His Death at 92 Closes the Road Show of Capitalism's Friend to the World, Philanthropist Armand Hammer

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

At the age of 23, during his first trip to the Soviet Union, then in the midst of its postrevolution famine, the young Armand Hammer encountered an elderly man sawing wooden planks by hand and asked what he was building. The man, Hammer later recalled, replied," 'A coffin. I just have enough food to last a few months, and I want to be sure I'm not buried like a dog.' "

On his death at 92 last week in Los Angeles, after what a spokesman termed a "brief illness," there were those who wondered if Hammer—perhaps the greatest wheeler and dealer of the century—hadn't also spent life preoccupied with his own memorial. A globe-hopping fixture in his private Boeing 727, he amassed fortunes as an international industrialist, bequeathed tens of millions as a philanthropist, acted for years as unofficial diplomatic conduit to the Soviet Union—and still managed to earn a reputation as one of the most aggrandizing self-promoters of his time. Of his longing for a Nobel prize, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski once sniped. "If it can be bought, his chances of winning are quite high."

Born on New York City's Lower East Side, the son of a Socialist Labor party member, Hammer was named after a character in Dumas's Camille. (It wasn't until 1986 that he bought into the baking-soda manufacturer with which the public had long erroneously associated him.) After earning a medical degree at Columbia in 1921, he made a fateful trip to the Soviet Union. Sensing opportunity, the young entrepreneur stayed for nine years, representing dozens of U.S. companies—and began a collection of Russian art eventually valued at $400 million.

Back in the U.S. Hammer's business ventures were not always beyond reproach. During Prohibition, he sold a ginger extract that was 85 percent alcohol. Six decades later, he was convicted of illegally contributing $54,000 to Richard Nixon's presidential campaign. What salvaged his reputation was his deal-making acumen, especially as CEO of Occidental Petroleum, a modest tax shelter that he parlayed into the U.S.'s 16th largest industrial corporation.

Publicly, Hammer donated millions to cancer research and a host of charities. His personal life included three marriages (his only child, a son, Julian, was born in 1929) and, in later years, a tangle of controversy. In 1988, after promising to bequeath his collection to the L.A. County Museum of Art, he instead decided to build a museum of his own in L.A.'s tony Westwood section.

With the help of a 1989 pacemaker implant, Hammer remained active until his final weeks. His death, in fact, came one day before the planned celebration of a long-overdue rite of passage: the Bar Mitzvah that would mark his official entry into manhood.

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