I only met Robert Nozick on one occasion, and learning of his death today brought a kaleidoscope of images surrounding that encounter.
Here’s how I remember it, but please don’t jump all over me if some of the dates and details are skewed.
I think it was 1981: the Center for Libertarian Studies was going through a difficult time.
For the first five years of its existence, CLS received funds from a major conservative foundation, but an antiwar essay by Murray Rothbard bothered them, and they unceremoniously cut us off. (Rothbard, like Mises, was uncompromising, intractable, they fumed.)
The Center, free from their clutches, found itself poor, proud, and independent — a condition maintained through the years.
At about the same time, CLS was having bad luck with its Executive Directors. One was lost in a tragic suicide, and his successor — the CLS board would sadly learn — was a partially recovered member of Gambler’s Anonymous.
Some months later, Richard — let’s call him — disappeared, and two fellows with hand-painted ties, representing a garbage disposal company from New Jersey, came to CLS’s offices looking for him. (Today, they could audition for "The Sopranos.")
In spite of the fancy address on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, the CLS offices were appropriately grungy. The two "collectors" were disappointed to see the impoverished setting. They realized they weren’t collecting any unpaid gambling debts in this dump and after looking around a bit, they gave CLS a $5 contribution. (It’s all true except the donation.)
Bear with me. I haven’t forgotten Robert Nozick.
Old Racing Forms and torn up pari-mutuel tickets were not Mr. Gambler’s Anonymous’ only legacy. He had decided that the Center For Libertarian Studies would honor the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig von Mises with a bash at the ritzy "Windows on the World" atop the World Trade Center. Yes, Richard’s event would not soon be forgotten and could bankrupt CLS .
The CLS board was horrified. I was the brand new member of that august body, a lone businessman amongst a bevy of academics. Only friend Lew Rockwell, on the brink of launching the Mises Institute, was there to help derail Richard’s grandiose plans.
I soon learned that the contracts with Windows on the World had already been signed. The Center was guaranteeing 250 guests and a sumptuous menu. When I noted that the Baked Alaska dessert alone was priced at $12.50, I feared we were doomed.
But Richard’s sin cut far deeper. It was well known in libertarian circles that Murray Rothbard had overcome a list of phobias. It took a great deal of effort, but poor Murray could now deal with airplanes, tunnels, and bridges, but, one fear remained — he was not about to enter an elevator in a skyscraper; a moving, sealed coffin that propelled a body over 100 stories in a few seconds.
Given the recent horrid event on 9/11 at that very site, Murray’s "phobia" now seems quite understandable.
How in heaven’s name could the Center for Libertarian Studies schedule a celebration like the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig von Mises knowing full well that Murray Rothbard would never show up?
I tried everything to break the contract with Windows on the World and cancel the event but it was too late. Richard had locked us in with substantial deposits we could not recover. CLS was committed to the dinner on the 108th floor, and Murray Rothbard. wasn’t going to be there.
And finally to Robert Nozick. Nozick was our first libertarian "pop-star." His award-winning book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, published in 1974, brought semi-radical libertarian concepts to the Establishment.
Many of us felt Nozick’s book drew heavily upon Murray Rothbard’s work without sufficient credit — indeed, that the whole work was intended as a limited-governnment response to Murray’s anarcho-capitalism — though Nozick did grudgingly recognize Murray in the book’s "Acknowledgements."
In balance, the success of the book was a breakthrough for the movement. Nozick was movie-star handsome and eloquent and — you guessed it — Mr. Gamblers Anonymous had contracted with Nozick to be the main speaker at the Mises dinner.
The elaborately engraved invitations went out and Nozick proved to be a powerful draw. The dinner was over-subscribed and although the mercy of time has obliterated the memory of Nozick’s exact fee, there is no question that he filled the room
As the night of the dinner drew closer we became more worried about Murray. We begged, we implored, we threatened. We even considered taking the entire day to walk him up the 100-plus floors.
Not a chance. He wasn’t getting near those elevators.
Dear Joey Rothbard, Murray’s lifelong companion, finally asked that we stop badgering him and that we leave the matter in her hands.
At the elegant reception prior to the banquet tuxedoed waiters splashed French champagne into everybody’s glass. Any wasted drops that might have spilled to the carpet set off the cash register in my head.
The guests milled about on the 108th floor in the clouds looking down on New York’s old skyscrapers, the Empire State and the Chrysler Building.
But our joy was tempered. There was no Murray.
Suddenly all eyes turned to the giant elevator doors as they rolled open. There was JoAnn Rothbard with her trophy, poor Murray. He was ghastly white. The applause started slowly and mounted to cheers as most in the room realized what Murray had overcome to make that ascent.
JoAnn led him to the lectern and the room grew silent. Murray leaned over, grasped the microphone, and said: "I bring you greetings from Planet Earth."
Robert Nozick’s entrance was almost as dramatic. Not copying Murray’s rumpled appearance, Nozick wore a fashionable turtleneck under his jacket. His hair was perfectly coiffed and a fashion critic might report that he was exquisitely casual. Only a Harvard philosopher could bring it off.
Not only was he thin and tall and god-like, he was articulate and born to dazzle women. It was as if they were melting at his feet. Women were lining up to present him with their hotel room keys.
But most of the men in the room would have most likely murdered him.
The rest of the evening remains blurry. The program was well received, and as the blood began to course again through Rothbard’s veins, his speech turned out to be the hit of the evening.
Nozick did not disappoint, but there was a surprise yet to come.
The near-bankrupt CLS had provided a limo for super-star Nozick, and pre-paid his hotel accommodations for one night. But he never used our reservation, and I soon learned why.
Weeks later I received a bill in the mail. It was for an expensive suite for an entire weekend at the fanciest East Side hotel.
Murray once said he never met a billionaire he liked. I never met a Harvard philosopher super-star that I understood. N.B.: We devoted much of the first issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies to his book