NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times Magazine / TimesPeople / March 6, 2011
Death Takes A Rain Check:
For Decades The Billionaire's Has Said He's In Perfect Health
By FRANK BRUNI
One morning in early January, David Murdock awoke to an unsettling sensation. At first he didn’t recognize it and then he couldn’t believe it, because for years — decades, really — he maintained what was, in his immodest estimation, perfect health. But now there was this undeniable imperfection, a scratchiness and swollenness familiar only from the distant past. Incredibly, infuriatingly, he had a sore throat.
Photograph by Jeff Riedel for The New York TimesSo that sore throat wasn’t just an irritant. It was a challenge to the whole gut-centered worldview on which his bid for extreme longevity rests. “I went back in my mind: what am I not eating enough of?” he told me. Definitely not fruits and vegetables: he crams as many as 20 of them, including pulverized banana peels and the ground-up rinds of oranges, into the smoothies he drinks two to three times a day, to keep his body brimming with fiber and vitamins. Probably not protein: he eats plenty of seafood, egg whites, beans and nuts to compensate for his avoidance of dairy, red meat and poultry, which are consigned to a list of forbidden foods that also includes alcohol, sugar and salt.
“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. So he made a frustrated peace with his malady, which was gone in 36 hours and, he stressed, not all that bad. “I wasn’t really struggling with it,” he said. “But my voice changed a little bit. I always have a powerful voice.” Indeed, he speaks so loudly at times, and in such a declamatory manner, that it cows people, who sometimes assume they’ve angered him. “When I open my mouth,” he noted, “the room rings.”
The room ringing just then was the vast, stately common area of his vast, stately North Carolina lodge, which sits on more than 500 acres of woods and meadows where a flock of rare black Welsh sheep — which he keeps as pets, certainly not as chops and cheese in the making — roam under the protection of four Great Pyrenees dogs. He got the dogs after a donkey and two llamas entrusted with guarding the flock from predators failed at the task. The donkey and llamas still hang out with their fleecy charges, but they are purely ornamental.
Murdock loves to collect things: animals, orchids, Chippendale mirrors, Czechoslovakian chandeliers. He keeps yet another black Welsh flock at one of his two homes in Southern California, a 2,200-acre ranch whose zoological bounty extends to a herd of longhorn cattle, about 800 koi in a manmade lake and 16 horses — down from a population of more than 550, most of them Arabians, 35 years ago — with their own exercise pool. He has five homes in all, one on the small Hawaiian island of Lanai, which he owns almost in its entirety. He shuttles among them in a private jet. Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the 400 richest Americans put him at No. 130, with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion, thanks to real estate development and majority stakes in an array of companies, most notably Dole. Five years earlier the estimate was $4.2 billion, but the recession took its toll.
His affluence has enabled him to turn his private fixation on diet and longevity into a public one. I went to see him first in North Carolina in late January. It is there, outside of Charlotte, in a city named Kannapolis near his lodge, that he has spent some $500 million of his fortune in recent years to construct the North Carolina Research Campus, a scientific center dedicated to his conviction that plants, eaten in copious quantities and the right variety, hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span. The campus is a grand and grandiose sight, a cluster of mammoth Georgian-style buildings that dwarf everything around them. They call to mind an august, aged university, but the brick is without blemish, and there is no ivy.
Inside are world-class laboratories with cutting-edge equipment and emblems of the ostentation with which Murdock approaches much of what he does. He made two separate trips to the mountaintop quarries in Carrara, Italy, to select the 125 tons of off-white marble that cover the floor and even the walls of the central atrium of the main building, called the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory. He also commissioned, for the atrium’s dome, an enormous painted mural with outsize, hypervivid representations of about two dozen foods at the center of his diet, including grapes as large as Frisbees, radishes bigger than beach balls and a pineapple the size of a schooner. This kaleidoscopic orgy of antioxidants is presented as a wreath around a soaring eagle, whose wingspan was lengthened at the last minute, to about 18 feet from 12, at his request. The bird symbolizes him.
The Die-Later Diet
Murdock stands only 5-foot-8, and while he perhaps doesn’t look each and every one of his many years, his skin is deeply wrinkled, and his hair is entirely white. His hearing has dulled, so that he frequently misunderstands the questions he is asked, though it’s possible in some instances that he simply decides not to answer them and to talk about something else instead. He thrums with willfulness.
“I never had a boss in my whole life,” he says, owning up to what he labels a “dictatorial” streak. “I’ve totally destroyed anybody’s ability to tell me what to do.”
