Building wealth

A wry note on the news about pathological fabulist George Santos and his apparent amassing of millions of dollars in a mere two years. Santos’s remarkable ability to build wealth rapidly called to my mind the parallel achievements of the three men in the song “Little Tin Box” from the musical Fiorello!

After some background on the extraordinarily opaque Mr. Santos and his (apparent) meteoric accumulation of great heaps of money, I will entertain you with the full lyrics to the song. Then the basic facts about the musical, and more personal recollections from the giant album of Things I Learned at Princeton, in this case about how I became acquainted with the musical, which will lead to a brief note on Clark Gesner and still another musical, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (for which Clark supplied the book, the words, and the music).

Santos: background. From Wikipedia, some publicly established facts:

George Anthony Devolder Santos is an American politician from the state of New York. A member of the Republican Party, Santos was elected in 2022 to represent New York’s 3rd congressional district, which covers part of northern Long Island and northeast Queens, after having unsuccessfully contested the seat two years earlier.

Hardly anything about Santos is firmly established. He has fabricated a complete, detailed, previous life history, while concealing and obfuscating his actual history and essentially all significant details of his current life — down to what he does for a living, where he lives and, if he actually has a husband, who that person is.

The Santos wealth rocket. From Spectrum News Syracuse (NY) channel 1 (24-hour news channel). “George Santos facing scrutiny over finances, including how he came into wealth so quickly” by Emily Ngo on 12/27/22:

As a candidate in 2020, in a filing to the U.S. House clerk, George Santos disclosed no assets or income — just that he’d been compensated in excess of $5,000 by LinkBridge Investors.

Two years later, in a filing ahead of a race he’d go on to win, Santos disclosed an apartment in Rio de Janeiro, checking and savings accounts and dividends from his eponymous Devolder Organization of between $1 million and $5 million.

That, in addition to a salary of three-quarters of a million dollars.

“I’m opening my own shop,” Santos had explained Monday on Political Personalities with Skye with host Skye Ostreicher. “I’m going to do my own consulting like I used to do for LinkBridge. And it just worked because I had the relationships and I started making a lot of money. I fundamentally started building wealth.”

The finances of George Anthony Devolder-Santos, including how he came so quickly into wealth, are under scrutiny as the Republican congressman-elect admits to fabricating much of his backstory.

Apparently, he has the gift of turning a little into a lot, through clever management. Oh, I’ve heard that story before.

“Little Tin Box” from Fiorello! Full lyrics below. You can listen to the (wonderful) original Broadway cast recording here. (Listen for the raunchy enjambment “Up your Honor, bit by bit” from Mr. Z.)

“Mr. X, may we ask you a question?
It’s amazing, is it not,
That the city pays you slightly less than fifty bucks a week,
Yet you’ve purchased a private yacht?”

“I am positive your Honor must be joking!
Any working man can do what I have done.
For a month or two I simply gave up smoking,
And I put my extra pennies one by one
“Into a little tin box,

A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.
In a little tin box.
A little tin box

That a little tin key unlocks.
There is honor and purity,
Lots of security,
In a little tin box.”

“Mr. Y, we’ve been told you don’t feel well,
And we know you’ve lost your voice,
But we wonder how you managed on the salary you make
To acquire a new Rolls-Royce.”

“You’re implyin’ I’m a crook and I say no, sir!
There is nothin’ in my past I care to hide.
I been takin’ emply bottles to the grocer
And each nickel that I got was put aside
(That he got was put aside)
“Into a little tin box,

A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.
In a little tin box,

A little tin box
There’s a cushion for life’s rude shocks.
There is faith, hope and charity,
Hard-won prosperity,
In a little tin box.”

“Mr. Z, you’re a junior official
And your income’s rather low,
Yet you’ve kept a dozen women in the very best hotels,
Would you kindly explain how so?”

“I can see your Honor doesn’t pull his punches,
And it looks a trifle fishy, I’ll admit.
But for one whole week I went without my lunches,
And it mounted up, your Honor, bit by bit.
(Up your Honor, bit by bit.)
“It’s just a little tin box,

A little tin box
That a little tin key unlocks.
There is nothing unorthodox
About a little tin box.
In a little tin box,

A little tin box
All a-glitter with blue-chip stocks.
There is something delectable,
Almost respectable,
In a little tin box,
In a little tin box.”

The musical. From Wikipedia:

Fiorello! is a [prize-winning] musical about New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia, a reform Republican, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, and tells the story of how La Guardia took on the Tammany Hall political machine. The book is by Jerome Weidman and George Abbott, drawn substantially from the 1955 volume Life with Fiorello by Ernest Cuneo, with lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock.

There were Broadway productions in 1959 and 1962. Significant fact for what follows: I was an undergraduate at Princeton from 1958-62.

Clark Gesner. Another significant fact is that sophomore year the suite I was in was next to a single belonging to Clark Gesner, who was then a senior, working on a senior thesis on American musical theatre. As it happens, my two roommates and I were all also into musicals, each with his own favorites, which he then imposed on the others, with varying results. I became a fan of New Girl in Town through Frank, came to revile Flower Drum Song, which Jim adored.

