Hooked! – How Willa Cather, Lynn Sherr,
and Ted Turner Came to the Classics1
How did the famous among us come to the Classics? In college? Inspired by a
notable Greek or Roman? By accident? The list is endless and includes such luminaries
as Jane Addams, James Baker, Jerry Brown, William Cohen, W.E.B. DuBois, Sigmund
Freud, Betty Friedan, Robert Graves, Toni Morrison, and Friedrich W. Nietzsche.
This paper looks at three remarkable Americans – writer Willa Cather, journalist
Lynn Sherr, and entrepreneur Ted Turner. Three books consulted for this paper are
especially revealing: James Woodress, Willa Cather: A Literary Life (University of
Nebraska Press, 1987); Lynn Sherr, Outside the Box: A Memoir (Holtzbrinck Publishers,
2006); Ted Turner, Call Me Ted (Grand Central Publishing, 2008). As for Lynn Sherr,
anecdotal information comes from her 2003 public lecture at the University of New
Hampshire, “Why in Heaven’s Name Are You Majoring in Greek?,” for the Professor
John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series.2
Willa Cather was a most gifted woman. From her early years in Virginia and
Nebraska, she went from journalist to novelist at age thirty-eight. After settling in the
East, she returned often to Lincoln and Red Cloud to renew her sources. In her later
years she knew her career had been a success, and her literary reputation was secure.3
The Cather family came from Wales. Willa was greatly influenced by her early years
in Virginia and by 1883 the Cathers moved to Red Cloud when Willa was nine.
Cather’s lifelong devotion to the Classics began in Red Cloud. One of her early adult
friends there was William Ducker, an educated Englishman who was the most important
influence of her childhood and adolescence. His passionate interest in Latin, Greek, and
science impressed young Willa who began reading the Classics with him. She was
already studying Latin and starting Greek. Under Ducker’s tutelage she read Vergil,
This paper was first presented at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of New England at
Mount Holyoke College, March 18-19, 2011; a version of the paper will be given at the annual American
Classical League Institute at the University of Minnesota, June 25-27, 2011.
L. Sherr, “Why in Heaven’s Name Are You Majoring in Greek?,” The American Classical League
Newsletter, vol. 26, no. 3 (spring 2004): 5-14.
Woodress, pp. xiii-xvii.
Ovid, the Iliad, and the Odes of Anacreon. She continued Latin and Greek after she went
to the University of Nebraska and read the Classics with Ducker during the summers.
Their relationship ended abruptly after her second summer home from the university.
One day as they were walking home from his brother’s store he said, “it is as though the
light were going out, Willie.” Soon after, one of his children came running after her and
called her back. She found him dead on the couch with a copy of the Iliad open on the
floor beside him. Ducker’s death was the first great loss of her life.4
When she graduated from high school in 1890 and prepared to enter the University at
Lincoln, Willa wrote a graduation speech that is her first extant piece of serious writing.
It is a defense of scientific inquiry and ranges from the dawn of history to the present. In
it she writes,
The Greeks, lacking the intense religious ferver of the Orient, entertained
broader views. Their standard of manhood was one of practical worth. They
allowed no superstition, religious, political or social, to stand between them
and the truth and suffered exile, imprisonment and death for the right of
opinion and investigation.5
Cather went on to Lincoln and her university days. The University of Nebraska in the
1890’s was quite prominent. There was Swedish Sanskritist, A.H. Edgren, former rector
of the University of Gothenberg; Hellenist James T. Lees, British-born but educated at
Johns Hopkins under famous classicist Basil Gildersleeve; Herbert Bates, young poet and
fiction writer who had studied under Barrett Wendell at Harvard; Roscoe Pound, later
dean of the Harvard Law School, was both lawyer and graduate teaching assistant in
botany; John J. Pershing, later commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary
Forces in World War I, taught math and military science; Chancellor James Canfield,
later president of Ohio State University and librarian of Columbia University. 6
As an adolescent Cather acted and dressed more as a tomboy than a proper young
lady. She adopted male values and attitudes, and continued to act as a tomboy as she had
Woodress, p. 53.
Woodress, p. 61.
