Moscow joins mourning for Armand Hammer, 92

December 12, 1990|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The Soviet Union joined yesterday in mourning the death of Armand Hammer, the financial entrepreneur who enjoyed personal access to Soviet leaders during an extraordinary career that spanned seven decades. Mr. Hammer died Monday at his home after a brief illness, said a spokesman for Occidental Petroleum Corp. He was 92.

Although he had designated a successor, Mr. Hammer remained chairman and chief executive of Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, a company he built from a nearly bankrupt wildcat drilling firm into the 16th-largest industrial corporation in the United States.

Ray R. Irani was elected to succeed Mr. Hammer.

His last appearance was this month at a party celebrating the opening of what proved his final dream, the Armand Hammer Museum and Cultural Center. He had scheduled another event but did not live to attend: his bar mitzvah, scheduled for yesterday. That ceremony, which normally signals the entry of a Jewish male into manhood at age 13, was to have been a fund-raiser for two Jewish institutions. Mr. Hammer said it was delayed 79 years because his socialist father had dispensed with religious observances when he was a child.

In a condolence telegram sent to the Hammer family, Tass news agency said Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev described Mr. Hammer as "an old and sincere friend of the Soviet Union who did much for Soviet-American relations."

The billionaire industrialist had cut a flamboyant swath throughout his colorful and varied career.

A man of immense wealth, Mr. Hammer endowed schools, VTC museums and cancer research centers with gifts totaling tens of millions of dollars.

An inveterate world traveler, he concluded major contracts for Occidental with foreign governments, made frequent public appearances at home and abroad, bought art for his estimated $450 million collection and received countless awards and honors.

In addition, because of his early ties with the Soviet Union, Mr. Hammer retained access to that country's leaders which were remarkable for a private U.S. citizen. In 1980, for example, after the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Mr. Hammer met with then-Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev in an attempt to persuade Mr. Brezhnev to pull his

troops out.

In 1986, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster, Mr. Hammer helped arrange and pay for the emergency visit of an international bone marrow transplant team to aid the victims of ,, radiation.

Born in New York's Bronx in 1898 and educated as a doctor at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, Armand Hammer salvaged his family's faltering pharmaceutical business by day while studying at night.

He earned $1 million before he graduated in 1921, in part by buying vast quantities of whiskey just before Prohibition and selling it later as medicine to drugstores. He never practiced medicine.

Mr. Hammer traveled to the Soviet Union later in 1921, equipped with an ambulance and fully stocked World War I surplus field hospital, to help the country ravaged by revolution. Instead, witnessing the massive starvation, he worked out a deal to swap U.S. grain for Russian hides and furs. The grain contract won the attention of Vladimir I. Lenin, who befriended Mr. Hammer -- an association that enabled him to retain close ties with Soviet leadership no matter what the political climate was between his homeland and Russia.

Mr. Hammer stayed in Russia for nine years, during which he collected art treasures and represented dozens of U.S. companies, handling nearly all trade between the United States and Russia.

Moving to California in 1956, ostensibly to retire at the age of 58, Mr. Hammer invested $50,000 in two wells owned by a faltering oil company named Occidental Petroleum, more as a tax shelter than an investment. When the wells produced oil, he worked out a partnership with the drilling contractor.

His company earned the admiration of geologists around the world for its phenomenal success in locating oil in the Middle East, the North Sea and South America. But none of Oxy's finds was more significant than the rich deposits it discovered in Libya during the 1960s.

Mr. Hammer's most humiliating moment came in 1976 when he was fined $3,000 and placed on one year's probation for illegally making and concealing $54,000 in campaign contributions to the 1972 re-election campaign of President Richard M. Nixon. In 1989, President Bush pardoned him.

Mr. Hammer was married three times and leaves a son, Julian, who lives in Los Angeles, by his first wife. His wife since 1954, Frances Tolman, traveled everywhere with him before her death in December 1989.

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