Archives for posts with tag: Albert Cheng

The Impossibility Of Being Christie Hefner

Haresh Shah

christie_v.2c

‘What do these conferences mean to us?’

It’s a legitimate question. I have gotten to the meeting room earlier as usual to make sure things are set before everyone else begins to stumble-in in another half an hour. Only other person fussing around is Mary (Nastos), and then there is Christie Hefner. The two of us standing in the middle of the conference room on the lower floor of The Pontchartrain Hotel, New Orleans’ old European charm. I have been organizing Playboy International Publishing’s conferences now for years and no one has ever asked me the question. It was something that was handed down to me when I was re-hired by Lee Hall ten years earlier in 1978. I hadn’t given any serious thought to the question Christie posed – now the president of Playboy Enterprises.

‘Well, it’s mainly for all our editions to come together with their counterparts from around the world and discuss the year since they met last and establish some understanding of what lay in the future. From these meetings some international projects of common interest have been born and accomplished. The Soccer World Cup pictorial in 1986, which we produced in the host country Mexico and the Miss Playboy International Beauty Pageant, broadcast live in Hong Kong.

‘More important is they offer a venue for everyone to come together and bond. Even though we do have a formal agenda, what is more important in my mind are the informal dinners and other social activities. For four nights and three days, they are all together 24/7, and the relationships formed and enthusiasm generated are priceless. They go home with a feeling of belonging to a close-knit global family with us at head of the table. But most of all, for me, this is our Thanksgiving, having them all under the same roof gives them a feeling of belonging. Something only parents can provide.’

Not exactly in the same words, but that was the gist of what I felt and said in answer to her question. It seemed to me that she was skeptical about reasons other than the ones I mentioned, but I could sense a trace of agreement and understanding about us being parents and the concept of Thanksgiving. My answer must have satisfied her, because I never heard anything more about the conferences as I continued doing them year after year I was with the company, and as I write this in 2014, twenty one years since I left, another conference was concluded in London last summer. And soon they would begin planning one for this year. Now completely organized by Mary.

But this simple question did put me on guard. She as the president of the company must have been thinking in terms of the cost-benefit ratio of +/- $60,000.- an average cost to us to host the event every year.

●●●

I first met Christie in February of 1977. She was then twenty four years old. Fresh out of school and in the process of learning the ropes of the business her father had built. Lee had set up luncheon for us during my short stop-over in Chicago, en-route to Mexico City.

Strange, I don’t remember where we had lunch, but must not have been that close by. Because what I remember is a spark of static cracking when she touched the back of my hand in a gesture of parting before getting off the cab. I don’t remember what we talked about or what we ate. What I remember is: I was quite taken by her. I saw her as a charming young woman. Attractive, still in process of shedding her baby fat. I perceived her to be simple, friendly, unpretentious and congenial. Warm and a likeable.

Five years later, at the age of 29, she was named president of PEI. In the meanwhile, I had re-joined the international publishing division as its Production Director. Depending on how the company was organized and re-organized over the next years, I was at least two, if not three rungs below Christie – leaving me not having to interact directly with her. Playboy was still headquartered at 919 N. Michigan Avenue in Playboy Building with its bold white PLAYBOY letters lighting up the Chicago sky up above the Drake Hotel’s outlined in red neon sign. Our offices there were spread out over several floors, our paths hardly ever crossed. Except at some company functions and at the international conferences, at which she would be our star attraction.

By then I had become the department head with the corporate title of Vice President. Even so, I never reported directly to her, it became inevitable that I attend many of the management meetings and be the voice of the International Publishing. Something I didn’t cherish, but it came with the territory. Up until then, I successfully operated under the radar, did my job happily and never had to worry about the politics of the corporate life. But no longer.

But that’s not why I am writing this. The thing is: how could anyone ever begin to write Playboy Stories sans Christie Hefner?

