Reflective Developer Shares His World Through Verse

Times Staff Writer

Having completed a successful but exhausting daylong meeting discussing a planned shopping center, Harry Newman checked into an Anchorage, Alaska, motel room, loosened his tie, slumped in a chair and stared blankly at the ceiling.

"I wondered what I was doing up in Alaska in the middle of March," recalled Newman, describing that Saturday evening in the early 1970s. It was one of the out-of-town trips he made while scrambling for business as the developer of the Mall of Orange and other shopping centers throughout the West.

"Why am I leading this crazy schedule?" pondered Newman, who was chairman of Newman Brettin Properties, which had holdings of $100 million and was headquartered in Long Beach.

"I was supposed to be intelligent and have plenty of money. But I felt I no longer was in control of my life; my career was in control of me," he said.

He was yearning to see his wife and five children. So Newman, who had checked into a motel at 4:30 p.m., left 30 minutes later and caught a flight home.

Thus began a decade-old journey of self-discovery which he has captured in a series of introspective poems concerning the "vague dissatisfactions about the unfulfilling life" all too often led by modern-day businessmen and women.

These musings on the price of business success have been collected in "Behind Pinstripes: Poems for Executives and Other Addicts." The book recounts the endless race of large gray pinstriped rats--executives living out of suitcases, traveling from one strange city to another, connoisseurs of hotel and motel interiors.

Published last fall and featured in Neiman-Marcus' Christmas catalogue, Newman's volume of verse has already sold 2,500 copies. That is considered a good sales figure for a book of poetry.

But do real businessmen write poems? Aren't they gruff, tough and maybe even heartless? Wrong, says Newman, who maintains that's an unfair stereotype.

"I can remember many conversations I've had with colleagues in business, over lunch or a couple of drinks in the evening, when they've expressed some of the same sentiments I've incorporated in my poems," said the 63-year-old Newman during an interview in his art-filled sixth-floor Long Beach office.

"That's really the reason I wanted to get the book published. The stereotype of the businessman is that he's a single-minded, impersonal individual committed to making money and achieving personal success regardless of the cost--to others or to himself."

That individual's truer feelings, Newman insists, are closer to those expressed in "Things" in which he writes of accumulating objects: a yacht, a second home, another car--and sighs:

No wonder holy men

Discard all their

Things

Before they can feel

Whole

Or holy

"I've spent years talking to these supposedly hard-headed and hard-hearted businessmen and women," Newman said. "And the most common complaint is that they can't seem to balance their professional careers with their private lives.

"Most businessmen I've talked to think that the price they pay for business success is too great. In conversations with them, they keep saying over and over again that there must be some other way of living, where you can do well professionally without sacrificing other aspects of your life, that you can live a truly fulfilling life."

Indeed, Newman's poems, critics have said, betray a certain sensitivity that one usually imagines lacking in a busy executive. In "VIP, A Conversation," a poem in two voices, he has the following encounter with a cabdriver:

I have to be there at four thirty

For a business appointment

Before a dinner meeting;

So please step on it.

What do you do, if I may ask?

He asked.

I develop shopping centers

Small ones, big ones with malls.

Oh you must really be important.

Well, I don't know about that.

How long is your shift?

You're my last fare,

I started just before noon.

What do you do the rest of the time?

Oh, I go home; only a small place

Overlooking the river,

Work my vegetable garden,

Go fishing or sailing.

Sometimes I sit and read

Or look at the mountains.

I just make enough to get along.

That's why it's so nice

To meet a successful person

Like you.

Newman says he has received uniform praise from fellow executives who have read his thin volume of verse--poems composed in snatches over about half a million miles of airplane flight time.

"I've been really moved by the reaction from other businessmen," Newman said. "A lot of them have sent me letters telling me how reading my poems has changed their lives, how it's caused them to re-examine their priorities and to change what they've been doing with their careers so that they won't have to spend as much time away from their families."

At the same time, Newman said: "Some of the letters I've gotten have been pretty amusing. A lot of people start out their letters by confessing that poetry really doesn't strike their fancy, that it was a real struggle for them even to open the book, especially since it's subtitled 'Poems for Executives and Other Addicts.' But they've been pleasantly surprised about being able to appreciate poems which relate directly to their own lives, which are circumscribed by the social pressures and customs of business life."

