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King Larry: The story of a business monster

February 3, 2012, 3:00 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, senior features editor Timothy K. Smith reviews James D. Scurlock’s King Larry, a new biography of eccentric DHL co-founder Larry Hillblom.

Growing up fatherless on a peach farm in California, Larry Hillblom told friends he wanted to be like Howard Hughes some day. He came closer than anyone could have expected. Hillblom went into business, amassed a huge fortune, acquired an airline, built a secretive empire, sustained hideous injuries in a plane crash, and developed into a full-blown germaphobe eccentric.

For all that, there was an important difference between the two men. Hughes indulged his whims in Hollywood and Las Vegas, becoming an object of public fascination. Hillblom cut his wackadoodle swath across Micronesia, which is why you may not have heard of him.

Hillblom was the “H” in DHL, the international courier service, and is the subject of King Larry, a biography by James D. Scurlock. The author unquestionably has a nose for a good story. In 2006, two years before Lehman Brothers collapsed, he made a jeremiad movie called Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders. He published a book by the same name the following year.

With his new book, Scurlock has again hit upon a story that was crying out to be told. Hillblom, it seems, was a business monster — a man with an unquenchable work ethic and no discernible moral compass. His principal hobby seems to have been deflowering virgins. A billionaire cheapskate, he was passionately devoted to a cause: shielding his money from the IRS. As soon as he had DHL up and running, he moved to Saipan, a U.S. protectorate with disputed (or at least disputable) tax regulations. There, dressing like a surfer and riding around in a DeLorean, he disported himself with breathtaking self-indulgence for 14 years.

And then he vanished.

Hillblom is probably dead; his seaplane, a vintage SeaBee, crashed into the Pacific in 1995. The bodies of two other people on the plane were recovered, but Hillblom’s was not. Some people believe that he wasn’t on the plane, that he disappeared to avoid responsibility for the messes he had made. After the plane crash, those messes triggered a probate battle running to more than a million pages.

Scurlock has done an impressive job reporting this book — he spent months on Saipan gathering Hillblom stories and reading the court record. He persevered when sources tried to dissuade him from writing the book at all. The result is very good — almost.

King Larry is a biography in three parts. Part one tells the story of Hillblom growing up in Kingsburg, Calif., escaping via Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, and founding DHL. That is not as over-compressed as it sounds — Hillblom began working as a courier when he was still in school, carrying documents between Oakland and Los Angeles, and founded DHL with two partners after graduating from Berkeley.

Part two takes us to Saipan, where Hillblom, while overseeing DHL’s growth into a global business, also built an empire based on real estate, communications, and other investments extending as far as Hawaii and Vietnam. Hillblom battled Frank Lorenzo for control of Air Micronesia. He learned to fly a plane, poorly, and lost an eye when he missed a runway. He got himself appointed a special judge to Micronesia’s Supreme Court. He tended bar and owned a pawnshop. He tried to open a rodeo-brothel complex on the island’s northern tip, but for some reason that didn’t work out.

Part three covers the battle over the fortune that Hillblom left behind. Estimates of its value started at $420 million and rose to more than $600 million as lawyers started untangling his complex holdings. In his will he bequeathed his money to a trust for medical research, but there was a little problem, or rather four of them: illegitimate children who emerged to claim millions from his estate. Hillblom, who never married, was a committed sex tourist. Fearing AIDS, he procured young girls, some very young, in the Philippines, Vietnam, and elsewhere. One of Scurlock’s sources recalls a conversation in which Hillblom said he had spent $10 million on virgins.

So yes, this is a satisfyingly salacious business book. And yet reading it may make you feel like a consummate nerd. That’s because it leaves you wanting to know more about DHL. And about whether and how Hillblom concealed his ownership of some of the company. And about an island real-estate deal that fell apart. And about the governance of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. And on and on…

The trouble is that Scurlock, who is after all a filmmaker, is determined to build his story around scenes. His book suffers from the usual sins that arise when a biography is constructed this way, chief among them imagined details that step into the ditch of fiction. (“A balmy evening gust tousled his hair as he climbed the steps to the 707’s front door, where he was greeted by a smiling stewardess wearing a sky-blue cap and gloves…”)

The main difficulty is that Scurlock devotes so much attention to animating his characters and putting them on stage that he frequently neglects the big picture, making important issues difficult to follow. It happens again and again, but let a single example suffice. In the buildup to a conversation in a Manhattan bar, Scurlock mentions that Hillblom’s interlocutor, a Navy lawyer, is “a tall, blond surfer from Laguna Beach, California.” He also mentions that Hillblom “had just purchased the Marshallese ambassadorship to Vietnam for $25,000.”

Wait. What?

In his acknowledgements, Scurlock thanks his editor first of all. Perhaps he shouldn’t have. Scurlock has turned up a rip-roaring story, but it reads like a first draft. Had someone held his feet to the fire, it might have been a very good book indeed.