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Rich man's best friend is health

By Paul Johnson, Forbes
September 27, 2005 07:57 IST

Lord Beaverbrook, the greatest British press baron of his generation, used to say to me in his strong Canadian accent: "Aw, Mistah Johnson, look after your good health. You may be the richest man in the world. You may be the most powerful man in the world. But if you lose your good health, you will be the most miserable man in the world."

From my observations I'd say that's a true statement. Take the case of Sir James (Jimmy) Goldsmith. He was the most interesting rich man I've known, and I witnessed his rise from nothing to the position of a sterling billionaire. I first met Jimmy when he was 16. He'd run away from school on the proceeds from an "accumulator bet" on horse races that had brought him £8,000 -- a lot of cash in 1948. He said to me, "What's the point of going on at Eton, with nowhere to spend it except the Tuck Shop. I want to get my teeth into life."

And that's precisely what he did. Eventually, however, life got its teeth into him. He was afflicted with incurable cancer. In an attempt to prolong his existence, Jimmy went to an Indian guru/doctor.

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The prescribed regimen didn't allow for painkilling drugs, so Jimmy endured months of agony before deciding the "cure" was useless. By then he was near death. For the sake of his family, however, he endured one last spasm of discomfort by moving from his house in France to his house in Spain, thus avoiding France's crushing death taxes.

It was a sad end to a life of uninhibited energy expenditure and hedonism, in which "looking after your good health" played little part.

Of course, health should never become an obsession. Nothing could be more miserable than the way Howard Hughes, the once-swashbuckling billionaire of the aviation industry and movie world who developed a germ phobia, spent his last years: He ended his days stark naked in a cocoon of tissues.

Health Hazards

On the other hand, it has to be admitted that great health -- whether inherited or acquired by your own exertions -- brings its own peculiar health hazards. Here are some of them:

Travelmania. The very rich seem to move around too much, for reasons of both business and pleasure. There's an explanation: Wealth has its limitations.

There's a limit to what you can eat or drink; you can wear only one outfit of clothes or sleep in one bed at a time.

Travel, however, is an area of expenditure in which big money can make a difference, via private jets, yachts, limos and the like.

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The very rich are always airborne. They attend board meetings all over the world. They have houses everywhere -- fully staffed, of course -- and, in order to get some value out of these abodes, they continually relocate.

It's a self-imposed labour. Not long ago the wife of one billionaire said to me, "One-third of my life is used up running our houses or traveling between them."

Travel is exhausting. I told Rupert Murdoch some years ago that he had the face of a man who is always getting on or off a long-distance jet.

Travel can also be dangerous.

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You may use the world's best-run airlines or travel by private jet only when weather conditions are perfect, but every time you step aboard an aircraft you are taking on some more risk.

Moreover, if you can afford it, the temptation is to cut any delays by hiring helicopters -- a flashy, high-risk mode of transport. The rich should remember that nobody ever risked his neck by staying in one place. If you're rich enough, let them come to you.

The culture of excess. The rich are exposed to this all the time. Eating in the grand manner, not sometimes but always. Drinking the best vintages, the oldest cognac. Partying (and often flying thousands of miles by private jet to do so). Staying up late. Taking pills to get through a life of luxury. And then spending spells in health clinics to get over it all. Or employing fashionable society doctors to stay fit -- a sure formula, in my humble opinion, for chronic unease in health.

Worry. This is something no amount of money can banish. And the world's highest-paid psychiatrist cannot cure it, because in most cases the worries of the rich are imaginary. Worry not only poisons but also shortens life. Mr. Worry sits on the end of the billionaire's bed, keeps him awake at night and greets him with a wintry smile in the morning.

Yet -- and here is the paradox -- wealth is made by continual hard work, and an able man who makes himself rich will be happy (and therefore healthy) only by doing what comes naturally. He has to carry on competing -- and competing in spending and pleasure-seeking, as well as in accumulating the lucre. The rich lead the lives they do for the same compulsive reasons they become rich in the first place.

Are the problems of the very rich insoluble, then? If so, they are problems many would like to share.

Paul Johnson, Forbes