Even when geologists said there couldn’t be uranium at Blind River this brash and bouncy little financial wizard tossed in $30,000 and struck a spectacular bonanza. He wasn’t surprised. “Making money comes easy to me,” he says, “ — like breathing”
ALONG Toronto’s Bay Street, the frenetic mining capital of North America, veteran prospector and minemaker Gilbert A. LaBine had long been acknowledged—until recently—as the uranium king of Canada. The reason was obvious. It was LaBine who had found the continent’s first pitchblende, at Great Bear Lake, in 1930; LaBine whose Eldorado mine helped usher in the atomic age over Hiroshima; and LaBine who, in the northern wilds of Saskatchewan, came up with Gunnar, Canada’s first truly big uranium strike.
Today—for reasons equally obvious—the top man in uranium is no longer LaBine, a conservative grey-haired elder of the industry, but Joseph H. Hirshhorn, a flashy fast-talking little mining promoter from the borough of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose exploits on Bay and Wall Streets have won him millions of dollars and a gambler’s reputation for playing long shots.
As a promoter, Joe Hirshhorn’s forte is finding money— usually someone else’s—to tum rare rock into more money for all concerned. Having resigned from P.S. 147 in the ninth grade, he holds no B.Sc. An employee of his who does says, “Joe can’t tell coal from compost.” Hence, when a geologist named Franc Joubin told him in 1953 that there was uranium beneath the jack pine bush of northern Ontario’s Algoma district, Hirshhorn could not argue, as many experts had, that Algoma was geologically all wrong for it.
The very idea intrigued him. “Uranium!” he cried. “It’s got sex appeal!” On this unique assay, plus the greater knowledge that Joubin was a keen prospector,Hirshhorn wagered thirty thousand dollars —much of it his own—that he was right.
He was already a very wealthy man, and the gamble made him much wealthier. The pay-off Joubin came back with was the richest uranium field on earth—a three-billion-dollar bonanza that may prove still bigger when the Geiger counters stop chattering over it.
The Blind River discovery, so called for a nearby lumbering town, promises by 1957 to put Canada ahead of the Belgian Congo as the world’s chief producer of uranium. More important, the West is now assured a supply of the magical mineral for as far ahead as man can see.
All this is most gratifying to promoter Hirshhorn, as are the facts that roughly two thirds of the Algoma Basin’s known ore reserves belongs to companies he controls and that, thus far, he is personally ahead some thirty million dollars on the gamble. “Making money comes easy to me,” he says with candor, “—like breathing.”
The owner of this happy faculty is possibly the last person Hollywood would cast in the role of J. Pierpont Morgan. Joseph Herman Hirshhorn stands three inches over five feet and has a slight paunch. At fifty-six his black hair is slightly silvered, his eyes are dark and piercing and his face is dominated by a large nose and, generally, an unlit cigar. When he moves, which is almost constantly, he hustles about with short jerky steps. A gay extrovert, he is given to interrupting serious business discussions by breaking into song and/or dance, or by shouting, “I feel felonious!” When he speaks—“What’s dat erl well woith?”—it is the voice of Flatbush Avenue.
If Hirshhorn does not look nor always act the part of a financial giant, he assuredly is one. After forty-two years of scrambling in what he calls “the jungle,” he has built up an empire of interests that touches four continents. His wealth has been reckoned as high as a hundred million dollars.
Hirshhorn’s training in finance dates back fifty years to his second day in America—he was born in Latvia —when, in the basement of his new Brooklyn tenement home, at the age of six, he shot his first game of craps. He won thirty cents, whereupon the other players, boys of a more advanced age, smacked him down and took away his money. Hirshhorn has never forgotten this. “The game,” he says today, “was new to me.”
That he has since learned money games well was strikingly demonstrated when Joubin came through with Blind River. With the geologist, Hirshhorn pulled off one of the most sensational coups in Canadian mining history, a secret six-week staking bee that wrapped up most of the best ore bodies in the Algoma Basin before Bay Street heard a word of it.
