THE GENETIC PASSION OF ROBERT GRAHAM
The Los Angeles Times headline beckoned like a bulletin from the future: “Sperm Bank Donors All Nobel Winners: Plan Seeks to Enrich Human Gene Pool.” It was February 29, 1980, Leap Day—that strange quasi-day seemed right for such an otherworldly story. The article began by describing the sperm bank as “the world’s most exclusive men’s club,” then piled on the weirdness: a reclusive zillionaire . . . a secret cadre of Nobel geniuses . . . the women of Mensa . . . a mysterious, ultramodern fertility technology . . . a sinister experiment to improve the human race. It sounded like something out of a James Bond movie.
The article introduced America to Robert K. Graham—a most unlikely sperm banker. The seventy-four-year-old optometrist, who had made $100 million by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses, was on a mission to collect sperm from Nobel laureates. He was storing the prize seed in an underground bunker on his Escondido, California, estate, and he was distributing it only to women smart enough to qualify for the high-IQ society Mensa. Graham had given his sperm bank a name that had the thud of second-rate science fiction: “The Repository for Germinal Choice.”
Graham told Times reporter Edwin Chen he had already enlisted three Nobel prize–winning scientists to “deliver” their sperm, and eventually he intended to canvass all the world’s Nobel laureates. So far, Graham said, two dozen Mensa women had contacted him—he had told the Mensa Bulletin about the bank a few months earlier—and he had shipped frozen Nobel sperm to three of them.
The sperm bank was not a prank, Graham insisted to Chen, and not a rich man’s folly. Graham said he was trying to save mankind from genetic catastrophe. In modern America, the millionaire complained, cradle-to-grave social welfare programs paid incompetents and imbeciles to reproduce. As a result, “retrograde humans” were swamping the intelligent minority. This “dysgenic” crisis would soon cause the evolutionary regression of mankind, as well as global communism. How could we save ourselves? Graham had the answer. Our best specimens—and “specimens” is just the kind of word Graham would use to describe people—must have more children. His Nobel Prize sperm bank would father a cadre of leaders, scientists, and politicians who would help reverse the genetic decline. Graham was not charging his customers or paying his donors. He and his Nobelists were making a gift of the genius genes, a lifesaving present to a dying world. Graham promised to study the children of his supersperm, tracking their development, achievements, and IQ. He would publish his findings in scientific journals, vindicating his extraordinary semen and his experiment.
Graham outlined his ideas to Chen with an unapologetic bluntness. “The principles of this may not be popular, but they are sound,” he said. “So far, we’ve refused to apply to humans what we already know and apply to animals and plants.”
Graham gave Chen a tour of the bank, such as it was. Graham owned ten beautiful acres in Escondido, a thriving town half an hour northeast of San Diego. In Graham’s prizewinning garden, in the shadow of the American flag that Graham flew over his property, sat a concrete bunker the size of a modest bathroom. The bunker was a few feet underground and slightly dank. It had once been a pump house; Graham had converted it into a small laboratory. Its prize equipment was a lead-sheathed, waist-high vat of liquid nitrogen. Graham opened the vat and showed Chen what he claimed was the Nobel sperm, a few dozen ampules frozen at 196 degrees below zero centigrade.
Graham wouldn’t disclose the names of his three Nobel donors, so Chen wasn’t sure if Graham was an honest eccentric or a con artist. After all, Nobel laureates’ sperm looked like anyone else’s; Graham’s vials could just as well have contained seed from his gardener. Chen called every Nobelist he could find in California and asked if he had made a sperm deposit. One after another said no. A dozen had never heard of Graham’s project. Another ten admitted that Graham had contacted them but said they had turned him down. Most were scornful. “It’s pretty silly,” Medicine Laureate Max Delbrück told Chen. Chemistry and Peace Laureate Linus Pauling said he had nixed Graham: “The old-fashioned way is still best.” Medicine Nobelist Renato Dulbecco, who hadn’t been contacted, burst out laughing at the idea, “Oh come, come. This is fantastic. . . . It’s too late for me. I was vasectomized long ago.”
Finally Chen reached Stanford’s William Shockley, whose invention of the transistor had won him the 1956 Physics Nobel. Chen asked his question. After a long, long pause, Shockley said, “Yes, I’m one of them. This is a remarkable attempt, and I am thoroughly in sympathy with this sort of an approach. Everyone talks about it, but by God, Graham is doing something about it.” Chen had his story. The Nobel sperm bank was for real.
