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Lunch at Lever House with: Don Epstein

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-04-21

Don Epstein sells free speech to the world.

"It's my passion,' the founder and chief executive officer of Greater Talent Network said yesterday."I never cease to be moved by how much the American experience has meant for free speech. And so I want to present to the world the most inspiring, the most thought provoking story tellers. I want to challenge people."

Mr. Epstein fairly rose from the banquette as he spoke. He gestured. He thumped the lunch table as though it were a podium. It was easy to imagine him delivering lectures - although Mr. Epstein says he prefers to be backstage, cheering on his speakers.

He is unabashed about his enthusiasm for the lecture business, a multi-billion industry where a few star players - such as Mr. Epstein, the Harry Walker Agency, and the Washington Speakers Bureau - dominate the trade by representing world leaders and celebrities from show business, politics, literature, and commerce, among other fields. He believes that in a world of increasing globalization, audiences everywhere are looking for figures that can sort through complicated issues such as technology and social mores, and offer insights about the directions in which societies are moving.

Mr. Epstein's stable is about as star-studded as they come: Gen. Wesley Clark; Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and his wife Kati Marton; Sir Harry Evans and his wife Tina Brown; Janet Reno; Spencer Abraham; Richard Gephardt; Governor Pataki; and Louis Freeh. Then there's Tom Wolfe. There's P. J. O'Rourke, Candace Bushnell, Michael Lewis and Christopher Buckley. There's Danny Glover, Tiki Barber, Michael Moore, Jonathan Tisch and Sir Howard Stringer. There's Bob Woodward. And yes, Jackie Collins, who has sold 445 million books globally.

"Celebrity status isn't my only criterion," Mr. Epstein said. "I look primarily for the ability to tell a story. I look for what insight my speakers can offer. I look for special expertise that can appeal to a broad audience. And I look for long term relationships with my clients as well as customers. I'm the sort of fellow who puts great store in the handshake of honor."

Corporations and other entities pay anywhere from $5,000 to several hundred thousand dollars to hear these personalities. Mr. Epstein's phones - and those of his 30 associates in New York, Miami and Connecticut - ring off the hook with calls from men and women who want to be represented by him, and from corporations in search of timely speakers.

The Walker Agency - founded in 1946 - and the Washington Speakers Bureau - founded in 1979 - are older than Mr. Epstein's Greater Talent Network. But he is no upstart to the lecture game. For one, Mr. Epstein is marking the 25th anniversary of his agency, which has some 120 speakers and 1,500 customers. For another, he has been at it since his high school days in Miami Beach.

"While my classmates were fooling around, I was busy inviting local celebrities and officials to speak at Miami Beach Senior High," Mr. Epstein said. "The Republican National Convention was held in Miami Beach in 1968, and all the radicals were out in force demonstrating - Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale. It was fascinating to watch their blend of politics and marketing. I became tour guide for some of them."

By the time Mr. Epstein arrived at the University of Florida in Gainesville, he was certain that he wanted to work in the entertainment business, quite possibly as an impresario. He became head of the student body that organized concerts and lectures; indeed, his budget of $350,000 to bring outside speakers to the campus was the largest of its kind at an American college in those days.

Mr. Epstein's guest list was eclectic: Truman Capote, Jane Fonda, Hunter Thompson, Dick Cavett - a parade of well-known personalities traversed the campus.

"People saw that I had a passion for organizing lectures and concerts," Mr. Epstein said. "As a political-science major, I was well read. I was respectful of various political beliefs. I wasn't argumentative. I took great delight in getting audiences to listen to points of view that they didn't necessarily agree with. It gave me great satisfaction if someone said, 'You know, I didn't know that. You haven't changed my mind, but you've enlightened me.'"

His father, Norman Epstein, a shoe businessman, and his mother Carole, an interior decorator, weren't among those who felt particularly enlightened by their only son's preoccupation. They'd wanted him to be - what else - a lawyer or a physician.

It wasn't until years later, when Mr. Epstein had achieved a large measure of success - representing, among other clients, some of the Watergate felons - and after he'd established himself at New Line Cinema representing its artistes, that an unusual telephone exchange occurred between son and father.

Mr. Epstein had snapped up Gordon Liddy as a client, and booked at 75 appearances in the first few weeks after his release from prison. Norman Epstein watched one of Mr. Liddy's interviews on television, and then called up his son.

"All these years I never quite understood what you did for a living," he said to his son. "Now I finally know what you're doing."

The son smiled softly as he recalled the episode.

"I took it as his seal of approval," Mr. Epstein said.

It's clear from a conversation with him that Mr. Epstein takes great pride in some of the values he inherited from his parents, both of whom are now deceased.

"Hard work is important, being good to other people is important," Mr. Epstein said. "I often tell my 16-year-old twins, Jacob and Morgan, how important it is to follow one's dream, how important it is to be passionate about one's work."

His wife, Cara, shares his passion for his work - work that Mr. Epstein characterizes as facilitating "the gift of conversation." Cara Epstein, who he met 25 years ago at a party that Mr. Epstein catered at the erstwhile discotheque Regine's, assists Greater Talent Network's chief financial officer. The agency's plans include a television channel highlighting its speakers and their historical environment. Plans also include expanding the agency's overseas presence.

If passion for his work is an article of faith with Mr. Epstein, so is his attention to clients.

"My passion is infectious - and I like to convey to my clients that it's passion on their behalf," he said. "I will walk through walls for them. What I caution them, however, is to stay in the business for the long haul. As the world changes, there will always be peaks and valleys. One of these days, I'm going to write a book in which I'll offer guidelines about public speaking. I think I've lived the American Dream, and I suppose I have a story to tell."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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