Give it to the kids, Erhard!

February 22, 2010 at 3:58 AM 1 comment

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CBS once broadcast a TV show called The Millionaire in which a philanthropist named John Beresford Tipton bestowed a one million dollar check upon a worthy individual.

A mirror image of the show was always at the edge of my mind when I was a writer for a fundraising magazine at a hospital in the Bronx. As with all rah-rah jobs, mine was dull, but I tried to approach it in the same spirit with which Michael Anthony, Tipton’s secretary, delivered Tipton’s check to one of the series’ 206 deserving recipients: I was looking for a story behind the money.

If you ask wealthy people why they endow organizations, you pretty much get some stock answers: They want to give back to the community, help children in need or provide a safe haven for abused women, etc. These responses are explanations, not stories. I kept trying to think of a question that would make my interviewee say something fundamental and true.

Maybe it wasn’t such a good question to ask

Much of the hospital’s fundraising efforts went into soliciting money for the new children’s division. The development office had won promises from two super-wealthy men, both of them Bronx natives now in their late sixties. I was sick of asking the same old question — “Why are you making this donation?” — so I asked them to respond to a comment I came across in The New York Times about the proliferation of children’s hospitals in New York City. The author of the article charged that building a children’s hospital was a marketing ploy. Children in the city would not actually receive better healthcare services than they were already getting.

One of the donors was a billionaire venture capitalist. I asked him if he thought the children’s division at the hospital was a marketing ploy. He said no.

The other donor was the ex-president of a global communications company and he bit my head off for even thinking he would give away ten million dollars of his money for a marketing ploy. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t such a good question to ask a rich, crabby guy who thinks everyone around him is an idiot, but a seasoned interviewee understands that a writer needs more than press release pabulum.

As soon as our conversation ended, the guy got on the horn and complained about me to the vice president of development. I had to hear an earful from her about the dangers of asking inflammatory questions.

Now the VP of development was worried that I — a freelancer at the bottom of the development food chain — could upend the work she was doing to secure big donations. She insisted on sitting in on the big-money interviews.

Isn’t that right, Marie?

Vicky Miles,* the development VP, had a reputation for being a bully broad. She was a chubby, forty-ish woman with a blonde bob, a red wool suit and a black leather briefcase, and she certainly looked the part. In her spare time, she rode horses and skied. In my spare time, I did crosswords (but rarely finished them) and watched Frasier. You gotta give the devil her due.

One February day, I followed behind Vicky’s Honda Accord in my unreliable Taurus to a private house in Yonkers, New York where I had to interview Vinnie d’Arcangelo. He was the executor of the Erhard Reiz estate, most of which was on its way to the dialysis unit at the new children’s hospital.

Vicky and I arrived separately at a fussy Victorian house in the shadow of a rival Bronx hospital. The house had no frontage and no backyard and it hovered over a block of subdivided houses that had seen better days. A Rolls Royce circa 1960 took up the whole driveway. Vicky and I parked in the street.

The interior of the Reiz house was a mid-century time capsule that glamorized recent past decades and asserted that nothing important had happened in popular culture since Sinatra opened at the Paramount Theatre in 1942. The dining room boasted a chandelier of the sort seen on the set of an RKO parlor comedy, but Mr. d’Arcangelo chose to rely on late afternoon spillover light from the glassed-in porch. A mahogany breakfront displayed a bunch of antiques — some expensive, some junky: Chinaware, porcelain clocks, McCoy pottery, even Faberge eggs. If you’re the kind of person who likes dark wood and lace antimacassars, you’d have thought you’d died and gone to heaven.

A framed autographed photo of Babe Ruth stood on a roll-top desk in weary tribute to nostalgia, as baseball artifacts are wont to do.

Vinnie d’Arcangelo motioned at us to join him at the dinner table. Vicky eased in next to Vinnie, to protect him perhaps from anything stupid I might blurt out. I sat down across from them. Mrs. d’Arcangelo materialized from the kitchen and joined us. She took a seat catercorner from her husband so that he could meet her eye every few seconds and say, “Isn’t that right, Marie?”

Drinking German beer with the Babe

For the next forty-five minutes, Vinnie d’Arcaneglo poured his heart out to us about Erhard Reiz, a native of Munich who enlisted in the German Merchant Marines, jumped ship and opened a string of laundromats on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“I came to Mr. Reiz when I was seventeen years old and needed a job,” Vinnie said. “Erhard put me in charge of a laundromat on East 76th Street. I did everything. I kept the place spotless. I gave people change. I even learned how to fix the machines when they broke down. If not for me — ” Vinnie stopped short when Marie gave a little cough. A second cough served as a timely brake on Vinnie’s self-aggrandizement.

“He was a magnificent man,” Vinnie said. “Wasn’t he, Marie?”

Marie said he was. She was a plump woman and, like Vinnie, in her late sixties. She had a helmet of tight gray pin curls and a cardigan buttoned up to her neck.

