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08.04.10

Newsweek's New Owner: The 92-Year-Old Wunderkind

This week, Harman made news when he purchased ailing Newsweek magazine. But there's more to the businessman than just his love of hi-fi, as Jacob Bernstein reports.

It says an awful lot about 92-year-old Sidney Harman that even his wife, Rep. Jane Harman, 27 years his junior, frequently jokes about her husband being far more youthful than she.

"I'm convinced that Sidney is either from another planet or a vampire because he shows absolutely no signs of age," says pomegranate magnate Lynda Resnick, a friend of the couple. "He walks like a young boy; he talks like a young man; he has not lost his hearing. I have a father who's 92 and seems pretty young. But Sidney's in another class. Jane is very young, and has a fabulous figure. But she complains constantly about how she can't keep up with Sidney."

On Monday, Harman gave his wife further reason to keep on that treadmill, when he purchased Newsweek for the token price of $1, in exchange for guaranteeing Washington Post Company Chairman Donald Graham that he wouldn't dismantle the money-bleeding magazine.

“I’m convinced that Sidney is either from another planet or a vampire because he shows absolutely no signs of age,” says pomegranate magnate Lynda Resnick.

Many friends are skeptical that he can turn around the magazine—Resnick, among them, described the move as "the triumph of hope over experience"—but no one would call it out of character for a guy whose enthusiasms span a multitude of areas from public policy to the arts—mirroring, in a sense, the scope of a general-interest magazine.

"Sidney is a polymath," says Walter Isaacson of the Aspen Institute, and the former chairman and CEO of CNN, and the managing editor of Time magazine. "Everything fascinates him whether it's jazz music or public policy, corporate engagement, or Shakespeare."

So who is this mystery man who purchased a seemingly dying magazine and then admitted with unusual candor that even he didn't yet have a plan in place to restore it to profitability?

Born in Montreal in 1918, Harman moved with his family to New York when his father got a job at a hearing-aid company. According to a profile in The Washington Post, to help his family financially, Harman worked as a paperboy and quickly found a way to earn some extra money by selling discarded magazines to candy shops.

Though the multi-billionaire made his fortune in the '50s as an audio pioneer whose company Harman/Kardon put out the first stereo receiver, helping make high quality hi-fi a mass phenomenon, he was also seen as an early example of how big business could thrive while creating good conditions for factory workers.

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In 1977, he went to work in the Carter administration as the deputy secretary of Commerce, meeting his wife in Washington, and continuing to champion policies that were in line with his pro-worker, business-friendly ethos.

The couple went on to have two children, in addition to the four from both of their previous marriages. In 1998, according to the Post, Sidney paid for “most of” Jane’s “unsuccessful $16 million race for governor.” The couple now shares homes in Venice, California, Aspen, Colorado, and Washington, D.C. Both Harmans are near fanatical about staying in shape (in addition to exercising constantly, Sidney is said to be at work on a book on golf as a metaphor for life) and also have in common something of a centrist political streak.

"Sidney is what I would describe as a moderate Democrat," says Stu Eizenstat, Jimmy Carter's chief domestic-policy adviser, who is now a partner at Covington & Burling. "He's a pro-business Democrat who's very sensitive on civil rights and social welfare but recognizing that the private sector has to be the key driver of wealth and growth."

In the years since returning to private life in 1978 (marrying the future California congresswoman three years later), Harman has given lectures at the University of Southern California, where he holds a presidential chair and received the unique distinction of being titled first Isaiah W. Hellman Professor of Polymathy, according to a bio of Harman that was attached to the Washington Post Co.'s news release about the Newsweek sale.

He has also become heavily involved in philanthropy, funding much of the building of the $89 million Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, home to the Shakespeare Theater Company. The theater company's mission to promote Shakespeare is clearly personal to its biggest benefactor. According to several people who know him, Harman has a habit of reciting three- to four-minute sonnets and passages from plays without notes, while giving toasts at parties. "I think he has a photographic memory," says Washington Post writer and fellow STC board member Walter Pincus, who also remembers Harman reciting a lengthy section of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address at a birthday party.

Some people who would like to eat their dinner and get on with it are less in awe of this habit—"I think he desperately wants to be taken seriously," says one detractor—but it's not exactly unusual for someone in Washington to be a little in love with sound of his own voice. As George Stevens, a former colleague on the board of the American Film Institute says, more diplomatically: "He does like to stand up and talk, which I think you could say about almost all of us… I would say he's a man of accomplishment who enjoys recognition."

And, of course, who can fault Harman for trying to get some in a town where power, rather than money, is the main currency, and those out of office are often treated as if they are totally irrelevant? Another Washington source who knows Harman and his wife remembers running into him recently and being told about an invitation for an event that arrived in the mail, addressed to Dr. Jane Harman and Mr. Sidney Harman. In reality, though, he is the doctor, not she. "On the surface, he was being self-deprecating about it. But it's also revealing that he was pointing it out. It's sort of like 'my wife gets all the attention.'"

Needless to say, a storied magazine with a focus on politics and a rate base of 1.5 million readers a week is a significant trophy for Mr. Jane Harman to have. And many are already predicting the newly minted media mogul may not just be a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. "He's somebody who cares about public policy, likes being 'in it' and this will give him a vehicle," says Pincus, who had at least a few conversations with Harman about the magazine over the course of the sale. "I don't think this is a matter of power. I think this is a matter of being heard. He really has views on public policy and rather than getting other people to do it, I think he may wind up writing a column in the magazine himself."

Others continue to snipe about what would prompt someone to pump a whole lot of money into a magazine whose very name, Newsweek, seems anachronistic in an era of 24/7 news. But magazines also provide context and color that the Internet often does not. And not everyone will judge Newsweek's success or failure in dollars and cents only.

Says Isaacson: “Sidney Harman is not doing this for the best possible financial return on investment. He is doing this for the best psychic and civic return on his investment. If he loses a few million on the way, he will still have more joy doing it than sailing a yacht around the Mediterranean.”

Resnick has a simpler explanation for why he bought the magazine. Noting that Sidney actually hit the big 9-2 on Wednesday, she says, "Maybe he just wanted to buy himself a birthday present."

Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.