" Healthy billionaire banks on strict diet to live to 125"

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David Murdock, pictured in 2006 at a groundbreaking ceremony for the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, N.C., has turned his private fixation on diet and longevity into a public one. The research campus, on which he has spent $500 million, helps study his conviction that plants hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span.
The Associated Press file photo

By Frank Bruni
/ New York Times Magazine

Published: March 06. 2011 4:00AM PST

One morning in early January, David Murdock awoke to an unsettling sensation. At first he didn’t recognize it and then he couldn’t believe it, because for decades he maintained what was, in his immodest estimation, perfect health. But now there was this undeniable imperfection, a scratchiness and swollenness familiar only from the distant past. He had a sore throat.

“I never have anything go wrong,” he said later. “Never have a backache. Never have a headache. Never have anything else.” This would make him a lucky man no matter his age. Because he is 87, it makes him an unusually robust specimen, which is what he must be if he is to defy the odds and live as long as he intends to. He wants to reach 125, and sees no reason he can’t, provided that he continues eating the way he has for the last quarter century: with a messianic correctness that he believes can, and will, ward off major disease and minor ailment alike.

So that sore throat wasn’t just an irritant. It was a challenge to the whole gut-centered worldview on which his bid for extreme longevity rests. “I went back in my mind: What am I not eating enough of?” he told me. Definitely not fruits and vegetables: He crams as many as 20 of them into the smoothies he drinks two to three times a day. Probably not protein: He eats plenty of seafood, egg whites, beans and nuts to compensate for his avoidance of dairy, red meat and poultry, which are consigned to a list of forbidden foods that also includes alcohol, sugar and salt.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” he said. So he made a frustrated peace with his malady, which was gone in 36 hours. “I wasn’t really struggling with it,” he said. “But my voice changed a little bit. I always have a powerful voice.” Indeed, he speaks so loudly at times, and in such a declamatory manner, that it cows people. “When I open my mouth,” he noted, “the room rings.”

The room ringing just then was the vast common area of his North Carolina lodge, which sits on more than 500 acres of woods and meadows where a flock of rare black Welsh sheep roam under the protection of four Great Pyrenees dogs.

Murdock keeps yet another black Welsh flock at one of his two homes in Southern California, a 2,200-acre ranch whose zoological bounty extends to a herd of longhorn cattle, about 800 koi in a man-made lake and 16 horses. He has five homes in all. Forbes magazine’s most recent list of the 400 richest Americans put him at No. 130, with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion, thanks to real estate development and majority stakes in an array of companies, most notably Dole.

A public diet

His affluence has enabled him to turn his private fixation on diet and longevity into a public one. I went to see him first in North Carolina in late January. It is there, outside of Charlotte, in a city named Kannapolis near his lodge, that he has spent some $500 million of his fortune in recent years to construct the North Carolina Research Campus, a scientific center dedicated to his conviction that plants hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span.

There are health nuts, and then there is Murdock: health paragon, patron and proselytizer. But what set him on his quest was a loss that no amplitude of wellness can restore, and even if he teased out his days into eternity, he would be hard-pressed to fill them with the contentment they once had.

Murdock grew up in the tiny town of Wayne, Ohio, the middle child of three and the only son. He didn’t see much of his father, a traveling salesman, but was close to his mother, who took in laundry and scrubbed floors to help make ends meet. She died, from cancer, when she was just 42 and he 17.

By then he was living on his own, having dropped out of school at 14. He has dyslexia, though no one initially realized it, and never managed grades better than D’s.

After finishing several years of service in the U.S. Army at age 22, he was not only penniless but also homeless, and slept for a while under a bush in a Detroit park. He would cadge coffee from a friend employed at a greasy spoon. A man who worked for a loan company met Murdock there, learned that he was a veteran and offered to help.

With the man’s assistance, he rounded up $1,200 in loans and bought that diner. He sold it a year and a half later for $1,900, set out for California and stopped along the way in Phoenix, where the opportunity to make money was too good to pass up. He stayed for 17 years, buying cheap land and constructing affordable houses for all the people moving South and West after World War II.

Houses and small office buildings were followed by larger office buildings, in Arizona and California and eventually the Midwest. To invest all the money pouring in, he bought stock, then more stock, then whole companies. He took over Dole, part of a larger company, Castle Cooke, which he acquired control of in 1985.

It was a heady ride, and his partner for the headiest stretch of it was a German-born beauty who became his wife in 1967, when he was in his mid-40s and she was in her late 20s. Her name was Gabriele. Although he’d been married twice before, he hadn’t fathered any children. With Gabriele he had two boys, who joined a son of hers whom he adopted. He moved his base of operations from Arizona to California and, for his new family, bought the legendary Conrad Hilton estate in Beverly Hills. Soon afterward, for weekend getaways, he also bought the ranch, in Ventura County, about a 30-minute drive away.

Tragic turn

In 1983 Gabriele was given a diagnosis of advanced ovarian cancer. Determined to heal her somehow, David wondered about nutrition and began to do extensive research into what she — and he, in support of her — should eat. The answer was more or less the kind of diet he has stuck to ever since.

Because many cancers have environmental links and the one she got didn’t run in her family, David suspects that lifestyle was a culprit, and is convinced that if the two of them had eaten better sooner, she would have been spared the year and a half of hope and fear and pain. “If I had known what I know today,” he says, “I could have saved my wife’s life. And I think I could have saved my mother’s life too.” Gabriele Murdock died 18 years into their marriage, in 1985. She was 43.

