The conservative movement lost a giant Saturday. And I lost my oldest friend in New York. Herbert Ira London, Ph.D., a legendary public intellectual, succumbed to coronary disease at age 79.
The 6’5” London excelled at basketball in high school, at Columbia University, and was drafted by the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals, but an injury foiled his hoop dreams. He sang a hit rock & roll record in 1959 and became a cherished professor, conservative activist, and author of 30 books.
London ran for New York mayor in 1989. As 1990’s Conservative gubernatorial nominee, he polled just 1 percent behind Republican Pierre Rinfret. The GOP picked London for state comptroller in 1994.
After founding and leading NYU’s Great Books–oriented Gallatin Division from 1972 to 1992, London was the Hudson Institute’s president from 1997 to 2011. He launched the London Center for Policy Research in 2013 and spearheaded it until his death. The Center’s scholars focus on solving America’s foreign and domestic challenges.
“Herb was a Renaissance man’s Renaissance man,” said London Center vice president Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer. “In all aspects, he was a peerless scholar and visionary leader who knowledgeably and comfortably could discuss history, philosophy, art, science, and the latest baseball scores.”
“Herb was not only a spectacular leader, he was a good man,” said Laddyma Thompson, the London Center’s secretary and treasurer. “An amazing father to his three daughters, Stacy, Nancy and Jaclyn; an effective instructor to young people; a brilliant mentor to professionals, both fledgling and venerated; and a devoted husband to his wife, Vicki.”
National Review columnist John Fund’s greatest gift to me, ever, was my 31-year friendship with Herb London. About a week after I moved from Los Angeles to the Big Apple to start my MBA studies at New York University, John introduced me to this one-of-a-kind gem.
The three of us met at a now-kaput restaurant called Bayamo on Broadway near NYU. Herb and I became instant friends and subsequently enjoyed countless lunches, dinners, and conversations. We often ground our molars marveling at the idiocy of Big Government.
Under the aegis of the delightfully unspecific Center for the Study of Society, Herb organized lunchtime meetings of the New York Discussion Group. This usually involved an author or thinker who presented a topic for about ten minutes at a local club, restaurant, or high-rise conference room. Then, about 15 to 20 of us journalists, academics, attorneys, and entrepreneurs would pepper the speaker with challenges and grill him with questions. This was like a doctoral defense, but with better food. At one such gathering, we pondered “teleological vs. ontological cosmology.”
At a less elevated session, we somehow veered onto the subject of adult entertainment. With his thick Dutch accent and octogenarian Old World charm, frequent National Review contributor Professor Ernest van den Haag declared: “I believe pornography should be illegal — but available.”
Herb and I also enjoyed many thought-provoking and engaging meals together, one on one.
“Deroy, it’s time for one of our Cassandra Brothers lunches,” Herb occasionally told me by phone. We sat down in a local steakhouse or Italian spot (he was a confirmed Italophile) and, like the princess whose ignored prophecies sealed the doom of Troy, we feasted on the topic of how much better things would be if our many warnings to leaders in Gotham City, Albany, and Washington had not gone unheeded.
Like many polymaths, Herb had his eccentricities.
He never lacked for words in person. He could address any subject with facts, figures, perspective, and historical context, often going on at considerable but enjoyable length.
His emails, however, were among the most taciturn I have encountered. In response to some fairly elaborate observation of mine that might trigger a 45-second monologue in person, I got “Yes,” “No,” or “Thank you” via e-mail.
Since childhood, Herb was fascinated with hippopotami. His credenzas, bookshelves, and coffee tables overflowed with glass, stone, and ceramic hippos. A bartender once served me a beer bottle whose label showcased such an African amphibian. I proudly presented it to Herb who received it with a smile as wide as a hippo’s.
Herb also had a stunning facility with names and faces. At his 75th birthday party, he stood inside a friend’s living room. He spent about 20 minutes methodically introducing his 50 or 60 well-wishers — not just those he knew well, but also the friends and even dates of his guests. He greeted and welcomed everyone by name, adding a humorous anecdote, intriguing detail, or quote about a recent column or TV interview by each of us there. This was the height of graciousness and a mentalist feat worthy of the Amazing Kreskin.
Herb was dapper, too. His suits, sport coats, crisply folded pocket squares, and colorful ties were reliably exquisite.
“So well dressed — a fashion plate,” said WNYM 970 AM radio host Frank Morano, in a stirring tribute Monday morning. “In that 1990 gubernatorial campaign, Mario Cuomo’s aides got in the habit of calling one another ‘Herb.’ When [Andrew Cuomo’s former top aide] Joe Percoco was indicted, that was one of the things that came out: These guys, all of [the] Cuomos’ corrupt aides — Andrew and Mario — they would call each other ‘Herb,’ because they got in the habit that, when somebody would look good, they would say he was like Herb London.” Morano added: “The world is a less fulfilling, less intellectual place not having him in it.”
What impressed me most about Herb London were not his stellar credentials and accomplishments. The most striking thing about Herb was his humility.
With his résumé, Herb could have had an ego that filled Madison Square Garden. Instead, he was a mensch who rarely focused on himself and his achievements. Rather he used his myriad talents to improve the world without drawing undue attention to himself.
Herb was incredibly approachable. Many sought his guidance, introductions, and advice. They consistently told me that he took time to learn their needs and do his best to help.
One day in late October 1994, Herb was running hard to become the Empire State’s next comptroller. He was busy meeting voters, traveling among events, and otherwise seeking victory. I called his office, left a message, and reckoned that I might hear from him after the election.
Well, I’ll be damned if the Republican nominee for state comptroller didn’t call me back about two hours later to ask what was on my mind and see how he could help. I will remember this forever.
As a former Angeleno, whenever I think of New York City, my adopted home, I picture the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Herbert Ira London, Ph.D. — a great friend, a great New Yorker, and a great American.
His departure is sad, sad, sad! But lucky, lucky, lucky us who knew him. May this spectacular gentleman, friend, scholar, and patriot thrive in our memories and rest in peace.