By Attorney, Philip Kavesh
When I heard of the recent passing of internationally renowned journalist and TV celebrity, Barbara Walters, a stream of memories that had been dammed up for many years suddenly flooded into my conscious mind.
It Was the Worst of Times
At least as far as my young law firm was concerned. The time was 1983. After two years of struggling to get my fledgling practice off the ground, I had come to the realization I might have to abandon my dream of running my own law firm. Although I already had years of tax and estate planning experience and a bunch of impressive letters behind my name - - LL.M. (Master Degree in Taxation) and CFP® (Certified Financial Planner®) - - my office phone didn’t ring off the hook. I didn’t know how to bring in clients. Some financial advisors and insurance agents I knew had promised to refer their customers, but it wasn’t happening. I also tried public seminars and failed miserably. My confidence was at an all-time low, while my credit card balances were at an all-time high.
Fortunately, my luck and my life’s direction began to shift when I met a CPA named Brian. He was a partner at the local branch of a large, national CPA firm and worked with me on a mutual client. We were talking one day and he asked how my law practice was doing. Without thinking, I blurted out, “Terribly!” He responded, “Phil, with your background in tax and financial planning and your client service skills, we may have a position for you!” Before I even heard what the job was or how much it paid, I said, “I’ll take it!”
So, I went to work for his CPA firm to supplement the income of my law practice, which remained alive but on life support. My job was to review their biggest clients’ tax returns and recommend tax saving strategies, as well as other financial and estate planning. But I wasn’t permitted to act as an attorney for any of their clients (which is why I can tell you this story). That limitation was alright with me, because my life boat had arrived and I was happy to get in.
The CPA firm’s office was located in Orange County, not far from my law firm’s original Tustin office, but within a short time, its bigger Los Angeles office learned about me and requested my transfer. The LA office specialized in “business management” for many top entertainment industry “moguls” and actors. When I moved to the LA office, I was completely oblivious to this. I worked in a remote corner of the office within the Tax Department and never saw any of those “big wig” clients or the partners in charge of their accounts. I basically was punching the clock every day, diligently performing my assigned responsibilities anonymously, with my head down, making planning recommendations for the partners to pass along to clients, while waiting for the moment I would figure out my future and hopefully re-launch my law practice, until…
An Odd Event Occurred
It was just another ho-hum weekday morning as I approached the elevator in the lobby of the CPA firm’s office building. Just as I was about to enter, I was frozen by the blaring sounds of a motorcycle flying through the lobby and the screech of its wheels as it veered directly in front of me, into the elevator! Standing before me was a man dressed all in black from head to toe (including the visor of his helmet), leaning against a souped-up motorcycle, also of course in black. He posed a dark and sinister image (much in contrast with my plain grey, conservative, button-down suit, white shirt and tie). Then, even more remarkably, the mystery man removed his helmet and a shock of white, spiked hair was revealed, as well as his gruff-looking face. I found the situation amusing and flippantly noted he had a very cool bike that was similar to that of the guitar player of my favorite band, whose name was aptly “Billy Zoom”. The dark figure suddenly sprung to life. “I know Billy Zoom, thanks!” We then chit-chatted for a few more moments about our favorite bands until the elevator doors opened. With all of the commotion, I had failed to press my floor button, but I noticed we had reached it. I got out, turned to the mystery man and said, “Nice talking with you.” And he asked, “What’s your name?” so I told him, “Phil.” Then, he followed me out of the elevator, with his motorcycle, right into the firm’s lobby. “Very odd,” I thought to myself, as I went about to begin another dull work day.
About 4:45pm that afternoon, almost quitting time, there came an office-wide announcement blaring over the loudspeakers, “Phil Kavesh, come immediately to Mr. F’s office!” My cohorts in the department immediately peeked their heads out from their office doors and cubicles and vocalized almost in unison, “Uh-oh!” You see, Mr. F was one of the founding partners of the LA office who, although now semi-retired, holed up like a recluse in the furthest away corner of the office. Few ever saw or spoke with him. “I must be in trouble,” I thought. I had no idea it had anything to do with my elevator encounter earlier that morning.
