Doctor Armand Hammer made it clear that he would be remembered and that, not only would his memory be secure in immortality, but he would also exert influence over what didn’t get remembered about him. The memory of the bad things that he had done would die with him, while the good he wanted people to believe he’d done would be his legacy, even if it was largely a lie. Armand Hammer claimed that he “pursued two of the greatest goals I can imagine — world peace and a cure for cancer” (Hammer 468). These may have been his stated goals, but it’s doubtful that they were ever his real intentions.
The idea that Hammer wanted world peace is directly at odds with how he earned his money. War, upheaval, and revolution had provided his point of entry in the two major ventures that created his empire and helped make him one of the largest players on the geopolitical scene in the twentieth century. His friend and fellow titan-of-industry John Paul Getty reminded Hammer of this fact in his autobiography As I See It. According to Mr. Getty, when someone cornered him at a party and made the requisite “‘tell-me-the-secret-of-making-millions’ question I furrowed my brow and said, ‘Actually, there’s nothing to it. You merely wait for a revolution in Russia’” (Hammer 150).
War had been good to Armand Hammer. Although Armand Hammer talks proudly in his autobiography of supporting the campaign to bomb Germany into submission in World War II, the good Doctor also had a blast in the aftermath of the Great War.
As in his descriptions of life in Russia under the Bolsheviks, Hammer’s description of life in interwar/Weimar Germany segues sentence to sentence from crocodile tears to wallowing in his own superabundance of good fortune:
Rich “Schiebers” (speculators) flaunted the furs and jewels bought with their easy money, while beside them, people once comfortably off — professors, government employees, ex-army officers and the middle class generally — wore shabby clothes and had pinched, pale faces. There were scores of beggars, too, many of them mutilated soldiers. I was startled. I had always heard of Berlin as the most orderly of cities, where everything was trim and tidy, yet here on the Linden itself was poverty and suffering. I began to realize how terrible had been the pressure of war and blockade upon the German people. So extremely depressed was the German mark that it was possible to make huge profits in all kinds of speculations, especially if they could be negotiated in foreign currencies. (Hammer 94)
Hammer then used his constant jaunts between Russia and the U.S. to take advantage of the power of the dollar against the essentially worthless Deutschmark (prior to Rentenmark stabilization efforts) to buy goods in Germany before and after visiting with Vladimir Lenin in Russia and returning to sell them in the United States. His first acquisition was a Mercedes Benz.
For a man who supposedly wanted to cure cancer (he even appeared in an episode of The Cosby Show that dealt with the issue) Hammer exhibited a strange indifference toward the environmental contamination he caused and the harmful effects it had on those directly employed by him. It is curious that soon after Hooker Chemical was acquired by Hammer’s Occidental Petroleum, it found itself involved in one of the largest environmental disasters in American History. Armand tried not only to turn chemical disaster to his advantage but to turn a profit from the suffering of his employees made ill from exposure to chemicals.
Warning signs that something was wrong were significant:
A plant manager observed a dog accidentally step into water that was percolating from the waste pond and then lick itself. By the end of the day the dog was dead. In a confidential memorandum to his supervisor, the manager wrote, ‘Our laboratory records indicate that we are slowly contaminating all wells in our area and two of our other wells are contaminated to the point of being toxic to animals or humans. This is a time bomb we must defuse.(Blumay 297–298)
Hammer ignored the ticking of the timebomb, until it was discovered that male workers in the pesticide division were being rendered infertile:
They underwent fertility tests; all those who had worked in the unit for more than four years had zero sperm counts. Armand reacted to this news with simple irritation. “I don’t give a damn about environmental problems and I’m sick of these workers making our plant their scapegoat,” he said. “Millions of men who don’t work in pesticide plants are sterile. These fellows ought to be men and stop trying to save their pride by blaming others for their potency problems. They ought to appreciate the fact that our Lathrop Plant provides them with good jobs.” (Blumay 299)
The cause of their sterility was revealed to be the ungloved handling of “DBCP, a pesticide used to kill nematodes, microscopic worms that attack the roots of plants. During the manufacturing process, the workers had not worn gloves, and their work clothes had often gotten soaked through with the formulation” (Blumay 299).
When the agricultural chemical division at the plant under observation halted operations, Hammer was enraged, first suggesting the “idea of hiring only men who have had vasectomies or are already sterile” (Blumay 300). Not one to let tragedy go to waste, he also thought about using the chemical that had sterilized the men to make a buck by finding a “a way to turn DBCP into a male contraceptive” (300).
