Robert Pirie: memories from friends of an extraordinary man
By Nate Thayer
April 25, 2016
My uncle and Godfather, Robert S. Pirie, died last year after an extraordinary life. He was a true renaissance man: a Harvard educated lawyer; a ruthless Wall Street businessman during the hard knuckle mergers and acquisitions period of the 80’s; a bibliophile and book collector of international renown. He was the campaign manager of 1972 Presidential candidate U.S. senator Harold Hughes, a recovered alcoholic Iowa truck driver. He was named on President Richard Nixon’s scandalous official “enemies list”, and was a New York icon famed for his wide, odd, eclectic collection of friends who spanned the political spectrum.
Pirie was that and many other things, including a fervent loyalist to those he deemed worthy. I count myself lucky to have been among those.
Robert Pirie was, like all of us, a flawed man. To engender his enmity or find oneself on an opposing team was to occupy a special place in one of the Seven Circles of Hell. Equally, to have him as a friend produced astonishing levels of loyalty and kindness.
I can recall numerous examples of having resided in both categories in his mind’s eye during the 50 years I had known him.
Pirie was ruthless and feared in business, law, and in personal relations.
In 1997, I found myself in the both enviable and not so enviable position of having encountered, interviewed, and photographed Pol Pot—the first person to have done so in the two decades since he had orchestrated the death of nearly 2 million people.
I was a correspondent for the excellent Far Eastern Economic Review at the time and the story was promised to them. But I also had video and still pictures of which I marketed for sale after the Review published it’s exclusive. Ted Koppel, of ABC Nightline News, flew out to Bangkok and viewed my videotape, and ABC Nightline purchased one-time rights for airing the video on Nightline for a specific one-week period, to take place after the exclusive story was published by the Review. Koppel signed a written contract and shook my hand agreeing to the terms.
In those days, a man’s word of honor mattered.
It did not to Ted Koppel who, once he had possession of the videotape, turned it over to his ABC/Disney corporate bosses and defended ABC when they stole the video, created still photo frames, and distributed the transcripts of the Pol Pot interviews to news organizations prior to me publishing my own story, taking credit for the work as their own.
The fruits of ten years of my work, including my story and pictures appeared on the front page of the New York Times (and hundreds of other news outlets) prior to me publishing my own story in the Review, and was credited as having been the work of ABC News. It was the top story in the world for a couple of days.
Bob Pirie called me in Bangkok from New York, where he was reading his morning paper, to congratulate me on the story. When I told him it was stolen, he was not happy.
ABC News/Disney/Ted Koppel/Nightline thought they could steal from a powerless freelancer (that would be me), but they did not know they were fucking with Bob Pirie.
Pirie reveled in taking on the difficult fight, beating them bloody, and forcing them to say “uncle” to my Uncle Bobby Pirie.
Pirie spent seven years defending me. He organized A-list law firms—the kind no one wants to fuck with–to take my case for no fees, but rather on principle.
Pirie, being a lawyer himself, accompanied me to meetings with Ted Koppel and ABC/Disney during the legal nightmare, which was designed by the corporate behemoth to suck the life out of an individual freelancer who they reckoned they could force into submission or bankruptcy.
Bob showed up at Union Station in Washington one spring early morning having taken the train from New York. He was dressed in a tuxedo, a top hat, a walking stick, and ridiculous red argyle socks. I picked him up and we proceeded to the meeting with Koppel and the high-powered team of ABC/Disney corporate lawyers.
I remember arriving at the ABC/Disney lawyer’s office, the infamous Wilmer, Hale, an A-list Washington legal powerhouse who represented ABC Disney/Koppel.
But Bob Pirie was a friend of the chief partner for the law firm. Pirie never identified himself. He told me to just say he was a “friend”.
Sitting across the table from Pirie and me was Koppel and his team.
My team was Bob Pirie.
ABC/Disney’s insufferably arrogant young, clueless corporate attorney huffed and puffed and, in an astonishingly insulting proposition, offered to consider publishing one of my stories in the future in lieu of acknowledging (or compensating for) the fact they had stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars of pictures and video and story rights to the story.
