Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I missed Bloomsday, but it's never too late for Finnegan's Wake.

So, the sixteenth of June passed, and unlike last year I did not go to the Ulysses' Folk House and do a reading; I didn't even have a glass of Burgundy and a gorgonzola cheese sandwich.

By way of penance I'm here paying tribute to James Joyce's other massive novel, Finnegan's Wake, which I will let the Clancy Brothers explain in their delightful way in the video above, for which I thank Vlikavec, who has a superb collection of Clancys videos on his channel.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Dewey & LeBoeuf: why I'm mourning the death of a law firm, part 2.

This is a continuation of the story that begins here.

When I returned to LeBoeuf in 1973 from my Army stint, the firm had grown modestly, to about 45 lawyers. While I had spent most of my first year working on public utility matters, I now found myself called on to work in different areas of practice. The firm was not departmentalized, so an associate like me could be assigned tasks in various fields. One of these, to my delight as a ship buff, was maritime law. I had to learn the intricacies of charter parties, which is what contracts to charter ships are called, including such concepts as demurrage and laytime, and, when the client decided to build its own fleet of tankers, I worked on drafting and negotiating the shipyard construction contract and the operating contract with an experienced ship owner that would supply officers and crews.

I also began to get assignments in what had become the firm's second major practice area: insurance. Our clients were London based insurers whose operations in the U.S. were mostly in what's called the excess or surplus lines market, in which unlicensed insurers could write business--typically large or unusual risks--that couldn't be placed with licensed carriers, and in reinsurance. My mentor in this area was Donald J. Greene, then a rising younger partner but later to become the firm's chairman and a "name" partner. Early on, I got an assignment from Don and wrote a memo, which I gave to his secretary. The next day she called: "Mr. Greene wants to see you in his office." "Close the door," he said as I entered. My memo was prominently centered on his desktop, which typically looked like the flight deck of an aircraft carrier after all the planes had gone on a mission. The memo had prominent red marks. "Sit down." He then told me how, in the course of his Jesuit education, he had asked whether a Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist or such who lived an exemplary life was still condemned to hell for not being Christian. The answer he was given was "No," provided that person was completely unaware of Christian teaching. This, he said, was called the Doctrine of Invincible Ignorance, and my memo demonstrated it.

Despite this, Don evidently saw some redeeming virtue in my work, as I became a recipient of his "fun, travel, and adventure" talk.
Claude, I'd like for you to do more work for our [insurance clients]. This work will be challenging, and will involve a great deal of travel, some of it on short notice. You're a bachelor, right?...Good. Please make sure your passport is up-to-date and keep it handy.
Over the next several years I did a fair amount of traveling, none of which required a passport. I was assigned to keep track of legislative and regulatory developments in the Southwest Zone of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, which involved trips to Austin, Cheyenne, Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Omaha.  On one occasion, the associate assigned to the Northeast Zone had a schedule conflict and I was sent to an NAIC meeting in Baltimore. After one day, the junior partner who accompanied me said, "I can't take this any longer; give me a report when you come back Wednesday." That evening, sitting at the Hilton's bar, I got into conversation with Fred, the CEO of a Miami based insurance company. A man about my age came up to him and said, "Fred, the desk won't let the girls in without escorts." Fred looked at me and, in his best CEO voice, said "Come!" I went. Outside the door were three women with teased hair, wearing scanty tops, tight fitting pants, and stiletto heels, shivering slightly in the evening chill. We each took one by the arm, and walked them through the lobby, past the glowering desk clerk and concierge, to the elevators. We rode up to the top floor, where Fred had a deluxe suite. Inside were two state insurance commissioners, one accompanied by his wife, several other state insurance department officials, and some of Fred's junior execs. One of the commissioners asked me who I was. "I'm Claude Smith; I'm with Allstate," I answered. He said, "I have a real problem with that." Fred paid one of the women fifty dollars to remove her top and bra. He later paid another one hundred to undress completely; this prompted the commissioner with wife to bid goodnight. The naked woman then went around the room, perching on each man's lap in turn. Afterward, she gave her opinion of each of us. My diagnosis: "This one's scared of pussy." I finished my drink, thanked Fred for his hospitality, and went to my room, alone.

The partner in charge of the insurance practice was Keith Brown, a portly man with carefully coiffed silver hair, who cultivated something of an air of mystery. He occasionally drove his secretary, Mildred, to tears. When this happened, he would excuse himself, then return a few minutes later with a small bottle of perfume which he would put on her desk with a curt "Here!" One day in the spring of 1975, I was walking past Keith's office and heard "Claude, please come in." As I entered, "Close the door." ("Oh, shit," I thought.) "What are you doing tomorrow?" "Nothing, " I said. I had work to do, but no meetings or deadlines. "Good," he said.  He told me to take the noon shuttle to Washington, get a cab to the river entrance to the Pentagon, go to the reception desk, identify myself and who I represented, and say I had an appointment with a certain lawyer in the Department of the Air Force. A guard would be assigned to escort me to this lawyer's office. Once there, I was to ask the lawyer to tell me everything he could about the contingency plans for the evacuation of Saigon and, in particular, whether the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be mobilized, which meant that many civilian airliners would be commandeered by the military and taken into a war zone. This was of great concern to some of our insurance clients, who had written war risk coverage on these airliners. I figured I had just been sent on the biggest wild goose chase in the history of the firm. (Pentagon photo: en.wikipedia.org)

The following day everything went as planned until I got to the Pentagon reception desk. After I had identified myself, my firm, and our clients, no guard was summoned. I was told, "Go down the corridor with the entrance to your right until you get to the third ring, then turn left, and it's the fourth door on your right." Once I got there, I was greeted cordially by the Air Force lawyer. "Any plans to use the CRAF?"  I asked. "No, it's going to be all military." I thanked him, flew back to New York, and drafted a Telex (how we sent instantaneous written communications in those days, though fax was beginning to catch on) to London. The Telex, no doubt, was intercepted and read by both the CIA and the KGB.

