Seventy years ago Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, which critics still praise as the most innovative film ever. Welles modeled the main character, Kane, on a famous northern California magnate who revolutionized the media of his day, William Randolph Hearst.
"Rosebud" was Kane's dying declaration, and the narrative structure of the film emphasized the work of a reporter trying to figure out the meaning of that word and the meaning of Kane's life. Everyone he interviewed saw Kane through the prism of his own preoccupations. The reporter ended up much like the blind man feeling different parts of the elephant and thinking he's in the presence of a tree trunk, a snake-or something else.
When Steve Jobs died on Oct. 5, newspapers and airwaves (along with iPhones and iPads) were flush with accounts of the Apple founder's life and legacy-but each biographer seemed to recreate Jobs in the beholder's own image:
Those wanting a classic American success story described Jobs as the college dropout who co-created the first user-friendly computer and became a multimillionaire at age 25.
Those crafting a moral tale about never giving up wrote of how Jobs, booted from Apple at age 30, gained even greater financial and artistic success by propelling Pixar (Toy Story), regaining control of Apple, and making it not only one of the most valuable U.S. companies but perhaps the most loved.
Workaholics called him a workaholic who loved his work and said so: "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. ... Like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on."
The Harvard Business Review called Jobs the "world's greatest philanthropist" even though he wasn't much of a donor: "What a loss to humanity it would have been if Jobs had dedicated the last 25 years of his life to figuring out how to give his billions away, instead of doing what he does best. We'd still be waiting for a cell phone on which we could actually read e-mail and surf the web. ... We'd be a decade or more away from the iPad, which has ushered in an era of reading electronically that promises to save a Sherwood Forest worth of trees and all of the energy associated with trucking them around."
Other writers focused on Jobs' personal life:
For adoption advocates he was an adoptee who made it big. His biological mom and dad placed him for adoption soon after his birth in 1955. "My parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: 'We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?' They said: 'Of course.'"
For parents with hyperactive children he was the child rushed to the emergency room after ingesting a bottle of ant poison, and the one who received a bad shock by sticking a bobby pin into a wall socket.
For those with children born out of wedlock he was a man who initially denied paternity and refused to pay child support for his first daughter Lisa, but eventually accepted her and helped her to become a New York writer.
Still other observers emphasized his style and beliefs:
To romantics he was the romantic who gave a lecture to a class of Stanford business students, noticed a good-looking woman in the front row, chatted her up, headed to his car, and ... "I was in the parking lot with the key in the car, and I thought to myself, 'If this is my last night on earth, would I rather spend it at a business meeting or with this woman?' I ran across the parking lot, asked her if she'd have dinner with me. She said yes, we walked into town, and we've been together ever since."
To marriage advocates he was the man who married that woman in a small ceremony at Yosemite National Park 20 years ago, and stayed married as they bore and raised three children.
To a neighbor writing in a Palo Alto paper, he was "a regular guy, a good dad having fun with his kids. The next time I met him was when our children attended school together. He sat in on back-to-school night listening to the teacher drone on about the value of education. ... I saw him at his son's high school graduation. There Steve stood, tears streaming down his cheeks, his smile wide and proud, as his son received his diploma."
To Buddhists and vegetarians he was a fellow-follower of the principles of minimalism, almost always appearing in public in a black turtleneck and worn jeans.
During the last year and a half of Jobs' life, some conservatives were not immune to the tendency to see him largely in connection with their own campaigns:
Jobs was a hero in June 2010 when he banned most pornography from his devices: One blogger called that decision antagonistic to freedom, but Jobs replied that he wanted "freedom from porn." Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council punned, "We're grateful that Jobs is trying to keep the iPad from becoming an eyesore."
He was a villain six months later, in December 2010, when Apple banned an app for the Manhattan Declaration that urged opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. The National Organization for Marriage produced a 95-second video that depicted Jobs as the censorious "Big Brother" featured in Apple's famous 1984 ad.
So who was Steve Jobs? Reportedly, young Jobs was confirmed in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but he spoke later of his desire to "make a dent in the universe"-and did not want God to make a dent in him. At the first Apple Halloween costume party, Jobs reportedly dressed up as Jesus. Was he attempting to be commercially omniscient-he said he knew what consumers wanted before they knew it-and omnipotent, making any product he produced a hit?
