Perpetually bigger than life, Ted Turner these days is just trying not to get too big.
“I’ll have the bison burger, 10 French fries and one onion ring,” a trim Turner instructs a waiter at his eponymous restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill, as he nurses a just-arrived Arnold Palmer (half-lemonade, half-tea).
Captain Outrageous, the visionary who created CNN and invented the 24-hour news cycle, the philanthropist who pledged $1 billion to the United Nations, the foot-in-mouth guy who bashed all of Christendom, the celebrity who married and divorced actress Jane Fonda while running the Atlanta Braves, the gentleman rancher who owns more than 2 million acres of land and has 50,000 bison roaming his various spreads, quietly marked another milestone not long ago. He turned 70 late last year.
“I’m feeling my age a little bit,” he admits to a reporter who has arrived for a lunchtime interview at his downtown Atlanta office and restaurant. “I can’t do what I did when was 30 or 40. But I still ski and ride horseback. I do a lot of hiking. I stay in reasonable shape.”
The ever-restless Turner has a bit of trouble hearing these days. He likes to sit in a hard-back chair for long interviews because it’s easier on his back. But America’s largest private land owner still seems to be incapable of taking it easy.
When he’s not shilling for his restaurant chain’s bison burgers, Turner spends his days trying to rid the planet of nuclear weapons, save the oceans and prevent the polar ice caps from melting.
The old lion admits he’s become more reflective — and a little less outrageous — with age. In his recent autobiography, “Call Me Ted,” he looks back on his life, warts and all. But the more introspective Turner still roars on occasion.
He’s agreed to chat for a few hours on a recent Monday, ostensibly about the restaurant business. But with Turner, the conversation always takes unexpected turns. Everything from the world’s collapsing fisheries to his own mortality is on the table.
On Headline News: “Headline News used to be straight news anytime you wanted it. It’s unwatchable now. It’s heartbreaking.”
On celebrity news: “The media are too busy with Michael Jackson. The greatest fear we could possibly have today is an uninformed electorate. That is what really scares me.”
On marriage: “I’ve tried it. It’s like baseball. Three strikes, and you’re out.”
On facing death: “In a way it will be a relief. You don’t have to wake up every day.”
On CNN: “It will be on in my hospital room when I die. That, or the Cartoon Network. Scooby- Doo has been very good to me.”
On remote controls: “I have 25 properties and the remote controls for the TVs are different for every one. Why can’t they put the mute button in the same place?”
A peripatetic billionaire
No one has yet found Turner’s mute button, though the man once dubbed the “Mouth of the South” has toned down his rhetoric. It’s been years since he called Christianity a “religion for losers” and had to spend years apologizing. He recently joined forces with Christian groups in Africa to fight malaria.
He’s seems to be constantly on the move. On this day, he’d just jetted into Atlanta from one of his Montana ranches, where he had met with former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) about nuclear disarmament. He was to depart the next day for Norway on a fact-finding trip about the North Atlantic salmon population.
On the way to his office before lunch, he greets a visitor with a surprisingly delicate handshake for a man who relishes a lot of time on ranches. His legal residence is at his estate in north Florida; he moved it there from Georgia to avoid state income taxes.
Asked where he spends most of his time, he becomes evasive. When you are worth a few billion, have a private Challenger jet and own property on two continents, it’s easy to keep moving.
“I’ve got 25 properties overall,” Turner said. “Some aren’t ranches. Some are plantations. I have an island off of Hilton Head. I have a house at Big Sur [Calif.].”
Turner has granted environmental groups conservation easements to much of his ranch land so it can never be developed. He has reintroduced native species, including some unpopular ones like the prairie dog. But he also allows well-heeled hunters to stalk trophy bison, elk, deer and antelope. A weeklong elk hunt can cost up to $14,000 per person.
“You have old bulls,” he explained. “Most of them are through breeding. So they don’t serve any purpose.”
When it’s noted that some animal rights groups might make the same observation about him, Turner howls, his usually squinted blue eyes widening with his laughter.
“Yeah, but I’m not worth anything. I don’t have horns.”
Fonda, Castro, CNN
The conversation turns to philanthropy. Turner underwrites five foundations, all concerned with conservation and humanitarian issues. He has five grown children and 11 grandchildren and says he spends a lot of time worrying about the world they will inherit.
“I really love the planet and the people and animals and the insects and the birds on it,” he says.“I’d really like to see it preserved for future generations.”
Not that he’s entirely embraced the current age. Turner tenaciously avoids modern gadgets. He doesn’t have a cellphone. He dictates his e-mails — including twice-monthly missives to Fonda — to executive assistant Debbie Masterson.
What do he and Fonda chat about? “A little bit of everything,” Turner says, then quickly changes the subject as he begins an impromptu tour.
Turner’s spacious, award-lined office (he has 42 honorary degrees) sits high above his restaurant on Luckie Street. It’s in the Turner Building, which houses Turner Enterprises Inc. and a penthouse apartment where Turner stays when he’s in town.
There’s a wall full of yachting trophies (he’s won 176) and a bison rug on the floor. The walls are festooned with photos of Turner and world leaders, including one with Fidel Castro.
“I wore a red shirt for the occasion,” Turner grins. “I’m not sure he got the connection.”
A $7 billion loss
He pulls back a curtain from an office window and points at the CNN headquarters a few blocks away. He carefully planned the view, he says.
“I wanted a place overlooking CNN so if they ever throw up the white flag of surrender I can see it and run over and help ’em out.”
His old company, Turner Broadcasting System, merged with Time Warner in 1996, and that company later merged with AOL. Turner was giddy about the initial merger but soon found himself powerless in the new company.
In the subsequent merger with AOL, Time Warner’s stock collapsed. It’s estimated Turner lost $7 billion in the debacle — a stunning $10 million a day vanished from his fortune every day for two years. It’s a subject that still causes him to bristle.
When his contract was up, Time Warner offered him $1 million a year to stay, Turner recalls. He asked what his duties would be and was told he wouldn’t have any. He says he told company officials to perform an unpleasant anatomical maneuver.
He got rid of his Time Warner stock when he left the company three years ago. Most of his remaining fortune — estimated at more than $2 billion — was in Treasury bills and real estate when the current downturn began.
“I’m relatively OK,” he concedes.
Death and french fries
At lunch after the tour, Turner is chatting up his guests and a few nearby diners when his food arrives. He peers at his plate, nodding his head as if he’s counting the number of French fries. Which, it turns out, he is.
“Very good,” Turner tells the waiter, once he determines there are precisely 10 fries on the plate. Cynthia MacDonald, a friend from New York City along for lunch, makes a play for one. Turner gives her an “if-I-knew-you-wanted-one-I-would-have-ordered-11” look, then surrenders. In return, he nibbles on some of her broccoli.
When lunch is done, he returns to his office. The walls outside his door are covered with more than 100 magazine covers bearing his likeness. The entry area near the elevator is hung with a half-dozen paintings that depict the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar between British warships and the Spanish and French.
“I put these here to show the futility of war,” he says.
Asked if he’s thought about his own death and where he’ll be buried, Turner pauses a moment. Then he smiles.
“I want to be cremated and have my remains sprinkled over all my properties. A little here, a little there. Of course, they’ll have to use salt shaker to cover ’em all.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.