When my son, Chas, first asked me to write “all your great stories down for us,” I demurred because I didn’t think my life was all that interesting or instructive. I’ve made a lot of bad decisions and been guided by too much hedonism and ambition to be an admirable model for my children. A little over a year later my son, Sean, again asked me to write down the stories he’d heard all his life, and again I demurred. But Sean was persistent and said, “You’ve got to write down your memories. Your stories are great and you have to share with your children and grandchildren what you’ve learned. They love you; they’ll want to know all about you.”
I told Sean that I’d think about it. At first, my attitude was that I didn’t want to look back on my life – I wanted to look ahead. I have always been an optimist, always been fascinated with the present, never wanted the future to become the past without me noticing or being part of it, and wanted my dreams to be of future possibilities, not mired in past what-could-have-beens. My dreams have nourished me for over 70 years, so I was a little worried about going on a diet of past memories.
Then I remembered my pal Jerry Nachman’s stories about capers that he regaled us with when he came to the Management Seminar for News Executives that I ran in the 1990s when I taught at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Jerry was the most popular guest we had over a period of seven or eight years. The news directors and students who attended the seminars loved Jerry and his funny, instructive, tales. No one wove a yarn better than Jerry, and the one he told about capers at the annual Bar-B-Que dinner was the one I recalled when I was weighing whether or not to write about my life.
I’m sure I can’t do justice to Jerry’s story, but I’ll try. He said that there will come a day for all us when we are lying on our death bed with a dozen IVs and tubes sticking in us and shoved down our noses and throats. We’ll be drooling uncontrollably and only be able to groan and mumble incoherently. The only thing we’ll be able to do is to play back in our heads the video tapes of our memories, and the memories we’ll be able to play back with any vividness will be the great capers of our lives. The capers will be the only things really worth remembering, for they are the ones that will make us smile and, thus, make our life worth remembering.
So I’ve decided to write about some of my most memorable capers — my biggest smiles. I went to Answers.com to get the definition of a caper:
“ca•per (kā’pər) n.
1. A playful leap or hop.
2. A frivolous escapade or prank.
3. Slang. An illegal plot or enterprise, especially one involving theft.
intr.v., -pered, -per•ing, -pers.
To leap or frisk about; frolic.”
I’ll use caper to mean playful leaps, frivolous escapades or pranks, and frolics, especially romantic frolics (although these are not at all frivolous).
Jerry’s caper story was set in the 1980s at the Ground Floor, the bar and restaurant located on the ground floor of Black Rock, the CBS headquarters building on 52nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York. In those days ABC’s headquarters building was across the street on the corner of 53rd and the Avenue of the Americas, but no one called it that –- it was then and still is 6th Avenue. NBC had its headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Rockefeller Center at 51st and 6th. So, everyone called NBC “30 Rock,” CBS “Black Rock,” and ABC “Hard Rock” (because WABC-AM was a Rock ‘N Roll station, and generally #1 in New York at the time). All the CBS guys (no women in sales or management then) met at the Ground Floor after work to guzzle and gossip (I was a regular from 1967 to 1972).
One night, one of the regulars, I think it was Phil Cohen, who had been a news director, was being promoted to V.P. and General Manager of the CBS O&O in Philadelphia, WCAU-TV at that time. He wasn’t at the bar at 6:00 p.m. but was up on the 35th floor of Black Rock having the obligatory and cursory interview with Tom Wyman, the CEO of CBS. All new TV station general managers had to go meet Wyman. The way Jerry told it was that the new GM would be ushered into Wyman’s lush office and that Wyman would smile, hold out his hand, and say, “Congratulations…” look down at a typed 3X5 index card “…Phil. “We’re delighted you’re going to be our new GM at…” glance down at the card “…WCAU in Philadelphia. It’s an important station for CBS and I know you’ll uphold CBS’s sterling reputation there. Do you have any questions for me?”
The new GMs had all been well coached for these meetings, and the proper answer to Wyman’s perfunctory question was to mumble something like, “No questions, but you can rest assured I’ll do everything in my power not to let you down and make CBS look good.”
But Cohen was neither a proper nor a usual guy. Instead of the humble, expected reply, Cohen said, “Thanks for your confidence in me.” Then he added with concerned, sympathetic awe, “Yes, I do have a question. You’ve got the most important, difficult, and demanding job in broadcasting – probably in business in America. How do you do it? How do you keep a balance between your business and personal life? It must be enormously difficult and draining.”
Wyman, who was normally stiff, distant, and in a hurry to get these interviews over with, motioned Cohen to sit down on his plush couch and began an hour-long unloading of his frustrations to his new-found, sympathetic pal. Back at the Ground Floor, when Cohen hadn’t returned by 6:40 from a meeting that always took ten minutes, the guys got worried. What had happened? Had Cohen screwed up, asked a dumb question, and was he receiving a tongue lashing? When he finally appeared at 7:10 p.m., the guys asked, “What happened?”
Cohen told the story of his encounter with smug glee and everyone got blasted and went off chasing broads – the two sports of choice in those days. Word got around fast. From that day on, every newly appointed general manager who went to the obligatory meeting with Wyman, when the CBS CEO said, “We’re delighted you’re going to be our new GM at…” glance down at the card “…WXXX in Fairfield. It’s an important station for CBS and I know you’ll uphold CBS’s sterling reputation there. Do you have any questions for me?”, the new GM would come back with a slightly, but very slightly, altered version of the Cohen sympathetic question. Apparently Wyman never caught on, which confirmed what all the guys knew – that they were smarter than any of the CEOs William S. Paley in his dotage had anointed to be CEO of CBS and, more important, they all had a helluva’ lot more fun than the CEO did. It was a caper worth replaying in the video tape of the mind.
I’ll try to put some of the capers I remember into the story of my life. I’m calling these musings the Phoenix Cycle because I’ve been down and come back from the ashes many times – those comebacks are probably what defines me more than anything else. I’ll try not to dwell on the downs, but I will try to give a detailed backstory to my capers because I think it’s important to know and at least attempt to understand what led me to behave as I did and do now.