Then, while astounded rivals were rushing in to grab what was left, he quickly organized more than a dozen companies to exploit his claims. Shares in one, Peach Uranium, shot from a dollar to thirty-eight dollars within a matter of weeks, were split five-for-one, and soared again to twenty-eight dollars a total jump of fourteen thousand percent.
Before a pound of ore was taken from the ground Hirshhorn sold the first five years’ output of uranium oxides from his two largest mines, Algom and Pronto, to the nation’s only uranium buyer, the federal government, for $262 million. At a learned guess, the profit from the two will be more than a hundred million.
This spring, as a fillip to his Blind River find, Hirshhorn made the deal of his life when a European syndicate put up $57,600,000 for a heavy—but not controlling—interest in his biggest mining company, Algom. Reading like a Who’s Who of international high finance, the syndicate was headed by Rio Tinto, an enormous British trust which is largely owned by the House of Rothschild. On the day he clinched the deal, turning to an aide, Hirshhorn whispered, “Imagine me—a little Hebrew from Brooklyn—getting all that dough from the Rothschilds!”
At some times Hirshhorn’s feats amaze even Hirshhorn. At others they seem only logical to him. “Take Rubinstein,” he said recently, meaning Artur, not Serge. “He’s got two thousand tunes in his noodle. So he sits down at a piano and plays one. It’s beautiful. But why not? The guy’s been at it since he was five!”
Hirshhorn began playing the stock market at the age of fourteen, when to help support a widowed mother he became an office boy on Wall Street. As a boy broker he won and lost a fortune at nineteen and became a millionaire plus before his thirtieth birthday—in, of all years, 1929.
In 1932 he came to Toronto, opened an office and began promoting mines. Ever since, he has been commuting between Bay and Wall Streets, cutting a hustling, colorful figure on both.
Hirshhorn usually spends week ends with his attractive second wife, Lily, and two adopted daughters in their luxurious apartment on New York’s Central Park West. (He has three grown daughters and a son by a previous marriage, terminated ten years ago by divorce.) Early Monday morning his chauffeur drops him off at 165 Broadway, near Wall. There, in an office adorned with abstract paintings, African primitives and bronze busts of T. S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham and himself—from his art collection, valued at a million and a half dollars—he busies himself with local matters. At night he flies to Toronto where he maintains an $850-a-month suite in the King Edward Hotel.
Always in a hurry, Hirshhorn often starts the day with 7 a.m. breakfast appointments. Then, nattily dressed in a $250 black suit, ruffled shirt and clip-on bow tie, smoking his first of twenty daily cigars, he rushes down King Street to the towering Bank of Nova Scotia Building.
Fifteen Meetings in a Day
As in every other place he alights, Hirshhorn’s office, Suite 1923, is filled with antique furniture and modernistic paintings. Amid a dozen abstracts appears the classic face of Abe Lincoln, looking vastly out of place.
“At 8 a.m.,” says an aide, “J. H. comes into the office—and explodes.” For the next nine hours he is everywhere—talking to New York, Miami and Montreal at the same time; issuing fifty buy or sell orders, involving half a million dollars, to his brokers; pondering over maps, or wolfing down soup and crackers at his desk in order to cram in annual meetings of three Hirshhorn companies that afternoon. A reporter for the Northern Miner once saw him at fifteen such annual meetings in four hours.
At work, Joe Hirshhorn does things J. P. Morgan never did. He phones a friend, announces himself as “the rabbi,” and sings When Irish Eyes Are Smiling. Too hot, he simply removes his coat, shirt and shoes. Elated, he dances a jig. “You’d think he was taking dope,” says Franc Joubin, “if he didn’t act that way all the time.”
But there’s a method to it. “it’s my way of relaxing,” Hirshhorn says. “If I didn’t I’d have ulcers like the rest of Bay Street.” For all the therapeutic horseplay, Hirshhorn thrives on hard work. So do his employees. He once presented a thousand-dollar bill to a man he saw working overtime three nights in a row. When he leaves the office around 5.30 p.m Hirshhorn goes to his hotel, relaxes with a Scotch or two (neat), eats a big dinner, and then gets busy again.
