"This isn't a 'tell-all' book," Stewart Pinkerton, former managing editor of Forbes magazine, declares at the very beginning of The Fall of the House of Forbes: The Inside Story of the Collapse of a Media Empire. Don't believe it. Of course if you take "tell-all" to mean tell everything, and if you buy the idea that no one knows everything, then clearly it is not tell-all. If you have a more conventional notion of tell-all as something akin to dishing the dirt, washing the dirty linen, or mudslinging, then tell-all describes Pinkerton's book exactly. This is not to say the book is not entertaining. After all, what is more fun than gossip about the rich and famous; what is more rewarding than seeing someone born with the proverbial silver spoon in the proverbial orifice screwing it up royally? What is more rewarding than fat cats passing through their eighth life?
As Pinkerton describes it there seem to be three major causes of the decline and fall of the periodical that had been one of the great if not quite rags-to-riches success stories, very close to it. Begun by a Scottish immigrant, B. (Bertie) C. Forbes in 1917, nurtured into a major force in financial journalism by his son Malcolm, only to begin its decline under the stewardship of his grandsons and their progeny, this is a plot line that is almost a cliché. What happened?
First of all, there was mismanagement by a family that had grown used to a lavish life style. Second, there were financial crises like the dot com bubble first and then the housing bubble that had a toxic effect on both the magazine's advertisers and its audience. Then of course there was the problem created for professional print journalism by the growth of the blogosphere. Even without the first two, the third might well have been enough to topple the giant.
While the history of the Forbes decay and its causes may be an important object lesson, the real fun of Pinkerton's book is in his intimate portraiture of the people involved and the anecdotes passed over the water cooler. B.C., the patriarch, emigrating to America in 1903 and making sure to travel first class — in the belief that it was only by rubbing elbows with wealthy that you could meet the right people — is the stereotype of the ambitious immigrant. Malcolm Forbes, the jet-setting son, takes over the family business and uses the fortunes he helps to create to indulge in the kind of conspicuous consumption that would have rivaled that of 'citizen' Charles Foster Kane. Steve Forbes, the grandson, has delusions of grandeur that set him off on a misguided race for the presidency not once, but twice.