Buffett: Portrait of an Artist
as a Young Man
(August 25, 1999) -- Buffett was born in 1930 in Omaha, Nebraska, in the midst of the worsening Depression. His father wanted to be a journalist but ended up as a securities salesman just when the public was losing what little faith it had in stocks. Times were tough, and though they soon got much better for the Buffett family, the Depression years made a lasting impression on young Warren.
"He emerged from those first hard years with an absolute drive to become very, very rich," Lowenstein writes. "He thought about it before he was five years old. And from that time on, he scarcely stopped thinking about it."
From an early age, Buffett was a bit quiet and bookish, someone who shied away from confrontation and seemed in need of protection. But he was also focused, determined, and energetic. He exhibited mental toughness and self-confidence. At age six, he would buy six-packs of Coke from his grandfather's grocery store for a quarter and sell each bottle for a nickel. When struck by a mysterious and dangerous illness the next year, he spent his time in bed calculating his future wealth. Later he worked at his father's brokerage house, chalking up stock prices on the blackboard. He would huddle over books like One Thousand Ways To Make $1,000.
The young Buffett cooked up endless schemes for making money, most of them quite successful. His contagious enthusiasm helped enlist the help of friends. They gathered stray golf balls that Buffett would package by brand and re-sell. Intrigued by oddsmaking, he and a friend put together a tip sheet on the horse races called Stable Boy Selections. He often declared that he would be a millionaire by age 30. He succeeded.
In 1942, Warren's father, Howard Buffett, made an unlikely run for Congress as a Republican isolationist opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal and to the war. Surprisingly, he won. The family moved to Washington, D.C., an abrupt change that so disturbed young Buffett that he ran away from home.
This momentary revolt lasted only one day, but Buffett responded in turn by devoting himself with gusto to his paper route for The Washington Post, as if he were determined to be independent. By age thirteen, the young Buffett had accumulated five routes that had him delivering 500 papers every morning before school. He was making $175 a month, the equivalent of a full-time salary for a grown man. He was saving all of it, too, except for what he paid in taxes, which he handled himself. At age 14, he bought 40 acres of Nebraska farmland with his $1,200 in personal savings and rented it out to a tenant farmer.
Buffett was ever on the make for new businesses. During his senior year of high school, he and a mechanically oriented friend started buying up used arcade games for $25 to $75 each. Buffett put up the capital; his friend did the repairs. They set them up in barber shops and split the profits with the barbers. Soon, they were raking in $50 a week. When he graduated from high school, Buffett sold the business for $1,200 to a war veteran and went off to the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania.
Having read so many business books and lived the life of the entrepreneur, Buffett found Wharton disappointing. The professors spun fancy theories, but none of it was practical enough. Besides, he concluded that he knew more than they did. After two years, he skipped off to the University of Nebraska, where he supervised paper routes for the Lincoln Journal and finished off his college in three years with a schedule full of classes in business and economics. By that point, he had also accumulated, solely by his own labor, personal wealth of $9,800. He was not yet 20 years old.
Most of Lowenstein's narrative is elegantly straightforward and unobtrusive, but he occasionally pauses to consider the key question of motivation: What makes a Warren Buffett who he is? Clearly, Buffett liked numbers and had a knack for thinking in terms of business enterprise. His father's brokerage business undoubtedly helped Buffett think of investing as a likely career. But Lowenstein plausibly suggests other factors too.
For one thing, Buffett's mother suffered terrible headaches and could turn on her children out of the blue "with the wrath of God," degrading them with unrelenting hour-long tirades in which she criticized their every conceivable failing. Indeed, there was a bit of madness in her family. Buffett's family never talked about his mother's black moods, and he didn't discuss them with his friends. But they were one factor motivating him to get out of the house and do something.
Buffett's analytical nature also made him hostile to his parents' Christianity at an early age. He implicitly embraced his father's high ethical standards, but not his father's faith. But even as a boy, he would repeatedly confide in his friends his fear of death.