Last week brought news that a great man had died, Dr. Carl Djerassi. He was someone I briefly worked with more than 25 years ago, a man who made a deep and lasting impression on me in many ways. And though you probably don't realize it, he is someone who touches your life daily, thanks to his serial chemical genius.
First and foremost, Dr. Djerassi was renowned as one of the "fathers of the human birth control pill," a catalyst for all the convenience, conflict and cultural change it begat. But, he didn't stop there. Djerassi also patented antihistamine, cortisone and other pharmaceutical wonders that continue to ease human sufferings, large and small, every day. So, the next time you have a stuffy nose or summer allergy attack, anaphylaxis, a sprained ankle or an ill-advised one night stand during your fertile days, just remember that Dr. Carl and his creations are there, working hard and unseen, to set things right.
But one of the things missing from the lengthy obituary in the New York Times was his role as the creator of another kind of birth control, one for that most universally despised of urban pests -- the cockroach. It was during this colorful chapter in his life, one glossed over in media obits, but discussed with great humor in Dr. Djerassi's excellent autobiography, The Pill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas' Horse, that I had the horizon-expanding fortune to cross his path.
Being both a brilliant scientist and businessman, Dr. Djerassi realized that the principals employed in the human birth control pill had another, perhaps even more lucrative, application -- in the world of agriculture. He followed up his venture with the human pill by founding another company that made countless millions more marketing sprays that would (essentially) sterilize flying farm pests, so they couldn't reproduce new generations of crop-eaters.
Lady Pill Sequel? Birth Control for Cockroaches
Fifteen years later, the fine folks at Black Flag were looking for a sequel to their mega blockbuster, The Roach Motel, and beat a path to Dr. Djerassi's door. At that time, the extraordinarily wealthy, European-born doctor was indulging his artistic passions -- writing plays, novels and poetry, and overseeing a vibrant artists' colony and residency program he established near San Francisco.
Ultimately, a deal was struck, and they licensed his science for a new consumer product, Black Flag Roach Ender, which came with the snazzy registered tagline: "Birth control for roaches."
The rub for Dr. Djerassi? He couldn't just sit back and count his residuals; they wanted him to be the face of the product, the "star" of a high-profile national publicity blitz. Thus, this old world scientist, with a penchant for high culture and the good life, was swept away from the bucolic Bay Area, and thrust into the media hotpot, to hawk "a better bug spray" in places far and wide.
The first stop was a packed press conference at one of the Ivy League university clubs in New York, attended by serious science reporters and that less than gravitas-bearing breed I loved best, called "feature reporters." Then, it was off on a coast-to-coast tour to introduce this modern wonder to the citizens and media alike, seemingly only in the high-humidity, southern U.S. cities where the roaches grew as big as house cats.
Onto the Electric Medicine Show
In these days, before the satellite media tour was common practice (where you can now sit in a studio in New York or L.A. and do interviews with TV stations anywhere around the world), Dr. Djerassi would have to take his eminence to them bodily, via a multitude of long plane and car rides. For some reason, it was I who the powers that be at the agency designated to be his Sancho Panza, on this journey to the most highly-infested cockroach capitals of America.
As a man of both vastly superior scientific and cultural intellect, it was apparent that Dr. Djerassi wouldn't suffer fools or time-wasters -- me or anyone else. Downtime was a mortal sin to a fine mind like his. In the minutes it took to deal with a clueless airline desk attendant, driver or waiter, he could perhaps envision another scientific breakthrough or, at the very least, dash off a poem to nourish his creative spirit, which cohabited in the same brain with his scientific genius.
When you travel city to city with someone, for days and weeks, on cramped planes and in cars, when you give them their morning wake-up call and coffee, eat every meal with them, you have to establish either: A) Some kind of professional rapport to get the job done or, better yet; B) A personal one to make the experience a bit of a vacation from the daily grind for both parties.
At first, I was pretty terrified of Dr. Djerassi. With his Bond-villain voice, his neatly trimmed gray hair and beard, his piercing glance, the genius I.Q. and some neck covering -- I assumed was an ascot -- he was anything but approachable. Picture Dos Equis' "The Most Interesting Man in the World" for real -- that rugged, knowing look hooked up to both Einstein's and Picasso's brains.
