Cover Story
Steve Jobs/Photo by Bernard Gotfryd/Getty Images

A god of our age

Who was Steve Jobs? A revered technology pioneer and a relentless innovator, the Apple founder remained in many ways a mystery

Issue: "Steve Jobs 1955-2011," Oct. 22, 2011


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.

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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."


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