Ventura Farms

The Billionaire Who Is Planning His 125th Birthday (part 4)

cont’d from Part 3

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

by Frank Bruni

He stayed for 17 years, buying cheap land and constructing affordable houses for all the people moving South and West after World War II. “I was building as fast as I could break ground” he says. “Bang, bang, bang: I could hardly get a house finished before it was sold.”

Houses and small office buildings were followed by larger office buildings, in Arizona and California and eventually the Midwest. To invest all the money pouring in, he bought stock, then more stock, then whole companies. He acquired control of International Mining in 1978 and in the early 1980s became the largest shareholder in Occidental Petroleum by selling the company his 18 percent interest in Iowa Beef. (That was back when he and filet were on friendly terms.) He took over Dole, part of a larger company, Castle & Cooke, which he acquired control of in 1985.

It was a heady ride, and his partner for the headiest stretch of it was a raven-haired, German-born beauty who became his wife in 1967, when he was in his mid-40s and she was in her late 20s. Her name was Gabriele. Although he was married twice before, he hadn’t fathered any children. With Gabriele he had two boys, who joined a son of hers whom he adopted. He moved his base of operations from Arizona to California and, for his new family, bought the legendary Conrad Hilton estate in Beverly Hills. Soon afterward, for weekend getaways, he also bought the ranch, in Ventura County, about a 30-minute drive away.

Ventura Farms

Ventura Farms

For the three boys, he got all those animals, and for Gabriele, jewels, gowns, fresh flowers — whatever she wanted.

“He adored her,” says E. Rolland Dickson, Murdock’s personal physician at the Mayo Clinic and a longtime close friend, adding that even 15 years into the marriage, “he had that look of a young guy on his honeymoon.”

He and Gabriele traveled the world; he chose one trip, she the next. Murdock says:

She always wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I always wanted to do what she wanted to do. It’s very hard to find somebody that way.

And harder still to lose her. In 1983 she was given a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer. There was no effective treatment, though he looked wide and far. The couple took a suite at a hotel adjacent to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Determined to heal her somehow, he wondered about nutrition and began to do extensive research into what she — and he, in support of her —should eat. The answer was more or less the kind of diet he has stuck to ever since.

Because many cancers have environmental links and the one she got didn’t run in her family, he suspects that lifestyle was a culprit, and is convinced that if the two of them had eaten better sooner, she would have been spared the surgery, the radiation, the chemotherapy, the wheelchair, the year and a half of hope and fear and pain.

If I had known what I know today… I could have saved my wife’s life. And I think I could have saved my mother’s life too.

Gabriele Murdock died 18 years into their marriage, in 1985. She was 43.

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