IN THE FIRST phase of his remarkable career, Dr. Armand Hammer, who was born in 1898, was an extremely successful businessman of a familiar go-getter, immigrant-family sort. He parlayed his father's U.S. Communist Party connection, of all things, into one profitable deal after another in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and continued in a pattern of bold individual entrepreneurship once he was back on American soil. The Russian art objects he'd brought home led him on to status in the art world.
His second phase began with purchase of a small, nearly bankrupt California oil company as a tax shelter in the mid-1950s. Dr. Hammer turned the independent Occidental Petroleum into a major world energy company. This soft-mannered, intensely driven man became what Daniel Yergin in his new book "The Prize" calls one of the great "buccaneer-creators" of the international oil business.
His Soviet encounter of the '20s created endless speculation about his subsequent relationship with the Kremlin; he certainly had access later to Communist leaders from Nikita Khrushchev on. They all understood how this friendly, well-connected captain of capitalism could help them reach out to (and around) American presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on. Dr. Hammer became an early prophet of contact, commerce and coexistence between the superpowers. He applied his privilege not merely to his profit and politics but to rescuing some of the victims of Communist power.
Dr. Hammer distributed his wealth generously to causes in medicine (he had earned a medical degree and favored cancer research) and in the arts -- Washington benefited greatly. His proclivity for staying in touch at the top had its unattractive side and its costs: in 1975 he pleaded guilty to charges of trying to conceal a personal contribution to Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, a violation of the law for which he was later pardoned by George Bush. Energetic and absorbed in activity to the end, Dr. Hammer died in Los Angeles on Monday at age 92. He had planned a belated observance of his bar mitzvah -- the Jewish coming of age ceremony usually celebrated at age 13 -- and it took place on schedule last night.