At first glance, he was more mad scientist from an old Hammer horror film than TV's kindly Marcus Welby, M.D. He was not the kind of guy you could talk spectator sports with, which was good because I had (and still have) no knowledge of the subject, the lubricant of so many business downtimes between males.
Pill Doc Becomes Buddha to the Undercover Beatnik
To begin with, there wasn't much talking. He would sit reading his scientific journals, or scribbling poems, and I would be in the seat right next to him on the plane, thumbing through SkyMall or the local daily rag. In these days, the mid-80s, I was doing my best to impersonate a good corporate cog -- wearing a blue suit, a bow tie (clip-on too!), sporting the most modest of "business mullets." I knew it wasn't working and I think this bon vivant detected it from the jump, too; that there was an inner beatnik screaming to be set free in seat 22B.
What sparked the connection between the 20-something flack and the 60-something genius inventor? It was jazz. Dr. Djerassi broke his concentration when he saw me pawing through my carry-on for some cassettes to feed my battered Walkman, for Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus. With a sidelong glance and softly raised brow, he also took notice of my choice of reading material. It was a remnant of my post-college backpacker days, a well-thumbed copy of Henry Miller's Sexus, the super saucy book, and one of that lovely cathedral of excess, the trilogy The Rosy Crucifixion.
All of a sudden, he was speaking with me.
He was curious about me and my life, putting me under the figurative microscope. When he heard I was a musician, I could almost see written on his forehead: "Excellent, so I guess this docent they sent to mind me isn't a complete fool after all!" Next came questions about my life, what I wanted to do with it, why I was doing what I was doing now, what I was going to do way down the line when I was through with this life.
The main interests he waxed on were his favorite writers and painters, his own writing and his desire to get this damn trek over so he could go back to North Cali and hang with the painters, poets and dramatists he was hosting at his artists' colony. "Business was business, do well at it, take care of it, bank the proceeds and then devote yourself to your artistic passions." That was pretty much the fortune cookie to the future, the life advice given to his undercover beatnik minder on United Airlines Flight 221 to Orlando.
The Genius Grills Back the Press
It was always pleasurable to see him be interviewed by the press. He generally went easier on the print reporters, as there was more time to explain concepts and find a common ground, one that wasn't the lowest one, if he could steer things in that direction.
The worst was when he appeared on those formulaically sunny, local TV morning shows. Time was precious, and the cosmetically sandblasted hosts always went straight to the sensational, the cheap laugh and the most guffaw questions on their index cards. While none of these appearances ended in tears for the hosts, occasionally Dr. Djerassi seemed to do a Dr. J -- to stop these interviews and suspend them in mid-air, with a curious glance and a few second of silence after a host asked a particularly idiotic question. Inevitably, he would ask me after interviews of this kind: "Why do these people insist on asking the same ridiculous questions?"
I still don't have an answer to that.
Another thing I remember about Dr. Djerassi was that he could turn on the charm like nobody's business when he wanted to, especially with stewardesses on a long flight or a restaurant maître d. Not in the least bit "horn-dog" mind you, just a suave European gentleman, the real "Most Interesting Man in the World," who could enjoy his interactions with people, especially those of the fairer sex, especially if they were carrying an almost-full bottle of wine.
He was trim and compact, about 5' 5", with a cane to bear with a limp from a knee fusion done because of a skiing accident in the 1950s. But, man, he certainly knew how to charm the ladies -- just to bring a little Continental joy to the situation at hand. It also demonstrated to me that intellect and quiet charm could go a long way.
The Sad End for Roach Ender, the Flack's Course Straightened
Ultimately, the fate of Black Flag Roach Ender was not a kind one. The problem with the product was it wasn't fast-acting or instantaneously fatal enough for the American consumer. When you used the spray, the bugs didn't die right away. They lived out their lives for a few weeks, then gave birth to either nothing or some horrible mutation! Americans still don't have that kind of patience when it comes to homicide. The research said consumers wanted to spray and see the bugs die, as horribly as possible, right on the spot. In the end, the elegance of Dr. Djerassi's approach was complemented with some reliable old school toxic for a more-fast acting insect murder.
If you're lucky in life, once in a blue moon, you have a brush with genius like this, someone astoundingly accomplished in their chosen endeavor, who can also give you a takeaway container of wisdom on all, and sundry that can last a lifetime.
In my case, the week I spent traversing the hot and humid roach capitals of America with Dr. Djerassi was one of them.