The new, improved Steve Jobs

Even if he did try to stop publication of a biography about him, there's a lot to admire about the Apple CEO, says author Alan Deutschman.

Published October 11, 2000 8:04PM (EDT)

The first thing you should know about Alan Deutschman's delicious new Steve Jobs biography, "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs," is that it is not a "hatchet job." The phrase is relevant because Jobs himself has apparently been repeating it up and down Silicon Valley for almost a year now -- achieving the no-doubt unintended effect of raising the book's prepublication buzz to a near-deafening din.

But "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs" is hardly some cut-and-pasted piece of character assassination -- it's more of a psychological profile with a fruit-flavored iMac punchline. Starting where most other Jobs biographies leave off -- at the moment of his ouster from Apple Computer by John Sculley -- Deutschman tracks Jobs' career through the dismal failure of Next Computer and documents his triumphant return to the limelight via his successes with Pixar and Apple.

Deutschman, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair (and frequent contributor to Salon), has been reporting on Silicon Valley for almost a decade. Wielding a Rolodex that reads like a who's who of the computer industry, Deutschman collected an impressive number of colorful anecdotes and tidbits ranging from Jobs' profligate spending at Next to his revolving group of girlfriends to his monomaniacal obsession with the veggie lifestyle.

The book is a pleasure to read; but not surprisingly, Jobs wishes you wouldn't. Over coffee, Deutschman revealed the story behind the book, including the mysterious chain of events that derailed both the book's original cover and an excerpt scheduled to run in Vanity Fair. Coincidence ... or Jobs' meddling hand?

Several biographies of Steve Jobs have already been written in the last 20 years. What made you decide to write about him, too?

Of all the CEOs and entrepreneurs I've written about over the past decade, Jobs is by far the most charismatic and the most fascinating. He just has that hypnotic presence and this complex personality.

At the time [that I began talking to Broadway Books about the book], the iMac had made its debut in the summer of 1998 and it was an immediate sensation. And then in January 1999, at Macworld, Jobs unveiled the four additional fruit-flavored colors of the iMac, and thousands of people at Macworld just went wild. Bill Gates later obtained a videotape of Steve Jobs' speech and couldn't understand why thousands of people were going crazy over colors; he was like, "Colors? What's the big deal?"

Steve's incredible personal resurgence with the turnaround of Apple ... really captured the themes of Silicon Valley of the '90s. Here's someone who's passionate about technology, but whose success was largely based not on engineering prowess but on marketing and image-making and public relations. Jobs is someone who is an incredible elitist who yet yearns for the patronage of the masses, for millions of people to buy his product -- even though his own personal tastes are incredibly austere and minimalistic, and he is removed from the popular culture.

It's pretty difficult to imagine a strawberry plastic iMac in the middle of Steve Jobs' house.

Steve's house is Asian rugs and black-and-white Ansel Adams photographs and very spare, minimalist design. This is a man who wears black nearly every day.

What was Steve Jobs like when you first met him?

I met him at the end of 1992. Fortune had sent me from New York to move to San Francisco to be its Silicon Valley correspondent. I was new in town, new on the techno beat. Steve's company at the time, Next Computer, invited me for a get-to-know-you session with Steve. I went down to Next's office and Steve was just mesmerizing. First of all, he had been one of my childhood heroes -- when I was a teenager I had two Apple computers, an Apple IIc and an Apple IIe, and in high school I was reading cover stories about Steve Jobs in places like Time magazine.

He uses your first name very often. He looks directly in your eyes with that laser-like stare. He has these movie-star eyes that are very hypnotic. But what really gets you is the way he talks -- there's something about the rhythm of his speech and the incredible enthusiasm he conveys for whatever it is he's talking about that is just infectious.

At the end of my interview with him, I said to myself, "I have to write an article about this guy just to be around him more -- it's so much fun!" When Steve wants to be charming and seductive, no one is more charming.

That's the "Good Steve," as opposed to the "Bad Steve," as you describe the two sides of his personality in your book. He refused to cooperate with you as you worked on your book, though, even though you told him it would be about his comeback. Have you had any contact with him as you've been working on it?

I've had no direct communication with Steve since I started on the book. However, as I was doing interviews, people would say things like, "Last week I ran into Steve and told him that I was going to do an interview for the book." And in those situations Steve would roll his eyes and say, "Oh, that guy is just doing a hatchet job."

Do you think he was biased against your book because of the unflattering way you described him last year in Vanity Fair's New Establishment issue? It included a juicy tidbit: "During a job interview with a young woman, [Jobs] was wearing loose-fitting shorts and no underwear, which didn't stop him from uncrossing his legs and nonchalantly flashing the unsuspecting applicant."

I doubt Steve Jobs knew I was the author of the embarrassing anecdotes in Vanity Fair; it was a group byline at the end of this long package. I don't think I was on his radar screen at that point.

But I think that Steve Jobs' fear of scrutiny of his personal life goes back to 1983, when Time revealed that Steve refused to acknowledge or provide financial support for his out-of-wedlock daughter, Lisa. Steve thought he was going to be Time's Man of the Year. And Time was indeed planning to make Steve Man of the Year until their correspondent, Michael Moritz, told his editors about these less attractive aspects of Steve's personality. So instead they made the computer the machine of the year.

Since then Steve hasn't cooperated with biographers and has been extremely controlling of journalistic scrutiny of his own life. That episode also led him to split with one of his true best friends from college, Dan Kottke, who was there from the very beginning assembling Apple I in the garage of Steve's parents' house. Steve never forgave him for revealing the truth about Lisa to a journalist.

