A MAN OF LETTERS

Dad was a man of letters.  He loved to write to anybody and everybody.  Whether he was writing to one of the greatest minds of all time (Albert Einstein) or the Chief Patent Counsel of Apple Computers (Paul Carmichael), I was often astonished at the response rate (at least at the onset).

In fact, writing letters was his preferred and (for a while) just about sole marketing tactic for Olcott International in the 1980s and 1990s.  I recall that he really got started by composing a 4 page template on an Olivetti electric typewriter around 1982.  This sample letter, into which he could drop hundreds of names and addresses via mail-merge, was a direct and personal appeal to the Chief Patent Counsels of large corporations, the ultimate decision makers on the customer side.  Dad’s letters would, without much of an introduction, launch into 1) not-so-brief technical descriptions of his helicopter and air conditioning patents, 2) how he pioneered the concept of calendaring and paying patent renewals by computer in the early 1960s, and 3) how the Chief Patent Counsel’s company could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by delegating such to Olcott International.

For the convenience of the reader, I have boiled the letter down into those three sections.  In reality, it was a difficult-to-read, long, rambling, monster of a letter, replete with malapropisms.

FEAR AND LOATHING ON SECOND AVENUE

Storm clouds gather over Yorkshire Towers

Graciela Levi Castillo was Dad’s wife no. 3 – and my first stepmother.  Their marriage was very short, from January 1963 until January 1965.  Only a few memories of her remain intact from the summer of 1964.  You see, in 1963, my folks had just split up and had not yet worked out all the details.  Dad even came down with Graciela to see me in Orlando once or twice.  My Mom tells me she was very gracious with Graciela during those visits; still, it had to have been somewhat awkward with both parents parading their new spouses in front of the other.

What I remember most about Graciela was that she was as kind to me as she was garrulous.  Meaning, she was very, very kind!

In order to start his life anew with Graciela, Dad quit his apartment at 1050 Fifth Avenue (that he had shared with my Mom) and they moved into Yorkshire Towers, 305 East 86th Street, an immense white brick postwar building on the northeast corner of Second Avenue (see above picture).  As a newly completed building in 1964, deals were always available to new tenants willing to move in during construction.  Dad found such kind of bargains to be irresistible.  The new apartment had much of the same furniture as previously with my Mom, so it had an air of familiarity about it. 

FAUSTIAN BARGAIN IN SOUTHAMPTON

The old clubhouse.  Photo Courtesy of the Southampton Yacht Club

Last week, I related how Dad and I had our Friday schedule – pack up the Horsemobile and drive to Southampton.  A lot of people have such similar routines.  Saturdays no different.

Even the grand dame of our Southampton rooming house, Mrs. Fordham, had a weekend habit.  Every Saturday she would get together with her buddies and – I have no idea what they were drinking, rolling, or tooting – but were they up, I mean UP!, for the Lawrence Welk show at 6PM!  They were huddled together in the chairs, arranged in a semi-circle around the boob tube, simply breathless for the start of the show… Roll the bubbles…  Ah, one, two, three…

FINDING SOUTHAMPTON

After a busy week in the office of Bernard Olcott & Associates on the 33rd floor of the Pan Am building, it was time to close up shop on Friday afternoon. It was July 1966, the pavement outside was soft from the searing heat of the sun. Summertime transforms Manhattan into a tropical sweaty island, albeit with world-class dining and entertainment options.

We strolled back to Dad’s large efficiency apartment at the Peter Cooper Hotel on 38th and Lexington, grabbed our stuff for the weekend, and took the 7 train out to Long Island City where Dad kept his car, the “horsemobile” – see image below – during the week. Like a Canada Goose in periodic migration, every weekend we plied our way east away from the hot shimmering city onto the Southern State Parkway until it emptied out on country roads. (This was before the Long Island Expressway was extended to Riverhead.) There, we followed Hot Water Road from Manorville all the way down to Route 27, making a left in Eastport. Through picturesque villages with quaint cottage-like storefronts, we wound our way past Katrina’s Deli (the logo was a haunting blond girl wearing a Viking-styled horned helmet), Go Kart tracks, and roadside ice cream parlors with high peaked roofs.

EVERYWHERE

The girl from Glasgow was cute.  At the Palacio Hotel, Estoril.

The Arc de Triomphe. The Louvre. The observatory at the top of the Tour de Montparnasse. Invalides. Trocadero. There’s a lot to see in the city of light. Dad took me to all of it. And of course we recuperated from the cuisine of Great Britain.