Murdock Recipe: Vegetable Soup
His energy, more than his appearance, makes him seem younger than he is. At his lodge he leapt from his chair every 20 minutes to grab unwieldy four-foot-long logs and hurl them into a stone fireplace two stories tall. The gesture was not only irresistible metaphor — he didn’t want the flame to die — but also showy proof of his strength. He tries to fit in weight lifting several times a week, and that, combined with brisk walks on a treadmill and his diet, helps keep his weight at about 140 pounds, though he has always been naturally slender, even when he ate what he pleased. He doesn’t count calories or believe in extreme caloric restriction as a way to extend life. But he does believe that excess weight is a sure way to abbreviate it, and reprimands friends, acquaintances and even strangers who are heavy.
In 2006, when he first met with D. H. Griffin, whose demolition company was to prepare the site for the research campus, he took note of Griffin’s size. At 5-foot-11, he weighed about 285 pounds.
“You’re probably going to die before this job’s done, because you’re so fat and unhealthy,” Murdock told Griffin, as Griffin recalls, adding that Griffin’s family would wind up paying extra money for an extra-large coffin. Later he did something more constructive: he offered Griffin a bonus if he lost 30 pounds. Griffin did and collected $100,000. He has since regained 22 of them.
“Take the death off the table.”
In restaurants Murdock will push the butter dish toward the server and say, “Take the death off the table.” He will ask employees or friends who are putting sugar in coffee or milk in tea why they want to kill themselves and will upbraid people leaving healthful food unfinished about the vitamins they’re squandering.
I experienced this during a visit in early February to his California ranch, where I joined him for lunch: a six-fruit smoothie; a mixed-leaf salad with toasted walnuts, fennel and blood orange; a soup with more than eight vegetables and beans; a sliver of grilled Dover sole on a bed of baby carrots, broccoli and brown rice.
“How did you like your soup?” he asked me after one of his household staff members removed it. I said it was just fine.
“Did you eat all your juice?” he added, referring to the broth. I said I had left perhaps an inch of it.
He shot me a stern look. “You got a little bit of it,” he said. “I get a lot — every bit I can.” He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s O.K. You’ll go before me.”
There was dessert, too: flourless cookies made with dark chocolate and walnuts, both rich in antioxidants, and sweetened not with sugar but with honey. He quickly polished one off and then called out to the kitchen to say that he wanted the cookies to make an encore appearance after dinner, so he could have another then. Five minutes later, still cookie-struck, he walked into the kitchen to ask that a few be packed up for him to have handy through the afternoon.
Murdock grew up in the tiny town of Wayne, Ohio, the middle child of three and the only son. He didn’t see much of his father, a traveling salesman with an inconsistent income, but was close to his mother, who took in laundry and scrubbed floors to help make ends meet. He softens when he recalls sitting in her lap while she read to him, a memory that he says hasn’t been dimmed by the length of her absence. She died, from cancer, when she was just 42 and he 17.
By then he was living on his own, having dropped out of school at 14. He has dyslexia, though no one initially realized it, and never managed grades better than D’s. “Everybody laughed at me,” he says. “They thought I was an imbecile.” He traded classwork for changing oil and pumping gas; he lived in a room above the service station.
When he talks about his childhood, his lack of formal education is one of two themes he brings up again and again, usually to cast it as an inadvertent gift. He says that because he felt the need to compensate for it, he read prodigiously and, he stresses, without the narrowness of focus he notices in many conventionally learned people. Biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Socratic dialogues, Shakespearean sonnets, “The Prince”— he devoured it all over time. He also studied something called brain acceleration, which he says taught him to think about three things at once. “I’ll match wits with anybody,” he says. “I don’t care if they have the top degree in the world.” He notes that everyone on his research campus’s board is a Ph.D. or an M.D. But he, the high-school dropout, presides over the meetings.
The other theme is how low the point from which he rose to riches was. After finishing several years of service in the U.S. Army at age 22, he was not only penniless but also homeless, and slept for a while under a bush in a Detroit park. He would cadge free coffee from a friend employed at a greasy spoon. A man who worked for a loan company met Murdock there, learned that he was a veteran and offered to help.