A remarkable photo of Graham illustrated the Times article. At first glance, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It showed a handsome elderly man with perfect posture and a formal bearing. Graham wore a camel’s-hair blazer and a perfectly knotted polka-dot tie. His crown of thick gray hair was Brylcreemed to a high shine. It looked like a photograph from a midcentury corporate annual report: Our CEO at work. But then you noticed Graham’s eyebrows were jauntily cocked. And his hands were sheathed in weird, massively thick oversized mitts. And he was standing in a laboratory, not a boardroom, with a microscope perched on a shelf behind him and a huge metal drum at his feet. The caption read: “Robert K. Graham in his underground chamber. At lower left, the sperm repository, made of thick lead to shield it from radiation.” The picture was a mesmerizing conflation of future and past, the 1950s businessman and his twenty-first-century project. All at the same time it exuded optimism, pragmatism, malevolence, and goofiness.
Chen’s Los Angeles Times article provoked an international sensation. Chen has been a journalist for more than thirty years on some of the most important beats in the world (he now covers the White House for the Times), and he says he has never experienced anything like the frenzy of February 29. Journalists called him by the dozen; so did desperate women hoping to score genius sperm. Graham, too, was inundated with media requests. Reporters from all over the country wanted to see his magic vials and quiz him about his intentions. Graham’s subterranean chamber became the ground zero of the future. The press immediately gave the “Repository” a much flashier nickname: the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.” The nickname pleased Graham, who started using it himself.
On March 2, Graham held a press conference in his backyard. He spent most of the session rebutting accusations of sexism, racism, elitism, white supremacism, and Nazism. Yes, Graham conceded, all his donors were white, and it was true that he gave sperm only to married women, not lesbians or single women. But he was no Nazi. “I don’t know much about Hitler and his vision. I don’t see a parallel. We aren’t thinking of a super-race. We are thinking in terms of a few more creative, intelligent people who otherwise might not be born.”
But in giddier moments, Graham was dreaming bigger than just “a few more creative, intelligent people.” His little Repository was a “pilot project,” he said. Soon it would seed similar banks around the world. Every city would have its own genius sperm bank. There wouldn’t be just a few superkids, but thousands of them. Given enough time, Graham mused, genius sperm banks might help “stimulate [man’s] ascent toward a new level of being, of which his present organic status may be only the crude beginning.” His Repository, Graham hoped, might one day give birth to mankind’s “secular savior.”
Other people could have conceived the idea of a Nobel sperm bank, but no one except Robert Graham could have conceived it and made it a reality. Graham had the right-wing politics of a self-made millionaire, the relentless inquisitiveness of an inventor, the can-do spirit of an entrepreneur, and the moxie of a salesman. Together, these qualities made him confident that his sperm bank was the right idea, rich enough to fund it, and certain that he could market it to a skeptical public. It was also no accident that Graham was in southern California, the ground zero of American libertarianism. In 1980, California culture was a clash between freethinking futurism (new-ager Jerry Brown, “Governor Moonbeam,” was in the middle of his second term) and hard-right political conservatism (former governor Ronald Reagan had swept the New Hampshire primary just three days before the Times article). In Robert Graham—and perhaps only in Robert Graham—these alien theologies intersected. His sperm bank sought to harness scientific libertarianism and dreamy futurism, and put them in the service of rigid social control.
Here’s my favorite Robert Graham story.
In the early 1970s, when he had tired of running his eyeglasses company but wasn’t yet collecting Nobel sperm, Robert Graham tried to start a country. He thought an island would be best. Graham instructed George Michel, a vice president at his firm, Armorlite, to locate an island that Graham could buy and flag as a sovereign—or at least semisovereign—nation. Graham instructed Michel that the island should be at least five miles wide and fifteen miles long.
Michel hired several Los Angeles real estate agents, and they eventually located four or five promising candidates, mostly small islands in the Atlantic Ocean that Great Britain might surrender for the right price. Graham was thrilled. Next, he assigned Michel and several Armorlite colleagues to design the island’s living and working quarters. Graham decreed that the island had to be completely self-sufficient and that no cars would be permitted on it. Michel drew blueprints for prefabricated living saucers that could be stacked on land or in the sea. He designed a futuristic sewage system, greenhouses, and food factories. His masterpiece, Michel recalls fondly, was a vacuum-tube-driven transportation system, in which gyroscopically balanced pods would zip passengers from one part of the island to another.
