Authors: Ted Turner,Bill Burke
Copyright © 2008 by Turner Works, LLC.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Excerpt from “The Three Bells”: Original French lyrics and music by Jean Villard, English lyrics by Bert Reisfeld. © 1945 by Les Nouvelles Editions Meridian. Copyright renewed. International copyright secured. Used by permission. All rights reserved. USA rights administered by Southern Music Publishing Company, Inc.
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First eBook Edition: November 2008
This book is dedicated to my children. Of all my accomplishments, they’re still the ones of which I’m most proud.
eople have been after me for years to tell my story, but I was always too busy living my life to consider stopping to write about it. I’ve also resisted because I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past or thinking about myself. In fact, one of the reasons I think I’ve been able to accomplish as much as I have is because I prefer to live in the present while spending my spare moments thinking about the future. But since stepping away from my company I’ve had the opportunity to reflect. I realize that my life has been an amazing ride and that now might be a good time to finally work on a book about it.
What follows are my best recollections of the full scope of my life, from my childhood to my business career, my time in competitive sailing, my ongoing efforts in philanthropy, and, of course, my family life. Some friends, family members, and colleagues have also been kind enough to contribute some anecdotes of their own. I’ve tried to tell my story in a way that you’ll find interesting, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspiring.
I’ve accomplished a lot, but nothing was ever handed to me and I’ve had to bounce back from numerous setbacks. My childhood wasn’t easy, and I lost my father and my sister tragically and too young. When I began sailing I lost race after race and nearly died at sea a few times, but I stayed with it long enough and hard enough to become a world-class champion skipper. After buying the Atlanta Braves, I suffered through a dismal string of losing seasons before we turned it around and eventually won the World Series. Through a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck I built a successful media company and a large fortune, only to get pushed aside and lose 80 percent of my wealth, all within a two-year period. (Don’t worry about me, though—I’m figuring out how to get by on just a couple of billion dollars!)
As I built my wealth I grew more active in land conservation and philanthropy, and trying to solve some of the more serious challenges facing our planet has given me more satisfaction than I ever experienced in business. While I’ve struggled unsuccessfully to maintain my marriages, I’m pleased to have raised five terrific children, and as I approach my seventieth birthday, I’m happy to have my health, lots of energy, and plenty of challenges I plan to tackle before I’m through.
Going back through it all has reminded me that my life really has been pretty interesting. I hope you have as much fun reading about it as I’ve had living it.
y first word was “pretty.” At least that’s what my parents told me. As the story goes, I was looking at a butterfly and out popped, “pretty!” Other parents might have wished for “Mommy” or “Daddy,” but by all accounts, mine were thrilled to hear my first word express an appreciation for nature.
My parents would probably never have met and I would never have been born had it not been for the tragic death of my mother’s first fiancé—from complications of a burst appendix—the very day before their proposed wedding. Throughout her grieving, my mom remained very close to her fiancé’s family and for the next several years did little if any dating.
It was toward the end of my mother’s grieving period that Ed Turner (my father) made his way from his home in Mississippi to Cincinnati, Ohio. He was by all accounts a very enterprising young man and moved north after accepting a promising position in the sales department of a local Chevrolet dealer. In addition to responding to the appeal of a job in the automobile business, it’s also likely that my father was eager to leave his home state. His parents had lost nearly everything after the stock market crash. They were living in near-poverty conditions as Mississippi sharecroppers, and opportunities in their area were slim. In high school my father had won acceptance to Duke University but hard times prevented his parents from being able to send him. He wound up going to Millsaps College, a less expensive Methodist school in Jackson, Mississippi. But even at the less pricey school, paying tuition was a hardship for my grandparents, and with a job opportunity up north he left school early, before ever earning his degree.
When my father reached Ohio the arrival of this gregarious and charming southerner did not go unnoticed. One Cincinnatian who took an instant liking to my dad was young George Rooney, my mom’s brother. Hopeful that his sister might emerge from her grieving and find a new beau, George insisted that the two should meet. My mother, Florence Rooney, was a bright, beautiful, and elegant woman with a terrific personality. She stood about five foot eight, and my father, who was six feet tall, always liked tall women. My dad was smitten from the moment they met and he courted her aggressively. His extra effort was justified, as their differences were significant. In addition to being a southerner, my father was raised Protestant, and for the Rooneys, who were Catholic, marrying outside the church was no small matter. I’ve been told that it was only after he agreed to raise his children in the Catholic faith that my mom accepted his proposal for marriage. They were wed in a Catholic ceremony in the Rooneys’ home on August 14, 1937.