A late-night conference with one of his Toronto lawyers, Senator Salter Hajden, may be interrupted by a phone call from his Washington attorney, former U. S. secretary of state Dean Acheson. Even if he is up till 2 a.m., before dozing off he reads market averages in the New York Times and studies the daily stock fluctuations that his statistician, Bill Snead, has charted for him. “It’s my research,” Hirshhorn says. “When it comes to the market I’m like a scientist.”
Another comparison is made by E. H. Pooler, a Toronto broker. “Hirshhorn is like a juggler juggling seven balls at once,” he says. “He never takes his eye off a thing, never misses a trick.” Hirshhorn has much to juggle.
Through his Technical Mine Consultants Ltd. he controls about fifty Canadian companies that produce—or hope to produce—gold, uranium, iron ore, copper, silver, zinc, lead, lithium, columbium, oil and gas in every part of the nation except Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. Through a maze of American firms he also has mining and real-estate holdings in Africa, British Guiana, the Philippines and the U. S. So extensive are Hirshhorn’s interests that when he was asked recently to list them he confessed he couldn’t.
“But just mention one small outfit,” says Bill Snead, his statistician, “and J. H. can tell you how much it spent last year on erasers.” However great his wealth, Hirshhorn is no “shucks-it-weren’t-nothing” man, nor one to spout homely maxims about the path to success. “I’ve come a long way,” he says, “and it hasn’t been easy.” He acknowledges that he has made enemies as well as money along the way: “There’ve always been guys wishing I’d break a leg or drop dead. Anything I’ve got I’ve had to fight for —ever since I was a kid.”
Joe Hirshhorn can’t remember his father, Leon, a merchant of Libau, Latvia, who died when Joe was a baby. But from what he has since learned, he thinks the man was “a schlemiel—a nice guy, but not too smart.” He reveres the memory of his mother, Amelia, who died twelve years ago at the age of eighty-three.
He remembers that when he was six, the second youngest of ten children, she brought them all to America, found rooms in a seedy Brooklyn tenement and got a job in a factory. Amelia worked twelve hours a day, six days a week, for twelve dollars. Hirshhorn speaks of poverty. “We never drank real milk,” he says. “My mother found a can of condensed milk and water should stretch to three quarts. So I used to walk two miles on Saturdays to a store that sold it three cans for a quarter, a nickel cheaper than around our place.”
Joe grew up with bandy legs.
At the age of nine he sold newspapers on street corners. He remembers that he was always the smallest boy in his class at school and that he took a razzing for it. Often he had to fight bigger kids in the schoolyard.
His first trip out of Fiatbush was a visit by the seventh grade to Staten Island. En route they walked down Broad Street, just off Wall, home of the old New York Curb Market. Joe never got to the island. He hung behind all day, excited by the hundreds of men milling around on the street and sidewalk, hawking what he now knows were “over-the-counter” stocks, while others leaned from the lower windows on both sides of the street, yelling into telephones and flashing signals to the street below. Hirshhorn says he decided then that someday he’d come back there to work.
Two years later he did. At fourteen he quit school and landed a job on Wall Street as an office boy by declaring, falsely, that he could work a telephone switchboard. Told to report back two days later, he went next day to a telephone company and learned how. “As an office boy didn’t walk fast,” says Hirshhorn. “I ran.”
The Boy Broker Went Broke
When not running, he pestered his broker employer with questions about options, margin and stop losses. Finally the boss sent him to his brother-in-law, Richard D. Whyckoff, owner of the Magazine of Wall Street. Whyckoff gave him a job charting stock averages on the curb for six dollars a week. He picked up another twelve running telegrams from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. He ran so hard that he blistered his feet.
Hirshhorn says that he never went to collect his last pay, lest the other messenger boys, who called him Bandy-legged Joe, should laugh at him for quitting. To make up this loss he drew stock charts in his spare time for an old Wall Street firm, Cyrus J. Lawrence and Sons. Even after Hirshhorn had made his first million dollars a decade or so later, he kept on charting stocks for the Lawrence firm, as a favor. “They were kind to me,” he says now. “I was the first Hebrew ever employed there.”
