Bob’s Your Uncle
A remembrance of A. Robert Towbin
The powerful loud snore meant everything was okay. As a young boy, plagued with nightmares, I would sneak into my parents’ room and take refuge on my father’s side of the bed and lay down on the floor. I knew better than to wake him. Occasionally the rumble would pause and I would peek my head up to make sure he was still breathing. Both my parents lost a parent at a young age. It had marked them and made me fearful of their loss. My father was a force against an unkind world. The view from our posh apartment was breathtaking but danger was, literally, outside the door in 60s NYC. Tough kids would gather on the museum steps at night and everyone was warned about Central Park after dark. But, in my mind, Dad was the bulwark against the forces of evil… be they the muggers around the reservoir, the ubiquitous scenes of violence on TV news or the monsters in any young child’s imagination. He was imposing and commanded respect. It was more than just being 6’2”. He had a righteous swagger. Even as an adult I think back to moments that were, in a real sense, heroic. Much of what I say will sound embellished but my father’s life was a modern fairy tale, with celebrity standing-in for magic. The teachings, however, were equally eternal. My father wasn’t a “lesson giver” but I learned much from him nonetheless. He inadvertently taught me what money cannot buy, which led me to live in a small village in Vermont. There was much spectacle in his spectacular life.
As a child I watched my father cause a ruckus on a plane parked on the tarmac of the Lisbon airport. It was what a civil right’s icon termed “good trouble”, but it was still disconcerting to the many straight- laced travelers and their families; not to mention my mother and sister and toddler brother. In the late 1960s people wore dresses and ties when they traveled on airplanes. This was before double aisled 747’s. There was a cramped intimacy. We boarded in Nice for the trip back to NYC via Portugal. The well-groomed crowd frowned upon my father’s making a fuss. But that didn’t have any effect of him. The argument started when an elegant black man was told by a Portuguese ticket agent he MUST be placed in Coach, despite being seated by French airline officials in First Class during the departure in Nice. In fact there was a sign with his name stilled pinned to the first class seat. The gate agent in Lisbon would have none of it. He will fly COACH. My father stepped-in and meant business. At one point I thought we were going to be stranded in Portugal… not the greatest prospect for a nervous 8 year old who craved the comfort of Skippy peanut butter and people who spoke English. My father didn’t take “no” for an answer. He went to the pilot and had a very long, tense conversation. The passenger was led back to coach. The ticket-agent left the plane. The pilot brought the man back to first class for takeoff. The man in question was the great James Baldwin. I don’t know if the pilot knew the writer’s work… but he certainly knew the guy from Flatbush was gonna make his life very hard if he didn’t put the guy back in First Class. Amongst other things this incident taught me was that having a Brooklyn accent isn’t always a disadvantage. This moment shines in my memory.
My father never hid his Flatbush roots but it was only as a young man that I came to fully appreciate the humbleness of his upbringing. When I was in my 30s I came across a diary written by his father, who passed right before I was born. I was excited by the prospect of reading a first hand account of what shaped my father’s weltanschauung . On each page, in broken English, in a primitive script, were the date, which family member was ill and how much money was spent that day. At first I felt robbed but then I realized the gift from my grandfather was more powerful than studied prose and careful exposition. My father had risen from the hardscrabble invisibility to fulfilling the American dream of being noticed. The son of an uneducated spice salesman from the old country becomes a mover and a shaker. Reading the diary brought to mind a photo which ran in the NYT when I was 10 years old in an article titled OFF TO BERMUDA — FOR A BITE OF LUNCH. My father is in a hotel pool surrounded by a beautiful best selling writer and a well known TV Actor. He was part of a group invited by David Frost for a quick birthday celebration… in Bermuda. I can hear my grandfather saying with the accent of the shtetl: that’s my son, he’s an important man.
I would note that even in my father’s youth he had a knack for being around those in charge. The same year as Mr. Frost’s party, Crazy Joe Gallo was assassinated in Little Italy. I remember pouring over the headlines in the tabloids and my dad casually said, “yeah I remember him from the neighborhood.” What? You knew HIM? He muttered, with a smile, something about hanging out in the pool-halls as a kid and how Mr. Gallo dressed loudly. I suddenly had an epiphany about my grandfather’s sudden decision to cart his son off to military school. Bordentown NJ was a far cry from Flatbush but Dad adjusted and thrived. He was all-state in Football and was accepted at a number of Ivy League schools. He chose Dartmouth, an interesting choice given Dad’s background. Not too many Flatbushers in Hanover, New Hampshire. To this day, I suspect. He faced the standard prejudice of the time. All the Jewish and African American students were banned from joining mainstream fraternities, so they had their own jointhouse off Frat-row. Dad, a talented amateur painter, created a mural on the bar in the basement consisting of angels drinking. He won a Navy scholarship in an ROTC program to attend UCLA. That was quickly snuffed out due to anti-semitism. My father never dwelled on it. When I was a kid I innocently asked why he drove so far away to play golf when the Maidstone Club was so nearby. It took me years to understand the answer. But he was unflappable and determined. On joining the army ROTC he randomly chose artillery as a specialty, not the greatest choice for someone who avoided all math courses in school. At Ft. Sill he was issued a protractor and compass and was told if he failed his first test he would be drafted into the regular army and owe the money paid to Dartmouth. Not the best news for a newly married soldier. My mother described the all-night trials of studying. He passed by 2 points and celebrated at the bar in the officer’s club under General Patton’s pearl handled pistols.
