Choppered out to an oil rig in the Santa Barbara Channel yesterday — Platform Irene. As I don’t do all that much choppering, and had previously seen oil rigs only in annual reports (usually next to an inset map of Bahrain or Indonesia), it was a day that kept me wide awake.
The day began at the home of Peter Bernstein, author of the recent Against the Gods: the Remarkable Story of Risk, which I enthusiastically recommend (as do some much weightier names than mine . . . “I speak carefully: no one should miss it” — John Kenneth Galbraith).
Peter is 78 and looks very much like my late Uncle Charlie. Uncle Charlie — Charles Previn — conducted the orchestra at Radio City Music Hall for decades, before I was born, and can be easily found in the credits of 30-odd old movies as music director (where would we be without Cinemania and its filmographies?). In addition to being my uncle (my mother’s mother’s brother), Charlie was the uncle of an even better known musical Previn — the jazz pianist and conductor Andre Previn. (According to my birth certificate and passport, I am Andrew Previn Tobias. But occasional fawning letters to the maestro over the years, accompanied by signed books and good wishes, have never produced a response — I’ve never met my second cousin.) Uncle Charlie was crazy about me, when I was a teenager, and I was pretty crazy about him. So I had a feeling I was going to like Peter Bernstein.
He and his wife Barbara winter in Santa Barbara. Taking over his house that morning were a film crew, directors, producers and gaffers (complete with eight rolls of various tape, hence, it suddenly dawned on me: “gaffers tape”) — we were interviewing him for a PBS series scheduled to air this fall. My part may be uninspired at best (“so Peter — is it possible to beat the market?”), but the lighting will be incredible. They typically spend two hours readying the set before we even sit down to talk. Our director, who calls “action” (but sometimes lets me do it when I see the red lights on both cameras and both cameramen have said “speed”), is a charming white-haired Brit, Michael Gill, who has something like 200 PBS and BBC documentaries under his belt, including Alistair Cooke’s Civilization. Michael has met Eisenhower, DeGaulle, and Chou En Lai, among others, and though he describes himself as being “deaf as a post” (“what was it like meeting Chou En Lai,” I asked him at one point over dinner; “mmm, yes,” he replied, “and the potatoes are quite nice, also”), he is in fact sharp as a tack on that post. Still, he is more the director emeritus, leaving a great deal of the work to the dynamo behind this whole project, Eugene Shirley, who was now introducing me to Peter Bernstein, who looked like my Uncle Charlie, and whom I was quite sure I would like.
But that wasn’t the half of it. It turned out that Peter and I had actually gone to the same New York high school, Horace Mann, a few decades apart and that we had even had some of the same teachers. Mr. Metcalf, an old guy who could sling chalk with deadly aim when he taught me Latin, had been Peter’s young Latin teacher. Al Baruth, who had terrified me as he neared retirement, had dazzled Peter in his prime. And then, it seems, we had both gone on to the same college. But here’s what really dropped my jaw (other than the fact that Peter could remember it): Peter had evidently met my dad.
“Was your father’s name Seth, by any chance?” he asked. Why, yes indeed it was. “I thought that might be your father. I didn’t really know him, but in 1949, when I had come out of the Army, I was working for the Modern Industrial Bank — it’s not around anymore — and it had never advertised but was considering taking some radio ads, and I remember this nice young guy, Seth Tobias, coming in from an ad agency — I can’t remember the name — ”
“Emil Mogul Company?”
“Yes! That’s it! And he sang this jingle he had written for the bank.”
“My father sang you a jingle?”
I, of course, remembered none of this, as I would have been two at the time. Only later did I begin singing my dad’s jingles (Ronzoni sono buoni, means Ronzoni is so good, it’s clearly understood, Ronzoni is so good. Macaroni or spaghetti, better buy Ronzoni. Ronzoni sono buoni means . . . Ronzoni is so good!) and, in particular, his bank jingles (Reuben, Reuben I been thinkin’, how the dollar bill’s been shrinkin’, something-something-rhymes-with-plank, in the Lincoln Savings Bank).
Anyway, I much enjoyed meeting Peter Bernstein. Two hours under the hot lights would follow, during which I learned, among other things, how his father had sold his successful car-sponge-and-shammy business in 1929 and — in order to diversify — invested the proceeds in a variety of stocks. Oops.
But enough family history (though I have a hunch that sooner or later I will discover we are somehow related on my Previn side). Thank you for indulging me. If I’ve waxed a little windy, it may be because it was windy out there at sea.
It was Peter’s wife, Barbara, who suggested choppering out to the rig.
Tomorrow: Landing on Irene
Quote of the Day
Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex, you thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did.~James Baldwin
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