Gazillionaire Collector Eli Broad's Unreasonably Goofy Memoir/Self-Help Book is Quite a Read

Gazillionaire Collector Eli Broad's Unreasonably Goofy Memoir/Self-Help Book is Quite a Read
Eli Broad
(Photo © BFA)

When Eli Broad was in school, his classmates got a kick out of calling him "broad" (rhymes with "rod"). Unhappy with the bullying his name incurred, he changed it. Young Eli started telling people his last name was "Broad" rhymes with "road." It stuck, and an innovator was born.

But whatever talents Broad may have in creating Fortune 500 companies he lacks in the book-writing realm (he is also just so-so in the tweeting realm over at @UnreasonableEli, for the record). His new autobiography-cum-self-help book, "The Art of Being Unreasonable," recently released by Wiley, reads like a self-aggrandizing series of diary entries written by an extremely reasonable, wealthy businessman's ghostwriter after said businessman suddenly found himself with more time than he knew what to do with post-retirement. Broad admits he doesn't find himself unreasonable — even though the repetition of the word in the 165-page book grows tedious after the first chapter. (When ARTINFO ran into him at last week's Frieze art fair in New York, he said, "You see, I think I am reasonable. It is other people who think I am unreasonable.")

Broad's story is appealing because he exemplifies the American Dream — at least a post-war, analog version of the American Dream. Born to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrant parents in the Bronx, he lived through the Great Depression, moved to Michigan, became an accountant by the age of 21, built a business manufacturing and selling low-cost homes on a $10,000 loan from his father-in-law, eventually jumped into the insurance business, accrued a $6 billion fortune, and has spent the better part of the last 30 years giving that money away.

But "The Art of Being Unreasonable" isn't really a book about the American dream. What is it about? That's unclear. It is partially a book on Broad's life. It's partially a book on getting rich. It's partially a love letter to Broad's wife. It's partially an apology to his sons for being a workaholic father. And it's mostly a meandering jumble of clichés ("Like wine, an idea may need to age…").

The best parts are when he takes the opportunity to delve into the odd, hilarious, and sometimes unreasonable moments — the Broad-rhymes-with-road story comes to mind, as does the time he put a $2.5 million Roy Lichtenstein on his American Express card at Sotheby's because he could. The move caused a ruckus, cost the auction house a pretty penny in transaction fees, gave Broad an extra month to make almost that much in interest on his vast fortune, racked up frequent flyer miles (which Broad donated to students at CalArts), and most importantly, put an end to Sotheby's policy of accepting credit cards. There was also the incident in which Jean-Michel Basquiat lit a joint in the Broads' bathroom, during that time in the '80s when they were "spending a lot of time in New York's East Village."

I suppose the book is great fodder for beefing up Broad's Wikipedia entry, and for future historians focused on the redevelopment of downtown Los Angeles, as Broad goes into detail about the various civic projects he has contributed to over the last 30 years. But, if you will excuse the pun, he paints in broad strokes, and one can't help but feel that he either leads an incredibly mundane existence or he is leaving out the good stuff.

He glosses over his time (pre-crash) at the helm of the too-big-to-fail insurance giant AIG in the early aughts and plays down his disagreements with architect Frank Gehry over the design of the Broad-backed Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. ("I wasn't going to let my ego get in the way of realizing a magnificent new asset for the city.") Perhaps most importantly, he leaves out a lot about what he was doing in the East Village in the '80s.

That's the sort of attitude that makes for a reasonable and wealthy entrepreneur, but a terrible storyteller.