Monday, January 31, 2022


So As Not to Be Entirely Forgotten

Here in these parts.

It was the mid 80's, half a lifetime ago.  I was a tax manager in the Boston office of Coopers & Lybrand, one of the then "Big Eight" accounting/consulting firms.  As I have explained elsewhere, one key to the culture shared among the eight was "cognitive dissonance" -- a need to hold in the mind, indeed to embrace, incompatible ideas.  A less fancy way of putting it would be to say that "lip service" was essential, lip service to causes that could never come to fruition if they inhibited the growth of the bottom line, which was sacrosanct.

It was also an aggressive work hard/play hard youth culture.   At 35, I myself was a bit long in the tooth to be climbing the ladder still towards partnership, having worked in the government for five years after law school and only then hopped on the lowest rung.

One of the things to which lip service had to be given at that time was a myth that Global Coopers was a well-integrated and seamless international enterprise, prepared to bring its best resources situated in, for example, Japan, to bear for any American client with a Japanese tax or business problem.  The reality was very different.  Coopers was a conglomeration of separate local entities, some simply acquired in place by the American firm, with radically different cultures and incentive structures.

Nevertheless, in service to the myth, an international exchange program was put in place.  One of our managers, a bachelor, was sent to Tokyo under the program. He promptly got homesick and came back in disgrace, his career never fully to recover for having given rise to a non-trivial "misspend."  And in return, to our humble offices at One Post Office Square for six months or a year (I forget which) came "George," a manager from Lucerne, Switzerland, and likewise a bachelor.

In theory, George would dive into all of the European tax issues that our Boston clients faced, offering some local expertise and access to a network of on-the-ground specialists.  At the same time he would absorb oodles of US tax knowledge and go back home well credentialed to take on a leadership role in the European tax practice.

In reality, the secondment was a complete failure.  The Boston people quickly learned that it would take more time (= money) even to articulate an issue in terms that George could understand than could be charged to the client.  Further, and more to my particular point, George, who was in his early 40's, had a manner that was very pleasant but also absurdly stiff and formal by US standards.  He became a figure of fun in the office, and it was out of the question to put him in a room with a US tax director or chief financial officer.

And so George sat in his little office, doing nothing, for six months to a year.  Likewise, on the social side, he was virtually ignored by the young and rambunctious hordes.  One Monday morning George reported that he had arranged to go on a bus tour of Greater Boston, but that he missed the bus because it stopped across the street from where he had been told to wait for it!  This would never happen in Switzerland, it seemed.

Raya and I took it upon ourselves to get to know George and to entertain him a bit, at first out of pity but later because we genuinely grew to like him a lot.  He was an old-school European gentleman without an ounce of meanness in him.

When we invited George to join us for our Thanksgiving repast, he mentioned that a lady friend was coming to Boston to see him at that time.  Of course we extended our invitation to her as well.

In the event we found this couple to be oddly matched, but in a charming way.  George was bald, bespectacled and mustachioed, and if he had had any hair he would not in any circumstances have known how to let it down, even after a champagne toast and a few glasses of chardonnay.  His lady friend, whose name I have lost, by contrast was voluptuous and voluble, a woman who no doubt could turn heads when entering a room even back home, where one presumably was more discreet about such things.  (Home, by lineage at least, seemed for her to be to the east of George, in Lichtenstein or Austria.  At one point in our chit-chat she made reference to "our Emperor."  When I looked quizzical, she clarified that her emperor was the Austro-Hungarian one; it was the Holy Roman One before that.)

A few weeks later, George returned our dinner invitation.  He treated us in his apartment to the quintessential Swiss German or Alemannic meal -- muesli or granola.  (If he had served us Cocoa Puffs, we would have been only slightly more nonplussed.) 

When George's stint was up, he decamped quietly.  I don't recall the firm as a firm having much to say at all at his departure.  I think that, turning back to the cognitive dissonance theme, the firm wanted to pretend that all had gone well with the secondment.

George and we kept up a desultory correspondence after he had returned home.  About a year after his return, when perhaps we were considering him a bit delinquent in "keeping things up," I received an international post at work.  I opened it to find a short letter written in German, and a small black-and-white photo of George himself, a headshot, sitting on top of it. Smiling at his assumed eccentricity, I turned it over to find on the back a cross and quite obviously the dates of his birth and his death.  Right away I sent out an "all points bulletin" in the office for a German speaker, of which there were a few.  The translation awaited me the next morning, punctuated by the words "After a series of disappointments, George took his own life."

Three questions came to mind.

The first was how he did it.  I knew that the Swiss cherished their neutrality, preserved over the many years not just by the mountains but also by virtue of the fact that civilians were trained in the military arts and armed to the teeth to a greater extent than perhaps anyone else but the Americans.  An attacking force would have to deal with natural barriers, man-made barriers ready for deployment at any time, and hundreds of thousands of people with guns.  George, I decided, must have unlocked a beautifully made, heavy caliber Swiss sidearm kept in a special place in his apartment, and blown his brains out with it.

The second was whether George's secondment was among the "disappointments" that factored into his death.   By itself, I couldn't see that, but perhaps it derailed his career generally and led to a dismissal or God knows what.  Is there any more that I could have done so that the secondment could have been spun differently?

The last was whether the most searing disappointment, the proverbial straw, was a decision by Her Highness the Joan Collins of Lichtenstein not to offer her hand in matrimony, when asked.  To me, this would be an authentic reason to take his life, piled on top of all of the other humiliations that came, inevitably, with just being George, the humble and gentlemanly one.

No comments:

Post a Comment