Aside from the momentary lapse on the Metro, Dad did well with the language barrier. He was familiar with Paris and knew the ropes. While tagging along for the ride, I felt intuitively that this sublime city loomed large in my future. And nine years later, I did come back to Paris to live there as student during the summer to master the language. Later on, I came to spend a lot of time in both London and Paris on business or visiting friends. London always struck me as a familiar place. If you flew from New York towards the northeast and kept going past Boston, about 5 hours later, you arrive in London, which, like Boston, has lots of crazy streets, red brick buildings, English-speaking people with crazy accents, 7-11s, Colgate toothpaste, and a nearby place called Cambridge.   However, if you pushed ahead yet another hour, you arrived in Paris, with none of those things (except crazy streets, of course). I loved the exotic quality of ditching the familiar. France feels like a foreign land, but not an unfamiliar one.  It’s a place where you can dig deep in its mysteries and reap rich life experiences.

LOOKIN’ FOR THE EIFFEL TOWER

Dad and I boarded our Air France flight to Orly Airport and, as customary, I grabbed the window seat. I was only 11 but still I understood that Dad was looking after his business affairs while we were in Europe. We had visited one of his best English clients – Massey-Ferguson – and he had pushed his joint venture discussions forward with the senior partners from Marks & Clerk while in London. He had scouted out possible locations for the proposed operation in the Channel Islands. His work done, and the Apollo 11 astronauts back home safely, it was time to leave the Anglo-Saxon world behind and see something completely different.

France was an important country to my Dad’s business from an operational point of view. While he did not have any customers there, all of his clients (be they American, British, Italian, or Japanese) did have large portfolios of French patents on which renewal fees had to be paid annually in French Francs. Therefore when he went to the French Patent Office on the rue de Leningrad (later to be renamed rue de St. Petersbourg) earlier that decade to win acceptance for his bulk payment process, it was a real coup when they readily agreed to accept his bulk payment process. In fact, the top 3 countries in Europe for patent registrations – UK, West Germany, and France – all accepted his instructions direct from New York. Even though Dad only studied a little French in high school, he sure loved him some France as his operation there was a huge money maker.

Put another way, as surely as my Grandmother loved to whip up some French cuisine, Dad and I surely loved to eat it. After two weeks in the UK, our stomachs were ready for France.

WITH AN MP IN LONDON 1969

After leaving New York at 9 in the morning on Pan Am, Dad and I were walking down Oxford Street, London by 10 PM, iconic black taxicabs and double decker buses whizzing by. I was hungry and saw all the burger places, just like back home. London looked like my kind of place since my diet was comprised primarily of hamburger. Dad warned me that those English burger chains like Wimpy’s were not as good as the ones back home. He was right!

And so I made my first discovery about England – the cuisine was inedible! Remember that this was 1969, before the food revolution had come to Britain and reversed the tradition of a very poor local cooking tradition – principally by boiling – made worse by the war. While in England, I suffered continuous bouts of nausea.  Once on the London tube with my Dad, I remember sitting across from a mother and her son, maybe the same age as me. He was nauseous and vomiting so I instantly was sympathetic. The only problem was that he was getting sick into a clear plastic bag.

PAN AM TO LONDON IN 1969

I took my first business trip with Olcott International in 1969. Of course, it wasn’t really a business trip as I was only a kid, 11 years old. But it was for my Dad. I tagged along and was on the periphery of a proposed merger of his operation with the patent renewal portfolio of one of Europe’s (and the world’s) largest law firms.

The latter part of the 1960s found me in elementary schools in Orlando, Florida during the school year and then back in New York City with Dad during the summers. Nine months of fourth grade to a kid seems to last at least 500 years with 11 months tagged on. For grades K through 4, I attended Cathedral School near Lake Eola in downtown Orlando in a building that must have looked old during the Roosevelt administration. During the interminable period between September and June every year, I was bored witless. But Dad kept my attention, even when I was far away from him.

DOOR TO THE OLD WORLD, OPENED

In late summer 1972, my Grandfather Michael passed away and he left it to me to find a letter written in the Lithuanian language hidden among his effects.  In an earlier post, I described how I found it and secreted it away hoping that it was a link to another part of Europe, locked away behind the Iron Curtain at the time.

I first learned the contents when my roommate Saulius Peter Valiunas at Tufts University, bilingual in English and Lithuanian, read me the letter some 6 years later.  It was written by my Grandfather’s niece, Eugenija, (Dad’s cousin) who was writing him cold and out of the blue.  It was a perfect introduction to the lost family.

CHANGE AND REBOUND

Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Olcott, January 1963.

In the spring of 1962, I turned 4 years old. Mom and Dad were living at 1050 Fifth Avenue and Central Park was my playground. In the evening, I would play in my room and when I heard the door open and Dad enter the apartment, I would thrust myself down the stairs, yelling “Daddy, Daddy!” One time I came down the stairs so fast, I tripped and fell. I arrived at the bottom in a tumbled mess.

My Dad would have a seat on the couch, maybe after turning on the hi-fi or plopping the Four Lads on the phonograph. Mom would serve him a Rheingold. “What’s that?” I asked. “Beer,” he said. “Can I try some?” “Sure.” I did, it was not to my taste.

I was oblivious to the fact that the marriage of my Mom and Dad was finished.