Woodress, p. 67.
earlier done in Virginia. Contemporary readers, chiefly feminist critics, speculate that
this pattern of adolescent behavior may have foreshadowed a latent lesbianism.7
William Linn Westermann, the distinguished ancient historian and Cather’s classmate
at Nebraska, recalled her first appearance in elementary Greek. While the students were
waiting for the instructor, the door opened, and a head with short hair and a straw hat
appeared. A masculine voice inquired if this was the beginning Greek class, and when
someone announced that it was, the body attached to the head and hat opened the door
wider and came in. The head and voice were both attached to a girl’s body and skirt. The
entire class laughed, but Cather, unperturbed, took her seat and joined the students.8
According to the registrar’s records, Cather was first in her Latin class of fifty-three
at Nebraska. Another classmate, Dorothy Canfield, later a Pulitzer-Prize-winning
novelist, remembered Cather as the most brilliant student at the university, while Alvin
Johnson, first president of the New School for Social Research in New York,
remembered Cather and Louise Pound, sister of Roscoe, as the two most original students
at Nebraska during his years there.9 Many of her classmates and professors at Nebraska
became important dramatis personae in her life and novels.
In 1891 she took freshman math, Greek, Latin, rhetoric and junior-level Shakespeare.
She continued Latin and Greek as a sophomore, and as a junior took three semesters of
Greek, including lyric poetry. Her other Greek courses included Pindar, Herodotus,
Homer and the dramatists. She took fifteen semesters of English literature as an
undergraduate, and as a junior and senior she studied four semesters of French and two of
One of Cather’s closest friends at Nebraska, Louise Pound, became the one with
whom Cather became infatuated when she was a freshman and Pound a senior. To term
this a lesbian relationship may be groundless.11
In 1893 at age twenty and as a junior at Nebraska, Cather was writing an unsigned
column for the Nebraska State Journal. Though she had once considered becoming a
surgeon, this was the start of her professional career in journalism which lasted until 1912
Woodress, p. 53
Woodress, p. 69.
Woodress, p. 71.
Woodress, pp. 71-72.
Woodress, p. 85.
and took her from Lincoln to Pittsburgh and finally to New York. She had a prolific
career as a newspaper and magazine writer, turning out more copy than appears in all of
her collected works of the next thirty-five years.12
Cather’s early days in Pittsburgh were busy with work and social life. She had a few
marriage proposals but decided to remain single. She was married to her art and
sublimated her sexual impulses in her work.13 She was convinced that marriage and art
did not mix. She was certainly aware that two of the women writers she admired, George
Eliot and George Sand, combined career with heterosexual relationships, but they, like
Sappho, were women who had the “art instinct, the art necessity.”14
While in Pittsburgh Cather met Isabelle McClung, daughter of a socially prominent
and affluent Pittsburgh family. Cather’s feelings for McClung have been given to great
speculation about her sexual orientation. Some critics believe theirs was a lesbian
relationship but no external evidence supports this.15
Cather’s first book was a volume of poems, April Twilights, where one moves in a
mythic landscape – figures of gods and god-men perform the rituals of legend in pastoral
Arcadia, the world of Roman glory. She deeply loved the Arcadian theme. This motif
appears in “Arcadian Winter,” “Winter at Delphi,” “Lament for Marsyas,” and “I Sought
the Wood in Winter.” Apollo, Pan, minstrels, and shepherds are all there, along with
huntsmen, runners of races, laurels, and daffodils. The settings are chiefly the Old
World, which fueled her imagination. The Arcadian theme persists in her best fiction, as
in My Ántonia, where she succeeds in transplanting Arcadia from the Old to the New
World, and wherein lies one secret of her power as a novelist: the ability to naturalize
ancient myth in an American setting.16
The themes of loss and nostalgia, closely linked to the Arcadian motif, also come
from other classic and Renaissance sources. Her poem “Eurydice” is built on the myth of
Orpheus and Eurydice. Cather made good use of this myth as a dominant theme in her
Song of the Lark a decade later. The elegiac note of François Villon’s “Ou sont les neiges
Woodress, p. 89.
Woodress, p. 125.
Woodress, p. 126.
Woodress, pp. 139, 141.
