Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?

I read a fascinating profile of Marilyn Lewis in a recent New York Times Magazine. If you don’t know who Marilyn Lewis is, don’t feel like you’re out of the loop. She’s a 73-year-old former Hollywood actress who, despite good looks, intelligence, and a take-charge attitude, never became a household name.

But two of the businesses she started did achieve fame. When she met her husband Harry in 1950, he had the idea for a restaurant he wanted to call Hamburger Hamlet. It was to be casual but elegant, serving high quality comfort food.

It might have remained a dream – one of those dreams we all carry around with us all our lives – but Marilyn made it into a reality. She had them spend their first date looking for a restaurant location. And during the first weeks of their courtship, she spent her evenings dreaming not about Harry, but about Hamburger Hamlet’s menus.

Marilyn pushed Harry into getting all the materials bought and the paperwork done, and encouraged him to buy, rather than lease, that first property. Soon there were a dozen Hamburger Hamlets, one in nearly every section of L.A. “The Hamlet specialized in luxe diner cuisine in a city where diners do not exist. In the last several years of his life, Dean Martin had dinner at a Hamlet counter every Sunday night, and Warren Beatty used to rendezvous in the booths. … The Hamlet had the kind of ease that was immediately inviting to all.”

Although the couple still thought of themselves primarily as actors (and were both acting regularly), they were fast building a family fortune from their hobby – Hamburger Hamlet.

In 1966, at the height of their success as restaurateurs, Marilyn (now the mother of two children) decided to design clothes. She had no experience whatsoever in the design or clothing business – just as she’d had no experience in the restaurant business. But that didn’t stop her. She launched Cardinali from her home with a 35-piece collection of suits, dresses, and gowns. Her clothes were successful almost from the beginning. There was the metallic jumpsuit that Dyan Cannon wore on her first date with Cary Grant and a demure silk gown with ruffles that Nancy Reagan ordered in red. “Perhaps Lewis’s most famous designs were worn by Marlo Thomas in the TV show ‘That Girl.'”

When Cardinali got so big that it was taking too much of her time to manage, Marilyn sold it – and soon thereafter launched herself (and Harry) into the movie-producing business. She was successful there too. (She produced, for example, the critically acclaimed “Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol,” as well as “The Passion of Ayn Rand.”)

Today, Marilyn and Harry live in a 5,000-square-foot penthouse “with breathtaking views of Los Angeles.” They rent out their beautiful home in Beverly Hills and Marilyn keeps her Cardinali collection in their luxury condominium in Century City.

Their success, she says, is a tribute to a partnership between two different personality types. She is the true believer, and the one who puts ideas into action. He is the cautious skeptic, and the one who attends to details and makes sure things don’t go wrong.

A few hours after reading this profile of the Lewises, I ran into PR and his wife TR at a little restaurant down the street from my home. Somehow the conversation drifted to personality types. “I learned something new from TR,” he said. “That when it comes to business, I’m a hare, not a tortoise.”

I am and have been PR’s partner in a number of businesses, yet  it wasn’t immediately clear to me what he meant.

“He’s really good at starting businesses and getting them going,” TR explained. “But after they are up and running smoothly, he relaxes. He coasts.”

“And that has sometimes gotten me into trouble,” PR said. “To keep a good business going, you have to have a bit of the tortoise in you.”

“Or in your partner,” I suggested. And then I told them about Marilyn and Harry Lewis. It seemed to me that Marilyn was clearly the hare in that partnership. She seized on the big ideas and pushed extremely hard during the initial stages to make them come into reality.

“That’s me,” PR said – and I realized it was true. That’s the role he’d played in the businesses I’d started with him.

And Harry Lewis was invaluable in the success of Marilyn’s ventures, because he was the tortoise – the one who made sure they were built properly, managed efficiently, and maintained with high standards.

“If you don’t pay attention to how your business is run,” PR said, “it will eventually fall apart on you.”

We talked about the advantage of partnerships that combine both personality types – the hare to get things going during that first, critical time period, and the tortoise to keep things going after the initial success has been achieved.

Sometimes one person can have both qualities. PP, who was eating with us that morning, is one such person. PP was instrumental in starting up the first real business I was ever in – “P&M Painting” – back in 1967-ish. He wasn’t afraid to knock on doors. And once the business was up and going, he kept at it relentlessly.

“But if I was both a hare and a tortoise, how come I never became super-wealthy?” PP wanted to know.

I’ll tell you my theory on that another time.

[Ed. Note: If you’d like to know more about Marilyn Lewis, you might want to read her memoir, “Marilyn,  Are You Sure You Can Cook?”] [Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]