Feature

John Kluge, 1914–2010

The immigrant who built a media empire

John Kluge transformed himself from an immigrant teenager doing odd jobs into one of America’s wealthiest men, yet he never shed some of the frugal habits of his youth. Once dubbed a “cheapskate billionaire,” Kluge would leave his coat in the car to avoid tipping a coat checker. “I was always afraid of being a charity case,” he said.

Born in Chemnitz, Germany, as a child Kluge moved with his mother and stepfather to Detroit. He handed out communist literature in his youth and made it through Columbia University on a scholarship and $7,000 in poker winnings. But after college, Kluge got down to business, taking a job at a small paper company in Detroit. “Within three years he went from shipping clerk to vice president and part owner,” said The New York Times. In 1946, after serving in World War II, Kluge put together an investment group to buy a Maryland radio station, launching his media career.

Kluge proceeded to buy and sell more radio stations and branched out into food wholesaling, said The Washington Post. Then in 1959 he bought the failing DuMont television and radio network from Paramount, “which he grew into the nation’s largest independent television business.” Along with seven television stations, the company, renamed Metromedia, acquired a billboard company, the Harlem Globetrotters, the Ice Capades, and Orion Pictures. His “most daring achievement” was taking Metromedia private in 1984, in a pioneering leveraged buyout.

Kluge eventually netted $2 billion selling the company piecemeal to Rupert Murdoch, said The Wall Street Journal. Then Kluge turned to international telecoms, “founding some of Eastern Europe’s cellular networks and doubling his fortune by 1989, when Forbes named him the richest American, with a fortune of $5.2 billion.”

Thrice-divorced, Kluge paid a $1 billion settlement to his third wife and lost a fortune when a chain of steakhouses in which he had invested nearly $1 billion went bust. But he lived lavishly, amassing glittering estates, a large yacht, and a sizable art collection. Kluge pledged $400 million to Columbia University upon his death. “Work isn’t really work for me,” Kluge said in 1990. “I didn’t think I’ve ever really ‘worked’ in my life because ‘work’ to me means that you’re doing something that you don’t like.”

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