●●●

I got to know Christie bit-by-bit. Her corporate side was always on guard. Always watching her P’s and Q’s and jumping over every hurdle of tricky questions asked of her. Having graduated summa cum laude from the prestigious Brandeis University, she was equally as bright in her day-to-day dealings. Her answers were brilliant. Her spellbinding ability of public speaking would have even the most averse listener in the audience in awe, or like Bill (Stokkan) used to say, he would get goose bumps whenever he heard her speak. How can you not marvel at her saying something like my asset goes home in the elevator every night at five?

She would do it without notes and without any prompting. How else would you claim to be a feminist and get away with running Hugh M. Hefner’s empire with Playboy magazine as its flagship? How do you even begin to stand up and defend your father frolicking with women so young as to be his grand daughters? But she did, and did it with aplomb. Her well articulated answers un-armed the person asking those questions – if not to their satisfaction, to realize that to stay on the same track was futile. They saw something intimidating in her friendly but firm demeanor. So they would let it be for she commanded enough respect to have earned that.

I am not easily intimidated. But I must admit that I often felt uncomfortable in Christie’s presence for no apparent reason and whenever possible avoided any un-necessary encounter with her. So much so that it never even crossed my mind to invite her to the opening night dinner for the mini-conference of the selected editions I held at my home in Evanston. Soon as Gary (Cole) mentioned that Christie was quite miffed at not being invited, did I immediately realize what a faux pas I had committed, remembering that one of her most favorite Indian dishes was chickpeas curry? Not much I could do about it. Something I have always lamented.

Christie was an asset so invaluable to be ignored. It’s been said that if there were no Christie Hefner, Playboy Enterprises would have to invent her. For she was the public face of the PEI. Easily accessible and unpretentious. For what she signified, Christie lived just like anyone of us. She traveled by herself like the rest of us would, hail a cab off the street, dined in the neighborhood restaurants where you could run into her or have informal meeting over a lunch. She drove her own car in stark contrast to once being picked up by a limo from her school to bring her to the rendezvous with her dad. Every summer she would throw a party at her rooftop apartment in the heart of Chicago’s Gold Coast and invite her top managers and their companions. Let her hair down and be the most gracious hostess.

She was our secret weapon, the flesh and blood persona. To Hugh M. Hefner’s illusion, she was our reality. Often perceived of as an all business and no fun, she would let her hair down during my international conferences, be it at Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, or Corfu, Greece to New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. She would get up early and not unlikely to be found in the meeting room while I’m testing the sound system in Lake Geneva and everyone still remembers fondly how she blended-in in New Orleans and swung to the crazy Laissez Faire Cajun Band – lifted up in the air by our German advertising director, late Wolfgang Robert and charm the skeptic Dutch during the sight-seeing boat ride in Amsterdam. The Dutch hosted a wonderful meal in her honor at… you guessed it: de Hoefslag.

When we launched the Chinese language edition in the spring of 1986 to come out of Hong Kong, our local publisher Albert Cheng, came up with the idea of beaming Christie Hefner live from Chicago to his press conference in Hong Kong. What’s today a child’s play, back in 1986 was an elaborate and expensive undertaking. Just the technicality of the multiple satellite uplinking and downlinking between downtown Chicago and the center of Hong Kong in itself was awe inspiring. And because of thirteen hours time difference she would have to be in the studio a little after three in the morning and be ready to greet the citizens of Hong Kong at seven in the evening their time. Fully aware of the possibility of hundreds of things going wrong. Fortunately, the transmission at both ends and in-between went well without a hitch. And the Chinese loved it. Probably even more so than had she been there personally. And Christie must have felt a pioneer of the sort for being able to demonstrate the dawn of the new technology. The first time I ever heard of the concept of pay per view, was from her. I must admit, I was quite skeptical about it. But she was our new generation.

I got to know her really up close when she so gracefully agreed to take a long trip to Taiwan to help us boost Playboy’s image. Even though I personally wasn’t totally convinced of the merits of dragging her along on a day long journey, each way; when I hesitatingly asked her, she said yes with I know how difficult it must have been for you to ask. And it was. But my Taiwanese partners felt strongly that her sheer presence would make all the difference.

