It should be good to be Dick Parsons, king of Time Warner. He’s famously easygoing for a corporate potentate, which is evident as he holds court at the members-only Grand Havana Room, on the 39th floor of 666 Fifth Avenue, taking puffs from a plump Cuban and sipping wine from Il Palazzone, the vineyard in Tuscany that’s part of his private domain. And yet he’s not so sure he’s got it made entirely. “You know, everybody thinks it’s cool; literally, they say, ‘It must be cool to be you,’ ” Parsons says, then takes a puff. “Hello!” First, there’s the issue that’s nagged him as Time Warner’s chairman and won’t go away—the company’s stock price—and the current financial landscape isn’t helping any. “These damn markets,” he says. “It’s like swimming in a sewer.”
It’s different for, say, Rupert Murdoch. Even as Parsons is pressured to get rid of the influential, but financially undynamic, Time Inc. magazines, the News Corp. chairman got to pursue his $5 billion personal quest to own The Wall Street Journal. “Rupert has an advantage in that he has a large, publicly traded company but he’s in a controlling position,” Parsons says. “He can indulge thinking long term. If almost anybody else did it, they’d get killed. Everybody’d be saying, ‘Why are you buying a newspaper? Where’s the growth?’ ”
Parsons’s contract expires next year. He’s only 59. What of reports that he’s angling to replace Mike Bloomberg as mayor? He’s not so interested. “Tough job,” he says, and shakes his head, thinking about taking 4 a.m. calls from Con Ed or Ray Kelly. “Tough job. There was a movie called Throw Mama Under the Bus? This is called Throw Dick Parsons Under the Bus!” Would he be interested in something bigger, as we’ve heard, like running the Treasury or Education Department under the next president? He won’t say. But running things is what he does. “Nobody would admit to being a suit,” he says, “but that’s what I am.”
Back to the wine. For a long time, he kept quiet about his vineyard. He didn’t want people to know he was taking the company jet to Tuscany for tastings (he was, but only because CEO insurance usually prevents an exec from flying anything else). Now, Parsons doesn’t mind talking about his Brunello.“It’s elegant, it’s got character, it’s got complexity, and it’s got terroir. I know some people now say terroir is bullshit, it doesn’t exist. That’s not true in my judgment.” Or his new Super Tuscan. Lorenzo & Isabelle, he calls it, after his parents. “The blend is Cab-Franc, Sangiovese, and a little touch of Petit Verdot—for the nose,” he says with a sniff.
Parsons likes the vineyard because it’s the opposite of his day job. “What I have to wrestle with all the time is digital technology,” he says. “How is it changing my world? What does it mean to music? What does it mean to film and television? How is it going to change the advertising paradigm for the magazines?” He holds up his glass. “You can’t digitize this!”
Presumably Murdoch doesn’t allow himself such soul-searching. But that’s part of Parsons’s affable appeal. Still, being a likable titan can be a burden. Parsons won’t walk down the street anymore. He can’t. “People come up to you just ragging you out,” he says. “My cable thing went out, I didn’t get my magazine, I moved my AOL forwarding thing, whatever they say!” And as he’s saying all this, Alec Baldwin, another member of his stogie club, comes up and gives him a bear hug. “You know how much I love this man?” Baldwin says. “I love this man so much I won’t complain about my AOL account!”