Ten years ago, the CNN founder's bosses gave him the boot, but their loss is the world's gain
In the forty years he has been in the public eye, Ted Turner has been called a genius, a jackass (by his father, among others), a visionary, childlike (a compliment), childish (not a compliment), a pioneer, a young maverick, an old lion, a straight shooter, egomaniacal, steadfast, restless, haunted, mercurial, brilliant, impatient, impetuous, insecure, generous, genuine, loyal, and cheap. Also nuts. Definitely nuts. Outside his family, however, he has not, to my knowledge, been described as grandfatherly. The word is presumably a rebuke to somebody like Turner, who has crammed five or six lifetimes into one, who won the America’s Cup, who owned the Braves and the Hawks, who launched CNN at forty-one, who founded the Goodwill Games, who once fancied himself a modern-day Alexander the Great, who in 2000 likened a merger with AOL to the first time he had sex, who even today, after three divorces, has four girlfriends, and who logs more hours on his jet in a month than you do on your couch in a year.
Well, see for yourself. Turner spends about a week in Atlanta every month. In the mornings—well, any time of day, really—he can be seen picking up trash around his compact nine-floor office building on Luckie Street in Downtown. People close to Turner often mention this habit of his, and so does Turner himself. “I swear to God,” he told Christiane Amanpour during an interview, when she expressed skepticism that a billionaire would do such a thing. (That Turner is famously agnostic should not diminish the earnestness of the sentiment.) While a cynic may write it off as a bit of eco–noblesse oblige, Taylor Glover, who manages Turner’s vast network of land holdings and business interests, says his boss even collects sandwich bags from passengers on his plane so they can be reused later. Turner may be seventy-two, but he doesn’t miss much. At the end of our second conversation, he got up and took a piece of lint off a polished table. “What’s this?” he said to his girlfriend, the novelist Elizabeth Dewberry, who explained that she’d found it on her clothes and put it there for the time being.
If you don’t see him picking up trash, there’s a very good chance you’ll catch him at lunch. When he’s in Atlanta, Turner eats almost all of his meals at Ted’s Montana Grill, the chain he and restaurateur George McKerrow started in 2001. He occasionally goes from table to table, asking his customers if they’re happy. There he is, in his blue blazer, a bit stoop-shouldered, top button of his shirt unfastened, tie knotted loosely, straining to hear above the clatter of the kitchen. Solicitous. Relaxed. Patient. Grandfatherly.
Don’t be fooled.
Photograph by Christopher T. Martin