Many of you probably didn’t know my father spent time in the land where the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye. Ditto for not being aware he drove through the Southwest US as an undergraduate, living amongst native Americans while painting. This prepared him for his magnum opus — a 40 foot mural in Tony’s Cafeteria on Broadway featuring guys playing pool in the back interspersed with scenes from Tony’s homeland, Puerto Rico. The opening celebration was attended by Dad’s Wall Street friends, mom’s downtown art friends and Tony’s crew from the neighborhood. There was a small article in New York Magazine. Did I mention he helped found the publication? Like many things it only seems an obvious success in retrospect. I remember Dad telling the story of how the publication almost folded after the third issue. Diane Arbus had taken a series of pictures of the Andy Warhol star Viva… lets just say the department stores that made up 80% of their ad revenue were not impressed. The same was true of the Intel corporation, which was taken public by C.E. Unterberg Towbin. I remember my father breaking a sweat selling that stock to an older gentleman who was confused by the term “computer chip.” Which reminds me of how much my father seamlessly navigated changing times.
When he said “ice box” he literally remembered the precursor to the refrigerator. Babe Ruth hit three home runs the day before he was born. TVs were not invented. Prohibition had ended a little over a year earlier. Some Civil War veterans were still marching in Memorial Day parades. He witnessed Jackie Robinson’s debut at Ebbets field. He attended John Kennedy’s inauguration. He met MLK. I pressed him for details on this one. It was a large dinner and Dr. King was discussing being offered the lead part in a feature film about George Washing Carver. The producers were offering big bucks. He said he needed the money but that he felt it would undercut his social justice work. Dad remembered the chorus of people pressing him to take the offer. My father sided with Dr. King. It seems obvious but, in the context of the time, it wasn’t. Dad had an inherent understanding that success was not simply about money. You shouldn’t pass the buck to make a buck. He was once given the opportunity to participate in a lucrative business deal run by the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn. He accepted the meeting and Mr. Cohn came to his office and gave a lengthy presentation. My father’s reaction: very interesting but I wouldn’t do a deal with you if you were the last person on earth, good day. Mr. Cohn was incensed and threatened a lawsuit that never materialized. Dad also championed many minority business’ before it was in vogue. He had taken to heart the lessons he learned in the black-Jewish alliance at Dartmouth. He helped an African American businessman purchase a chain of grocery stores in the South Bronx in one of the first leveraged buyouts. He helped finance the National Black Network, the first African American owned coast to coast radio broadcaster. Some might have seen such endeavors as sideshows but for my father the ability to bridge divides was, in no small measure, the whole point of having wealth and influence. He brought a Tony’s Cafeteria opening party approach to his business dealings.
My father saw his mentor, his older brother Belmont, as someone who was able to rise above the insularity of the small Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. While my father was born during the Depression, my uncle lived it. His other two brothers, Carter and Jess, sacrificed their education to finance Belmont’s years at John Hopkins and, eventually, his journey to Wall Street. Belmont never forgot the gifts his two younger brothers gave him. He was the dynamic, worldly, debonair role model. But whereas Belmont was cautious, my father approached life at full tilt. My uncle was friends with the renowned sculptor David Smith, who sometimes parked statues at his house for storage in Woodstock NY. My father begged Belmont to purchase one of his abstract expressionist creations. He could have had it for a song. My Uncle’s response was that David was charging too much. Interestingly one of the first things my father did ,when achieving some financial success, was to purchase a small David Smith work. I think my uncle, metaphorically, rolled his eyes. Belmont had the same reaction to my father’s sailing adventures. But there was also pride. My uncle knew, first hand, the starkness of my father’s lonely upbringing as Dad was the youngest by 20 years. My grandfather was a loving, kind man but his outlook was shaped by pogroms in 19th century czarist Russia. Not exactly a worldview designed to give advice to a young boy facing the streets of Flatbush during WWII. So when Belmont heard my father speaking of meeting Prince Philip during the Cowes Week regatta, or having Frank Sinatra give him an automobile or arranging a date with a movie star for Steve Jobs or holding court at Elaine’s…. it was accompanied by a wry smile and the knowledge that my father had earned his place at the table. Dad never saw himself as a power-broker, although he walked comfortably in the halls of power. He proudly showed me the iconic Bull and Bear statue in the NY Stock Exchange luncheon club. He explained the bull is pushing up in order not to be crushed by the bear. But he remembered starting his career on “the curb.” This is the nickname for the American Exchange. He made sure to take me on AMEX floor and see the boisterous action. Those brokers used to trade, literally, on the sidewalks in front of the NY Exchange. The rough and tumble traditions of wildly shouting and using odd hand-signals carried forward. My Dad, in his bespoke three piece suits, wore the uniform of an investment banker. Underneath he never forgot the garish, multi-colored, smock-like jackets of the trading floor.
