Who is nearly 89 years old, can leap the Iron Curtain in a single bound and change the course of mighty East-West confrontations? Who has inspired the trust and awe of both Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, made his first million by age 21 (while attending medical school) and his second cutting business deals with that scourge of capitalism, Nikolai Lenin? Look, up in his corporate jet, he's a plutocrat, he's a philanthropist, a globe-trotting peace activist and more: he's Armand Hammer.
On top of a lifetime of improbable achievements and untold wealth, Hammer has written his own story, "Hammer" with Neil Lyndon. It is a reasonably thorough and engrossing book, almost certainly destined to be a best seller--thereby augmenting the author's already replete wallet and reputation. Rich anecdotes abound on the world's economic, social and political elite. Nikita Khrushchev is described at a state banquet as he `"grazed with an intense contentment," pausing only to kick a strawberry that had eluded his mouth under the buffet table. In another scene, Hammer was hosted for dinner by his friend and rival John Paul Getty, who was trying to sell him a $30-million oil exploration project. As Getty got up to take a phone call, his guest wandered off to find a bathroom and had the good fortune to overhear Getty calling the deal a loser. While serving as a purchasing agent for Egypt's King Farouk, the author satisfied many bizarre requests, but couldn't quite deliver on this one: "Send me Lana Turner."
In a revelation calculated to cause a sensation in the art world, Hammer maintains that 60 years ago he uncovered a masterful Russian art forger who had populated numerous European museums with ersatz Rubens, Rembrandts and the like. He writes, "As far as I know, Yakovlev`s fakes are still in place, still attracting the admiration of scholars and art lovers." Why he never did anything with this information previously is not explained.
The book begins with current events in which the author played a significant role: the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, the Daniloff release and the rescue from ill health and totalitarianism of refusenik David Goldfarb. After the nuclear accident, the Soviet government refused all official American aid but gratefully accepted Hammer's offer to fly in a team of medical specialists, equipment and material to treat radiation victims. Hammer was, after all, the man who had known Lenin and who had brought grain to starving Russians after the Revolution (in return for furs, caviar, etc. at a robust profit). Without this most recent "outstretched hand from the West"` the author concludes, the Soviets subsequently "might never have decided to be so open with the world."
While taking credit for glasnost may be stretching things, there is no doubting that the Soviets greatly admire and respect this quintessential capitalist who says that one of his life goals is to foster peace and understanding between the superpowers. (The other is to find a cure for cancer.) Having wheeled and dealed with Lenin, Brezhnev and Chernenko, he does not see why Reagan and Gorbachev cannot do likewise. To help them along he has proposed certain steps, such as renunciation of the first use of force - nuclear or conventional - and annual summit meetings.
At times, the author's judgment of people and nations is colored by his business relations with them. He is enamored of Lenin, whom he compares to Franklin Roosevelt. To bolster his view that the revolutionary leader has gotten a bad rap as a ruthless, inflexible ideologue, Hammer rewrites some history, absolving Lenin of acceding to the execution of Czar Nicholas II and his family. The Czar, according to Hammer, had ordered the "cold-blooded" execution of Lenin`s brother for "political activity." In fact, it was Nicholas II's father who had done so; and the brother had been convicted of plotting to assassinate the Czar, a charge the accused never denied. Hammer neglects to note that Lenin's government tried to hide from the world that, in addition to the Czar, his wife, five children and four servants also were killed.
Polemics aside, Hammer has much to reveal about the Soviet Union, past and present. He has no illusions about the economic efficiency of communism. He simply feels his country should trade, talk and visit with its rival more than it does - basically pretty sound advice. If Hammer does not bring the superpowers closer together, it will be one of the few things in his life at which he has failed.