Dr. Hammer And Mr. Hyde


By Carl Blumay with Henry Edwards

Simon & Schuster -- 494pp -- $25

When I was a young reporter with The Wall Street Journal in Los Angeles back in 1960, Carl Blumay got to be an office joke. A local PR man, he dropped by constantly to deliver inconsequential news releases for a small oil producer, Occidental Petroleum Corp. Blumay would bend our ears, suggesting that a new Oxy drilling project was likely to uncover the next Saudi Arabia. We'd listen--he was a nice guy--then toss his releases in the trash.

In time, of course, Oxy made it big. And in the process, its chairman, Dr. Armand Hammer, became one of America's most celebrated business heroes. He hobnobbed with Leonid Brezhnev and Prince Charles, toured the world with his art collection, and gave millions to cancer research. When he died in 1990 at 92, he was still Oxy's boss.

Through the years, a few writers said the Hammer legend was at least part sham. It may be that they were generous. In The Dark Side of Power, Blumay, for 25 years Hammer's chief image-builder, relates an astounding tale of bribery, manipulation, and deceit. As Blumay tells it, behind the warmth that charmed so many--including me--Hammer was a self-obsessed con man.

Blumay may have an ax to grind: He quit Oxy in 1980 after Hammer put an outsider over him. And some of his fly-on-the-wall accounts seem too good to be true. Did he jot down quotes over the years? Plus his chief source for personal dirt was Hammer's brother Victor, now dead. Yet most of the book rings true, because Blumay gives the inside scoop on things long reported or suspected: Hammer's campaign for a Nobel Prize, his ego-ventures at company expense. The book is fascinating and disturbing--an indictment of toothless corporate regulation and a revelation of what we who try to report on business are up against.

Hammer, says Blumay, lied constantly. He inflated Oxy gas reserves in Securities & Exchange Commission filings. He ordered Blumay to refute journalists' assertions that both knew were true. His claim to have been President Kennedy's "special trade adviser" was a falsehood, as were his averred close ties to other U.S. leaders. Indeed, Blumay documents Hammer's pitiful attempts to curry favor with Presidents of all political stripes. Hammer detested Richard Nixon--whom he resembled in his need for adulation and his vindictiveness--but gave heavily to his campaigns. Nearly every President seems to have found Hammer as much a pest as I used to consider Blumay.

Hammer's office had an impressive display of photos of him with world leaders. Some were fakes, says Blumay, who doctored one on the boss's orders, erasing people between Hammer and President Eisenhower and pushing the two together. Many of the Faberge eggs Hammer gave as gifts were also fake, says Blumay. So were tomatoes he passed out to New York security analysts during a speech. He said they'd been trucked from California, kept fresh by a new Oxy process. But his brother had bought them locally.

Hammer, Blumay says, spread bribes as freely as lies. Libyan officials got airplanes. Some key Nigerians got homosexual prostitutes. A California lawmaker got $1,500 a month for tips on state rulings. Seeking an exploration contract, Hammer paid $5,000 to every Venezuelan legislator, says Blumay. He also paid $100,000 to a Soviet minister--whose rivals may have killed her as a result. As for Hammer's vaunted Soviet connections, Blumay calls him a "pimp of the Politburo" who tried to deflect U.S. reaction to Moscow deviousness. But Blumay doesn't back up his insinuations of KGB ties.

Hammer was a womanizer well into old age. For many years, says Blumay, his limo could be found outside the home of a female Oxy employee several afternoons a week. His wife nearly left him. That she didn't is amazing: At a political function described here, she tripped and fell on her face. Hammer rushed ahead to be photographed with a celebrity.

Hammer's deceit peaked in 1976, when he feared prison for illegal contributions to Nixon. To avoid court, he holed up in a hospital, feigning heart trouble. His wife brought corned-beef sandwiches, and he ran Oxy from bed. When he did go to court, he wore an oversize suit to look like "a shriveled gnome," says Blumay. He was only fined. Back at the hospital, he leapt from his wheelchair in a victory jig.

Shocking, and--let's admit it--appealing. Our perverse sympathy for rule-breakers makes some of Hammer's knavery seem inspired. He calls to mind such literary rascals as Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, especially when he boasts: "There has never been anyone like me. There will never be again. I'm the greatest industrial genius who ever lived."

Blumay, of course, often spread Hammer's lies. His excuse? Hammer was "the most stimulating and exciting man I had ever met." Chances are, he also paid well. Whatever Blumay's motives, these confessions of a PR man, based on his quarter-century as Hammer's confidant, may help expiate some past transgressions. The Dark Side of Power has an authority that Blumay's press releases never did.