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The Taming of Ted Turner

22 minute read
Priscilla Painton

TED TURNER’S LIFE MAY BEST BE UNDERSTOOD AS A startling series of narrowly missed disasters. When he skippered his yacht in Britain’s prestigious Fastnet race in 1979, he was so absorbed in victory that he did not even know a gale was killing 15 yachtsmen in the boats behind him. His costly acquisition of MGM’s movie library in 1986, widely considered a bonehead move at the time, now looks like a bargain the Japanese would envy. The Atlanta Braves, which Turner bought in 1976, snuffled along in the gutter for years, then went from last place to first in their division this year and lost the World Series by only a bat’s whoosh. And CNN, once derided as the “Chicken Noodle Network” for its low wages and amateurish presentation, is now the video medium of record.

But these public triumphs are nothing compared with what he achieved on Nov. 19 of this year: Turner, alive and well, stabilized by medication and psychiatric counseling, beloved by Jane Fonda, celebrated his 53rd birthday. Fifty-three was the age at which Turner’s father shot himself through the head with a .38-cal. pistol, and it was an age that many people who know Turner did not expect him to reach. While most Americans think of Turner as the loud cheerleader of the Braves, the corporate Don Quixote who went after CBS or the peace-loving impresario of the Goodwill Games, those close to him have always known Turner was haunted by a self-imposed deadline. “Ted felt that his father had died tragically and it was his duty to die tragically,” says Dee Woods, his assistant of 16 years. Says James Roddey, a former Turner Broadcasting executive and sailing partner of Turner’s: “He envisioned himself as part of a tragedy being played out onstage. While everyone kept stopping the show with applause, he knew how it was going to come out.”

For Turner, life has been a struggle to master what he calls his “greatest” fear — the fear of death. “Because if you can get yourself where you’re not afraid of dying, then you can . . . move forward a lot faster,” he says. Until a few years ago, his top executives would hear Turner talk of suicide in moments of depression. At other times he was convinced he would be killed. “Years ago, I came up with what I was going to say to an assassin if he came to shoot me,” he said recently. “You want to know what it is? ‘Thanks for not coming sooner.’ Pretty good, huh?”

If Turner can sound lighthearted about his death obsession, it is because he does feel much better about life these days. One of the main reasons is that at the urging of his second wife Janie, who was hoping to save their marriage, he began to see an Atlanta psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Pittman, in 1985. Pittman did two important things for Turner. The first was to put him on the drug lithium, which is generally used to treat manic-depression as well as a milder tendency toward mood swings known as a cyclothymic personality. Turner’s colleagues and J.J. Ebaugh, the woman for whom he left Janie, suddenly saw an enormous change in his behavior. “Before, it was pretty scary to be around the guy sometimes because you never knew what in the world was going to happen next. If he was about to fly off the handle, you just never knew. That’s why the whole world was on pins and needles around him,” says Ebaugh. “But with lithium he became very even tempered. Ted’s just one of those miracle cases. I mean, lithium is great stuff, but in Ted’s particular case, lithium is a miracle.”

TURNER AGREES THAT THE MEDICATION HELPED calm him down. But Pittman’s second contribution was to help Turner exorcise his father. To understand why Turner and the father he worshipped had no ordinary filial competition, consider this: when young Turner did something bad, his father Ed beat him with a wire coat hanger. When young Turner did something very bad, Ed once ordered his son to beat him. “He laid down on the bed and gave me the razor strap and he said, ‘Hit me harder,’ ” Turner told interviewer David Frost. “And that hurt me more than getting the beating myself. I couldn’t do it. I just broke down and cried.” The most famous story of this dynastic war is the time Ed Turner sent Ted a letter at Brown University to excoriate him for having chosen to study the Greek classics. “I almost puked on the way home today . . . I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better it will suit me,” Ed Turner wrote. The angry son retaliated rather cunningly: he published the letter in the college newspaper. But he eventually switched his major to economics.

