So Malcolm Forbes turns out to have been gay. Well, whoop-de-doo. No sooner had America’s favorite capitalist been buried on his island in Fiji than he was ”outed” by a New York gay magazine; more recently Donald Trump, in one of those vengeful passages that help make his new ”autobiography” so contemptible, did it again, claiming that Forbes was tossed out of a Plaza Hotel bar because he was there with some underage boys. And now, to this apparently burgeoning genre, we can add Christopher Winans’ new biography of Forbes, the first since his death last February.
There is something to be said for being first, I suppose, though in this case what is to be said is mainly unpleasant. The book has the feel of a slapdash job assembled from the too numerous articles written about the man over the years. Winans tells us, for instance, that Forbes had a flair for promoting himself; that the magazine his father founded didn’t really become a force until he took it over; that his legendary parties, like the one in Tangier a few years ago, eventually became controversial; that Forbes was full of eccentic enthusiasms, for motorcycles and hot-air balloons and Fabergé eggs and Elizabeth Taylor. This is news?
It is Forbes’ private life — his homosexuality, to be exact — that obsesses Winans. And here the writer has bothered to do some digging. The anecdotes are numerous and they leave no doubt at all that Forbes was gay. ”But why would anyone care to expose Malcolm’s sexual orientation?” Winans himself asks, more than a little defensively. He offers two excuses: First, Forbes ”felt compelled from time to time to impose his sexual advances on young, potentially vulnerable employees.” And secondly, ”it seemed…hypocritical in light of the virtuous family-man image Malcolm tried to project.”
Both these excuses strike me as lame. New employees were quietly told how to fend off Malcolm’s inevitable dinner invitation, and as Winans himself admits, no one’s career at Forbes was ever held back because he refused to go to bed with the boss. As for his desire to appear the ”virtuous family man,” well, so what? I would argue that he was a good family man — a man who was close to, and cared a great deal about, his wife and his children.
Besides, to read about Forbes’ sexual encounters is to get the strong sense that he was terribly conflicted about his sexuality. This is not unusual for someone of his age and background. Winans prefers to hold his subject to the standards of the present era, in which being out of the closet is considered the only honorable course. This is especially troubling inasmuch as Winans’ own brother, the reporter R. Foster Winans, was effectively outed by The Wall Street Journal several years ago. (This came about because Foster Winans, who wrote the Journal’s ”Heard on the Street” column, was caught selling advance information about the column and sharing the profits with his male lover; his homosexuality was revealed in the course of several long Journal articles exposing his crimes.) His treatment at the hands of his former employer was considered an outrage in the gay community, and one might have thought that this would have sensitized his brother, who also works for The Wall Street Journal.
None of this is to say that Malcolm Forbes’ homosexuality ought to be ignored by future biographers. Forbes lived an extraordinarily rich life, of which his homosexuality was a part. This small book — not only in length, but in generosity of spirit and depth of understanding — does not do it justice. D