In a hotel in Cuba, Alan Schwartz '53, received an anonymous call from a man with an unidentifiable accent -- maybe British, maybe Australian. "You're going to be kidnapped by Castro," the man said.
Schwartz was in Cuba early in his career to retrieve a record from the Cuban secret police concerning the disappearance of a Spanish writer who was a known critic of the then dictator of the Dominican Republic. In Cuba, Schwartz met a CIA agent who, unbeknownst to Schwartz, was determined that he not find the record. Schwartz returned to America empty-handed but said he learned an important lesson: "Don't believe everything that is said to you or even happens to you."
Schwartz, a noted lawyer whose practice focuses on entertainment, intellectual property, corporate and tax law, has represented such notables as Tennessee Williams, Mel Brooks, James Watson and Francis Crick, and Truman Capote. His Oct. 22 talk in Goldwin Smith Hall was part of the Munschauer Career Series in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Born in Depression-era Brooklyn, Schwartz said he grew up in a poor family. When he came to Cornell at age 16, he found that his "background was completely different" from most of his fellow students. But once he moved into Watermargin, the first interracial living house at Cornell, Schwartz, a government major, began to learn that "the best kind of education is one where you're open to all sorts of possibilities."
Besides his near-kidnapping in Cuba, Schwartz told other stories from his career, including the time he was sent to Switzerland to bring Stalin's daughter, who had defected from the Soviet Union, to America. He noted the importance of communication in all his experiences, that "the best result" of a liberal arts education is the ability to "keep your mind open and your emotions open so that you can absorb what you see around you."
A liberal arts education is about sampling, Schwartz said, being flexible, learning to understand how people in different fields think and learn. He summed up the lessons he has learned from a career that has been anything but dull: "A certain amount of rigidity is not good. A certain amount of empathy is good. A certain amount of communication is very good."
He recalled his incredulity when Mel Brooks first approached him with the idea of a musical called "Springtime for Hitler." "They're going to lock him up," he recalled thinking at the time. But he stuck with the "little, sort of beat-up comic," someone he would not have been "interested in or sympathetic to" without the empathy he gained from a broad liberal arts education, and "Springtime" became the award-winning movie and musical "The Producers."
His greatest compliment, Schwartz said, was when his client Truman Capote said, "If you have Alan Schwartz, you don't need a lawyer." "I was somebody he did understand," Schwartz said, adding that throughout his life in law, the arts and finance, he has always tried to "look through the jargon" to understand what is really being said.
Joseph Mansky '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.