From the print edition, Ben remembers Roy Ash from the Nixon days. Plus much more.
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Luckily, he left soon and my drives improved dramatically.
Then a woman golfer appeared with all kinds of electronic gadgets to tell her how to choose which club to use. They hissed and clicked. Disturbing. Hard to drive straight. Finally, she put away her gadgets and I had a few minutes of peace. Again, my drives improved. Peace and quiet make a big difference. I was soon tired anyway. I sat in a chair and breathed in the desert air, watched the airplanes fly over—why is that such a great sight? But I was tired, so I went home.
Bad news. There was an e-mail from the Nixon Foundation telling me that Roy Ash had died. I knew he had been ill but I did not know he was that ill. It is a big loss.
I knew Roy from the Nixon days. He was head of the Office of Management and Budget. By all accounts, he was great at it. He and his wife, Lila, were pals of my parents and I met them many times. Roy always impressed me. He had grown up in modest circumstances in Southern California and had not gone to college. He worked at a branch of the Bank of America and told me once his ambition was to some day be a branch manager.
Instead, he had been a statistical whiz in the Army Air Force, a whiz kid at Harvard Business, and then, with fellow genius Tex Thornton, had founded Litton Industries, one of the first major conglomerates.
Conglomerates never made much economic sense but they made fantastic entrepreneurial sense. The founders started with a high growth electronics company, then used its highly valued stock to buy low growth but high earnings companies. The stock market generously allowed a high growth stock multiple to the combined enterprise, and immense fortunes were made.
Roy was extremely modest and self-deprecating, though. I once asked him about difficult moments when Litton was new. He remembered a time when he went to see the head of some old line company who asked Roy to come home with him and fix his TV set, if Roy knew so much about technology.
He was a genius entrepreneur and civil servant but also a poet. He often mused about how Litton, a name that sounded as light as a rose petal, was valued so much more highly in the world than a Conrock, a company that supplied crushed rock or civil engineering, and whose name—Consolidated Rock—sounded so formidable. That’s a poet’s question.
I got to know Roy well in 1978 and 1979 after I had moved to L.A. I had an idea for a financing company that would buy the income streams from long-running TV shows and buy stars’ profit participations for cash and then own the stream of income. Presumably we would buy these things at a huge discount because the sellers needed liquidity and we would have (as Roy put it) a tax funnel that sheltered much of our income stream.
We would be in effect a large pawn shop for Hollywood.
Roy made me work hard on preparing this proposal—I well remember trying to figure out how to compute Internal Rate of Return on my HP-12C and reading about tax. But then he loyally went with me to New York to scare up investors.
Through my old pal Peter Flanigan at Dillon, Read, we came close but it never quite happened. I am just as glad it didn’t. I would not have enjoyed being in that business. I am not really a businessman. Not at all. I am a braino writer type.
But Roy was a great guy. Here he had founded and run one of the most successful corporations on earth. I just had a pitiful idea and no money, yet he treated me as an equal. He was never condescending, never abrupt, always humble. He never lorded it over me. Really an amazingly down to earth, wonderful man.
He had grown phenomenally rich beyond his Litton money because gold had been found latterly on his ranch in Nevada—in immense quantities. He never made much of his wealth. “It’s just a small number followed by a lot of zeroes,” he once said. He was written about in his obituary as if he were a calculator, but he was a poet.
Long, long ago, in the summer of 1974, he threw the last party for Richard Nixon as Chief Executive at his estate in Bel-Air. Nixon said that he had asked Roy to have the party because Roy was the only man he knew who had a tent. Good sense of humor for them both.
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