Dad had boundless energy and a rigorous work-ethic. Behind the bon vivant was someone who slaved for days on end… negotiating, weighing, pushing, selling,… in the perpetual grind of closing deals. He started as a “runner” on Wall Street when he was 12. (I followed in his footsteps at the same age, eschewing camp for an arranged gig as a bicycle messenger at the newly formed New York Magazine, riding the perilous streets with packages on my back.) His family was always the cheering squad as he managed another hair-raising feat …. Greeting him after a triumphant Atlantic sailboat crossing… tailing behind him as Alexander Calder gave a tour of his studio (Right before we entered he said, “don’t pick up anything.”)…. introducing us to Mr. Sinatra at the 21 Club (more advice to me especially: “don’t say anything stupid”). And he had reasons for suspecting me of not appreciating a momentous occasion. He tried to get me out of bed for the moon landing. I passed. He wanted me to stay up late to meet RFK who was visiting our apartment during his Presidential run. I passed. He remembered me, as a child, not approving of the food in France. At one multi-starred restaurant he witnessed the chef bounding from the kitchen because I kept on sending my steak back to be, in my view, properly cooked.
Prior to his passing I reconnected with my father after years of estrangement. I think I inherited being strong-willed and, at times, uncompromising. Ironically I owe my very existence to my father’s stubbornness. My uncle and grandfather’s implored him not to marry outside of his faith, especially to someone whose church sponsored the Inquisition (my mother was Irish Catholic). Ironically the topic of family became our go-to bridge in our many phone calls. My father was in no way a traditional family man. He preferred Club 55 to Disneyland. He might not have personally helped my sister with her nightly homework but he did save her school, Marymount, by hosting a fund-raiser in the lobby of the Met. (Cardinal Cooke asked him how he got the museum to rent the space. Dad replied: I said you were coming.) Behind the jet-setting dealmaker, who dreaded holding babies, was someone who cherished details of nieces nephews grandchildren sons, daughters and their spouses. In our safe zone of healing conversation he spoke about Minna’s loving visits, Ned’s new job, Zyla’s college adventure, Belmont’s fight for social justice and Dash’s engagement. He talked about a future trip to Madrid to visit Zach and Hannah. He bragged about Harry’s motorcycle exploits. Phoebe reminded him of Minna in high school and Cayetana was “just like Zach.” He asked about Jess’ children: Is Barry still playing soccer? What are Lisa Olim’s kids doing? He talked about Fredi’s television shows. I found out that Lisa and him had hosted an engagement party for Carter’s grandson David at their apartment in NYC. Dad also spoke lovingly of Lisa’s son and daughter and their children.
When I went down to say goodbye there were moments of recognition, small epiphanies that spoke to larger things. I came to fully recognize the devotion he evoked. No one could have had a more loving spouse than Lisa. No one could have more stalwart friends/colleagues than Tommy, Terri, Ellen, Kathy, Alan, Stuart and a legions of others. I could fill pages with names of LIFELONG friends. Let me quote a note from Gary Gilson: Your Dad and I have been devoted friends for 64 years. SIXTY FOUR YEARS. Both my mother and Jacqueline retained cordial relations with Dad even after the challenge of separation. My father knew that real friendship entails according family status to all those who manage to touch your heart.
Dylan Thomas would have been proud of a father who refused to go gently. It was almost impossible to have a conversation the last time I was with him, but but I reminded him of some very old memories:
His boy scout medals: He was asked to cook something over a campfire. At one point he pulled the pot out of the flames and couldn’t find a place to put it down. So he chose his hand, resulting in second degree burns. He ended up winning a cooking citation AND a first aid badge.
Jesse Coming Home from WW II: I asked him to recall Uncle Jess’ return from New Guinea during the War. He brought back small toys fashioned by the locals. Dad was the envy of the kids in Flatbush who were wowed by these mystical treasures from across the globe.
I finally admitted I really couldn’t stand him playing his saxophone to those Music-Minus-One records. I also apologized for never carrying a handkerchief. I was reminded of this shortcoming every time I had a stuffy nose throughout my life.
It didn’t work. He was locked in his own space in the end. I listened for his breathing. Even when sound asleep there was no loud rumble, just a series of small, shallow, quiet, breaths. Before my final departure I leaned over to kiss him. His response was the same as it was many, many, many, years earlier when I tried to crawl on his chest after having a nightmare: GET OFF OF ME!!!!
When his brother and mentor passed, my father organized a small stone with his name placed at the Central Park entrance on Fifth Ave and 79th street. Under BELMONT TOWBIN was a line spoken by Hamlet: He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.
I shall not look upon his like again.