Rebooting Steve Jobs

Should his legacy be the iPhone, the company he built, or a daughter he denied fathering?

Steve Jobs in 1984 and 2006.
Steve Jobs in 1984 and 2006.

No single person has done more to propagate the lone-gunslinger, out-of-the-garage, into-our-hearts Everyman myth of Silicon Valley than Steve Jobs. Forget Bill Hewlett and David Packard, finessing their first audio oscillator in a garage on Addison Avenue in Palo Alto. Bill Gates? A complete stiff compared to Steve. Larry Ellison? A thug, calling ahead to his office to have a cop chasing him for speeding stopped in the company parking lot by a corporate lawyer. And there’s the shotgun, which we’ll see later. Gordon Moore? Moore’s Law? Twice the chip density every 18 months? Boring! Plain and simple, it was Steve, the granola-crunching swami of technology who made it all seem so possible: You, too, could drop out of college, take drugs, spend time soul-searching in India, start a company, and become a billionaire, if only you had the right idea and the right style to pull it off. And you could wear your jeans with the holes in them all the while.

I first met Steve in 1977, just as the Apple II was being launched. He was living in a modest house in Los Gatos, wandering around in his bare feet, occasionally resting those feet on the kitchen table to pick at his toenails. I was then a Washington Post reporter, hoping to write about the seismic shift in American enterprise quaking the Valley. Anything was possible. Capital was readily available. Technology was leapfrogging itself. Steve seemed like the right guy at the right time to serve as metaphor for all that was going on. He was a hippie, driving a Porsche, running a personal computer company. When I called Apple, Steve called back the same day, claiming to know (and, in fairness, there was no iPhone or internet allowing an instant query) I had interviewed one of his heroes, Bob Dylan. Cite one CEO outside the Valley who would name drop Dylan! I am virtually certain he was playing me, although journalists have allowed themselves to be played since time immemorial to get a story. What emerged was a study in contrasts: a precise measurer of the Tide he scooped into his washing machine; an incessant speeder who parked in the company’s handicapped spaces; a soft-spoken raconteur about the joys of music and the horrors of dairy products (they form mucus, he swore), who raged in the office about people he considered idiots. My biggest takeaway was that I had met the world’s greatest salesman, who sold me an Apple II for $2,500, well over a month’s salary for a reporter in those days. And there was no software! It was a soulless machine requiring an accompanying myth of all the things Steve predicted it would ultimately do. He turned out to be right, although in many ways he was not unlike Ward Hall, the legendary king of sideshows, who knew that getting your quarter up front, before you entered the tent, was the real challenge. There’d be plenty of geeks inside, and Steve knew that, too.

Steve Jobs, who as a young man was known to pad around barefoot in his sparsely furnished home (and sometimes at work), believed that his greatest invention wasn’t a device like the iPhone, but Apple, the company that produces it.
Steve Jobs, who as a young man was known to pad around barefoot in his sparsely furnished home (and sometimes at work), believed that his greatest invention wasn’t a device like the iPhone, but Apple, the company that produces it.

