He was 94, and, as the all-knowing "they" say, he had a pretty good run. As readers of this little blog might remember, he came from a town in Morocco in the part of that North African country that formed the "Spanish Protectorate." He was born a Jew in a Muslim country under Catholic Spanish rule. He always seemed to find the odd niche to fill, the hard-to-categorize, he was, shall we say, an off-brand. This failure to stay within easily defined boundaries would follow him for the rest of his life, both professionally and personally.
He arrived, by ship from England, in New York City on Christmas Eve 1950, with an American visa, $200 in tens, and the address of the local YMCA in his pocket. He had always wanted to live in America. He briefly flirted with the idea of living in Britain, but the UK in 1950 was not a cheery place. It certainly was not America. So, off he went. My mother followed shortly after.
We moved a lot. We lived all over the country (NY, VA, Territory of Hawaii, and many places in CA) and spent a great deal of time overseas as he had to return on several occasions to deal with family issues in Morocco and Spain. It was not easy getting his Spanish credentials accepted in the USA of the 1950s. The AMA had successfully blocked most foreign graduates and required extensive retraining and internships. He waged a constant battle to get accepted as a doctor, and some of his most colorful stories involved dealing with hospital administrators and doctors to get himself established. He, however, spoke several languages, had excellent surgical skills, and went on to became a highly successful doctor (psychiatry, neurology, and neurosurgery) and one who found 90% of medicine to be "nonsense," his favorite word.
He was restless, and kept a passport, a .38 revolver, and several thousand dollars in a cigar box under his bed, "When you're Jewish and have lived in Europe, you learn to be ready to go immediately." He was an ardent defender of the Second Amendment. He thought it amazing and a tribute to the wisdom of the nation's founders that a private citizen legally could arm and defend himself.
Back to his views on medicine. He would often say that the only real discoveries in medicine were aspirin, codeine, laxatives, and antibiotics--everything else was, well, "nonsense." Did he really believe that or was he trolling? Hard to tell. He certainly had little respect for psychiatry, but at the same time used his considerable analytical skills honed in psychiatric practice to evaluate people and, frankly, as noted, to make a lot of money in businesses not even remotely related to medicine. He was also something of a celebrity expert witness in countless civil and criminal trials. He was famous for interrupting cross-examining defense lawyers with, "Stop that nonsense! The man knew exactly was he doing. He deserves the gas chamber."
He made a lot of money, helluva lot, but didn't seem to care much about the stuff. Aside from his medical practice, he was something of a stock market and real estate wizard. We, however, lived very middle class lives, no particular luxuries, one b/w TV, older cars, and never knew we were quite wealthy. I only got an inkling when once, in the late 1960s, I glimpsed his IRS returns and was stunned by the yearly income; I felt sure there was a misplaced decimal point. I never saw him attach any importance to money except as it provided a means to achieve independence, and get away from the "idiots." He was always searching for ways to get away from the "idiots." He lived frugally, drove old and battered cars, dressed modestly, and rarely splurged on anything except cigars and wine. He had, yes, a rusty three-cylinder Geo which he drove to fancy Beverly Hills restaurants and parked next to the gleaming Bentleys, BMWs, Cadillacs, etc., of the ostentatiously and supposedly rich. Tired of the constant jibes about his car, he had business cards made to hand sneering parking valets and dinner partners reading, "Yes, but unlike you, I actually have money."
He smoked four or five cigars daily until about year or so before his death, drank copious amounts of wine and cognac, ate prodigious amounts of red meat, devoured chocolate chip cookies, and never did an hour's worth of exercise in his life: "Just like Churchill," he would say. He laughed off advice to stop smoking, start exercising, and "clean up" his act. "Doctors don't know anything," he would say while he sat in his office wearing his Louis Farrakhan bowtie, puffing on a cigar, reading Bertrand Russell ("An idiot, but he writes well") and waiting for patients.
