Armand Hammer

Born: 1898

Died: 1990

Source of Wealth: International trade, oil

Armand Hammer really didn’t strike it rich until after he retired in 1956.

Sure, the Bronx native and son of a doctor had met with considerable success on his earlier, far-reaching enterprises. By 23, he had made his first $1 million by selling large amounts of whiskey, as medicine, to drugstores.

Upon receiving his medical degree from Columbia University and with his newfound fortune, he set his sights on war-torn Soviet Russia and journeyed there in 1921. While providing medical aid to the country’s famine victims, he was persuaded by Vladimir Lenin to start a business venture.

By 1925, Hammer was trading American wheat for Russian furs and manufacturing pencils for the Soviet Union. Soon, his firm grew into the country’s largest supplier of the writing implements. When the Soviets bought him out a few years later, Hammer returned to the United States, though not empty-handed. Cash-starved citizens had sold him paintings and jewelry formerly owned by the Romanov empire, which he later sold, parlaying his cash into whiskey distilling and cattle raising.

By the mid-’50s, he was ready to settle down and retire. But a friend convinced him to bankroll two wildcat oil wells being drilled in Pasadena by the faltering Occidental Petroleum Corp. Seeking a tax shelter, Hammer bought a controlling interest in the ailing company which unexpectedly struck oil. He quickly increased his holdings and became the firm’s chairman and chief executive in 1957.

Hammer, of course, was controversial. In 1976, he was fined $3,000 and placed on one year’s probation for illegally making and concealing a $54,000 contribution to the 1972 reelection campaign of President Richard Nixon.

Criticism also abounded regarding the cost overruns at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center in Westwood, which opened in 1990 to house Hammer’s art collection.

Nola L. Sarkisian

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