In our age of Trump, it’s easy to forget that Steve was the progenitor of the reality distortion field: the ability to ignore tradition, perhaps even the laws of physics, appropriate the work of others as his own, will things into existence, and deny things he didn’t want to acknowledge — including his first daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose new memoir, “Small Fry,” is the catalyst for these reflections. And he, too, could be a bold-faced liar about sex. When Mike Moritz, now a hugely successful VC at Sequoia Capital, with early investments in Google and Pay-Pal, was a Time magazine reporter writing a book about Apple, he was the first to reveal that the Lisa computer, a much-too-expensive precursor of the Macintosh, had been named after Steve’s daughter. Steve denied this, denied even having a daughter, even denied to his daughter on many occasions that the computer had been named after her. And his retort to Moritz was that, “twenty-eight per cent of the male population of the United States could be the father.” In response, Chrisann Brennan, Lisa’s mom, sent Steve a picture of Lisa sitting naked on a chair in their house, wearing only Groucho Marx joke glasses with the big plastic nose and fake mustache. “I think it’s your kid,” Chrisann wrote on the back of the picture. “He had a mustache then,” Lisa writes, “and wore glasses and had a big nose.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, this reality distortion field, Steve lives on, both in Apple’s products and in his Silicon Valley myth, largely solidified by an enormously popular biography that, in many ways correctly, painted Steve as the greatest product visionary since Henry Ford, with the charisma and swagger of a rock star to boot. After the untimely demise in 1977 of Elvis, another cultural icon, one Hollywood agent famously quipped, “great career move.” Similarly, the 2011 publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Jobs,” a few weeks after its subject’s death from cancer (which for years he had tried to treat with homeopathic quackery) cemented him in that larger-than-life firmament along with Franklin and Einstein, previous single-name biographies by Steve’s hand-chosen chronicler, whose next book would be about … Leonardo. Steve died with about $10 billion, money he was relatively loath to spend. “Deep pockets, short arms,” swiped John Dvorak, one of the Valley’s early chroniclers of its wackiness. In the early ‘80s, just after Apple had IPO’d, and Steve’s net worth was a kindergarten-level quarter-billion dollars or so, he asked me to arrange a dinner in San Francisco with several musicians.

When the check arrived, his arms did not. I paid. A few days later, I excoriated him. “You don’t understand,” he insisted. “Ever since I became wealthy, people expect me to pay for everything. It’s hard to differentiate, so I’ve dealt with it by paying for nothing.” Really? This guy calls other people idiots?? I was frankly astounded, especially as a kid who had grown up in a mob-tinged, Italian-American family in New Jersey, where my father taught me to always pay for lunch or dinner, lest I wound up owing a favor I couldn’t refuse.

So if you’re unwilling to take a closer look at Steve, the guy who may have responded to your random, over-the-transom email in the middle of the night, as he was often wont to do; the guy who could stand on a stage and sell you things you never imagined you would want (“How would I use a big iPhone?” I actually asked a friend after the introduction of the iPad, on which I am now composing these thoughts); the guy who famously gave what many consider the greatest commencement speech ever, quoting a photo on the back cover of “The Whole Earth Catalog” that proclaimed, “Stay Hungry Stay Foolish,” then you will want to avoid this book, a painful glimpse at an icon that could only come through the eyes and ears of a family member.

Fame, observed at a distance, bears a starkly different quality than when viewed up close. Once, seated on a 747 next to Stan Getz, I told him I loved his music; he responded by rolling up a shirt sleeve, showing me his track marks, saying, “If you don’t have these, you can’t appreciate what I do.” I spent the remainder of that flight hiding in the lavatory until I had to crawl out for final approach; it took me years to yet again listen to “Getz/Gilberto,” one of the 20 or so albums I would take to that proverbial desert island. Similarly, after the disastrous Dylan interview cited by Steve, I had to swear off Dylan (as did Dylan swear off journalists), until I eventually realized it was dangerous to conflate the artist with the art, especially when the artist is right there, sitting next to you. This memoir opens a new window on a man who on many occasions said, “Great ideas ship.” There probably aren’t three words that better sum up the Valley in its golden age. And here’s Lisa, summing up her father:

“He was rich but had holes in his jeans; he was successful but hardly talked; his figure was graceful, elegant, but he was clumsy and awkward; he was famous but seemed bereft and alone; he invented a computer and named it after me but didn’t seem to notice me, and didn’t mention it. Still, I could see how all these contrasting qualities could be an attribute, spun in a certain way.”

Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose paternity Steve Jobs denied for many years, is the author of “Small Fry.” The memoir describes her father refusing to admit the Lisa computer was named for her until 22 years after its release.
Lisa Brennan-Jobs, whose paternity Steve Jobs denied for many years, is the author of “Small Fry.” The memoir describes her father refusing to admit the Lisa computer was named for her until 22 years after its release.

