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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When Ed committed suicide, Turner says, "that left me alone, because I had counted on him to make the judgment of whether or not I was a success." Until then, Turner's only success was as a sailor, a sport he turned to because he was too scrawny and uncoordinated to play ball. After getting kicked out of Brown in his senior year for entertaining a woman in his room, he bummed around Florida for a few months before returning to Georgia and his father's business. Turner's first test as a businessman came when he discovered that his father, despondent because of his billboard firm's mounting debts, had sold its big, newly acquired Atlanta division just before killing himself. The young Turner did everything he could to nullify the contract and win back the business, luring away employees from the Atlanta unit to the Macon, Ga., division he retained, shifting lucrative contracts between companies, threatening to destroy financial records and "to build billboards in front of theirs." Turner ultimately persuaded the buyers to rescind the deal in exchange for $200,000 worth of stock in the company.

Turner proved far more adept even than his father at the billboard business. So as the money rolled in, he turned to sailing and broadcasting in pursuit of his father's elusive benediction. By 1982, when he was 43, he had successfully defended the America's Cup, launched the first station distributed nationally to cable systems via satellite and the first 24-hour news network, and made the first edition of the Forbes 400 list -- enough success, he says, to have begun to lay "the ghost" of that paternal judgment "to rest." But he was still an emotional cripple. Turner's role model as a grownup remained an alcoholic father whose behavior was as extreme as it was unpredictable, who boasted about his sexual conquests, fought often with his wife and ultimately divorced her after 20 years.

Until six years ago, Turner was doing his best to imitate his father. He drank, but not well ("Two drinks and Ted was gone," says his friend Roddey), and earned early notoriety for showing up at the America's Cup press conference knee-walking drunk. He was such a determined womanizer that he made clear to Janie before their marriage in 1964 that he had no intention of becoming monogamous, according to several intimates. "I didn't like being alone when I was on the road" is how Turner today explains his numerous entanglements. Robert Wussler, his former senior executive vice president, says Turner's amorous philosophy was "a port in every storm." In some cases, it was literally a woman in every port: he once scandalized the yachting circuit by sailing around with a blond Frenchwoman tending galley, sometimes topless. As a husband to Janie, he could be mean, and publicly so. Roddey recalls the time Turner brought his wife over to a table to introduce her to a group and "somebody said, 'You sure have a beautiful woman there.' And Ted said, 'Yup, and if she doesn't stay beautiful, the next one will be even better.' That kind of remark was not uncommon."

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