Sidney Harman 1918-2011

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.

Sidney Harman, 1955

Born in Montreal in 1918 and raised in New York City, Dr. Sidney Harman got an early start in the magazine business, making his way through college by reselling recent issues at a mark-up. But Harman made his mark in the audio business. After serving in the military during World War II—he worked on sound-engineering products—Harman joined with Bernard Kardon, a fellow engineer, to found harman/kardon, Inc., in 1953. The company upended the audio business, introducing "hi-fi" (high-fidelity) receivers that radically improved on the scratchy equipment of the day. Five years later, harman/kardon developed the world's first stereo receiver. After buying out his partner, Harman built the company into a multimillion-dollar juggernaut before selling his stake in the company in 1977 to serve in the government. Later, when the new owner nearly drove the company out of business, Harman bought it back and again made it an industry leader.

Even while leading harman/kardon, Harman remained engaged with other interests, especially education. For three years during the 1970s, he moonlighted as president of the Friends World College, an experimental Quaker college based on Long Island that focused on global education through travel and experiential education. Throughout his academic career, Harman was a staunch advocate of interdisciplinary efforts that knocked down walls between departments.

AP Photos

Sidney Harman, 1977

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Harman, by now a well-known businessman with a Ph.D. to boot, to serve the nation as the first ever deputy secretary of commerce, a position equivalent to the chief operating operator for the department. Here he is shown at fifth from right, taking the oath of office in the White House Rose Garden. Combining business acumen and politics, it was the perfect job for Harman. He had previously been involved in a variety of political causes, including speaking out against the Vietnam War and commuting to Virginia to teach students whose schools closed to avoid desegregating. Harman held the post for two years.

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Sidney and Gertrud Harman, 1977

Gertrud Harman, Sidney's mother, beams at him following his swearing-in as deputy secretary of commerce. In addition to being an audio pioneer, Harman was a pioneering boss, taking a serious interest in the quality of the working environment at his factory. Inspired by complaints that workers at a factory in rural Tennessee couldn't even get a coffee break, Harman teamed with the United Automobile Workers in 1972 to create a pilot program at the factory, called the Bolivar Project after its location. The project gave workers far greater control over their work environment and work day and became a case study in innovative labor relations at Harvard Business School. Carter cited Harman's record as an employer in appointing him. Later, Harman instituted pathbreaking domestic violence-prevention programs in his factories.

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Sidney and Jane Harman, 1988

Harman's appointment did more than give the country an effective bureaucrat. While working at Commerce, Harman, a divorcé, met a young White House aide named Jane Lakes. The two were married in 1980, beginning a three-decade romance that made them one of the nation's most intellectually high-powered couples. Their homes in Los Angeles and Washington, writes Jonathan Alter, "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." In 1992, Jane Harman was elected to the House of Representatives from California, becoming a key player in Democratic circles on intelligence and defense. Here, they chat with reporters during Jane Harman's 1998 gubernatorial run.


Sidney Harman and Family, 2007

In addition to their political involvement, the Harmans became major philanthropists. Here, they arrive at the 2007 opening gala of the Harman Center for the Arts, the home of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. One of the two theaters at the complex is also named for Harman, who was a member of the company's board of trustees and was the largest single donor to the center. The new center increased the Shakespeare Theatre Company's capacity to host educational programs for the young—a fitting mission, given its namesakes' preternatural youth and lifelong passion for education.

Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP Photo

Sidney and Jane Harman, 2007

Sidney and Jane Harman arrive at the White House for a reception honoring the recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors Awards in 2007. Dr. Harman collected an impressive sheaf of accolades and honors during his career. The University of Southern California Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies named him Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. Harman was also the founder of the Program on Technology, Public Policy, and Human Development at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and of the Academy for Polymathic Study at USC, where he lectured in a dozen departments. He also served as a trustee or director on many boards, including the Aspen Institute.

Newsweek, 2010

In August 2010, Harman purchased Newsweek from The Washington Post Co., beating out several other bidders. Acknowledging that some of his friends thought he was crazy to take a bet on print and start a new venture at his age, he shrugged off the concerns. "I would be delighted over a period of some years to see Newsweek flourish, getting by on its own fuel. Break even is a serious accomplishment, especially in this world, the world of journalism," he said. "I'm not here to make money, I'm here to make joy." Four months later, he announced plans to merge the 77-year-old magazine with The Daily Beast, a youthful site founded by Tina Brown, who became editor of the combined organization. "This merger provides the ideal combination of established journalism authority and bright, bristling website savvy," a delighted Harman said.


Sidney and Jane Harman, 2010

Sidney and Jane Harman at the Aspen Institute 27th Annual Awards Dinner at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Married 31 years, the couple had two children. They also remained passionately involved in philanthropic and cultural causes, and in February 2011, Jane Harman announced she would be leaving Congress and following in her husband's philanthropic footsteps, becoming the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Although she was 27 years younger than Sidney, Jane often joked that she couldn't match his youthfulness, even as nonagenarian. "I'm convinced that Sidney is either from another planet or a vampire because he shows absolutely no signs of age," said 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."

Lawrence Ho / Contour by Getty Images

Sidney Harman, 1918 - 2011

Sidney Harman posed at a portrait session for the Los Angeles Times in Santa Monica, CA on December 4, 2010.