Paths Crossed: Nick von Hoffman

It was a week of obits and crossed paths. A few days ago, Nick von Hoffman.

Some time in the early 1990’s — it was summer or late spring (I remember what I was wearing) — Nick called and asked whether I’d be willing to let him interview me for a biography he was working on about Malcolm Forbes.

Sure, I said. But why, I asked, would a journalist of his significance be doing a book on Malcolm Forbes, whose significance (in my mind, at least) was, well, not very?

My opinion, of course. You could call me a disgruntled ex-employee (a term I always find hilarious). I had worked directly for MSF (how he signed his name and how we referred to him) from 1981 to 1988. He had died in 1990. Given that my longish tenure at Forbes was well paid, full of adventure, an enchancement to my experience with and wariness of great wealth and a spur to my social satirist’s soul, I had nothing much to disgruntle over, and by the time Nick called, I had only vivid enjoyable memories of MSF — which were heading directly into my memoir about my working life.

So I was fine being interviewed. Although, again, I did wonder why Nick was wasting his time on Malcolm Forbes. “I see him,” Nick said in a vague sort of way, “as a benevolent moon shining over America,” or over American business. I thought that was funny.

Nick, in and around our talk about Malcolm, told me about his fascinating life and childhood, some of which took place in Greenwich Village, where I lived. I was fairly envious: he’d grown up as a renegade and bohemian, while I was stuck with a childhood in the middle-class suburbs.

We went out for a long lunch (with his little tape recorder) at Ye Olde Waverly Inn, now a semi-private glitterati hot spot owned by Graydon Carter. Then it was an enchantingly lovely, slightly shabby restaurant which, without effort, gave off the aura of a Revolutionary War-era inn and drinking place, with an old standard menu (chicken pot pie, etc.) prepared by a dutiful chef without any culinary gift whatsoever.

Under such inducement I spilled the beans, insofar as I had beans. Nick was good about not quoting me by name when things I was talking about were sort of delicate, but did quote me about general matters and stories.

In fact, the book that eventually emerged will be a useful resource for me when I write the rest of my story, beside the one chapter I’ve finished (“A Man of Property.”) I’ll get a kick out of reading what I told Nick, to see how my memory has held up.

Nick was a terrific guy, eccentric and brilliant. With a beloved English spaniel I never got to meet.

I had a last phone call from him almost a year after we talked. The MSF biography was not to be. The book had morphed into something more general called Capitalist Fools: Tales of American Business from Carnegie to Malcolm Forbes, for a good reason:

“I’ve come to the conclusion,” Nick said, “that Malcolm Forbes has the shelf life of lettuce.”

Indeed. Capitalist Fools — “Capital Tool” was the epithet Malcolm devised for Forbes Magazine and all that sailed in it — was not even mentioned in Nick’s NYT obit.

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