The Story of Mort Zuckerman, Vanity Publisher and Would-be SenatorS

Real estate magnate and publisher Mort Zuckerman, the subject of a profile in today's Politico, is meeting with New York Republicans as he prepares himself for a Senate run. What do we know about Citizen Mort?

Personal

The first hurdle facing Mort Zuckerman in his path to the United States Senate is the fact that he is a known Canadian. Zuckerman was born in Montreal, in 1937. (He did become an American citizen in 1977.)

Here is a slightly charitable description of Mort's public persona, courtesy a 1992 New York Times piece:

People who have known and worked with him paint a picture of a many-sided man possessed of a genuine warmth and capacity for friendship. But even his staunchest defenders concede that his reputation for flamboyance and self-promotion always precedes him.

But while fellow press-hungry would-be mogul Donald Trump was a gaudy vulgarian, Mort had pretensions of class and sophistication. As a 1993 piece in The Independent put it: "Instead of a tacky palace in Palm Beach, there is the elegant house in East Hampton; instead of Ivana, Gloria. Steinem, that is."

Yes, Mort was a swinging bachelor in those days. Gloria Steinem was his most famous squeeze, but he'd also been linked to Nora Ephron and Diane von Furstenberg and Bianca Jagger and even Arianna Huffington. He hasn't been romantically linked to anyone of note in literally years at this point, though—probably because Page Six is no longer allowed to report on his personal life, and no one else cares to. A Senate run ought to help change that.

(The reason for Page Six's silence: Mort and Rupe negotiated a truce, aided by their shared super-publicist, Howard Rubenstein. The Post still takes potshots at The Daily Snooze, but matters of family are kept out of the columns.)

Mort was married to Marla Prather from 1996 through 2001. (Yes, Zuckerman, the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, married a gentile. She went through a quickie conversion to make sure his kid would be a Jew.)

His daughter with Marla, Abigail, was born in 1997. Abigail suffered from childhood cancer. After her hospitalization, Zuckerman quickly became a major donor to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. In December of 2008, the birth of Mortimer's second daughter, Renee Esther, was announced. The identity of the mother, though, was not announced.

Ben Smith:

The Daily News in 2008 ran an announcement congratulating Zuckerman on the birth of a daughter but made no mention of the child's mother, prompting head-scratching in New York media circles. Recent visitors to his apartment said a baby is often present but that it's considered impolite to inquire about the baby's provenance.

The story as we've heard it is that with daughter Abigail's history of cancer, Mort wanted to ensure that he'd have someone to leave his vast fortune to. And so, in early 2008, he paid a surrogate to carry his second child. Hence: no mom.

(Smith also makes passing reference to Mort's "unconventional personal life" in his story. While it's true that we should be suspicious of any man who publicly "dated" Arianna Huffington, we have no reason to suspect that he's a closet homosexual, which is what that sort of euphemism usually means. On the other hand, we really don't know shit about his affairs since the Murdoch cease-fire, as this mysterious baby business demonstrates.)

Business

In the early 1960s, Harvard Law grad Mort Zuckerman went to work at Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, the ancient Boston real estate development firm. After seven years, he left to start his own company, Boston Properties, and promptly sued Cabot, Cabot and Forbes.

In 1980, Zuckerman bought The Atlantic. This was the millionaire real estate developers first foray into serious media ownership. At the time, some old-fashioned types thought he was buying the arts and letters publication for its historic Boston headquarters. Hah. He was buying it for influence. Millionaires with an interest in media are really good at attracting highbrow friends:

He counts as friends such journalistic heavies as Writers Richard Goodwin and Doris Kearns and New Republic Editor and Publisher Martin Peretz.

The same Time story quotes someone unnamed who had worked with Mort: "He's very bright and very insecure, and has an overwhelming need for acceptance within a certain circle of society." As Marty Peretz knows well enough, if you don't have good enough ideas or a nice enough style to write for The New Republic or The Atlantic professionally, just buy the damn magazines and they have to print your garbage.

In real estate, the '80s were kind to Mort. He rode the boom and his connections with the Boston establishment helped him net some big projects. But in his attempt to develop a big piece of property at the edge of Central Park, this Jewish Canadian upstart from Boston went up against the Upper East Side elite, and lost.