Early in 1917 Joe quit the magazine —his salary had risen to fifty dollars a week—got Whyckoff to put up $250 credit for him with a brokerage house, and broke into the world of Bernard Baruch, Morgan, the Fisher brothers, W. C. Durant, the DuPonts and Rockefellers. In two weeks, speculating on stocks he had been watching and charting for three years, he doubled his money. By October 1918, Hirshhorn, at nineteen, had $168,000.
He was gaily riding a bull market when in November the Armistice shattered it. He salvaged only four thousand.
At this point Patrick F. Cusick, a member of the New York Curb, took Hirshhorn into partnership while the latter still needed a lawyer to sign his documents. “That kid,” says Cusick, “was just a blur, going pell-mell all the time. He knew the market inside out. He had ambition and good judgment.” Cusick should have relied on it more, Hirshhorn feels today. “If he’d listened to me,” he has said, “we’d have owned half of America!”
With Cusick, Hirshhorn prospered. He built his mother a home and made her quit work. In 1922 he married a Brooklyn girl, Jennie Burnam, moved to the Bronx, opened his own brokerage firm and became even more of a blur on Wall Street. One of his friends in those days was George Courtney, a gangling Irishman who now runs Hirshhorn’s New York office. “Joe had a lot of rough edges,” he recalls. “He certainly wasn’t any Andover boy, but he was always riding, like a high-grade jockey.”
If Hirshhorn worked hard, so he played. “When Joe was through at night,” says Courtney, “sometimes we’d go to a speak-easy for a meal, a few drinks and a lot of fun. Joe was always the life of the party, clowning all the time.”
Through the Twenties, the era of “beautiful nonsense” for Wall Street and most of America, Hirshhorn piled up winnings. On March 27, 1929, he applied to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, the world’s largest and most exclusive securities mart. But he didn’t get it. Exchange records show that the sixteen members who voted on his application turned it down by a huge majority. Hirshhorn denies this emphatically. His version is that, on second thought, he voluntarily withdrew his bid.
In any event, not getting a seat on the exchange was, for Hirshhorn, like missing the Titanic. The crash of October 1929 found Hirshhorn, who had liquidated almost all his assets in August, happily counting his first, second, third and fourth million dollars. Moreover, the value of the stock exchange seat he had planned to buy fell from almost six hundred thousand dollars to less than thirty thousand in about three years.
Hirshhorn, who claims he sensed the crash, says his best moment in business was making that first million. The worst moment, he adds, was losing one of his millions two years later when banks were failing steadily; things were tough all over. Casting about for new fields, he beheld Canada and the glittering chances there “for a man of resources and imagination.”
He opened an office in Toronto in 1932. “I brought lots of money with me,” he says. “I was no carpetbagger.” His name was no sooner on the door than two prospectors, Fred MacLeod and Arthur Cockshutt, knocked on it. They were selling units in a syndicate that was trying to bring a promising looking gold property into production. Hirshhorn paid out seventeen hundred dollars. The MacLeod-Cockshutt mine, in Ontario’s Little Longlac district, later yielded him two hundred thousand.
Then as now, Hirshhorn was a fast workman. One morning he undertook to raise money for a mine. By noon he had talked a Toronto man into putting up fifty thousand dollars. Fie phoned his client the news. “That was quick work,” said he.
“What do you mean ‘quick’?” cried Joe. “I had to spend an hour with that guy!’’
On Nov. 19, 1933, in the Northern Miner, one of Bay Street’s bibles, Hirshhorn placed a full-page advertisement headed, “My Name is Opportunity and I am Paging Canada.” His friends acclaim it a great document, comparing favorably with the Magna Carta. Certainly an extraordinary one, it said, in part:
Canada, your day has come. The world is at your feet, begging you to release your riches cramped in Mother Earth … You have the courage! You have the energy, enthusiasm, and the will to carry on! The end will surely justify the effort, and you will be repaid amply . . . Carry on until the pick strikes the hard, firm yellow metal, until the cry of Gold resounds through the virgin forests . . . Go forward, then, with light shining in your eyes, with firm step, with courageous resolution, with determination, with the will to do and fight until you win. And as for us, we believe to the extent that we have investments in gold mining and other industries in the Dominion and shall continue to do so.
