We lived in Mexico for a time when my brother and I were schoolboys, first in Monterrey to the north, then in Mexico City. Now that I know what it must have been like to be a father in his forties with a wife in her thirties, moving his family from a quintessential suburb outside St. Louis to a country they’d never visited and where they knew no one, I marvel that my quiet, industrious, reserved parents had the nerve to do it. This was the 1950s, and it must have seemed a great adventure. Neither of them spoke a word of Spanish.
The expat community in Monterrey was tightly knit in those days. There were few enough of us that everyone knew everyone else and socialized constantly, even though there was no gringo neighborhood per se and the families lived long car rides from one another, some preferring big homes in the wild chaparral outside of town, hot hilly scrubland like the terrain in the cowboy westerns we watched during the afternoon hour or two when television was broadcast.
One of the families had a huge hacienda out in the desert, with a big fountain in front that doubled as a swimming pool, and horses and burros and vast fenced pastures. One of the children of the family was a little boy my brother’s age, tow-headed and intense, who spoke more Spanish than English, and he and my brother would spend all day riding burros around the fields while our parents and his would lounge on a big veranda with cool drinks in their hands (air conditioning was as yet uncommon). His name was Avery Dulles, and though it meant nothing to us at the time, we were told, sotto voce, that he was the grandson of John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower, then in his second term. We shrugged and went back to riding burros. It was my first inkling, though, that there was a different order of human abroad in the world, upon whom expectations had been placed, and who gave off a kind of reflected glory in which one might briefly bask.
Fifteen years later I found myself in a hotel room in New York City with Burt Lancaster. I was about to graduate from Columbia Law School and was still dating my girlfriend from college, a willowy blond New Yorker who, I’d learned early on, was Lancaster’s niece. He’d just finished shooting The Midnight Man and was in New York to see his son Jimmy, who was in the early stages of what would be diagnosed as schizophrenia and was, in this and virtually every other respect, as tragically unlike his father as a son can be.
My girlfriend and I saw Jimmy, who was more or less our contemporary, more often than we saw Burt, but on this occasion the great man — he would have been around 60 at the time — had invited the two of us up for a drink in his hotel room — I think it was the Carlyle — between appointments. He was gracious and grounded and larger than life, radiant with charm. We all had gins and tonics. On my next birthday my girlfriend gave me a small metal statue, crusted in copper patina, a genuine Giacometti, that had been given to her by her uncle Burt. I have it to this day.
Much later I prodded the outer membranes of fame myself. I’d had a couple of essays published in the New York Times Magazine, one of them on the mildly salacious topic of upscale gentlemen’s clubs where one might witness what was called couch dancing. The piece, which took a carefully feminist, dystopian view of such proceedings (this was at the height of the AIDS epidemic), had caught the eye of a producer for Geraldo Rivera’s daytime talk show, and I was invited to appear on it as part of a panel that would discuss the rather non-debatable pros and cons of couch dancing and other forms of live but touchless sex.
I rode in from JFK in a limo arranged by the producer, met my fellow panelists, which included, unsurprisingly, a couple of very pleasant sex workers, and got a nice on-air compliment from Geraldo, who was then at the height of his modest credibility. I can’t recall what little I said, but my thinly-veiled skepticism wasn’t the point. It’s all there on tape somewhere.
Soon after, I was contacted by an agent who wanted to know if there was anything else I’d written that might be publishable — a novel, for instance. At the time I had nothing to offer, and treated the overture as though it were a pitch for a time-share in Cancun.
My work was as a lawyer for a boutique merchant bank, and one of my colleagues married a winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, Myron Scholes. He’d co-invented the Black-Scholes equation for hedging options risklessly, a hugely influential concept in quant-driven investing. He became something of a household name when his and John Meriwether’s company, Long-Term Capital Management, collapsed in one of the worst meltdowns in the history of financial markets, giving leverage a bad name for a year or two, but by the time he married my colleague he seemed unscathed. He was an affable guy, and he and his wife invited me and mine to their chalet in Aspen for dinner one night during a ski trip. Vast vaulted place hugging a ridge, polite children, snow falling in bales beyond the soaring windows. We cooked together in the open kitchen, talked about the runs that had been good that day, laughed at how people come together in their haphazard ways, particularly when they marry. I wondered if it could be reduced to an equation as elegant as his.
