On December 10, 1990, the American businessman Armand Hammer – who published two autobiographies extolling his own business acumen and his many humanitarian endeavors, but who has been portrayed by several independent biographers in terms far less flattering – died, at the age of 92.
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Armand Hammer was born on May 21, 1898, in the Lower East Side of New York. His parents, however, Julius Hammer and the former Rose Robinson Lifschitz, were both born in Ukrainian Russia, and had emigrated with their respective families to the U.S. in the early 1890s.
Julius was a druggist and later a medical doctor and businessman, and also a very committed socialist, as well as a founder of the American Communist Party. It was his idea to name his first son for the symbol of the U.S. Socialist Labor Party, a muscular arm gripping a hammer, although later in life, Armand gave other explanations for his name. (He also made an unsuccessful attempt in the 1980s to buy Dwight & Churchill, the American company that produced Arm & Hammer Baking Soda and other products so that, he explained, when people asked if he was connected to the company, he could say yes.)
Mining asbestos in the Urals
Armand graduated from Morris High School, in the Bronx, in 1915. He attended both college and medical school at Columbia University, earning a medical degree in 1921.
He never practiced medicine, however. In 1921, his father was sent to prison, and Armand had to take over management of his small drug company. Julius, it turns out, had performed an illegal abortion in his home clinic, and when his patient died, he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter. With no alternative, he asked Armand to take his place in a planned business trip to Russia.
Armand had never left the country before and knew no Russian, but his father’s affiliation with the Bolsheviks landed him a meeting on his arrival with Vladimir Lenin. Post-revolution, the country’s economy was in a shambles, and Lenin immediately proposed several joint business ventures to Hammer, who had thought he had come just to collect some large debts.
Soon, the Hammer family owned a concession to mine asbestos in the Ural Mountains, and a pencil plant that eventually employed 1,000 people. Hammer also turned his drug company into a major importer-exporter between the USSR and the U.S..
In return for American wheat, for example, the Russians allowed him to export caviar and furs.
Stalin in, Hammer out
When Joseph Stalin came to power, Hammer liquidated his assets in the Soviet Union and went home. With him he brought priceless artwork, jewelry and other objets d’art once owned by the Romanov family, which he’d picked up from the cash-hungry Communist regime.
Back home, Hammer got involved in alcohol production – during the Prohibition years, he made and sold a medicinal ginger extract that happened to have a very high alcohol level. After repeal, he bought the J.W. Dant bourbon distillery.
In 1956, he took over two exploratory oil wells from a bankrupt firm called Occidental Petroleum. The wells struck oil, and by the next year, Hammer was the company’s CEO.
By 1970, with investments in Libya and expansion into petrochemicals, Occidental had revenues of $2 billion, and by 1986, of $16 billion. Under pressure from Libyan leader Qadhafi, Occidental was the first Western-owned oil company to yield control of oil prices to OPEC, in 1973, a development that would have global implications in the years that followed.
Hammer’s philanthropy was prodigious, and so, wrote biographer Edward Jay Epstein, were his attempts to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Menachem Begin actually submitted a nomination on his behalf in 1989 -- according to Epstein, after Hammer made $100 million-worth of business investments in Israel – but the prize ended up going to the Dalai Lama.
On December 11, 1990, Armand Hammer was planning to celebrate his bar mitzvah – belatedly, at age 92 – in the context of an L.A. fundraising event for several Israeli organizations. He died on December 10, but the evening took place as scheduled – in Hammer’s memory. The museum he built in Los Angeles to house his priceless art collection opened shortly after Hammer’s death.