I found it. I found it." Ted Turner, the famous detective, has found it. He had been searching for it over the past couple of days, or approximately since the dinner conversation during which Ted Turner, the famous basketball owner, told somebody how his miserable Atlanta Hawks were surprising the opposition just the way the Macedonians had surprised the Persians at Quagmala. Or Quagmira, or Guagmoola, or Guacamole, or somewhere. Ted Turner, the famous researcher, wasn't sure where the Macedonian upset occurred or how to spell the name of the place. "Nobody expected that either," he had said. "Outnumbered five to one, there they were. Alexander the Great digging in with his famous phalanxes. Nine men deep, with swords of different lengths over the shoulders of the men in front. Oh, maybe it was five men deep. God, how could a guy carry a sword that long? Alexander the Great shocked 'em. Just like the Hawks. Goddam. Go, Hawks!"
Now Ted Turner, the famous classicist, is at home, ripping through his encyclopedia. "Right here. Right here," he says. "Capital G-a-u-g-a-m-e-l-a. Gaugamela. I knew it. I knew it. Alexander the Great. What a man. What a plan. In high school I wrote a poem about his three battles. Granicus. Issus. Arbela. This isn't even one of those. Janey," he screams at his wife, "how about those grilled-cheese sandwiches? About four. Hurry and toast 'em good. You can do it. You got spunk.
"Now look at this," says Ted Turner, the famous sailor, ripping through a scrapbook. "This is me in 1966 at the SORC races. That's 12 years ago. Super! I sort of look like Errol Flynn there. What the hell, I haven't changed any. Except I was brash and loud then. Here's the reason the New York Yacht Club hated me," he says, ripping some more. "Look, I called this boat 'an old stocker.' We said the Atlanta Yacht Club would challenge the NYYC. Can you believe that? Only some old stuffed-up twits would get hot about that. What the hell. I got raked over the coals.
"Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me," Ted Turner, the famous crooner, is singing now. "Anyone else but me. Anyone else but...."
August 20, 1978
"God, this hockey is awful. I can't understand why people like this game," says Ted Turner, the famous television-station owner, looking at his own Channel 17. "It's just as terrible in person as on TV. Something to keep small minds occupied. They say the only reason people go to the rink is because the players are white. Maybe hockey needs blacks. Naw. If it's black, nobody goes. I could buy this hockey team, but the thought alone is so frightening I can't even stand to turn the sound on. That's 40 more miserable nights in The Omni.
"Say, I had this guy picked out to manage the Braves," says Ted Turner, the famous baseball owner. "He was perfect. Bright, organized. Good credentials. Helluva guy. I liked him. I wanted him. But he's getting a divorce. Says his wife's contesting it. He doesn't know if she'll let him have the kids. So if she has them, how's he going to concentrate on managing my baseball team? If he has them, how's he going to concentrate? It's a real problem. I mean I could handle it. I had kids with two different wives. Drove everybody crazy. But back me into a corner and I'll come at you like thunder. I'm probably the toughest guy you'll ever meet. Is this guy dedicated enough? I can find out. I'll call him and tell him the job is his if he gets a gun and shoots his wife and kids. Now that's dedication. Goddam. The Braves. I love 'em."
Could he be pulling all this off anywhere but in Atlanta, Ted Turner, the famous civic leader, is asked. "Pull what off?" he shouts. "What do you think this is, some sort of con? This is just me, for Chrissakes. I got no need to take on the world. I'm just shufflin' along tryin' to survive. I think I'd be bigger in Chicago or L.A. or somewhere. Hell, they know what a boat is there. A lot more dumb people live in the bigger cities than in Atlanta. Maybe I'm a smart Gomer Pyle. How the hell do I know? How would I go over in New York? That's like asking me how I'd go over 200 years ago."
Jane Turner speaks up. "Jimmy Carter did it," she says.
"Carter didn't carry New York," her husband snaps. (He was wrong, but there was no going back.) "Anyway, nobody asked you so just shut up. I'm doin' the talkin' here. You just quiet your yap. If you can't keep your mouth shut," says Ted Turner, the famous Southern gentleman, "get the hell out of the room.
