Stewart Resnick is the biggest farmer in the United States, a fact he has tried to keep hidden while he has shaped what we eat, transformed California’s landscape, and ruled entire towns.
But the one thing he can’t control is what he’s most dependent on — water.
On a summer day in the San Joaquin Valley, 101 in the shade, I merge onto Highway 99 past downtown Fresno and steer through the vibrations of heat. I’m headed to the valley’s deep south, to a little farmworker town in a far corner of Kern County called Lost Hills. This is where the biggest irrigated farmer in the world — the one whose mad plantings of almonds and pistachios have triggered California’s nut rush — keeps on growing, no matter drought or flood. He doesn’t live in Lost Hills. He lives in Beverly Hills. How has he managed to outwit nature for so long?
The GPS tells me to take Interstate 5, the fastest route through the belly of the state, but I’m partial to Highway 99, the old road that brought the Okies and Mexicans to the fields and deposited a twang on my Armenian tongue. The highway runs two lanes here, three lanes there, through miles of agriculture broken every 20 minutes by fast food, gas station, and cheap motel. Tracts of houses, California’s last affordable dream, civilize three or four exits, and then it’s back to the open road splattered with the guts and feathers of chickens that jumped ship on the slaughterhouse drive. Pink and white oleanders divide the highway, and every third vehicle that whooshes by is a big rig. More often than not, it is hauling away some piece of the valley’s bounty. The harvest begins in January with one type of mandarin and ends in December with another type of mandarin and in between spills forth everything in your supermarket produce and dairy aisles except for bananas and mangoes, though the farmers here are working on the tropical, too.
I stick to the left lane and try to stay ahead of the pack. The big-rig drivers are cranky two ways, and the farmworkers in their last-leg vans are half-asleep. Ninety-nine is the deadliest highway in America. Deadly in the rush of harvest, deadly in the quiet of fog, deadly in the blur of Saturday nights when the fieldwork is done and the beer drinking becomes a second humiliation. Twenty miles outside Fresno, I cross the Kings, the river that irrigates more farmland than any other river here. The Kings is bone-dry as usual. To find its flow, I’d have to go looking in a thousand irrigation ditches in the fields beyond.
There’s a mountain range to my left and a mountain range to my right and in between a plain flatter than Kansas where crop and sky meet. One of the most dramatic alterations of the earth’s surface in human history took place here. The hillocks that existed back in Yokut Indian days were flattened by a hunk of metal called the Fresno Scraper. Every river busting out of the Sierra was bent sideways, if not backward, by a bulwark of ditches, levees, canals, and dams. The farmer corralled the snowmelt and erased the valley, its desert and marsh. He leveled its hog wallows, denuded its salt brush, and killed the last of its mustang, antelope, and tule elk. He emptied the sky of tens of millions of geese and drained the 800 square miles of Tulare Lake dry.
He did this first in the name of wheat and then beef, milk, raisins, cotton, and nuts. Once he finished grabbing the flow of the five rivers that ran across the plain, he used his turbine pumps to seize the water beneath the ground. As he bled the aquifer dry, he called on the government to bring him an even mightier river from afar. Down the great aqueduct, by freight of politics and gravity, came the excess waters of the Sacramento River. The farmer moved the rain. The more water he got, the more crops he planted, and the more crops he planted, the more water he needed to plant more crops, and on and on. One million acres of the valley floor, greater than the size of Rhode Island, are now covered in almond trees.
I pity the outsider trying to make sense of it. My grandfather, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, traveled 7,000 miles by ship and train in 1920 to find out if his uncle’s exhortation — “The grapes here are the size of jade eggs” — was true. My father, born in a vineyard outside Fresno, was a raisin grower before he became a bar owner. I grew up in the suburbs where our playgrounds were named after the pioneers of fruit and canals of irrigation shot through our neighborhoods to the farms we did not know. For half my life, I never stopped to wonder: How much was magic? How much was plunder?