“He was a real smart businessman,” Vinnie said. “As soon as one laundromat was making money, he invested in another. It didn’t take three, four years and Mr. Reiz was a rich man. He loved the high life, didn’t he, Marie?”

Marie nodded.

“The parties this house saw!” Vinnie said. He cocked his head and looked off in the direction of the breakfront where he could still see the reflection of pretty girls in sequined dresses and fellers swilling highballs.

“All the celebrities of the day used to come here,” Vinnie said. “He was great friends with Babe Ruth. The two of them used to dress to the nines and go to the horse races together. They’d come back here and drink German beer. You remember that, Marie?”

Marie remembered.

Vinnie steeled himself to the difficult part of the interview.

“Mr. Reiz always thanked God for his good life,” Vinnie said. “But he and Mrs. Reiz couldn’t have children, and that made him sad.” Vinnie’s voice cracked. Mrs. d’Arcangelo reached across the table. She put her hand on her husband’s arm.

“He used to say to me, ‘Vinnie, I’m an old man.'” I always said, ‘Mr. Reiz, you will never be old. Just remember all the good times you had in your youth with Babe Ruth and all the famous friends you made.’ Mr. Reiz would look at me and say, ‘Nobody has been a better friend to me than you, Vinnie.’ It was true. I was always his friend. Isn’t that right, Marie?

Marie nodded.

Vinnie d’Arcangelo put his head in his hands and wept. “Mr. Reiz got sick,” he said. “Marie and me, we moved here to take care of him. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter who you rub elbows with.”

Marie said, “Vinnie was like a son to Mr. Reiz. Weren’t you, Vinnie?”

Vinnie fished inside his shirt pocket for a cloth handkerchief. He crumpled it up and wiped his eyes.

I realize that people have conflicting interests and desires. Maybe Vinnie had genuine feeling for Erhard Reiz. Yet Vinnie’s asking his wife to confirm everything he said had an air of rehearsed grief about it. Had Vinnie and Marie come up with a strategy to deal with the interview? Even if they had, did that make them criminal connivers? Maybe they weren’t used to dealing with the press. I was just having a hard time believing Vinnie’s tears.

“We set up a bed for him in the living room,” Vinnie continued. “Mr. Reiz talked about what he wanted to do with his property. He kept saying, ‘Vinnie, I want my money to do good.’ One day he turns to me and says, ‘Vinnie, I want to help the kids!’ So I said to Mr. Reiz, ‘Give it to the kids, Erhard!'”

Erhard’s two million dollars went to the children’s hospital. The rest of his property — the Victorian house, the antiques and the Rolls Royce — went to Vinnie and Marie. Vinnie said he didn’t care about Mr. Reiz’s worldly goods. He just wished that Mr. Reiz could be alive right now, even as sick as he was. Vinnie asked Marie if she knew how he felt. She did.

A flat tire opens up the world

Vicky Miles was too much of a pro to hang around with me in Yonkers and do a post mortem of my interview with Vinnie d’Arcangelo. She jumped in her Honda and sped off.

Vicky was already halfway down the block when I noticed that the right rear tire of my Taurus had a flat. It was the late 1990s and I knew exactly one person — a doctor’s wife — who owned a cell phone. I had no choice but to knock on the d’Arcangelos’ door and ask if I could use Erhard Reiz’s rotary dial telephone to call Triple-A.

Vinnie and Marie looked at me out of bone-dry eyes. All that Sturm und Drang had taken a lot out of them and they weren’t about to start all that over again. They pointed out a behemoth black phone in a room overlooking the street and told me to stay there until Triple-A arrived.

This episode was not the first truth-behind-the-lie scenario I had witnessed in my life as a publicity flack. In my earliest days, a woman at an employment agency told me that male managers used to call her and complain that she had sent them a dog, and they wanted her to send them pretty girls. An interview at a therapeutic rehab community was interrupted by a nurse who saw my interviewee, a recovering drug addict, use the same guile to enlist my sympathy that he had once used to get his girlfriend to buy him drugs.

But when I went back inside Erhard Reiz’s house, I felt myself blunder onto the threshold of the institutional lie. The story that the fundraising office wanted — and that Vinnie d’Arcangelo was so good at telling — really did seem like an act. The truth, which glittered out of Vinnie’s ice-pick blue eyes and suggested that maybe he hadn’t been all that hot on Erhard Reiz but he was hot on Erhard Reiz’s stuff, would have been a disaster: It would have cost the children’s hospital its new pediatric dialysis unit.

I can still hear a tearing sound, like a Band-Aid ripped off a flesh wound, that signals the exposure of some mysterious reality that a public relations story dare not contemplate.

* All people, organizational names and addresses have been fictionalized.


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Entry filed under: Bookpod, Corporate communications, Healthcare, New York City, Non-fiction, Working. Tags: , , , , , , .

I’m baaaack! Going naked

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Sara Bennett  |  February 22, 2010 at 10:58 PM

    Wow! I always think of you as wide-eyed but I guess you have a healthy dose of cynicism, too.

    Great story!


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