In which gates are crashed, wristwatches are smuggled and Richard Burton expires:
If John Hewig and I tried to pull this off today, there’d be fines, firings and possible jail time.
John is a friend I met when we both arrived in Cincinnati in 1975. He was there to do public relations and marketing for the Stingers, the city’s new team in the fledgling World Hockey Association, an upstart rival to the NHL. I was the first news director at WEBN-FM. We became friends and he hired me as the public address announcer for hockey games at Riverfront Coliseum. A girlfriend and I were one of several couples invited on his honeymoon in 1978. His bride’s family owned an estate on Jamaica’s Round Hill and her parents urged them to invite friends if they wished. I returned the favor in 1990, when, on my honeymoon, I chartered a sailboat out of St. Maarten that needed more hands than just my bride and I to sail. John and a girlfriend were enlisted as “crew.”
So. Back to 1985. On my way back home from Africa, where I covered famine relief efforts in Ethiopia and Sudan for ABC Radio News, I stopped in London for a few days. John was there for the Wimbledon tennis tournament. He was the communications director for the Men’s International Professional Tennis Council. He told me and another friend, Dave Williams, he would see what he could do to get us onto the grounds for the first day of the tournament. He describes a meeting with the CEO of Wimbledon, Christopher Gorringe: “I was leaving his office when the Duchess of Kent appeared in the doorway. After meeting her and trying to curtsy, awkwardly, I excused myself. Among the excitement and confusion of her appearance, I was able to take two blank press passes off the desk of the secretary without any notice.”
John delivered them to me at my hotel along with some letterhead stationery and pamphlets bearing the Wimbledon logo. We needed to get the logo onto the press passes because only the highest level, All Access, had the logo. The amateur forger in me went to work. (When I was 16 I had successfully altered my New Jersey driver’s license to make me 18 and eligible to buy beer across the border in New York.)
I cut out the Wimbledon logos, glued them on the passes and found a store nearby that would laminate them and provide chains to wear them around our necks. They worked. Dave and I had “all access,” Centre Court, strawberries and cream, the works.
In one of the London tabloids, a stack of which I used to love having delivered to my hotel room whenever in that city, I had noticed an item on the sports pages about a 17-year-old from Germany who had just turned pro. The “player to watch” was Boris Becker. We went to an outer court that day and saw him easily win his first round match. He would become the youngest Wimbledon champ – at that time — after I and my fellow gate-crasher Dave had returned to the States.
John and I had had another European adventure the previous summer. We had coordinated some simultaneous vacation time and flew off to London. There we stopped in to the ABC News bureau and visited with the travel manager, a woman whose job it was to find flights and hotels for news crews dispatched across Europe and points east. We asked her recommendation: Where could we find great beaches and lots of single women? She suggested Croatia. We knew nothing about that country and thought it sounded a little sketchy. We’d learn subsequently that the Adriatic coast, with its renowned beach scene, was probably the choice we should have made. No matter. Our decision was more than delightful.
We flew to Rome and spent a few days sightseeing. Visited the Coliseum and took pictures of ourselves signaling “thumbs down” on imaginary gladiators. Tossed a coin into the Trevi Fountain, climbed the Spanish Steps, etc. Then we flew to our destination, Sardinia. Arriving in the evening, we rented a small car and set out on a four-hour drive to Porto Cervo.
This was a resort town carved out of the island’s rocky northeastern coast, the Costa Smeralda, in the 1950’s by the Aga Khan. It is one of the most expensive resort towns in the world. We were paying off credit card debt for a long time after that.
We stayed in a reasonably-priced hotel whose name translated to “the lights on the mountain,” and it provided a sweeping view of the harbor. Docked there were many of the largest private yachts in the world, as well as the Italian America’s Cup racing team, which towed its sailboat out each morning for trials. On beautiful sunny days we would take our rental car out of town, around a point of rocky land to the beach where everyone went. People from the mega-yachts would take the sea route in their tenders or Zodiac outboards, anchor off the beach and swim in.
In the town square one evening we befriended two Italian women who told us they were vacationing while their husbands, who were lawyers, had stayed behind in Rome. Since this was August, when that city is virtually deserted for several weeks as is the European custom, we surmised that the truth might be that the women’s husbands had stayed in Rome – or gone somewhere else — to be with their mistresses…also per European custom. I can’t remember one of their names (probably because it was Anna or Maria, something conventional). But I remember the other one: Titsiana.
The women had a rented Zodiac and the next day they took us to a more remote beach on a small island for a picnic and an afternoon of swimming and sunning. After a couple of days on the beach with them, John and I got tired of dealing with a yawning language gap; their English was terrible, our Italian negligible. To take these double dates to the next level, we concluded, was just too much trouble.
We later met two young women from Los Angeles. John and I mentioned we had plans to stop in Switzerland on our way home to buy Rolexes. One of the women suggested I re-think that. A Rolex is such a clichéd status symbol, she said, too transparently show-off-y. She recommended I look at an Ebel watch as an alternative.
Arriving in Geneva, we hit the wristwatch stores. I looked at the Rolexes and then decided on an Ebel chronometer. It was slightly less expensive than its Rolex equivalent and more of an understatement. I still wear it and it gets noticed by watch aficionados occasionally, although it costs an arm and a leg to maintain in good running order. John bought a Lady Rolex for his girlfriend in New York and to avoid paying a duty, smuggled it through customs at JFK in his jockey shorts.
Before we left Switzerland we took an evening train to Zurich where we planned to stay one more day. We had dinner while rolling up the tracks along the western shore of Lake Geneva as the sun set. A magnificent experience. Unfortunately for both of us, shared with a buddy instead of a female companion.
Even while vacationing in Europe, I was under instructions to keep ABC News abreast of my itinerary (and to travel with a tape recorder in case news broke out near me). As it happened, when we checked into our Zurich hotel there was a message for me: call ABC News in New York. I did and was told to get on the next flight from Zurich back to Geneva. The 53-year-old actor Richard Burton had died there suddenly of a brain hemorrhage that afternoon, while we were watch-shopping.
I got on a midnight flight for the trip that took about an hour. I made sure it was a first-class seat and I checked into a premier hotel, a little miffed at losing a day of sightseeing in Zurich. In the morning I taxied up to Céligny, a Geneva suburb along the lakeshore, to the Burton villa. There I stood around and waited, along with a sizeable international press corps detachment, for word on where and when Burton would be buried and what sort of service or observance would be held.
At one point, journalists were invited onto a patio overlooking the lake for some refreshments, a most refreshing and appreciated way to treat the world’s media.
After two days, a service and burial announcement finally came but ABC pulled me out, sparing me from covering it.
Landing at JFK, I wore my new watch past the authorities without declaring it as an overseas purchase. Ever the international man of mystery. And forgery.