August 19, 1999 – Malcolm Forbes:
“Men who never get carried away should be.”
The personality trait I most deplore in others? Entitlement. Here is a little tale: Malcolm Stevenson Forbes probably means nothing to anyone under 60 years old. Yet, when he died in 1990 at 70 years old, he was one of the most famous men in America, the result of his shameless, showoff smarts about self-promotion.
Forbes inherited Forbes magazine from its founder, his father, B.C. Forbes, in the late 1950s when he was just 38 years old. The magazine had long been a successful business periodical with a strong personal identification with B.C. Forbes. By the early 1970s, Malcolm Forbes, now the sole owner, turned it into a hugely successful business monthly. One of his great sensations was the magazine’s annual Forbes 400 Richest.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Forbes lived a luminous, lavish lifestyle, separate from the sedate base at his inherited estate and his large family. In those decades he became more prominent, and he took to the bright lights of New York City. It was all about his public image: his large yachts, his private jets, his residences around the world, and his planeloads of famous, powerful friends.
The Reagan era embraced a more-is-more aesthetic. Disco was over, the rich were getting richer, and garish consumerism was held up as the very apex of aesthetics.
In late August of 1989, on a weekend between the 18th and 20th, Forbes threw himself a 70th birthday party in Tangier where he owned a castle named Palais Mendoub. 800 guests were flown in on a chartered Concorde: famous friends, wealthy associates, American Governors, CEOs of multinational corporations, Henry Kissinger, Barbara Walters, Robert Maxwell (father of the sinister Ghislaine Maxwell), and Forbe’s “date” for the event, Elizabeth Taylor.
It was a party of glitter, glamour, and guise, comparable to Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball 23 years earlier. The fete was well publicized in the fashion and society pages, with a big whack of fairy-dust in the daily papers. It was good for business. There was the mingling of advertisers and potential advertisers with the social elite of London, Manhattan, and, best of all, there was Elizabeth Taylor. It was good for his social reputation.
Transporting and taking care his very rich friends for free and in style in an exotic country with a Mediterranean climate was a win-win. The party’s entertainment was on a grand scale: a fantasy with 600 drummers, acrobats and dancers, plus a cavalry charge which ended with the firing of muskets into the air by 300 Berbers on horseback. The cost of this shindig was more than $4 million US dollars (that’s 8.5 million in 2021 dollars). The whole thing offered the kind of aspirational yet ultimately garish settings and proximity to fame that Instagram influencers would kill for.
When asked how he felt about hosting a super expensive party that was written off as a business expense, Forbes claimed:
“We all do things in our lives that probably aren’t essential. It’s just that this scale is more visible … I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel grateful that we can do it.”
Forbes left this incarnation less than 6 months after his big birthday party. He departed at home on his estate in Far Hills, NJ. Shortly after he checked out for good, Forbes was outed by gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile. Forbes was long known to be gay by a few, but it was unknown by the many. In his later years he became quite the partier, making up for lost time. It’s always that way with those old-style Eastern establishment Republicans. The unceremonious kick out of the closet was a shock to his friends who were not aware, or chose not to believe, that Forbes was into guys.
Signorile published the story in Outweek to show how more acceptable a gay man is without the predictable pale of prejudice. In Forbes’ case, the band did not play on. When Forbes was gone, he was held up by many conservatives as the great American capitalist. Signorile felt that the historical record also needed to show that he was a homosexual. He interviewed people who knew Forbes as gay, some of them were men who’d been intimately involved with Forbes.
Highlighting how heated it was in 1990 to report on the undeclared gayness of a major public figure who was dead, let alone living, many newspapers viewed Forbes outing by Signorile as shocking and scandalous. It took months for some papers to even get around to reporting it. The New York Times ran the story four months after the fact in a feature about outing and still would not identify Forbes by name, saying only that a “recently deceased businessman” had been outed by a gay activist. Years later, The New York Times would finally get around to reporting that Forbes was gay in a story about his son Steve Forbes’ ill-fated campaign for President in 2000. Steve Forbes, with his prissy smile and gold-rimmed glasses, was a Tea Party Republican, and he has always courted the Conservative Christian Right. He was publicly against Gay Rights, especially Marriage Equality, while campaigning. About his fellatio-enthusiast father, Steve said:
“My father had his life. We respected it. What he meant to us and to others I think speaks for itself. You don’t have to approve of something that someone does to have compassion and love.”
“Is our society so overwhelmingly repressive that even individuals as all-powerful as the late Malcolm Forbes feel they absolutely cannot come out of the closet?”
At the time, that grifter from Queens that became the putrid, scamming, oddly colored, twice impeached 45th president (not invited to the party) said of Forbe’s passing:
“Forbes’s death takes the excitement, creativity, and genuine business leadership away from every American businessman.”
Forbes was born rich and spent his life getting richer. When he departed this world Forbes was worth 5.5 billion. His ashes were scattered on his private island in Fiji along with his 700 motorcycles. You can take it with you.