(Published by Tamas & Brownson of Irvine, the book retails for $9.95. All profits have been earmarked for Cedar House, a Long Beach center for abused children, of which Newman has been president, and the Long Beach Opera, of which Newman is a former chairman.)

Sense of Dissatisfaction

"I began writing because of a vague sense of dissatisfaction with my way of life," Newman confessed.

"I was spending most of my time on airplanes traveling to our branch offices (in Kansas City, Palo Alto and Seattle) or to planning meetings with department store clients in places like New York or Denver.

"I was living out of suitcases and spending relatively little time at home," said Newman, who kept up this frantic pace for nearly 15 years; in the process he built up the Newman Brettin company from a small real estate leasing company into a large corporation that builds and manages shopping centers.

"It didn't start out that way," Newman said. "It's just that as my business grew, my pace accelerated. It was always exhilarating, but at some point--and I don't know exactly when--it reached a point of diminishing returns. There's a fine line between exhilaration and exhaustion. By the early '70s I'd crossed this line; I knew I'd gone too far.

"When I'd go home on weekends, I was a basket case. I used home as a service station to recharge my batteries."

Moments spent with his family were fleeting, as he recounts in "Goodnight Kiss" in which Newman tells of going to say good night to his 10-year-old daughter and concludes:

When I kissed

Those sweet poised lips

A sense of pure joy

Welled up in me

A moment of rarest beauty

Hung quivering in the night air

Turned, and flew away.

These poems were written on airplanes because "airplanes somehow are conducive to introspection," Newman said. "You're up 30,000 feet and cut off from your normal surroundings.

"All the conventional safeguards are down; the barriers disappear. The person sitting next to you is willing to spill his guts and share his or her innermost secrets and feelings with you. It's as if they were in a therapy session in a shrink's office."

In Newman's case, he wrote down his feelings, secrets, thoughts and ideas about his "sense of dissatisfaction and futility" with his life in poems such as "Testimonial" in which he observes:

You are cordially invited

To attend, at $100 a plate

A testimonial to those

Who have devoted their lives

Unstintingly

Unselfishly

To the humanitarian purpose

Of making money.

No sacrifice too great

No relationship too dear

To accumulate enough

To afford the luxury

Of giving it away

In some worthy cause

Or other.

Just listen to that applause

From the thousand or more

Gathered here in tribute,

Black tied, bejeweled,

Pledging their allegiance

To the honorees and

To the secret hope

That one such memorable night

They too might step

Into the blue-white shaft

And receive their plaque.

That Newman's musings took the form of poetry rather than prose was serendipitous. The St. Louis native had no background in poetry although he had been editor of his college yearbook at Harvard, from which he graduated in 1942. (And the following year he received his master's in business administration from Harvard Business School).

To be sure, his writing skills had been honed while he served in the U.S. Army--during World War II as the editor of the Flaming Bomb, the military newspaper at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, where he was stationed from 1943 to 1946. And while earning a second master's degree--this time in economic history--at Cambridge University in England, Newman in 1947 co-founded Varsity. It was billed as Cambridge's first American-style newspaper and gave birth to a book publishing firm he helped start while there. Following his two years at Cambridge, Newman worked in England for the next six years with the publishing firm.

"But I was just on the periphery of the literary world," Newman maintains in recounting those years. It in no way prepared him to be a poet.

Not only did writing verse on planes prove therapeutic for Newman, it made him a prolific poet. He has published two previous volumes, "Poems for Executives and Other Addicts" (whose title he reincorporates into his latest volume) and "Poems on Male Menopause and Other Cheerful Topics."

When Newman began writing poetry, he was particularly troubled about his growing estrangement from his five children (four girls and one boy now ages 30 to 20) "because I was gone so much." Newman captured this unease in the poem "Nothing to Do":

Daddy, they say

There's nothing to do.

Shocked, impatient, angry

I suggest a multitude

Of games, activities and sports.

Undaunted, they reply

That's no fun, Daddy.

Then why not be like me? I ask,

I never have 'nothing to do'

I always have too much to do.

If I have a minute to spare

I feel uneasy, lazy, disorganized.

