Roger on my mind

By Peter Besas

It seems unreal that Rog is gone and that he is now the subject of my reminiscences on Simesite, the way Keith Keller and Jack Pitman were not so long ago. I spoke to Rog on the phone two weeks ago and well knew what was coming. Even so, the reality somehow always eclipses the expectation, no matter how much you prepare for it.

Aside from Roger being a long-time associate of mine on the sheet, he was also a personal friend. A trip to London was not complete unless we at least had dinner together in town, often with Pat, or spent a day together in his house in Shooter’s Hill, and later once in Birchington. Since Roger was a great walker, we’d sometimes stroll around the city or have drinks in some pub or in the hotel I was staying in. I recall a memorable walk around the Serpentine in Hyde Park, stopping off for tea at a cafeteria there, and then hoofing it to Victoria Station where he’d catch the train to go home. He had a great appreciation for the history of the city and always delighted in pointing out to me some of the buildings and monuments and explaining their significance as we strolled by them. These historical snippets were, of course, often punctuated with some joke or droll observation.

On the business side, even though Rog was nominally my boss at the time — he was European Manager and later Editor-in-Chief — I had virtually no dealings with him. All of us hybrids were far too independent to engage in any hierarchical nonsense, especially since we knew that the only real arbiter for any important decision was Syd Silverman.

Moreover, other than once or twice urging me in Cannes to write more succinctly (it was one of his great hobby-horses), he never passed down to me any instructions on how to run the Madrid operation. Everyone ran his own show. That was part of the old Variety.

I remember him sitting in his room at the old Hotel Suisse in Cannes, with his shirt off, editing copy at a table he had set up near the window of his room, with the sun shining gloriously in. And later on, with his springy step, he’d go off to one of our editorial meetings. These could be stormy affairs, with tempers rising and even insults flying back and forth. But Roger was always cool as a cucumber, at most condescending to let a wry smile curl his lips before offering his own measured and calmly-expressed opinion on the matter at hand.

At one point, when Rog had taken over the European managership, he decided to take a swing through all the territories. He had never been to Spain. We had a coffee in a cafeteria, and I remember him telling me about his plans to retire at an early age thanks to some annuities he would then receive. Rog was always amazingly open, at least with me, in discussing private matters. Unfortunately, the business meetings I had scheduled for the next two days of his Madrid jaunt all had to be cancelled. For Rog spent them the time in his hotel room sick as a dog from something he had eaten in Madrid. When he was better, he flew right back to London. He never returned to Madrid again, despite many urgings from me.

Like myself and a number of others, Rog was a “hybrid” and handled both editorial and advertising. He especially excelled in the latter. His charm and wit, his ability to ingratiate himself with even the most off-putting advertisers, enabled him to rack up sales previously undreamt of in the territories he handled, which besides the UK included Germany and Holland. He helped put together the first fabulous section on the UK (see Mort Bryer’s article on that), and was always especially proud of one he did for EMI’s Lew Grade’s 80th birthday in which he managed to get a British Airways captain on the Concorde to bring over two copies of the issue hot off the press in New York, and receive them just in time to personally take a copy to a pajama-clad and astounded Lord Grade at his apartment on Christmas morning.

What I remember most about Roger is his perennial good humor. In all those years I don’t recall ever seeing him angry at anyone or anything. Moreover, he was always an indomitable optimist, the opposite of myself. Unfortunately for him, this optimism was not always justified. But even when things went awry he always seems to accept them with a certain philosophical joviality, an unconcern not entirely shared by his more practical-minded wife, Pat.

I also vividly remember the years of his interim editorship of Variety in New York. Roger had always been an inveterate workaholic and upon assuming the job at Park Avenue South launched into a non-stop effort for transforming the paper. Whenever I came through New York, either to do my Latin issue, or stopping off on the way back from the American Film Market, I’d see him ensconced in his glass-paned cubicle busily at work. When it was time to go home, and I stopped off to say good night, he’d often ask, “What are you doing for dinner?” “Nothing in particular,” I’d answer, and we’d go out together for a simple meal in a local eaterie. Clearly, his social contacts in the city were few. So we might head up to some place on the East Side, and he’d express his admiration for the Cahners execs, with me totally disagreeing.

