Most of us in the United States are well acquainted with media tycoon Ted Turner. We watch his brainchild CNN, we fly over the 2.1 million acres of U.S. land he owns, we witness his challenges to fight Rupert Murdoch, and if our name is Jane Fonda, we were married to him for 10 years.
The 1993 America’s Cup winner, who will speak April 17 at Green Valley’s Earth Day festival at Iron Horse Vineyards, is the owner of the largest bison herd in the world and owns 46 locations of bison-centric Ted’s Montana Grill, where diners can sip Big Sky Lemonade through an environmentally friendly paper straw as they munch on Bison Nachos.
Like many billionaires, Turner’s success started with failure. After getting kicked out of Brown University for having a girl in his room overnight, he went to work for his father, an ultraconservative military man who charged Ted rent and would beat him for not reading a new book every two days. When Ted was 24, his father committed suicide, leaving Ted in charge of a $1 million billboard company.
After buying several Southern radio stations, Turner bought an obsolete UHF Atlanta television station and sweet-talked the FCC into letting him use a satellite broadcast, creating the first superstation. In 1980 came CNN, the first 24-hour news channel.
He soon created Turner Network Television and Cartoon Network, all while managing to squeeze in various odd jobs like owning the Atlanta Braves, buying MGM and appearing as Confederate colonel Waller Patton in the film Gettysburg. During this period, he amassed 2.1 million acres, making him the largest private landholder in the country.
As his wealth increased, so did the kookiness of his public commentary. To the seemingly filterless “Mouth of the South,” Christianity is “a religion for losers.” If we don’t do anything about global warming, he’s said, in 10 years “most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals.” Furthermore, “men should be barred from public office for a hundred years in every part of the world.”
Turner is now worth $1.9 billion, a third of what he once was. Yet it seems as Turner refuses to care about reclaiming his billions, instead focusing on environmental issues. He’s converted most of his land into preservations, worked with the U.N. to develop worldwide environmental standards for tourism and launched an antinuclear nonprofit.
Turner himself points to a personal reason for reaching for bigger, immaterial goals: the specter of his father’s suicide, still hanging over his head. “My father told me he wanted to be a millionaire, have a yacht and a plantation,” he told Time magazine in 1992. “And by the time he was 50, he had achieved all three, and he was having a very difficult time. I’m not going to rest until all the world’s problems have been solved.”
Ted Turner speaks Sunday, April 17, at Iron Horse Vineyards. 9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol. Noon. $65. 707.887.1507.