In short, dear children, I don't have time to play bezique with you

(Much less to learn it)

To sit quietly and chitchat pointlessly

Or just to listen and to hear.

I am so busy

I have so many important things to do

That you will grow up

And move away

Before I come to know

That 'nothing to do'

Was a despairing plea for me.

"When they were younger, I had a much, much closer relationship with them," said Newman in recalling the changes their relationship underwent as his children reached adolescence and he spent increasing amounts of time traveling. "When I'd come home when they were little, they'd rush to greet me and jump in my arms. Somehow, we'd lost that closeness.

"Writing poetry was an attempt to recapture this. Fortunately, my kids understood the transition I was trying to make when I began a reevaluation of my life 10 years ago.

"It was a gradual process. I mean, it wasn't a great flash of enlightenment and then suddenly I realized that instead of looking at 22 deals that probably, if I concentrated on three, I might do even better; that I could save some time for quality time and private time with my kids and not just use my house as a weekend service station to recharge my batteries.

"And as they've grown older, we've become much closer again; they've been super and very understanding. Much of the damage has been undone."

Many businessmen, Newman acknowledges, are reluctant to alter their life styles because they fear the adverse affects it may have on their careers. However, Newman said he has found that the readjustment of his work habits has not affected his business success.

Cut Down on Travel

"I decided to cut down on a lot of my traveling; I eliminated a lot of the divisions in my company so I wouldn't have to travel so much. Instead, I concentrate my efforts on fewer projects here in this (Southern California) area rather than working on a lot of projects all over the map. I ended up with a better state of mind, being more emotionally stable and having better judgment.

"I found that not only was I doing things more effectively by focusing my energies, but I was also able to spend more time with my family. I haven't had to trade off business success at the expense of leading a more fulfilling personal life."

And perhaps Newman has been able to make the transition more successfully than others because his priorities in business had always been slightly different than those of his fellow executives.

"What made me a driven man for so many years was not so much the money and other material rewards a successful business career could bring me," Newman said. "Rather, I was driven by the challenges posed by the various projects I worked on."

Indeed, Newman had entered the real estate business out of economic necessity. He was familiar with it since his father had been in real estate in St. Louis, where Newman was born in 1921 into a "middle-class family. I was not born wealthy," Newman said. "I got a scholarship to Harvard and went to Cambridge on the GI Bill.")

Of his book publishing days in England, Newman is disarmingly honest.

"I wouldn't say we were a 'vanity press,' " Newman said in describing the publishing firm he co-founded. "Rather, we were 'no-risk' publishers.

"We'd do company histories, like the 50-year history of the World Auto Club. And we'd do travel books, books on management and art books."

People Have to Eat

The only reason Newman returned to the states with his English wife was to start an American subsidiary of his book publishing firm.

"But it cost too much to get a publishing company started in America," Newman recalled. "At the time, I had one child and another on the way. I discovered a terrible fact of life: People have to eat. I had to find a job to feed my kids."

So, Newman took out a real estate license and started leasing out small shops in Southern California.

In 1959 Newman went to Long Beach to run a leasing company. Two years later he started his own real estate leasing firm, which grew into what is today Newman Brettin Properties. (His partner is Lee Brettin of Corona del Mar).

Newman gradually moved from leasing to development, moving from neighborhood shopping centers to community shopping centers and then to his first regional center, the Mall of Orange in 1971, which he built for $14 million. (Newman is now busily at work on the $60-million expansion of the Mall of Orange, which is scheduled to get under way next year.)

While writing poetry and setting new priorities for his life helped Newman to save his relationship with his children, he was unable to rescue his 25-year-marriage to their mother, Mary, which ended in divorce in 1980. In fact, he dedicates the book to his former wife, Mary, and their five children who in the dedication he describes as "the innocent, long-suffering, and remarkably understanding victims of my addiction." Reorienting his life has allowed Newman to participate in such environmental organizations as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and the Jacques Cousteau Society. Four months ago he remarried, and he and his wife, Anne, are now on a delayed honeymoon.

Newman has taken pen to paper again. But this time "my poetry is going to be a more positive," he said. "The poetry in 'Behind Pinstripes'--to put it mildly--is not all upbeat. But when I was writing it I was in a depressed state of mind.

"My life has perked up since then; my new poetry reflects this."

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