In "Giving It All Away," author Michael Zitz examines the life of Doris Buffett -- Warren Buffett's older sister -- from growing up with an emotional abusive mother to donating more than $100 million to support women and children in need.
Warren Buffett wrote the forward for the book.
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When Doris was twelve, she locked herself in a closet. "I won't remember this when I'm forty," she kept whispering to herself, crying. Outside the door, her mother, Leila Buffett, continued one of a lifelong series of tirades which would sometimes go on for two hours. "She was never happy 'til I was sobbing," Doris said.
One of Leila's favorite themes was Doris' supposed stupidity. Over and over, she would mock her by punctuating insults with "Duh!"
Leila would also make her son, Warren, cry. As a young boy, he said he often felt the urge to protect his older sister. "But I never did, because I was afraid of becoming the target myself." Once he ran away from home to escape her rants.
"Her fury would come 'in spurts,' he said, "minute by minute. She would really lay into Doris or me. We had a mutual aid society." He chuckles about it now, downplaying it. But Warren told his first wife Susie that he was surprised Doris didn't end up in a mental institution because of the abuse.
And when Warren and Doris were in their late twenties, they went to visit their father, Howard Buffett, to ask for his help in ending decades of emotional abuse by their mother. "She has to let up on us or we're moving away," they told him. Howard must've said something, because Leila toned it down for a while.
When Doris was born, on February 12, 1928, her grandparents "went nuts," she said. "They wanted to declare it a national holiday." But it was a difficult delivery for Leila, who developed an infection and almost died.
Some later believed that she developed postpartum depression. "It was a long postpartum," Doris joked. "It ended with her death." Decades later, Doris came to the conclusion that her mother may have suffered from bipolar disorder, because she would tear into her oldest daughter at the kitchen table for an hour, then smile and say pleasantly, "I'm glad we had this discussion."
Leila was a pretty, petite and vivacious woman with brown hair and green eyes.
"And as my father said, she could make more friends than he could lose," Doris remembered. "It was always fun to watch her work her way across a room, because she was a born campaigner." When her husband Howard was elected to Congress, Leila worked tirelessly in his office on Capitol Hill, typing letters for no pay, "and she enjoyed that."
Leila was so well-liked that when she was sixty-five she got sixty-five birthday cards, Doris recalled. One of Doris' grandsons, Alexander Buffett Rozek, recalls Leila as a sweet great-grandmother. He treasures a picture of himself as a child standing next to Leila, who was a good enough sport in her nineties to don a dark cape and Darth Vader helmet and mask to amuse Alex, a Star Wars fan.
Warren doesn't believe his mother was bipolar. "There were periods she would attribute to neuralgia. I think they refer to it now as migraines. But I think my mother did have terrible headaches, and how much of these periods of extreme criticism and extended berating of us would be attributable to that would be hard to tell."
He said a difficult childhood may also have contributed to it. "My mother had this tough upbringing." Leila's mother had been institutionalized for mental illness.
"Our mother always presented this totally sunny disposition to the rest of the world," Warren said. "So there was this contradiction between public and private behavior that I'm sure was hard for Doris or myself to fully understand as a kid."
But Doris said it was clear that she was the primary target of her mother's wrath. "I never heard the words, 'I love you,' " she said. "I never had a story read to me. Rarely was I tucked into bed. Nobody ever said, 'Call us when you get there so we know you're safe.' There were so many times I just wished some fairy godmother would come and understand me or like me -- whisk me out of there or something."
One Christmas in Washington, in a moment of adolescent drama, a sixteen-year-old Doris angrily threw a letter from a boyfriend into the fireplace. Dried greens in the fireplace then burst into flames, flared up and scorched the mantle. Eleven-year-old Bertie decided to take the blame because she and thirteen-year-old Warren knew the punishment would be so much worse for Doris.
"We got enormous approval from my dad," Warren said. "We never could quite get it from our mother. That wasn't just Doris, that was me, too. It probably didn't extend to Bertie so much, being the youngest. Every child seeks approval from both parents. Neither Doris nor I would get much from our mother. It was tougher on her, being the oldest."
And Warren was a boy. "It was a Victorian thing," Doris said. "Your job was to make them look good, even walk a couple of steps behind them."
Younger sister Roberta Buffett Elliott of Carmel, California, agreed with Doris that Leila was much tougher on her. "Warren was a boy, and boys, in my mother's viewpoint, were more valuable than women.
"Men were supposed to be smarter. In a marriage, if the woman was smarter, she'd better hide it. Men had to go out in the world and earn the living. They had more power, and women were expected to smile and keep quiet.