With the man’s assistance, he rounded up $1,200 in loans and bought that diner, which he whipped into freshly scrubbed, newly painted shape. He sold it a year and a half later for $1,900, spent $75 of the profit on a car, set out for California and stopped along the way in Phoenix, where the opportunity to make money was too good to pass up. He stayed for 17 years, buying cheap land and constructing affordable houses for all the people moving South and West after World War II. “I was building as fast as I could break ground,” he says. “Bang, bang, bang: I could hardly get a house finished before it was sold.”
Houses and small office buildings were followed by larger office buildings, in Arizona and California and eventually the Midwest. To invest all the money pouring in, he bought stock, then more stock, then whole companies. He acquired control of International Mining in 1978 and in the early 1980s became the largest shareholder in Occidental Petroleum by selling the company his 18 percent interest in Iowa Beef. (That was back when he and filet were on friendly terms.) He took over Dole, part of a larger company, Castle & Cooke, which he acquired control of in 1985.
It was a heady ride, and his partner for the headiest stretch of it was a raven-haired, German-born beauty who became his wife in 1967, when he was in his mid-40s and she was in her late 20s. Her name was Gabriele. Although he was married twice before, he hadn’t fathered any children. With Gabriele he had two boys, who joined a son of hers whom he adopted. He moved his base of operations from Arizona to California and, for his new family, bought the legendary Conrad Hilton estate in Beverly Hills. Soon afterward, for weekend getaways, he also bought the ranch, in Ventura County, about a 30-minute drive away. For the three boys, he got all those animals, and for Gabriele, jewels, gowns, fresh flowers — whatever she wanted.
“He adored her,” says E. Rolland Dickson, Murdock’s personal physician at the Mayo Clinic and a longtime close friend, adding that even 15 years into the marriage, “he had that look of a young guy on his honeymoon.”
He and Gabriele traveled the world; he chose one trip, she the next. Murdock says: “She always wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I always wanted to do what she wanted to do. It’s very hard to find somebody that way.”
And harder still to lose her. In 1983 she was given a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer. There was no effective treatment, though he looked wide and far. The couple took a suite at a hotel adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Determined to heal her somehow, he wondered about nutrition and began to do extensive research into what she — and he, in support of her — should eat. The answer was more or less the kind of diet he has stuck to ever since.
Because many cancers have environmental links and the one she got didn’t run in her family, he suspects that lifestyle was a culprit, and is convinced that if the two of them had eaten better sooner, she would have been spared the surgery, the radiation, the chemotherapy, the wheelchair, the year and a half of hope and fear and pain. “If I had known what I know today,” he says, “I could have saved my wife’s life. And I think I could have saved my mother’s life too.” Gabriele Murdock died 18 years into their marriage, in 1985. She was 43.
Less than a year later, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, Eugene, drowned in the estate’s pool, apparently after accidentally hitting his head. He was 23. Even then death wasn’t done with the family Murdock and Gabriele created. About seven years ago, the second of the three boys, David II, had a fatal car crash as he sped down the Santa Monica Freeway. He was 36. The family is down to just Murdock and his youngest son, Justin, now 38, who helps run NovaRx, a biotechnology firm in which Murdock owns a controlling share. Murdock did marry a fourth time, and then a fifth, but neither union lasted long. He has been single for more than a decade now, though he frequently makes passing references to “my wife,” meaning Gabriele and only Gabriele, photographs of whom dominate his homes. The other wives don’t show up.
“I had a lot of tragedy,” he told me one of the few times he engaged the topic of his family’s steady, cruel erosion. The room wasn’t ringing, and he turned his face away.
For a few years after losing Gabriele and Eugene, he couldn’t find the energy for much of anything and delegated many business dealings to subordinates. When his zest finally returned, he was consumed by the subject of what and how he and Gabriele should have eaten. He pored over medical journals, befriended and debriefed experts, gave speeches. Bit by bit his entire world became one of well-being. Out behind the orchid conservatory on his California ranch, he constructed tens of thousands of square feet of additional greenhouse space, where a small posse of gardeners tend an encyclopedic array of produce. If he can’t find something at the grocery store, he can probably just pluck it from here. When I walked through the greenhouses recently, I spotted Swiss chard, cabbage, celery, onions, spinach, beets, radishes, eggplant, artichokes, red peppers, rhubarb, baby bananas, strawberries, grapefruit, kumquats, clementines, lemons, star fruit and a whole lot else I couldn’t immediately identify. Where Willy Wonka had rivers of chocolate, Murdock has thickets of cruciferous vegetables.