It was signed, “J. H. Hirshhorn and Co. Ltd., Investment Bankers.”
On one flyer that year—Tashota Gold —Mother Earth nicked Hirshhorn for four hundred thousand. Plunging on with courageous resolution, he bought into Gunnar Gold, an investment that he says netted him a million dollars, and in a manner that intrigued the Ontario Securities Commission, watchdog of Bay Street practices.
Hirshhorn was one of Gunnar’s original financers, along with Charles LaBine and his brother, Gilbert, Canada’s first uranium king. For his initial investment of about fifty thousand dollars Hirshhorn got 598,000 “vendor’s” shares in the company, though the LaBines kept control. Gunnar went on the Toronto Stock Exchange at fifty-five cents, climbed steadily through 1934 until in August it hit $2.50. Then slowly it slipped. On Oct. 31 it opened at $1.43. By noon it had dropped to ninety-four cents. Bay Street buzzed with rumors of manipulation or raiding and Gilbert LaBine, Gunnar’s president, asked the Ontario government to investigate his own company.
After a long hearing, the late J. M. Godfrey, then securities commissioner, absolved the LaBines and concluded that the stock had been manipulated “with very great skill” by Hirshhorn. By selling shares with one hand and buying them back with the other, he said, Hirshhorn had made it seem on the ticker tape that there was “something doing” in Gunnar, thus creating an artificial demand—and price—for Gunnar stock.
In a published report Godfrey said Hirshhorn had been able to dispose of some of his interests at $2.48—”which might be considered a profitable transaction in view of the fact that (they) had cost him originally about eight cents.” He estimated that the loss of value in Gunnar stock on the morning of Oct. 31 amounted to $1,127,000.
While terming the action a manipulation, Godfrey conceded that it was a perfectly legal one, since the laws against fraud forbade conspiring to manipulate and Hirshhorn had evidently told no one what he was up to. A man cannot conspire with himself.
Recalling this now, Hirshhorn seethes. “It was a frame-up,” he says, “-—they tried to hang me!” By his account, he returned from a trip abroad in 1934, found to his chagrin that Gunnar was slipping and so sold out to avoid more losses. Others, he says, raided the stock; he didn’t monkey with it.
A few days after the Godfrey report, Ottawa concluded that Hirshhorn was no longer what he had claimed to be, a non-immigrant visiting the country for casual business or pleasure, but an American citizen earning most of his bread in Canada. He was ordered deported. Hirshhorn appealed, was reclassified two months later as a landed immigrant making his home here, and was permitted to remain.
Too Smart for the Sharpies
Hirshhorn’s reputation as a backer of long shots soared again in 1936, after a geologist named Doug Wright whispered a tip in his ear. At that time Preston East Dome, an idle reputedly goldless gold mine in the Porcupine district of northern Ontario, had been trading at less than ten cents on the Toronto Stock Exchange. When Hirshhorn began buying control of it in 1936 the Bay Street rumor was that he was acquiring a real “dog”—a big nothing. As Preston’s shares went up, some of Bay Street’s more sensitive stock mongers sniffed the aroma of easy money. Suspecting a manipulation they gleefully sold short.
That is, they sold Preston stock they didn’t own, certain that when the manipulation stopped the stock would fall and they could grab shares that had been ordered at, say, a dollar, for bargain prices of fifty cents. Hirshhorn kept on buying. Instead of falling, Preston shot up and up, past two dollars — geologist Wright had really hit gold — and the short sellers were caught. They had to make good their losses, many of them to their intended victim, Hirshhorn himself.
William Bouck, a Toronto lawyer who is president of Preston East Dome, remembers the Hirshhorn of 1936 as “a rough, tough little man who was on the go all the time, always hustling.” More conservative operators found him too aggressive, even for Bay Street. “Joe,” says Bouck, “was just too smart for a lot of the sharpies. Today they don’t like him.”
In Hirshhorn’s book this is rank understatement. “Many guys around here,” he says, “would cut my throat for free. When I came up here they said I was a hit-and-run man, a fast-buck guy. I was the little Hebe from New York City and I’ve taken a lot of abuse.”
