When I decided to leave the corporate world and start my own business-management company, I leased a small office and furnished it simply.
The name of the office was important, I was sure. But I couldn't think of a distinguished-sounding name, so I used my own and added the word "Associates." That made the name sound somehow bigger and better, but it wasn't yet honest. There were no associates. There was just me. To make it honest, I had to find a client. With one client, I could properly use the word "Associates."
Two weeks later. I was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant in my hometown of Los Angeles. He was a perpetually unemployable actor, a happy miscreant named Hampton, but he was a good friend to me.
Usually I paid for the dinner, and in return he would tell me stories of his experiences as an actor in Hollywood that would make me laugh for the rest of the week. He didn't eat much - stories distracted him - and I needed some laughs by then. I had not yet found a client needing business- management services. I was the only one I knew who really needed these services, for I was running out of money.
But I couldn't order stationery or hang a sign on my door until my name was truthful.
As we ate and laughed together, I saw a famous face across the room, a young actor named Dennis Hopper. With him was a young man with a less-famous face but a more famous last name. His name was Peter Fonda, son of the actor Henry Fonda. I'd always admired Dennis's film work, and Hampton knew them both. He dragged me over to meet them.
A Mr. Fonda calls back
Peter called me first, the very next day. He said he needed a business manager but had no job, and no money for a retainer. That was all right with me. I was concentrating on last names, primarily. His, which was excellent, and my office's. The fact that there was nothing for me to do for him at that point did not trouble me at all. He seemed content to just talk with me about his career hopes. My complete business-management job was just to listen and try not to interrupt. I was thrilled to have a client.
When Dennis heard Peter had hired me, he called to say he needed a personal manager. I asked him with unfeigned innocence, "What's a personal manager?"
Dennis supplied a definition I could fulfill. "Oh, it's cool, man. You wear a blue suit and you don't say anything."
I had a blue suit, and I could keep my mouth shut when necessary. Now I had two clients. Since they were both broke and unemployed at that time, I reasoned I could cause no harm by my inexperience. And now, I felt, the way was clear to use the name I'd chosen. I ordered my stationery the next day and hung a sign on my door.
Since the money would be rolling in at any hour, as I saw it, I certainly needed a bookkeeper. Math was my weakest subject in school, while making friends was my strongest. I placed an ad in the Los Angeles Times, and a few mornings later, waiting at my door, was an elderly widow with a deep need for a job and a strong ability to overcome all my objections.
She introduced herself as Mrs. Finkel, walked in, sat down, and proceeded to convince me that she would be the perfect bookkeeper for me.
At first she appeared to be exactly what I didn't want. I wanted a glamorous young lady of radiant beauty to go with my new Hollywood clients. But Mrs. Finkel needed a job so badly that I ended up feeling sorry for her after a while, and so I hired her.
"Call me Miss Esther," she said.
I was glad to. Later, I saw she brought more business talent to the office than I did. I could always hire a glamorous secretary or receptionist someday to bring the aura I thought I needed. But it was never to be. Miss Esther was to be the one true star in my business environment.
Boring names worked best
The clients did indeed start rolling in. Peter knew a famous rock star, who joined our office, and he, in turn, knew an even-more famous rock band that joined our office. Our client roster of musicians and actors grew and grew. I remained wise enough to stay out of the way of the real work, hiring very talented employees to do it all. It got so that I always chose the applicants with the most boring names. It worked every time. What's in a name, after all?
One of our most interesting clients was a trumpet player from South Africa. He needed a job right away, so I asked a wise friend if it was all right for me to find a job for a client. It was explained to me that finding work was what a manager did for a client. I finally found a job for him at the Club Tropicana, a club in the Watts section of L.A.
I got him booked part-time, but soon he was doing about four sets a night, six nights a week. Friends of his played and sang with him. He was so talented that soon the club was packed every night he played.
In keeping with my title, I had another important job to do. I was to run out the back door of the club around 3 a.m. every night with my client's share of the night's receipts in an old paper bag and make it to my parked Volkswagen without incident. I would then drive to my mother's apartment in Beverly Hills. She hid the cash in her refrigerator overnight, logically explaining that she'd heard one of my clients call cash "lettuce" and so she thought she'd hide it in the vegetable crisper.
Later, my mother offered to help me at the office. The problem was her name. She didn't want to be known as the boss's mother, so she asked to be called Miss Grace. Miss Grace faithfully showed up each day to miscount the cash she brought in. Her new pal, Miss Esther, would then sneak in early each morning to make a correct count.
Soon enough, Miss Grace was transferred to answering telephones for the office. She disconnected some significant callers and called in the phone company because of "crossed lines," only to learn she'd been pushing her intercom button to answer the phone. But everyone loved her just the same. She was more popular than I was.
'David Selznick who?'
In Hollywood, a few names always count, and in those days "Selznick" was one of them. Miss Grace had never even heard of it. So when a lady named Mrs. David Selznick called me, Miss Grace asked her what was the nature of her call or something equally unfortunate. The answer was a dial tone.
I knew we had a major crisis on our hands when she and Miss Esther came to tell me someone with a name starting with an "S" had called me and then hung up for some reason.
We played "sounds like" for a while, and when we got to "Sells-Pick," I called my florist and ordered a limo to deliver a bouquet to Mrs. Sells-Pick's home with my card of apology.
Mrs. Selznick was very nice. After all, we were friends; her son was a client of ours, and fortunately for me the error was made by a staff member with the perfect name: Mother.
One day I heard Miss Esther raise her voice as I passed her office. I peered in. She was having it out with a wonderful conga player who worked for my trumpet player.
He was arguing about Miss Esther's taking withholding tax out of his earnings. I heard Miss Esther say that I was a wonderful boss and if he thought she was going to do anything that would harm me, he had, in Miss Grace's famous phrase from my boyhood, "another 'think' coming."
He towered over the diminutive Miss Esther, and he was exercising all of his powers to win this, to him, critical argument. But although he was persuasive, he never had a chance. A few minutes later, I saw him running for the front door.
Years later, I closed my office to prepare for new ventures. It wasn't easy to say goodbye, but I did it quickly and dry-eyed. I even found something else for my mother to do.
Yet as I stood at the door to my car, ready to pull away that last afternoon, I found myself utterly incapable of saying goodbye to - the bookkeeper?
Yes, the bookkeeper, Miss Esther. We wept on each other's shoulders, hugged ferociously, and I drove away through a downpour of tears.
In those years of wonderful memories, I had met many famous names. I recalled their glamour, power, and stardust. Yet today just one name echoes in my heart. She was for me, after all, the greatest star of them all, and her name was Miss Esther.