If at this point the reader thinks that maybe Doctor Hammer had forgotten some portion of his Hippocratic Oath, they could be forgiven for getting that impression.
Not only was Hammer lacking anything that could be called a bedside manner, but there was something wanting in all his human relations, in things as personal as love or as practical as the handling of employees. A true sociopath.
Back when Armand Hammer was liquidating genuine Russian art smuggled abroad on behalf of the Soviets, and around the time he developed a penchant for fabricating authentic Faberge eggs, the good Doctor also had a firesale on items from the distressed William Randolph Hearst collection. In his own version of this time in his life, he claims that William Hearst’s tyrannical mien frightened his employees so much that it created an atmosphere that wasn’t conducive to good business:
Looking back on this brouhaha, I think I can see more clearly now than I could at the time. Huberth and his colleagues lived in awe and dread of “the old man,” and they were excessively nervous of his sensibilities. No doubt William Randolph Hearst did have a wayward and whimsical temper, but I don’t believe that he was nearly as thin-skinned and delicate as Mr. Huberth imagined. The understandable fearfulness of the employee toward the boss really results in a stifling of executive imagination and an unhealthy degree of conservatism in action. (Hammer 241)
One could perhaps infer from this anecdote that Armand Hammer was open to suggestions from the rank-and-file in his enterprises. One would be wrong, if Armand Hammer’s public relations agent of more than a quarter century is to be believed. His boss related the following to him on a flight in the Doctor’s Gulfstream to Los Angeles:
“I’m never curious about those who don’t think as I do. … Unless it affects business, I ignore them. If it does affect business, I screw them before they screw me” (Blumay 54).
Sometimes the screwing was literal. Carl Blumay tells the following story about a woman who had been staring daggers at Armand Hammer and following him from party to party, to events given by “prominent members of the Los Angeles art and business communities” (Blumay 172). When the young, attractive but scowling woman finally gave Armand Hammer the stink eye one too many times, Carl Blumay grew curious enough to ask a friend of the Hammer family why the woman was following Armand around, and why she seemed to despise him so. This intimate of the Hammer family
told me later that this woman’s uncle and Armand had been business associates in the late 1930s and around that time Armand had attended a dinner party for her mother when she came to New York on a visit. According to my source Armand had made a pass at the mother, had been rejected, and had smoothed things over by volunteering to drive her to the airport the following day. Instead Armand had taken her to his Greenwich Village carriage house and had forced himself upon her because he “never took no for an answer.” Then he had warned her that if she ever discussed the event with anyone, he would insist that she was the initiator, which would ruin her marriage. Years afterward she had confided the story to her daughter. I was too shocked to pursue the matter further. (Blumay 172)
Before one judges Carl Blumay for not investigating the potential allegations that his boss might have to add “rapist” to his long CV, it should be remembered that Armand Hammer was known to threaten the lives of those who got in his way or divulged his secrets. Just witnessing him in flagrante delicto at the office could mean the death of one’s career, along with literal death threats.
Carl Blumay tells of being forced to fire his mail clerk, a diligent employee with a wife and children to support. When Blumay asked to know the reason, Hammer replied, “I know the reason. That’s good enough” (Blumay 253). After standing up to his boss on behalf of the clerk a couple more times, Carl Blumay was forced into the unenviable position of having to let the man go:
I sat down with the employee and explained what I had to do and how bad it made me feel. He said he knew it was coming and told me why. After having made an arrangement with me to come in after lunch one day and make up the time by staying late, after everyone had left for the day, he had heard strange noises coming from Armand’s office. Concerned, he had opened the door, and to his surprise had found Armand entertaining an attractive woman. “Dr. Hammer began to yell real loud,” the man said. “He accused me of being a Peeping Tom and said that if I told anybody about what was going on, he would have me killed. He sounded like he meant it.” (Blumay 253)
Firing a man who witnessed his boss having sex with an employee and then threatening said employee’s life would seem to run counter to Doctor Hammer’s stated desire to discourage “fearfulness of the employee toward the boss” (Hammer 241), which as everyone who has read autobiography knows “results in a stifling of executive imagination and an unhealthy degree of conservatism in action” (241).
