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Forstmann, the Big-Hearted Prodigy

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WASHINGTON -- On Sunday morning we lost a big-hearted prodigy: Teddy Forstmann, financier, political player, philanthropist (especially for the young and those in education) and a bit of an adventurer. I know -- I accompanied him on some and feared for my life. He was a member of the Board of Directors of The American Spectator in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Teddy died of brain cancer, and we shall miss him.

He was from a prosperous family, but his fortune he made on his own. He relished "the deal," and sports, and gambling. He also had an interest in the ladies: Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley and recently a television personality, Padma Lakshmi. But he never married.

Teddy put himself through Columbia Law School in part through high-stakes gambling. He was a prosecutor, as I recall, who then flew around the country just managing to get together enough money to buy a company. He was down to his last nickel and last call, but he got the company, turned it around, and walked off with $300,000. He knew the game of the leveraged buyout (LBO) was for him. In 1978, he created Forstmann, Little and Company, an early LBO firm.

Teddy was on his way, buying up Dr. Pepper, Topps Co., General Instrument Corp. and Gulfstream Aerospace, among others. He began to build a fortune estimated at $1.6 billion. He was among the first to buy companies with subordinated debt, rebuild them and sell them for hundreds of millions -- occasionally billions -- of dollars. He bought Gulfstream, for instance, in 1990 for $825 million and sold it in 1999 for $5.3 billion. Forstmann-Little had average returns of 50 percent in its first two decades.

Teddy would not use junk bonds. That was, he would say, "funny money. It's wampum." Over lunch, he would try to explain it to me. He was famous for coining the phrase "barbarians at the gate." It served as the title for Bryan Burrough and John Helyar's best-seller about the $25 billion deal for RJR Nabisco, which Forstmann bid on but lost to private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

Teddy had an eye for "the deal" but was also extremely well-read, athletic and civilized. He was a conservative too. He donated millions to the Republican Party, though his real interest was in education and the young. He teamed up with John T. Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, and donated millions to the Children's Scholarship Fund. He was an advocate of voucher programs and charter schools.

Teddy also had a sense of humor. He created a rivalry with Henry Kravis from the battle for RJR Nabisco. Teddy prided himself on using subordinated debt. KKR used junk debt. Teddy lost, but in "Barbarians at the Gate," Burrough and Helyar testify that Teddy "fervently believed junk bonds had perverted not only the LBO industry but Wall Street itself."

"Almost alone among major acquirers," the authors write, "Forstmann-Little refused to use" junk. With Kravis, it led to many amusing altercations. Teddy moved into a home in Long Island, N.Y., and damned if it wasn't along the same beach where Kravis had a home. I remember how Teddy competed to get to the heliport before Kravis. These are the things billionaires fight over.

There were more serious adventures. In the early fall of 1992, Teddy called and asked if I could rouse some writers to go with him to the former Yugoslavia to cover the plight of the refugees. We hopped over to London in his Gulfstream, picked up the distinguished young historian Andrew Roberts and flew on to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. There the mayor greeted us as though we were visiting dignitaries.

You'll forgive me if the next morning I expected armored cars to transport us through the war zone to Mostar, an embattled city in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Alas, our armored caravan consisted of one beat-up Volkswagen Golf sedan with one driver. Teddy was undeterred. The scenes along the Adriatic coast were spectacular, though the countryside was becoming increasingly ominous. Worse, we three were beginning to sweat profusely in the back of the un-air-conditioned Golf, and soon we were hopelessly lost. Our guide, a Croatian tennis star friend of Teddy's, seemed anxious, as well he should have been, having not been back to Croatia in years.

Finally, amidst the burned-out buildings of a remote town, we found the cops; or rather, they found us. Now, in my opinion, we were prisoners. For hours we were kept incommunicado in that wretched town, and Teddy was growing irritable -- not an auspicious sign.

At long last, something happened. I never figured out what it was, but Teddy exerted his fiery personality, and we were off to Mostar with proper directions. At Mostar we were shelled by the Serbs in the hills and feted by the locals -- not good for the digestion. Teddy was unconcerned. He wanted to visit the refugee camps. We did, for a day, driving by freshly dug graves, which Roberts and I found disconcerting. Shortly thereafter, they would be filled.

When Teddy got to one camp where all the kids seemed to be down with colds and the flu, he was distressed. How could such conditions exist in civilized Europe? He pledged a few million dollars to rebuild the camp with proper sanitation. And just before leaving, Teddy spotted a very fetching young lady and gave her his coat. He figured she would need it in the winter. If a pretty woman were present, Teddy would spot her. He was fun in a good cause or a great deal. There was no one else like him.

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