A Cold Night on Park Avenue – February 5, 2007

A Cold Night on Park Avenue


Richard J. Garfunkel

February 5, 2007


As anyone in the Northeast or Tarrytown would know, unless they were asleep for twenty years like Rip van Winkle, it is very cold. The Hudson River, in spots, is clogged with ice and in certain locations barge traffic has ceased. Just when we were all starting to enjoy the virtues of “global warming,” Old Man Winter, along with Jack Frost, roared into our neighborhood, and like a boorish guest, just won’t leave.


With all this in mind, we still ventured out the other night to see the “mover and shakers” in the business management world. I won’t mention the exact address and names of our hosts, but they live on Park Avenue in the 90’s right before the subway goes above ground. By the way, there are some wonderful pre-war apartment buildings in that neighborhood. Linda gets to meet a lot of these people through her affiliation and employment with a private equity firm. So every once in a while we get invited to eat canapés, sip Perrier or wine with the “elites” of that world, which circulates in and around the corridors of the Yale School of Management and the Harvard Business School.


Of course this occasion was the promotion of Professor Jeff Sonnenfeld’s new book Firing Back, “How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters.” Linda had left her office on 55th Street and caught a Madison Avenue bus that made excellent time to her destination. We were to meet at 6:30 pm in the lobby of the our destination. As I was exiting the West Side Highway at 125th Street, where the Fairway Super Market has uplifted that seedy neighborhood, my cell phone rang. Linda was already awaiting my arrival and was wondering what progress I was making. I had decided to go on the West Side, and cross upper Manhattan above the Park on 125th Street in the heart of Harlem. I made my way quickly past the famous the Apollo Theater that has been enjoying a new life and prominence since its rehabilitation in 1983.


The theater’s name dates back to its original creation as a dance hall and ballroom   in the 1860’s by one General Ed Ferrero. It was called the Apollo Hall and in 1872 it was converted to a theater. It was shifted to its current location at 253 W. 125th Street in 1913. It was then called the Hurtig and Seamons (New) Burlesque Theater and it would remain in operations as a “whites only” establishment until 1928.  When Bill Minsky took it over, he transformed it into the 125th Street Apollo Theater. Finally with Minsky’s untimely death in 1932, Sidney Cohen, a theater impresario, purchased the edifice, and opened it up to the African-American community in 1934. An early star of one of the first African-American Amateur Night contests was a dancer turned singer, the sensational teenager Ella Fitzgerald.


Within a few minutes I reached Park Avenue, where I turned right and headed south. Park Avenue is quite different in that area of Manhattan. It is a narrow street that hugs the huge stonewall that supports the elevated portion of the subway line that runs under Park Avenue from 96th Street to Grand central Station. I found a parking space a couple of short blocks from my eventual destination. As I entered the building after a short walk, there was Linda, waiting patiently, and sitting in the lobby on a non-descript couch. There are two sides to the massive and handsome lobby and there is a coat rack on both sides. We were directed to the left.


Joseph Paterno developed this 17-story building in 1929, and it has 55 apartments and some duplexes. It has a three-story lime base, which fronts on Park Avenue and Rosario Candela designed it at the end of the “golden age” of building. Mr. Candela, who was born in Sicily and immigrated to America in 1909, graduated from the Columbia School of Architecture in 1915.  Elizabeth Hawes, in her book, New York, New York, said that, “Candela’s buildings were the grandest in a decade that was itself the greatest.”


On the left side of the lobby we were greeted, checked our coats and picked up our ID badges. We entered a private elevator and were quickly whisked to the 16th floor. The elevator opened up into a magnificent duplex apartment. As we walked in, our host, who we quickly learned was an important principal of a major private equity firm, greeted us with a hearty handshake. My brother-in-law, who has lived in England for thirty-seven years, and was the managing director of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ was founded in 1959, and one of its principals, William H. Donaldson, was the Chairman of the SEC from 2003 through 2005.) in Europe, was offered an important position with this firm when DLJ was acquired. I asked our host if he knew him, and he told me that he was from the other side of the acquisition and unfortunately did not know him.


I learned quickly that they were expecting at least 168 invitees and that they had just recently hosted another book party for over 350! It wasn’t easy to see how 350 or so souls could fit in this apartment, and I later heard that people were even wandering upstairs into the living quarters. The apartment was decorated with incredible taste. The walls were covered with magnificent nineteenth century oils that were framed with gilt-washed carved wood. The living room featured two sumptuous chairs and an antique couch surrounding a huge fireplace. I was also impressed by the multiple silver service sets that dominated both the coffee table and another side table that was on the other side of the couch. The dining room, with its impressive mahogany table, the kitchen and the den were equally impressive. Unfortunately, within a few moments, the apartment filled up quickly and it was almost impossible to move around and effectively look at all the treasures that adorned the walls, filled the breakfronts, and were on the tables. Meanwhile the view downtown from the 16th floor was spectacular and since it was evening much of the glow and glitter of Manhattan could be enjoyed


