Then, on Sunday, October 17, as Brown sat at home watching Boardwalk Empire, her weekly “act of escapism,” she began to understand that the deal was falling apart. E-mails had shot back and forth that weekend; as one person characterized it, there was a lot of “That’s what we agreed to” and “That’s not what I agreed to.”
On Monday morning, Harman phoned Diller from California. Harman doesn’t have a permanent office at Newsweek, nor does he have a PR person or an assistant. He was making calls himself on the way to the doctor, hoping he and Diller could issue a joint gentlemanly statement. But Diller seemed fed up, and he wanted to be first to say he’d pulled out. They put out a joint statement.
Later that day, Harman was on the phone to his executives. He was grabbing a plane back to his Washington, D.C., home, and wanted to get started interviewing editors again. “Let’s go” was his attitude. “Who’s next?” He sounded almost chirpy, happy to be holding the reins all by himself again. “When I was talking to Tina Brown, I kept other candidates warm, not hot,” he told me shortly after his ten o’clock landing in D.C. “Now I will heat them up.” Two days later, he was at lunch with his next potential editorial prize, Terry McDonell, a distinguished editor, currently running Sports Illustrated Group, who, in his mid-sixties, is young enough to be Harman’s son.
A few weeks before the Daily Beast deal fell apart, Harman rushed to greet me in his airy, light-filled Washington, D.C., living room—a piece of contemporary California on the edge of Cleveland Park. He’s a small, slightly roundish, dapper man, with cloud-white hair, a terrier’s energy, and, that afternoon, unbuckled boots. He quickly led the way through his semi-wild, sculpture-dotted yard, up a set of stone stairs—within sight of a tennis court, driving range, and swimming pool, “everything a civilized gentleman needs,” as he said—and to his office, a windowed cube tucked into the woods on the edge of his property.
A 92-year-old buying Newsweek in the midst of a wrenching transition in the media business is definitionally quixotic, a noble but possibly mad adventure. “Were you in the market for a media property?” I asked him. Until a few months ago, Harman impressed friends as a contented professor, golfer, and philanthropist. He was proud of his intellectual engagement, his civic-minded projects, and his love of culture, which provided a small but rapt audience for his thoughts on the arts—“They’re mother’s milk,” he says, one of the slightly antique phrases he likes to repeat. If his name hit the news, it was because of Sidney Harman Hall, the D.C. arts center he donated $20 million to build. He had no experience in the media business, nor, as far as any of his friends knew, an interest in acquiring any. Most, without saying so, thought of Harman as a supporting character in other people’s lives, principally that of his wife, Jane Harman, a Democratic congresswoman from California. “He’s an erudite, elderly Jewish intellectual businessman,” says a person who knows him. “Charming and kind of harmless.”
To his friends, one of his talents is as a dinner host. He and Jane throw regular dinner parties for twenty or so—unostentatious affairs in their tasteful, art-filled home. The congresswoman drew the big names: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Senator Susan Collins of Maine; Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine and a friend of Harman’s from the Aspen Institute, where Harman is a trustee. Harman gloried in his role at the head of the table, and at the end of a meal he would stand, clear his throat, toast his “young wife,” and then recite several minutes of Shakespeare from memory, a parlor trick that never failed to impress. Then Harman would earnestly introduce the evening’s topic. “I propose this question …” Why are people alienated from politics? was one.
“It sounds kind of grim,” explains one attendee, “but it was very fun.”
In Washington, Harman had an added charm: In a town that runs on favors, he didn’t want anything from anyone, a fact that both endeared and marginalized him. “No one doesn’t like Sidney,” said a colleague, another way of saying he wasn’t really a player—in Washington, a person is defined by his enemies.
Even Jane, 65, couldn’t at first fathom her husband’s sudden desire to own a venerable but failing magazine.
“My wife, remarkable woman, was at first resistant,” Harman told me. “She said, ‘You are naïve about this city. It waits for somebody like you to pratfall and then it jumps. I’m concerned that after a lifetime during which you’ve built a sterling reputation, if this fails, they’ll be all over you.’ ”