Today there’s a tinge of sadness in the air for me. It marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of Fred Hayman, a dear friend from my past life.
The chances are pretty good that you’ve never heard of Fred Hayman, which is amazing considering his remarkable accomplishments. Some people are among the quiet rich; others are rich and flamboyant; Fred was unique in that he was both, depending upon the situation at any given time and the people involved.
In fact, he was a true enigma in more ways than one. Fred was born in Switzerland, then moved to the United States during World War II and got a job as an apprentice chef at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. After a stint in the Navy, he made his way to California, where he landed a position as manager of the prestigious Beverly Hilton Hotel.
You can read his lengthy and fascinating story in more detail on Wikipedia and elsewhere on the Internet, but for our purposes here I’ll cut to the chase and say that Fred ultimately left his job at the Beverly Hilton and, in 1961, cofounded a high-fashion women’s boutique on Rodeo Drive. He named the store Giorgio Beverly Hills, and a year later bought out his two partners.
It’s hard to imagine now, but at that time, Rodeo Drive was just a humdrum street in the heart of Beverly Hills, with little traffic or shopping. But within a decade, Giorgio’s success changed all that as it became the place for Hollywood’s elite shoppers.
With its unique features (such as a pool table and free-drinks bar for customers), Fred’s store lit up Rodeo Drive with its signature yellow-and-white-striped awnings. Giorgio’s spectacular success soon caught the attention of other big-name, high-fashion retailers, who started clamoring for retail space on Rodeo Drive.
Today, Rodeo Drive is arguably the most famous high-end shopping street in the world, but, make no mistake about it, Fred Hayman was the pioneer who started it all.
How I came to meet Fred is an interesting story that is a reminder that you never know what strange happenings lie just around the next corner. It was the early seventies, and I had just gone through a period of my life where I was determined to prove that I could (to borrow the words of Dave Ramsey) “out earn my stupidity.” I was, of course, wrong. My stupidity had no problem overwhelming my entrepreneurial skills and ultimately brought me face to face with reality.
During my wild spending spree, I can’t deny that I had a hell of a time living beyond my means, and I managed to run up charges at Giorgio to the tune of about $5,000 (about $20,000 in today’s dollars). It was a very embarrassing situation, because I had a reputation as a real-life Daddy Warbucks in Beverly Hills.
Fortunately, early in life I had developed an approach to handling creditors, small and large, that I found to be not only honorable, but beneficial: Contact them them before they contact you! It’s that simple, and it almost always pays dividends. And that’s just what I decided to do with Giorgio.
It seems like only yesterday that I walked into Giorgio’s business office and talked to Fred’s secretary/bookkeeper/assistant. (He only had one office employee at the time.) I explained my tale of woe to her and said, “I know it’s a ridiculously low figure, but, just to show good faith, I’d like to start paying off my bill at the rate of $5 a week. Then, when I start making money again, I’ll pay off the whole balance.”
Years later, long after Fred and I had become friends, he told me that the reason he had gone along with my proposal was because his assistant had told him “what a nice young man (I) was” and urged him to accept my offer. He told me that he looked her in the eye and asked, “Do you really trust him to do what he says he’ll do,” and without hesitation she answered, “Yes, I do.”
I don’t recall how much time went by, but every Friday, like clockwork, I came to Giorgio’s business office and handed Fred’s assistant my $5 payment. And within a couple of years, when I became a bestselling author, I walked into Giorgio’s office, asked what my balance was, and wrote out a check to pay off my bill in full.
Fred’s assistant was so excited that she took me into his office and showed him the check. He was delighted, and the first thing he said to me was, “Well, now that you’re in the chips again, why don’t we open a new account for you?” I was shocked by his offer, but I took him up on it. And, as you would guess, from that point on I always paid my bill in full as soon as it arrived.
After I had reached mini-fame status, Fred even hung my autographed picture in Giorgio, amidst scores of A-listers. Above all, he never tired of telling the story of how we met. He’d often introduce me to friends by saying, “I want you to meet the most honest person I’ve ever known,” followed by his slightly embellished version of “the story.”
Through the years, Fred and I jogged together a few times at the Beverly Hills High School track, and I was always amazed to see him light up a cigarette after we finished. One time I asked him how in the world he could be both a smoker and a runner, and he just shrugged it off with, “I have plenty of time to do both.” It must have worked for him, because he made it to 90.
Fred liked to throw small, exclusive dinner parties, and my wife and I were often invited. But I was never comfortable with the celebrity chatter in those settings, and, as the years passed, I drifted away from the whole celebrity scene. Even so, from time to time I’d call Fred to say hello and check on the progress of his amazing career.
Not only did he invent Rodeo Drive, in 1981 he started a perfume line under the Giorgio name, which he sold to Avon in 1987 for a cool $165 million. Then, he turned right around and started another line of perfume, Fred Hayman Beverly Hills, which he later sold as well. I’m not sure what price his second perfume company brought, but I’ve always had a hunch it was for quite a bit more than his Giorgio sale to Avon.
Fred lived out the rest of his life in luxury in a 50,000 square foot mansion in Malibu. In the meantime, I moved away from Los Angeles in 1990, and only saw him one more time, when my wife and I were visiting Tinseltown for a couple of days and had lunch at his office. (Yes, he had his own personal chef.)
We talked by phone a few times over the years, and he said he never tired of telling the story of how we met. That always brought back pleasant memories and made me feel good that it had made such a lasting impression on him.
Even so, I wish I would have been able to get together with Fred a few more times while he was alive. He was an amazing enigma — part cowboy entrepreneur, part Hollywood celebrity — and was loved by everyone. (I think in his later years, Merv Griffin, whom I greatly admired after being a guest on his show on two occasions, was his closest friend.)
Some people are just plain nice, and that was Fred. Even though he liked the good life and enjoyed hobnobbing with the rich and famous, his down-to-earth personality never changed.
Thanks, Fred, for passing through my life on your extraordinary journey. I wish we could have had lunch together one more time, but I guess Fate had other plans for us. Just know that I’m thinking about you today. Without question, Mr. Rodeo Drive, you were the best.