Monetarily, though, he continued doing well, right up until The Great Recession (he'd weathered each previous downturn just fine, oddly enough). He lost $25 million of his charitable trust fund and $15 million of his personal money to Bernie Madoff. Occupancy is down at his buildings. In 2009 he ripped the name Citigroup off the Citigroup building because he was tired of seeing his building in the b-roll on the news every time there was terrible news about Citi. (The news isn't disastrous for Boston Properties, by any means—share prices have rebounded—but the way the commercial real estate market is looking, it could certainly become disastrous, soon.)

His 2009 net worth was $1.5 billion—half what it was before the recession, but still a really unimaginable amount of money. He is, according to Forbes, the 236th richest person in America.

Real estate pays the bills (and buys The Daily News full-color printers), but his true love remains media. The Atlantic just whet Mort's appetite. He soon bought U.S. News & World Report, the perpetually third-place newsweekly, and installed himself as columnist and "editor in chief." (Yes, right, we'll get to that.)

In 1993, he bought the Daily News. The News, at the time, was bankrupt. Now—well, it loses less money than The Post.

He bought Fast Company and unloaded it in 2000 at the height of the boom, for $350 million. ("I averaged out," he said.)

Since selling Fast Company and The Atlantic (in 1999), though, the media business has not been friendly to Mort. He failed in his attempts to buy New York (twice), Newsday, and BusinessWeek. He teamed up with now-convicted felon Jeffrey Epstein to fund the much-missed Radar. U.S. News & World Report now theoretically comes out monthly (we say theoretically because no one has even seen a newstand copy in years) and exists primarily as yet one more venue for Mort's endless political columns and for its annual list of colleges.

Considering that Mort has made his career on what have turned out to be the two most disastrous industries in America, he may be seeking a government post just for a steady paycheck and a rock-solid pension plan. (Which would be more than he affords his Daily News employees—Mort killed pensions a while back and stopped contributing to their 401(k)s altogether last year).

Politics

Depending on who's asking and and when, Mort is either a "longtime Democrat" or a "conservative Democrat" or a "moderate Conservative." What he actually is is basically a rich New York Republican.

He described his politics as "moderate, conservative" and said he had voted for President Bush in 1988, but he had been "extremely disappointed" with his performance as President.

He's donated more cash to Democrats than Republicans, especially since purchasing the (inconsistently) liberal populist Daily News. He voted for Obama. He also voted for Bush in 2004. He had a hard-on for toppling Saddam.

You can't really summarize his politics, because, by most conventional measures, they are incoherent—and he always tailors his message to his perceived audience. Wayne Barrett does a heroic job of of detailing just how incoherent Mort is on every issue of current import.

With the president both blaming and vowing to tax the banks, Zuckerman seemed to agree partly, writing that "a good number of Americans are likely to remain furious at the spectacle of the financial world doing well while so many ordinary folks lose their jobs and their savings." But the same day that story appeared, Fox asked him what he thought of Obama's attacks on Wall Street "salaries and bonuses" and Mort rallied to the cause: "I don't think it's right to demonize these people. You just don't diminish them and beat them over the heads and shoulders for political reasons. And that's what it's about."

Is this inconsistent? No, of course not: it is consistently what Serious Beltway Thinkers think.

Consistency in thought can also be a challenge when you're forced to say your own words, on TV, while having a full-time ghostwriter in charge of the words in print.

He's consistent on a couple issues, though—like Israel, which can do no wrong. He's hawkish, pro-settler, and doesn't actually really understand the issues involved beyond "Jews good, Arabs bad." (Which can lead to embarrassing, uncorrected errors.) That is not an unconventional opinion in New York politics, as you may have noticed.

Generally, Mort fancies himself a public intellectual. His Lexington Ave office is like a massive library. It also houses the person who writes the words credited to the famous Public Intellectual Mort Zuckerman. Mort just calls in and rambles to this ghost for a while, and Harry Evans eventually edits it into something readable. (And sometimes it ends up in Tina Brown's Daily Beast.)

He used to be described as an insecure lightweight who bought himself a platform. Planning a run for the Senate seems to suggest that a couple decades in the bubble have taken care of the insecurities.

[Photo: AP]