"Where was I? Everybody wants to be a star," says Ted Turner, the famous star. "The garbage collector wants to be O. J. Simpson, didn't you know that? I decided to go with the mustache when I saw Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. 'Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn.' What a line. What a time. You know where I'm really big? Australia. They really know their sailin' there. Look at this. Huge coverage. All over the front pages. Damn. You talk about a star."
And that, of course, is that. Although there is no exclusivity anymore in our most overpopulated category of citizenry, it is still everyman's fondest dream to become a star. And so, out of Peachtree Street, Bannister's Wharf and WTCG-TV, over the bounding main and into the dugouts of the entire universe comes Robert E. Turner III. Ali? Farrah? Duke Wayne? Henry Kissinger? Anita Bryant? Has anyone transcended his profession, grown bigger than life, become important, become a star any faster than Robert E. Turner III?
Whatever it is Ted Turner has accomplished—and some people are still trying to figure out just what that is—he has done it so suddenly that the saga-mongers who take care of such things haven't had time to immortalize him with a proper nickname. "Mouth of the South" and "Teddy Ballgame," the protein monikers, were heisted from a noisy sportscaster and a lefthand-hitting leftfielder, respectively, not to mention that they hardly do justice to the man. Even "The Pirate of Peachtree," which nicely combines the nautical and geographical, fails to encompass Turner.
His baseball players and basketball players and sailing crews and communications company personnel are admonished to call him "Ted." His secretary, Dee Woods, a vivacious mother of four, calls him "Teddy Baby" as a result of the time she answered a request with "Sir?" and he bellowed "What's this 'Sir' crap?" Only 9-year-old Jennie, his youngest child, can get away with calling him Sir.
Father: "Hey, Jen, tell our guest I'm not a fire-eating, maniacal madman who beats you and denies you porridge and deserves to be thrown out of our national pastime. Don't I remind you to brush your teeth?"
Daughter: "No, Sir; yes, Sir."
One assumes Jennie uses "Sir" because she realizes she lucked out in the appellation game, her daddy having originally decided to name her "Scarlett," then "Jeanie" (after Stephen Foster's great hit, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair). Ted Turner had his way in the Southern-fried baptism of his two youngest sons, Rhett and Beauregard, but Jane Turner put her foot down in the matter of her little girl's name.
As for his own, the black street guys in Atlanta greet Turner with "Wha's happenin', Cap'ns Courageous?" in honor of his winning the America's Cup last fall at the wheel of Courageous. Not long ago a very old black woman with a charming disregard for ceremony beckoned to Turner in the parking lot of his TV station. "Hey, Turner," she shouted, "gimme some of that chaw."
Somewhat taken aback for one of the few times in his 39 years, Turner approached the woman warily. "You want this?" he said, pointing to his cheek, which was magnificently stuffed with the Red Man tobacco he has chewed since he started hanging around with baseball players.
"Tha's right," the woman said. "And I wants you to come bail me out of jail when I gets drunk on this stuff."
After assuring the woman she could only get sick, not drunk, from chewing tobacco, Turner watched in horror as the woman shoved a handful into her mouth. Then he walked away.
"Hey, Turner," the woman shouted, her words muffled by the chaw, "you better getsh the Bravesh off their buttsh."
In the 24 hours surrounding this particular encounter last fall, Turner had been in the process of doing just that. Besides interviewing applicants for the Braves' managerial job and figuring out how long he could sit in his office without Bowie Kuhn finding out and disciplining the then-suspended owner, Turner also was in the midst of:
Adding several new stations, cities, states and emerging nations to his massive satellite cable-TV network; making plans and assembling crews for competing on the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit; nearly suffering a heart attack every time his bargain-basement basketball Hawks got close to winning a game; attempting to get his 17-year-old daughter, Laura Lee, into a high school she would not get bounced out of for displaying the legendary Turner rebelliousness (Laura Lee was 0 for 1 in schools); eating, sleeping, playing backgammon; driving his Toyota through rainstorms while avoiding the sudden return splat of his own saliva into his face as he hawked out the window; bargaining with a journalist over the sale of a horrible, open-mouthed, mounted rattlesnake head, a sicker, more disgusting thing the journalist was positive did not exist. "I got it for 50. It's yours for a hundred," Turner said. "You think that's sick. Wait till you see my winged bat."