At the personal level this gave us an opportunity to be together practically 24/7 for six days. During which she graced several meetings, held a press conference, partook in the celebration of the first anniversary of the edition, sat through twelve course Chinese meals, played tourist visiting Chaing Kai-shek Memorial, Taipei Concert Hall, National Palace Museum and even Taipei’s Huaxi Street Night Market popularly known as the Snake Alley. And one night after dinner, joined a group of us hit a Karaoke and let our talents shine. We posed together in the front of Madame Chaing Kai-shek Soong May-ling’s shiny black Cadillac. And she even photographed me in front of a Taiwanese Barber Shop.

The day we were to return to Chicago, the city of Taipei was a big mess. It’s the beginning of Qingming Festival – a long holiday weekend and the traffic arteries of the city are clogged to its limit and beyond. We’re on our way to the airport for our flight back home. Inbound, she had to travel by herself because I was flying in from Brazil. This is our first trip together and with the change of planes in San Francisco it would take us almost a whole day and a night.

With all the traffic to the airport moving at snail’s pace or not moving at all, it wasn’t starting out too well. While I’m not that easy to succumb to anxiety, especially over something that I have no control over, I could sense Christie getting a bit anxious as we were getting closer to the checking-in time. But with intermittent moving forward we make it to the airport and have checked in more or less on time. We’re standing in the very slow moving immigration line. Irritated, she is visibly nervous.

‘Don’t worry. They won’t leave without us.’ I tell her, but it’s not enough for her to stop looking at the ticking clock. As much as I have traveled, I know that once checked in, they just won’t leave without everyone on board – certainly not leaving behind two of their first class passengers. Even though flight is not yet listed as being delayed, with the mob scene as the Taipei International Airport is that afternoon, not many planes are likely to leave on time. Delayed by an hour or so wouldn’t make much difference, if any to our long haul flight.

To make matters worst, now that we’re in front of the line, I realize that missing from my passport is the departure slip that immigration had handed me upon my arrival. No departure slip, no departing. This makes her even more nervous watching me fumbling into all of my pockets and inside my briefcase and not finding it. I watch her waiting impatiently and irritatingly.

‘Why don’t you go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.’ I tell her. It’s already a few minutes past the departure time.

‘Are you sure?’ She doesn’t want to leave me stranded.

‘Positive. Please go ahead. I promise, the flight wouldn’t leave without me.’ Suddenly I am relaxed and in a playful mood. After all, an international airport is my ultimate stomping ground.

‘Well, okay. I’ll just do that.’ And she is gone.

Now with no one making me nervous, I dig into my pockets some more and out comes the departure slip. I know there are still many passengers booked on our flight waiting for the immigration clearance. I even pop into the duty free shop and take a leisurely walk to the departure gate. When I walk into the cabin, I see Christie well settled at the window seat. I arrange my carry on in the overhead bin and as I am about to sit down, the captain has picked up the microphone.

Ladies and gentlemen, captain speaking. We’re still waiting for many of our passengers in process of clearing the immigration. It may be another half an hour before we push back from the gate. But we should still arrive in San Francisco on time.

Now settled, I give Christie a sideway look. Didn’t I tell you? She is not amazed at my smugness. Soon the stewardess brings us flutes of champagne.

‘No thanks. I’ll have some sparkling water.’ She tries to hide her frown. But still!

‘Come on Christie. Please have champagne. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us.’ I must have looked pitiful as I plead. It pleases me that she picks up a glass of champagne from the tray.

We have a very pleasant journey together and some very good talks. Our different visions for the future of my division, disagreements and all.

