The birth of a fran­chise.

Forbes - - CON­TENTS -

In 1981, Forbes edi­tor Jim Michaels called as­so­ciate edi­tor Harold Seneker into his of­fice. “It was a Fri­day af­ter­noon,” Seneker re­calls. “The time re­served for fir­ing peo­ple.” What he heard in­stead was ar­guably worse. His next as­sign­ment was an idea that came from Mal­colm Forbes him­self: Com­pile a rank­ing of the wealth­i­est peo­ple in Amer­ica, the first-ever Forbes 400 (a nod to Caro­line As­tor’s fa­bled ball­room, which could fit only 400 swells).

Most staff mem­bers didn’t think it was pos­si­ble to do such definitive cal­cu­la­tions. Granted, you could get pub­lic hold­ings from the Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion. But what about pri­vate busi­nesses? Homes, yachts, art col­lec­tions? And how do you make sure you don’t miss any­one? Michaels told Seneker to do his best, and then “he pat­ted me on the shoul­der and he left his of­fice,” Seneker says. “I didn’t find out un­til Mon­day that he’d left for a month’s va­ca­tion.”

Seneker be­gan by div­ing into the rel­e­vant news files and team­ing with Jonathan Green­berg, a young re­porter, to scour the coun­try for leads. The pair criss­crossed the na­tion, talk­ing to bankers, fundrais­ers and lo­cal jour­nal­ists—any­one who might have in­sight into wealth. They hit Dal­las, Hous­ton and Mid­land in search of Amer­ica’s great oil for­tunes, trav­eled from old-money Bos­ton to the nas­cent Sil­i­con Val­ley tech scene and made stops in At­lanta, Detroit, Chicago, Tulsa and dozens of other cities. One of the big­gest chal­lenges: solv­ing the labyrinth of New York real es­tate. “We got this direc­tory that showed who owned ev­ery sin­gle build­ing in New York City,” says Green­berg. “We went down Fifth Av­enue and Park Av­enue and Madi­son Av­enue and looked at ev­ery build­ing and looked for the names that re­oc­curred.”

Next came the in­ter­views with po­ten­tial Forbes 400 mem­bers them­selves. Most pre­ferred not to be listed, and some sim­ply hung up on re­porters, but oth­ers were ea­ger to talk about them­selves or—more of­ten—about ev­ery­one else. Sub­jects might not con­firm their own hold­ings, but they were happy to sell out a com­peti­tor’s silent part­ners.

A se­lect few even lob­bied for a lower or higher spot on the list. These days you have to be worth $1.7 bil­lion to land on The Forbes 400, but back then it was a mere $100 mil­lion. One mogul caught wind of that fig­ure and pleaded that he was surely worth less. It was al­most con­vinc­ing—un­til he agreed to sell a por­tion of his mas­sive ranch for $500 mil­lion. And, Green­berg re­calls, in a failed bid for a higher rank­ing, Don­ald Trump faked phone calls from his father and a buyer in­ter­ested in one of his build­ings dur­ing a meet­ing.

Af­ter more than a year of re­port­ing, span­ning thou­sands of in­ter­views and miles trav­eled, the first Forbes 400 list hit news­stands in Septem­ber 1982. One of Forbes’ sig­na­ture is­sues was born, though it re­ceived mixed re­views from the inau­gu­ral list mem­bers. “Ev­ery god­damn stock­bro­ker in the United States has called me,” lamented me­dia mogul Mal­colm Borg. “Oh, what a mess!” Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret boss Les Wexner com­plained: “I was closet rich un­til this thing was pub­lished. Now I’m out of the closet.”

Oth­ers didn’t mind the at­ten­tion. Na­tional En­quirer owner Gen­eroso Pope Jr. was “flat­tered,” and real es­tate scion Wil­liam Horvitz ad­mit­ted that it made him “feel pretty good deep in­side.” And Don­ald Reynolds, another me­dia mil­lion­aire, knew that Forbes was just get­ting started: “Be­ing a vain old man, I was ter­rif­i­cally im­pressed,” he told the magazine. “I read it all the way through and am look­ing for­ward to the next one.”

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