Ed Turner, who became a millionaire in the billboard business after his family lost its cotton farm in the Depression, was determined to give his son both ambition and the self-doubt that keeps ambitious people going. “He wanted Ted to be insecure because he felt insecurity breeds greatness,” Judy Nye Hallisey, Turner’s first wife told biographer Roger Vaughan. During World War II, Ed Turner served in the Navy; he brought along his wife and daughter but left behind Ted, age 6, at a boarding school in Cincinnati. Ted’s father sent the boy to a military academy from the fifth grade on, punished him at home for such omissions as failing to read a new book every two days, and charged him rent during summer vacations.

When Ed committed suicide, Turner says, “that left me alone, because I had counted on him to make the judgment of whether or not I was a success.” Until then, Turner’s only success was as a sailor, a sport he turned to because he was too scrawny and uncoordinated to play ball. After getting kicked out of Brown in his senior year for entertaining a woman in his room, he bummed around Florida for a few months before returning to Georgia and his father’s business. Turner’s first test as a businessman came when he discovered that his father, despondent because of his billboard firm’s mounting debts, had sold its big, newly acquired Atlanta division just before killing himself. The young Turner did everything he could to nullify the contract and win back the business, luring away employees from the Atlanta unit to the Macon, Ga., division he retained, shifting lucrative contracts between companies, threatening to destroy financial records and “to build billboards in front of theirs.” Turner ultimately persuaded the buyers to rescind the deal in exchange for $200,000 worth of stock in the company.

Turner proved far more adept even than his father at the billboard business. So as the money rolled in, he turned to sailing and broadcasting in pursuit of his father’s elusive benediction. By 1982, when he was 43, he had successfully defended the America’s Cup, launched the first station distributed nationally to cable systems via satellite and the first 24-hour news network, and made the first edition of the Forbes 400 list — enough success, he says, to have begun to lay “the ghost” of that paternal judgment “to rest.” But he was still an emotional cripple. Turner’s role model as a grownup remained an alcoholic father whose behavior was as extreme as it was unpredictable, who boasted about his sexual conquests, fought often with his wife and ultimately divorced her after 20 years.

Until six years ago, Turner was doing his best to imitate his father. He drank, but not well (“Two drinks and Ted was gone,” says his friend Roddey), and earned early notoriety for showing up at the America’s Cup press conference knee-walking drunk. He was such a determined womanizer that he made clear to Janie before their marriage in 1964 that he had no intention of becoming monogamous, according to several intimates. “I didn’t like being alone when I was on the road” is how Turner today explains his numerous entanglements. Robert Wussler, his former senior executive vice president, says Turner’s amorous philosophy was “a port in every storm.” In some cases, it was literally a woman in every port: he once scandalized the yachting circuit by sailing around with a blond Frenchwoman tending galley, sometimes topless. As a husband to Janie, he could be mean, and publicly so. Roddey recalls the time Turner brought his wife over to a table to introduce her to a group and “somebody said, ‘You sure have a beautiful woman there.’ And Ted said, ‘Yup, and if she doesn’t stay beautiful, the next one will be even better.’ That kind of remark was not uncommon.”

In his sailing days he was rarely home, and during one period he missed three consecutive Christmases. When he did spend time with his family, says his eldest son Teddy, he behaved as though “kids were a necessary evil.” He forbade crying, snapped at the slightest imperfection (such as a dinner delayed or a skateboard in the driveway) and ran his weekends at his South Carolina plantation on a militaristic schedule of dawn-to-dusk hunting. Teddy remembers the canoe trip he and his two brothers took with their father when Teddy was about 11. Turner, he says, “yelled and screamed the whole time. It was a nightmare. So when we had finished and we were just going down the Chattahoochee River and Dad said, ‘Well, did everybody have a great time?’ I said no. And, boy, he smacked me hard.”

Turner did not confine his pugnaciousness to his home. As a skipper, he occasionally struck crew members who made mistakes. He abruptly ended his Playboy interview with Peter Ross Range in 1983 by smashing Range’s tape recorder. At the office his bursts of violence were verbal, but almost all his top executives say they have felt them. After one tirade, says Gerald Hogan, the former president of TBS Entertainment Networks, “he had me, not in tears, crying, but at that point my eyes had welled up, I was so angry.”

