The Taming of Ted Turner

Forget about those legendary tales of excess. Taking the biggest risk of his life, Turner confronted the dark legacy of his father and prevailed.

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If Turner can sound lighthearted about his death obsession, it is because he does feel much better about life these days. One of the main reasons is that at the urging of his second wife Janie, who was hoping to save their marriage, he began to see an Atlanta psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Pittman, in 1985. Pittman did two important things for Turner. The first was to put him on the drug lithium, which is generally used to treat manic-depression as well as a milder tendency toward mood swings known as a cyclothymic personality. Turner's colleagues and J.J. Ebaugh, the woman for whom he left Janie, suddenly saw an enormous change in his behavior. "Before, it was pretty scary to be around the guy sometimes because you never knew what in the world was going to happen next. If he was about to fly off the handle, you just never knew. That's why the whole world was on pins and needles around him," says Ebaugh. "But with lithium he became very even tempered. Ted's just one of those miracle cases. I mean, lithium is great stuff, but in Ted's particular case, lithium is a miracle."

TURNER AGREES THAT THE MEDICATION HELPED calm him down. But Pittman's second contribution was to help Turner exorcise his father. To understand why Turner and the father he worshipped had no ordinary filial competition, consider this: when young Turner did something bad, his father Ed beat him with a wire coat hanger. When young Turner did something very bad, Ed once ordered his son to beat him. "He laid down on the bed and gave me the razor strap and he said, 'Hit me harder,' " Turner told interviewer David Frost. "And that hurt me more than getting the beating myself. I couldn't do it. I just broke down and cried." The most famous story of this dynastic war is the time Ed Turner sent Ted a letter at Brown University to excoriate him for having chosen to study the Greek classics. "I almost puked on the way home today . . . I think you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better it will suit me," Ed Turner wrote. The angry son retaliated rather cunningly: he published the letter in the college newspaper. But he eventually switched his major to economics.

Ed Turner, who became a millionaire in the billboard business after his family lost its cotton farm in the Depression, was determined to give his son both ambition and the self-doubt that keeps ambitious people going. "He wanted Ted to be insecure because he felt insecurity breeds greatness," Judy Nye Hallisey, Turner's first wife told biographer Roger Vaughan. During World War II, Ed Turner served in the Navy; he brought along his wife and daughter but left behind Ted, age 6, at a boarding school in Cincinnati. Ted's father sent the boy to a military academy from the fifth grade on, punished him at home for such omissions as failing to read a new book every two days, and charged him rent during summer vacations.

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