Monday, February 22, 2010

Evan Bayh Tells Why

Frank Rich was off yesterday so I opted for reading Evan Bayh’s (D-IN), “Why I’m Leaving the Senate” in the New York Times Op/Ed page. It was not nearly as amusing and incisive as a Rich report, and I pretty much knew what he was going to say: Times have changed, the Senate has changed, the Senators have changed, nothing is good and trustworthy anymore, the Senate needs to be reformed, the Senators need to be reformed, there’s no honest dialogue anymore. And yeah, that’s what he said. One line actually made me laugh out loud: “In my final 11 months,” Bayh said, “I will advocate for the reforms that will help Congress function as it once did, so that our generation can do what Americans have always done: convey to our children, and our children’s children, an America that is stronger, more prosperous, more decent and more just.” Well Evan, that’s going to be tough, because thanks to the Bush administration, America is not stronger, more prosperous, more decent or more just. But after 12 years of service to your country, it’s understandable that you just want to get gone. And I am sincerely sorry to see you go. (Expect a major digression here.) While reading the Bayh-Why, I was reminded of another Why-I-Left article. The two writers have little in common except their need to put distance between themselves and a political party they held dear. Back in the middle 1950’s, I was working for a Mutual Funds outfit in New York run by Gabriel Gladstone. Oddly, there are quite a few Gabriel Gladstones in the world, but this one would be in his 80’s, if he’s still alive. I was the office secretary and sometime-Assistant Trader in the Over-the-Counter stocks department. The Assistant Trader part was a joke. The Trader was a young hotshot named Jerry Kohn. He took me down to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange one time and I could not believe the shouting and yelling and shenanigans of the stock traders on the floor. Oh my! What fun! It was thrilling! But our little operation merely had a tiny room for the OTC trades which was equipped with six toggle switches connecting us with six big Wall Street firms. I can remember only one of them: Kidder, Peabody. Jerry was awesome, I watched him making trades and working the toggles like piano keys and I marveled. But Jerry couldn’t man the toggles all the time, so when he needed a break, I was elected to sit in the hot-seat. I didn’t know anything about buying and selling stocks, but I loved the drama. One time I bought when I should have sold. There were specific things you had to say to the big-guys down on Wall Street (or there were, I have no idea what it’s like now) depending on whether you were buying or selling. I got it turned around. Jerry came back from lunch just in time to save my sorry ass. We also had a few mutual funds salesmen who weren’t in the office much. One of them was a guy named Bernie—I was always relieved when he’d go out on sales calls because he was annoying. He was in his late twenties but acted like an eager, ingratiating nervous little shmo. He gave me agita. I think he and Gabe had known each other years before in Brooklyn. Gabe had the most wonderful speaking voice. He sounded like actor Malachi Throne or maybe José Ferrer. He could have made a living with his voice. Gabe was full of ideas. He had one idea I thought was grand. He decided we should start a monthly magazine about current affairs, mutual funds and OTC stocks. In memory, it seems the idea became fact in the blink of an eye. I remember Gabe talking about starting a magazine he wanted to call Prospectus and all of a sudden we had a dummy copy in our hands. Gabe wasn’t worried about what would go in the first issue because he was turning over the whole issue to an article by one man. The title of this mega-piece was, “Why I Left the Communist Party”, to be written by Howard Fast. This was a blockbuster. It was the first article by Fast appearing anywhere explaining his decision to leave the Communist Party. My memory is that Fast came up to the office a number of times and at least once was on a Saturday. I remember doing a lot of typing and listening to him talk. I think we did the article by him speaking into a Dictaphone and my transcribing it. I thought Fast was very impressive and a really nice guy. Impressive, he was. He had been an important member of the Communist Party. He had written novels and screenplays and he’d been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities gang. AND, he hadn’t named names—I loved him for that. So I typed this mega-piece—25,000 words—into existence. And the first issue came out with a cover screaming WHY I LEFT THE COMMUNIST PARTY by HOWARD FAST. And then the ceiling fell in. The SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) got wind of the magazine and they came in to investigate. It turned out Gabe had used over 50% of his capital for this magazine that had nothing to do with operating a mutual funds venture, which was a big no-no. We were shut down overnight. Sometime in the 1960’s Bernie came back into my life. Well, his name came back into my life. The first time I read gossip about Bernie Cornfeld, I plotzed. I had to sit down and take deep breaths. I knew Bernie had taken off for Paris sometime in 1955 and I was tickled to see him go. But, OMG! He had moved to Geneva, started a mutual funds company called Investors Overseas Services and he had gotten very rich. I began to see pictures of Bernie Cornfeld in magazines. Sure enough, it was my Bernie, a little older but my Bernie none-the-less. I had the feeling he was still annoying, ingratiating and a shmo, but when you’re rich, those things don’t matter as much. When IOS was flying high, it had over 25,000 salesmen. About Bernie Cornfeld, Wiki says: “Cornfeld owned a villa in Geneva, a 12th-century chateau in France, a house in Belgravia, London, and a mansion in Hollywood, as well as a permanent suite in a New York City hotel and his own fleet of private planes. He is quoted as saying, "I had mansions all over the world, I threw extravagant parties. And I lived with ten or twelve girls at a time." He had romances with Victoria Principal; Heidi Fleiss; Alana Hamilton (née Collins - a model and former spouse of George Hamilton who subsequently married Rod Stewart); and Princess Ira of Fürstenberg. “Cornfeld settled in Beverly Hills and moved in a circle of movie industry people. He lived in the Grayhall mansion, built in 1909 and at one time leased by Douglas Fairbanks. Known for his playboy lifestyle, Cornfeld numbered among his acquaintances Victor Lownes, Tony Curtis, and Hugh Hefner, at whose Playboy Mansion he visited and attended parties.” Who in the world would have thought!? By 1967 I was looking to find a new way to make a living. Working as a secretary at magazines like Interiors, Show and Holiday had lost its luster. I still had friends who were connected with Wall Street. One of them who worked at Kidder was amused to give me a WATs tie-line number (now, it would be an 800-number) that was a direct connection to Bernie Cornfeld in Geneva. I thought, what the hell, maybe he can help me get a stockbroker’s license. So one fine day in the beginning of June 1967 I dialed the number and within seconds I heard Bernie say, “Hello”. I said Hello back and identified myself. There was some crackling on the line, then Bernie said, “Hey! How you doin’? What’s up?“ I told him I was thinking of getting back in the Wall Street biz, so I was giving him a call. He said, “You know what? It’s really great to talk to you, but the phones are going nuts here, everything is going nuts here. A war just started in Israel.” Then we lost our connection. It was the first day of the Six Day War. That’s the last time I spoke to Bernie Cornfeld. He was an early version of our Bernie Madoff. In 1969 there were complaints that he’d pocketed funds from IOS and in 1973 he was charged with fraud. Wiki says, “Cornfeld returned to Beverly Hills, living less ostentatiously than in his previous years. He developed an obsession for health foods and vitamins, renounced red meat and seldom drank alcohol. In his last years he was a chairman of a land development firm in Arizona and also owned a real estate company in Los Angeles. He died in 1995.” Howard Fast lived to the age of 89 and died in 2003. I have no memory at all of why Howard Fast had left the Communist Party. And I’m not going to remember why Evan Bayh is quitting the Senate, I’ll only remember that their parties of choice had become onerous and weren’t fulfilling their dreams anymore. If Evan Bayh would be offended by being in the same sentence with Howard Fast, that’s unfortunate. I can only say I would rather be in the same room with Howard Fast than with anyone in the Tea Party or with Sarah Palin.

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