In some ways the bruised and bruising Turner was a patient perfectly suited to Dr. Pittman’s specialty. Although Pittman will not discuss Turner’s case specifically, he says, “What I do is help men who don’t have a very good image of masculinity because of a failure in their relationship with their father” learn to have “a partnership with a woman they can see as their equal.” Turner approached counseling with the same ferocious concentration on results that made it possible for him, say, to start a second CNN channel, Headline News, in 90 days in 1981. He asked four of his top executives to see Pittman so the psychiatrist could understand him better. And after he moved in with Ebaugh in August 1986, he agreed to see other counselors with her, including one who specialized in what Ebaugh describes as “high-performance” couples.

That someone as autocratic as Turner would accept guidance from another man is not as surprising at it seems: Turner is above all a pragmatist. “I’ve never met anybody who can so quickly recognize a truth and internalize it,” says Jane Fonda, whom Turner married on Dec. 21 after a two-year courtship. “When he feels something is right, he just does it. Without a backward look.” When he launched CNN, the Turner who at his WTBS Superstation had relegated the news to a 3 a.m. comedy show that occasionally featured a German shepherd and lemon meringue pies became Turner the Newsman, who traveled from Nicaragua to the Soviet Union to see things for himself and who told CNN president Tom Johnson to spend whatever he needed (it turned out to be $30 million) on the Persian Gulf war coverage.

ED TURNER, THE EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT of CNN and no relation to his boss, says Turner’s personal transformation was, at some level, the result of a professional one: Turner’s adjusting to his new environment. “He went from the hearty camaraderie of the Chamber of Commerce and locker-room crowds to the world of great leaders.” More important, what Turner recognized in the mid-’80s was that his roller-coaster emotional life, which had served him well in his risk-taking entrepreneurial days, was not particularly useful in running an international company with long-term ambitions and an estimated worth well in excess of $7 billion. The businessman who three times in his life had leveraged almost everything he owned and borrowed heavily — to buy back his father’s billboard company, to start CNN and to purchase MGM — says he came to believe he did not “have to take desperate gambles anymore.”

It was not just that Turner had more to lose; he was also convinced that through some cyclical inevitability he was doomed to lose what he had. “He was hung up on the fact that a lot of people said, ‘Well, Ted Turner is the ultimate entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs when they get to $250 million or $1 billion or $2 billion, they crap out, and either they fall to the bottom or they turn their companies over to others,’ ” says Wussler. “He didn’t want that to happen.”

In 1986 Turner’s premonition came close to happening: his acquisition of MGM/ UA for $1.4 billion buried him so deeply in debt that he had to be bailed out by a consortium of cable operators (including Time Warner, which owns TIME) that invested $562.5 million in the company in exchange for minority ownership. Turner remained chairman, but he was forced to give cable operators seven seats on the 15-member board and veto power over any decision that would cost the company more than $2 million. It was a major setback for a man who lived by his father’s homespun sermons, including the idea, in Wussler’s words, that “you hang on to as much of your business as you can yourself.”

But once Turner had resigned himself to the company’s shotgun marriage, it came almost as a relief: it forced stability on Turner just as he was growing weary of his own high-wire act. “One of the first things he said to me,” says Fonda, “was, ‘I feel like I’m constantly at war, always fighting to survive, risking everything, putting all the cards on the table.’ It was always that white-knuckle, fingernail-biting, nerve-destroying kind of situation.” In late 1986 and early 1987, according to his longtime assistant Woods, Turner felt so run-down that some doctors thought he had contracted the Epstein-Barr virus; after numerous tests they determined instead that his lack of energy was a kind of altitude sickness from the frequent takeoffs and landings of his travel schedule.

Turner had more than career incentives to search for a psychological resting place. A student of Citizen Kane — he has seen the movie more than 100 times and now owns it — he began to be worried that his life would leave him as grimly isolated as the late newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was the inspiration for Kane. “Here’s a guy who had everything in the world — a big business, a big family, couldn’t be more successful — and he was all alone,” says Teddy, now 28. “Who was there? Janie? His kids? His mom? His friends? What friends? The thought of going out alone was more scary than anything else.” And then, of course, there was J.J. Ebaugh, possibly the first woman Turner truly loved.