© Haresh Shah 2014

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

OTHER PROFILES

FACE TO FACE WITH GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

I DANCED WITH DONNA SUMMER

FACE TO FACE WITH JAN CREMER                                                                            

FACE TO FACE WITH HUGH M. HEFNER                                                        

DESIGNING IN HIS DREAMS

Next Friday, May 2, 2014

YET TO BE DETERMINED

Because I am not sure which one of the two posts I am working on right now will be ready to go next week. Or as it often happens, something else will strike my fancy and a sudden inspiration would make it jump the line. Just wait and see.

Haresh Shah

Glamour And Glitter,Trials,Turbulence,Tears And Joy

junkbabes

If anyone, it had to be Albert Cheng – our dynamic publisher in Hong Kong – to pull it off as swiftly and smoothly, the Herculean task of the first and the only Miss Playboy International Beauty Pageant within a little over a year of launching Playboy’s first Chinese language edition  on this city state of the fragrant harbor.

It all began over an elaborate lunch with Hong Kong’s TVB executives, Bernard Cheung and Sophia Chan. The thing I remember the most about that lunch now twenty six years later is the table-side preparation of the tiger shrimps tossed live in the hot frying pan and them shooting up above our heads, some even higher,  before landing back into the sizzling hot pan to meet with their instant demise and immediately turning into the most delicious dish sautéed in the restaurant’s exquisite sauce. I must confess that as tasty as they turned out, I found it hard to swallow them. It certainly gave a new meaning to the culinary tradition of from farm to the table. Thanks to the excellent Chablis pairing that helped washing them down while hiding my apparent discomfort from showing on my face in front of my most gracious hosts.  Albert and I had met them to discuss the possibility and the logistics of staging the beauty contest in which the contestants would come from then existing fourteen international editions of Playboy.

Albert has done his part of conceiving and selling the idea. TVB executives had done their numbers, and now it was upon me to agree and get excited about and have all the editions enthusiastic and then have my superiors back in Chicago buy into it. TVB would bankroll the project and will do their part in producing and broadcasting it live as one of their prime time  pre-Christmas offerings.  Albert and his staff would take care of the logistics and the organizations in Hong Kong. And I would have to be the one to  deliver the fourteen most beautiful women hand picked by the editorial teams of each one of our editions.

Our meeting took place on 22nd of May of 1987. We all had a little over six months to bring the project to life. Soon as I had gotten Chicago’s approval, each one of our editions went to work. This is the kind of a project, if you stop to think of the enormity of the task, overwhelmed, you never would do it. So the best was to just begin. I am not quite sure how the idea of tying-in a major pictorial came about, but I believe it had to be Jan Heemskerk, the editor-in-chief of our Dutch edition. We had partnered a year before in producing of Mundial ’86 – the soccer world cup in Mexico, and now we would work together to do the same with the Beauty Pageant. Gary Cole – the photography director of the mother edition loaned us his star editor and producer Jeff Cohen, we got Tom Staebler – the art director as a bonus. In addition, Gary hired and made available to us the renowned British photographer Byron Newman, who as it turns out, also went to London College of Printing to study photography, probably around the same years as I was studying Photolithography also at LCP, and his wife/stylist, the French actress Brigitte Ariel, who played Edith Piaf in the movie, Piaf: The Early Years. And  he would contribute substantial sum towards the expenses of the photo production. My division and the editions would pick up the rest.

●●●

The infrastructure in place, on December 2, 1987, Jeff, Tom and I, accompanied by Playmate Lynne Austin (July 1986) – who is to represent the United States – board Tokyo bound Japan Airlines Flight 009, which would connect us with an onward flight to Hong Kong.

Us four are sitting in the middle row – happy to be pulling away from our respective day-to-day grinds, we are looking forward to our two week long adventure in Hong Kong. Half way through the flight, Jeff and Tom have either drifted away, snoozing or have withdrawn within themselves, while Lynne and I are quite animated, chatting away. I love her down home southern  natural self. And her Texas twang. We talk about things and the conversation veers towards the beauty pageant. She asks many relevant questions about the contest and its organization. I tell her what I know and then she asks.

