Ahhh! April flowers. The trees are budding. Boids are choiping psychotically.
Springtime, it’s often said, brings together hopes and promises. Well, why not? April’s the month of my birthday. Sometimes, when the weather is right, the trees bud and bloom in the latter part of the month, right around when I appeared at Mount Sinai Hospital, 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue some 50 (or so) years ago.
Spring in 1992 was an exceptionally golden era for me, especially at Polo Ralph Lauren, a company I never expected to end up in after leaving the family business and graduating from Business School. It was survival by wit, guile, charm, and, to speak plainly, a shitload of style. Ralph made sure of that! And it was often a lot of effortless fun as well!
In addition to my triumph at Polo, several other things were going very well in my life in early 1992.
As previously reported in my post, “DESCENT INTO RETAIL,” I was mercifully out of the office, escaping Dad’s line of fire. The pressures of working together thusly eased, our relationship enjoyed a new high point. I was typically invited back to the office on Mondays (my day off at Polo), where I could masquerade as a pseudo-executive, assist in marketing tasks or help Paul with trademark renewal matters (although he had these well in hand). For my trouble, I was paid a modest hourly rate. That surely helped my cash flow.
Things at the office, however, looked pretty much the same as always. Bob Gerhardt, in particular, was looking very grim and harried. He often seemed lost in thought as I walked up to chat him up, his jaws always working that piece of gum. I was amazed that he (and his fillings) had hung in there for so long.
On the other hand, Paul was almost sanguine in his appraisal of things at Olcott International. The trademark renewal business had been doing well. The Wellcome Foundation was happy. True, he felt, some more efforts were needed to promote the company — an opinion of his that remained extremely consistent for the next 20 years! Unfortunately, marketing was an area that Dad ruled with an iron fist. More about that in my post next week.
I even had a third job! My stepfather, Jim Whitemarsh, ran (and still runs) an automobile transport business catering to snowbirds who commute between Florida and the Northeast. A couple of times a week, he would send some prospective drivers to me whom I would interview and collect deposits. One time he sent four different groups of drivers to me at the same time, without warning, while my cat was suffering from major gastric distress.
In terms of my personal life, I had plighted my troth. During my first year (in 1989), management at Polo had the kindness to give me a Friday off to go get married at St. James’ Church next door. My bride is (and was) a pretty, fashion minded girl named Melissa Garlanda whose parents oddly enough, like mine, had divorced when she was little. Mirroring my own life experience, her mother had dragged her to Miami where she went to elementary and middle school.
Notwithstanding President Nixon taking her by the hand for a dance one night at a local hotel frequented by her Mom (as well as the President) for dinner when she was a young thing, she was, like me, bored to tears with Florida and pining to return to the Northeast. Which she did! We both finished high school in Connecticut (she in Greenwich, me in Wallingford) and college in the Boston area (though we didn’t meet until years later).
Dad gave us a great reception at the New York Yacht Club, where everyone had too much of a good time. Somehow my (Buddhist) stepmother Rosemary ended up in tiff with my Latin sister Victoria, who called the former a “horn” in her South American accent. My brother John¹ got loaded and upset at our Mom, shredding his jacket for extra emphasis. Even Dad had too much fun! He ended up in the Emergency Room that night with “holiday heart!”
Melissa and I had a lot of chuckles recalling all of this during our honeymoon in Honolulu and Kauai. (Of course, at the time, I had no idea that my Uncle Edward had passed away around the corner on Ala Moana Boulevard some 12 years previous.)
As for everyone else in the family, these squabbles were cause for mirth all around. No lasting damage was done as soon as the hangovers were cleared. So was the Olcott family more durable now? I wondered to myself in 1992. Functional, as opposed to dysfunctional? Maybe yes. Perhaps not.
By April of that year, I even had had some positive results at Polo Ralph Lauren with my coup to reorganize the merchandise buy and assortment in the flagship store. For some time, I had been trying to attract the attention of Jerry Robinson, head of PRL France. They needed people to work in the store in Paris and manage the warehouse up at Paris-Nord. I had a chance to meet with Jerry very briefly during a trip to France that year and to my delight, I got an offer to join his team. Unfortunately, the logistics and salary did not pan out. For example, no assistance was offered to Melissa in terms of getting a work permit.
We were going to have to survive on my salary alone, and, as I was going to forego commissions – fully 25% of my take home pay – the net-net was that I going to be taking a pay cut. It just wasn’t economically sustainable.
Turning down the offer left me with nothing else to aspire to at PRL. I had come to the end of my line. I figured I would rather work part-time with both my Dad and stepfather and leave the world of retail behind. So I resigned from Polo. As a reward to myself for having stuck it out for 3 years in retail, I bought myself a 1966 Ford Mustang and parked it proudly outside the store. (Dad had been with me when I picked it up in New Jersey the previous day. He test drove it and declared it sound.) My coworker Tom Fitzpatrick came outside, took one look at the car, and said, “behave!” Even Charles Fagan commented (in his best Bronxese), “From cashmere to carburetors.”
For his part, Dad was promoting the idea that I come back to Olcott International. It was a better option than the car transport business, “big league,” even though Jim was easier to deal with. Maybe things were going to be different now. It was now 1992, fully 6 years since I had retreated across the Hudson. Perhaps my absence and return would work the odds in my favor. Time was marching forward inexorably. Dad was now 73 years old. Obviously he needed my help in setting up a successful succession.
I was down with that. As long as I was not abused.
It was, of course, the beginning of the most perilous journey of my life with Dad and his real wife, Olcott International.
This is me in the boat heading back to Olcott International in April 1992. (Painting by Thomas Cole, “Manhood” American, 1842. One of four panels.
April 1992 was a very significant moment for me.
¹ – My sisters and brother are actually half-sisters and half-brother. But they’re the only ones I have, so for all intensive purposes, I round them up into “sisters” and “brother” on this blog, and in life.