I lost it. I wagged my finger at Ted Koppel and told him: “You ought to be, and I am sure you are, ashamed of yourself for being a pimp for your corporate bosses and using your word of honor to steal a real journalist’s work and represent it as your own.”
Koppel sputtered and his eyes narrowed. “My reputation stands for itself,” he said.
“Yes, it does,” I replied. “You are a ten-cent hooker for your corporate masters and we both know it. You bended over and picked up the soap on the orders of your bosses in exchange for your 30 pieces of silver.”
I excused myself to pee. While in the bathroom, ABC/Disney’s chief lawyer sidled up to me in the adjoining urinal to ask “So, who exactly is Bob Pirie? Is he your new lawyer?”
“No,” I said. “He is a friend.”
We returned to the meeting room and Pirie, with a smile and a mischievous grin, abruptly adjourned the meeting.
When we got outside, he was happier than a pig with a full trough and slapped me on the back. “I am proud of you for what you said to Koppel. That is exactly what he and those assholes needed to hear,” he said smiling. “They know you are right and you don’t give a shit who they are and you aren’t going away. Now they are scared because they think you are nuts. You are. And so am I, and I am not going away either. And we are going to win this.”
Bob Pirie stood by me for seven years until we—or more accurately Pirie—forced ABC/Disney to their knees. And they cried Uncle, admitted they were wrong, and paid up. They wished they had never, ever fucked with me, but especially my loyal and extraordinarily, loyal Uncle Bob Pirie.
He loved fighting the good fight almost as much as he loved winning.
Pirie was very fond of Henry Kissinger, who he referred to as “the war criminal”. I remember more than once we would be chatting on the phone and he would say he was “off to the war criminal’s house for dinner.”
I attended other intimate gatherings of a half a dozen which included Nobel prize winners, U.S. justices of the supreme court, Hollywood actors, US politicians, international powerhouses such as Kofi Annan, and, always, several who were far more obscure, but who represented to Pirie people who he found interesting and, by his own quirky definition, worthy.
Here are some excerpts from speakers at his memorial service in New York City last year that reflect his extraordinary grouping of friends.
They included Henry Kissinger, Rachel Maddow of NBC News, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the Governor of the Bank of England.
“Bob Pirie and I met only five or six times a year—even more rarely for one-on-one conversations. Yet he was a friend of a very special kind—ever more important during the summing up phase of my life. We go through life, it has been said, looking for hidden treasure—only to discover that there is no hidden treasure and that, in the end, friendship is the chief treasure left to us.
Lucky are those who encounter, in their journey through life, an occasional reprieve for the soul from the oscillations between the fetters of prudence and the compulsions of ambition.
Bob provided such a refuge in his home and his person for me and, I suspect, for many in this room. There was something singular and elevating about this lawyer-banker-bibliophile who, even at the pinnacle of the business world, found solace in literary communion with John Donne. In a world of sound bites and a 24-hour news cycle—in which he operated fluidly and with every professional success—Bob chose to seek out and preserve, painstakingly, the record of an earlier period’s flourishing of creativity. And he shared his passion and his sense of wonder at the world with his astonishingly large and catholic circle of friends.
Bob’s home was an oasis of civility, of a commitment to culture and humane values. The evenings began in the high-walled library, presided over by a charming, thoughtful, and erudite host who chaperoned his guests through the extraordinary collection of rare books, even as he was ever mindful of the culinary aspects of hospitality.
What made these events so memorable was their serenity; participants were judged by standards transcending the compulsions of the moment.
Bob’s political agenda and mine rarely touched. I was most likely to hear from him in turbulent periods. He would be neither hortatory nor nostalgic. Bob conveyed—without ever being this explicit—that there was an underlying congruence transcending the controversies of the day, and there were topics to be pursued, whose exploration might benefit, perhaps amuse, even uplift us.
An example of what I am trying to describe occurred a few weeks ago. As Christmas approached, Nancy’s sudden, seemingly diagnosable illness brought me face-to-face with a possible recasting of my life. I found myself alone in New York because a group of friends with whom Nancy and I traditionally share the period from Christmas to New Year’s Day had left for the usual rendezvous.