Hirshhorn, his few intimates say, has always been hypersensitive to slights, especially where they concern his religion. Once in the Thirties his family was turned away from a resort hotel in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Furious, that very day Hirshhorn bought four hundred wooded acres nearby. On it he built a $360,000 castle and lived there in lonely splendor.
“I was the only Jew for twenty-five miles around,” he says now, “and the neighbors shunned me.” One Christmas Hirshhorn decorated two fir trees in front of his home. Both were sawed down by the neighbors, as were the signs that said Private Road. “I gave the most money to the local fire department,’’ he says, “and put up prizes for the school kids.
But I just couldn’t reach those people.” Presently, he gave up trying, sold the house and moved away.
Between the time of his Preston Fast Dome promotion and the fabulous Blind River uranium find of 1953, Hirshhorn’s interests ranged far afield, to Africa, South America and the Philippines. He promoted mines, with some success and some failures. He won consistently on the stock market (“It takes an expert. Speculation is the most scientific art there is but the public treats it like a roulette wheel”).
But he was still looking for another bonanza. He was one of the first to join the postwar hunt for uranium in Canada. In 1950 he teamed up with Paul V. McNutt, former governor of Indiana and War Manpower commissioner in the Roosevelt administration, and Josiah Marvel, onetime U. S. ambassador to Denmark, in a promotion called American-Canadian Uranium, which held extensive claims in Saskatchewan.
When American-Canadian stock went on sale, New York State’s attorney – general Nathaniel Goldstein publicly advised would-be investors that Hirshhorn had twice been convicted and fined for violating Canada’s foreign exchange laws -(in 1945, for selling securities and attempting to take fifteen thousand dollars out of the country, both without licenses from the Foreign Exchange Control Board. His fines totaled eighty-five hundred dollars).
In Saskatchewan Hirshhorn’s record became a political issue, after it was revealed by Goldstein. There, in the 1951 session of the legislature, Liberal Alex Cameron demanded, “How did it happen that Saskatchewan permitted these valuable uranium concessions to fall into the hands of these racketeers?” But during the 1955 session, Hirshhorn was defended by Premier T. C. Douglas: “When he (Hirshhorn) gets a $207 million contract with the Canadian government to develop uranium in Ontario, he is a first-class free enterpriser. The Liberal Party is not calling him a ‘fraudulent racketeer’ now. He was just a fraudulent racketeer’ when they thought that he might come into Saskatchewan and help develop our industries.”
What had happened between times was that Hirshhorn, after years of trying, came up with his big bonanza, Blind River. It. all began in 1950 when Hirshhorn met Franc Joubin, a scholarly bespectacled geologist of thirty-eight who had an office in the same building. One day, in a rush for a geologist’s report on one of his mines, Hirshhorn scooted into Joubin’s office. ’Gimme a report. How much? It’s a deal. Shake. S’long.” Then he was gone.
After that Joubin did more jobs for Hirshhorn. He found two small but profitable uranium mines and was hired in 1952 to run Technical Mine Consultants.
For several years Joubin had been nagged by the notion that Ontario’s well-prospected Algoma district was hiding uranium. He was prowling the bush around Blind River, a seasonal lumbering town midway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, once when his Geiger counter clicked madly. But, to his dismay, ore chipped from the surface assayed only feeble traces of uranium. Like other prospectors before him, Joubin felt at first that thorium, the only other appreciably radioactive element, must be causing the Geiger to fuss. He tried to enlist the aid of a dozen mining companies in Canada and the United States. All turned him down. Blind River, they said, just didn’t have the right geology for uranium.
Then, on a hunch, Joubin analyzed his old samples for thorium alone. They contained barely any. If there were little radioactivity in the surface ore, Joubin reasoned, it must have been leached away by the wear and tear of time, a process that can occur to uranium, but not thorium. So there had to be uranium, deeper down.
He took his theory to Hirshhorn. Where all others had turned Joubin down flat, Hirshhorn quickly came up with the thirty thousand dollars he needed to take out core samples. Of fifty-six drill holes, fifty hit pay dirt.