‘Who will be the judges?’

‘Albert Cheng, our Hong Kong publisher for one, and other local dignitaries.’

‘Will they all be men?’

‘I am not sure, but of the group, I think one or two are women.’

‘Hum!’ She grunts and then looks at me with an impish smile on her face.

‘Do you think Chinese men like blow jobs?’

She is of course kidding. Or is she?  Anything to win? The more I get to know h, the more I like the real woman that she is and I am charmed by her natural beauty and her sense of humor.

●●●

There is absolutely no rest for the wicked. We left Chicago the day before at around noon, arriving in Hong Kong at three in the afternoon the next day. Soon as we check into Hotel Prince, the instant meeting breaks out and lasts until one in the morning. Already there or arriving  simultaneously are Byron and Brigitte, Jan and Lucienne Bruinooge of Holland. There is no time to waste, so we get into the production of the pictorial the very next day. Most of the themes are conceived by Byron and Brigitte and are discussed among us. The concepts basically present  the stereotypes of each country, which makes their nationalities easily recognizable.

Lucienne is photographed as the cellophane wrapped bouquet of Tulips who among the real colorful dozen tulips is the prettiest centerpiece. Similarly, Shannon Long in the outback Aussie gear, Jenny Vergdou of Greece dressed in blue with a pile of plates for her to smash, Spain’s Nuria Posariza Dobon as the torero, Marta Duca of Italy in a glittery green dress pulled by paparazzis posed by Jan and me, Lynne in her American West cowboy garb complete with the Stetson hat and Luma de Oliveira of Brazil in all her Samba School gold and glitter. The fun fantasy stuff. Except that editors of Germany and Japan are upset at the way we have planned to portray their girls. The German girl is decked out in all black leather, the bustier with three straps, a leather scarf and thigh high leather boots and her entire arms covered with tight leather gloves. There are rhinestone studs and she is wearing dark sinister looking sunglasses. The only image the props conjure up is that of a brutal Nazi officer. The Japanese girl is propped up on a chair with red ribbons sprouting out from a spoke, symbolizes The land of the Rising Sun. They are more than offended and the German editor Bernd Prievert even threatens to pack up and leave with his girl. Don’t ask me how I was able to pacify and convince them that those were meant to be funny and not meant to communicate anything else.

When I look at those photos today, I must confess, there is nothing funny about those two concepts. However inadvertently, in the place of Bernd and the Japanese editor, whose name escapes my memory, I too would have not only been upset, but would have forced the creative team to change the concepts. Probably put the German Fräuline in Dirndl and the Japanese girl in a revealing Kimono.  I would have not threatened to up and leave, because that would be against my nature and the team spirit. If anyone, me having lived in Germany, I should have known the sensitivity of what even a remotest hint at Nazism would make me feel. But I am glad that however I was able to resolve the conflict, the harmony and the spirit remained in tact. Perhaps the readers too saw those props as self-mockery instead of symbolizing anything so grave. Because as far as I know, there was no negative reaction to those shots.

●●●

Not withstanding minor day-to-day crisis, the major crisis erupts when the waiter in the Royal Garden Hotel’s atrium (We have now moved to Royal Garden) where I am having drinks with the editors, informs me that I am wanted on the phone. Its almost two in the morning. On the line is Holland’s Lucienne.

‘Stella and I need to talk to you urgently.’ Now what? I look at my watch and walk over to the elevator.

‘We girls had a meeting earlier, and we won’t do it. Wear those ugly one piece swimming sacks they want us to.’

And I thought we had resolved the crisis that threatened cancellation of the pageant. The Christian Theological Society of Hong Kong had made waves about the Playboy show allowed to be aired in the prime time. They had threatened to protest outside the Queen Elizabeth Stadium from where the show would be broadcast live in the presence of Hong Kong’s 2000 who’s who audience. TVB would stand its ground by going ahead with the show live as planned, but was sufficiently worried about the aftermath and it was decided to tone down the presentation by having girls wear hastily made white single piece swimsuits with its flimsy conservative cuts that would make nuns look racier. Only distinguishing element among them would be different colored satin bands wrapped around their waists tied in large bows dangling in the back. This was the compromise nobody liked, but we had to defer to the decision by TVB. It seemed the only way to quell the fire the show could otherwise cause.