At Dole’s headquarters in Westlake Village, Calif., just a 15-minute drive from the ranch, employees eat in a subsidized cafeteria where salad is plentiful and chicken nuggets unthinkable, and they have free access to a company gym where personal training, also subsidized, is $30 an hour. The exhortation to eat right is so pervasive that if you call Dole and are put on hold, you don’t hear Muzak but, instead, sunny dietary bromides and nutrition news bulletins.
Across the street is a hotel, completed in 2006 and operated by the Four Seasons, that Murdock built to house the California Health and Longevity Institute, a combination medical suite, spa and demonstration kitchen. Clients can be screened for various cancers, have their body fat measured inside a special pod and get an earful about quinoa, along with a cooking tutorial. On the hotel’s room-service menus, in place of heart-shaped symbols designating low-cholesterol selections, there are L-shaped symbols designating dishes that might, by dint of fiber or antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids, promote longevity. The hummus wears such a tag; so does the multigrain penne with a meatless tomato sauce.
The institute and hotel are meant to turn a profit — and do, a small one — and they underscore how interconnected Murdock’s evangelism and business interests have become. As does the research campus. Dole is the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, so studies into their health benefits have a huge potential upside for the company. Many of the foods under the microscope are foods Dole sells.
Blueberries, for example. Murdock lured Mary Ann Lila, a world-renowned blueberry authority, to the research campus from the University of Illinois, where, she says, she simply didn’t have anything like the instant access to specialized equipment that Murdock has made possible. The campus has a particularly impressive lineup of high-powered nuclear magnetic-resonance machines, which analyze compounds on a molecular level. Lila — technically affiliated now with North Carolina State University — and colleagues are using the fastest of these to look for the unknown natural compounds in blueberries that will speed their efforts to maximize the fruit’s medicinal properties. They believe blueberries could help combat several diseases, including obesity.
Other researchers on campus are investigating such matters as the extent to which quercetin, found in the skins of apples, can have an anti-inflammatory effect; whether Chia seeds are as useful a source of omega-3 fatty acids as, say, halibut; and how significantly and reliably a certain type of fermented Chinese tea can lower bad cholesterol. But while they’re working in a setting created by Murdock, they’re for the most part from the faculties of leading North Carolina universities that aren’t formally affiliated with Dole, and they might well be doing this work anywhere. Besides which, Murdock’s own fortunes aren’t tethered to how well Dole does, with or without the boost of campus research. Over the decades he has collected companies the way he has collected sheep, and owns the one, for example, that provided all the red brick for the campus.
Murdock checks in with researchers regularly and impatiently, asking them why science is so stubbornly sluggish. He moves fast. Little more than two years elapsed between the demolition of six million square feet of shuttered textile mills and the opening of the campus in October 2008. He chose this location because he owned those mills in the early 1980s, long before the textile industry tanked, and still had land and investments all around them. He has had the lodge nearby for almost three decades.
The luxury with which the campus is furnished is almost as remarkable as the speed with which it materialized. There are tables carved from rare Hawaiian palm trees; desks from India whose black marble surfaces have lapis lazuli and jade inlays; marble statuettes. Lila cracks: “Normally, when you have a lab and someone’s wheeling in liquid nitrogen, you don’t have to worry about them hitting a Ming vase. But we have a different paradigm here.”
This lavishness is just one clue that the campus reflects a passion as much as it does a business strategy. Another is the millions Murdock is spending on the Murdock Study, with the goal of enrolling 50,000 Kannapolis-area residents, taking full blood work from them, storing it in a refrigerated warehouse with backup generators for the backup generators and annually monitoring the residents’ health. The hope is that the study will help determine what biological markers today can tell doctors about the onset of disease decades later. The results won’t be proprietary to Dole.
Slay the killers - diabetes, heart disease, cancer
Murdock says that he wants to slay such killers as diabetes, heart disease and, of course, cancer, and the scientists around him say that in some epically optimistic corner of his mind, he quite possibly believes he can. Unable to save Gabriele or the boys, he’s out to save the world. It’s certainly not his own health that stands to benefit most from the campus, because the nutrients studied there are ones he’s already consuming in abundance, to cover his bases. What the research is more likely to do, at least during his lifetime, is validate that he knows better than anybody else.
Dreamers have pursued longevity — and, in some cases, immortality — in all sorts of wacky and exacting ways, from hyperbaric chambers to cryogenics. And they have sought to fine-tune their bodies with all manner of rigorously proscribed diets: only raw foods; only plants; only the flesh, fruit and nuts that prehistoric humans, not yet wise to agriculture, would have hunted and foraged.