I’m going to Kern County, just shy of the mountains, to figure out how the biggest farmers in America, led by the biggest of them all, are not only keeping alive their orchards and vineyards during drought but adding more almonds (79,000 acres), more pistachios (73,000 acres), more grapes (35,000 acres), and more mandarins (13,000 acres). Even as the supplies of federal and state water have dropped to near zero, agriculture in Kern keeps chugging along, growing more intensive. The new plantings aren’t cotton, alfalfa, or carrots — the crops a farmer can decide not to seed when water becomes scarce. These are trees and vines raised in nurseries and put into the ground at a cost of $10,000 an acre to satisfy the world’s growing appetite for nuts and fruits.
Agriculture in the south valley has extended far beyond the provisions of its one river, the Kern. The farmers there are raising almost 1 million acres of crops, and fewer than half these acres are irrigated with flows from the Kern. The river is nothing if not fickle. One year, it delivers 900,000 acre-feet of snowmelt. The next year, it delivers 300,000 acre-feet. To grow, Big Ag needed a bigger and more dependable supply. So beginning in the 1940s, Kern farmers went out and grabbed a share of not one distant river but two: the San Joaquin to the north and the Sacramento to the north of that. The imported flow arrives by way of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project, the one-of-a-kind hydraulic system built by the feds and state to remedy God’s uneven design of California. The water sent to Kern County — 1.4 million acre-feet a year — has doubled the cropland. But not even the two projects working in perfect tandem can defy drought. When nature bites down hard, and the government flow gets reduced to a trickle, growers in Kern turn on their pumps and reach deeper into the earth.
The aquifer, a sea of water beneath the clay that dates back centuries, isn’t bottomless. It can be squeezed only so much. As the growers punch more holes into the ground looking for a vanishing resource, the earth is sinking. The choices for the Kern farmer now come down to two: He can reach deep into his pocket and buy high-priced water from an irrigation district with surplus supplies. Or he can devise a scheme to steal water from a neighbor up the road. I now hear whispers of water belonging to farmers two counties away being pumped out of the ground and hijacked in the dead of night to irrigate the nuts of Lost Hills.
I roll past Tulare, where every February they hold the biggest tractor show in the world, even bigger than the one in Paris. Past Delano and the first vineyards that Cesar Chavez marched against. Past McFarland and the high school runners who won five state championships in a row in the 1990s. Past Oildale and the boxcar where Merle Haggard grew up. Past Bakersfield and the high school football stadium where Frank Gifford and Les Richter, two future NFL Hall of Famers, squared off in the Valley Championship in 1947 in the driving rain. And then it hits me when I reach the road to Weedpatch, where my grandfather’s story in America — a poet on his hands and knees picking potatoes — began. I’ve gone too far. The wide-open middle of California did its lullaby on me again.
I turn back around and find Route 46, the road that killed James Dean. I steer past Wasco to the dust-blowing orchards that flank Lost Hills, the densest planting of almonds, pistachios, and pomegranates on earth. This is the domain of Stewart Resnick, the richest farmer in the country and maybe the most peculiar one, too. His story is the one I’ve been carting around in my notebook for the past few decades, sure I was ready to write it after five years or ten years, only to learn of another twist that would lead me down another road.
LIKE THE WHEAT BARONS of the 1870s who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Resnick isn’t of this place. He’s never driven a tractor or opened an irrigation valve. He’s never put a dusty boot on the neck of a shovel and dug down into the soil. He wouldn’t know one of his Valencia orange groves from one of his Washington navel orange groves. The land to him isn’t real. It’s an economy of scale on a scale no one’s ever tried here. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father ran a bar. He came to California in the 1950s to remake himself. Welcome to the club. He remade himself into a graduate of the UCLA law school, a cleaner of Los Angeles buildings, a vendor of security alarms, a seller of flowers in a pot, a minter of Elvis plates and Princess Diana dolls, a bottler of Fiji Island water, a farmer of San Joaquin Valley dirt. He purchased his first 640-acre section in the late 1970s and kept adding more sections of almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, and citrus until he stretched the lines of agriculture like no Californian before him.
At age 81, he’s gotten so big, he doesn’t know how big. Last time he checked, he told me he owned 180,000 acres of California. That’s 281 square miles. He is irrigating 121,000 of those acres. This doesn’t count the 21,000 acres of grapefruits and limes he’s growing in Texas and Mexico. He uses more water than any other person in the West. His 15 million trees in the San Joaquin Valley consume more than 400,000 acre-feet of water a year. The city of Los Angeles, by comparison, consumes 587,000 acre-feet.