The girls were obviously devastated. They were there for a beauty pageant and nothing can allow them to show off their wonderful figures as much as their own handpicked bikinis. They had grumbled and registered their displeasure at this change, but seemed accepting it however reluctantly. But obviously not.

Stella and Lucienne are sitting on one of the beds. I am sitting across from them. We are like forty-four hours from going live on the air and from the tone of Lucienne’s voice, it becomes clear to me that the girls had long and serious talks about it. They are angry and they are adamant. After all, they were not competing to show which one of them looked most homely and unattractive.  If they indeed go on strike and even one of them don’t show up, that would spell disaster of a major proportions. Something I cannot allow to happen.

‘Okay. You girls are absolutely right. This is the beauty contest and the routine has to include you to parade in your bikinis. After all, each one of you is beautiful with near perfect bodies and they are going to read out your vital statistics when you’re presented. That’s what was planned and that’s what we want. I want. But the situation we’re facing is not about being right or wrong. When you are dealing with the religious zealots or hostile feminist groups, the logic goes out of the window. Believe me, they are in mini-minority at the very best. But they have apparently made enough noise to be noticed. And what they are demanding is to cancel the show. TVB is determined to go ahead with the show, at the risk of perhaps even losing their broadcasting license. But have come up with a compromise, should it come to that, they would have a convincing argument. Now if us from Playboy family cause the cancellation, I don’t even want to imagine what the cost of that would be to each one of our editions.

‘As for taking all the glamour out of the swim suit routine, look at it this way. You will all have the same handicap. The judges are well aware of that. And each one of them would have seen the special issue we have put out containing your original nudes as they appeared in your country’s edition. So they would know. We would ask them to pay closer attention to those’

I see expressions on their faces soften a bit. As angry and disappointed as they are, we have been working together and living under the same roof for now almost two weeks. We are a team and we are becoming a family. Plus, we still have the opening spread to shoot. We are to shoot it on the classic Chinese Junk while sailing around Hong Kong harbor. There is likely to be the press, and even television coverage. ‘You can show off your bikinis in the bright daylight. Fuck those bastards!’ The prospect of having the last word and to end it with the fuck you moment before returning home puts a smile on theirs and my face.

‘Look, I can’t force you to do anything. But we are in this together. And I need  you to not let those disgruntled few to force us into a devastating defeat.’

Lucienne and Stella still unhappy, but seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. They agree to talk it over again with the girls in the morning and ask me to be there with them. I pretty much repeat what I had said the night before. Nobody is feeling really hot about it. We all understood what we had to do and left for the rehearsal.

Bikinis or not, the show went on the air promptly at 9:30 PM on the night of Sunday, December 12th 1987 and kicked off TVB’s special Christmas offering.  And 95% of Hong Kong’s television viewers tuned into TVB’s Miss Playboy International Beauty Pageant. There were some protestors outside the stadium, mostly ignored and the show concluded without a stitch. Good times had by all. TVB and Playboy crew exhausted and elated met for the midnight dinner at the Royal Garden.

To add bit of a drama to it, earlier in the day, Jan had landed at the Adventist Hospital with a sudden swelling in his foot and was subjected to watch the show on TV from his hospital bed. The Japanese editor loses his briefcase containing lot of cash, his passport, credit cards and all.  And soon as the lights dim on the specially built outdoor set and all the girls have walked off the arena, France’s Nathalie Galan remains at the edge of the stage, tears rolling down her eyes, utterly devastated at not even making it as one of the two runner ups, let alone winning the title. She refuses to go have dinner with us. I put my arm around her and hold her while she breaks down in sobs. We stand like that when rest of the stage lights are turned off and when the crew arrives to dismantle the set. In excitement and in hurry, everyone has rushed back to the hotel, having totally forgotten about the two of us missing. Streets are dark and deserted outside the stadium. We stand there for a while. Confused, when a lone cab slows down in front of us.  There is an applause when we walk in to the dining room.