In a way his frenetic, jack-and-master-of-all-trades style is precisely what makes Ted Turner such an engrossing character. It is also what makes him so hard to delineate. On the one hand there is the cold, hard, ruthless, money-grubbing, commercial, conglomerate Turner, who upon buying the Braves, unceremoniously fired the team's popular traveling secretary—a dwarf, yet—and who says, "Life is a game, but the way to keep score is money." On the other hand, there is Turner, the litterateur, the romanticist, the boy on the burning deck, the man who in a speech after winning the Sydney-Hobart boat race could paraphrase from The Nigger of the 'Narcissus' and Youth:
"Ah! The good old time—the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you.... The crew of the American Eagle drifted out of sight. I never saw them again. The sea took some, the steamers took others, the graveyards of the earth will account for the rest.... So be it! Let the earth and sea each have its own."
Now, of course, earth and sea have Ted Turner, and the Braves and the Hawks have him, and the talk shows have him and, for better or worse, we all have him. O.K., what do we make of him?
Among his incongruous pursuits, the majority owner of Turner Communications Corporation has attended a state dinner at the White House and ridden in an ostrich race at Atlanta Stadium. "One lap?" the competitor in him screamed. "How the hell can you determine the fastest ostrich in one lap?" He has read the Bible twice from cover to cover and has permitted the screening of pornographic movies for his baseball players and their wives on a bus ride from Plains, Ga. to Atlanta. He has nudged a baseball around the base paths with his nose, as a gimmick, and sailed a boat in a triangle to show the yachting Establishment that a guy like Ted Turner could win the America's Cup.
At one time, most of Turner's businesses have been, as he puts it, "at death's door." In 1977 his last-place baseball team lost a million five. Way back, there were much darker days. His teen-aged sister slowly died of a terrible disease. His father committed suicide. His second marriage is in constant turmoil because of his much-publicized flirtations. His eldest daughter from his first marriage is on the threshold, he says, of "delinquentville." Yet Ted Turner seems not to have had a depressing day in his life. "I'm super." he bellows in reply to the standard greeting, morning, noon and night. "I'm always super." Pat Williams, the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, says, "Ted Turner is every kid who ever got loose in Disney World."
Peter Dames, the president of the outdoor advertising branch of TCC, says of Turner, "Talking to him is like talking to a radio." Hubie Brown, the Hawks' coach, says, "Sit him down and he is one of the alltime great listeners."
Turner says that a magazine columnist once called him " 'the most multifaceted individual he had ever met.' Multifaceted. And this guy had been all over. He had interviewed athletes, lawyers, doctors, musicians, politicians. He said he was this magazine's top guy. Their top guy. Multifaceted. Damn!"
On such occasions, Turner exhibits a childlike naivetè; it is as though one part of him hasn't caught up with the other. Dee Woods says Turner flew in from a trip recently, rushed in and blurted out, "Dee, a taxi driver in New York recognized me! Can you believe that?"
On another evening, while Turner was sitting courtside at a Hawks game, Rick Barry came over and congratulated him on the America's Cup defense. Minutes passed. Then Turner said to a companion, "Gee, wasn't that amazing of Rick Barry?" More minutes passed. Then Turner said, "Is Rick Barry a forward?"
Turner's ignorance about both baseball and basketball is a matter of public record as well as the basis of many jokes he tells on himself. After two years as owner of the Braves, he thinks he finally knows what a balk is. But much of pro basketball has him stumped.
He is forever calling NBA coaches "managers" and officials "umpires." Although Turner knows his Hawks are "not too shabby" but rather "strawwwnnnng" (two of the more annoying expressions in the terrific Turner lexicon someone once called "Southern bebop"), he does not seem to know their names or what positions they play. For instance, former Hawk Ron Behagen was always "Ber-hagen" to Turner. When the hulking, 6'7" forward, John Brown—whose name Turner appears to have less difficulty pronouncing—fouled out of a game, the owner jumped up and yelped, "Golly! Now we've got only three guards left." Later in the same game, after the Hawks were warned for using the illegal zone defense, Turner was bewildered.
"What the hell was that?" he said.
"A zone warning," he was told.
"Awww for Chrissakes, forget it," he concluded, angrily giving up.
Turner has no better command of the facts of his own life. "Was I married both times on the same date?" he said recently, repeating a question. "Dee?" he screamed at his secretary. "Do I have the same wedding anniversary twice?"