Resnick’s billions rely on his ability to master water, sun, soil, and even bees. When he first planted seedless mandarins in the valley 17 years ago, the bees from the citrus orchards around him were flying into his groves, pollinating his flowers, and putting seeds into the flesh of his fruit. He told his neighbors to alter the flight of the bees or he’d sue them for trespassing. The farmers responded that the path of a bee wasn’t something they could supervise, and they threatened to sue him back. The dispute over the “no fly zone” was finally resolved by the invention of a netting that Resnick sheathes around his mandarins each spring. The plastic unfurls across the grove like a giant roll of Saran Wrap. No bee can penetrate the shield, and his mandarins remain seedless.
The control Resnick exercises inside his $4.5 billion privately held company does relinquish to one person: his wife, Lynda, vice chairman and co-owner, the “Pomegranate Queen,” as she calls herself. She is the brander of the empire, the final word on their Super Bowl ads, the creator of product marketing. There’s “Cheat Death” for their antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice and “Get Crackin’ ” for their pistachios and “Untouched by Man” for their Fiji water. A husband and wife sharing the reins is rare for corporate America, rarer still for industrial agriculture. He commands his realm, and she commands hers, and he takes care to mind the line. “If he sticks even a toe onto her turf,” says a former business partner, “she gives him a look that sends him right back.”
Together, the Resnicks have wedded the valley’s hidebound farming culture with L.A.’s celebrity culture. They don’t do agribusiness. Rather, they say, they’re “harvesting health and happiness around the world through our iconic consumer brands.” Their crops aren’t crops but heart-healthy snacks and life-extending elixirs. Stewart refers to the occasional trek between Lost Hills and Beverly Hills — roughly 140 miles — as a “carpetbagger’s distance.” It seems even longer, he says, if you add in the psychological distance of being an East Coast Jew in a California farm belt where Jews are few and far between. Lynda is making the trip on the company jet more often these days. She’s done giving big gifts to Los Angeles museums and mental health hospitals that name buildings after her and Stewart. The south valley — its people and poverty, its obesity and diabetes — is her newest mission.
In Lost Hills, they call her “Lady Lynda.” She shows up in high fashion and stands in the dust and tells them about another charter school or affordable-housing project she is bringing to them. They have no way to grasp the $50 million to $80 million a year that the Resnicks say they are spending on philanthropy. This is a magnitude of intervention that no other agricultural company in California has ever attempted. The giving goes to college scholarships and tutors. It goes to doctors and nurses, trainers and dietitians, who track the weight of workers, prod them to exercise, and wean them off soda and tortillas. As she announces the newest gift, the men and women in the back of the crowd smile and applaud politely and try not to show their faces to the publicity crew she has brought with her to film the event. Many are here without documents, after all.
Seventy-five years ago, writer Carey McWilliams, in Factories in the Field, lambasted the “ribboned Dukes” and “belted Barons” of California agriculture. If he were on the scene today, he’d have to add “sashed Queens” to the list. Measuring the reach of the Resnicks, it’s tempting to lean on the hyperventilated language of the 1930s: Empire. Kingdom. Fiefdom. Feudal. Today, most everything in this desolate reach of Kern County, save for the oil wells, belongs to Paramount Farming, which belongs to the Resnicks. But Paramount isn’t Paramount anymore. By the decree of Lynda, who once contemplated a bowl of those juicy little seedless mandarins and on the spot named them Cuties, this is now the land of Wonderful.
IT’S THE SUMMER OF 2016, eight weeks before the big pick, and I’m zigzagging across the almonds and pistachios, square mile after square mile of immaculate orchards lined with micro-irrigation systems and heavy with nuts. Of all the wonders of Wonderful, this is the one I find most mystifying. The State Water Project that allowed western Kern County to grow into a farming behemoth has given no water or very little water over the past three years amid the worst drought in California history. If this were any other part of Kern, the farmers would be reaching into the earth to make up the difference. But western Kern has no groundwater to draw from. The aquifer either doesn’t exist or is so befouled by salts that the water is poison.
