Memorial Remarks for Ahmet Ertegun
I do not remember precisely when Ahmet showed up in my life. I had heard of him, of course, but I did not believe what I was hearing.
Suddenly, he was there, raspy-voiced, irreverent, buoyant, debonair, charming, ubiquitous, highly intelligent and occasionally, let us admit, exasperating. I still did not believe what I was seeing.
In a short time, he became part of my life. We were new experiences for each other. He had never met anyone who knew so little of jazz or rock. I found his political views, shall we say, not congruent with mine.
It did not matter. Ahmet was irrepressible and irresistible, occasionally at the borderline of the outrageous, though usually taking care not to cross it. He did not permit one to take oneself too seriously – a trait for which I provided a great challenge and Ahmet’s close friend, Swifty Lazar – the literary agent who had probably never read a book – an irresistible foil.
Ahmet tried to show me his world, introducing me to Mick Jagger, which greatly enhanced my relations with my son, and Wilson Pickett, who greeted me with a “high-five”.
I reciprocated by traveling with him to many foreign countries, though as the son of a distinguished Turkish diplomat, he was quite at home everywhere. We went together to India, China, Nepal, World Cup tournaments in Spain, Italy and France and, of course, to Turkey.
I cannot say that Ahmet’s impact on my kind of international relations was an unmixed blessing. One of our visits to Turkey occurred when Greek-Turkish tensions were at a high point, and I thought that discretion was the best course. Ahmet had a different view. He appointed himself as my press secretary. Every morning, I awoke to a widely-covered, provocative interview given by Ahmet but ascribed to me. I became a hero in Turkey. My standing in Greece is another matter.
Then there was our legendary trip to China. In introducing Ahmet, I told an official that Ahmet was the exception to the rule that Turks have no sense of humor. Ahmet took this as a challenge to his national pride. Our host politely suggested that Ahmet tell him a joke. So when Ahmet complied, at epic length and complexity, what probably saved us from being ostracized was that unfamiliarity with the subject must have overwhelmed the interpreter. The trip ended as it began. When a Chinese host at a farewell lunch described papaya as a specifically Chinese fruit, Ahmet responded by breaking into song:
“Oh mia, oh mya,
You really otta trya,
A piece of Miss Papoolie’s Papaya,
She likes to give it away,
She likes to give it away.”
In the end, Ahmet’s boisterous vitality was not his only, or even his defining, characteristic. Ahmet was vastly entertaining, but he was, above all, sensitive, thoughtful, incredibly generous and caring. He loved music, and he loved his artists. He was extraordinarily loyal to his friends. He cared deeply for Turkey, acting as an unofficial permanent ambassador of Turkey in Washington and as a spokesman for America in Turkey. Above all, Ahmet had such a great time because he felt there was about the universe a fitness that justified ultimate joyfulness, and that joyfulness was the other side of his being so indomitable.
For each of us, each in our own way, Ahmet leaves a hole in our lives. But when we think of him, we smile and feel more confident. And this is why Ahmet will always be with us.