A rather unique way to leave your memory behind….another form of a monument to a kind man
Mr. Smith’s Monument
I’ve been thinking a lot about life after retirement lately. A young man dreams of the women he’ll know; an old man dreams of a little air-conditioned bungalow equidistant between a tropical beach and a urologist.
When I was a young man dreaming of all those women I’d know, I worked in a hotel on Lake Garda’s southern shores. It was a boutique hotel, only 36 rooms, very high class and expensive, but not gauche. The first few years of its operation my little hotel had catered exclusively to wealthy gay Western men. By the time I worked there, it had expanded its clientele to include wealthy Westerners of any orientation, but we were still visited now and then by some of our earliest guests, and among them was a slim, dapper man in his 70’s – Mr. Smith.
Mr. Smith was born into a very wealthy New York family, and had been educated in the finest boarding schools on the US East Coast. He was erudite, cultured, well read, exceptionally well educated, widely travelled, and could be very funny, in a sly, dry sort of way.
Our protagonist travelled the world with a middle-aged Italian man who he introduced as his “secretary.” They shared a suite. The two of them had been together for a long time. They looked after each other. The younger man would remind the older man to take his pills; he would make their travel arrangements and carry the bags. The older man would pay the bills. What they did in their suite was their own business.
He spent three months each year in our hotel. He always arrived on the same date and left on the same date. He divided the rest of his year between three other hotels in New York, Seville and Paris. All of the hotels were intimate, exclusive and expensive. On each of his visits to our hotel, he stayed in the same suite. And while it was our best suite, he paid only half the rack rate, since he booked it three months at a time. He was a man who appreciated the comfort of exclusive routine…and a bargain.
It’s all about Art
Having graduated from Harvard with an Arts degree sometime in the 1950’s he came into possession of his trust fund, which at that time was just over a million dollars. Although the eldest son, he was the fairy, so his brothers got the bulk of the estate. His million dollars was in fact a backhanded insult from his father. It came with the implied suggestion that he should be grateful for the handout; please go far away and stop embarrassing the family.
The young Mr. Smith had no great desire to do much of anything, but he thought he would like to take the Grand Tour of Europe and look at all the Art he’d been studying in books. He gave his million dollars to a financial manager, set a budget that would allow him to live on the interest, packed a bag and flew to Paris.
His tour of the galleries and museums of Europe as well as the rest of the world spanned the next decade. In that time, he stayed in some of the world’s finest and worst hotels. He strolled the galleries in the daylight and lounged around the taverns and nightclubs in the moonlight. He ran with the bulls and climbed the Alps. He photographed lions in the Serengeti and fished for big game fish in The Caribbean.
At some stage he became interested in monumental art: Lenin reaching for the horizon in Red Square, Christ the Redeemer looming over Rio, the four American presidents forced to spend eternity cheek by jowl on Mount Rushmore.
He developed a theory that monumental art is separated from all other forms of art. He believed that a monument gets its strength, its meaning, and indeed gains its power to span the ages, not because of the talent of the artist, but because of the interest that the audience holds for the subject.
“If the people who drive around that traffic circle, continuing to admire Nelson, he’ll be welcome to stay on his column until Armageddon,” said Mr. Smith. “But if the people ever stop loving him, he’ll be replaced by a garden of ornamental shrubbery.”
The big Buddhas of Asia were, he said, the proof of his theory. The giant Buddhas of Asia exist to be worshipped by the masses, and they last for centuries because the masses continue to worship them. Tinkerbell only lives as long as children clap their hands.
Andy Warhol told Mr. Smith he should write a book about monumental art, but Mr. Smith thought that sounded like a lot of work. Eventually in his 30’s, Mr. Smith realised that he liked the taverns and the hotels of the world more than he liked the museums.
Slowly continuing his travels, spending months here and a year there. He met lots of famous people; it doesn’t matter who, just let your mind scroll back over the famous people you’ve seen and read about from the past. Mr. Smith knew them all. Any place you’ve seen on the cover of a National Geographic magazine, Mr. Smith was there before the backpackers ruined it. He had, to put it mildly – seen it all.
Money, Sex or power
He’d screwed maybe a thousand of the best-looking young men in the world. Rio beach bums and Hollywood movie stars. Minor royalty and politicians. Even a few straight guys. That being said, he was always very careful about his health and even when I knew him, he was thin, but still healthy. He walked miles through the small villages that surrounded our hotel and ate mostly vegetables. He never smoked before lunch and even after through a cigarette holder.
He could put away a fair amount of wine in the evening, but in his defence, it was always really good wine. His hands were steady and his laugh turned heads on the other side of the dining room. We should all be so healthy – and happy.
By the time he was in his 50’s he had settled on a routine. His four favourite places: New York, Paris, Seville and Lake Garda, with his favourite hotel in each. He had settled on a favourite young man to carry his bags.
As the hotel’s public relations manager; it was part of my job to talk with guests. and we often spoke during his stays. In the heat of the afternoon, he would sip chilled white wine and read a book on the hotel terrace overlooking the lake. It was therefore natural and inevitable that he and I would spend hours in conversation. He was a man who loved conversation and did it extremely well.
He never had any other distractions and gave whoever was at his table his complete attention. He had a wonderful East Coast accent, but could mimic the accents of a dozen countries. When he told an anecdote, he would play all the parts. He had the gift of making fun of people without being cruel.
My life being the disorganized mess that it was, I left my employment at that hotel without warning, between Mr. Smith’s visits, and I never got to say goodbye. I suppose he must be dead now, so I don’t feel any guilt in sharing his life with you. The last time we spoke he told me something; something I didn’t really care about at the time, being young and preoccupied with grandiose thoughts of the future. But what Mr. Smith said, comes back to me often, now that I’m an old man who spends half his time regretting his past and the other half dreading his future.
As well as I can remember it, and taking out the pauses to sip wine, light cigarettes, and flirt with waiters, here’s what Mr. Smith told me:
Making Money. Keeping Money.
“I’ve spent every day of my adult life doing exactly what I wanted to do, and nothing else. I’ve got a hundred good friends and zero enemies. I started with a million dollars fifty years ago, and I’ve never worked a day in my life; but because I always lived within a budget, and been lucky with the financial managers I’ve chosen, now I’ve got two million dollars.
I have no living relatives, so when I die my two million dollars will go to a charity that buys books for schools in developing nations. Inside each book there will be a small sticker that tells the kids that this book is a gift from Mr Smith.”
They never throw away books in poor schools. They use them until they’re pulp. A book can last thirty years in a school library in Bangladesh, and the experience of reading that book can live another lifetime in the minds of the kids who read it. So Mr. Smith’s legacy, his monument, will survive for generations, kept alive by an extremely appreciative audience of hundreds of thousands of people all over the planet.
Somewhere in Bangladesh, in Nigeria, Nepal or Ecuador, a poor kid is going to open a book today and see a sticker that says “This book is a gift to you from Mr. Smith.” It happened yesterday and will happen tomorrow and the next day and the next until the internet comes to North Korea. Some kid in Belarus will go to college because his kindergarten got a big box of books from Mr. Smith.
And Mr Smith didn’t have to lift a finger to make it happen.
It’s a hell of a monument and heritage, it was built without chisel or mortar, without a grand plan or revolution, without any effort at all. It will never go out of style, never be pulled down by an invading army, never be called racist or be compared unfavourably to an earlier iteration. It’s a monument that a man built, by living within his means and having control of his desires.
Tony Lewis , Malvern. UK. 2018
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