Tactics of greed

Elie de Rothschild, who died a couple of weeks ago while on a shooting trip in Austria aged 90, once told me the story...

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Elie de Rothschild, who died a couple of weeks ago while on a shooting trip in Austria aged 90, once told me the story of a young Arab kebab seller who always parked his stand across from la Banque Rothschild on rue Lafitte. The Arab was asked for a loan by an acquaintance of his. ‘Look here,’ he told the man, ‘I have a deal with the bank across the street. I will not lend money and the Rothschilds will not sell kebabs.’ End of story, as they say.

I thought of Elie, with whom I used to play polo, when the you-know-what hit the fan last week. Bankers should act like bankers, and not kebab salesmen. The latter try to sell to anyone within hearing distance. In the good old days, bankers lent money to those who could repay. When greed set in during the go-go days, they started lending to people unlikely to repay them. But there was a catch. The bankers covered themselves by selling the bad loans to others, greedier than themselves, and made a profit out of doing so. The Ponzi scheme has now caught up with them, hence the blood in the markets.

So, what happens next? If I knew I would tell you, but I don’t. What I do know is that we have a huge credit bubble, and debt is piling up on top of debt, and that can’t be good. Personally, I blew it. I wanted to do a Bernard Baruch of 1927, or a Jimmy Goldsmith of 1987, then got lazy and didn’t bother to play my instinct. Never mind. I have never owed anyone anything, so I’m fine, but I do worry about friends who live on the edge. The party could be over for a very long time, almost as long as it’s been going on.

Last month in St Tropez I thought of a satanic plot to relieve a certain Steve Schwartzman of a couple of hundred thousand bucks. SS is the co-chairman of Blackstone group, and a man who recently made 200 million from taking his company public. Steve is worth about ten billion but is eager to make more. Schwartzman prides himself as a tennis player. He played with a friend of mine who is a top player, and my friend let him win a tie-break, confirming his belief that he can hit the ball with the best of them. I asked my friend to tell SS that I fancy myself a racketeer, but also to tell him that I’m useless and that I’d like to play him for one hundred thousand smackers a set. Double or nothing would be up to the loser. Well, it wasn’t even close. SS turned it down flat, but not because — as my friend assured me — I could take the bum playing with my left hand. ‘Taki will spill the beans, and right now I cannot afford having the papers writing about me playing 100,000 dollars a set.’

Oh well, you can’t win them all. Incidentally, I read this utter rubbish being written about my friend John Aspinall. All I can say is they would, wouldn’t they, now that he’s long dead and unable to defend his reputation. What a ghastly place Britain can be, a place where no one is safe after their death from the libels of scum trying to make a cheap buck. Cheating at the Clermont? There were Gaming Board spies and inspectors everywhere. Only a fool would risk his business by trying to cheat, and Aspers was no fool. Sure, when a man steamed at the backgammon tables, like Henry Vyner and Markos Nomikos used to do, he would take full advantage, but so would everyone else. I once took Harold Lever for £55,000 while playing in Gstaad. Lever was slow in paying, but then David Niven told the Daily Express about it — Lever was a Labour minister in 1966, and Brits were only allowed to take out something like 80 quid back then — so I flew to London, got paid and lost it the same night playing chemmy at the Clermont. Not very smart on my part, but the game was straight and a hell of a lot of fun.

And while I’m at it, reminiscing about absent friends, I was sad to read about Andras Kalman, a wonderful Hungarian art dealer and tennis player of renown, whom I met at my first Wimbledon in 1957. Andras was playing Nicola Pietrangeli and giving a good account of himself. I later sat next to him in the players’ section and congratulated him. We stayed friends until the end. The funny thing was that whenever I would go into one of my anti-Zionist eruptions, Andras would argue with me — he was of the Jewish faith — but he never once mentioned the fact that his whole family had been wiped out in Auschwitz. I read that in his obituary in the Telegraph, which meant Andras was not into playing the victim. Israel aside, we agreed on everything. Beautiful, intelligent women, good art and Lew Hoad. I always said that on a given day Hoad would humiliate anyone, and I do mean anyone — Sampras, Borg, Federer, even Laver. Andras Kalman, who could play a wicked game of tennis, agreed. He once almost beat Frank Sedgman, when Sedgman had just won Wimbledon. Andras bragged instead that he had had a hit with Lew Hoad. Go figure, as they say.