Memorial Remarks for Robert Pirie
Bob Pirie and I met only five or six times a year, even more rarely for one-on-one conversations. Yet he was a friend of a very special kind—ever more important during the summing up phase of my life. We go through life, it has been said, looking for hidden treasure—only to discover that there is no hidden treasure and that, in the end, friendship is the chief treasure left to us.
Lucky are those who encounter, in their journey through life, an occasional reprieve for the soul from the oscillations between the fetters of prudence and the compulsions of ambition.
Bob provided such a refuge in his home and his person for me and, I suspect, for many of us in this room. There was something singular and elevating about this lawyer-banker-bibliophile who, even at the pinnacle of the business world, found solace in literary communion with John Donne. In a world of sound bites and a 24-hour news cycle—in which he operated fluidly and with every professional success—Bob chose to seek out and preserve, painstakingly, the record of an earlier period’s flourishing of human creativity. And he shared his passion and his sense of wonder at the world with his astonishingly large and catholic circle of friends.
Bob’s home was an oasis of civility, of a commitment to culture and humane values. The evenings began in the high-walled library, presided over by a charming, thoughtful, erudite host who chaperoned his guests through the extraordinary collection of rare books, even as he was ever mindful of the culinary aspects of hospitality.
What made these events so memorable was their serenity; participants were judged by standards transcending the compulsions of the moment.
Bob’s political agenda and mine rarely touched. I was most likely to hear from him in turbulent periods. He would be neither hortatory nor nostalgic. Bob conveyed—without ever being this explicit—that there was an underlying congruence transcending the controversies of the day, and that there were topics to be pursued whose exploration might benefit, perhaps amuse, or even uplift us.
An example of what I am trying to describe occurred a few weeks ago. As Christmas approached, Nancy’s sudden, seemingly undiagnosable illness brought me face-to-face with a possible recasting of my life. I found myself alone in New York because a group of friends with whom Nancy and I traditionally share the period from Christmas to New Year’s Day had left for the usual rendezvous.
At that point, Bob called. He had heard that I was still in town, he said. If I was free, he hoped I would join his annual Christmas Eve dinner, which he customarily cooked himself. He referred to no other circumstance.
Nancy, who loved Bob, insisted from the hospital that I accept, and I did, literally at the last minute on Christmas Eve. Many in this room will know what took place: an intimate, civilized mixture of guests from various interesting fields—I recall about seven—discussing a wide variety of subjects, with a solicitous host who doubled as chef. Everyone would have remembered the evening as a moment of inner peace, even had it not been the last time many of us saw Bob.
A few days later, I called Bob to thank him for having made a difference, and I found myself saying how much he had contributed to the tranquility of my life over the decades.
Most of the mourners assembled here will be able to detail aspects of Bob’s impact on the basis of a more extended relationship. I have taken the liberty of recounting a personal anecdote to express how much, at this moment of sadness, even those of us at the periphery of Bob’s daily activities have been ennobled by the privilege of sharing a part of an exceptional life.