Or while having a shepherd’s pie in some pseudo-English pub on Second Avenue he’d tell me about how he had hired some professor of English to correct the journalists’ grammatical errors, which I told him was a complete waste of money and offensive to the staff. He shrugged off my objections and re-hired the prof to do a second installment of his studies. He never took offense when someone told him that an idea of his seemed hare-brained.

On one occasion in New York he had to be rushed to a hospital because of a bleeding ulcer. When I called the hospital to see how he was, he picked up the phone and answered, “Variety, Roosevelt Hospital branch”, or whatever hospital it was. Though he spent nearly two years in the city, Rog never really got to know New York and failed to see even the basic tourist sights. Instead, he spent 12 hours a day in the office. That was his idea of “fun”. Variety was more interesting than the attractions New York had to offer.

My wife and I used to visit him when we were in London, and later I did so by myself. He was always gracious, humorous and open to criticism, though he might ignore it later on. He’d drive all the way in from his home in Shooter’s Hill, a suburb of London, to pick us up, and after spending the day with him in and around his home, he’d then drive us back again to our hotel. On a certain occasion, Jack Kindred, the former Munich bureau chief who also happened to be in London, and I decided we’d rent a car and visit him out in his new place in Birchington, which is about a 90-minute drive from London. Knowing how easy it is to get lost on the road, Roger sent me a stack of 31 filing cards on how to get to his house. On each of them was written an exact instruction, segment by segment, of what street or road to take, where to turn, how far to drive, what key buildings I would see at each stage of the trip, starting from the center of London until the final arrival at his house. I stilll have those cards and use them as an example when I want to impress Spanish friends to what degree the meticulousness of the British can be carried. Needless to say, despite his precise instructions, I took a wrong turn somewhere and for a short while got lost. But Jack and I did finally get to his house and I remember with nostalgia a pleasant walk along the beachfront of Birchington and a super seafood lunch in a beachside restaurant in nearby Whitstable.

Three years ago, when Jack Kindred and I were having lunch with Rog in London, I mentioned that I had often thought of putting out a periodical newsletter with news of the muggs and sending it around to all the ex-staffers and stringers. Whereupon Rog immediately said, “No, what we should do is a webpage”. Upon my objecting that my computer skills were on the level of an aborigine in the bush, he replied that that part of the operation could be handled out of London by him and his son, Ian, who was an expert in such matters. When we parted company that day, I said we could think about it.

To my utter surprise, when I returned to Madrid about four days later, I had an e-mail from Rog waiting for me on my computer saying that the new Site had already been uploaded and was ready to go. It was the sort of responsiveness and immediate action that made Roger such a pleasure to work with.

In June 2003, I purposely timed my yearly jaunt to London to coincide with a trip being taken by Joan and Syd Silverman, who planned to be there for several days. Rog had taken care of getting them theatre tickets and was talking about us all having a drink together somewhere. I immediately suggested that something more festive should be undertaken, and, moreover, to invite whatever other ex-Variety muggs might still be around. The result was a splendid dinner at the Stafford Hotel attended by over a dozen of the old Variety crew. Syd and Joan generously picked up the tab. It was the precursor to the big Sardi’s bash that was held in September of last year which unfortunately Rog was already too ill to attend. At least a score of people inquired about him at the time.

It is difficult to not end on a sad note. Those reaching our ages inevitably are not newcomers to losses such as that of Roger. The sentiments expressed always tend to repeat themselves, but are no less sincere for that. So let’s each of us remember Rog in his best years in whatever context we knew him and be thankful at his having enriched our lives or brought a smile to our lips during the time we spent with him. For my part, I must say it was a privilege to have known him. London and the world will somehow never be the same again without him.