In the book you write about Steve's strong sense of vengeance, and how his wrath descends on those who betray him. Considering that so many people knew this about Steve, was it difficult to find people who would talk to you about him?

A lot of people were scared, and a number of powerful people called Steve first to get his permission to talk, which of course Steve didn't grant. People like Michael Ovitz, who you'd think would feel secure enough to speak for themselves without asking anyone's permission. Of the 100 people that I interviewed, something like 65 or 70 spoke on the record, including two of the co-founders of Next, the co-founder of Pixar, people from Apple. Many people were afraid of Steve's vengeance and retribution, but there was no shortage of people who at this point in their lives and careers are accomplished enough and secure enough in their sense of who they are that they felt free to talk openly and honestly.

I do think a number of Steve's friends, when they see in print what they told me on the record with my notebook out and my pen going, will be very nervous about Steve's reaction. I suspect more than a few people will have source's remorse; I didn't mean to harm anyone's relationship with Steve, but he has a very fierce sense of loyalty.

Do you think people wanted to talk about Steve?

Oh, definitely. Steve has such an impact on the people close to him -- his friends and colleagues -- that I think for some people the interviews were almost like a group therapy session. Steve has had such a tortured, tempestuous relationship with the people close to him. Most people who know Steve well will recognize his creativity and brilliance as well as his abusiveness and his cruelty. Generally, people have a very complex attitude toward him; it's exasperating to people that Steve can be evil when few people they've ever encountered can also be as inspiring.

So tell me about the cover of the book. At the last minute you had to change the cover photo under suspicious circumstances -- why?

The original photo is one of Steve's favorite recent photos of himself; it's the photo that's on Steve's personal bio page on the Web site. This is a very flattering photo of him that was taken two years ago when the iMac debuted; since then he's lost some hair and put on some weight in the middle.

What happened is Random House licensed the rights to the photo from the Corbis Sygma photo agency, the usual procedure for doing a book jacket. And then, late in the production process, the photographer called Random House and said that "My photo agency doesn't have the right to sell my photo." Which seems bizarre, to say the least. For one thing, why wouldn't a photographer want to earn even more money for a picture he took more than two years ago?

I strongly suspect that Steve Jobs put the photographer up to doing this. Which photographer wouldn't want someone like Steve Jobs to owe them a big favor? That could be much more valuable than the royalty payments for the photograph. So Random House decided to design and print a different cover.

And then, just a week or two later, an excerpt of your book that was scheduled to run in the October Vanity Fair was canceled. What happened there?

The excerpt was in galleys and it was late in Vanity Fair's production process when they decided to kill the piece. Right around the same time, we had this strange issue with the photographer; and Steve Jobs also telephoned the chief executive officer of Random House, Peter Olsen, to complain that the book was a "hatchet job."

So, given the other things that were happening, I suspected that Steve Jobs had called Condi Nast as well. I can't prove whether he did or didn't; it's certainly possible that Vanity Fair just ran into a crisis where they just didn't have nearly enough editorial pages and had to make difficult cuts ...

But you think he threatened to make trouble for Condi Nast if they ran the excerpt in Vanity Fair?

Given Steve's history, I think that's very possible. Last year he called above the head of Katrina Heron, the editor in chief of Wired, to kill a planned Wired cover story about him after he was unhappy with the interview. [The story never ran, but it may have been because Jobs was an uncooperative interviewee, rather than because Wired's editors were pressured.] Steve Jobs, in the last couple years, has stood up reporters from the New York Times, NPR, and twice stood up a film crew from PBS -- he has treated the national media with utter contempt. And he has proven his willingness to use Apple's position as an advertiser to try to influence publications. So I thought it was entirely plausible that at the same time he was picking up the phone to call the CEO of Random House that he might have called above Graydon Carter's head to the executives at Condi Nast. I don't know whether it happened or not.

It's odd that he would draw so much attention to the book. You'd think that, since he's just a celebrity, he would be used to the attention and would know to be quiet.

Steve Jobs has enjoyed his celebrity and used it as a way to hobnob with other leading figures from business or pop culture ...

Like when he dated Joan Baez in the 1980s?

Exactly. He likes the celebrity when it helps him meet Yoko Ono, but he doesn't like it when people treat him like a rock star and accost him on the streets of California. I think that it's hard for anyone to read things about themselves, but I think business figures especially are used to such adoration in the press from reporters who are happy just to have access to them. Business leaders are so control-freakish, they aren't used to people writing critical pieces, let alone balanced pieces, and don't have the same self-knowledge or self-awareness. Artists and poets and musicians might psychoanalyze themselves for hours for a writer or biographer; a lot of CEOs probably couldn't talk self-critically about themselves even if they wanted to. And they usually don't want to.

Are you worried you are going to have to face "Bad Steve" now?

Well, we're having the book's publication party about four blocks from Steve's house in Palo Alto. We haven't invited Steve, but I suspect he might find out about it. I'm also doing a reading at Stacey's Bookstore on University Avenue, which is Steve's stomping grounds. As he's walking through Palo Alto to buy his organic vegetables at Whole Foods or to go eat vegetarian pasta at the bar at Il Fornaio, he'll probably see the sign in the window at Stacey's.

Despite Mr. Jobs' hesitations, I find myself in the bizarre situation of having to come forward with even more praise for a man who has criticized my work. But I do admire Steve Jobs for his accomplishments and his creativity. I tried to find the reasons for his successes and analyze his message, and show his accomplishments as well as his failures. I tried to give a complex and realistic portrayal of a very complicated man.

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Janelle Brown

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