Earlier this year, the director James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Productions paid touching tribute in The New York Times to his late partner-producer of 40 years, Ismail Merchant. Together they made classic films like "Heat & Dust," "Room With A View," and "Remains of The Day." Ismail died unexpectedly in 2005 from stomach ulcers, and I have already written about how Ismail was my cooking buddy and the inspiration behind my novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey.
But I am moved to write again because rereading Jim's tribute to Ismail - how he had "a million friends and contacts and was very much liked" and was always "pulling the fat out of the fire" - instantly brought back a flood of memories. The fellow was a lovable scoundrel:
I was Forbes magazine's top European correspondent at the time, living in London, when one afternoon I got a call from Ismail. "Richard. I am in town. Come. You must meet me for a drink." I was busy writing, but he badgered me until I agreed to meet him at his flat in Portman Square.
I thought the two of us were having relaxed drinks at his home - that's certainly what he made me believe on the phone - so I showed up in jeans and a jacket. When I got there I found Ismail was dressed elegantly in a silk kurta. He nervously looked my attire up-and-down. "Oh... There has been a change in plans. We are quickly going to see some friends of mine," he said.
The "friends" turned out to be the fashion designer and hotelier, Anouska Hempel, and her husband, the financier Sir Mark Weinberg. That night the British power couple were hosting an elegant dinner-soiree for 10 hand-picked guests at their yet to open boutique hotel in Bayswater, a Zen-like oasis of tranquility for moneyed travelers. As I made my way into the hyper-chic hotel in my jeans, I discovered, much to my horror, everyone was dressed to the nines. In fact, the first couple I spotted, as I made my way down the stairs into the intimate dining room, was the advertising guru, Lord Saatchi, and his wife, the novelist Josephine Hart. Next to them stood the actress Joan Collins.
I instantly knew what was going on. I turned to Ismail and furiously whispered, "You bastard. How could you?" He looked sheepish - but also quite pleased with himself that he had pulled it off. Ismail had clearly promised Anouska Hempel he would "bring my dear friend" Richard Morais, Forbes's European editor, which might generate some valuable press for the hotel. But had Ismail tipped his hand to me, he knew I would have refused to go, so he instead used subterfuge to get me there.
At that point, I couldn't do anything but grab a glass of wine and try and make the best of it. Guess what? It was one of the most enjoyable evenings I had in all my 18 years in London. Ismail introduced me to Joan Collins and she was lovely and funny. I had just come from Amsterdam, where I had been working on a major investigation into the global sex industry, and La Collins promptly began pumping me on all that I had learned about what goes on behind the scenes in the sex industry. We were all roaring with laughter. I distinctly recall discussing Amsterdam's tippelzone (government sanctioned street-walker parks), the profit margins in pornography, and Malcolm Forbes's townhouse lunch in New York, which I attended when I was a lowly reporter, and consisted of 8 male reporter/editors and the "Mayflower Madame," Sydney Biddle Barrows. The Madame, you might recall, was the blue-blood Mayflower descendant who ran a high class cat house from her Upper East Side apartment.
Afterwards, driving home, Ismail and I had a good laugh over the trick he played on me. I begrudgingly conceded I had a great time. Looking back, perhaps inspired by Ismail, I realize I actually tore a page from the Bombay hustler's own play book. I had long been fascinated by the talented and bizarre Maurice Saatchi, with his ubiquitous black suits and Elvis Costello glasses and his trend-setting advertising colossus, Saatchi & Saatchi. That night's contact with Lord Saatchi eventually led, years later, to a rare interview and Forbes story on the Saatchi's new advertising agency.
Ismail would have heartily approved. Not to hustle at every available opportunity meant you weren't really living.