●●●

THE WINNERS

Luma de Oliveira – Brazil – Miss Playboy International 1987 & Editor’s Choice

Marta Duca           – Italy – First Runner Up

Lynn Austin          – USA – Second Runner Up

© Haresh Shah 2013

Illustration: Celia Rose Marks

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

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TIMES THEY’RE A CHANGIN’

BEAUTY AND THE BREASTS            

Next Friday, July 12, 2013

PLAYBOY AND WOMEN IN MY LIFE

No one, even the women in your life understand that working for Playboy is like any other job – just making a living. That its not any different than working for Time or Life magazines. Personal anecdotes about working for living and matters of the heart.

 

 

Haresh Shah

Every Picture Tells A Story

bythetrunkb

Its crispy cold December morning. The sun is shining bright outside and I am having my usual  Sunday breakfast of Shahmolette – so christened by Jan Heemskerk – our friend and at the time editor-in-chief of Playboy’s Dutch edition. Because in addition to mushrooms and onions, my recipe includes finely chopped, insanely hot Thai peppers and cilantro. Also our Sunday morning feast included freshly baked bagels from Skokie’s famous and the best in the world, Bagels & Bialys, and their home made cream cheese with chives. Carolyn is futzing around the kitchen when the phone rings. I hear her making a perfunctory but pleasant conversation with the caller. Not knowing or caring to know who she might be talking to, I flip the pages of that week’s Time.

‘Sure! He’s right here. Just a minute.’ She covers the mouthpiece of the receiver and mouths ‘Lee Hall.’

Lee Hall? That’s my boss. What is he doing calling me at home on a Sunday morning? It sure couldn’t be good news. I take the receiver and lean against the credenza by the phone.

‘Mr. Shah!’ I hear him say. Once in a while he would call me that endearingly. But still…

‘Sorry to bother you at home on Sunday morning – but as you know I’ve just returned from my far east trip and thought I fill you in on Hong Kong before things get crazy tomorrow morning at the office.’

A sigh of relief! ‘Sure. You want me to come over?’ I offer.

‘No that’s not necessary. But I was wondering if not too inconvenient, I could stop by at your place and we can talk over a cup of delicious masala chai. You know, my body clock is upside down and I am wide awake. Would do me good to take a ride along the lake.’

About an hour or so later, his unpretentious burgundy Chevy Malibu pulls up in front of our house in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. His tall frame stoops down on our relatively low sofa. As we sip on our tea he gives me run down on his visit with our Japanese publishers Shueisha.

‘They love you down there,’ he tells me and also compliments me on the job well done.

‘That brings me to Hong Kong. We are about to conclude an agreement with Sally Aw of Sing Tao Newspaper Group. I would like you to take a trip there at your earliest convenience soon after the holiday rush is over, and help them set up and launch the Chinese edition.’

Hong Kong!!! In The World of Suzie Wong! He tells me in detail about the two principles. Sally Aw and the Playboy’s publisher designate, dynamic Albert Cheng. He shares with me what he has jotted in his notes and gives me Albert Cheng’s direct phone number and asks me I should call him in a day or two and establish initial contact. It all sounds so wonderful that I am absolutely thrilled. But at the same time, I sense in Lee a certain amount of discomfort. Telling me everything in minute detail, almost stretching it, giving me a feeling that there is something else hidden behind all of that nervous energy and that he is somehow having hard time leading up to it.

‘Well, I have taken up enough of your family time on this weekend morning. I better be going.’

‘Not at all, we are delighted to have you in our home.’ I say sincerely. Following that he says his goodbye to Carolyn and thanking her for tea and probably pats Anjuli on the head and prepares to leave.

