chess

 

Aug 2008 Journal

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The most unforgettable character I ever met

This was the title of a long-running series in Reader’s Digest magazine, presenting pen portraits of the good and the odd. Long after we killed it, people still talked about these articles with the affectionate derision reserved for our most popular offerings: the jokes, advice on health, the easy Word Power tests, the sanitised pieces on sex.

One character who deserved to feature as unforgettable but never did was DeWitt Wallace himself, founder and owner of Reader’s Digest, a man imbued with the conviction that he could render a profitable public service by selecting the most important articles appearing in other magazines, paring down their surplus verbiage and republishing 30 of them in a pocket-size monthly. In its heyday, it attracted 100 million readers in 15 languages.

I worked for Wallace for 29 years and propose to rectify the omission. Like many a visionary, he was autocratic, enigmatic, unaccountable to anyone. One of his unendearing traits was a streak of cruelty. Every year he invited his cronies to a poker marathon for which he hired a private train that steamed all the way down to Florida from upstate New York and back again without the players ever leaving their carriages. One year, Wallace issued the usual invitations but, when his eager companions arrived at the station (appropriately called Pleasantville and servicing mainly the Reader’s Digest’s headquarters), he handed out mops and pails, saying that the ticket office and platform looked neglected, and put everybody to work, himself included, on a day-long spring clean. He could also be arbitrarily generous. A week after my chief had reported an unusually profitable year’s operations, he found a Cadillac in his drive which had been quietly delivered during the night, with a velvet bow holding together the cellophane in which it was gift-wrapped.

Every senior editor had a major work from Wallace’s art collection in his office: paintings by Bonnard, Cézanne, Modigliani, Monet were everywhere. On my first visit to this paradise, I was put up in the ‘Guest House’. Coming down to eat breakfast under a charming little Corot, I found a note of welcome from Wallace enclosing two 100-dollar bills ‘to help acquaint yourself with the pleasures of New York’s musical theatre’.





I had heard all about ‘Wally’s’ nasty side - his ruthless rotation of courtiers, his excruciating practical jokes, his ambivalence about the English, his dabbling in racism - but when we were alone together, he made me feel that I possessed star quality. In turn, I became an admirer and diligent student of his publishing skills. He tended to show me favour but was always ready to dismiss ideas without ceremony. Over the years, the companies I led made millions, but money impressed him only as a vindication of his mission. His highest praise for me came when a colleague sent him a note I circulated in the British company, complaining that I was left to turn out the lights at night when everybody else had gone home, which I considered both wasteful and unmannerly. Wallace thought this one of the finest internal office memos he had ever read, and had it printed on parchment and sent to every manager in his international empire. He was no slouch at writing beautiful memos himself. His rejection letters were works of art. Considering whose work he turned down on occasions - John O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, J. B. Priestley - they had to be. Like the magazine itself, they were written to make the reader feel good, magicking disappointment into a favour bestowed.

When I was chosen to head the British company, there had to be a confirmatory interview with Wallace. Despising any form of corporate formality, he decided that the interview would be over dinner at the home of one of the directors, followed by a game of poker. Poker reveals character. The stakes were low, no doubt out of consideration for me, but also because Wallace was careful with his small change. I was a seasoned player and had to guard against letting on. As evening stretched into night, the game became more serious, the stakes higher, and consideration for weaker brethren fell by the wayside. On the last deal, I built myself a reasonable hand, and soon only Wallace and I were left in the betting. It was a tricky moment because I was fighting for the pot and for a job: winning the former might lose me the latter. He too was in conflict, wanting to win, but not on the strength of having the deeper pocket. I thought that gave me an edge and I raised Wallace by an amount that surprised him. He thought hard and raised me in turn, millionaire against nebbich. I was pretty sure I had the better hand and knew that the only way to end the auction without tears was to turn it into a joke.

‘My semi-detached in Golders Green, four bedrooms, bus stop at the corner, against High Winds, to see me,’ I offered. High Winds was the name of Wallace’s palatial home, set in the finest piece of real estate in Westchester County, NY. He squinted at his cards, gave me a quizzical look, then threw in his hand. There had been tension around the table, but everybody rose with relief and the evening was over.

Next day I got official confirmation of my appointment. Frankly, I don't think it had much to do with our poker session. I have already mentioned that Wallace was not overfond of the British, and to set a Viennese Jew above them as guardian of the grail was the sort of joke he liked to play.

Victor Ross

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