--Christopher Buckley, author of Wry Martinis
As Newsweek put it, "Andrew Tobias remains the funniest of the financial writers." Forbes identified him as "one of the financial community's most pithily perceptive observers." In My Vast Fortune, the bestselling author of The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need tells the amusing and illuminating story of how he amassed dizzying (well, to him) wealth. Then, he describes the unusual ways he's put it to work. Among his more famous money adventures are:
His personal campaign against smoking in Russia, which began when he spotted an opportunity to buy cheap TV airtime for commercials. "Excuse my pronunciation, " he told ninety million Russians night after night, "but I have something important to tell you."
His decision to buy real estate in Miami over the phone, without ever seeing it. For the price of a swank two-bedroom apartment in New York, Tobias realized he could buy most of a neighborhood--so he did. Oops. The tragicomic story of liberal as slumlord.
His crusade to fix the auto insurance mess, which pitted him against--of all people--his onetime hero Ralph Nader. After spending $250,000 of his vast fortune on a referendum in California (where he has never lived), Tobias came to two conclusions: 1) "Each of us has a calling and--though appallingly boring--auto insurance seemed more and more to be mine" ; and 2) "Ralph Nader is a big fat idiot."
Finally, Tobias addresses your vast fortune and offers his wisest tips on how to make it and how to spend it. Witty and compassionate, Andrew Tobias is a plutocrat for the nineties, a capitalist with a heart. If you enjoyed The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, you'll love My Vast Fortune.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
MY VAST FORTUNE
Before You Give It Away, You Have to Make It
I’ll never forget being interviewed by Werner Erhard—for two hours—on the subject of money. Not how to make it or invest it or any of the ordinary topics but how to be with it. I had no idea then what exactly the Est guru meant by this, though I was certainly impressed by dinner on his yacht the night before—he knew how to be with money, I figured—and I have equally little idea now. I was even more baffled when viewers told me how much our closed-circuit TV conversation had helped them be with money. It had?
But I’ll say this. I do like being with money.
I began accumulating my vast fortune in 1952, when my father gave me $5 for my fifth birthday. Five dollars was a lot more in 1952 than it is today (about $29 in today’s money), and I would like to tell you I did something unusually precocious with it, or with the $6 I got when I turned six, or the $7 the year after that. Not to mention my allowance, which must have been in the twenty-five-cent range back then, before I learned to negotiate.
Instead, the money got spent, mostly down at Trella’s, the local variety store.
One of the things I am famous in my family for having said—not that I have any recollection of having said it, or that it took much to become famous in my family—was uttered when my grandmother asked me where all my money was. “The bank,” she was perhaps expecting me to say. Or “the piggy bank.” But it was in neither of these. “Right now it’s in Trella’s,” I apparently said.
I had not yet learned to save.
But I did like money. For one thing, I liked numbers. For another, I was competitive, and doubtless saw money for what it is—and practically all it is once you have more than you need—a way to keep score. Let others be class president or veep; in high school, treasurer was my political calling. I liked counting the money. I liked the feel of a couple of hundred dollars in small bills in my pocket.
It wasn’t about greed—it wasn’t my money, after all. And it wasn’t exactly power. I didn’t control how we would spend it. It wasn’t even about float—savings accounts all paid 3 percent back then, by law, so there was not a lot one could do with $200 overnight.
I guess it made me feel important?
Growing up in Manhattan, and in Westchester on weekends, we led your basic blessed very-upper-middle-class life. We weren’t wealthy—all the money that came in went right back out for orthodontia, tuition, the maid (in the Fifties, you didn’t have to be rich to have a maid), the two cars, and on and on. Though I didn’t know it at the time, there was a period of years when my mother would cry each month when she did the bills. Income was high, but so were expenses.
Uncle Lou, on the other hand, was wealthy. Short, fat and jolly, with a gold chain from his vest to his pants pocket—I never saw him in anything other than a three-piece suit—he looked like the rich uncle in the Monopoly game. Whenever he came to visit, the coins in his pocket positively jingled—dazzling enough to a little kid, but then he would pull out a huge wad of silent green and hand me a dollar or two.
Loved Uncle Lou.
