William S. Paley

William S. Paley Memorial

By the time our paths crossed, Bill Paley had already made an enduring contribution to American life and American culture. He was in his 70s, at an age when deep, new human relationships are rarely forged. Yet, almost miraculously, Bill and I became close friends, and I want to talk about Bill Paley as a friend. Of course, Bill was larger than life, a man of many paradoxes. He was a visionary with an uncanny sense for the future, but he was rarely able to explain how or why he recognized the many waves he rode. He hugely enjoyed his wealth, but he was not particularly interested in the process of amassing it, nor did he participate in the speculative frenzy of the 1980s.

Infinitely gregarious, deeply reluctant to be alone, he way, nevertheless, encapsuled in the solitude of eminence. There was, however, nothing paradoxical about Bill’s relations with his friends, on whom he bestowed an extraordinary solicitude, forever enquiring how one was and what one was doing, with whom, and why. He always surprised, by some totally unexpected gesture of care and concern, right through the end of his life.

What fun Bill Paley was to be with. He conjured up an air of festivity simply by walking into a room. His face crinkled into that legendary, mischievous boy’s smile, his entire bearing, a challenge that he expected everybody to enjoy himself as much as he did, and that he was proposing to have a marvelous time.

I had the opportunity to travel with Bill Paley to many continents, always accompanied by the ubiquitous John Dean, his valet and friend, who loved him and spoiled him outrageously. Dean was in charge of the suitcases, bulging with Hungarian salami and other delicacies intended to buffer Bill from a sudden food shortage on alien turf. Dean was also responsible for coming as close as possible to whipping up the airplane menus which Bill devised in flagrant disregard of either customs or, indeed, of the technical possibilities of the areas through which we might be traveling.

On these trips, Bill vastly enjoyed meeting the various national leaders, who, in turn, were drawn to his courtly dignity and engaging charm. His assessments, afterwards, were always right on the mark, for Bill had a brilliant grasp of the essence of any problem to which he put his mind. Still, much as Bill valued meeting political leaders, foreign or home-grown, he avoided getting close to them personally. Perhaps this was because Bill suspected political leaders of being specialists in the quid pro quo, almost certainly because he did not want CBS to be under any political obligation whatsoever.

As caring as Bill was of his friends, he did not allow that commitment to infringe on his love affair with CBS. While I knew him, he was impervious to the many appeals that reached him to intervene with CBS News. Bill took the position that the CBS News team was beyond his reach, because it was simply the best and the most dedicated group of journalists that had ever been assembled. I once tried to tempt Bill with the suggestion that, since the days of Kant, philosophers had held the view that the human mind filtered knowledge through pre-existing categories. Why should reporters not have that axiom applied to them? Bill pretended not to understand. His attitude was that Kant wrote long before there was a CBS, and that a convoluted German philosopher could have no possible relevance to his baby at Black Rock.

To hear Bill Paley talk about CBS, you knew it had not just happened; indeed, that no one but he could have made it happen that way. He had turned a dream into a reality by his imagination and courage, his persistence and his lifelong devotion.

Bill enjoyed life with such exuberance that his friends never quite faced that, someday, it had to end. Visiting him during his last illness, I found him dozing in a chair, all of him, really, quite spent. But at the sound of the visitor, he woke up, and that marvelous smile lit up his features.

“Tell me something amusing,” he whispered. I know what he wanted to hear, because we had gone through the exercise during previous illnesses; so I recounted how, on our trip through the Middle East, he had fallen down a flight of stairs in Oman, hitting his head on every step, and how, the next day, his bandaged head giving him the appearance of some exotic sheik, we flew for 16 hours, via Malta, to Marrakesh, ending the day’s adventures at two in the morning with a sumptuous dinner that he, Bill Paley, had arranged. This tale was Bill’s reassurance of indestructibility.

As he listened, his twinkling eyes and creased face exuded such serenity that, in a surge of euphoria, I convinced myself that this staunch old warrior would confound us all again, as he had three years before, during another illness, when everybody had given up but he himself. It was not to be.

When it happened, Bill’s longtime friend, Carter Burden, captured the Bill Paley so many of us treasured in a eulogy from which I’d like to read a brief extract. Quote, “At John Dean’s funeral, only a few weeks ago, Bill decided to speak extemporaneously. He staggered up to the podium, and began by profusely thanking the startled clergyman for composing the Lord’s Prayer especially in Dean’s honor. He then announced, somewhat uncertainly, that Robert Dean had worked for him forever, and you knew the dear old boy had lost it at last. But then Bill, with his unfailing sense of occasion, began to talk straight from his valiant old heart. ‘John Dean was my friend,’ he said, ‘and I believe that, someday, probably very soon, we will meet again.’ I truly hope Bill was right, because I can see it all so clearly – Dean up there, fussing maternally over his beloved, spoiled-rotten boss; Bill, eating 12 meals a day, loving Babe, gossiping away with friends, watching several TVs simultaneously, scribbling notes, pleased as punch, twinkling away like that bright, shining star he always was and always will be.” End of quote.

n the end, a man’s life is measured by the difference he made. And about Bill, it is enough to say that America today cannot be imagined without his life’s work, nor can the lives of his friends, without his phone calls, his subtle or not so subtle, but oh-so- persistent suggestions, his all-encompassing, life-enhancing presence. A giant among men, Bill Paley, of necessity, marched to his own drummer. He honored his friends by letting them accompany him part of the way. His death leaves us lonelier and emptier, but none of us would trade places with those who did not have the good fortune of knowing Bill Paley at all.