If there is one area where Armand Hammer the public relations creation and the real Armand Hammer differ most drastically, it must be on the issue of money, its worth, and its meaning. Reading of the doings of his fictional alter-ego on display in Hammer makes for nauseating reading, especially in those sections where he asks the reader to believe he doesn’t care about money. Suspending disbelief to think Armand Hammer may have performed a breach delivery abortion with no special training is one thing (as is claimed in the early portion of the book that deals with his time in medical school). The following, however, does not only strain credulity but rips it to shreds, as Armand Hammer explains his credo succinctly in the opening pages of his autobiography:
I asked God, then, that I might be given the strength to help deserving people as much as I was able. I’ve never prayed for power or fame or riches, though I’ve enjoyed them all in abundance. I hope that I have never been greedy. If my main motive had been to make myself rich, I could have been numbered among the multibillionaires of the world. I am not. All my life I have given away a large part of my fortune, more money than I could ever count. Fortunately, I’ve always had the ability to make money, leaving me with plenty to share. My childhood creed has always been my guide. My life spans the present century and it has sometimes precariously bridged the greatest cultural and political divide in history-the ideological gulf between the capitalist countries of the West and the socialist countries of East. (14)
Later in the book, he describes himself selflessly trying to force his money on a cancer researcher reluctant to let the Doctor enjoy sharing his wealth to make the world a better place and to rid it of the scourge of cancer:
“I understand your caution, Doctor,” I said, “but a month delay could cause hundreds of people to die who otherwise wouldn’t. Is there anything-anything at all which can be done to facilitate this process? Is there anything you need?”
He seemed mildly embarrassed for a moment and reluctant to speak.
Then he said, “The main problem we have is that the process of cell extraction is extremely laborious, and if we had a few more assistants to help in that process, we could immediately double the number of patients under treatment. If I had a hundred thousand dollars additional appropriation, we could work with four patients instead of two”
“You’ve got ‘em,” I said. He seemed about to protest. “We’re not talking about money in a business way here,’ I said. ‘We’re talking about life and death.”
I’ve never met a man more reluctant to take money than Stephen Rosenberg, but he consented at last that I make my contribution through [the National Cancer Institute]. (Hammer 491)
A slightly more plausible admission from Hammer to Carl Blumay came in one of the Doctor’s more candid moments: “In order to succeed, a businessman has to have a love affair with money. That’s why I’m such a brilliant businessman. Money is my first, last, and only love” (Blumay 62).
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who loved money as much as Armand Hammer, or who went to such extreme (and sometimes bizarre) lengths to get his hands on someone else’s money, even in the smallest amount. Tricking someone into giving him as much as a quarter, even after purchasing something like a Rembrandt or an $8 million-dollar Boeing 727, was the kind of thing Doctor Hammer lived for.
Carl Blumay’s depiction of his boss’s life is peppered with anecdotes about Armand Hammer’s penny-pinching:
Later that week we were at NBC’s television Studios in Burbank and he spotted a vending machine that dispensed apples. “They sure look good,” he said. “Have you got fifty cents?” Twenty-five years had passed since he and I had started working together, and he was still borrowing small change from me and relishing the fact that he could occasionally get away with it. (Blumay 385)
Blumay dispenses an even weirder and pettier tidbit in his account of life with Doctor Hammer, when he talks about walking with his boss toward his Rolls Royce in a parking lot a few blocks from a museum they had just visited. As they were walking past a payphone on a New York City street, Armand halted and asked his then-faithful PR man if he had any change:
I reached into my pocket and handed him a coin. A block later he encountered another payphone and begged another coin. Just before we reach the parking lot, he spotted a third phone and asked for one more coin. As I got to know him better, I learned that although he was willing to spend vast sums to impress other people, he was miserly by nature and hated spending a cent of his own money on himself. There was a glint of pleasure in his eyes every time he got someone else to plunk down the change to pay for his calls, candy bars, and newspapers. (16)
That glint in his eyes was more than a bit malicious, and though metaphysics and mythology are a bit beyond the scope of this piece, the author can’t help but wonder that when Armand Hammer died (not a moment too soon) in 1990, supposing the Jewish custom of putting pennies on the eyes was honored, he might not get into Hades, since he seemed like the kind of man who would stiff Charon on the ferry fare.
Blumay, Carl. The Dark Side of Power: The Real Armand Hammer. Simon & Schuster, 1992
Epstein, Edward J. Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer. Random House, 1996.
Hammer, Armand and Neil Lydon. Hammer: The Armand Hammer Story. Perigee Trade, 1988.