MY FIRST CLIENT AT AGE 13
I’m a Silicon Valley publicist who has worked with inventors, technology pioneers, public interest advocates, and charlatans, several of whom I’ve dropped and denounced publicly as well.
My first experience as a publicist, I realized, was with Larry Karr, an inventor whom I met my first year in high school, in 1959, when I was 13, in a geometry class at South High in Torrance, California.
Larry was what we used to call an egghead — tall with thick glasses and in his own world at home in Palos Verdes, where he built a ham radio set in a bedroom that more resembled a dissembled Radio Shack than a place to sleep and study. His father, a physicist, worked at a weapons company, and had been a friend of George Gershwin. They had a grand piano in the living room, and every time I visited after we became friends — Larry and I played duets together on piano (me) and flute (Larry) — I would ask Larry’s father to play “Rhapsody in Blue”, and he did. He played very well. At the time, it was my favorite piece of music because It expressed my ennui for another time and another place than Los Angeles, which I hated intensely after having lived in Bremerhaven, Germany for a few years with my father, a U.S. Army bandleader, and my mother, a lover of German operettas and wienerschnitzel.
In geometry class, we had a martinet of a teacher who made us memorize Euclid’s theorems for solving a variety of simple problems. Larry didn’t like to memorize anything. He didn’t need to memorize Euclid’s proofs. He invented his own theorems, and I thought that some of them were far more straightforward and elegant than those of Euclid. When the teacher asked us to recite proofs, Larry would go up to the blackboard and transcribe his own proofs. The teacher didn’t like that at all.
So after the first semester, Larry received a D in geometry on his report card and showed it to me, I was furious. I knew his parents would be even more furious, although, of course, Larry ended up going to CalTech, where he studied under physicist Richard Feynman.
As the eldest child in a family with four children, my parents had always supported me. And if they didn’t, I would stage rebellions, paving the way for my siblings. My father, a volunteer Jewish chaplain, encouraged me to teach Jewish enlisted men who attended Sabbath services at our home to read Hebrew, and once, when I was nine, let me write and deliver the Sabbath sermon, although I have no idea what I might have said. My mother was a German Holocaust survivor, whom my dad had met in Frankfurt- am-Main after the war, where I was born, and she had inspired me with a drive to fight for justice.
Given my background, it was inevitable that I would approach our geometry teacher after class to challenge the injustice of Larry’s D grade. “How could you give Larry a D? He’s a genius and some of his proofs are far better than Euclid’s,” I said.
“He has to learn the Euclidean proofs,” she responded, “and he doesn’t know them.”
I kept arguing and eventually I persuaded her to compromise and give Larry a B.
After Larry went to CalTech, I visited him once and then we drifted apart until one pre-Internet day, when my son was around 13, I received a CD directory listing all the names and phone numbers of people in California. I had told my son about Larry Karr — my son had just announced he had a “girlfriend” and was spending hours talking to her on the phone, and he had asked my about my first “boyfriend.”
“Why don’t you look him up and call him?” my son asked.
So I did. And when he answered the phone, he said immediately, “Oh, it’s Sylvia Margolin (my maiden name), and I haven’t talked to you for 31 years” and then he added the number of months as well. That was Larry Karr.
We resumed our friendship as if we were still in high school. We really hadn’t changed. He was a genius and I was an advocate turned publicist, which in a way is an advocate for geniuses and pioneers advancing any human endeavor. Larry later invented the chip for the first SmartWatch developed by Microsoft and hired me as his publicist. Bill Gates invited us to the introduction of the watch in Las Vegas.
On a TechTV show I had arranged for Larry with host Leo LaPorte, Leo asked Larry why the watch was called a SmartWatch.
“I dunno,” said Larry, in his usual open manner. “I actually think it’s kind of stupid.”
I received a livid email from Microsoft’s communications person shortly afterwards, and it reminded me of the geometry teacher’s reaction to Larry’s “insolence” at South High decades earlier, which triggered my career at a publicist for the brilliant and the righteous.