silos and barns and forests seem to drift by. Subtle variations in the texture of the road and the temperature of the air keep nerve endings continually sparking.

One afternoon is filled with the tangled aromas of the river and freshly cut hay. Another day, the scent of strawberries wafts from fields.

Motorcycling is "totally different than being in a car," Forbes observed. "Your every decision is consequential. All your senses are attuned . . . Your sense of awareness, of observation--you're aware of the weather, road conditions, everything is heightened.

"The nearest analogy to how a motorcyclist feels on his horsepower machine is the way a cowboy felt on his horse," Forbes said. "The world is open to you. . . . That feeling also frees your mind from the mundane, and your imagination is released. . . . Your mind roams along with your wheels. You grab the passing thoughts."

In that almost meditative state, Forbes' mind moves from thoughts of family (he has four sons and a daughter) to business decisions to the sort of aphoristic noodling that went into his 1978 "The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm" and its sequel.

What he doesn't do much is ponder the basic issues of haves and have-nots.

"I don't waste too much time philosophizing about wealth. I just recommend it to everyone," he said.

Just Lucked Out

Forbes has no sympathy for his wealthy peers who snivel. "Coping with the problems of no money is vastly more difficult than coping with the problems of lots of money," he said.

Still, "I have no guilt. I feel gratitude that I lucked out like I did."

Most Americans would rather be rich than poor, and if they were rich, they would do just what he does, Forbes believes: They would take care of their families, contribute to good causes, and have a lot of fun.

Too many people mistake the enterprise that built America with greed, Forbes said. "Grabbing the last piece of chicken at a family table, that's greed. . . . Donald Trump didn't buy Trump Plaza to say, 'You can't have it.' He did it to say, 'I can do it! . . .' " Forbes' eyes lit up, his fists clenched, he beamed: "It's a matter of pride."

On the third day of the trip, Forbes pulled into the gravel driveway of a service station on the outskirts of St. Paul, Minn. His entourage followed him in, pulling into a parking area beside a weedy field in which were arranged a 15-foot concrete snowman, a huge shoe from the "little old lady" nursery rhyme, a big elephant with a broken trunk and similar oversized decorations.

The garage owner said that his father had salvaged them from an amusement park. "He used to keep 'em painted and a lot of people would stop just to take pictures," he said. "But since he died, I don't have the time to keep 'em up."

While the Tools gassed the motorcycles, Forbes slipped off to the side of the garage and relieved himself beside a decomposing Fiat. A moment later, he said a gracious goodby and without looking back, headed off with the Tools chasing him towards New Orleans.

Slowly wiping grease from an old engine block off his hands, the owner of the shop asked the inevitable "Who was that Masked Man," question. Filled in, he smiled slightly and stared under the hood of a battered Pontiac.

"Must be nice," he said.

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