"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 5, 2014

Minding Your Own Business, Charm, And A Silver Tongue Will Get You Everywhere

“Mind your own business”, said my mother as I headed out to Herbie Swanson’s for peanut and butter sandwiches. Irma Swanson, Herbie’s mother was a busybody who had a way with young boys.  She made us feel at home, comfortable, and seduced.  She was an attractive woman no more than 35, wore her blonde hair in ringlets, and dressed in pinafores, décolleté frocks and revealing shirtwaists. Mrs. Swanson’s breasts were wonderfully soft-looking, her lips sensuous, and her long legs graceful and tanned. We would do anything she wanted, and getting us to ‘spill the beans’ as my mother called it – telling family secrets – was as easy as apple pie.  No matter how much I was warned to keep it all to myself, under the spell of those wonderful breasts, Mrs. Swanson’s lilac perfume, and her gentle caresses, I couldn’t resist.

It wasn’t as though we had a lot of dirty laundry to air nor any skeletons in the closet.  My parents were models of propriety and conservative good taste, never fought while my sister and I were in the room, and rarely spoke critically of anyone, especially family.  In short, I really had nothing at all to tell, or so I thought.  Now that I think about it, however, I told Mrs. Swanson everything. Whether my parents slept together or in double beds.  Who went upstairs when, together or singly.  Did my mother like an afternoon highball or perhaps a glass of sherry?  Did my father take showers at odd times, especially after he came home from work?

Mrs. Swanson had such an easy, off-hand manner that I never had the slightest inkling of what she was about.  She, however, was a master at gossipy spy craft and built a perfect composite picture of our family life from the bits and pieces of information I innocently gave her.  Mink or cloth coats? Bourbon or rye? Gold or silver? Confessions every Saturday? She was brilliant.

I have met only one woman who could even come close to Irma Swanson.  Barbara East, a secretary in my World Bank office, was the most acute observer of men that I have ever met; and she watched us all.  She knew when we came in and when we left.  Who was chirpy and who was dragging.  She listened in to our phone calls, measured our pace (relaxed, unhurried, angry, frustrated), catalogued smiles and grimaces, and calibrated tone, pitch, and timbre of voice.  She matched punch-out time and dress ensemble, and knew whether we were headed out for a cinq-a-sept, headed home to care for a sick child, or just fed up.  Barbara knew more about us than our own wives.

Irma Swanson and Barbara East never benefitted from any of this canny intelligence-gathering.  Barbara was not interested in blackmail although she could have easily squeezed favors out of any of the senior managers in our department.  She knew for example, that not only was Albert Warfield cheating on his wife, but cheating on his lover as well.  The wife, Barbara knew, was not a problem.  She either turned a blind eye to his infidelities or was too obtuse to notice.  More than likely she was just a good actress on the mattress, had her own flings in Bethesda and Chevy Chase while her husband was curating his lending portfolio to Equatorial Guinea and Angola, and considered it all as quid pro quo. The second of Warfield’s paramours was indeed a problem.  She was a rather twitchy Young Professional working in the Asia Division, not used to being two-timed, smart enough with her two PhDs to know all the political tricks of the trade and pissy enough to take many pounds of Warfield’s flesh.

Barbara East was a very smart woman; far smarter in fact than most of the Bank professionals she took care of.  She was working class, brought up in Leeds at a time when only the boys in the family were expected to make something of themselves, and only because of her smarts and incredible social agility was she able to get a job at the World Bank.  Since secretarial work required only an iota of her impressive abilities, she needed a hobby, a pastime, and building personal portfolios on all the men in the office was it.

While Barbara would never use the information in her dossiers to deliberately damage or discredit any of her male colleagues; she let them know that she had files on them more complete than any in Washington other than those of J.Edgar Hoover.  An arched eyebrow, a wry smile, or an innocent but tellingly placed comment was all she needed to keep her stud horses in the corral.

I am telling you all of this because I have learned that keeping your dirty laundry in the hamper, keeping your own counsel, and minding your P’s and Q’s (another of my mother’s warnings) is a key to success in marriage, society, and the office.  Take for example Brad Phillips, who was the polar opposite of Irma and Barbara East.  He was so unbelievably good at disguising his intentions and keeping quiet, that he was a notorious libertine, a Georgetown social lion, and the youngest to ever make partner at Lloyd, Perkins, & Schwartz.

This caution and selective reticence by no means meant that Brad was quiet, shy, or retiring.  Just the opposite.  In addition to ‘Keep your own counsel’, Brad lived by two other maxims – Charm will get you everywhere; and a silver tongue will ease your way – and was an absolute master at benign deception.  Everybody loved him, for his charm was indeed winning and infectious; and his eloquence and respectful arguments were always persuasive.

His many mistresses were wooed by his grace and effusive but gentlemanly charm; and were all convinced that he loved only them.  His wife believed him implicitly and never had any reason to doubt him, so careful was he about his movements and intentions.  His lovers were far from the inner Georgetown circles he frequented, and there was never any danger of a chance, unpleasant encounter.  In any case his women were far more passionate and exciting than the Washington matrons who hosted and enjoyed diplomatic parties.  He liked their admiration and attention; but preferred his sex far more unleashed and unprincipled than they could ever consider. Lisa Martin, for example, lived in Mt. Pleasant in a tiny studio off 16th Street which they never left.  She wanted to keep their May-December relationship secret; and he was quite happy to spend days without even poking his nose outside.

It is really a tribute to him that after years of affairs, he was never caught, trapped, or inveigled by either wife or lovers. “Say nothing”, he told me. “At least nothing of consequence.”

I asked him if this continual caution and avoidance of loose lips had become tedious.  After all, I said, it must take some doing to rinse the last of Lisa’s perfume out of his hair, double-delete all emails, keep the internal escapade timer well-oiled, and enter the front door as spiffy and lawyerly as when he left in the morning.

“No”, he replied. “I’ve internalized everything. I don’t make mistakes.”

I know what you must be thinking – that I am about to describe Brad Phillips’ comeuppance, his acrimonious divorce, his hasty departure from K Street because the very conservative firm of Lloyd, Perkins, & Schwartz let him go when his sexual peccadilloes came to light, the pregnancy of Lisa Martin, or the paternity suit filed by the ex-wife of the American Ambassador to the Vatican.  I am sorry to disappoint you, but Brad Phillips never got caught. In fact, disappointment should not be an issue.  In fact  Brad’s defiance of the bourgeois orders of fidelity, propriety, and social conservatism .should be celebrated. 

Anyway, he was my hero.  His mother told him the very same thing as mine – “Mind your own business” – but he did something with the advice while I did just the opposite.  I spilled the beans to Mrs. Swanson and as a result went on to have open, communicative relationships, a principled career, and a very modest social life.  I did pass on Brad’s three maxims to my son, who I am pleased to say, has taken them to heart, and is having more fun than I ever did.



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