He also gave my brother and me a few shares of stock—ten shares of GM, twenty shares of General Dynamics—I don’t remember them all. (I do remember once, aged twelve, getting a cold call from a Merrill Lynch broker eager to discuss my investment needs.) In total, we must ultimately have sat steward over upwards of $2,000 in blue chips, perhaps half a dozen of them. I remember we would check their prices in the paper and graph them. Once I think we even made a trade. (In those days, the commission charged to trade ten shares of stock was higher than the commission today, if you’re smart, to trade a thousand.) One thing for sure: we were no Warren Buffett or Jimmy Rogers or anything like that. But I guess we did get into the habit of seeing the glossy annual reports and receiving the occasional $12 dividend check.
If the idea was to mold little capitalists, it didn’t work. My brother, summa cum laude from Harvard, went into academe with a decidedly anticapitalist bent (as what self-respecting Harvard grad of the time did not?). And I—well, I was, at best, conflicted.
Yes, I liked money. And I loved collecting stamps and “first-day covers” and totting up their supposed value.* But at the same time, I became aware that we were privileged, and it embarrassed me. I remember being at the Y for some sort of class (OK, OK, it was a puppetry class), aged ten or so, and the teacher that first day asking where each of us lived. Always wanting to be the first to answer, and this being an easy one, I blurted out: “860 Fifth Avenue.” She turned red and spoke to me sharply about being “little Mr. Big Shot” or some such thing. I had no idea what she meant, or how she could possibly be criticizing me for answering her question. I realize now that I should have hesitated, looked down and said something like “Sixty-eighth street, but it’s pretty cramped and we have no view, though it’s more than anyone deserves.” Because while I took Fifth Avenue for granted, that’s not where most people in America, or even New York, lived (though it was pretty cramped, and—except for a magnificent few months when they tore down the building in front of us to build another—air shafts were our only vista).
That moment stuck with me. I also found myself feeling extremely uncomfortable, as I got a little older, being served dinner by a black maid. What had I done to deserve being waited on by an adult this way? (Nothing.) The Sixties were upon us, Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney, not much older than me, were down in Mississippi getting killed (while I was being offered more pot roast), and my sense of injustice—perhaps honed by the tyranny of my older brother, whom I loved then after a fashion and surely love now, but you know what sibling rivalry can be—had grown robust.
And I’m glad it had, because wherever you looked—South Africa, Siberia, Central America—there was ample grist for outrage. What had I done to deserve being born, white, in the richest city of the richest country in the world, and to live on perhaps its richest street?
3—Moses and Lenin
My black eighth-grade math teacher, Robert Moses, was soft-spoken to the point of incomprehensibility back then, the year before he went South to help lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. But somehow, confused as I was by Boolean algebra and multiplying in Base-8—and as sheltered as I was from any real injustice—his barely audible passion on the subject of civil rights echoed in my ears. It left a lasting impression. (Not to mention the friendship I would strike up, a decade later, with the not at all quiet AI Lowenstein, the one-term congressman who led the “dump Johnson” movement and may have done more to end the Vietnam War than anyone else. “What are you doing about South Africa?” he asked me once, out of the blue. What am I doing about South Africa? Why should I be doing anything about it? I wondered. It had just never occurred to me. But of course from then on—and long after Al had been murdered by an acolyte turned paranoid-schizophrenic—I was still looking for ways to do a little something about South Africa.)
So when I stumbled upon Russian as my language in high school, and when that led to a summer behind the Iron Curtain (the summer of the U.S.-Soviet missile treaty, the summer before President Kennedy was assassinated), I was ready. I left New York a sixteen-year-old and returned a socialist.
That lasted about a year.
My parents, memories of the McCarthy era and the Black List still fresh, were horrified it lasted even that long. Sure, they were liberals—what New Yorker wasn’t? And sure, they would be against the Vietnam War (first my mom, later my dad). Indeed, the year Time ran a contest for ad agencies—there would be one winner a week for fifty-two weeks—my dad’s fledgling agency, of which he was CEO and creative director, was the very first to win. The ad he wrote featured an American flag upside down, with a message about the true meaning of patriotism. In that same era he did ads to help launch Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen.
But socialism, let alone a sympathy for communism, was quite another thing. When I flashed the Lenin Library card I had scored in Moscow and joked that it was my “Communist Party card,” they weren’t even secretly amused.
That all this would lead to my owning controlling interest in a Russian ad agency or doing battle with Ralph Nader is not without irony. But wait, I am sixteen. I have yet to amass my vast fortune.