A bit later my marriage fell apart (exploded might be a better metaphor) and I began dating a winsome fellow divorcee who, with her father’s financial backing, had taken up residence in an expensive high-rise apartment building at the very top of San Francisco’s Russian Hill. There were spectacular views across the bay and our frequent nights together were accompanied by the ceaseless braying of the sea lions down by Fisherman’s Wharf.
In the mornings I’d rouse myself from my post-coital stupor, shower, shave, grab my overstuffed black briefcase, bid my new sweetheart adieu, and head for the elevator for the long ride down to reality. And there I’d encounter, with startling regularity and breathtaking incongruity, former Secretary of State George P. Schultz. Always nattily attired, often in a bow tie and an impeccable tweed blazer from Wilkes Bashford, he’d look me up and down skeptically as we rode in silence, sizing me up for exactly what I was. I wanted to tell him that I once played cowboy with the grandson of one of his predecessors in office, but never summoned the nerve. It’s probably just as well.
More years later, after I’d married Secretary Schultz’s neighbor, I took her on a trip back to Mexico, to Zihuatanejo, a miniature version of Acapulco down the coast, rustic in a way that Acapulco had been when my parents had taken me there as a boy. We stayed in a villa run by a local hotelier we’d gotten to know, a big place on a cliff above the bay with multiple suites which we were assured would be occupied only by us and one other couple; we’d share the pool area but otherwise have separate sections of the villa to ourselves.
We arrived first and established ourselves by the pool, and presently our fellow guests appeared, Americans as expected, a boyish, prematurely gray-haired man with feminine blue eyes, and his striking, rail-thin, dark-haired wife. We chatted a bit by way of introduction —his name was Bill, and they lived in Manhattan — and I happened to ask what airline they’d taken from the States.
“We came private,” he murmured, looking out over the bay.
These days, Bill Ackman is mentioned almost daily in the Wall Street Journal and a photo of him appears every other day, but this was the late Aughts, before his public feuds with Carl Icahn, the Herbalife imbroglio and the rest. He wasn’t readily recognizable and I’d only vaguely heard of his firm, Pershing Square Capital, though I pretended otherwise. He seemed relieved that I worked in finance and therefore would have some sense of how the world worked, and he and his wife kept to themselves, reading quietly by the pool, disappearing for long hours into the villa. As I did have some sense of how the world worked, I was surprised that he received so few calls.
We’d been to Zihua before and they hadn’t, so one night we offered to take them with us to one of our favorite restaurants, a place called Amuleto, a good distance down the coastline away from town. We shared a taxi, Bill in front next to the driver. I realize now that we all could have been held for a very high ransom.
Amuleto is in a small hotel that sits high on a mountainside looking back toward the bay, a magnificent sight, and when we arrived Bill stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the restaurant for a long time, as though reluctant to leave the view, or absorbed in some profound appraisal of it and all it represented – Mexico, travel, how life had brought him here. At dinner he and his wife were at ease, talking of children, the city. She seemed deeply saddened by what, even then, seemed a life as constrained by privilege as it was empowered by it; bodyguards to take the kids to school and the like. By this point I’d fully intuited the degree of wealth they possessed, and it occurred to me what a rare interlude this must be for them, how rare to be alone together in a place they’d never been with people they didn’t know.
A warm breeze blew up the cliffside from the bay, and the wine was good. I wondered what would become of these people, who seemed to have everything yet seemed so utterly vulnerable. They may have wondered the same of us.
They left first as I recall, and we lingered on. It would be a year or two before I saw his face in the paper and showed it to my wife, who has ever since referred to him as “your friend Bill Ackman.”