Turner has little trouble recalling profit and loss statements, sailing results and his favorite passages from literature, but when he tries to remember whether he has three sons and two daughters or is it three daughters and two sons, he often has to resort to prayer. By the same token, Turner seldom negotiates the 30-minute drive into downtown Atlanta from his modest, magnolia-trimmed home near suburban Marietta without getting hopelessly lost. He has been making this trip for four years. "Someday I know I'll end up in Tennessee," he says.
Turner even has taken to scrawling the names of new business associates on his wrist with a Magic Marker so he won't forget them. Still, last year, while negotiating the contract of rookie guard Rich Laurel, he kept referring to the player as "Rich Little."
"How come you keep calling me 'Kristofferson'? " Turner was asked one day by a writer whose name was not Kristofferson but who wanted to believe that Turner saw in him something of the macho singer-actor.
"Because you got long hair," said Turner.
"Why don't you write my name on your wrist?" asked the writer.
"Because I don't have to impress jerks," said Turner.
Apart from his ability to keep up an endless stream of hyperbolic chatter—oral italics as it were—and to not take himself or anybody else too seriously, the main reason Turner is such a media favorite is that he is honest.
Turner lives by the "just spell the name right, boys" code with journalists and is usually on friendly terms with media reps, both big and small. After Tom Snyder had grilled Turner for 90 minutes, the TV host said he had enjoyed chatting with him. "You ain't such a bad guy yourself, Snyder," replied Turner.
Turner has never been accused of pulling punches. Honor, truth, sincerity—these are his bywords. He subscribes wholeheartedly to the self-description by Nick in The Great Gatsby, who said, "Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."
Because Turner likes to mix honesty with his booze, he has regularly immersed himself in deep water not even Courageous could get him out of.
Turner didn't drink until he was 19 years old, yet following his drunken fiasco of a press conference after winning the America's Cup, the public got the impression that he has been a monumental lush since infancy. In truth, Turner is what your neighborhood bartender might refer to as a quick drunk, a two-beer goner. Until his grand toot, he was rarely seen in Newport bars. He was keeping his nose clean, as the King's Point Fund, which owned Courageous, had asked him to.
Because he has trouble determining where or who he is and what he is saying after a few pops, Turner had been suspended from baseball for a year by Commissioner Kuhn.
On the night in 1976 when he exhibited "conduct unbecoming to baseball" (i.e., told San Francisco co-owner Robert Lurie he would offer Gary Matthews, a Giant outfielder who was about to become a free agent, twice the money Lurie would), Turner claims he had downed "six vodkas and was obviously inebriated." Not to mention fairly ignorant of exactly who Gary Matthews was.
At Turner's hearing before Kuhn, Wells Twombley, a sports columnist who has since died, testified that he had heard Turner call Lurie "a little sheeny." Though both Lurie and Turner deny the "sheeny" remark, Turner was later criticized by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for his remarks concerning agent Jerry Kapstein in a speech Turner made to a group of sports media people in North Carolina. "You should have some reason to dislike a guy besides the fact he wears a full-length fur coat and is a Jew," Turner had said.
Later Turner publicly apologized for his "flippant" statement, but that did not stop a couple of NBA owners, the Knicks' Michael Burke and the Bullets' Abe Pollin, from distributing a letter to their fellow owners insisting that Turner be reprimanded. Burke and Pollin later withdrew their statements and apologized themselves, explaining they had "misinterpreted."
For Turner, who abhors most agents ("when they smile, blood drips off their teeth"), who particularly dislikes Kapstein and his negotiation methods and who swears he will never again have a Kapstein client on the Braves, this was the supreme example of his outspokenness not exactly being the best policy. Other owners, known to be equally wary of Kapstein, have held their tongues.
The ethnic slurs aside, in both instances Turner had ranged himself against the Establishment, and in the Matthews incident, against what he considers its pomposity and silly authoritarianism.
In Newport, Turner had also expressed his anti-Establishmentarianism. At a glittering party of beautiful people whose names began with initials and ended with numerals, a party to which he had been invited by an Atlanta couple he didn't know, Turner was patronized, foisted off by the couple as "their friend" and showcased around like a stuffed celeb doll. After a few hours and a bunch of Southern Comforts, Turner took a powder, infuriating American yachtdom.