As a consequence, the farmland here, nearly 100,000 acres planted in permanent crops, is completely reliant on the government’s supply of mountain water. This is gambler’s ground unlike any other in California, and as I drive from hill to dale, examining each orchard, my head spins. How can this be? No rain in five years. State water dwindling year after year. No water in the ground to make up for the missing government supply. So why hasn’t this place gone to tumbleweeds? How can another record crop be sitting pretty on these trees?
I do all the calculations from the numbers I am able to gather, and I cannot figure out how these nuts are getting enough water. There is a local water bank, a kind of underground lake, that the Resnicks control. In the years of plentiful rains and heavy snowmelt, the bank fills up with more than 1 million acre-feet of stored water. But most of this water has been spent by the Resnicks and other account holders in years two, three, and four of the drought. Whatever remains is not nearly enough to make up for the shortfall of imported water from the state.
Then I get lucky. I come upon a Wonderful field man in a four-by-four truck who listens to my bewilderment and takes pity. As he drives off, he throws a clue out the window. Turn onto Twisselman Road off I-5 and continue west until it intersects with the California Aqueduct. There, he tells me, in the shadow of the state’s great concrete vein moving snowmelt north to south, I will find a private, off-the-books pipeline that Stewart Resnick has built to keep his trees from dying. The water is being taken from unsuspecting farmers in an irrigation district in Tulare County more than 40 miles away.
No stranger enters this zone unless it’s to get rid of a body or dump waste from cooking meth or drown a hot car. Its vastness makes you feel safe and in jeopardy at the same time. I head straight into the glare of the sun shooting over the Coast Range. Through the haze I can see the knoll of the aqueduct come closer. Ever since I was a kid, I have felt its pull — a gravitational presence on the land and in my own story. On a fog-drip night in January 1972, two men walked into my father’s empty bar with gloves on and shot him to death. They dumped their stolen car into the canal’s black waters and got away with murder for the next 32 years. In a valley of dead rivers, each one killed on behalf of agriculture, the aqueduct was the one river still alive. Its artificiality had achieved a permanence; its permanence had created my California.
I pull over into the dirt of a pomegranate orchard, the ancient fruit that the Resnicks have turned into POMWonderful, the sweet purple juice inside a swell-upon-swell bottle. The shiny red orbs, three months shy of harvest, pop out from the bright green leaves like bulbs on a Christmas tree. I study the terrain. This must be the spot the Wonderful field man was describing. Sure enough, cozied up next to the bank of the aqueduct, I see a glint. I get out of the car and walk down an embankment. There before me, two aluminum pipes, side by side, 12 inches in diameter each, slither in the sun.
Where gravity needs a boost, the pipes run atop wooden crates used to pack boxes of fruit. Where the pipes butt up against Twisselman Road, a more clever bit of engineering is required. Here, a crew has dug a culvert beneath the road and hiked the pipeline under the asphalt that divides one field from another. Here, private water jumps from Tulare County to Kern County, but government jurisdictions don’t count. On one side of the road and the other, for miles in both directions, the dirt belongs to Wonderful. I stand over the pipes and give them a hard slap. They slap back with the cold vibration of water. Where’s it coming from? Who’s it going to?
WATER IS WHAT LED ME to Stewart Resnick in the winter of 2003. Back then, the Los Angeles Times had a bureau in the middle of California. The bureau happened to be my house in northwest Fresno. I had finished the last chapter of The King of California, a book I wrote with a good friend about J.G. Boswell, who owned more land and controlled more water than any other person in the West for most of the 20th century. He and his forebears from Georgia had dried up Tulare Lake, the biggest body of freshwater this side of the Mississippi, and planted 100,000 acres of cotton outside the town of Corcoran. As it happened, just down the road, on the other side of the lake bottom, Resnick had captured his own body of water, the Kern Water Bank, and planted millions of nut trees on desert scrub. No journalist had written a word about his rise as an agricultural giant, how he had turned public water into private water by grabbing control of California’s largest water bank, a project jump-started with $74 million in taxpayer money. The deed had been done in a series of hidden meetings in Monterey. Resnick wanted no part in my story. Each time I called, his secretary hung up the phone.