Around that time the firm moved from One Chase across Nassau Street to 140 Broadway (photo LoopNet), now the Brown Brothers Harriman Building. (Shortly after we moved, a senior executive of our biggest client asked a receptionist for directions to the men's room. Her answer: "I don't know; I never use it." Her redemption was marriage to an associate who later became a partner.)  My office mate in our new quarters was Charlie McCrann. Charlie and I had been friends for two years. We were bachelor neighbors in Greenwich Village and often met in the evening for beers at neighborhood bars. We had different backgrounds. I had been a military brat who moved around a lot during my childhood, and went to a public high school and a state university before Harvard Law. Charlie grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, the son of a stockbroker, prepped at Lawrenceville, then went to Princeton and Yale Law. He looked like Warren Beatty. I didn't. I yearned for WASP princesses. Charlie could have, and had had, his fill of such, so he longed for secretaries with outer borough accents. (He would later marry a beautiful Haitian woman.)

One particular in which we were very different was this: Charlie was determined to keep his work life and his social life separate. I was, along with a few other associates, a rare exception he allowed to this rule. Several times when Charlie and I were out drinking together, I spotted someone else from the firm entering the bar. His reaction was always, "We've got to get out of here, now!"  I was the opposite. I loved to mix people from different parts of my life together. I threw parties in my Village apartment to which I'd invite friends from the firm, law school classmates, and various characters I'd met at the Bells of Hell or the Lion's Head. At one of these, I looked across the room and saw a LeBoeuf partner sharing a joint with the members of a punk rock band.

Charlie was a movie buff. He had been president of the Yale Law School Film Society. While we worked at LeBoeuf, he took evening film classes at New York University (I was sworn to secrecy about this). We both left the firm at about the same time (late 1977), I to a utility company client in the suburbs (I reverse commuted from the Village) and Charlie to be legislative counsel to the chairman of the New York State Assembly's Insurance Committee. His job allowed him about six months off each year when the legislature wasn't in session, during which time in 1978 he took a feature length horror film script he had written as an NYU class project, in which almost all of the characters have the names of LeBoeuf lawyers, and turned it into a real movie. The plot was based on the paraquat scare of a few years previous. A group of hippies growing marijuana in a remote clearing in a national forest kill two federal agents who try to bust them. The feds then hire a cropduster to dump an as yet untested, highly toxic herbicide, Dromax, on their crop. The plane arrives just as the hippies are frantically harvesting, they get covered with Dromax, and are transformed into blood craving zombies who go on a murderous rampage.

Most of the cast and crew were recruited through ads in the Village Voice, though a few parts were given to Bells of Hell denizens, including me. Charlie pulled off a coup in getting John Amplas, who had played the title role in Pittsburgh goremeister George Romero's 1978 hemophagic thriller Martin, to play a federal agent (not one of those who get offed at the beginning). Aided by a New York State arts grant (the application described the project as a film about the dangers of herbicides), Charlie was able to hire top notch camera, sound, and special effects people, and to commission appropriately eerie music by Ted Shapiro. Most of the film was shot at locations close to the country house of a couple who were Bells regulars. It was in the wilds of north central Pennsylvania; to get there, you passed a sign that read "Welcome to Potter County, God's Country".

Charlie's working title was Forest of Fear. The distributor he convinced to handle the movie in the domestic market thought that sounded too much like an arty Japanese film, and changed it to Bloodeaters--Butchers of the Damned. Under that title, it played drive-ins and movie houses across the nation. Another distributor later acquired the rights to make it into a VHS tape (and later DVD) with the title Toxic Zombies; in the 1980s it played under that title on the USA Cable network. Charlie and I, and several other cast members (Charlie played the lead role, a forest ranger, as well as producing and directing) went to the East Coast premiere of Bloodeaters at the Twin Pine Drive-In on the outskirts of Waterbury, Connecticut. After the movie we went to the concession stand and were mobbed by local teens asking for our autographs (I can say this has happened once in my life). We were then feted at a party at what may have been Waterbury's classiest discotheque.

Here is the trailer for Bloodeaters:

Here's a favorable (!) review of the movie. Charlie's photo is next to the first paragraph; the photo on the wall is of Beverly Shapiro, who played his wife, Polly. During the scene from which this still was taken, Charlie opens a pressboard binder enclosing a thick sheaf of paper, supposedly weather statistics. It's actually the LeBoeuf fifty state excess and surplus lines law survey. The photo next to the third paragraph shows an especially clever bit of special effects gore involving a barbecue glove, a pig's foot, a wristwatch, a turkey baster, and stage blood (clear Karo syrup with red food coloring).

There will be a part three to the LeBoeuf saga. Can you stand it?

Update: It's here.

Second update: A few years ago Toxic Zombies was revived in Italy as Il ritorno degli zombi. You can see it here. I sound good dubbed in Italian.