Similarly, the captain's falling-out with the owner of the Black Pearl, the popular Newport watering hole from which Turner was barred, occurred only because, as Turner claims, "The guy was acting like a king of the mountain, crowing about his money and being a pompous ass. Look, I had to put him down. I apologized later in the summer, but I can't stand phony airs. That's the whole thing. The phoniness in the world. All this just ticks me off. Injustice. I hate injustice.
"I have such a distaste for people who can't roll up their sleeves and get the job done. See, I'm not wrong. I'm getting a bum rap. I'm not a wild man. I'm not a bad guy. I'm not like some owners I could name. Pro sports has become filthy; it's a double-dealing, rotten business. There's all this terror and intrigue and fratricide. I'm sick of it. Sports should be fun. My Braves and my Hawks play clean. They may be underpaid but they have fun. They're honorable. In yachting, men understand that. You're assumed to be a gentleman. You're assumed to have honor."
This always has been a constant with Turner. One goes back to the Kuhn hearing on his suspension when, under cross-examination by attorney Richard Wertheimer, Turner exploded. "After this is over, you keep that up and you'll get a knuckle sandwich," he roared. The other day Turner was asked what Wertheimer had said to incur such wrath. Turner didn't remember. He merely said. "The man questioned my honor."
Robert E. Turner II was the one who instilled this attitude. Honor of family. Ted Turner's father was a stern, tough, self-made man who had worked up from the dirt as a child in Mississippi. He started a family in Cincinnati, moved to Savannah—where his son and namesake began a lifelong affair with the sea—and branched out to establish a successful, albeit struggling, outdoor-advertising company in other small cities in the South. "People think I'm a crazy man," Turner says. "But my father, he really was the crazy man. He lived hard, played hard, did outrageous things. I mean, he used to go into bars and get in fights and stuff."
As a youngster, Turner was instructed to read a book every two days. He was disciplined with a wire coat hanger. He was put to work in the family business digging post holes. One summer Turner worked a 40-hour week; he was paid $50 a week by his father and was charged $25 to live at home. "My father put the screws to me early," Turner says. "If he hadn't, I never would have survived. My father made me a man."
The family's home life was tragic, owing to a bad marriage, which was to end in divorce, and the debilitating condition of Turner's sister, who died of lupus at 17. "She came out of a coma with her brain destroyed," Turner says. "It was a horror show of major proportions. Padded rooms. Screaming at night. It was something out of Dark Shadows."
At 11, Turner had avoided much of this because he was sent off to military school in Chattanooga. Even though he despised it, Turner remained at the MacCallie School for six years, applied himself and graduated in the top 15% of his class as a company commander. (Later, he would send Robert Edward Turner IV to MacCallie.) Honor.
At Brown University, where Turner planned to major in classics, his father wrote him a remarkable letter (Turner had it published in the school newspaper) in which the elder Turner expressed his dim views of his son's course of study. He "almost puked" upon hearing the news, the old man wrote. He described Aristotle and Plato as "old bastards" and closed, "...you are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better.... You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I sent you there. I am sorry. Devotedly, Dad." The father demanded something more practical. The son switched majors to economics. Honor.
After his father's suicide in 1962, holding his legacy of a broken-down business $6 million in debt (which the doomed man had attempted to sell off at the final hour), the 24-year-old Turner spurned the advice of a battery of family financial advisers who told him to give up. Instead, he hired a sales force, reworked contracts, kept control of the company, saved it and, above all, saved the family's name. Honor.
Now Turner Communications is an enormous corporate mixed bag consisting of WTCG-TV in Atlanta, WRET-TV in Charlotte, N.C., several billboard companies and satellite cables. It also owns TV rights to nearly 30% of all the old movies seen in the Western world, part shares of a baseball and basketball team, a major piece of a mounted rattlesnake head—and who knows what all else—and it is rolling along, with revenues increasing 300% over the last four years. Duty with honor.
"My father was halfway to the big time," says Turner. "I think he saw me as the only hope for the family to go all the way. He was working too hard, drinking too much, popping pills, sick all the time. The pressure finally got him. Two years before, he said he wouldn't mind if he died. I knew then. He put a bullet through his head with the same gun that he taught me to shoot with. At the end the banks wouldn't even honor the check for his funeral. It took my father all his life to get to Atlanta. I wasn't goin' back. No way. It was a hard, bad road. Listen, bubby. I've been in last place a long time."
