Pat Deleon '64
John Christian Court, Feb. 2, 1942 - Mar. 8, 2009.
John Christian “Chris” Court, who died in 2009 at the age of 67, was the smartest guy I ever knew at Amherst. I don’t mean in an academic way but in the ways of the world.
Court worked for Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam era, once venturing into the jungles of Cambodia to negotiate with General Lon Nol, who had overthrown the unfortunate Prince Sihanouk. After Washington, he moved on to the business world, eventually buying his own company in Cincinnati and running it for two decades.
With his patrician good looks and a square frame that seemed carved out of oak, he could fit in anywhere. (“Court the Fort” his high school friends called him.) At 6’ 2”, 210 pounds, he was not a great athlete but his mere size gave him a presence on any sports field. One of the first stories I heard about him was from freshman football. One day in practice, a fellow guard, the notorious Bill Vesterman, showed him how to slip his elbow through an opponent’s facemask to go for his nose. The next time they lined up against each other, Court used the trick on Vesterman! They ended up in a fight.
That was Court. He had an anti-authoritarian streak and never played on the same side for long. At various time in his life he traveled in fast company. At one point he told me he was flying down to Bermuda for rounds of golf. But he was always a square peg in a round hole. He never entirely fit in anywhere – too smart for some, too impatient for others – and would always surprised you with some new aspect to his personality. An old girlfriend of mine – who like all the others was probably more interested in him than she was in me – said it best: “Chris is like a big package of things waiting to be opened.”
Our friendship was not predestined. In typical fashion, Court had refused to join a fraternity, even though he was courted by many. Bob Gawthrop and I had agreed to room together sophomore year and Gawthrop knew Court from freshman football, so we pulled him in as a third to get a suite in Pratt. At 6’1” and 180 pounds, I was the runt of the group in an environment where it was hard to keep a girlfriend. One weekend we all went over to Smith for Saturday night mixers, got separated, and came back telling each other about this beautiful red-headed girl we had met at Albright. It turned out to be the same girl! I still have a picture of her sitting between us at a football game the following weekend, looking very glum.
About the third week of school, Pat DeLeon came in and took a picture of me and Gawthrop doing the twist (then all the rage) while Court sat meditatively in the background. It ended up on the front page of the Amherst Student. That pretty much expressed our year - Gawthrop and I screwing around while Court had his mind on higher things. Yet somehow we bonded. Only years later did I realize why. Although between us we had seven sisters (Court four, Gawthrop two, me one), none of us had a brother. I think we were all the brothers we never had.
Even then, Court was moving beyond the classroom. That fall, Ben DeMott had set up a series of sophomore English assignments about the “the public voice” and its conflicts with private emotion. (This about the time DeMott was debating Hugh Hefner in the pages of Playboy.) To me it was just another incomprehensible English assignment, but Court started writing about Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poet of the Russian Revolution who had become appalled by Stalinism and eventually committed suicide. (Court knew Russian from a year abroad after high school and was reading Mayakovsky in the original.) I followed his papers more diligently than I worked on my own. By the end of the semester, he had the outlines of an honors thesis and his professor was recruiting him as an English major, but as always Court had his eye on bigger things.
It was around that time I began visiting him in Detroit on vacations. His family lived in an elegant downtown neighborhood called Indian Village that was slowly being enveloped by an increasingly rambunctious population. It was the beginning of the Motown era and Detroit was brimming with confidence. The disk jockeys were playing songs to the rest of the country never heard of and were bragging about it. A couple of Court’s high school friends were still living the carousing life and together we explored an underworld of black bars, jazz bars, and gay bars that for me had only existed in the pages of the Evergreen Press. “My first novel is going to be about Detroit,” Court would say after one of these wild nights.
Still, that was just one side of him. Back at Amherst, Court joined Deke, signed up for Henry Steele Commager’s class (no papers, no exams, but you had to line up at seven in the morning on registration day), and finally settled on economics. He was always absorbing things beyond the classroom. He knew all about Arthur Nelson’s work with federal regulation and Colston Warne’s founding of Consumer’s Union. He knew about Ben Zeigler’s career as a trial lawyer and the story of the philosophy professor who had gone for a week without sleep during World War II trying to break the German code and ended up with a nervous breakdown that still showed in class. Court was a magnet for such stories.
Still, there was a driven quality in him. His father was a stern authoritarian with a volcanic temper and as the only son, Chris got the brunt of his wrath. His mother told me once he had told everyone in his fourth grade class his name was Andrew – his father’s name – perhaps the first of many attempts to choose an identity. Even in college, he still gave his name as “John Andrew Christian Court.” His father had wanted Chris to follow him at Harvard (actually Harvard Business School), but Court had secretly applied to Amherst as a rebellion. When he called his father the first week to ask what he should do at college, old Andrew gave him simple instructions: “Go out for football, join the best fraternity, make the dean’s list.” Court had a lot of anger in him and was not always good at identifying the source.
