This week’s post is dedicated to Carrie Fischer, who was a tremendous advocate for victims of mental illness. Despite tremendous hardship and emotional neglect, she became the sole caretaker of her father Eddie Fischer during the last years of his troubled life (divorced 5 times!) in a completely selfless manner.
Brown Brothers Harriman. Manny Hanny. Cantor Fitzgerald. First Morgan Sachs Fifth Avenue. Taco Bell. If Michael Lewis wrote about them, I interviewed there in my search to get out of a destructive work and family situation. Like Horatio Alger‘s characters, I needed a powerful mentor to groom the trail ahead. Lacking such, my quest was doomed to heartache.
Nevertheless, I did find many helpful folks along the way; it was just they were never in the right place to clear an obstacle for me. Even though somewhat underpowered, I tried to compensate by being as thorough and complete as possible. For example, an unusual source for job leads was to be found in the salmon pink colored folds of the Financial Times of London. I knew this paper from my frequent trips to England. There was a recruitment section on the back pages. I answered lots of postings and bought sheets of international air mail stamps to send out my resume.
Occasionally, I received a courteous reply thanking me for my application. Invariably, they promised to contact me promptly if “a suitable match were found.”
I watched the backs of pigs anxiously for any signs of wing buds. But like watched pots that never boil, I couldn’t get my bacon to fly.
One time, however, I did receive a clear indication of interest. It was from a small investment fund specializing in “socially responsible and ethical investments.” Wow, clean money! Imagine that! Based in Paris, the CEO wrote me personally to say that he was interested in my background and please would I ring him up whenever I would be passing through France?
Now that was intriguing! On my next trip over to Europe, I dutifully looked him up and he warmly invited me over to his office. It turned out to be a small, quiet suite off the Champs-Élysées in one of those old buildings with a monumental staircase and a tiny cage elevator ascending the middle. It was a charming chat. Although he had no opening for me, he told me I would be a “natural.”
And so it went in 1985. Whatever could go wrong, did. And when things were naturally “right,” well, they went south too.
At the office, Dad was oblivious. He was having a grand old year. For example, he got married for the 5th time. In a Buddhist ceremony, no less.
For some inexplicable reason, he also took to quoting Murphy’s Law endlessly: “What can go wrong, will.” This was often followed by its corollary, “And Murphy was an optimist.”
I found this gallows humor to be strangely haunting. For him it was a joke. But for me, it was sadly true. The history of his company, Olcott International, was exactly the opposite of Murphy’s Law! Obviously, over the prior 20 years, a number of things had gone precisely right. This permitted not only the growth of the company itself, but an entire industry.
Like Horatio, Dad benefited from great mentors, like Hazard Reeves and Ed Brenner.
The greatest potential liability facing Olcott International, maybe the purest expression of Murphy’s Law, was the possibility that, despite numerous safeguards, a particular patent payment could be omitted. Maybe a clerical error of the dyslexic variety could jumble the digits of a patent number. Even a very rare computer error could twist ASCII characters. Such mistakes would be very hard to detect if fail-safes were themselves compromised. Warnings from the patent office or patent agents about an absent payment could get lost in the mail.
If the company missed a payment deadline, the patent in question could lapse. Forget about the embarrassment, we faced the possibility of a back-breaking liability for omitted revenues due to negligence! (For this possibility, we had insurance).
Dad claimed that in the middle of the night, he would see the bad number in his dreams. Rushing to the office at 5:30AM, he would find the missing item and submit a manual payment just before the patent could lapse.
Now how was it that his steel trap mind could catch that kind of minute error, yet he failed to back me up when I attempted to implement discipline to his standards?
I needed at least one thing to go right. The irony was too thick to my taste.
In the office, he had Bob Gerhardt slaving for him. Thank God Bob was there to satisfy his need for arguing about patent minutiae. I was done.
In contrast, my personal life propped me up. During the period 1984-1985, I found my long lost Sister Victoria and went behind the iron curtain to hang with my long lost relatives in Lithuania. I had served my pals Catesby Halsey and Chip Kilmer as best man in their wedding. There was even an extremely rare earthquake in New York City the morning of the big day!
Work however was agony, a combination of disparagements and insults. Nevertheless, I was able to happily serve my clients (I was out of the office, after all). But it was wearing thin. My proposed escape was floundering. I copped a very bad ‘tude.
And then that Christmas, December 1985, Dad informed me that I needed to leave Olcott International. My mentor, coming to the rescue again. I was like, no problem, I’m out.
It was time to go to a Plan B. If direct placement out of Olcott International wouldn’t work, then it was time to make myself a “new graduate” again.
Although I already had a master’s degree, it was several years old. Significantly, it was not an “MBA” but a lesser known degree that didn’t seem to cut the same way no matter how you sliced and diced it.
What’s another 2 years of graduate school anyway? Always be ready to learn something new, right? This time, I saved the $50 and neglected to apply to Harvard.
Columbia was generous to me again and accepted me in their full-time business school program. Just think, in two year’s time, I could go back to all my pals in financial houses downtown with further proof of my determination. Oh boy, “I’m baaa-aack!”
Thus, after I received my acceptance letter that spring, I was floating on air. The letter said I was in and so I was out. I had escaped!
My start date was to be August 18, 1986 at Columbia’s boot camp for Mathematics, complete with mandatory use of the famed HP 12c financial calculator. I was to drill with the thing just like the grunts who slept with their rifles in the movie Full Metal Jacket.
Terrific essay, James. I particularly like your dedication to Carrie Fischer; her work was much like your own with your father. Mental illness is a loved one’s disease and a family’s nemesis. It is a credit to your balanced view that you can see the good in what must have been a bleak time — before hoofing it back to Manhattan, of course.
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May I ask how was your relationship with your Dad once you left OI?
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Easier, and somewhat relieved on both sides. Please see my post “BOUNCE.”
Actually I was referring to the long term. Did you communicate often? How were your interactions?
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Prettily much as I described, easier and more relaxed. Interestingly, he continued to beg me to return to the company. Before I would agree to that, though, I insisted on safeguards. More on that later! Wait for it!
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