In his book keyed to the 1974 America's Cup, The Grand Gesture, Roger Vaughan, a classmate of Ted Turner's at Brown, recalls him as wearing three-piece suits, bow ties, felt hats, Chesterfield coats and the like. "[Turner] was likable, even enjoyable," wrote Vaughan, "despite his basic racist tendencies, his chauvinistic approach to women, his elitist view of society, and his fascist ideology."
John Rowe Workman, a professor of classics at Brown, also recalls Turner fondly, even after losing him to his father. "But we didn't really lose Ted," Workman is quoted by Vaughan. "He was still around. The real humanist will always go out of his way to be different."
At college, Turner did things like shoot a rifle from a window, burn down his fraternity's homecoming display and terrorize the ladies. "Ted was never a serious student by any measure," says William Kennedy, Brown '60, who is now assistant director of university relations. "We caroused together. Ted was also a bigot, as maybe all of us were in a sense at that time. Often he would go out in a group, after a lot of drinking, and sing Nazi songs outside the Jewish fraternity, or he would put signs reading WARNINGS FROM THE KU KLUX KLAN on the doors of the few blacks at Brown. He wasn't vicious. He was just trying to be one of the boys."
Of this activity, Turner says today: "Oh, those were just childish pranks." He points out he is the first owner in baseball to employ a black general manager, and that many high-level positions in his company are filled by Jews. "Hey, I don't mean anything by these racial cracks," he says. "There are bad Christians around, too, right? It's just that, you know, a bad Jew is worse, right? You won't find any pictures of me with swastikas and a German army helmet." As for "the blacks," Turner says, "most of them aren't black, anyway. They're brown. Well, aren't they? It's very seldom you see a really black black. The blacks can tell who pays lip service and who's sincere. The blacks love me."
Turner was expelled from Brown in his sophomore year for being caught in a dorm room at Wheaton, a girls' college in nearby Norton, Mass. Then he joined the Coast Guard. Back in Providence after keeping the enemy out of Palm Beach, Turner was expelled from Brown again in his senior year after a Wheaton girl was caught in his room. The guy just couldn't win. "I understand students can entertain girls here," Turner said in a speech on the Brown campus not long ago. "I was way ahead of my time."
In nearly every twist of Turner's scholastic fate, the strong hand of his father could be seen: the sophomore spree is regarded by Turner as a reaction to his father's refusal to let him take a summer job at a Connecticut yacht club. Up to then Turner had stood by a parental agreement to refrain from drinking until he was 21 (for which he was to get a $5,000 reward). But that night, angered and forlorn over his father's decision, Turner got plastered. Then he got caught with the girl. Then he got thrown out of college. By the time of his second dismissal, Turner says he was leaving Brown anyway because his father—suffering from alcoholism himself—refused to pay for the schooling of a by-now regularly imbibing young ruffian.
"I didn't fail college. College failed me," Turner is quoted in The Grand Gesture. But the true failures seemed to be those of the son and the father, each to the other.
"Look, this is amazing," Turner said the other day in his office, pointing to an array of paintings and photographs: to assorted baseball, basketball, sailing and television memorabilia; to a wall completely hidden by trophy shelves full of silver, polished brass and cut crystal. "This would be amazing to my father.
"I remember him telling me about the New York Yacht Club once. How it was swank and ritzy and all. My father never would have dreamed of me being in that room. That I'd be a member. That I'd defend the America's Cup. Lord, it would blow his mind. Sometimes I think he is somewhere watching all this. Watching me make the big time. I wish he could come back and see, you know? Like the father in Carousel? The dead father when he comes back to see his daughter at graduation? Damn. We were good friends. I wish my father could come back just for one day."
Friends and acquaintances fret that Turner seems to have a preoccupation with death. A Chicago reporter says Turner once told him he thought he might die the same way his father did, and Turner once persuaded Dale Murphy, the Braves' young Mormon catcher, to choose baseball over missionary work by saying, "God's always over .500. I'm dyin' here, Murphy. Do you want the blood of seven people on your hands? You leave me and I got to shoot myself and my whole family."
