Article Originally appeared in the New York Times, March 3, 2011.
by Frank Bruni
… In restaurants Murdock will push the butter dish toward the server and say, “Take the death off the table.” He will ask employees or friends who are putting sugar in coffee or milk in tea why they want to kill themselves and will upbraid people leaving healthful food unfinished about the vitamins they’re squandering.
I experienced this during a visit in early February to his California ranch, where I joined him for lunch: a six-fruit smoothie; a mixed-leaf salad with toasted walnuts, fennel and blood orange; a soup with more than eight vegetables and beans; a sliver of grilled Dover sole on a bed of baby carrots, broccoli and brown rice.
“How did you like your soup?”he asked me after one of his household staff members removed it. I said it was just fine.
“Did you eat all your juice?” he added, referring to the broth. I said I had left perhaps an inch of it. He shot me a stern look. “You got a little bit of it,” he said.
“I get a lot — every bit I can.” He shrugged his shoulders. “That’s O.K. You’ll go before me.”
There was dessert, too: flourless cookies made with dark chocolate and walnuts, both rich in antioxidants, and sweetened not with sugar but with honey. He quickly polished one off and then called out to the kitchen to say that he wanted the cookies to make an encore appearance after dinner, so he could have another then. Five minutes later, still cookie-struck, he walked into the kitchen to ask that a few be packed up for him to have handy through the afternoon.
Murdock grew up in the tiny town of Wayne, Ohio, the middle child of three and the only son. He didn’t see much of his father, a traveling salesman with an inconsistent income, but was close to his mother, who took in laundry and scrubbed floors to help make ends meet. He softens when he recalls sitting in her lap while she read to him, a memory that he says hasn’t been dimmed by the length of her absence. She died, from cancer, when she was just 42 and he 17.
By then he was living on his own, having dropped out of school at 14. He has dyslexia, though no one initially realized it, and never managed grades better than D’s. “Everybody laughed at me,” he says. “They thought I was an imbecile.” He traded classwork for changing oil and pumping gas; he
lived in a room above the service station.
When he talks about his childhood, his lack of formal education is one of two themes he brings up again and again, usually to cast it as an inadvertent gift. He says that because he felt the need to compensate for it, he read prodigiously and, he stresses, without the narrowness of focus he notices in many conventionally learned people. Biographies of Andrew Carnegie, Socratic dialogues, Shakespearean sonnets, “The Prince”— he devoured it all over time. He also studied something called brain acceleration, which he says taught him to think about three things at once. “I’ll match wits with anybody,” he says. “I don’t care if they have the top degree in the world.” He notes that everyone on his research campus’s board is a Ph.D. or an M.D. But he, the high-school dropout, presides over the meetings.
The other theme is how low the point from which he rose to riches was. After finishing several years of service in the U.S. Army at age 22, he was not only penniless but also homeless, and slept for a while under a bush in a Detroit park. He would cadge free coffee from a friend employed at a greasy spoon. A man who worked for a loan company met Murdock there, learned that he was a veteran and offered to help.
With the man’s assistance, he rounded up $1,200 in loans and bought that diner, which he whipped into freshly scrubbed, newly painted shape. He sold it a year and a half later for $1,900, spent $75 of the profit on a car, set out for California and stopped along the way in Phoenix, where the opportunity to make money was too good to pass up….
to be cont’d…