Woodress, pp. 164, 167.
d’antan?” (Where are the snows of yesteryear?), prominent in her later fiction, is clearly
sounded in “Aftermath,” which celebrates the vanished past:17
In 1907 Cather and her friend Isabelle McClung sailed for Italy. She was captivated
by the Roman sculpture in the Royal Museum. She was brushing up on her Latin and
reading Tacitus and Suetonius. The two roamed the country, the vineyards and fields in
bloom. Everyone was out digging in the fields, as Vergil described in the Georgics.18
The strong classical influence on Cather’s work affected My Ántonia significantly.
She used the pastoral mode, which “counters the failures of the present by moving back
into the past.” She was drawn to the Arcadian theme of a Golden Age, a grander, more
perfect time gone by, and the pastoral ideal always fired her imagination.19 My Ántonia
comes at a point in her career when the past began to seem more attractive than the
present. Even Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes regarded it as a wonderful success and
remarked that the book “lifts me to all my superlatives.” Holmes later wrote Cather
directly after reading Death Comes for the Archbishop: “I think you have the gift of the
transforming touch. What to another would be prose, under your hand becomes poetry
without ceasing to be truth.”20
In 1940, near the end of her career, Cather had become something of a national
monument. She died in 1947 and was buried in the old cemetery at Jaffrey Center, New
Hampshire, where she had spent much time reflecting and writing. Her remains lie at the
lower edge of the graveyard. Off to the immediate west rises Mt. Monadnock. Though
the cemetery was full in 1947, a spot was found for her because she had finished My
Ántonia, begun and ended Death Comes for the Archbishop, and written much of
Shadows on the Rock in Jaffrey. Her grave is marked by a simple white headstone, on
which are carved lines from My Ántonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into
something complete and great.”21
Lynn Sherr is the only television network journalist I have ever met. Clearly she is the
best at what she does. She was one of the first wave of women in the business, not only
Woodress, pp. 167-168.
Woodress, pp. 198-199.
Woodress, p. 298.
Woodress, p. 302.
Woodress, pp. 490, 505.
covering the feminist movement but being part of it, stepping into jobs that did not exist
until she got there. At ABC News, she anchored and reported for almost every program,
happily broadening the resume of the only role model she and her peers once had: a
cartoon reporter named Brenda Starr.22
Sherr grew up in a man’s world when men and women had fixed roles in society. To
her, if all that sounds like ancient history, it’s not, which she knows because at college
she majored in classical Greek, which really is ancient history, an eclectic addition to her
credentials that has made her the poster child for the classics. “Do it,” she says, “It will
make you a better person.”23
Sherr grew up happily in Philadelphia of Jewish immigrant stock. Her father, a gifted
student and athlete, was a scholarship student at Penn and Penn’s law school and went on
to play professional basketball. Her mother, also bright, graduated as valedictorian of her
high school class but did not have sufficient funds for college.24
After living through the Depression, the Sherrs moved to the still-Waspy Main Line
where Lynn was a Jew in a Gentile world. She even appeared on American Bandstand in
the 1950’s.25 When she was a high-school junior, a guidance counselor took Sherr and
some other girls aside and told them that the Seven Sister schools were starting an early-
decision option (Harvard, Yale and Princeton were still admitting only boys). You could
pick only one and, if admitted, you had to commit to it. After considering all the elite
women’s colleges, Sherr settled on Wellesley and was delighted with that choice.26
At Wellesley, Sherr discovered classical Greek early on and was swept into a magical
world. “Why in heaven’s name are you majoring in Greek?” was the question everyone
asked. Her immediate answer was the teacher, or teachers – a short, square-shaped
dynamo named Barbara McCarthy who boomed out The Iliad in riveting baritone, and a
brilliant young subversive name Mary Lefkowitz, who made it not only fascinating but
fun. Not only did she read the epics in the original and perform some of the plays in
Greek with costumes and masks, she made her ancient Greek acting debut as a frog in
Aristophanes’ The Frogs (set around the indoor swimming pool as the River Styx) and
Sherr, p. 5.
Sherr, p. 5.
Sherr, pp. 10 ff.
Sherr, pp. 23-24.