When I came to Mr. F’s office, I was immediately struck by several things. First, his presence and demeanor. He was, unlike most all CPAs, impeccably and fashionably attired and had an unusually polished, charming manner and tone of voice. Second, he had photos of himself with famous movie actors adorning every space of his office. (I didn’t know it then, but Mr. F had been responsible for bringing in and servicing many entertainment stars.) As I stood before him, he examined me up and down from head to toe, then asked me to be seated, not at his desk, but at his living room chairs on the other side of his personal office (or I should say “stage”). He asked a little about me, then wanted to know if I realized who the man in black was. I told him I did not and he said, to my consternation, “Perfect.” Seeing the confused look on my face, he explained that the man was one of the biggest leading villains in Hollywood, named Rutger Hauer. Being a naïve young man who grew up in a small rural town in the Northeast and had recently migrated to California, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’m not much of a Hollywood fan.” Cutting me off right there, he remarked, “Well, Mr. Hauer said he only wants to work with you!” I thought that was weird, but then our meeting became even more bizarre. Mr. F proceeded, in a demanding and imperious tone, “I’ve got a more immediate issue with another client, who I want you to work with right away. She’s new to the firm. Barbara Walters.” I was speechless, to which he reacted, “I like how you don’t seem to be phased by or gush over celebrity, how nonchalant you appear about all this.” I didn’t really take in everything he had just said, as I was actually frozen by a combination of shock and fear. Somehow, I calmly asked, “When do I start?” He said, “Tomorrow! I’m arranging your visit to her home at 8:30am! She needs your help.” About what, I had no idea (nor was I further informed before her meeting!). I just said, “Yes, sir, I’ll be there!”
I Meet Ms. Walters
It was a good thing I learned about my assignment late in the day. I didn’t have much time to worry, nor the research tools readily available to learn more about her (this was now late 1986 and there still were no laptops, smart phones or the internet!). All I knew was she was a star interviewer of the rich and famous. I decided to just show up and see how it goes.
The next morning, after being buzzed through her residence’s driveway gate, I walked from my car right up to the front door and knocked, no security guards anywhere to be seen. Then, to my further surprise, Barbara Walters herself answered the door! (Partly, my surprise was a reaction to her appearance. I had only seen her on TV, perfectly coiffed, her hair and makeup impeccable, dressed in a fashionable lady’s business suit. Here, she stood at arm’s length from me, her hair clipped up in a bun with strands of her hair randomly falling in all directions, no makeup on, wearing her pajamas, a robe and slippers!)
Very graciously, she invited me to come sit on a sofa in her living room. On the adjacent sofa a stately dressed man was reading the newspaper, whom she introduced as her husband. We exchanged hellos. (To show you how clueless I was about the entertainment industry, I would later learn that the man was Merv Adelson, Co-Founder of Lorimar Television, a TV production giant riding the then immensely successful wave of Jane Fonda home workout videotapes! He was a major client of the CPA firm and had requested we help his wife, Barbara, with her tax planning. Ms. Walters had embarked on a new groundbreaking venture of her own, as the first star of TV to set up her own production company, “Barwal”, to create and sell her highly rated interview “specials” to the networks.)
Once I settled into the sofa, Barbara (which she quickly noted that she preferred to be called) then proceeded, in a very friendly and unusually interested way, to inquire about me. “Tell me a little about yourself.” Before I share with you my answer, I should point out that, the night before, I had spoken with my Mom to let her know I was about to meet Barbara Walters. Mom then shared a personal story I had never heard. As a teenager, my Mom was a gymnast and a dancer, having performed in a few live variety shows in her hometown of Atlantic City, New Jersey, mainly at “The World-Famous Steel Pier”. Mom went on to explain that Barbara’s father, Lou Walters, had been a major show producer and she had been employed by him! So, in my answer to Barbara, I spoke a little bit about my background and professional experience, then ended with the brief but surprising statement that “my mother was a professional dancer and worked for your father!” Suddenly, a pink glow came over her pale white cheeks and one corner of her mouth turned up in a half smile, then she paused for a moment and said with a totally serious voice and face, “OK. Let’s get to work!” Barbara quickly stood up and led me to her office. (At that moment, I realized, “Wow, I’ve just been interviewed by Barbara Walters!”)