The events that followed were almost as secretive as the Manhattan Project. Working quickly, Hirshhorn sat down with William Bouek president of Preston East Dome, which Hirshhorn controlled. In return for a 50-50 split with Technical Mine Consultants, Bouek put up Preston money and men to stake out claims at Blind River. In effect, Hirshhorn drew up a financial deal with Hirshhorn.
Then, since the area to be staked lay perilously close to both the TransCanada Highway and a CPR line, they organized what has become known as “the back-door staking bee.” From South Porcupine, two hundred and fifty miles from Blind River, pontoon planes carrying seventy – five prospectors, geologists and even lawyers took off, feinted to the north, then swung southwest toward Algoma.
For six weeks, not told where they were, the stakers followed their Geigers along a vast Z-shaped path that snaked for a hundred miles through the bush. If Hirshhorn was worried that word would leak out, it didn’t show. In Toronto, flitting from office to office and phone to phone, he kept up his normally abnormal pace. “Joe always acts like he’s in the middle of a hot staking bee,” says Franc Joubin.
On July 11, the staking done, four lawyers who had been in on the bee strode into mine recorders’ offices in widely separated parts of Ontario and plunked down sixteen hundred claims covering an area of almost sixty-five thousand acres. Under the collective nose of Bay Street, where secrets are hard to keep, Hirshhorn and Joubin had scored an amazing beat.
They split the credit. Hirshhorn says of Joubin, “Franc—he knows his rock.” Joubin, now a millionaire himself, says, “What Joe says in finance goes with me. He’s got a brain like an adding machine.”
It worked especially well when the Rio Tinto syndicate—headed by the Earl of Bessborough, a former Canadian governor – general — wanted in. “They came to me,” Hirshhorn says with satisfaction. “I didn’t have to go running to them.”
For almost four months negotiations went on both sides of the Atlantic. Duncan Derry, a Rio Tinto official, recalls, “There was a big contrast between the reserved Englishmen at one end of the table and little Joe at the other.” Pleased, little Joe danced jigs or sang into the telephone. Displeased, he used words the British hadn’t heard before. But in the end he had someone else’s money to finance his mine, without losing control of it.
Hirshhorn estimates that his Algom and Pronto holdings, coupled with many other Blind River claims split among his many other companies, will net him more than thirty million dollars. “I’m just sitting on eggs,” he says, “waiting for them to hatch.”
But such good fortune, Hirshhorn has found, is not without its peculiar price. “Ever since Blind River,” he complains, “people’ve been bugging me for money.” He doesn’t refer to bonafide charities or worthy institutions. To these Hirshhorn is generous. This year, among other donations, he has put up fifty thousand dollars to educate social workers from foreign lands at Columbia University, given ten thousand to Manhattan College and handed Blind River’s hospital a new operating room.
Those who bother him are the hundreds of cheeky strangers who write, phone and visit him with their hands out. “One guy,” says Hirshhorn, “asked me to give him two million bucks. He was broke and wanted to build his wife a home—on the Riviera yet!”
Hirshhorn sees his wealth as a public responsibility. “After a guy has a couple of million dollars he’s a bum to want more,” he says. “You can only eat three meals a day—I tried four and got sick. I got maybe twenty suits but I can just wear one at a time, and I can’t use more than two shirts a day.’
This being so, Hirshhorn says he feels an obligation to put the surplus to good use. At first he intended to set up an educational foundation. “I never had much education,” he says. “People say to me, ‘What the hell, you’ve done okay.’ Sure, but I might of done better.” For this reason he insisted that the four children of his first marriage go to college. “I used to tell them, ‘People can take your money away, but they can’t steal what’s in your noodle.’”
Recently, however, his plans have changed. Hirshhorn now says he wants to set up a foundation, within a year, to provide free mental hygiene for children in Canada and the United States. (Close friends say he is thinking in terms of a fifty-million-dollar trust, including all his Algom stock.) “Many young kids lack a sense of balance,” Hirshhorn says. “We’ll have better people if they understand what makes them tick. Psychiatry and analysis has done a lot for me. I’m grateful.”