At any rate, Turner first and foremost is a sailor, and sailors are always in close touch with their destiny.
It is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this fascinating man's life that, save for a Chichester here, a Popeye there, he has somehow found time to become the world's best-known sailor. From modest beginnings on the Skidaway River in Savannah, from a mild boating interest whetted at college in Rhode Island when the America's Cup competition was reborn in 1958, Turner has been a national champion in three different classes—Y Flyer, 5.5 Meter and Flying Dutchman. He has won two SORC championships, three Yachtsman of the Year awards ("That's like MVP," he roars) and countless races on several continents. He has become a companion to sailor kings, a pal of sailor prime ministers—and been judged a dismal bust in the America's Cup Trials of 1974 aboard Mariner. But in Newport '77, Ted Turner became a star.
The captain was all over T shirts, pennants and buttons. He was in newspapers, magazines and all cocktail-party gossip. And there he was, live. Following each race, as Turner took his daily walk from Bannister's Wharf over the cobblestones of the picturesque New England port, hundreds of cheering townspeople and tourists would surround and follow him in a boisterous scene straight out of the village of Hamelin. By the final race day there were a thousand people parading down Thames Street after this grinning, swearing Pied Piper.
Had he chosen that moment for a reverie on the joys of sailing, Turner would have had the crowd even more spellbound. He has, in quieter moments, reflected, "Some races are so beautiful that you're sorry to finish. There are times when the weather is perfect. The Montego Bay race in '66 was one. It was a full moon, clear nights, warm, and there was a good wind. The world was beautiful. In our sport, you're out there with nature—you're as close to nature as you can be—with gulls, flying fish, whales, the dawn, the sunset, the stars.
"You take a deep breath and you feel alive, really alive. The brilliance of the stars is hard to describe. You think you can reach out and grab a handful of them. It's as if they were 10 feet away, and there are millions of them. There are so many beautiful sights. The coast of Tasmania with its cliffs that go 1,000 feet straight up. Sailing past Molokai, in Hawaii, in the moonlight after not having seen land in two weeks; storming past the coast of Cuba; seeing Bermuda loom some 70 or 80 miles away, or seeing the phosphorescence in the tropics. It's just so beautiful out there."
At the finish now, in the finest hour of any sailor's career, following the greatest outpouring of affection ever seen at an America's Cup race, some people were waiting for Turner to match this eloquence. Alas. During the last trip to shore and a press conference; after having had innumerable quarts of beer, champagne and—bingo!—aquavit (courtesy of some overzealous Swedes) poured down his throat, Ted Turner arrived at the pinnacle dead drunk.
"You ought to catch those Super Bowl winners when they've had several hours to enjoy it instead of just a few minutes," Turner says in his defense. "Honestly, what was I going to say? A friend of mine was disappointed in me. He thought I'd missed my moment. My moment? How the hell could I be profound? It was just a boat race. It was over. I had been away all summer. It was time to get back to work. I didn't even have time to make the Today show, and they wanted me bad. I have to work to earn a living.
"Anyway," said Ted Turner, the famous philosopher, "my father always said to never set goals you can reach in your lifetime. After you accomplished them, there would be nothing left. I'll have other moments. I'll have more fun. My teams may keep losing but I'll enjoy myself.
"No need in sitting alone on the shelf," Ted Turner, the famous crooner, is singing again. "Come to the Cabaret. Da da da da da, boom, boom, boom. I'll have a bounce in my step, a smile on my face. Hey, happy-go-lucky me. There'll be a load of compromising. On the road to my horizon. Like a rhinestone cowboy. Riding out in front of a star-spangled rodeo. Like a rhinestone....
"What I need to do is put out a record," says Ted Turner, the famous recording artist. "Like Wolfman Jack. Talk about a star. The 'Wolfman's Favorites.' You ever hear that? Yeah. That's it. Ted Turner's Favorites. Man, I love the Wolf. He's so cool. I wanted to send in the money. Get me his favorites. Wolf always says '...and remember, the old Wolfman loves you.' Yeah. I love him. You know what? I got to get him down here to Atlanta. Me and Wolfman Jack. What a pair. What an affair. What an unstoppable combo! You know the Wolf? You know his number? Hey, Dee?"
Talk about a star.