‘There is something else…’

‘Yes?’

‘Come on out with me. There is something I want to show you.  A bit confused and a bit curious, I follow him to his car. He opens the trunk to the car and lifts out of it what looks like a framed painting. He shows it to me. It’s a water color of an Indian temple perched atop a steep hill, with the stone stairs leading up. He rests is against the open door of the trunk and lifts up two more paintings. One that of an Indian village iron smith working on his anvil right outside of his thatched hut and another one, a bit modern-ish of a woman with an infant raised up above her head.

‘They are beautiful.’ I say. Thinking he is showing them to me because of their origin.

‘I acquired them when growing up in India. As you already know, my father was in diplomatic service in Delhi. I just love them. Makes me nostalgic about the times I spent in your beautiful country.’ The way he stares at them with such fondness demonstrates one of those rare emotional moments of his otherwise stoic demeanor.

Still not getting why he is showing them to me, I wait.

‘I would like to ask you for a big favor. If you can. If its alright with you, I would like to loan them to you.’  He must have noticed a confused look on my face.

‘See, the thing is; Sarah is decorating our new apartment and she absolutely hates them!’ I am speechless. I had of course known Sarah  and liked her the way you like your boss’ pleasant spouse. But other than when thrown together during the required company social gatherings, our talks never went past perfunctory pleasantries. Neither was I personally that close to Lee. Our relationship was congenial and warm but mainly based on mutual professional respect. Other than his foray in India, we also shared a common thread of both of us having worked at Time Inc., where he was editor-in-chief of Life en Espanol. He worked out of the editorial offices in New York and I think also in Paris and Tokyo. I worked in Time’s production offices in Chicago. Our paths had never crossed during our Time & Life days. Of his personal life, I knew only bits and pieces. That he was married before and had three kids and had been divorced – must not have been that pleasant. From his accidental comments, his relationship with his kids too seemed more obligatory than warm. That he have had a serious bout with alcoholism, which too I was only somewhat aware of at the tail end. But the ones who knew him better, would tell me that it was real bad until after he married Sarah. All of them were in agreement that it was Sarah who had helped straighten him out. And that she loved him and had been good for him. That she was the reason Lee has been and was dry for some time now.

They had just moved from their matchbox of a highrise on the North Lake Shore Drive to a vintage lowrise on the short strip at the curve of the lake on Oak Street, from whose windows you could practically touch the water. An elegant place. Sarah’s own domain. And as much as Sarah had done for him, even having mostly given up drinking herself and whatever else it must have taken for her to steer Lee in the right direction – and as much as Lee seemed to love her, giving up those three paintings was the least he could do for the woman who meant so much to him.

All that scrolled through the screen of my head as I heard him continue: ‘I would be grateful if you would agree to take them. This way I would know that they are in good hands and I am sure  that you and Caroline (sic) would appreciate and enjoy them. And whenever I feel homesick for them, I can always stop by and look at them.’

That was in 1985. I still have those paintings occupying very prominent spots in my apartment. Lee never looked back, never reclaimed them or visited to admire them. The sacrifice he made turned out to be worth his while, because Sarah and Lee remained happily married up until indeed death did them part. And now he is no longer among us. But when in 1997, I wrote about the incident in my book, Of Simultaneous Orgasms and Other Popular Myths: A Realistic Look at Relationships, as an example in the chapter titled, Little Things Make Big Differences, and sent him a copy of the book – he wrote back. Thank you for the dedication as well as the mention in the book (including the nicely disguised one about the Indian Paintings.)

© Haresh Shah 2013

Illustration: Jordan Rutherford

SISTER SITE

http://www.downdivision.com

Next Friday, February 29, 2013

BY THE TIME I GET TO AMSTERDAM…

Not every relationship problem is resolved by giving away paintings. There are times when the only solution is to go your own separate ways. Here is the story of a dramatic escape of someone not waiting until the death did them part.