It was a bountiful night of billionaires, worth trillions, who partied like it was 1999, according to the New York papers, a hark back to when the economy was thriving. It had bright lights, razzamatazz and whiskey, with a dash of Stevie Wonder. Forbes magazine celebrated 100 years with panache.
The old man would have been proud. You could find your way to the party of the year, blindfolded, by following the skirl of the pipes and whiff of fine whiskey.
The lowly Scottish roots of Bertie Charles Forbes – the son of a humble tailor of New Deer, Aberdeenshire – were bound up with the celebration of 100 years of the glossy world famous billionaire’s magazine that he founded. Pipers in tartan kilts blasted out the sound of the Highlands at the entrance to the big name party at Chelsea Pier, overlooking the Hudson River, in New York, in tribute to the journalist and entrepreneur. A man who never forgot where he came from and lies buried beneath the damp soil of New Deer thousands of miles across the Atlantic.
Parsimony could have been his middle name. Forbes, who grew up poor as a church mouse, was a struggling immigrant to this city who carved out a life by writing about money and avoiding lending or spending it – a lesson for us all. He bootstrapped his magazine to world fame, with a tiny investment, by keeping a careful eye on the pennies.
“My grandfather once asked me ‘how do you make copper wire?’ Simply get two Scotsmen to fight over a penny!” says grandson Steve Forbes, editor-in-chief of the magazine, in his element on stage.
BC Forbes, who worked as a journalist in South Africa on his way to fame and fortune, died in 1954 in New York, the city where he worked his way up from walking the streets, jobless, to the top tables. He was there, in spirit, in the shape of one of his favorite tailored tweed suits worn by grandson Kip Forbes. It was made in the 1940s, yet looked like it was cut yesterday.
“I managed to rescue it from the mothballs and felt it was important to wear it tonight,” Kip told me.
Was his grandfather really that parsimonious?
“I think he was very shrewd. My grandfather used to say: I don’t give advice, I sell it!’” says Kip with a broad smile.
Kip’s favourite story was he the time his grandfather questioned, angrily, his gentle grandmother, Adelaide, over her frivolous spending.
“But I like spending money,” she replied sweetly and slowly to the old man’s exasperation.
In later years, Adelaide was described by her son, Malcom, who took over the editorship of Forbes from his father, as an early Keynesian who believed that prosperity came through increased spending. If his father hadn’t been dead already, the thought of her spending would have killed him – in fact, Malcom said, it could have been enough to resurrect him.
Wally Forbes, now in his 90s, the youngest and surviving son of BC Forbes, attended the 100th birthday dressed in a kilt. He recalled, as a young man, he took some friends for lunch at the famous New York Athletic Club where his father was a member.
Soon afterwards came a terse, angry note from his father asking: “Who, for example, ordered the $5 lobster, I would personally never consider indulging in such extravagance.”
Many of the billion-dollar names who came to Chelsea Pier, to pay homage to their chronicler Forbes, are not bothered in the slightest by extravagance. Wherever you looked there were people who know how to make money, in weird and wonderful ways, and spend it.
“Look, there’s the founder of Tinder,” a fellow guest nudged me.
The big names were everywhere: Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys; Steve Wynn; Muhammad Yunus; Steve Case and Jack Welch. Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs, worth $130 million according to Forbes, placed a huge wet kiss on the back of the head of Steve Forbes as he bounded on stage, as one of the 100 best business brains, to one of the biggest cheers of the night.
At the centre of it all was Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, who appears to improve with age as much as his investments.
“Forbes is living proof that you should never sell short,” he quipped to more cheers.
True enough, Forbes is a worldwide concern now, with versions in scores of countries from Mexico to Russia and Azerbaijan. FORBES AFRICA was proud to become the 16th English language version, in 2011, going from strength to strength. It was an honor for us to be there on this historic night.
Speaking of historic there was no messing around when it came to bringing a legend onstage to top the night off. On came Stevie Wonder, almost as seasoned as the magazine, alone with a keyboard and straight into: My Cherie Amour.
Thirty seven years ago I danced, slowly, in the dark, with a young lady at the town hall to Wonder’s beautiful: Lately. “I’m a man of many wishes… ”
On that night, this then-awkward-and-confused teenager dreamed of exploring the whole wide world. Yet, if you had told me then that I would stand a few yards from the great man, in New York, I would have accused you of drinking too much of the rough cider that used to flow over the town hall bar like water. A lifetime later, I have explored the world, I was in New York, with the garnered skill to write about it; unforgettable and priceless in a room where wealth was everywhere.
The last words of the night went to Steve Forbes, who was fast becoming the wit of Chelsea Pier. He pointed out that Forbes had been launched in the same year as the Russian Revolution in 1917.
“My grandfather would have been very proud that his magazine outlived communism,” says Forbes to applause.
“We look forward to celebrating our next century and, if medical technology advances far enough, many of you will be there to celebrate it with us.”
As the laughter died down Forbes could not resist another light-hearted dig at his grandfather’s parsimonious Scottish roots as he lifted a fine glass of 18-year-old single malt Scotch – courtesy of one of the sponsors of the night – to his lips. The toast was Forbes, 100 years…
“My grandfather would have appreciated us toasting this anniversary with Scotch whiskey… especially as it is free!”
A final reminder that the Forbes founder’s innate care with money fostered a magazine that has survived the outrageous fortune of turbulent history with all its wars, revolutions and depressions. Cheers to the millions who read Forbes from Africa to Azerbaijan – may it enrich your lives.