I came along on November 19, 1938, the first Turner born north of the Mason-Dixon line, and as the first grandchild on either side of the family I was showered with lots of love from my parents and extended family. Some of my earliest memories are of holding the screen door open for my great-grandmother on my mom’s side. She lived until she was ninety-one and used to call me “a little dickens.” We would visit my father’s Mississippi relatives on occasion but living my early years in Cincinnati exposed me more to my mother’s side of the family. My grandfather George Rooney lived with two of his unmarried sisters—back then they were referred to as “old maids”—and I got along great with all three of them.
But despite being surrounded by loving family, my parents’ marriage had its challenges from the very start and their differences over their parenting especially added to the tension. Regardless of his courtship assurances, after I was born my father let my mother know that he would not allow his children to be brought up Catholic. This was no small issue for my mom and the Rooneys. I’ll never know exactly how those conversations went, but although I did attend a Catholic church occasionally, I was not raised Catholic. My mother never spoke of the issue in front of me but I’m sure she wasn’t happy about it.
My earliest memories of our Cincinnati home are mostly pleasant. I was an energetic child and spent much of my time in the backyard and at the creek that ran through a little vacant lot down the street. I’d turn over rocks to find little bugs and crayfish and take them home to put in a jar. I was the center of my parents’ attention for nearly three years, before the birth of my sister, Mary Jean. A beautiful baby, Mary Jean came along in September of 1941 and was the apple of my parents’ eye. That date was significant because when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor just a few months later, my father joined the Navy. When it came time to head out for basic training, my parents also decided that military barracks and Quonset huts were no place for a little boy. They took their infant daughter, Mary Jean, but left me behind to attend a Cincinnati boarding school. I was four years old.
I don’t recall the name of that school but I sure do remember that I didn’t like it. I went from living with my family in a nice home with a grass yard and a creek hollow down the street to a cold, concrete dorm room and a gray gravel courtyard framed by a chain-link fence. The place felt like a prison, and as a four-year-old, it was hard for me to understand why my parents took my sister and left me behind.
The school allowed me to spend Sunday afternoons with my grandparents but the other six and a half days and nights were extremely lonely. I don’t recall feelings of anger toward my parents for leaving me behind, but I do know that I was unhappy a lot of the time. There was one woman there who served as a floor proctor and I have vague memories of her helping me fall asleep at night when I was feeling especially sad and lonely. The age of four is a very impressionable time and psychiatrists I’ve seen later in my life have attributed a number of insecurities I’ve had ever since to being left alone at such a young age. For example, to this day, I have a significant problem being by myself. I don’t like to be isolated from other people and I also don’t like to feel fenced in. Looking back, that boarding school even had an impact on my eating habits; they served us oatmeal every morning and sixty-five years later I still don’t like it!
My unhappiness must have been obvious, as my parents decided from afar that I should spend the following school year with my Turner grandparents in rural Mississippi. They lived in a small town of about two hundred named Sumner (which later gained infamy as the site of the murder of Emmett Till, the tragic event that helped trigger the civil rights movement). Moving to Sumner meant more transition for me and while it was hard to leave Ohio, I was thrilled to get out of that awful school and was happy to be back with loving family members on a full-time basis.
My time in Mississippi provided constant exposure to nature. Living with my grandparents on the edge of town I observed all kinds of animals and birds and insects and they fascinated me. I spent hours fishing off a nearby bridge with a piece of bacon hanging at the end of a string and had fun catching turtles. While I was still isolated from my immediate family and I had plenty of lonely moments, I enjoyed spending so much time in nature and my memories of this time are mostly positive.
My father returned from the war the following year and our family was finally reunited in Cincinnati. After sending me to public kindergarten in Sumner, for first grade my parents enrolled me in a private school named Lotspeich. I was a restless kid and got in trouble a lot. I didn’t do anything really bad, just a lot of little mischievous things like putting pebbles in the other kids’ galoshes. Today’s schools would probably jump to the conclusion that I had Attention Deficit Disorder, but that wasn’t the case. After being isolated and alone for so long I was simply craving attention. My teachers became exasperated and after just one year they made it clear to my mom and dad that they didn’t want me back for a second.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money back then and while it may have been a financial relief to send me to public school, I’m sure they were disappointed to have to do it. For the next couple of years I attended Avondale, a local public school, and my behavior in this new setting was pretty much the same. I caused plenty of mischief but it was a lot harder to get kicked out of public school than private and I managed to stay there from my second grade year through the first part of my fifth grade.