I see him also as wanting to be the outsider who would enter a town and tame it, like the classic Western hero. His Buddhist twist would have fit him well for the odd western TV series that hit the airwaves when Jobs was a teenager, Kung Fu, the story of a monk who travels through 19th-century western America and survives through spiritual training and martial arts skill.
But I may be as wrong as everyone else attempting to characterize an individual who cherished his privacy. Maybe the best approach is to get the words closest to "Rosebud" that Jobs ever uttered in public-his Stanford commencement speech in 2005, one year after his first encounter with cancer. On that day, whistling past the graveyard, he described death as "very likely the best invention of life. All pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important."
One problem, though, is that he never clarified to listeners what is truly important. He did tell the Stanford graduates, "Follow your heart. ... Don't be trapped by dogma-which is living with the results of other people's thinking. ... Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."
Did Jobs remain a rebel against his youthful Lutheranism and the belief that our hearts are fallen? Did he ever realize that the thinking of some wise people, and especially that of a wise God, would help? Did Jobs ever come to grips with even three of the questions God hurls at the biblical Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have the gates of death been revealed to you? Where is the way to the dwelling of light?"
If Jobs' devotees were waiting for a final revelation from him as he approached death, it doesn't seem that one came. Jobs was one of the gods of our age, conquering the computer world and fostering vehicles for new media in a way even grander than that of Citizen Kane/William Randolph Hearst. Through God's common grace Jobs' creations improved life. But he could not conquer death.
Left unfulfilled were not only those curious about what Jobs' Rosebud might be, but his biological father, Abdulfattah John Jandali, an 80-year-old Syrian immigrant who is now a casino vice-president in Reno, Nev.
Several weeks before Jobs' death, newspapers quoted Jandali saying he didn't know until just a few years ago that the baby he and his girlfriend placed for adoption a half-century before had become a famous billionaire. Jandali said he had not called his son for fear Jobs would think Jandali was after his fortune, but he hoped Jobs would call him someday: "I just live in hope that, before it is too late, he will reach out to me, because even to have just one coffee with him just once would make me a very happy man."
Apparently, that meeting never happened.
Listen to a report on Steve Jobs' life from the Oct. 8 edition of the radio program The World and Everything in It.
1955 Born Feb. 24 and adopted by machinist Paul Jobs and accountant Clara Jobs of Mountain View, Calif.
1972 Graduates from Homestead High School in Cupertino and enrolls at Reed College in Portland, Ore., but drops out after one semester
1974 Takes a job at Atari in Sunnyvale, Calif.; leaves to travel through India and joins a farm commune
1975 Joins Homebrew Computer Club, headed by Steve Wozniak, and persuades Wozniak to go into a business based on Wozniak's design for a new computer logic board dubbed Apple 1
1976 Founds Apple Computer
1977 Introduces Apple II
1980 Takes Apple public-at the end of its first day's trading Apple has a market value of $1.2 billion, so his stock is worth $239 million
1981 Becomes Apple chairman
1983 Recruits John Sculley from Pepsi to be the CEO of Apple
1984 Introduces the Macintosh, an all-in-one desktop computer with a graphical interface and a mouse
1985 Clashes with the Apple board, which backs Sculley and ousts him
1986 Works on developing NeXT, a high-end computer, and buys Pixar Animation Studios for $10 million from filmmaker George Lucas
1991 Marries Laurene Powell
1995 Releases the hit film Toy Story, the first Pixar movie with Disney, and becomes a billionaire when Pixar goes public
1996 Sells NeXT to Apple for $400 million and rejoins Apple as an advisor
1997 Becomes interim CEO after the Apple board ousts CEO Gil Amelio
1998 Releases the iMac, which becomes the fastest-selling personal computer in history
2000 Becomes permanent CEO of Apple and introduces Mac OS X, its current operating system, based on the NeXT operating system
2001 Launches the Apple Store to bolster retail sales and introduces the iPod, a music player that revolutionizes the digital music industry
2003 Launches the iTunes Music Store
2004 Undergoes surgery for pancreatic cancer
2006 Sells Pixar to Disney in a $7.4 billion stock deal and becomes Disney's largest shareholder
2007 Introduces the iPhone, a smartphone with a touch screen keypad that revolutionizes the cell phone industry
2009 Takes a six-month medical leave during which he undergoes a liver transplant
2010 Releases the iPad touch-screen tablet
2011 Takes another medical leave, resigns as CEO, and dies at age 56
Source: Current Biography, Atari, Apple, Reuters, AP, San Jose Mercury News, MCT