Graham’s island wasn’t the usual kind of millionaire’s ego trip. Graham didn’t aspire to rule his kingdom. He lived to play handmaiden to great men—men he thought were better than he was. Graham intended to create an elite research colony. Graham would invite the world’s best practical scientists to the island, offer them lavish living conditions and the fanciest laboratories money could buy, and let them start inventing. Grahamland would support itself: when scientists produced something valuable, they and the colony would share the royalties. The inventors would get rich, and Grahamland would prosper. Graham was convinced that scientists would flock to his island, because he was sure they wanted what he wanted: an escape from the morons, weaklings, and imbeciles who increasingly dominated the rest of the world. Science would be Grahamland’s god and its law. It would be a rational empire, Graham’s own private Atlas Shrugged.
Grahamland never progressed beyond the planning stages. Michel quit Armorlite in a stock dispute. Graham got distracted and never managed to buy the island. But the private nation was pure, distilled essence of Robert Graham: the entrepreneurial vigor; the cockamamie grandeur; the unshakable faith in practical science; the contempt for the pig-ignorant, lazy masses; and the infatuation with finding—and claiming—the world’s best men.
Robert Graham was born on June 9, 1906, in Harbor Springs, Michigan. When he was a rich old man, Graham liked to tell stories that made it sound as if he’d grown up on the frontier—kerosene lanterns instead of electricity, hauling water up the road for the Saturday-night bath. This was bogus nostalgia. Though Harbor Springs was small (only 1,500 residents) and rural, there was no pioneer hardship. Harbor Springs was a resort, the summer playground of midwestern royalty, and it was enjoying its heyday as Robert was growing up in the 1910s and ’20s. The town sat on Little Traverse Bay, a gorgeous inlet of Lake Michigan at the northern tip of the state. Harbor Springs famously had the cleanest air in America: the west winds racing over the lake stripped the air of pollen and dust. Hay fever sufferers made Harbor Springs a summer refuge in the late nineteenth century. Thanks to railroads and a ferry, the rich soon followed for the beautiful harbor and the long summer nights. The Harbor Springs summer census was a who’s who of American business: Cincinnati’s Gambles (Procter & Gamble), Louisville’s Reynoldses (aluminum), Illinois’ Pullmans (trains), Michigan’s Upjohns (pharmaceuticals), and many other names from the fronts of supermarket packages and the backs of automobiles. They built “cottages”—Newport-like mansions—along the town’s glorious beaches. And they got together to establish Michigan’s most exclusive country clubs, purchasing huge tracts of land, fencing them off, and laying out the first golf courses in the state.
Robert Graham was born into the local gentry—the respectable year-rounders who were acknowledged by the summer folk but not of them. His father, Frank Graham, was the local dentist and prospered by treating both locals and tourists. Frank had graduated first in his class at the University of Michigan dental school, married Fern Klark, and settled in Harbor Springs in 1903. He built himself a fine shingled Victorian house on East Bluff Drive, the street where the richest townies lived. Fern Graham was a gracious, gentle woman, but Frank was chilly and formal. When he took a walk on the town beach, he wore a coat and tie. Frank was a clever man, however, an inveterate tinkerer. He invented a new carburetor for boat engines and designed a collapsible keel for sailboats. After the Titanic sank, Frank spent years trying to build a better lifeboat.
The oldest of four children, Robert inherited his mother’s grace and his father’s inventiveness and formality. But he may have inherited even more from Harbor Springs. Growing up in the resort town instilled in Robert Graham a lifelong obsession with the rich and the great. (This is a man who titled the longest chapter in his autobiography “Princes and Princesses I Have Known.”) In summer, Graham caddied at Harbor Springs’ two private golf courses, Harbor Point and Wequetonsing. Graham caddied to earn pocket money—75 cents for eighteen holes—but also to spend time around powerful men. The respectful adulation he would perfect as a genius sperm banker—he learned that on the golf courses of Harbor Springs. Some eighty years later, Graham wrote about caddying in his memoir: “I know of no other situation in which a boy can be in the company of leading and outstanding individuals, hours at a time. He can learn some of their ways of thinking and talking, their matters of concern and some of their foibles.” (Graham carried the bags of famed baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, among others.) Caddying prodded Graham’s ambition in another way: it made him greedy. The Graham family was plenty prosperous, but he was a townie, a second-class citizen, practically a ragamuffin compared to Harbor Springs’ majestic summer migrants. Like many middle-class kids who spend their lives around the rich, Graham smelled money and developed an appetite for it. “I saw these wealthy summer people enjoying themselves at leisure and concluded that wealthy was the way to be.”