Sherr, p. 29.
then advanced to a stint as Herakles in a grinning mask and fearsome fake lion skin in
Euripides’ Alcestis. She played Dionysus in The Bacchae, ominously appearing as the
deus ex machina in a genuine machine (theirs was a cherry picker) hand-cranked above
the cedar trees for her miraculous moment.27
Sherr learned about life from Sophocles, passion from Sappho, evil from Euripides,
and laughter from Aristophanes. This was her way of finding out the truth firsthand,
without a translator coming in between. No, Greek did not get Sherr her job in TV. But
she admits she understands the English language more intimately, does crosswords more
quickly, and figures out definitions more readily. Greek brought words to life.28
As a Wellesley junior in 1962, Sherr decided it was time to attack the real world.
After applying everywhere in New York to break into journalism, the only nibble came
from the Associated Press for a summer job in the research library. Soon after she won a
spot as a guest editor for Mademoiselle.29
After graduating from Wellesley in 1963, Sherr returned to New York ready to make
her mark. However, the lions of New York journalism did not much care for her
credentials. First, she was a female and most news organizations just weren’t interested in
women. The newspapers put it more bluntly that they didn’t hire girls. Boys with the
exact same skills were routinely hired as junior writers whereas girls were hired only for
the clip desk. She was hired at Condé Nast to cover fashion and home furnishings.30
There were stints at Glamour, Vogue, and House & Garden. Then in 1965 she was
contacted by the Associated Press for a position in the book division working for the man
rewriting the news.31 Soon she was part of the newsfeatures department covering the
beginnings of the Women’s Liberation Front, the beginning of the feminist movement.
While the Miss America Demonstration in 1968 was the first movement event to
attract major media coverage, the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 was the one that
made it a household word – the largest demonstration ever held for women’s rights. As
the AP’s feminist chronicler, Sherr pointed out that the last time a nation’s women had
gone out on general strike, they had stopped a war. The date was 411 BC, the war was
Sherr, pp. 32-33.
Sherr, pp. 34 ff.
Sherr, pp. 40 ff.
Sherr, pp. 42 ff.
between Sparta and Athens, and it all took place in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. She says
that you didn’t have to be a Greek major to know this but it sure boosted her credibility.32
Believing the modern women’s movement has brought about the greatest social
change in our lifetimes, in 1976 Sherr and her AP colleague Jurate Kazickas co-authored
The American Woman’s Gazetteer, a state-by-state guide to all the places in America
where women had made history. In 1994 they published a new version titled Susan B.
Anthony Slept Here: A Guide to American Women’s Landmarks. Sherr herself has also
authored Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words, America the
Beautiful: The Stirring True Story Behind Our Nation’s Favorite Song, and Tall Blondes:
A Book About Giraffes.33
In fact, Sherr got her first TV job because she is a blonde. In 1972 she was assigned
to cover the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s visit to New York. When he finally
appeared, he singled her out, grinned, grunted, “you!” and then grabbed her hand, saying,
“Come with me.” While he and Sherr rode in the front seat of the limo, a colleague
flashed her a warning that she pointedly ignored. Yevtushenko clearly liked blondes.34
Soon after WCBS-TV called her in. Pia Lindstrom, one of the first women in local
television news, was pregnant and leaving the station. Sherr was asked if she wanted to
audition for her job. Sure. She got the job and did feature stories – the youth beat and
women’s issues. All the other women auditioning for the position had blonde hair like Pia
and Lynn and she has always referred to it as the blonde seat at Channel 2 News.35
In 1974, at thirty-two, Sherr finished the book she was writing and fell in love – with
Larry Hilford.36 Hilford, the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, was divorced with three
boys and a rising star in the entertainment end of the television business.37 Hilford was a
graduate of Lawrenceville and Yale. Delaying going to graduate school, he enlisted in the
US Army, after which he went on to Harvard Business School. Sherr and Hilford married
in January, 1980. She was thirty-eight.
Sherr, p. 57.
Sherr, pp. 64-65.
Sherr, pp. 68-69.
Sherr, pp. 71-72.
Sherr, pp. 85-87.
Sherr, pp. 91 ff.
