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04.13.11

Sidney Harman: An Extraordinary Life

Philanthropist, triumphant entrepreneur, government servant and steward of journalism, Sidney Harman, executive chairman of The Newsweek Daily Beast Co., died last night. Jonathan Alter on the remarkable 92 years of a true polymath who built one of America's great companies.

Philanthropist, triumphant entrepreneur, government servant and steward of journalism, Sidney Harman, executive chairman of The Newsweek Daily Beast Co., died Tuesday night. Jonathan Alter on the remarkable 92 years of a true polymath who built one of America's great companies. Plus, scroll to view photos of Harman's life and read the Harman family statement.

A little less than a year ago I picked up my phone one day at Newsweek and a man at the other end identified himself as Sidney Harman. He told me that his rich friends all thought he was crazy but he intended to buy the magazine from the Washington Post Company.

I was intrigued by Sidney’s ideas and, like so many who encountered him, soon enough impressed at his charm and astonishing vigor. He strode quickly into a room, tanned and fit, offered a firm mogul handshake like a man decades younger. With a near-photographic memory, he dazzled dinner parties and meetings of editors by reciting long passages from Shakespeare, Tennyson and long-forgotten essayists, all of which had some genuine wisdom to impart. He saved Newsweek, hired Tina Brown as editor and told me just last week that the magazine was on track to break even. When he died April 12 after a brief battle with leukemia, it came as a shock. He was 92 and expected to live past 100. We all believed him.

"He was a magical man, full of intellectual curiosity and a desire to see Newsweek reflect the pursuit of ideas," said Tina Brown, who learned of his passing in Washington last night, where she had hoped to see him this morning. "We very quickly formed both a great editorial relationship and a warm personal friendship. I shall miss him tremendously. The family's commitment to the magazine he loved so much is solidly continuing, in partnership with Barry Diller and IAC."

Gallery: Sidney Harman, 1918-2011

Barry Diller, chairman of IAC and his partner in the Newsweek Daily Beast Co., said "I feel very privileged to have known Dr. Harman in the last year of his life. That remarkable brain, filled with so much humor, poetry, and wisdom, was something his new colleagues at Newsweek and The Daily Beast marveled at in every encounter. Three weeks ago, when he told me of his illness, he said he and his family wanted to continue as partners in Newsweek/Beast in all events. We will carry on, though will greatly miss his passionate enthusiasm and belief in the venture."

At first glance, Sidney’s story is that of a classic entrepreneur. He worked his way through college buying recent editions of magazines and selling them at a discount. In 1953 he founded Harman Kardon Inc., where he and his partner invented the concept of “hi-fi”—high fidelity sound that had previously been available only in studios. On the way up, he was consistently inventive. In those early days, a loudspeaker was set in a plywood basket or frame with a circle cut out for the cone. Seeing the discarded circles in the trash, Sidney had a bright idea. The wooden circles would be the face of clocks he'd make.

But of course his devotion was to glorious sound, to giving everyone the pleasure of hearing music as it was meant to be heard, and he knew how to persuade people to buy what they didn't quite know they wanted. Instead of a customer having to stand, ear-cupped, in a clattering salesroom room jammed with gear, Sidney set up a comfortable enclosed living room with Frank Sinatra on the turntable. His stereo was a monster hit—the iPad of its day. Soon every educated music-lover in the country had to have a Harman Kardon and static became a thing of the past. He sold the company to Beatrice Foods, bought it back when it wasn't run well enough for his taste and sold it again, building his fortune.

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Sidney Harman with family at the opening gala for the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, DC. (Newscom)

But Sidney also believed that business leaders should cultivate a life of the mind. He backed symphony orchestras, The Shakespeare Theatre Company/Harman Center for the Arts in Washington, D.C., the Aspen Institute, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He helped found Business Executives for National Security (BENS), which is committed to rational defense policy that doesn’t waste money on unnecessary weapons. For three years in the 1970s, he was president of Friends World College, an experimental Quaker school—the only CEO moonlighting as a college president anywhere. He devoted himself to breaking down rigid academic disciplines that stifle the creative, integrative thinking he believed is essential to understanding a complex world. (At Newsweek he inspired a new section called “Connect the Dots” to encourage the idea). A polymath himself, he founded the Academy for Polymathic Study at USC, where he lectured in more than a dozen academic departments. “I was a smash in the department of gerontology,” he liked to joke.

Harman was long committed to social justice and public service. When he heard that African-American workers at one of his plants in Bolivar, Tennessee were upset over being deprived of a coffee break, he overruled his managers, visited the hard-pressed town and began an early experiment in cooperative workplace management that boosted productivity and eventually became a Harvard Business School case study. He wrote widely on job satisfaction and worker productivity and served in the late 1970s as an undersecretary of Commerce in the Carter Administration, where he met a White House aide who would become his second wife. Jane Harman served for a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives before this year becoming the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center. Their homes in Los Angeles and Washington became salons, full of informed and—at Sidney’s insistence—structured conversation on the important issues of the day. He was a light-hearted but serious and civilized man—urbane, to use an old-fashioned word.

Sidney quickly warmed to the idea of merging Newsweek with The Daily Beast, the new website owned by Barry Diller and edited by Tina Brown. He told me a few days before his death how pleased he was with the new company’s progress in the last six months. “In a very short time he’d absorbed the complexities and sensitivities of the proprietor-editor relationship,” Sir Harold Evans, a longtime editor and the husband of Tina Brown, told me. “He was developing a wonderful relationship with Tina.”

Sidney Harman wasn’t a journalist but he believed in the mission of good journalism—to shed light on a variety of stories that help us understand the world and to have some fun doing it. He entered our business late in life but at the right time and for the right reasons. We will miss him.

Sidney Harman is survived by his wife Jane Harman, children Lynn, Gina, Barbara, Paul, Daniel, Justine, two step-children, Brian and Hilary, and ten grandchildren.