A Backwoods Dream Town
Another ambitious Hirshhorn plan is to build near Blind River “the world’s most beautiful small town,” chiefly to accommodate the families of Pronto mine workers. This, he hopes, will be the crowning achievement of his life, of which his grandchildren may well say, “Hey! The old guy really did something!”
Located on an evergreen rise overlooking the north channel of Lake Huron, three miles from Hirshhorn’s magnificent summer home at Bootlegger’s Bay, the dream town is thus far only a large parcel of real estate —his—and a gleaming silver-and-black model, the work of Philip C. Johnson, director of the department of architecture at the New York Museum of Modern Art, and of John B. Parkin Associates, a Toronto firm.
What Hirshhorn wants it to be is a thirty – five – million – dollar backwoods metropolis (hoped-for population: 25,000) of contemporary houses and apartment buildings, wide streets, forest parks, a shopping centre, daily newspaper, schools, and arena and concert hall. So that it will not be a “company town,” Hirshhorn wants all homes and stores to be privately owned and he intends inviting in several light clean industries to balance its economy. To launch it Hirshhorn plans spending about two million readying parks, roads, sewage and water systems. “I’m not going to make a nickel on this deal,” he says. “I just want Canada to have one town that’s laid out from an aesthetic standpoint.”
For the aesthetic effect, Hirshhorn’s town–to be named Hirshhorn, Ontario—will fan about an Italian piazzalike square, featuring a glittering glass-marble-and-chrome office building on stilts, statues by Henry Moore and Sir Jacob Epstein and a million-dollar art centre, the personal gift of Hirshhorn the man to Hirshhorn the model town.
To this art centre Hirshhorn will give many of his eight hundred-odd paintings and pieces of sculpture, most of them shockingly modern. “Maybe the miners won’t appreciate it,” he says, “but their kids will grow up with a feeling for great art.”
Art is Hirshhorn’s passion, apart from work. His private collection, now estimated to be worth a million and a half, began with etchings in the Twenties, progressed to French traditionals and today, the critics say, includes many of the best, worst and most controversial of the moderns. So hipped is Hirshhorn on his art that he sometimes steals away from business meetings to visit galleries, searching for works that “sing,” “have intellect” or make him “feel weak.” In one notably weak day in 1941 he bought sixty-five paintings by Milton Avery, an American modernist. At an exhibit a few years later he bought a canvas by Lily Harmon and was introduced to the artist, a dark, striking New York girl twenty years his junior. They were married in 1945.
“It was cheaper to marry her,” Hirshhorn jokes, “than to keep on buying her paintings.”
Good paintings, Hirshhorn avers, are sound investments: “They keep on giving.” The ideas behind his projected model town and the mental health foundation are somewhat similar. “I’ve taken a lot,” he says. “Now I want to give something back to the people.” On a less humble note he has also said, “Canada has been good to me. But, then, I’ve been good to Canada.”
If the town and the foundation sound like a man preparing his own monument, it should not be concluded that Joe Hirshhorn means to let up. He once tried to. In 1934, soon after coming to Canada, he collapsed in his Toronto office from complete exhaustion. On his doctor’s advice he retired, moved to Miami Beach, Fla., and lay around doing nothing for four months. “It was awful,” he says. Just for kicks, to get the feel of business again, he bought a nearby chunk of real estate for sixty-five hundred dollars and a short time later resold it for eighty-four thousand.
“I just couldn’t retire to a park bench and become a philosopher,” Hirshhorn says today. “I’d go nuts.
I gotta keep going.”
Many wonder what keeps Hirshhorn going. Some feel that he is propelled by the basest of human motives, a burning desire to corner the market on money. Others suspect that he is trying to prove something—just what, they’re not quite sure. Hirshhorn scoffs at both theories. “With me,” he says, “making money is just a game. I get a bang out of it.”
Whatever the reason, since Blind River he has been going as fast as ever, his mind racing with grand schemes. Not long ago an acquaintance congratulated him on the big Rio Tinto deal. Joe Hirshhorn took another drag on his stogie and winked through the smoke at his friend, “Ahhhh,” he said with an audible sigh, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
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