I waited five years before placing another call to his headquarters. It was the early spring of 2008, and this time his secretary didn’t hang up on me. I had in mind a magazine profile on Stewart, the Nut King. “Why not send him an email?” the secretary suggested. A few weeks later, I found myself riding up the elevator of a high-rise on the Westside of Los Angeles.
He sat behind a desk without clutter and stood up to shake my hand. He was a small, trim man, no more than 5 foot 5, in his early 70s with thinning silver hair and brown eyes rimmed in pink. The speech of his parents and grandparents, the Yiddish-inflected New York with its humors and cut-to-the-quick impatiences, had not left his own speech in the half-century since he’d come to California. He was dressed in the latest slim-fit style. Arrayed before him were small bowls of almonds, pistachios, and easy-to-peel mandarins, a plate of ground white turkey meat cooked in olive oil, and a glass of pomegranate juice. Everything but the turkey had come from his orchards. He’d been diagnosed with early prostate cancer and had no doubt that the juice was keeping him well. “My health, knock on wood, is good. It gives me the luxury to keep on working. Frankly, I’m having too much fun to think about retiring.”
Even if he were inclined to wind down, he had no successor in mind. None of his three children had the slightest interest in taking over the company. Still, he was starting to think about his legacy, and that’s why he finally agreed to meet with me. “I’ve never given an interview to a newspaper or magazine before. I’ve told them all no. When you’re making the kind of money we’re making, what’s the upside? I’d rather be unknown than known.” He had recently read The King of California, and that got him thinking. “I’m not going to live forever, even with the massive amounts of pomegranate juice I’m drinking. It might be nice if my kids and grandkids could turn to a book someday and read about what we’ve built.”
He and Lynda were changing the way food was grown in California and sold to the world. If they were farmers, they were farmers who hung out with Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, David Geffen, Warren Beatty, and Joan Didion. They donated $15 million to found UCLA’s Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital and more than $25 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to build a pavilion in their name. Unlike many other billionaires, they could poke fun at themselves. During the holiday season, they sent out 4,000 gift boxes to their “nearest and dearest friends” filled with their fruits and nuts, along with a card of the two of them dressed in skin-colored body stockings, posing as Adam and Eve. “If only Eve had offered Adam a pomegranate instead of an apple,” Lynda wrote, “every day could have been a holiday.”
The Resnick story certainly deserved a book, but did he really want me to be the one to write it? Boswell had tried to tear apart a copy of The King of California when his secretary asked if he might autograph it.
“Why not we start with an extended interview or two?” I offered.
“Let’s meet again in two weeks,” he said.
THE FRONT GATES of the 25,000-square-foot Beaux Arts mansion on Sunset Boulevard magically opened without a guard giving a nod. I exited my car and approached the entrance with its 14-foot columns and wrought-iron balustrades. Perched up there, a queen might peek out and utter, “Let them eat cake,” Lynda once said. When the mansion was built in 1927, it was known as the Sunset House. I was prepared to knock on the door, but a housekeeper, flanked by two blow-dried dogs, greeted me on the front steps and led me inside. I tried not to stare at the gold that was everywhere: heavy-legged gold furniture, paintings in thick gold frames, gold-leaf carpet, and gold-fringed drapes. From the vaulted ceilings with gold-leaf moldings hung two blown-glass chandeliers. The curtains were made of a fabric woven in Venice and substantial enough that they might finish off a person who happened to be looking out the window in the throes of an earthquake.
There was a majordomo of the house, a butler, a chef, a sous-chef, three housekeepers, a limo driver, and a trio of assistants who worked in the basement, juggling Lynda’s calendar and the buying, wrapping, and shipping of gifts she handed out to her Rolodex of “highfalutin people.” Stewart had made it clear that Lynda would not be joining us. She had her own book — about her genius as a marketer — going. He had spent the morning on his exercise bike reading Fortune. Fresh from a shower, a red Kabbalah string tied around his wrist and a multihued pair of socks covering his feet, he welcomed me. If he had his druthers, he said, he’d still be living in a little ranch house in Culver City. “None of this is my idea. This is my wife. This is Lynda.”
