The Billionaire Who Is Planning His 125th Birthday (part 2)

cont’d from Part I

Article Originally appeared in the New York Times, March 3, 2011.

by Frank Bruni

Inside are world-class laboratories with cutting-edge equipment and emblems of the ostentation with which Murdock approaches much of what he does. He made two separate trips to the mountaintop quarries in Carrara, Italy, to select the 125 tons of off-white marble that cover the floor and even the walls of the central atrium of the main building, called the David H. Murdock Core Laboratory.

Mr. David H. Murdock

Mr. David H. Murdock

He also commissioned, for the atrium’s dome, an enormous painted mural with outsize, hyper vivid representations of about two dozen foods at the center of his diet, including grapes as large as Frisbees, radishes bigger than beach balls and a pineapple the size of a schooner. This kaleidoscopic orgy of antioxidants is presented as a wreath around a soaring eagle, whose wingspan was lengthened at the last minute, to about 18 feet from 12, at his request. The bird symbolizes him.

Health paragon, patron and proselytizer

There are health nuts, and then there is Murdock: health paragon, patron and proselytizer, with a biography as colorful as that mural, a determination to write a few more chapters of it still and a paradox of sorts at the center of it all. What set him on this quest was a loss that no amplitude of wellness can restore, and even if he teased out his days into eternity, he would be hard pressed to fill them with the contentment they once had.

Murdock stands only 5-foot-8, and while he perhaps doesn’t look each and every one of his many years, his skin is deeply wrinkled, and his hair is entirely white. His hearing has dulled, so that he frequently misunderstands the questions he is asked, though it’s possible in some instances that he simply decides not to answer them and to talk about something else instead. He thrums with willfulness.

“I never had a boss in my whole life,” he says, owning up to what he labels a “dictatorial” streak.

“I’ve totally destroyed anybody’s ability to tell me what to do.”

His energy, more than his appearance, makes him seem younger than he is. At his lodge he leapt from his chair every 20 minutes to grab unwieldy four-foot-long logs and hurl them into a stone fireplace two stories tall. The gesture was not only irresistible metaphor — he didn’t want the flame to die — but also showy proof of his strength. He tries to fit in weight lifting several times a week, and that, combined with brisk walks on a treadmill and his diet, helps keep his weight at about 140 pounds, though he has always been naturally slender, even when he ate what he pleased. He doesn’t count calories or believe in extreme caloric restriction as a way to extend life.
But he does believe that excess weight is a sure way to abbreviate it, and reprimands friends, acquaintances and even strangers who are heavy.

In 2006, when he first met with D. H. Griffin, whose demolition company was to prepare the site for the research campus, he took note of Griffin’s size. At 5-foot-11, he weighed about 285 pounds.

“You’re probably going to die before this job’s done, because you’re so fat and unhealthy,” Murdock told Griffin, as Griffin recalls, adding that Griffin’s family would wind up paying extra money for an extra-large coffin. Later he did something more constructive: he offered Griffin a bonus if he lost 30 pounds. Griffin did and collected $100,000. He has since regained 22 of them.

to be continued…

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