The Foreign Service Journal - March 2014 - page 77

MARCH 2014
Donald M. Bishop, a retired Foreign Service public diplomacy officer, was public affairs officer in
Dhaka, Lagos and Beijing, and twice a political adviser at the Pentagon. His last assignment was
A Quote for My Marquee
ack in 1989, I was the informa-
tion officer and spokesman at
our non-embassy in Taipei, the
American Institute in Taiwan.
The front office had received an invita-
tion to attend the opening ceremony for
the new Chinese-language edition of a
popular American magazine. Neither
the AIT director nor the deputy principal
officer could attend, and neither could
the public affairs officer. The invitation
duly landed on my desk.
The magazine?
guest of honor? Its publisher, Helen
Gurley Brown.
I was hoping for a quick handshake
with the famous “HGB,” a few conversa-
tions with contacts in publishing, some
clapping when the ribbon was cut and
a quick exit. But almost as soon as I
entered the reception room at the ritzy
hotel, I was taken to the head of the line
to meet Ms. Brown and her husband. I
remember being surprised at how ruth-
lessly thin she was.
Then I was pressed to stay for the ban-
quet. In unexpected situations like this, I
have always taken the advice of scripture
(Luke 14: 8-11) to stand by modestly.
To my suprise, I was not only sum-
moned to the head table but placed at
the right of Ms. Brown, with her hus-
band on her left, as the banquet began
with Peanuts in Old Vinegar and Spicy
The members of the Chinese edition’s
publishing team were not very talk-
ative, so for two hours Ms. Brown
and I chatted. Truth to tell, I was
rather intimidated by meeting the
real-life figure Natalie Wood had
played in the movie version of her
famous book,
Sex and the Single
While I’d seen the film, I’d never
read the book. For that matter, while I
had seen copies at the supermarket, I
had never read
, either. What was I
supposed to talk about as we enjoyed the
Four Treasures in Bird’s Nest?
Fortunately, my wife was a subscriber
Working Woman
magazine, and I had
looked through a few copies. So I asked
what magazines were
’s main
competitors, and was
Working Woman
among them? I quickly learned a great
deal about the overlapping demograph-
ics and marketing of the two publica-
tions, all of it fascinating. But as the
Abalone was being served, Ms. Brown
turned the tables by asking, “So what do
you think of
Working Woman
Thinking fast, I said that the magazine
illustrated basic principles of manage-
ment, human relations and office culture
in everyday ways, but with a twist. Its
take on these basic topics was that old-
boy networks hid this knowledge from
women, and now
was sharing the
secrets with ambitious women. This was
apparently different from anything HGB
had heard from others, and again I was
given some valuable high-level insight
into publishing and
Now, however, I
could feel another
panic attack com-
ing on. As the Steak
with Five Spices
arrived at our table, I realized I’d played
my only conversational card on the
subject of women’s magazines, and my
ignorance would soon become evident.
Undaunted, I turned the conversation
to intellectual property and the extent of
book and movie piracy in Taiwan. She
was quite interested, and at the mention
of pirated videotapes of American block-
busters, her husband David, director of
“Jaws,” joined in. That discussion lasted
through the Fish Fragrance Eggplant.
The dinner continued, and I tap-
danced and pirouetted about the econ-
omy, political change in Taiwan, Chinese
regional cuisines, the end of the Cold
War and more. As I remember it, each
of my topics informed and entertained
without revealing my lack of depth.
After the Sweet Sesame Balls, the
meal concluded with Melon Slices.
When the dinner ended, HGB said to me,
“Donald, you’re one of the best conver-
sationalists I’ve ever met.” Heady stuff
for a colorless diplomat!
If only FSOs had marquees rather
than resumés, perhaps that quote, in
lights, would have been just the ticket
I needed to reach the Foreign Service
stratosphere. I’ve always thought “Princi-
pal Deputy Assistant Secretary” has a
nice ring to it. But alas, there’s no Bureau
of Conversation.
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