HE MET HER IN 1980 IN NEWPORT, R.I., WHEN SHE was dating Tom Blackaller, a legendary sailor whose boat, Clipper, shared a dock with Ted Turner’s Courageous. The adventuresome California blond, who could drive race cars, pilot sailboats and fly airplanes, caught his eye, and that winter Turner invited her to sail with him on the Southern Ocean Racing circuit out of St. Petersburg. Although he did not own an airplane, he hired Ebaugh as a pilot, and she moved to Atlanta in 1981, bringing along a used one she had bought for him. The relationship (and the piloting) lasted until 1986, when she announced she was leaving him for a California podiatrist. The news devastated Turner, who cut short an African vacation with his family and rushed back to Atlanta. Says Ebaugh: “He put up the most aggressive campaign to get me back that I have ever heard about or read about in my entire life.”

Just as demanding was the education he undertook to make his love affair with Ebaugh work the second time around. In counseling, the man about whom it is said that talking to him is like listening to a radio began to tame his mouth. “I started to listen, and not be judgmental, and wait until someone was through rather than interrupting them, and then think about what they said before I prepared an answer,” he says. “I learned to give and take better than I had previously.”

The more flexible Turner made a variety of sacrifices. He left his wife (the final divorce settlement in 1988 cost him $40 million) and gave up philandering. After moving in with Ebaugh, he agreed to spend more time with her in California and even bought a cliff-hanging house in Big Sur. The couple split up two years later. By the time he started dating Fonda in early 1990, however, Turner was so reformed that the first thing he told the actress when he took her out was, “I want you to know I was brought up a male chauvinist.” Says Fonda: “I thought . . . really, I mean, how ingenuous. He’s just so open about it.”

Turner agreed to spend half his time in Los Angeles while Fonda’s son Troy was still in high school there. When Fonda decided she would quit drinking a year ago, Turner announced he would too. She has given up making movies for | now. (“Ted Turner is not a man that you leave to go on location. He needs you there all the time,” she says.) He has given up hour-to-hour management of his company. He now eats much of the health-food menu her cook prepares and has lost 10 lbs. They designed and decorated together the log home they share on Turner’s 130,000-acre ranch near Bozeman, Mont. He follows her on hikes and bike rides; she follows him hunting and fly-fishing and to baseball games.

For all his days on the sailing circuit, Turner had struck some of those who know him as a joyless monomaniac who pursued achievement not out of passion for the undertaking but out of a tortured focus on the finish line. “He told me 20 times that he never liked sailing,” says Wussler. “He said, ‘You know, Bob, I got cold and I got wet.’ He was more in love with just winning.” These days Turner talks about the “Zen experience” of fly-fishing. He has stopped pacing around his home and office (Wussler once counted 74 consecutive circles). And when it is suggested that heaven for Turner might be an eternal baseball game, he protests with the tone of a late-blooming flower child: “No, no, no, that would be too much pressure. I wouldn’t want to go and spend all eternity competing at the level that I have in this life.”

Turner is also showing signs that he wants to enjoy his family. Four years ago, he began organizing regular family vacations; this year he formed the Turner Family Foundation, whose board is composed of Fonda and his five children, all of whom gather twice a year to allocate money to charitable causes. He is openly affectionate with his children and checks in regularly with Fonda’s two kids. And when the Fonda and Turner broods get together, says Teddy, Turner can be talked out of his compulsively active outdoors routine. “You never thought of having fun with Dad before, but now you can,” he says. “He does laugh a little more and play a little more.” (There have been some cultural clashes between the two families: last Christmas at Turner’s Avalon plantation outside Tallahassee, the Fonda children objected to being served by Turner’s black help and announced they would clear their own plates. Turner insisted they remain at the table; tempers cooled when Fonda took her children aside for a heart-to-heart.)

