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John Tigrett

John Tigrett, 85, Entrepreneur

By Nick Ravo, courtesy of The New York Times

May 27, 1999 - John Burton Tigrett, a Tennessee entrepreneur who made a fortune on things like the Glub-Glub drinking-duck novelty, befriended financiers like Sir James Goldsmith and musicians like Isaac Hayes, and advised politicians like Vice President Al Gore, died on May 18 in a hotel room in Washington. He was 85.

Tigrett, who lived in Memphis, Tenn., was also the father of Isaac Tigrett, the co-founder of two restaurant chains, the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues. He was staying overnight in Washington after visiting his other son, Kerr Tigrett, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA.

Known in Memphis as the driving force behind the city's distinctively designed civic center, the Pyramid, John Burton Tigrett had jobs that ranged from bookseller to bus-company executive to investor in patents.

Patents proved to be his gold mine. In the early 1950s he paid $800 for the Glub-Glub duck, a toy that bobs and appears to drink water. He eventually sold 22 million Glub-Glubs.

Tigrett was an inventor in his own right, too. When his son John Jr., cut himself on a wooden playpen, Tigrett made a playpen of plastic mesh. No one knows how many have been sold since.

Tigrett was born on Sept. 29, 1913, in Jackson, Tenn. He lived briefly in an orphanage there after his father left his mother, until he was taken in by his uncle Isaac, a railroad baron. He attended the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, worked for a while as a freelance writer and newspaper reporter, and served in the Navy during World War II.

After the war, he entered the world of commerce and credited his uncle, according to an obituary published in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, with teaching him the importance of being independent.

"I've never depended on anyone for a salary, and that independence has proven invaluable over the years," Tigrett said in an interview with the newspaper last year.

A son, Hewitt, was killed in 1962 at the age of 11 in a ditch collapse at the family's winter home in Arizona, and in 1968, John Jr. died in Mexico.

Tigrett divorced his wife, Frances, when he was 52; relatives say he gave her all his money, except for a $10,000 grubstake. He then moved to London, where he worked with Armand Hammer, the chairman of Occidental Petroleum, and Goldsmith, the corporate takeover artist.

He also worked as a European representative for Holiday Inn and the North Sea Oil Consortium, before moving back to Memphis in 1989. There he and other developers initiated the Pyramid project.

In his later years, Tigrett wrote a book, <a href="">FAIR & SQUARE</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> (Spiridon Press, Nashville, 1998), about his careers.

At his funeral on May 19 in Savannah, Tenn., a videotape was played of Vice President Gore, a longtime friend and a recipient of Tigrett's advice. Gore likened him to another toy tycoon, the fictional Willie Wonka. Gore also recalled how his mother used to take him to Tigrett's toy factory.

Besides his sons, Isaac of Los Angeles and Kerr of Memphis and Charlottesville, Tigrett is survived by his wife, Pat Kerr Tigrett; a brother, Charles Clark of Jackson, Miss., and one grandchild.