Her father didn’t wear a watch because he didn’t “want to be bound by time.” (Would he now be sporting an Apple Watch?) He wasn’t a fan of college because “they teach you how other people think during your most productive years. It kills creativity. Makes people into bozos.” (Lisa attends Harvard.) He doesn’t like the East Coast, pointing out that his wife is from New Jersey and “liked the wrong kind of trees.” (He buys the penthouse apartment in the San Remo in Manhattan.) He tells Lisa she should smoke pot. (No visits from Child Protective Services are mentioned.) There are awkward moments, watching him kiss a girlfriend, which she finds askew. “The emotions didn’t feel real, but like a performance. Like Cary Grant in ‘North by Northwest,’ kissing Eva Marie Saint on the train.” In one creepy anecdote, she repeats a story she claims he told her more than once, about an acquaintance from L.A. whose parents were friends of Ingrid Bergman. The boy was gazing down from his bedroom at Bergman in a bathing suit beside the pool while he was masturbating. “Anyway,” Steve tells her, “the moment it happened, the climax, she looked right up at him. Right at him.”

Perhaps the most notable quality of the book is its finely hewn glimpses into how the cogs turn in the mind of a child. When Lisa meets Steve’s sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, she thinks, “That my father’s sister happened to be named Mona struck me as a great coincidence. What were the chances that she would have a name that went so well with mine as to form, in combination, the name of the most famous painting in the world?”

When the Jobs family is having lunch with Bono, another single-name icon, who likely won’t be the subject of an Isaacson bio, and the man to whom Steve sold his New York penthouse for $15 million, Steve finally comes clean about the provenance of Lisa, the computer:

“I braced myself — prepared for his answer. My father hesitated, looked down at his plate for a long moment, and then back at Bono. ‘Yeah, it was [named after her],’ he said. I sat up in my chair. ‘I thought so,’ Bono said. ‘Yup,’ my father said. I studied my father’s face. What had changed? Why had he admitted it now, after all these years? Of course it was named after me, I thought then. His lie seemed preposterous now. I felt a new power that pulled my chest up.”

In 1984, for an article I was writing, Steve talked about what makes a great company:

“Even though some people have come out with neat products, if their company is perceived as a sweatshop or a revolving door, it’s not considered much of a success. Remember, the role models were Hewlett and Packard. What does symbolize Hewlett-Packard is a revolutionary attitude toward people, a belief that people should be treated fairly. The money is literally a 25 percent factor, at most. The journey is the reward. It’s the actual doing of something incredible, day in and day out, getting the chance to participate in something really incredible.”

An Apple Lisa computer named after Steve Jobs' daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.
An Apple Lisa computer named after Steve Jobs’ daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs.

What he was saying is something that really doesn’t exist much in Silicon Valley anymore. These days I hear people spending more time talking about valuations than products. Consider the seven short years since Steve’s death. He’d never have let Apple release an iPhone with a notch in the screen. He’d be offended by the rush to monetize personal information. He’d be astounded by Facebook’s inability to control its content. He’d be horrified by Elizabeth Holmes, stealing his style and defrauding investors. He’d be laughing over that “Don’t Be Evil” crap at Google. And he’d be completely baffled by Elon Musk’s idiotic tweets, even if they might share a joint, and Steve might be driving a Tesla.

At one point in Lisa’s book, she’s looking at an empty aviary on Steve’s estate in Woodside and asks why it’s there. “A friend gave me a peacock once, but it wandered off,” he tells her.

Hah! I gave him that peacock. And a peahen. A noisy pair of presents for his 30th birthday. One morning, Steve’s neighbor, Larry Ellison, whom he didn’t yet know, showed up with a shotgun and said that if Steve didn’t get rid of the racket, he would.

I doubt those birds wandered off. But Steve and Larry became good friends. Birds of a feather.

Tom Zito is a serial entrepreneur.
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