The life-style of the idle rich titillates most of us. But the busy rich are, in truth, far more interesting. Here is Malcolm Forbes, surely one of the richest of men and very likely the busiest, and what he does with his money is endlessly fascinating and, in a way, almost endearing. At least it has proved to be such to kings and presidents and prime ministers and ordinary folk all over the planet.
Forbes, the 66-year-old owner and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, keeps turning up on the world's front pages: riding his Harley Classic 80 up to Moscow's Red Square as leader of the first group of foreigners permitted to tour the country by motorcycle, unfurling his 74-foot hot-air balloon alongside the Great Wall of China, another historic first, or leading his team of bikers triumphantly into Beijing. Now he has put together a handsome book celebrating his exploits. Around the World on Hot Air and Two Wheels (Simon & Schuster) is priced at $24.95, and it's worth every penny.
Forbes's principal home is in Far Hills, N.J. He also touches down for sporting weekends at an immense chateau in Normandy, not far from Omaha Beach, where he foots the bill for an annual international balloon fest; a palace in Morocco that overlooks Tangier harbor; a house in London; a few "ranches" in the States; and a Fiji island—reaching these destinations in his private Boeing 727 or his yacht. The properties—plus the boat, the bikes, the balloons, the plane—are not just for show; they are used.
As Forbes told a Playboy interviewer, he got into cycling at 48: "One of the guys who worked for me, a chauffeur, a neat guy, wanted to buy a motorcycle and asked if he could borrow the money.... Being a sensible man, I tried to talk him out of it. But he bought one anyway and he gave me a ride one day, and the next thing I knew, I was buying many motorcycles for myself and my sons." A chauffeur was also involved in Forbes's ballooning debut. While being driven to work in New York one morning, Forbes recalled reading that a local man was selling balloon rides. It seemed like fun: "I asked my driver if he'd like to stop for an hour and go for a balloon ride. He said that sounded like a good idea, so we floated around the countryside for an hour and I was in the office by eight-thirty." He was also hooked on ballooning. "On a motorcycle," Forbes continues, "you sense that not everybody is happy to see you and your mode of transportation going by, but a balloon turns everybody on.... With a balloon, getting there isn't half the fun; it's all the fun."
Soon Forbes was setting world records for hot-air ballooning. In 1973, achieving a considerable logistical triumph, he set one of aeronautical history's significant firsts, a coast-to-coast crossing (from Coos Bay, Ore. to the shallows off Gwynn Island at the mouth of the Chesapeake) in the same balloon. He floated some 3,000 miles in 141 hours over 34 days, finishing a solid surface of black-and-blue bruises, not only from his Chesapeake splashdown but also from slamming around a cramped "basket" filled with propane tanks. Then he really got serious. After losing upward of a million dollars on the arrangements for a nonstop balloon crossing of both the U.S. and the Atlantic—it was aborted literally as the craft got off the ground—Forbes began combining his twin loves of biking and ballooning into a sort of worldwide goodwill ambassadorship that has enhanced his fame at home and abroad.
Forbes wisely invited professional journalists on nearly all his trips; they've done most of the writing and they've done a good job. One silly flaw should have been avoided: Some of the book's pages look as though they had been laid out by the same fellow who used to put together high school yearbooks in the 1930s. But don't let that keep you from the pleasures of a book overflowing with exuberance and great good humor.
Forbes in his element: with the world on a string.