At that point, Bob called. He had heard that I was still in town, he said. If I was free, he hoped I would join his annual Christmas Eve dinner, which he customarily cooked himself. He referred to no other circumstance.
Nancy, who loved Bob, insisted from the hospital that I accept, and I did, literally at the last-minute on Christmas Eve. Many in this room will know what took place: an intimate, civilized mixture of guests from various interesting fields—I recall about seven—discussing a wide variety of subjects, with a solicitous host who doubled as chef. Everyone would remember the evening as a moment of inner peace, even had it not been the last time many of us saw Bob.
A few days later, I called Bob to thank him for having made a difference, and I found myself saying how much he had contributed to the tranquility of my life over the decades.
Most of the mourners assembled here will be able to detail aspects of Bob’s impact on the basis of a more extended relationship. I have taken the liberty of recounting a personal anecdote to express how much, at this moment of sadness, even those of us at the periphery of Bob’s daily activities have been ennobled by the privilege of sharing a part of an exceptional life.”
RACHEL MADDOW (NBC NEWS TV HOST):
“The first words Mr. Pirie ever spoke to me were “I am in love with you.”
My first words to him were “It’s nice to meet you—my name is Rachel.”
Bob and I met because of his friendship with Tom Brokaw.
When I started the job I have, which involves me being on television, I soon learned the two rules everyone learns when they first get their first job in TV:
Rule Number One is “No New Friends.”
Like elective office and lottery winnings, there is something about being on TV that cautions against the illusions of new affection or new friendship.
Rule Number Two is “Always do what Tom Brokaw says.”
Mr. Brokaw called me one day a few years ago to say that he had a friend who he wanted me to meet. He thought we would have a lot to talk about, and could we have lunch.
Because of Rule Number one, the answer to invitations like that is always no: no, no, no, no new friends. Certainly no new friends of friends.
But because of Rule Number Two—because it was Tom calling—I had no choice.
And then, yes, Bob told me that he was in love with me even before I sat down.
And, before the end of the meal I was sort of in love with him, too. Susan and I both fell in love with Bob.
When we asked him to marry us, and he said yes we decided that even if the jurisdiction did not exist in which such a thing could be legal, we would consider it done anyway. We thought we could be a whole new variety of the world’s gayest marriage—we would call it a Santorum.
We didn’t actually all get married, but Bob did change our lives entirely.
For a man who was never old a day in his life, who was still bringing home kittens and messengering over Styrofoam hats shaped like curling stones, and taking great delight in cracking nuts in a nutcracker shaped like women’s leg’s, for the enormous child that Bob was.
But for as much as a mischievous overgrown imp Bob was, he also is the man who taught Susan and I to grow up. To live like adults in the world; to get into this city instead of just surviving it; to go see music; to go see not just what’s new, but your old favorite art, over and over; to join; to get out of the protective little kernel we had burrowed ourselves into.
I know Bob wasn’t everything to everyone over the course of his rather astonishing life. But as an older man who met Susan and me, in this time, in New York, in our lives, he kind of was everything.
Our lives revolved around him here. And we are not the same without him.
And I finish my show every night and every night part of me waits to get that one-line, two-line email from him telling me what he liked and offering some dirty back story on the guy I just reported on, and asking to go out for midnight pasta, where he’d know everyone there, and we would fight over the check. Literally, we would physically fight.
As far as I am concerned, as far as my family is concerned, today we mourn the death of the King of New York. He called himself the hermit of 9th street, but for us, he was the King of New York.
He saved steak bones for our dog, from Keen’s; he let me break the no-fishing-from-the-Belon rule—and even bought me ridiculous mackerel jigs, which I hand-lined from the deck, using some priceless letter-opener of his as ballast; he stood lobsters on their heads and tickled them some little lullaby to knock them out; he took me to the Supreme Court and di not tease me, for once, when I was stupefied with intimidation; he cried not once, not twice, but every single time he spoke about (his died too young daughter) Amanda, including the first time we met.
One night, I went to West 9th street and he said, “Is that anew scarf?” And I said “Yes, I just got it today.” And he said “Oooh. Can you take it back?”
I learned Rule Number Three these last few great years of my life.
Rule Number Three: Trust Bob
I will miss him forever.”