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Dossier: The Secret History Of Armand Hammer.

Anyone who ever paid the old, steep ($9, if memory serves) admission to the Armand Hammer Museum of Art in Los Angeles knows what it was like to be cheated by the master himself. Despite dabbling in the art business for more than half a century, dipping into the deep pockets of his company, Occidental Petroleum, and hiring a former director of the National Gallery as a consultant, Hammer's effort to be immortalized as a latter-day de Medici fell flat: The museum's collection was weak and spotty. Even the highlights had a distasteful whiff to them: the DaVinci manuscript that the oil magnate renamed the "Codex Hammer" (current owner Bill Gates has restored its old name, the "Leicester Codex") was sliced up like a loaf of bread for display, and the treasure trove of Daumier lithographs had been practically stolen from the L.A. County Museum of Art, where Hammer had been a trustee before reneging on a promise to leave his collection to the institution.

But in a sense it was the perfect memorial for Hammer: a hugely expensive, forbidding marble edifice built with other people's money and serving little purpose but the glorification of an extraordinary ego. As Edward Jay Epstein makes clear in his fascinating book Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer, the story behind the man is a study in almost breathtaking deceit, cruelty, and megalomania.

Epstein had the good fortune to draw on sources unavailable to previous Hammer biographers: Soviet archives, FBI and SEC records, and Hammer's own tapes of his misdeeds, which he sometimes recorded through microphones in his cuff links. The author paints a brisk, engrossing portrait of Hammer in barely 350 pages. And although the writing is almost journalistic (news is grim, messages terse) and the man himself never quite crackles to life, the story is so spectacular and the reporting so thorough that one can hardly quibble with the result.

Hammer reads like a character out of Balzac. He dumped one wife and married a rich widow, while simultaneously shipping off a pregnant mistress to Mexico and forcing her into a sham marriage so that the child would not have the Hammer name (although he insisted on naming her after his grandmother). When his second wife became suspicious of his young art adviser, Hammer ordered the adviser/mistress to legally change her name and wear a disguise so that the two could continue seeing one another. He had a paternity test performed on his 59-year-old son Julian--who needed an appointment to talk to his father by phone--without telling him. He diverted millions of Oxy dollars into a private slush fund, using some of the money to build a college in hopes of getting nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He created a movie unit at Oxy called Armand Hammer Productions (which was fitting since the studio existed to make films about him), and he bought the Arm and Hammer baking soda company because it sounded like his name. Next to Hammer, even Ross Perot looks self-effacing

The book also reminds us of the sordid role money often plays in American politics and how often influence mongering distorts the workings of the marketplace, making a success out of someone who came close to destroying every business he touched. Hammer's only real triumph, it seems, was the creation of his own myth during his lifetime.

The only person who ever appears to have intimidated Hammer was his father, Julius. A Russian emigrant, Hammer pere was a doctor, a businessman, and a devoted member of Daniel DeLeon's Socialist Labor Party, a forerunner of the American Communist Party. He named his first son, born in 1898, Armand, after the arm and hammer insignia of the party. The elder Hammer ran a chain of drug stores, but was a better revolutionary than businessman, for years funneling money to the party while cheating his creditors--a lesson his son would learn well.

Julius was too busy selling smuggled diamonds for the Soviet Union to bother much with his three sons, whom he bundled off to live with various socialist friends for several years. The only act of parental responsibility he appears to have taken was when he went to Sing Sing for a botched abortion that Armand performed while a med student. Armand paid his dad back by going to the Soviet Union as a courier in 1921.

The younger Hammer spent much of the next decade in Moscow, publicly a businessman trying to open the Soviet Union to capitalism, privately laundering money for the Soviets to finance espionage and revolution abroad. Although he ran the largest pencil-making concern in the U.S.S.R., most of Hammer's ventures were failures, and he was almost broke when he returned to the U.S. in 1931. That didn't stop him from publishing an autobiography, The Quest for the Romanoff Treasure, in which he claimed he'd gone to Russia as a doctor on a humanitarian mission and accidentally wound up a successful businessman, amassing millions of dollars and a great art collection. Soon Hammer was selling these "masterpieces"--the art mostly junk he was unloading for the Soviets. When he had trouble even keeping this bogus business afloat, Hammer acquired a government loan, allowing him to continue to defraud U.S. buyers and raise hard currency for the Soviets.

Besides collecting Russian art, Hammer also collected American politicians: among them Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Sr. and California Rep. James Roosevelt, FDR's ne'er-do-well son. And when Hammer discovered that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI were blocking his doing business with the government because of his suspected dealings with the Soviet Union, he enlisted McCarthyite New Hampshire Sen. Styles Bridges to help him clear his name. Hammer blamed everything in his copious FBI record on his dead father. It worked.

Hammer had his first real business success toward the end of WWII with United Distillers, making cheap spirits. Soon the company payroll included Hammer's yacht captain, his airplane pilot, his chef, and even the farm hands on his estate breeding the prize bulls whose steroid-addled semen Hammer sold to unsuspecting ranchers. Hammer's smartest business move, however, was marrying Frances Barrett Tolman, a 53-year-old widow with lots of money. Despite his lavish lifestyle (paid for by the distillery), Hammer was earning less than $27,000 a year; his debts were piling up and his businesses sputtering With his new wife's bankroll he was able to become the head of Occidental Petroleum Corp., a small Los Angeles oil company on the verge of bankruptcy. Then, through sheer bluster, Hammer was able to inflate the company's stock price and bribe his way into a lucrative oil lease in Libya. Oxy went on to become the 14th largest industrial concern in the U.S.

While Hammer owned less than 1 percent of the company's stock, he ran Oxy as if it were a one-man business operating out of his garage: The company paid for his art collection, his philanthropy, his eponymous peace conference, and his extravagant birthday parties. "There are no committees, no auditors," Hammer once boasted. "You're looking at Oxy"

Eventually Hammer's luck waned. After giving a $54,000 illegal contribution to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign, then lying about it to the FBI and a Senate committee, Hammer faced felony charges of obstruction of justice. He initially agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making an illegal campaign contribution. But when Hammer blanched at actually admitting guilt in court, the government killed the plea bargain and started to move ahead with the case. At that point the robust 77-year-old was suddenly stricken ill and allowed to plead guilty to the misdemeanor charges. Hammer showed up in court in a wheelchair, trailing wires to a heart monitor, while aides held an oxygen tent at the ready. The next day a recovered Hammer was back in his office. "He was," one of Hammer's associates told Epstein, "the most devious man I ever met or could imagine"

Years later, Hammer tried to buy a pardon from Ronald Reagan by pledging $1 million to his presidential library. When Attorney General Edwin Meese found a problem with overruling the Justice Department on the issue, Hammer forgot his pledge, and later convinced President Bush to pardon him. The nonagenarian, who had denied his Jewishness for most of his life, then seduced Menachem Begin into nominating him for a Nobel Prize. But that quest was ended prematurely by cancer--a disease Hammer had expected to take credit for curing.

Hammer died in 1990 at the age of 92. His only son didn't attend the funeral. Within a year, more than 100 lawsuits were filed against his estate by charities, museums, and family members. Oxy had to write off$2.5 billion in losses from Hammer's wild global ventures and dismantle a corporate personality cult that would have done Kim Il Sung proud. And although Occidental couldn't completely rid itself of the $96 million Hammer Museum (it's adjacent to corporate headquarters) the company turned it over to UCLA, which cut the admission price and took down the huge portrait of its founder. The Hammer name, however, is still carved in three-foot-tall letters on the side of the building--a bit of Ozymandias on Wilshire Boulevard.
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Author:Ybarra, Michael
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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