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Davis, former owner of Aspen Skiing Co., dies

James Bates

HOLLYWOOD – Marvin H. Davis, an oil wildcatter who parlayed a long string of savvy business deals into a glamorous lifestyle that once including owning the Aspen Skiing Co. and 20th Century Fox studio, died Saturday at his Beverly Hills home. He was 79. Davis, who had been in failing health for some time, died of natural causes, according to a statement released on behalf of his family.The wealthiest individual in Los Angeles for much of the past two decades, Davis was recently estimated by Forbes magazine to be worth $5.8 billion. Although his fortune was built in the dusty oil fields of Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Louisiana and Texas, where he was known as “Mr. Wildcatter,” Davis was inexorably linked to Hollywood, and, for a time, Aspen. In Aspen, he’s best known for having sold off some the Aspen Skiing Co.’s most prized assets, including Breckenridge Ski Area and a large interest in the Blackcomb Ski Area in British Columbia. Those sales cost the company dearly in later years, as both became highly profitable. Davis also sold off small hotels and inns that the Skico had purchased to house its employees, forcing the company to invest in new housing in later years after property and construction prices had spiked.In a recent article in The Aspen Times Weekly, longtime Skico president D.R.C. Brown said, “My only real regret is selling the company to Twentieth Century, not knowing that Twentieth Century was going to be taken over by Marvin Davis.”Brown said that Davis “milked the company” by pocketing profits and making no real investments in the Skico’s assets. By the early 1990s, ski resorts around the Western United States and Canada had invested in their facilities and built their reputations to the point where Aspen became one of many choices for elite vacationers.In Los Angeles, Davis leaves a different reputation. He was close friends with such celebrities as actor Sidney Poitier and the late Frank Sinatra, as well as with such prominent figures as former President Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Davis and his wife, Barbara, organized some of Hollywood’s glitziest A-list philanthropic events, raising tens of millions of dollars over the years for charities. “He was a wonderful friend, a great father and a very good guy,” said former Warner Bros. and Los Angeles Dodgers chief Robert Daly, a longtime friend of Davis. Daly said that at charity events that the Davis’ organized Davis would frequently write his own check to match the amount of money raised. At a 1986 dinner, Davis said of the entertainment business: “I love this stuff, the people and the glamour. This isn’t just a business. It’s a helluva lot of fun.” Davis cut an imposing figure. He stood 6-foot-4 and for much of his life weighed more than 300 pounds. As a businessman, Davis was said by friends to thrive on the action of deal making, even when he failed to win the prize. Indeed, the list of properties he nearly bought is an impressive one. It includes the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos NFL franchises, the CBS network, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines and the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Davis’ near misses caused rivals and some investors on Wall Street to call him a “tire kicker” who liked to look properties over without writing the check. It was a label he would bristle at, prompting him to roll off a long list of purchases he had made. In addition to Aspen, Davis over the years bought and sold such marquee properties as the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Pebble Beach golf course.At various times the Davis portfolio included such high-profile properties in Southern California as Santa Monica’s Water Garden and the 34-story Fox Plaza in Century City. The Fox Plaza was built by Davis, housed President Reagan’s offices after he left the White House and became famous for being the scene of the action film “Die Hard.” Davis was largely unknown outside of the oil business and his then hometown of Denver when he bought Fox in 1981 for $720 million in a partnership with commodities trader Marc Rich. Davis rented a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, splitting his time between Los Angeles and Denver before paying singer Kenny Rogers what then was an astronomical $20 million for “The Knoll” estate in Beverly Hills. Davis’ legacy as a studio mogul was mixed. During Davis’ tenure the studio sagged under a huge debt load. Davis sold the studio in 1985 in two steps to its current owner, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Despite Fox’s problems during his tenure, Davis reportedly made a $350 million profit on the deal when the dust settled. Davis had two key business philosophies. One was to avoid risking his own money, taking on investment partners where possible such as insurance companies or wealthy individuals such as “Star Wars” director George Lucas. Another Davis rule was to “never to fall in love with any asset,” no matter how much he enjoyed owning it, because someone might want to buy it. “He was very shrewd and very smart,” Daly said. “He could sense where things were going.” Marvin Davis was born Aug. 31, 1925, in Newark, N.J., growing up in New York and receiving his Bachelor of Science at New York University. His business roots in the Western oil fields belied what was a wealthy East Coast upbringing. He was the son of Jack Davis, an English immigrant and former boxer who built a successful dressmaking business before venturing into oil with his son. Marvin Davis took to the oil business, becoming a voracious explorer. Davis moved to Denver in the 1950s, and made a fortune drilling for oil in the Rocky Mountain area. At one point in the 1970s, Davis Oil boasted that only Shell, Amoco and Exxon drilled more wells in the United States. Davis was press shy and rarely gave interviews. But in person he was a charming raconteur, quick with quips. When asked about his strategy in the oil business, Davis would quote his friend, the legendary H.L. Hunt, as saying “he who drills the most wells wins.” In addition to his five children, Davis is survived by 14 grandchildren. Aspen Times staff writers Scott Condon and Allyn Harvey contributed to this report.


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