He passed much of his life in Malibu. My mother refused to live there and spent her time at a huge house in San Marino. The Malibu house sat, quite literally, on the edge of the continent, right where the ocean and the beach do battle. Unless you lived on a boat, you couldn't get closer to the sea. During storms, the house would get hit by waves--even a seagull and an odd fish or two got flung into the living room through the always open sliding glass doors. We kids hated and ridiculed the place--everything was wet, rusted, or moldy. He, however, loved living there especially when the tourists were blocked by coast highway closings caused by mudslides, brush fires, earthquakes, storms, or some bizarre Malibu car accident, e.g., a drunk wrapping a Ferrari around a telephone pole and bringing the thing crashing down on the road. Why did he live there? He apparently had a perverse pride in living in a very uncomfortable place, and he loved the sea lions and the whales that paraded by the house. He actually worried about the whales, "Poor things, always in that cold water." And dogs. He loved dogs. He hated anybody who abused animals.
He lived surrounded by but oblivious to the Hollywood set. For years, for example, his neighbor, was a very famous comedian and actor, of whom my father had never heard. On the rare occasion he would go to the local temple, he would meet the Hollywood elite--and genuinely have no idea who they were. The last movies he had seen were "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Gigi." He wouldn't go to movies because he was no longer allowed to smoke in the theater, and, yes, "they are all nonsense made by homosexuals and Communists." Mind you, he said this decades ago.
Smoke. As a child, my world was enveloped in cigar smoke. Everything, houses, cars, clothes, and his offices, smelled of cigars. In addition, it seemed that everywhere in those houses and offices, every conceivable space, was packed with books. He loved books and insisted that I read them, too. I was the only kid in Miss Sarzin's fifth grade class who had read Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII, and gave ponderous book reports on Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer," Sir James Frazer's "The Golden Bough," and Sigmund Freud's "Moses and Monotheism." I was unbearable--a trait I have nurtured. At least, however, I didn't smoke cigars or swill cognac, well, not in class.
He thought America was the best country on earth, thanks to "the rednecks. They defeated the Nazis, nobody else did." He detested Europe, "pretentious anti-semitic idiots." He also thought that America was headed for serious trouble as it got further and further away from its Anglo roots. He refused to call the left "liberals," and decades ago took up calling them "Communists," to the chagrin of the very PC Malibu and West LA crowd. He saw the 1965 immigration law as the biggest disaster in our history, and loathed America's secularized Jews, "They don't appreciate what we have here." He, himself, of course, was an immigrant with no Anglo roots, had a love of Chinese culture and history, and rarely went to temple. He was a strong supporter of Israel, gave lots of money to the country and even to Rabbi Meir Kahane, but openly stated he could never live there, "A nation of New Yorkers!" He hated New York, and loved Los Angeles and Miami. He also, by the way, hated universities, saying no great idea ever came out of a university--but, nevertheless, insisted that all of us go to university. "Get that stupid piece of paper, but don't pay attention to those stupid professors," was his advice re "higher" education.
Soon after becoming a US citizen, he had voted for JFK and LBJ, but after 1964, became a 100% Republican voter. He had a deep understanding of politics and hated political correctness. He correctly predicted not only that Obama would become President well before he was a major player, but, most surprising, started telling me around 2004 that Trump was destined to become President. He voted for Trump, and one of the last things he saw was the TV coverage of the American Embassy opening in Jerusalem. "Trump knows how to play the game," he said.
Neither he nor I was ever sure if he approved of my choice of career. He had a pretty low regard for the State Department. I remember shortly after I joined in 1978, he asked what my salary was. I proudly told him, $14,700. He looked puzzled, puffed on his cigar, and said, "OK, $14,700 a month is OK, but ..." When I noted that it was $14,700 a year, he was horrified, "You'll never be independent!" He, nevertheless, did visit us at several assignments, but almost died in Bolivia from the altitude.