The Son Also Rises: How I Finished My Dad’s Unfinished Work


In 1996, I embarked on a journey into my father’s past. I knew he had led an interesting life – rising from very humble beginnings in Chicago to the top of the advertising world as one of the original “Mad Men” (a term he hated), with a 20-year side-trip as a shopkeeper at a fashionable boutique – with funny stories, crazy characters, romance, tragedy, the “whole catastrophe,” as he liked to put it. (He was quoting Zorba the Greek, though in most translations from the Greek it comes out as “the full catastrophe.”) I thought that if I tape-recorded his memories in chronological order, it would give him the raw material to edit into bona fide memoirs. My father was interested, and so we began a series of taped conversations between 1996 and 1997 in which George recalled his life from the 1920s until the 1960s.

After about eight hours of recordings had been amassed, we stopped. Like many projects about which my father was enthusiastic, this one got put on the backburner as life’s responsibilities pressed in. (I later found an outline he had done in 1993 for a book about his boutique, Greek Island Ltd., along with the first and only chapter. That, too, apparently, had been put on hold.)

George in the army, 1945.
George in the army, 1945.

In 2007, when my father became sick with cancer, he began writing short memory pieces for the Booknotes newsletter that he proudly produced for my brother Peter’s Manhattan bookstore. Those brief memories – which repeated some of the recorded recollections he had shared in the 1990s – inspired me to revive our old project.

Alas, I had left it too late. I showed my father the transcripts of the previous interviews and he, typically, commented first on the typos and misspellings that littered the unedited material. Although he expressed interest, by the time we had geared up, the cancer had gotten worse and his memories had become haphazard and unreliable – and he now had little energy left to devote to recalling the past.

Luckily, my father was represented in other venues – in letters to family, friends, and colleagues, in speeches he gave at parties and other events, and in unpublished writings that he kept among his papers. I have used material from these sources to finish the story as best I can. (The raw, unedited copy for much of this has appeared on my website since 2009, when my father died, and, as of this writing, has been viewed by 4,470 people.)

George accepts an award at Cannes.
George accepts an award at Cannes.

This collection, incomplete as it is, still serves to offer a glimpse at one remarkable man’s journey through life. As mentioned, George often liked to quote the character Zorba, from the novel Zorba the Greek, in which Zorba replies to a query about his marital state: “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The whole catastrophe.” I have added that exchange to the beginning of these memories because George’s life was all about the joys (and burdens) of families. But, when I think of my dad (a big movie buff), I also think of Marlene Dietrich’s famous, brief comment at the conclusion of Touch of Evil: “What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of man.”

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