Where do you begin with a man of great riches if not the distant places you might have in common? And so I began with slaughter and madness and then moved on to bartenders for fathers.
His grandfather Resnick had fled the Ukraine in the wake of another killing of Jews by Cossacks. The bells in the churches pealed, and out came the villagers with their scythes and axes, believing they had found the reason for their poverty. It was the early 1900s, and his grandfather and grandmother decided to secure passage to America. His father was 3 years old at the time. They settled in Brooklyn among Jews who had fled their own pogroms, and his grandfather went into the needle-and-embroidery trade. His father met his mother, the cantor’s daughter, and they married. When the Depression struck, his parents migrated to Middlebush, New Jersey, where they bought a few trucks and peddled coffee and pots and pans. Stewart was the second of their four children, the only boy. “I sort of remember growing up on a farm,” he said. “But we weren’t there long.” They moved to Highland Park, home to Johnson & Johnson and close enough to Rutgers University to hear the fans screaming at Neilson Field. Manhattan was 30 minutes in one direction; the Jersey Shore, 30 minutes in the other. The borough measured no more than 2 square miles. It wouldn’t even make a couple of sections of his almonds.
His father bought a neighborhood bar and ran it with the same iron fist with which he ran the house. He was short, bull-like, and didn’t take crap from anyone. “He was about my size, but he was very tough. He was a big drinker, a big liver who loved the fast life. His bar was a place for guys, Damon Runyon–type guys.”
Resnick’s pals were all Jewish kids from upper-class families, so it wasn’t easy being the poorest one, the one whose father was a gambler and capable at any moment of losing the few comforts they had. Once, he came home from school and discovered the family car gone. His father had lost it in a bet. “He was tough on the outside. But inside he had these weaknesses. Compulsive gambler and alcoholic. Then he’d lose his temper and get the strap out.”
Like many billionaires, he didn’t have a decent explanation for his fortune. Because he hadn’t done it with Daddy’s money or what he considered a superior brain, he attributed his wealth to luck and to a simple lesson he had learned early in life. He was 13 and standing inside the Rutgers Pharmacy on the first day of his first job. The boss showed him a storeroom filled with chemicals tossed here and there and told him to bring order to the mess. He didn’t know where to begin. He studied the situation. The stacks of bottles gave him no answer. The boss came back in, saw his do-nothing, and said only three words: “Just get started.” He began to move, and the job went quickly after that. Digging in was its own wisdom, he discovered. Order finds itself through action. Just get started became one of his guiding principles.
At Highland Park High, he excelled in math and struggled in English. Upon graduation, he only needed to look across the Raritan River to find his college. The idea was to enroll at Rutgers and study to become a doctor. A year into his studies, an uncle called from California. He had moved out to Long Beach, bought some property, and built one of those new strip malls. The money was too easy. His dad had sold the bar and was adrift. Why not California? Once his parents decided to go, he decided to go, too. He left in 1956. “I never liked New Jersey, but I never knew why. California showed me why.”
The making of a billionaire over the next half-century was a series of dots that connected in the California sunshine. It was linear, logical, fluid, and quite nearly destined.
He got into UCLA and joined a Jewish fraternity. One of his frat brothers was a wealthy kid whose father ran a janitorial business. He had an industrial machine, hardly used, that scrubbed and waxed floors. Resnick dipped into his savings from his job at a mental hospital and went in half on the machine. “After school and on weekends, we’d clean and wax floors. It took time for the wax to dry. So in that time, we started cleaning windows, too.” They named the business Clean Time Building Maintenance.
His frat brother got bored, as rich boys do, and Resnick bought out his half interest for $300. He started cleaning pizza parlors and drugstores. Business got so brisk that he bought two trucks and hired crews. By the time he graduated from UCLA in 1960 and entered its law school, he was bringing home $40,000 a year — the equivalent of $320,000 today. “When I got out of law school, I probably had 100 people I was employing.”
