The Naked Truth About Sheldon G. Adelson
I graduated college in spring 1985 and naively assumed my diploma would open any corporate office door I chose to enter. By late August, sans employment offers, I was taking the GRE and thinking about graduate school. Then I learned from my father that one of his friends had a daughter who was in charge of public relations at a company that was based in Needham, the next town over from where I lived in Newton. Seemed like a good fit, so with the back-room machinations in place, I made a call, had an interview, and was hired. The company was called The Interface Group, and it produced computer and telecommunications industry trade shows.
The CEO was Sheldon G. Adelson. I worked there for two years—a pretty good tenure at a company known for its revolving doors—and in that time had fairly frequent access to the man. As a company PR person, I knew his story well. An ambitious son of immigrants, he started out selling newspapers on a street corner in Dorchester. He eventually got into the publishing business, creating Interface, a trade publication for the telecommunications field. Inspired by a trade show he attended that showed him the convening power of such an event, he started the Interface conference and soon created the COMDEX trade show for the emerging personal computer industry that became the largest of its kind in the world.
What he liked about trade shows was the numerous pots of money he could access. He made money by selling space to exhibitors and tickets to attendees. He bought up hotel rooms in the host city (typically Las Vegas) and sold them at a premium to those traveling to the show. He eventually started a travel business (GWV) and a chartered airline (Five Star) as well, and, of course, after he sold COMDEX, he got into the hotel/casino business himself. Once he achieved billionaire status, he became known as one of the leading Republican donors, getting cozy with the likes of Trump and throwing his weight around in Israeli politics by supporting Netanyahu.
To people of my political persuasion, Adelson comes off as an irredeemable asshole. Take it from me, he was worse in person. The tales about him at The Interface Group were legendary: that he fired someone for calling him Sheldon; that when Hurricane Gloria hit the Boston area in September 1985 (I was on the job for only a month), he sent the human resources director to scour the halls and offices and dock the pay of everyone who was absent (the HR man refused and was summarily dismissed). These stories were true. Adelson was someone you tried to avoid. If you wanted to advance in the company, it was always better not to be around him than to try to get on his good side.
That was not always true, though. As I mentioned, I joined the company in late August; as such I missed the summer outing. I was, however, in charge of putting together the internal newsletter and had to sort through the many photos taken and to choose which to include. Since I didn’t know anyone at the company, I had to ask others to identify who was who. There was one very adorable photo of a woman holding a baby. I was told it was Mrs. Adelson (now deceased; not the one whom Trump awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom) holding their granddaughter. It was such a nice photo, I was advised—despite the typical risk of being in his orbit—to present it to Adelson myself.
At the time, my mother worked in a photo studio so I took the picture home and asked her to enlarge it for me. Then I went up to the executive suite and told his secretary that I wanted to see him. She would have laughed me back into the elevator from which I’d come except for the photo. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, the door to his office opened and out came the man himself.
Napoleon had nothing on this guy. Short, stocky, built like a fire plug, he came out to where I was standing looking like he was ready for a fight, like I’d come to ask his daughter out for a date or that I was collecting money for Walter Mondale. I was scared shitless. I blurted out my name and said I was gathering photos from the summer outing and wanted to give him a print of this especially nice photo of his wife and grandkid. His demeanor changed instantly. I wouldn’t say he smiled or was warm or invited me into his office for a bourbon, but he did appreciate the gesture and thanked me for my thoughtfulness. There was a bonus in my next paycheck.
The other times I was in his presence weren’t as fun. They were meetings to discuss PR challenges and he demanded swift and highly competent action. During one such meeting, he noticed that I wasn’t taking notes and asked me why. Perhaps banking on a remaining shred of good will between us, I pointed to my temple and assured him, “It’s all in here, Mr. Adelson.” He gave me a look that said, “It better be, smartass.”
Not all my memories of working for Adelson are bad. In 1987, he bought the end-user-oriented West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, which I got to work. The Conference department wanted to do a session on how computers were being used in music. I recommended they contact Todd Rundgren because I had seen him perform in concert with nothing more than a guitar and a Mac SE. He indeed was booked and I got to spend about an hour with Todd before his session one on one.
When I finally left The Interface Group and moved on to other employers, I realized that Adelson had hardened me. I was suspicious, alert to potential conflicts, and I’d gotten a tough skin. Things that upset others didn’t faze me so much because I’d already been through the crucible. In the last several years, the horror of what this rich, narcissistic bully supported and enabled through his enormous donations to causes and people I found reprehensible disturbed me greatly. But it certainly didn’t surprise me.
He was a philanthropist to many good causes, too, typically Jewish organizations. One client of mine had been a recipient of his largesse and was looking for more. I was asked to create a pitch they could present to him and even had a meeting in the office next door to the one where I had presented him the photograph more than 30 years earlier. It was a thrill to walk out of the building that day, knowing I had come a long way from the days when his very name brought chills and anxiety.
And now he is gone. Someone told me once that when Adelson died, there would be thousands of people wanting to dance on his grave. I suppose I felt that way once, as well. But now there is a simple satisfaction in knowing that he is gone. It seems that 2021 will indeed be the year of wiping the slate clean and starting afresh. So to my mind, it’s one tyrannical megalomaniac down, and one to go.