A nuclear magnetic-resonance machine, on Murdock’s campus, looks at the molecular structure of compounds in fruits and vegetables. Jeff Riedel for The New York Times
He is careful to get a little bit of daily sun, which is crucial for proper absorption of vitamin D, but not too much, lest he court skin cancer. He tries to go to bed no later than 11 p.m. and to get more than six hours of sleep every night. Perhaps the only real eyebrow raiser in his regimen is his rejection of any medicine that isn’t truly necessary. When he had that sore throat, he didn’t suck on a lozenge or swallow aspirin. When he has had precancerous growths removed from his face, he has passed on anesthetics.
“I just turned my brain on and said, ‘Cut!’ ” he said. “Of course it hurt. But I controlled that.”
The doctors who work with Murdock say that he has ideal blood pressure, clear arteries, good muscle tone. But they doubt that these will carry him to 125. They point out that he didn’t adopt his healthful ways until his 60s, and they note that genes often trump behavior. Although Murdock’s father lived well into his 90s, his mother died young, and his sisters are both dead.
The life expectancy for an American man born today is only 75½, and demographic data suggest that an American man who has made it to 87 can expect, on average, another 5¼ years. The longest life span on record is 122½, and that belonged to a woman — French, of course — who died in 1997. Her closest male competitors reached only 115½.
"Letting his body live out to its genetic potential"
As for beating those statistics, “There’s been no documented intervention that has been shown to radically extend duration of life — ever,” says S. Jay Olshansky, an expert on aging who teaches at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Told of Murdock’s health-minded habits, Olshansky said that just about all of them were prudent ways of probably “letting his body live out to its genetic potential,” but added, “He’ll be disappointed when he doesn’t reach 125.”
Robert Califf, a Duke University cardiologist who sits on the research campus board, says that even Murdock’s laudable diet isn’t a provable longevity booster. “You can do short-term studies that give you a lot of information about biology,” Califf says. “But knowing whether eating a food actually causes you to live longer than not eating that food: the answer to that will only come with a study of an entire generation.”
If he could live to 125, why he would want to? More than his hearing will ebb. He may never find the right companion for the long fade-out. Although he says that he’d ideally like to marry again, he acknowledges that few women are suited to his degree of autonomy and wanderlust.
The Sheer Challenge
I got the feeling that part of what pushes him toward 125 is the sheer challenge. Years are yet another thing to collect, and he likes racking up accomplishments others haven’t. He bragged to me several times about once transplanting a centuries-old tree larger than any ever successfully moved. And he drew my attention to scores of massive, oddly shaped boulders from Thailand’s River Kwai that decorate the grounds of the ranch, the residence where he spends most of his time (he sold the former Hilton estate 10 years ago). Each weighs several tons; he brought over six shiploads. “These are the only boulders that ever left Thailand,” he says. “You can’t take them out now.”
He says that he still gets pleasure from them, and from much of the rest of his gilded life, and that he doesn’t know what, if anything, comes after. “There have been billions of people born and billions of people died, and people think God’s going to be standing at the gate ready to shake hands with everybody who’s coming through?” he says. Although he is a churchgoing Christian, death, he concedes, could simply be blackness, nullity.
During my last visit with him, Murdock took me out to see the koi. He enjoys tossing them their pellets of food from the red wood bridge that arches over the lake, and in particular delights in the way he merely has to stamp his feet to make them come swimming toward the bridge in a frenzy, eager for sustenance from on high.
“You want to know what I like and what makes me happy?” he said as we stood on the bridge. “Just having these fish makes me happy. Every one is alive because of me.” He pointed out that some were ordinary and some magnificent — just like people, he said — and told me that after a female releases her eggs, she tries to ward off lesser males, so stronger ones fertilize them. “It’s the survival of the fittest in all aspects of the world.”
We began tossing out pellets by the handful. He told me that I wasn’t using enough muscle and showed me how it was done.
Then he frowned. The koi, he said, weren’t lunging and thrashing. Had someone fed them too recently? Was someone feeding them too often? He vowed to look into it, declaiming the same fault in the fish that he finds in so many of the planet’s inhabitants.
“They’re not eating the way I like them to,” he said.
Frank Bruni (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer for the magazine. Earlier, he had been the paper’s chief restaurant critic. He is the author of a memoir, “Born Round.”
Editor: Dean Robinson (d.robinson-MagGroup@nytimes.com)
© 2011 The New York Times Company