Who gets the last word on Steve Jobs? He might

When Laurene Powell Jobs unveiled a website dedicated to the story of her late husband, historians wondered if it could change how influential people burnish their legacies

Published Sun, Oct 23, 2022 · 02:00 PM

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis meticulously curated the memory of her husband after he was assassinated, reimagining President John F Kennedy as a fallen King Arthur in a modern-day Camelot.

Now some historians wonder if Laurene Powell Jobs is also trying to frame the legacy of her late husband, Steve Jobs, a complicated and transformational figure who was shadowed by his flaws as a father and belligerence as a boss.

Last month, Powell Jobs introduced the Steve Jobs Archive. It aspires to reinvent the personal archive much as Jobs, in his years running Apple, remade music with the iPod and communication with the iPhone.

Rather than offering up a repository of personal correspondence, notes and items for public research and inquiry, as other influential figures have done, Powell Jobs, who did not respond to requests for comments, said at a conference last month that the Steve Jobs Archive would be devoted to “ideas”. Those ideas are primarily Jobs’ philosophies about life and work.

The result, for now, is more of a tribute website than an archive. More than a dozen archivists and scholars who spoke to The New York Times questioned even calling it an archive. It has worried historians who fear it may inspire other wealthy and influential figures to curate the historical record about them just as ordinary people curate their lives on Instagram.

“One of the things that excites me about archives is the warts and all,” said Courtney Chartier, an archivist at Columbia University who has worked on Martin Luther King Jr’s archive and the papers of playwright Tony Kushner. “People are complicated, and that’s something we shouldn’t shy away from.”

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The Steve Jobs Archive deviates from the repositories of other famous business leaders who largely left their material to corporate or library archives. About half of Harvard Business School’s 25 greatest business leaders of the 20th century left behind personal archives that are open to the public in libraries or museums, including Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Asa Candler, who built Coca-Cola.

Other iconic business founders such as Walt Disney, Sam Walton and Ray Kroc entrusted their papers to the companies they built, allowing those collections to become the cornerstone of corporate archives.

Much of that corporate archive material is closed to the public, but some companies, such as the Walt Disney Co., make personal correspondence, notes, speeches and other items available to authors for research.

“We don’t censor,” said Becky Cline, director of the Walt Disney archives. “We just vet.”

The new Jobs archive debuted with a minimalist website containing eight pieces of video, audio and writing that express what the archive calls Jobs’ “driving motivations in his own words”. The items, three-quarters of which were already public, can be accessed by clicking through maxims made famous by Jobs, including “make something wonderful and put it out there” and “pursue different paths”.

The next steps for the archive are shrouded in the kind of mystery associated with the way Jobs ran Apple. About all that’s been publicly disclosed is that Powell Jobs hired a documentary filmmaker to gather hundreds of oral histories about Jobs from former colleagues. Where that material will be stored and who will have access to it has not been revealed.

In an interview, Leslie Berlin, the archive’s director, declined to say whether the collection would be open to researchers or include any contentious material about Jobs. Author Walter Isaacson, who did about 40 interviews with Jobs before writing a best-selling book about him, said in an email that he wasn’t contacted to contribute.

Powell Jobs has been the driving force behind the project. She married Jobs in 1991, two years after meeting him as a graduate student at Stanford. Since his death, she has used her estimated US$16 billion fortune to fund the Emerson Collective, a philanthropic and commercial operation that owns The Atlantic magazine and funds an organisation trying to reduce gun violence in Chicago.

During his life, Jobs admired and encouraged historians to preserve the history of his Silicon Valley predecessors such as Robert Noyce, who co-founded the chipmaker Intel. But he put little value on his own history, and Apple has seldom commemorated product anniversaries, saying it focusses on the future, not the past.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, a dozen years after he was forced out, one of the first things he did was offer Stanford University the company’s corporate archives, said Henry Lowood, curator of Stanford libraries’ History of Science & Technology Collections. Stanford had a signed document from Apple’s legal department within 24 hours, allowing it to transport some 800 boxes from the company’s campus to the university.

Stanford spent years cataloguing items such as photos of a barefoot Jobs at work, advertising campaigns and an Apple II computer. That material can be reviewed by students and researchers interested in learning more about the company.

After Jobs’ death in 2011, Isaacson, the author, published a biography of Jobs. Some at Apple complained that the book misrepresented Jobs and commercialised his death. Isaacson declined to comment about those complaints.

Four years later, the book became the basis for a film. The 2015 movie, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Fassbender, focused on Jobs being ousted from Apple and denying paternity of his eldest daughter.

Powell Jobs lobbied to stop the film, according to emails made public after a hack of Sony Pictures, which held rights to the film. She and others who were close to Jobs thought any movie based on the book would be inaccurate.

“I was outraged, and he was my friend,” said Mike Slade, a marketing executive who worked as an adviser to Jobs from 1998 to 2004. “I can’t imagine how outraged Laurene was.”

In November 2015, a month after the movie’s release, Powell Jobs had representatives register the Steve Jobs Archive as a limited liability company in Delaware and California. She later hired documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim to gather oral histories about Jobs from former colleagues and friends. She also hired Berlin, who was Stanford’s project historian for its Apple archives, to be the Jobs Archive’s executive director.

The archive’s resulting website opens with an email that Jobs sent himself at Apple. It reads like a journal entry, outlining all the things that he depends on others to provide, from the food he eats to the music he enjoys.

“I love and admire my species, living and dead, and am totally dependent on them for my life and well being,” he wrote. NYTIMES

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