At the buildings he was cleaning, he noticed that no one was watching the front and back doors. With that insight, he sold the company for $2.5 million and went into the security guard business. It then dawned on him that guards were good, but they had to be paid an hourly wage. Burglar alarms, on the other hand, offered round-the-clock vigilance without coffee breaks. He went out and bought an alarm company. That company led to another company, and he soon owned half the commercial alarm accounts in Los Angeles.
His first wife, the mother of his two sons and daughter, told him she was quite happy living in their $30,000 condo in Culver City. Month after month, she made ends meet on a $1,600 budget. “She was a very frugal lady. She wanted me to put our $5 million in an account, draw interest, and we could live happily on the 50 grand a year.”
She didn’t understand his drive. He was going to Vegas, hanging out with his own Damon Runyon characters, and making plans to get even bigger. He packed his bags and left his wife and kids. It wasn’t a midlife crisis, he told me. He did little, if any, catting around. Then one day, he was trying to find a marketing person and got a call from Lynda Sinay, who worked in advertising. She was in her late 20s, almost a decade younger than Stewart, and the mother of two children. She had recently divorced and wasn’t about to settle for a life in Culver City. She was the daughter of Jack Harris, a film distributor, who moved the family to Los Angeles when Lynda was 15 to produce movies. One of his films, The Blob, became a cult classic, and they lived in a house on the Westside with two Rolls-Royces in the garage.
By age 19, Lynda had dropped out of college, married a magazine ad man, and opened her own advertising agency. She wasn’t content to pursue the usual list of wealthy businessmen as clients. She was aiming to surround herself with famous actors and artists and public intellectuals. She divorced her husband in 1968 and began dating Anthony Russo, who worked at the RAND think tank in Santa Monica with military analyst Daniel Ellsberg. From a safe, Ellsberg had lifted the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of how successive presidents lied to the public to cover up the failings of the Vietnam War. Russo and Ellsberg needed a place to photocopy the 7,000 pages, and Lynda volunteered the Xerox machine at her ad agency on Melrose Avenue. The three of them spent two weeks of all-nighters making copies. When a copy found its way to The New York Times, Lynda was pursued by federal prosecutors until they concluded she was more dilettante than radical.
The courtship of Stewart and Lynda went fast. They both knew what they wanted. They married in 1972, and he sold the alarm company for $100 million. He wanted to stay in the customer service business and heard from his doctor that Teleflora, the giant flower-delivery company, could be bought for a buyer’s price. It was Lynda who came up with the idea of “flowers-in-a-gift.” Roses are short-lived, she reasoned, but the teapot or watering can that the flowers arrive in is a keepsake. The concept changed the industry. She won a gold Effie, advertising’s Oscar.
In the late 1970s, he went looking for a hedge against inflation. His accountant suggested he buy apartments. He could collect the rents while he slept. But he wasn’t looking for the monotony of steady. He was in the mood to gamble. On vacation in the south of France, he heard about a farming company called Paramount that needed a buyer for some of its orchards in Kern County. “They were selling 2,500 acres of oranges and lemons and a packing house for a third of their appraised value,” Resnick said. “It was simply a place to park some money and have another opportunity.” He drove to Delano, the farm town where Chavez and his union had made so much trouble and history. By the time he drove back, he was a citrus grower. “I think I paid $9 million. Look it, I’m from Beverly Hills. I didn’t know good land from bad land. But I had some good people helping me.”
He and Lynda decided in 1984 to buy the Franklin Mint, the maker of commemorative coins and other kitsch, for $167.5 million. They knew little about the company except it was selling its keepsakes for five times the amount Teleflora was. Shoving aside the coins, they introduced a Scarlett O’Hara doll that, by itself, raked in $35 million in sales. They were pushing plates, costume jewelry, perfume, and model cars. They issued a commemorative medal of Tiger Woods winning the 1997 Masters that offended the golfer. He called it fake junk, sued, and won. Lynda spent $150,000 at an auction to buy the beaded gown and matching bolero jacket, “the Elvis Dress,” that Princess Diana had worn on a visit to Hong Kong. The designers at the Mint made a porcelain doll with a tiny replica outfit so precise that it had to be hand-beaded with 2,000 fake pearls. It was a hit. Annual sales at the Mint jumped to nearly $1 billion.