BUT TURNER HAS REINVENTED HIMSELF MOST BY shifting his longtime preoccupation with self-destruction away from himself and onto the world. He has always been an environmentalist — as long, in fact, as he has been a hunter. He told Audubon magazine this year that he spent his life watching sea turtles and whales disappear off the coast of Savannah and ducks disappear from the Eastern flyway. He plans to turn his Flying D ranch near Bozeman into what amounts to a privately owned national park: he has sold all the cattle, uprooted miles of barbed-wire fence, let pastures of hay and alfalfa return to native grasses and started raising a herd of buffalo he hopes will swell to 4,000.

For the past six years, Turner has made a public career of saving the planet. In 1985 he founded the Better World Society, which petered out late last fall but until then was meant to educate people about pollution, hunger and the arms race by producing documentaries. His heroes used to be Alexander the Great and Napoleon; now they are Martin Luther King and Gandhi. He used to talk about war as an efficient way to weed out the weak members of society; in 1986, to promote world peace, he staged the Goodwill Games in Moscow, on which he lost $26 million, and staged them again last year in Seattle, losing an additional $44 million. And everywhere he goes — including a November press conference on next June’s Earth Summit held in a Manhattan studio decorated with a Christmas tree made of fallen twigs and soy-based-ink ribbons — he preaches salvation. “If we don’t make the right choice after we have all the information, then we don’t deserve to live,” he told members of People for the American Way, a liberal organization that awarded him its Spirit of Liberty prize in November. “I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s going to be real close.”

Turner may sound like a modern Cassandra, but it is possible to detect in his quest the messianic reflex that overcomes people with big checkbooks and egos to match. He invented the Turner Tomorrow Awards to inspire writers the world over to write about “positive solutions to global problems,” but the contest this year degenerated into a spat over who should get the $500,000 prize. He has issued what some are calling the Ted Commandments, a list of 10 voluntary initiatives that would make the world a better place. (It includes “I promise to have no more than two children” — a belated pledge, since he has five.) He has told intimates he hopes to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. “Ted is the great ‘I am,’ and anybody he comes in contact with is a means to an end — his end,” says Wussler, who remains on good terms with his former boss. Others are convinced Turner’s latest ambition is the purest expression so far of the hero complex he developed as a child while devouring history books. “The culmination of his life would be if our country gets into such a crisis that there is an outcry that Ted take over and save us all,” says former associate Hogan. “He carries that dream around every day.”

It is also possible to see Turner’s global pursuits as an elaborate attempt to heal from the first two traumas of his life. When he was 20 and she was three years younger, his sister Mary Jane died of a severe form of lupus erythematosus, a disease that causes the body to make antibodies against its own tissues. Until he saw her degenerate during five horrible years, Turner had been a practicing Christian. At 17 he even planned to be a missionary. But the loss of his sister killed his faith in God. While Turner never recovered that faith, he has found a way to recover his proselytizing impulses as an apostle of peace and preservation. “It’s almost like a religious fervor,” he says.

His new crusade is also a sure, efficient way of outliving his father. For the one lesson Turner drew from that suicide — the lesson he repeated year after year to his children — is that people should never set goals they can reach. “My father told me he wanted to be a millionaire, have a yacht and a plantation,” says Turner. “And by the time he was 50 he had achieved all three, and he was having a very difficult time.” Turner has carefully arranged to avoid that situation. “I’m not going to rest until all the world’s problems have been solved. Homelessness, AIDS. I’m in great shape. I mean, the problems will survive me — no question about it.”

In the meantime, Turner has found in Fonda a companion who comes not only with her own wealth, trophies and fame but also with childhood pains that echo his own: a mother who committed suicide when Jane was 12, a stern taskmaster of a father who left her craving approval, and a loneliness that drove her outdoors. “By necessity, both of us created ourselves and then re-created ourselves a number of times,” says Fonda.

Nowadays Turner and Fonda are re-creating themselves as each other’s soul mate. “The right woman at last,” he wrote to her shortly after they began dating. “I feel it is destiny,” says Fonda. And as a grand rebuke to his father’s final repudiation of life, Turner plans to write about his own. He put a stop to an autobiography written with a collaborator five years ago because he felt the first draft made him sound like a rube and the second draft made him sound boring. Now, at last, Turner believes he will like the sound of his own voice.

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