The price of loyalty

WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT to read is not a composite drawn from various incidents or from my own imagination. Nor can that disclaimer to the effect that “any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental” be applied. These people will know who they are.

Several years ago, one of the city’s most successful developers found himself overextended and at the very edge of a financial abyss. He had personally signed a note on a huge project that was a tar-baby for everyone, but especially for this developer. At one point, he was given 24 hours to come up with $1 million; if he didn’t find the money, the creditors were going to go after everything he had. He would be ruined. His assets were either not liquid or were pledged to other loans, which explains why his bankers were intractable. The developer turned to a friend, a man who had helped him immeasurably when he was getting started. His friend agreed to loan him the $1 million at no interest, without collateral. (Try those terms on your friendly banker to determine the depth of generosity they represent.)

The developer’s day was saved, his business resurrected. His net worth placed him among the nation’s wealthiest individuals. He became known by presidents.

How, by the way, did the developer repay the kind of loyalty the friend had displayed? Fourteen years later, the friend picked up the morning paper and read a story about the developer’s latest plans. The newspaper story surprised-and hurt-the friend. It announced that the developer had formed a partnership to compete directly against the company that his friend-the man who had saved his skin-had founded and had helped bring into the first rank of its industry.

I suppose that the message here is “bid-ness is bidness,” and the only real loyalty is to capital and its formation and preservation. Or is there another message-that wealth can numb those instincts we should value most, especially loyalty? In this story, the friend, whose business judgment is excellent, suspended the rules he normally followed to make the loan; he made it out of loyalty. The developer, for whom enough is never enough, was loyal only to the deal and the return it might bring.

Loyalty precludes neutrality. If you are loyal to a person or a cause, you are not allowed to sit, as the president traditionally does at the Army-Navy game, on the Army side for one half and the Navy side for the other. Loyalty takes sides and then refuses to budge, regardless of the pain or discomfort. Those people who show the highest quality of loyalty do not take refuge in semantics; they are loyal, period. And when others cut and run, they stand fast-and up. Whose loyalty do you admire more, John Dean’s- or Nixon’s secretary, Rosemary Woods?

The scarcity of loyalty may be accounted for by the costs it can carry. Loyalty puts you at risk. Josh Logan, the great Broadway director whose hits included South Pacific, Picnic and Mr. Roberts, recalls that “Richard Rodgers used me as director immediately following a mental breakdown, when I thought I had lost the entire trust of the theatrical world.” It would have been so easy for Rodgers, with all that is at stake in a Broadway musical, to have not offered the job to Logan. And Logan might even have understood. But Rodgers was loyal, and while his melodies might ring forever, so will the words of his friend Josh Logan: “Dick gave me the confidence to take on a whole lifetime of musicals which, without him, I would never have had the nerve to even try.”

The difficult dimension of loyalty is that most of the time, we don’t get to practice it with any regularity. Tests of our loyalty are often infrequent and unpredictable. The circumstance comes up, and our loyalty, in all its rock-solidness, is either there or it isn’t. There is no next chance. Although inconsistent people can be deeply loyal, loyalty itself cannot weather inconsistency of application. When a tradition of loyalty has been established, it is then always expected, for there can be no uncertainty about whether loyalty will be there or not.

French writer Romain Gary was taught about loyalty by his mother, who was wholly unaided by any child psychology books. Gary’s father had left them both almost as soon as Romain was born. His mother had nothing except a sense of survival, her courage and the belief that anything was possible for her son, her only child. The two of them drifted around Europe, his mother taking whatever jobs she could find, maintaining optimism in the face of the most grim realities. For a while, they lived in Warsaw, where one day some boys badgered and teased 12-year-old Romain. Finally, one of the boys suggested that Romain’s mother was a whore. Romain couldn’t stop the tears. Bewildered, he turned and ran. When he reached home, he immediately told his mother the story. He wrote, “All of a sudden, every vestige of love and tenderness left her face. She said nothing. . . She did not so much as lay down all that night.” In the morning, she made his breakfast and said, “Listen to me carefully. The next time a thing like that happens, the next time your mother is insulted to your face, I’ll expect to see you brought home on a stretcher. Do you understand?”

Gary wrote, “A profound feeling of injustice gripped me. My lips began to tremble, tears came into my eyes, my mouth opened still further. I had no time to do more. I felt a stinging slap on my cheek, then another and another. So great was my stupefaction that the tears vanished as though by enchantment. It was the first time my mother had ever raised her hand against me, and, like everything she did, it wasn’t done by halves.”

“Remember what I’ve said to you,” she went on. “From now on, you have to defend me. I don’t care what they do to you with their fists; that’s not what hurts most. If necessary, you’ll let yourself be killed.”

Romain Gary’s mother expected total loyalty from her boy; she gave him no choice. She had no interest in shades of gray or equivocation. As she was devoted to him, she simply expected the same kind of devotion in return.

Somehow, her idea of loyalty helps driveout the miserable memory of the developer.


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