No more Mr. Nice Guy

New bio of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs portrays a clever, ruthless genius

Nov 15, 2000 at 12:00 am

In 1996, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs commissioned an architect to design new headquarters for his hugely successful Pixar Animation Studios. When employees learned the details, they began to wonder aloud how all 400 of them were going to share a single bathroom. Not happy about being questioned, Jobs responded by chastising almost everyone in sight, saving his harshest criticism for the women he believed were most often in the office rest room.

Anecdotes like that explain why Jobs complained to Random House, the parent company of Broadway Books, months in advance of the publication of Alan Deutschman's new biography. It's a damningly complete picture. Deutschman interviewed close to 100 of Jobs' friends, co-workers, and competitors, and he has crafted a detailed picture of a dictatorial perfectionist who humiliates employees and mistreats nearly everyone else. According to the author, Jobs refused to support his baby daughter for the first year of her life, argued against paying severance to longtime Pixar employees who were laid off, and forced the studio's founders to give back all of their stock when the company faltered.

Still, the portrayal is surprisingly evenhanded. Deutschman, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, praises Jobs for reviving Apple in the mid-1990s and does a fine job of relating how his vision paid off in the form of a lucrative Pixar-Disney partnership. Above all, Deutschman's Jobs is a complex figure, a man who enjoyed personally delivering computers to star clients like Mick Jagger, Yoko Ono, and Andy Warhol, but was deeply insecure and "sometimes yearned for his lost anonymity."

While his reporting is strong, Deutschman does overplay his hand from time to time. Are we really supposed to believe that the young Jobs was "a sex symbol and teen heartthrob"? Or that he is so charming that editors of national magazines laughed off the fact that he promised exclusives to three different publications? The writing is occasionally clumsy too; Deutschman reminds the reader three times within the space of 53 pages that Next, the computer company Jobs launched in 1985, was "bleeding money" from its earliest days in existence.

But you shouldn't read this book because of the writing. The biography's draw is its Citizen Kane-type unmasking of a ruthless mogul, one so driven that even the Machiavellian Bill Gates comes off as a gentle soul by comparison.

Kevin Canfield writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. E-mail him at [email protected].