Less than a year later, the oldest of the couple’s three sons, Eugene, drowned in the estate’s pool, apparently after accidentally hitting his head. He was 23. Even then death wasn’t done with the family. About seven years ago, the second of the three boys, David II, had a fatal car crash as he sped down the Santa Monica Freeway. He was 36. The family is down to just Murdock and his youngest son, Justin, now 38, who helps run NovaRx, a biotechnology firm in which Murdock owns a controlling share. Murdock did marry a fourth time, and then a fifth, but neither union lasted long. He has been single for more than a decade now, though he frequently makes passing references to “my wife,” meaning Gabriele, photographs of whom dominate his homes. The other wives don’t show up.

For a few years after losing Gabriele and Eugene, David delegated many business dealings to subordinates. When his zest finally returned, he was consumed by the subject of what and how he and Gabriele should have eaten. Bit by bit his entire world became one of well-being. Out behind the orchid conservatory on his California ranch, he constructed tens of thousands of square feet of additional greenhouse space, where a small posse of gardeners tends an encyclopedic array of produce.

Beliefs and business

At Dole’s headquarters in Westlake Village, Calif., employees eat in a subsidized cafeteria where salad is plentiful and chicken nuggets unthinkable, and they have free access to a company gym where personal training, also subsidized, is $30 an hour.

Across the street is a hotel, completed in 2006 and operated by the Four Seasons, that Murdock built to house the California Health and Longevity Institute, a combination medical suite, spa and demonstration kitchen.

The institute and hotel are meant to turn a profit — and do, a small one — and they underscore how interconnected Murdock’s evangelism and business interests have become. As does the research campus. Dole is the world’s largest producer of fruits and vegetables, so studies into their health benefits have a huge potential upside for the company. Many of the foods under the microscope are foods Dole sells.

Blueberries, for example. World-renowned blueberry authority Mary Ann Lila — technically affiliated now with North Carolina State University — and her colleagues are using the campus’ high-powered nuclear magnetic-resonance machines to look for the unknown natural compounds in blueberries that will speed their efforts to maximize the fruit’s medicinal properties. They believe blueberries could help combat several diseases, including obesity.

Other researchers on campus are investigating such matters as the extent to which quercetin, found in the skins of apples, can have an anti-inflammatory effect, and how a certain type of fermented Chinese tea can lower bad cholesterol.

Murdock is also spending millions on the Murdock Study, with the goal of enrolling 50,000 Kannapolis-area residents, taking full blood work from them, storing it in a refrigerated warehouse and annually monitoring the residents’ health. The hope is that the study will help determine what biological markers today can tell doctors about the onset of disease decades later. The results won’t be proprietary to Dole.

Murdock says that he wants to slay such killers as diabetes, heart disease and, of course, cancer, and the scientists around him say that in some monumentally optimistic corner of his mind, he quite possibly believes he can. Unable to save Gabriele or the boys, he’s out to save the world.

Dreamers have pursued longevity — and, in some cases, immortality — in all sorts of wacky and exacting ways, from hyperbaric chambers to cryogenics. And they have sought to fine-tune their bodies with all manner of rigorously proscribed diets.

Ideal diet?

Murdock’s methods are, in that context, utterly mainstream, an example of extraordinary discipline rather than frontier science. A plant-based diet that’s low in animal fat while still allowing for protein sources beyond legumes has emerged as the consensus recommendation of most medical professionals.

The doctors who work with Murdock — who stands 5-foot-8 and weighs about 140 pounds — say that he has ideal blood pressure, clear arteries, good muscle tone. But they doubt that these will carry him to 125. They point out that he didn’t adopt his healthful ways until his 60s, and they note that genes often trump behavior. Although Murdock’s father lived well into his 90s, his mother died young, and his sisters are both dead.

“There’s been no documented intervention that has been shown to radically extend duration of life — ever,” says S. Jay Olshansky, an expert on aging who teaches at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Told of Murdock’s health-minded habits, Olshansky said that just about all of them were prudent ways of probably “letting his body live out to its genetic potential,” but added, “He’ll be disappointed when he doesn’t reach 125.”

I got the feeling that part of what pushes Murdock toward 125 is the sheer challenge. He bragged to me several times about once transplanting a centuries-old tree larger than any ever successfully moved. And he drew my attention to scores of oddly shaped boulders from Thailand’s River Kwai that decorate the grounds of the ranch.

He says that he still gets pleasure from them, and from much of the rest of his gilded life, and that he doesn’t know what, if anything, comes after. Although he is a churchgoing Christian, death, he concedes, could simply be blackness, nullity.

During my last visit with him, Murdock took me out to see the koi. He enjoys tossing them their pellets of food from the red wood bridge that arches over the lake.

“You want to know what I like and what makes me happy?” he said as we stood on the bridge. “Just having these fish makes me happy. Every one is alive because of me.”

We began tossing out pellets by the handful. He told me that I wasn’t using enough muscle and showed me how it was done.

Then he frowned. The koi, he said, weren’t lunging and thrashing. Had someone fed them too recently? Was someone feeding them too often? He vowed to look into it, declaiming the same fault in the fish that he finds in so many of the planet’s inhabitants.

“They’re not eating the way I like them to,” he said.

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