Harman contemplated his wife’s dispiriting counsel. “Sit down, my beauty,” he told her in his courtly, formal way. “I want to tell you something. If you think I have the reputation you summarize, then it arises from the fact that I have never paid attention to my reputation. It’s not what I worry about.”
Harman resents the suggestion that at this stage of his life, he ought to do what rich older men do: caretake his reputation (and hers). As far as he’s concerned, he is still a man of action. In his business memoir, he puts it more bluntly: “People have said of me that I have balls.”
In his office, he asked me pointedly, “Do you think I’m coming to this thoughtlessly? Recklessly? I think I’m doing this with daring.” Then, dropping the stiff public-speaker manner, he added, “The vast majority of people get up figuring out how to get through the goddamned day. I say, ‘Take charge of your own damned life.’ That’s what I’m doing with Newsweek.”
Harman’s remarkable late-life self-actualization was triggered in May, when the WashingtonPost Company’s board, of which Diller is a member, decided that Newsweek was unlikely to snap out of its funk anytime soon. The magazine has been unprofitable since 2006, and the company already has one money-loser on its hands, the storied Washington Post. To Harman, news of the sale was like an epiphany. One person later described his interest as an “enormous quest for relevance.” Harman viewed it as a logical next step, a capstone to his career, tying together his interest in education, government, and business. “I’ve been preparing for this for nearly a century,” he explained to me.
That he might be out of his depth in the media world didn’t faze him. He prides himself on his nimble brain—his exasperated first wife told him his “think switch” is always on—and a drive to succeed so fierce he thought it beyond his control. “I am puzzled to this day what it was that drove me,” noted Harman about early periods in his life. Clearly, one thing that drove him was his upbringing. Harman was raised in a New York City of blessed memory, of ethnics and egg creams and candy stores and, for a budding entrepreneur, business opportunities—he sold discarded magazines picked up on his paper route at those candy stores. It was, in his recollection, an idyllic childhood, except for one thing. “My father was a piece of work,” he told me with emotion. He was a tiny, “physically potent” man and, in Harman’s memory, a profound narcissist who sucked up the family’s emotional energy. “I decided as a kid I was going to be very different from my father,” he told me. “Early on, I took him on,” not physically but in every other way. “Curiously, he was in a sense in the audio business,” Harman explained. His father was in the hearing-aid business.
Out of City College, Harman joined the David Bogen Company, an electronics firm that sold PA systems, climbing rapidly until the owner refused to innovate; then he and a colleague, Bernard Kardon, left to form their own company with $10,000. Kardon was the lead engineer. “I’m the resident visionary,” Harman wrote in his memoir. In the fifties, he recognized that a newly prosperous postwar consumer, intrigued by technology, drawn to design, and prepared to pay for quality, was hungry for a better experience of music. Harman-Kardon pioneered high-end stereos for the home and succeeded phenomenally—twice. In 1977, Harman—by then Kardon had retired—sold the company to the conglomerate Beatrice Foods; then in 1980, after Beatrice drove it into the ground, he bought most of it back at a bargain price, rebuilt it, and in 1986, took Harman International public.
Business success both delighted and deflated Harman. On one hand, he could champion cherished causes—he funds the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C. And yet business didn’t fulfill other desires: Harman wanted to be taken seriously as a man of intellect and sensitivity, one with, as he puts it, “a growing [social] consciousness.” In the seventies, he earned a doctorate in social psychology. “I had long felt guilty in my role as businessman,” he wrote. Jane was elected to Congress in 1992, and their immersion in the capital’s culture made his discomfort more acute. “I’d go to a dinner party in Washington, and somehow I’d always be seated next to the oldest, ugliest woman at the party,” Harman told me. “She’d inevitably ask what I do. If I said I’m in business, I’d get one of those searching looks. So I’d make jokes. I’m a golf pro. I play the piano in a house of ill repute.”