In 1976, when Bill Moyers decided to leave PBS for CBS, Sherr moved into the
anchor chair. Barbara Walters had just joined Harry Reasoner at ABC as the first female
anchor of a network news show. But Sherr started her job in September; Walters began
hers in October making Sherr the first woman to anchor a regularly scheduled prime time
TV network news series. In 1977 Sherr left CBS for ABC News and loved it. There she
worked closely with Bob Brown in Cubicle 4; on its glass wall he had drawn the profile
of a giraffe, already Sherr’s totem.38 By 1987 Sherr was doing 20/20.39
Earlier, in 1981, ABC had asked Sherr to cover the space program, when the shuttle
program was gearing up for its first and much anticipated launch.40 Over the next five
years, Sherr covered almost every shuttle mission, gradually moving into the anchor chair
for launches and landings and assorted other space activities, including the seventh
mission in 1983 on which Sally Ride was the first American woman in space.41 And
Sherr was there again in 1986 when Challenger blew up in space and none of the seven
crew members, including New Hampshire’s Christa McAuliffe, survived.
Sherr left space coverage in 1986 and went to the ABC newsmagazine 20/20.42 When
she was told by ABC executives that she needed to dress better in front of the camera,
like Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Sherr’s friend Ralph Lauren came to the rescue. When
she joined 20/20 at age forty-four, she was sure this was exactly what her years of
reporting had prepared her for. The anchors then were Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs
and they drew about 20 million viewers every week. It was the best place to work in all
of ABC News. It was news with a plot, characters, scenes and action.
On being a tall blonde Sherr has said: “Family and close friends come first, of course,
but after that, give me a giraffe.43 She is obsessed with giraffes dating back to her first
trip to East Africa in 1973. She was mesmerized by everything but giraffes, with their
golden spotted coats and stately carriage, were a revelation. They had the softest eyes and
longest lashes, and when they ran, they seemed to float, dreamlike, across the wide
plains. When she got home, no one could believe that she liked giraffes best, but one of
Sherr, pp. 110 ff.
Sherr, p. 114.
Sherr, pp. 172 ff.
Sherr, pp. 186 ff.
Sherr, pp. 208 ff.
Sherr, pp. 265 ff.
her friends understood completely and said: “Of course, of course, tall blondes.” They
have remained her soul mates. Being tall herself, Sherr understands the mixed blessing of
being taller than most of the crowd and appreciates the gawky vulnerability of a giraffe
bending down to get a drink. And she admits she will never attain their grace, but has
figured out ways to mimic their lustrous eyelashes. She has written about them – Tall
Blondes: A Book about Giraffes – and later translated the book into a one-hour film of the
same name for Nature, the PBS show. There is a spectacular sanctuary just outside
Nairobi that is called Giraffe Manor. There, a small herd of Rothschild giraffes – referred
to by an irreverent friend as “wealthy Jewish giraffes” – lives on the property of an old
English mansion that now serves as an inn for lucky travelers. One of the newborns of the
Rothschild herd has been named after Sherr, the ultimate compliment.
In 1986 Sherr and husband Larry learned he had malignant cancer. He was fifty-one
and they had been married for just about six years. He got better for a while with
treatments but in 1990 the lymphoma had returned. He had a successful bone marrow
transplant. But within a year the cancer was back. In 1992, at age fifty-seven Larry died.
In 1997 Sherr learned she had colon cancer. With excellent treatment at Memorial
Sloan Kettering Clinic, she survived and was cured. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader
Ginsburg, a personal friend, had also suffered from colon cancer and survived.
“Looking back,” as Sherr recounts in her memoir, “I’ve included Larry’s and my
parents’ history with the events in my professional life because they’ve been so
intertwined; because I am as much the camper catching salamanders as I am the reporter
on TV; because I am as indebted to my professor of classical Greek as I am to the editors
of Mademoiselle; because I savor an afternoon at the beach with my grandchildren as
much as a prizewinning story.”44
“Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise!” These words from his father
helped shape Ted Turner’s remarkable life, but they only begin to explain the colorful,
energetic, and unique style that has made him a living legend.
