Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Being There

By Leonard Gill

JANUARY 12, 1998: 

Fair & Square
By John Burton Tigrett
Spiridon Press, 331 pp., $24.95

Every man should have a right to tell his own story as he sees it, and ego always provides the grounds for altering the facts a bit.”

The line is John Tigrett’s in reference to the books he’s made a point of not reading about his high-stakes pals James Goldsmith, Armand Hammer, and J. Paul Getty. But the statement goes for Tigrett’s own story, “as he sees it,” in Fair & Square too. As for any altering of the facts, my and your idea of “a bit” may not square with Tigrett’s (who’s helped in the trading of hundreds of millions of dollars over the years and earned his share in the process), but, to be fair, his book doesn’t pretend to be autobiography. “[J]ust a hundred or so stories of mine” is how he put this late-in-life project to journalist Robert Kerr. “If that’s not enough, I’ll give you a hundred more.”

These first hundred, however, are extraordinary enough for what’s been inarguably an extraordinary life. Outside of two personal tragedies and a few temporary setbacks, it’s also been, by Tigrett’s accounting, a wonderful life. So what if the reporting often relies on “The Gypsy Rose Lee Theory of Writing”? The strategy served him when The Saturday Evening Post ran articles by Tigrett 60 years ago. And readers willing, it can serve him again. Forrest Gump found a surprising audience. Why not an in some ways real-life counterpart with an incredible capacity for being in the right place at the right time but with the smarts to take advantage of it? The parallel isn’t mine. Tigrett himself suggests as much time and again throughout these quick pages.

Case in point #1: During the worst years of the Depression in Jackson, Tennessee, and knowing “nothing about investment banking,” Tigrett devised a financial arrangement to satisfy both creditors and debtors and earned himself a whopping $50,000 on its first application.

Case in point #2: In 1941, Tigrett signed up at the recruiting office with the shortest line, and knowing “nothing whatsoever about the Navy or its rules and regulations,” was made a student commandant on a chance encounter with a passing captain; figured out how to order his own plum assignments; ended up stationed at an airstrip in Newfoundland ushering a veritable Who’s Who of wartime greats before they crossed the Atlantic; and possibly saved, after serving him 13 double scotches, the life of Winston Churchill. (Eisenhower personally offered praise; MacArthur, after an icy start, eventually dropped his considerable guard.)

Flash-forward to the ’50s and what Tigrett terms a “sideline” interest: toys. Distracted by a stenographer’s crude desktop contraption, he immediately traced the patent holders – a concert violinist and a peculiar fellow operating above a porn house on 42nd Street – gave them each $800, spruced up the design, and went on to sell 20 million “units” of the Drinking Duck. (The physics involved stumped even Albert Einstein.) Tigrett’s follow-up novelty, the Yogi Bird, sold a mere 10 million.

Tigrett did all right for himself (with the assistance of a young Adlai Stevenson) when he went up against Greyhound and won rights for a new cross-country bus line too. But following the accidental deaths of two of his sons (within the space of only six months), his first marriage collapsed, and at the age of 52 he moved with $10,000 in his pocket to London and to the truly big time: big-time associates and big-time profits to go with another invention – the takeover. (The word hostile doesn’t show up here.) Tigrett loved it all and has kind words for even the scoundrels he’s dealt with, excepting his friend of more than 18 years, double agent Armand “Doc” Hammer, a man “as mean and evil as they come.”

A harder deal to close was Tigrett’s pursuit of Tennessee native and former beauty-pageant contestant, Pat Kerr. “[S]he had so many suitors, I couldn’t keep track of them all,” Tigrett writes. “I was, however, the only one old enough to be her father.” With that distinction and a push from friend Norman Vincent Peale, they were wed and have stayed wed since 1973. This, despite the bride’s first words down the aisle, “I hate being married!”

Kerr’s lace creations have since earned her her own success. And I need hardly mention son Isaac, the Hard Rock Cafe, and House of Blues. Their stories round out Fair & Square, along with tributes to Kemmons Wilson and Fred Smith. Local political leaders in “a sleepy Southern country town just awakening to the world” (Memphis) get very short shrift.

The book reaches its most affecting moments, however, whenever it reaches furthest into the past. To Tigrett’s mother, equal parts determination and heart. To his uncle, confident that mornings meant business and afternoons golf. To memories of the Flood of ’27 and to the landscape and society of the Delta and West Tennessee at the time. You can amaze at John Tigrett’s sitting down with Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, and Leonid Brezhnev. But when the daughter of a friend’s washwoman steps out of the kitchen to sing before Tigrett in Laurel, Mississippi – and that daughter is Leontyne Price – an extraordinary life does indeed turn to a wonderful one.

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