We found some people to talk to and coincidently Linda met the brother of one of the managing partners of her firm, who is one of the top management people at Verizon. Another was the director of the New York-based Clinton Global Initiatives, and we reminisced about our wonderful trip to Little Rock and the opening of the Clinton Library in November of 2004. We were only able to meet a fraction of the guests. But whomever we bumped into was an adventure. We even met Ms. Laura Donna, of the Connecticut Forum, who invited us to Hartford’s Bushnell Theater to hear a talk on “Saving the World,” which is being held this Thursday night and would feature, Tm Robbins, Rory Kennedy and Nicholas Kristoff.


Delightfully there were hundreds of books lying around and free to all who wanted one. Eventually I spotted Jeff Sonnefeld, who was surrounded by his friends and admirers, and I was able to squeeze in and get my copy signed. He’s a big man, who had originally made his name at Emory University, where he left under pressure, and now is the Senior Associate Dean for Executive Programs and the Lester Crown Professor in Management at the Yale graduate School of Management. Essentially Firing Back, which is about how great leaders rebound from adversity, was probably inspired by Professor Sonnenfeld’s own experiences regarding his departure from Emory. Eventually Sonnenfeld and his co-author Andrew Ward spoke to the delight of all of their fans.


Meanwhile, in this most recent work of his, Fighting Back, Sonnenfeld states, “this book examines the often and abrupt and unexpected fall from grace of prominent leaders and the process by which they recover and even exceed their past accomplishments with a new adventure.”  He goes on to review the “five levels of resilience from adversity to reveal the solid foundation in research and theory that anchors each of these requirements for recovery.”


He later chronicles many tragedies, failures and setbacks in his chapter on the nature of adversity. Of course he starts to build a case for his way of finding one’s way back.


1)      Stress and trauma: don’t adapt to the adversity or fearfully give in, but instead fight it.

2)      Affiliation: Do not isolate yourself in grief; engage others for mutual support

3)      Self-esteem, attribution theory, impression management, reputation management: Do not blame yourself or let others blame you; offer meaning and explanation.

4)      Effectance motivation:  Assert your mastery and competence

5)      Existential Purpose: Set an anchor in the future that gives you a reason to survive and a purpose in life.


In other words, he believes, “Don’t adapt to Adversity- Fight It.” Of course Sonnefeld adeptly goes through chapter after chapter reviewing the various barriers to recovery:


1)      Societal Culture

2)      Corporate Culture

3)      Departure Causes

4)      Psychological Stresses


Finally, Sonnenfeld turns in his final chapters of “how to fight”, and reviews the issue of facing up to the problem at hand. I remember so well his quote from Ray Donovan, the Secretary of Labor under Ronald Reagan, “Where do I go to get my reputation back?” Sonnenfeld describes, in detail, the experiences of Donovan and how he dealt with the rumor mills regarding his career with Schiavone Construction Company. Eventually Donovan weathered the storm that raged around him during his confirmation hearing, and went on to serve throughout Reagan’s first term. Ironically after beating back all the rumors regarding “mob influence,” a month before the 1984 election, he was indicted on 137 counts of fraud and grand larceny. He was forced to take a leave of absence, and eventually won the battle, but lost his public reputation. Sonnenfeld quoted Warren Buffet who said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to lose it.” I remember the Donovan Case quite well and frankly I was astounded that he was exonerated.


Sonnenfeld closed his book with the chapter “Creating Triumph from Tragedy- Lessons Learned from Legends and Losers.” He concludes that the “Final Lesson: Comeback is not a matter of luck, It is taking a chosen path.” In other words, he ends with “no one can take away our hope and opportunity for tomorrow unless we close our own eyes.”


I am reminded with those inspiring words of Winston Churchill’s monumental history of World War II. In his final volume Triumph and Tragedy, he talks of the Moral of the Work, In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity and In Peace: Goodwill. In the basking glow of triumph, Churchill recalls how in the depths of despair, in February of 1941, Mr. Wendall Willkie hand delivered a letter to him from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In that letter, which was written in FDR’s own hand, contained the famous lines of Longfellow:


            “ ‘Sail on, O ship of State!

Sail on, O Union, strong and great!

Humanity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of future years,

Is hanging breathless on thy fate’ “


Probably nowhere in our history and time can we find a better example of “Fighting Back” and how the inspiration of Franklin Roosevelt’s profound message along with the announcement of our assistance called “Lend-Lease,” worked miracles with Churchill and the British people. Both Churchill and Roosevelt, titans of the last millennium, were prime examples of individuals who triumphed over personal and political adversity and setbacks. More than once, they used the mantra of hope and confidence to rise again to success, prominence and social adulation.


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