Ted grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, raised by a tough Protestant father and Catholic
mother. His father made his career in the outdoor advertising business and had acquired a
Sherr, pp. 339 ff.
small billboard company in Savannah where in 1947 the family had moved. Ted now
nine attended fifth grade at Georgia Military Academy near Atlanta. 45 A year later Ted
was attending a Savannah public school. Then in the 1950s his father decided to send Ted
to McCallie, a Christian military academy in Chattanooga, for seventh grade; Ted was
one of the worst cadets and a prankster. By the end of his junior year, Ted had done a
complete about face and became McCallie’s neatest cadet. He always loved reading,
especially military literature but also loved Dante’s Inferno, War and Peace, and Les
Misérables. He wrote poetry and infused it with the likes of Julius Caesar and Brutus,
Hannibal and Rome. He even joined the debate team and became its star performer
winning McCallie’s oratory medal – his first and best award for academic achievement.
When it was time for college, Ted’s military-style education at McCallie made him
consider applying to the service academies but his father vetoed the idea because he
wanted his son to take over his growing billboard company someday and those academies
had mandatory service requirements that would keep Ted away for many more years. He
considered staying in the South where he was comfortable but he set his sights high on
the Ivy League. He applied to and was accepted by Penn and Brown. 46 One of his father’s
business colleagues by the name of Miles Standish, a direct descendant of the famous
Mayflower soldier and a loyal Brown alum, owned a billboard company in Providence
and he assured the senior Turner that he would keep an eye on young Ted who was
beginning to show promise as a competitive sailor and Brown’s sailing team was better
than Penn’s. So Brown it was and his father was willing to support him financially for
four years there. In the fall of 1956, Turner the “southerner” enrolled at Brown where
many of his classmates had graduated from the likes of Exeter and Andover in “Yankee”
New England. This cast Turner as a bit of an outsider.
At Brown he tried out for the freshman sailing team right away. At freshman trials he
won every race and earned the number one slot on the team. He was one of only two
sophomores to make varsity the next year. In his freshman year he studied hard and got
good grades. But his parents’ marriage ended in divorce which affected him greatly.
Though he had promised his father that he would not drink or smoke before turning
Turner, pp. 7 ff.
Turner, pp. 23 ff.
twenty-one, he starting drinking and smoking cigars. At Brown young Turner went from
good to bad, from being “Mr. Straight Arrow” to being a wild man. On one escapade
before Christmas, Turner went with some friends from Brown to nearby Wheaton, still a
women’s college then, and in a drunken state they threw chairs out the windows of one of
the dorms. Turner and friends were caught by police and then suspended from Brown for
the rest of the school year. While on suspension he joined the Coast Guard as a reservist
for six months, rather than be drafted, fulfilling his military obligation and would go back
to Brown in the fall. After advanced training in Groton, CT, he was released from the
Guard and reaccepted to Brown. His father was fine with Turner returning to college but
began to say negative things about Brown and said he was not sure he wanted Ted to stay
there. It all came to a head six months later when Ted declared Classics as his major.47
Turner’s most inspiring professor at Brown was John Workman in the Classics
Department. Workman’s class had a discussion format as opposed to the big lecture hall
and Turner liked focusing on a single subject and kicking around ideas. Reading
Thucydides and Vergil as well as delving deep into ancient Greek history greatly
appealed to him and Workman was the first professor who really challenged him to think.
It was because of Workman that Turner declared a Classics major. But Turner’s father
wanted him to study practical subjects for a career in business. His father was furious and
vented his feelings in a long, rambling letter. Excerpts are worth citing here.
My dear son,
I am appalled, even horrified, that you have adopted Classics as a major.
As a matter of fact, I almost puked on the way home today . . . . . I am a
practical man, and for the life of me I cannot possibly understand why you
should wish to speak Greek. I have read, in recent years, the deliberations
of Plato and Aristotle, and was interested to learn that the old bastards had
minds which worked very similarly to the way our minds work today . . . . .
For the life of me I cannot understand why you should be vitally interested in
informing yourself about the influence of the Classics on English literature. . .
