In my blog today I was going to vent my spleen over CNBC, the NBC business TV station that broadcasts in Europe and around the world. However I became sidetracked when thinking of New York so instead of ire I come to you with fond memories of one of the kindest and gentlest of men I have ever met, Walter Neiman.
I first met Walter in London in the early 1970s. He was then vice-president of WQXR, the classical music station of the New York Times. He gave a key note speech at a conference on commercial radio, a concept we were about to grasp in the UK so ending the domination of the BBC.
We had a long chat in London, corresponded and I then visited him in New York. He took extraordinary lengths to ensure that I had access to the many departments at WQXR and gave me the fullest briefing imaginable on how a commercial radio station operates – especially in a big city.
He took me to lunch at Sardi’s which impressed me immensely. First it was the only New York restaurant I had ever heard of, second the walls were bedecked with pictures of all the famous talents who had dined there and third, it was Italian, so it was food that I understood.
Our friendship continued over the years and when I visited New York in the early1980s Walter had been president of the station for a number of years. Although running the radio station of the New York Times is a major task in itself because of its importance on the city’s cultural scene Walter’s influence and talents were spread across many fronts including the Met.
We talked in his office about a radio programme I would record for WQXR with former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with a special emphasis on the pending Royal Wedding between Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. That agreed we again retired to Sardi’s for lunch.
After we sat down Walter told me this would be our farewell lunch. I looked at him rather puzzled and he explained that he had a terminal heart condition and would not be around in many more months. Indeed in March 1983 the New York Times ran the rather bleak obituary headline – Walter Neiman of WXQR is dead.
He had passed away of the expected heart attack whilst in hospital. Yet our final lunch was far from a sombre occasion. It was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with a person’s mortality so head on. I thus spent the lunch in a state of shock, like trying to eat after being punched in the stomach. Either Walter had accepted his fate with good humour or was a superb actor but he spent the rest of the meal talking animatedly about WQXR, music and his wife with whom he had visited London on the way back from an Italian holiday when I had arranged for them to visit the House of Commons. Make no mistake, Walter was the master and I was the pupil yet never in any of our conversations – and certainly not then - did he treat me anything other than as an equal and a friend. That is the true measure of this man.
Thankfully when we came to part for the final time we both had meetings to rush to so no lingering farewell was endured. However I have to admit when I turned on to Broadway tears were rolling down my cheeks. When I next visited New York Walter had passed away but friends had kept various obituaries which showed just how valued and loved he was.
Our final lunch certainly taught me a very tough lesson – but 26 years on I still have only the fondest, warmest memories of a wonderful man, a fine mentor and a true friend.