"My mother never criticized my dad," Bertie said. "It's hard to imagine a marriage where you'd never feel critical, but if she did, I never saw it expressed. So I think that even though my brother was criticized, too, that it was against a background of men succeeding and being somebody and being important. My mother helped Warren by getting up early and making his breakfast so he could do paper routes. In a sense, she had higher expectations for him, so I think that would be very empowering. For a woman it was like, 'Oh, don't you dare have those expectations, because you're a woman. You can't do those things. You have to be in a lesser role.' So I think it would be more damaging to Doris than to Warren."
Leila never displayed her ill temper to Howard. She was head over heels in love with and slavishly devoted to her husband for life. When Howard, then a stockbroker, asked her, "Mom, why do you think you're here on Earth?" she replied, "To take care of you, Daddy." She really felt that way, Doris said. Leila was either J. A. Stahl's daughter, Howard Buffett's wife or Warren Buffett's mother. "That was her identity. And it really burned her up when I didn't seem to buy into that."
Leila often told Doris that she wasn't smart. She didn't want her to go to college. "She didn't see any reason. The only reason you went to college was to get your man, your 'Mrs. degree.' Ick."
But her younger sister Bertie was sent off to Northwestern at sixteen. Doris was never allowed to leave home to go to college, and took college classes in Washington and Omaha while her friends all went away to school.
All four of Doris' marriages were disasters. After Leila's death, Doris saw a daybook her mother had kept for decades. An entry from Doris' first marriage, when she and her husband were struggling financially, noted: "Doris called collect today."
Doris lost everything in the 1987 stock market crash, going $2 million into debt. When that happened, Leila wrote in her daybook, "Don't give Doris a cent."
She has battled depression at times in her life and gone to a psychiatrist, trying to understand why her relationship with her mother was so ugly and how that may have affected the rest of her life. "We'll never know, because at the age of three you couldn't be that bad, and that's when it started," she said. Whatever the reason, it had a huge impact on her life.
Looking at a picture of herself as a cherubic blond toddler, Doris said, "How could you hate that child? Their nickname for me was 'Mary Sunshine.' "
"When I was twenty-eight and married, I remember thinking 'Isn't this strange? My brother's a genius, my sister's a Phi Beta Kappa, we all have the same parents, and I'm such a dummy.' I bought it. I really believed that." Much later, she discovered that the woman who had administered an IQ test to Bertie, Warren and Doris when they were eight, ten and twelve, respectively, was still alive. Doris checked the results: her IQ test result was 150, a couple of points lower than Warren's and a couple higher than Bertie's. "I don't know that I believed it, but I immediately joined Mensa because I could get in on that score," she said with a chuckle.
"You knew that, if you were in the family," Warren said, "there was never anyone who was smarter than the other or pulling up the rear. That was clear at the dinner table," he said. "We all had this high energy level and aspiration level. My dad thought the world of his three children; but the way the world was, boys had a different future than girls. They got out of school and wore an apron, basically. My dad wanted me to go to Wharton. I wasn't too keen on that. My guess is that he didn't much care where Doris or Bertie went. It's not that he didn't care about them. It's just that it didn't make that much difference.
"She would have been a terrific anything," Warren said. "She could've been a Johnny Carson or something like that. Fast and funny women, though, that was different from being a funny guy."
Leila's words struck Doris with such force that she hasn't ever been able to see in herself what the rest of the world sees in her. "The more important the person is to you, the more it sticks," Warren said.
Doris was gorgeous and bright, though a little bit of a late bloomer. "Doris was a total knockout and smart as anybody could be. She was a star as long as I can remember. Actually, more so than either Bertie or me. And she had a father who told her she was a star, but not a mother." Warren was two years behind her in school and he would hear stories about his older sister. "Everybody knew who Doris was. And there were plenty of boys. No shortage.
"I tell people never to use sarcasm with their kids," he said. "If you become a great actress or a billionaire, it sticks with you. She remembers the remarks from my mother more so than that every boy in the senior class wanted to go out with her. She had it all. She still does."
For years, grandson Alex said, "She felt like people in the family looked down on her because she wore her whole life on her sleeve. Everybody knew about her failed marriages. And 1987 [the mistake that wiped her out in the stock market crash] was so well-documented by the media. She felt like the black sheep of the family." It was a role her mother had prepared Doris for since she was three.
One year syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, who was a stockholder in Berkshire Hathaway, came to an annual meeting. "What would you ask her?" someone asked Leila.
"What do you do," she replied, "when you don't like your children?"
In "Giving It All Away" author Michael Zitz examines the life of Doris Buffett -- Warren Buffett's older sister -- from growing up with an emotional abusive mother to donating more than $100 million to support women and children in need.