. . I suppose everybody has to be a snob of some sort, and I suppose you will
feel you are distinguishing yourself from the herd by becoming a Classical
Turner, pp. 33 ff.
snob. If I leave you enough money, you can retire to an ivory tower, and
contemplate for the rest of your days the influence that the hieroglyphics of
prehistoric man had upon the writings of William Faulkner. Incidentally, he
was a contemporary of mine in Mississippi. We speak the same language –
whores, sluts, strong words and strong deeds. . . . . I am quite sure that we
both will be pleased and delighted when I introduce you to some friend of
mine and say, “This is my son. He speaks Greek.” I think you are rapidly
becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the
better it will suit me. You are in the hands of the Philistines, and dammit, I
sent you there. I am sorry.
By the end of his junior year Turner was nearing his end at Brown, was nearly out of
money and still had to pay for room and board. Despite his father’s assurances, in the end
he did not support Turner through all four years at Brown. Ted’s college career was over.
With his college career over and with little money, Turner and his best friend at
Brown, Peter Dames, headed to Florida to pick up Turner’s boat, the Flying Dutchman,
and make the boat seaworthy to sail it around the world.49
Soon sailing began to occupy Ted’s free time. He also began dating long distance
with a girl he had met at a college sailing regatta. Judy Nye was a champion sailor on
Northwestern’s team. He called her up one day and proposed over the phone. She said
yes and started planning for a Chicago wedding in June 1959. At only 21 years old,
Turner and Judy relocated to Macon, GA, where Turner senior had bought a local
billboard company. Ted threw himself totally into the job and the Macon community
which helped the business grow.
By the summer of 1962, Turner Advertising Company was one of the larger
companies in the South. A merger with a Minnesota company made it one of the largest
billboard companies in the South, now based in Atlanta and with senior Turner as CEO.
But young Turner’s marriage began to suffer. In July 1961, Laura Lee was born to Judy
Turner, pp. 34-36.
Turner, pp. 41ff.
and Ted. They were both doting parents but Ted’s schedule kept him away too often.
They got a quick divorce but agreed to get back together when Judy learned she was
pregnant again. Turner would be working in Atlanta, while Judy and Laura Lee stayed in
Macon. He came home on weekends.
By 1963 things began to worsen with Turner’s father. Senior Turner was becoming
paranoid and decided to sell a large chunk of the company. Ted could not persuade his
father not to sell. Soon thereafter Ted received a call from South Carolina. His
stepmother, Jane, called to tell him that his father was dead – shot himself in the upstairs
bathroom. Ted’s father had named him executor of his will. After all taxes and other
expenses were paid off, about $1 million was left to Ted. The company was sold and Ted
moved back to Macon to run the small business there. But in the long run, Turner was
able to buy back Turner Advertising and saved his father’s company.
By the end of March, 1963, Ted, now 24, became chairman and president of the
company. The following May, Robert Edward Turner IV was born. He would later be
known as Teddy.50 But his marriage to Judy was not working. She moved back to
Chicago with the two children which made it difficult for Ted who was working
feverishly and racing. His friend Peter Dames convinced Ted to attend a Young
Republicans cocktail party to meet attractive females. He met and started dating Jane
Smith from Alabama. After a year they married in Las Vegas and settled in Atlanta. Soon
they welcomed a baby boy named Rhett, named for Rhett Butler of course. Soon after,
Ted’s two children by Judy, Teddy and Laura, came to live with Ted and Jane in Atlanta.
Young Teddy had been physically abused by Judy’s new husband who later committed
suicide. Though Judy tried to get back the two children, she failed and realized that the
best thing was to let Teddy and Laura remain in Atlanta with Ted and Jane. In less than a
year, Jane and Ted became parents to Reed Beauregard Turner, called Beau. A year after
that, Sara Jean, called Jennie, was born. Now there were five children under age eight
living with the Turners and this was not easy for Jane. But they managed.
Turner himself became as serious about sailing as he was about succeeding in
business by the mid-1960s.51 He also owned the Atlanta Braves and when they started to
Turner, pp. 67ff.
Turner, pp. 79ff.
win with the likes of Hank Aaron, nearly a million fans went to the ballpark and the TV
station’s ratings improved. He also owned WRET and that was also making money.
