Remembering December, 2011

Shakespeare’s immortal eulogy delivered by Mark Anthony for Julius Caesar resonates this week: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” We lost five remarkable men from different parts of the world. Four of them made the planet an immeasurably better place. One devoted his life to evil that survives his death.

George Whitman, 1913-2011
I have known hundreds of booksellers; the most memorable by far was George Whitman, proprietor of Shakespeare and Company, across from Notre Dame at point zero in Paris. His store, like its namesake run by Sylvia Beach during the 1930s, became point zero for two generations of writers and wanderers. I am one of tens of thousands of people who was taken in by George, absorbed into his literary world, made part of his little “Rag and Bone shop of the heart”. George never cared about money, food, or finery — he cared about people, literature, and travelers. He was especially drawn to young people, to whom his generosity was legendary.

I last saw George four years ago. My tribute to him at the time reads nicely today. I recalled my days living in Shakespeare in January of 1976, decades after Jackie Onassis had come through as a student and around the time that a young Greek immigrant named George Soros hung his hat at Shakespeare & Co. for several days. The New York Times ran a wonderful obituary about George, who had written his own eulogy years earlier. Inscribed over a doorway that led to the upstairs of Shakespeare was a motto: “Be not inhospitable to strangers,” it counseled, “for they may be angels in disguise”. George did not, in fact, treat every visitor like an angel in disguise. But he gave visitors a place to discover their literary angels, and more than a few rose to the challenge.

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011
The finest essayist of our time, honored repeatedly in this blog (where I noted that “one of my goals in life is to avoid debating Christopher Hitchens, and the list of people I would avoid debating is very short”). Hitch was our Orwell, our Paine, and at times our Byron. He was biting, slashing, cheerily contrarian, unfailingly self assured, honest, manly, and literary. Despite his eloquent rationalizations, he also smoked, ate, and drank himself to death.

Hitch was our Orwell, our Paine, and at times our Byron.

Two of his reflections apply to his own highly compressed life:

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so.” And

“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

Hitchens was always provocative, occasionally irritating, and frequently funny. I will miss his voice enormously.

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011
Imagine a political upheaval so profound as to be accurately called a revolution, so bloodless and smooth as to be called velvet, and so artistic that its leader was a playwright who conducted the insurrection from, and I am not making this up, the Magic Lantern Theatre, in Prague. Vaclav Havel is the Nelson Mandela of Eastern Europe, and his personal role as catalyst of the communist collapse his hard to overstate. From the Times:

“In 1977, Havel was one of three leading organizers of Charter 77, a group of 242 artists and activists who called for basic human rights in Czechoslovakia. Havel was arrested and imprisoned. He spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for decades under daily police surveillance and suffered the suppression of his literary works.”

Later he served 14 years as president, resigning rather than see his country separated. He is author of 19 plays and dozens of essays, including “The Power of the Powerless”, which influenced a generation of activists much as King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” had done in the United States. By the time he became President of Czechoslovakia, Havel had written more serious fiction than most heads of state had read. Timothy Garten Ash, then a British graduate student, witnessed the remarkable Havel in action during the Velvet Revolution. Havel’s moral standing, his poetic use of language, and his patience made him as the dominant figure in resistance politics in Prague in 1989.

Garten Ash reports in his indispensable first hand account of events that year in Prague, Budapest, and Berlin that Havel served as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of power. The revolt was so smooth that it took just weeks to complete and not a single shot was fired.

Warren Hellman 1934-2011
In business school, I became friends with Marco, the kid in the next seat everyone called Mick. I recall the day when a classmate told me “his father is Hurricane Hellman — the youngest partner in the history of Lehman Brothers. He ran the place before he turned 40”. Although I only met Warren Hellman a handful of times, I came to respect him as an icon of a group of prominent postwar Bay Area business Republicans who were deeply civic, secular Jews whose contribution to life in these parts is rarely noted. Architect Art Gensler and Gap Founder Don Fischer are others, as, excepting the Republican bit, are banker Bill Hambrecht and Levis heir Robert Haas.

If you live in the Bay Area, it is hard to overstate the impact of Warren Hellman. He made several fortunes by basically inventing modern private equity investing as we know it. He saved San Francisco over a billion dollars by financing a ballot measure to reform the city’s tottering pension system. He built the parking garage beneath the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park. He chaired the Board of Trustees at Mills College and reversed the decision to admit men (still a very popular decision, although I have argued a dubious one). He funded the San Francisco Free Clinic and endowed aquatic sports at UC Berkeley, where he had played water polo as a student. And in 2001, Hellman launched the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, an annual three day event in Golden Gate park that draws more than 300,000 people and is put on for free. Hellman paid the musicians, usually including EmmyLou Harris and the late Hazel Dickens.

Hellman himself was a serious amateur banjo player and toured with his group, the Wronglers, until quite recently. Hellman was not only born into a remarkable family, but he created one as well. He was the great grandson of Isaias Hellman, California’s first banker, who created what became Wells Fargo Bank and built the University of Southern California. His kids are high achievers who share his passion for athletics. Warren competed in extreme sports, once finishing a 100-mile high altitude race in the Sierra after falling and breaking a rib at mile 25. His kids have won championships in mountain bike racing, skiing, and other sports.

Hellman was the sort of one percenter that the Bay Area loves: a guy who took much more pleasure from giving his money away than he did from making it; who walked away from Wall Street to build an investment firm as “the opposite of Lehman Brothers”, who rarely wore a tie and never seemed to take himself terribly seriously, and who was disarmingly candid about his many failures. He has much to teach the pashas of Silicon Valley; I sincerely hope that they are up to the task.

Kim Jong Il, ??-2011
Those looking for evidence that God has a sense of humor had a fine week. Not only did the Iraq war and the life of Christopher Hitchens end on the same day, but the loss of four of our finest was followed by the unmourned death of perhaps the worst human alive. History will struggle to find a single kind word to say about Kim Jong Il. He built a hermetic garrison state, imprisoned and starved millions of his people, sponsored untold terrorist activities including the downing of a civilian airliner, and undertook military provocations and kidnappings against Japan and South Korea. He developed and tested thermonuclear weapons and sold them to some of the most unstable governments in the world, including Pakistan. He refined his doctrine of Juchu into a personality cult that represents the precise opposite of everything George Whitman, Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, or Warren Hellman stood for.

As Shakespeare predicted, the evil that Kim did will survive him. Kim’s sudden death is problem for South Korea but an even larger problem for China. China has tended to treat North Korea as their pain-in-the-ass psychotic kid brother who refuses his meds but performs a useful service by keeping the neighbors on their guard. But an unstable North Korea is not a good thing for China. There is a strong argument that China will need to take over North Korea as a client state — effectively a new province. In a generation or two, Korea would either unify in a Chinese economic sphere or the North would be forcibly absorbed, Tibet-like, into Han culture. It ain’t Jeffersonian democracy, but it is hard to argue that this would be a worse outcome for the people of North Korea than the continued demented rule of the last standing communist dynasty.