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Fortune over Fame —
How I Gave Up Acting and Went Back into the Hat Business

I’d decided if I couldn’t make it in show business, then I damned well was going to make a lot of money, so I tackled my chores at Jacobson Hat Company with a vengeance. My pay was fifty-five dollars a week. That’s what the assistant shipping clerk got. After three months in the shipping department, I had it down pat. I knew all the factory employees. They were like family and had watched me grow up.

One day, I walked into Walter’s office and said there was nothing more I could learn in shipping and I wanted to go out selling the hats. He was ready, too. "Okay, Richard," he said, "we’ll send you out for a few weeks; see how you take to it."

I hit the road running. Toward the end of my two weeks, I called Walter and asked him to extend my road trip by another two weeks. He agreed and said he’d mail me an itinerary that would take me through the Midwest. I told him they’d have to ship me some more boxes of hat samples, too.

When I returned to the office a month after I’d left, I had written somewhat more business than was mailed in by established customers. I’d sold them new styles they were unfamiliar with, and I’d opened twenty-five new accounts. Everyone we did business with were wholesalers, so it took a little persuasion to get them all to believe that their retail buyers would take our product. Nobody had ever hit them as aggressively and with all the charm and persuasion that I used. Walter was more than a little impressed. He didn’t realize that my actor’s training made selling a natural event. Then I began to learn office routine.

A few months later, I went out on the road again, this time with a six-week itinerary that I’d helped to work up that would take me to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Every ten days or so, I telephoned for more samples to be sent on ahead.

I was often hitting two cities a day. I convinced Walter that flying instead of going by train would be more profitable. He was mired in the way business had been done in the twenties and early thirties when the company had started to take off.

I was due to spend several days in Chicago, since there was a lot of business to be written. And, judging by the yellow pages, there were a lot of new accounts to be opened. Walter’s son, Howard, was also in Chicago. Though I’d never found much in common with him, I suggested we meet in the bar for a drink. It just so happened that we were on the same floor and arrived at the elevator simultaneously. "I tried to call your room earlier but you weren’t registered." he said, as we waited for the elevator.

"Really?" I said, "that’s strange. I checked in about ten a.m."

"I found that out when I discovered you’re registered under the name Jason." His voice took on a slightly snide ring. "What’s the matter? Family name not good enough for you?"

I guess my reaction had to do with my failure to make it in show business. When I ever dared think about it, the frustration was just beneath the surface. I could have shoved him down the elevator shaft if the doors had been open.

"No," I said with as much equanimity as I could bring to bear, "when I went into show business I had my name changed legally, so that’s my name. Richard Jacobson, according to court records, no longer legally exists. Okay?"

He just shrugged and smiled, "But you’re not in show business anymore." The elevator arrived and we rode downstairs.

As we stepped out I said, "Howard, I have another engagement. Why don’t you have your drink alone," and I walked away.

We had a few one- or two-sentence conversations back in the office after that, and I didn’t see him again for forty years, when we ran into each other on Rodeo Drive — the last place I ever expected to see him. He was in California on a business trip and we finally had our drink together.

Forty years … I don’t think he’d missed me.

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