Cable TV now was catching on and Turner was in on the ground level. He was one of
the first to use a satellite “antenna” to cover all of North America. His WTCG station had
its first satellite transmission in 1976. Turner changed the name of WTCG to WTBS,
Turner Broadcasting System, that was soon being referred to as “Super-Station TBS.”
Turner now had his eyes focused on winning sport’s ultimate trophy – the America’s
Cup. In 1970 he was named Yachtman of the Year. For the running of the Cup in 1977,
two boats, Courageous and Independence, would be among the top of the list to win.
Turner was chosen to skipper Courageous and had to put up about $400,000 of his own
money to do so. Other challengers, Enterprise and Australia, had also also entered the
race. Courageous with close starts and long, steady tacking was able to beat Australia
and win the 1977 America’s Cup. Turner was 39 when he won the America’s Cup – his
most exhilarating victory.
His next venture was planning for the Cable News Network he wanted to launch. He
persuaded the well-respected Daniel Shorr of CBS to join his team. CNN would be based
in Atlanta, not New York or some other big city.
In June, 1980 CNN was launched. Turner also decided to pursue the 1980 America’s
Cup with the same boat, Courageous, with which he had won the Cup in 1977. Freedom
would be the boat to beat. However, with CNN looking not only promising but
interesting, Turner opted out of the 1980 Cup race. In fact, they had been eliminated in
the final trials. Freedom went on to beat Australia that year.
CNN had been airing for about 18 months when Turner learned in February of 1982
that Fidel Castro was a regular viewer and invited him to visit. Was this a plot to have
Turner kidnapped? Their meeting was cordial if not a bit disarming: Castro had an
interest in CNN. Later that year Turner learned that the legendary oceanographer, Jacques
Cousteau, wanted Turner to be his production partner. The two met, hit it off
immediately, and Turner knew that airing Cousteau’s programming would be a big boost
for the SuperStation. Turner and his two youngest sons spent a week on the Calypso
during the shooting of a 7-hour series on the Amazon.
In 1988, TNT (Turner Network Television) debuted. Turner launched the event with
his favorite film, Gone wth the Wind. His signal reached 17 million households, making
TNT’s launch the largest in cable history. By the end of 1989, Turner Broadcasting stock
was worth more than $1 billion.
Turner had met Jane Fonda at a screening in LA. A few years later Turner learned
that she and her husband, Tom Hayden, were divorcing. He had wanted to date Fonda.
When Turner proposed this to Jane, she said she needed 6 months before she would be
ready to date again. Six months to the day, Turner called her and asked for a date. She
accepted and they saw each other the next time he was in LA. That first date went well; it
ended with a hug and with Turner admitting he was smitten. On the second date, Turner
invited Fonda to spend the weekend on his Montana ranch. They clicked but she wasn’t
yet sure she wanted to marry again. In January of 1990, Fonda’s sister-in-law told Turner
that Fonda was ready to go out with him. At the end of 1991, Turner was named Time
magazine’s Man of the Year. This honor came mainly because of CNN’s emergence as
the world’s news leader following its Gulf War coverage. In 1995, Turner’s company
merged with Time Warner. His marriage to Fonda was going well. In 1997, the Turner
Foundation made a $1 billion gift to the United Nations Foundation.
After a decade of marriage, Ted and Jane divorced. As Turner approaches his 70th
birthday, he is thankful for the incredibly exciting life he has had. But he is most proud of
his children, his philanthropy, especially the billion-dollar pledge to the United Nations
Foundation in 1997, and what he hopes to accomplish in the years ahead.
When I corresponded with Lynn Sherr last August that I was including her in this
paper, she responded: “Dear Paul, I’m so touched that you’re including me – and I think
it’s a great idea. I find lately that I am very drawn to questions of ‘Why Classics?’ and to
defending the issue whenever it’s raised. Just read the Bernard Knox series, Dead White
European Males, which I was steered to via his obit. Ditto some of Hugh Lloyd-Jones’
lectures, Greek in a Cold Climate, thanks to Mary (Lefkowitz). This issue needs constant
attention. I keep thinking that I want to do something on the presence of ancient Greek
around us – the plays, the references, the parallels. Not sure what yet. I hope that we can
re-connect soon. Lynn.”
With celebrity-classicists like Lynn Sherr on our side, we are in good hands.