I learned a lot about Barbara in the short time we spent together that day, and soon developed a deep admiration of her. Immediately, it was evident she was one of the most incredibly hard-working, determined and, at times, blunt, yet paradoxically sensitive, empathetic and diplomatic persons I ever met. As I entered her office, she saw me stare with awe at the tall stack of books on her desk, high enough to easily tip over with a small gust of air! Barbara said they were research for her next big interview. She noted that she insisted on doing her own research, not reading assistants’ summaries of books or articles on the interviewee, because she wanted to develop her own intimate understanding of that person. She then snapped that she was in a hurry to take care of our business because she planned on reading all the books today! Barbara began to give me instructions for my task and after only a sentence or so, one of the two, land-line telephones on her desk rang (remember, there were no cellphones then) and she picked it up. “Hi Kathryn, how nice of you to call!” As she began to carry on that conversation (with a lady I assumed was an actress), she answered a call on the other line from a “Jack” (who apparently was a film studio boss), told Kathryn she would have to put her on hold for a moment, and spoke with him. Barbara then launched into competing conversations, speaking with one at a time, sometimes putting one on hold or just placing her hand over the mouthpiece while speaking to the other - - and, in between, dictating to me the details of my job! What a super multi-tasker she was!
Your Next Assignment Is…
As both her calls ended, Barbara instructed me to contact her executive assistant and arrange to immediately fly out to her Barwal office in New York City to review its operations. Of course, I immediately responded, “Yes, ma’am!” (after all, the prospect of a few paid days in New York sounded good to me!).
Barbara’s executive assistant was a delightful and equally tough lady, who gave me precise working orders regarding flights to book, hotel to stay at and directions to the office, which was within walking distance from the hotel. She warned, “Don’t take a cab, because whatever you do, don’t be late!” With that admonition fresh in mind, I left the hotel so early that I arrived at the office 1 ½ hours early! The assistant didn’t know what to do with me, and had her own piles of work calling for her attention, so she just pointed to the door to Barbara’s private office and told me to wait in there. Compliantly, I briskly entered Barbara’s “inner sanctum” and sat in a chair in front of her large desk, impressed by all I could see. Beautifully dark, stained wood, embossed walls and bookcases. A regal desk (with 2 phones of course!). I then started to note all the framed pictures on the walls, but couldn’t quite make out clearly the persons in them. Knowing I had so much time to wait, I got up and walked over to view each of them. Every photo was very professionally shot, most in black and white, consisting of Barbara and practically every major historical figure of the late 20th Century! Presidents from Nixon to Carter to Reagan, Heads of State from Khrushchev to Castro to Margaret Thatcher, and many Hollywood stars and famous musicians. As I was gazing at one photo, her assistant came in to check if I needed anything and, when she noticed how overtaken I was with all these incredible photos, pointed silently to a shelf that surrounded the room, high up near the ceiling. There, for the first time, I noticed numerous glittering, golden Emmy Awards lining the walls (along with other trophies, for what achievements I had no idea!).
It Was the Best of Times
Well, following my New York visit, because Barbara must have put in a good word for me with Mr. F, the CPA firm realized that I had the “right stuff” to take on other celebrity clients. I wasn’t a star-struck fan (I didn’t even know of most of them before I met them), I didn’t fawn over them (I never asked for photos or autographs) and I wasn’t tongue-tied with awe when it came to speaking with them. I was mostly clueless, calm and casual about the whole thing. I just treated them as everyday people, which I think the celebrity clients really appreciated.
In addition to assigning me to other top celebrity clients, the CPA firm started to employ me as a spokesperson. I gave live interviews on local TV when a tax law changed. I had a drive-time, 2-minute tax and financial tips show on one of LA’s most popular radio stations. (And these media appearances later led to me landing my own TV show, “Planning Your Estate,” which was broadcast for several years on LA’s “The Business Channel.”)
Because of my opportunity with Barbara, observing first-hand her untiring passion and dedication to her work, and enjoying the resulting media opportunities to speak before audiences under pressure, my self-confidence grew to an all-time high. I decided to leave the CPA firm and re-open my law practice, with my own renewed passion and determination to build it successfully, through public seminars. And, as they say, “the rest is history.”
So, as I now reflect upon it, my time working with Barbara may have been brief, but proved to be very impactful on the rest of my life. Thank you, Barbara! Without you touching my life, the Law Firm of Kavesh, Minor & Otis may not have survived and grown over the years to help countless tens of thousands of people.IMAGE SOURCE: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons