“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.
The cast of characters is not limited to the family. The world of journalism has always been a fount of gargoyles and eccentrics. There’s Jim Michaels the crusty editor who enjoys publicly humiliating writers whose work falls short of his standards. He is the major outside force guiding the magazine in its glory years. There’s Lewis D’Vorkin who is described as “The Prince of Darkness,” a man who doesn’t suffer fools easily, and is hired to bring the faltering house of Forbes back to glory.
But it is the titillating dirt that is the book’s guilty pleasure: the gossip about B.C.’s possible affair with his secretary, the stories about Malcolm’s advances to male staffers, the staff’s ridicule of Steve’s presidential ambitions. Some examples: one of Malcolm’s sons purchases what appears to be a phony bottle of wine supposedly once belonging to Thomas Jefferson for $156,000 dollars at auction, and then the wine is left to cook under a hot spotlight. During a visit, Malcolm gives Elizabeth Taylor a gift in a fancy box from jeweler Harry Winston. She gushes appreciatively and opens it to find paper ear rings made out of photos of gems. Miguel Forbes, who is portrayed as something less than the brightest bulb in the family, asks on one occasion how much someone has to be worth to make the magazine’s annual list of billionaires. These are the kinds of anecdotes that give Pinkerton’s narrative an infectious liveliness.
The Fall of the House of Forbes ends with a lament for the current state of affairs at Forbes. The family has lost control of the business, Forbes.Com has pushed the print magazine into the background, and has effectively moved away from the professional journalism model, focusing instead on unpaid writers, in effect creating a website very much like the one you have landed on. For Pinkerton this is nothing short of a calamity, for those of us who write for such sites, for those of us who read them, it is probably not the worst thing that could happen.