Meanwhile, we heard, though a shared wall, Clark playing recordings of an enormous range of songs from musicals, and playing them on his piano — my piano was on the other side of that shared wall — and talking about his musical tastes with us. He was an education.

Clark was a truly sweet-tempered man, but also a sharp observer of others; although he was only two years older than us, he was fully a grown-up, not a college kid, already engaging himself with the NYC theatre world (in which he spent the rest of his life). He was also an enthusiastic member of Princeton’s raucous theatrical troupe, the Triangle Club, and maintained a close association with it through his life.

Meanwhile, he was utterly guarded about his personal life (and remained so when he moved to the City). One of his concealments was his homosexuality — of course it was, in 1956-60, at all-male, macho-oriented, intensely homophobic Princeton (and indeed in the world in general, a decade before Stonewall began opening things up).

There were of course, a fair number of gay men at Princeton then. Mostly, they were sexually inactive, or they took the train to New York to find partners in the City’s subterranean gay world. Clark, with his theatrical connections, was virtually a commuter to the City. But then somehow he and another guy in his class connected, and he had an on-campus boyfriend. (His boyfriend was an admirable guy, in temperament and interests nicely complementary to Clark’s.) And they somehow had to manage their trysts in deep secrecy; if they’d been found out, they’d both have been immediately expelled from Princeton.

Clark managed to convey to a few trusted friends (including the three men in my suite), without saying so out loud, that he and this other guy were not just good friends, we could see that, but, like, friends. He did this because the two of them needed all the help they could get to maintain but conceal their relationship. We performed various small diversionary and protective services, and talked about the situation only amongst ourselves. Everybody got through it, everybody behaved not only honorably but with grace and concern for one another. But oh Jesus fucking Christ!

Meanwhile, Clark gave me a significant part of my education at Princeton. Specifically, he brought me to “Little Tin Box”, which I seem to have been saving for over 60 years, waiting until George Santos came along.

While he worked on writing musicals of his own in the City, Clark made a living providing music for children’s television — just wonderful stuff for Captain Kangaroo and then Sesame Street (I told you he was sweet-tempered); I can still sort of sing “Most Amazing Morning” from Captain Kangaroo. Along the way, he was convinced to stage a set of musical sketches he’d done about comics characters that he loved. The beginning of his Wikipedia entry:

Clark Gesner (March 27, 1938 – July 23, 2002) was an American composer, songwriter, author, and actor. He is best known for composing the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, based on the Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanuts.

He did lots of other things, but Charlie Brown is what he’s remembered for, and it provided him with a comfortable living for the rest of his life, until he was felled in 2002 by a heart attack on one of his lunch visits to the Princeton Club of New York. Obituaries just said laconically that he never married.

5 Responses to “Building wealth”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    As I noted on Facebook, I saw the show on Broadway as a teenager (probably in 1959, but it might have been ’62), and our household subsequently purchased the cast album, so I got pretty familiar with the music, which in my opinion was exceptionally excellent. The song you reference was a particularly delicious example (although the contrapuntal “The Bum Won” is right up there too).

    I should attempt to find out what else, if anything, Jerry Bock wrote.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      From my FB response to Robert:

      Yes, the music is amazing in its matching of lyrics (creating character portraits) to tunes, as Clark explained to me (rehearsing ideas that went into his senior thesis). (At that point, from Stephen Sondheim we had only his fabulous lyrics (West Side Story, Gypsy), not yet the integration of text and tune to come in Company, Follies, and so on.) But, but, the wondrous original Candide opened in NYC in 1956, and closed before I got to Princeton and had relatively easy access to the City (where I became a Threepenny Opera junkie), so I discovered it through the original cast recording.

      And became a Candide enthusiast while at Princeton, but the year after Clark graduated — introduced to it by housemates Ann Daingerfield (later, Ann Daingerfield Zwicky) and Bonnie Bendon (later, and still, Benita Bendon Campbell).

      Poignantly (as I noted in e-mail to Bonnie this morning), everyone I have mentioned or alluded to in these reminiscences of Princeton days has died — my sophomore roommate Jim just this September — except for her. She and I are still standing.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Comment on Facebook this morning:

    Susie Bright: I love this whole story, and the lyrics to “Little Tin Box” are just delicious!

    AZ > SB: I thought I had to quote the whole thing, to get the effect of the repetition with variations, for three times, getting more preposterous as it goes along. With the occasional astonishing rhyme (like orthodox) thrown in.

    Think of it as a rondo.

  3. Mark Mandel Says:

    I really like “Little Tin Box”. My folks had an LP of the musical, and I remember much of the song.
    Another song in the show that I especially enjoyed is the one in which La Guardia campaigns to several different ethnic groups, each in its own language: English, Italian and Yiddish. I remember the tune of the first line of each, in which he spells out his last name.

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