The erstwhile political whirlwind proved a longer-lasting power in business. He currently owns a dozen homes around the world, all showplaces maintained fully staffed, but he rarely spends two consecutive nights in any one of them. His wife of 28 years sees less of him than the pilots of his DC-9, preferring to spend most of her time with the cows and horses on an isolated ranch in Montana. Although he is invariably accompanied by an entourage of photographers, chauffeurs, managers, stewards, general factotums and hangers-on, plus various of his five children and their friends, few are his contemporaries or his equals in accomplishment. Essentially he is a loner, as he has always been, and books are his most intimate friends.
Nevertheless, when his sons became interested in motorcycling, he took up the sport with them. As the bills began to mount, he characteristically figured out the way to cut costs—he bought a motorcycle shop. Slegers-Forbes Inc., in Whippany, N.J., has since become one of the largest motorcycle centers in the world. In 1969 Forbes made a 1,000-mile bike trip to northern Quebec and back, extolling the joys of the leather-jacket life all the way. His complete engrossment with the trip was typical of the intensity Forbes brings to any project he undertakes, and at the moment there are several dozen around the globe. He also has the knack of attracting talented, dedicated people who invariably end up sharing his commitment. "If you found two or three people who were bored in our entire company," says Linda Dunklau, one of Forbes' two personal secretaries, "it would be surprising. The employees really feel like members of the Forbes family."
It is a big family and a diversified one, including the biologist who runs Forbes' Colorado game ranch, the architects who are rebuilding Zane Grey's old fishing camp in Tahiti, the cattlemen who operate his Montana, ranch, the businessman who is supervising construction of his conference center in Bali, the curators of his Victorian art and Faberg� jewel collections, the captain of his 116-foot yacht, the managers of his 196-square-mile subdivision in the Rockies, of his copra plantation in the Fiji Islands, of his palace in Tangiers, of his castle in Normandy, and of the restoration of his Old Battersea House in London. All of these people rank among the best in their fields, and Forbes' ability to absorb and assimilate through them the myriad facets of all these operations astonishes many of his associates.
It is more understandable when one recognizes that Forbes is the consummate collector. "Collecting," he says, "is like education. There is an unending horizon if you really get turned on."
As for ballooning, not everybody in that fraternity is amused by the swath Forbes has cut through the sport. Bob Hilton, of the International Professional Balloon Pilots Racing Association, becomes apoplectic at the mention of the Atlantic flight. "It's a travesty," he says, "an insult to the sport and to serious balloonists." Others point out that the coast-to-coast flight was supported by a ground crew of some 30 people, plus an airplane, a bus, several cars, a motor home and extensive electronic equipment. The fact that Forbes spent most nights in motels and three times flew home for weekends arouses further ire. Forbes is nonplussed by such criticism.
"The reason my flight succeeded and others failed," he says, "can be summed up in one word: money. The flight could never have been made without ground support such as I had. I was willing to pay for it. Nobody else has been."
Certainly this is the key to the Atlantic crossing. Nobody, until Forbes, has had the combination of money and inclination necessary to marshal the vast technological resources such a venture demands. The dean of American balloonists, Bob Waligunda of Princeton, at whose school Forbes took a portion of his balloon training in 1972, has long believed such a flight possible.
"There are two ways to cross the Atlantic," Waligunda says. "High and low. Crossing high depends on the jet stream, a pressurized gondola and a sophisticated life-support system. The jet stream is there. Any number of unmanned balloons have crossed successfully in it. The rest is a matter of money.
"Crossing low—at less than 10,000 feet—is another matter. Then the keys are the balloon itself, the pilot and the weather. The balloon must withstand the tremendous beating it will take. The pilot must have enormous experience, stamina and motivation to hang in against the elements. And the weather and the time of year must be exactly right. Even Malcolm Forbes with all his technology can't beat a thunderstorm.
"If you are talking about seat-of-the-pants adventure there is no comparison between the crossings. But the balloon and the man capable of a low crossing have yet to come along. Ballooning is still waiting for its Lindbergh. Forbes' flight is adventure of a different kind. It's a space-age, 2001 kind of odyssey."