We roomed together again as seniors in the new “social dorms” with Ken Schlosser, Wes Pittman and Harvey Croze. Ken and Wes were only two years behind us but already had the scent of the ‘60s about them. (Remember, the ‘60s didn’t begin until 1964, the year we graduated.) There was lots of talk about joining the Peace Corps and registering voters in the South, but as the year wore down, it became clear that Court was headed for Wall Street – “where the big boys slug it out,” as he put it. Wesley, with whom I am still good friends, remembers Court calling him into his room one afternoon and asking whether he should change his name to “John.” He thought “Chris Court” sounded too boyish for the business world.
And so he became “John” post-Amherst. I should talk. It took me another five more to decide that “Bud” would stereotype me forever as a sportswriter, so that I switched to the more somber “Bill.” Throughout college, for reasons I’ve never figured out, we had always called each other by our last names. Now we settled on a gentlemen’s agreement – “You call me John, I’ll call you Bill.”
John didn’t go directly to Wall Street. He worked for the National Bureau of Economic Research, got a degree at Harvard Business School and then suddenly had a spot Henry Kissinger’s staff, working beside Alexander Haig, Robert McFarlane and other famous personalities of the era. When Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in 1970, Court accompanied Haig on a secret mission across the Cambodian border to negotiate with our evanescent new ally. “Lon Nol came to the meeting barefoot,” he recalled. “My job was to keep Haig from setting up one of those kingdoms in the jungle like the marine in `Apocalypse Now.’” He also had his collection of Nixon and Kissinger stories. “One night I was supposed to be writing a report for Henry but got tired of work and went to a party. So Kissinger calls me at the party. `Vere’s de paper?’ he says. I told him, ‘Henry, it’s in the typewriter.’ He pauses a moment. `Bding me de typewriter.’”
In 1969, I went down to Washington on a peace march with some friends from the University of Buffalo and we stayed at his apartment. It was a classic ‘60s confrontation, me with shoulder-length hair, spouting Marxist diatribe, Court the straight-arrow government official trying to be calm and reasonable. It was a scene right out of the movies. Court was the only person in the room defending the war and everyone gave him hell. But he held his own, patiently explaining that it would be political and diplomatic suicide to cut and run. On Kissinger’s staff he regarded as a peacenik and always felt he played a part in winding down the war.
Fellow staffers tried to persuade him to stay in Washington, particularly after Kissinger moved up to Secretary of State, but once again Court had his eye on bigger things. He worked for the First National Bank of Chicago, then bought the Multi-Color Corporation, a 60-year-old Cincinnati firm that specialized in printing labels. On his first visit to a European trade fair, he saw that a Swiss company had developed a tougher plastic that he thought might survive the rotogravure process, which would make it possible to print directly onto plastic containers. (At the time, they all had paste-on labels.) Court licensed the technology and Multi-Color became the first company to print those gallon jugs of Tide and Tropicana that populate the grocery shelves. He revolutionized the industry.
These were John’s happiest years. In 1988 he married Georgia, a Cincinnati health columnist, and their son Andrew was born shortly after. Georgia had a daughter from a previous marriage, the daughter had an infant son, and when Old Andrew moved in during his last years they had a four-generation family under one roof. Georgia says John loved going to work every day and thought of the factory workers as his extended family. They attended all the company picnics and softball games and John knew almost everyone by name. John and Georgia became sponsors of Cincinnati’s Ensemble Theater and generally pillars of the community.
It didn’t last forever. The company’s main plant in Cincinnati was unionized and losing money. A rump faction on the board of directors wanted to close it and shift production to a non-union plant in Kentucky. I always heard that John held fast and refused to succumb, but at the funeral Andrew – now 21 – told me John actually closed the plant in Cincinnati in an attempt to keep control of his company. He was eventually forced out anyway by the rebellious faction. Even so, he remained Multi-Color’s largest shareholder for many years.
We went on a camping vacation together in the Wind River Range in 1999 and John was not a happy man. He was smoking two packs a day, taking three puffs, stamping out one cigarette and lighting another. He felt confined in Cincinnati and now regretted leaving Washington. The old anger was creeping back. He got into a fight with our guides when one of the mules fell into a stream and broke his expensive fishing rod. He and I had it out a couple of times ourselves. His sister Penny, who was two years behind us at Mt. Holyoke, had died in 1996 of lung cancer and I berated him about his smoking. He insisted it wasn’t all that bad. Court always had fascinating insights about other people but often missed big things in himself.
Less than two years later, on Veterans’ Day 2001, he had a terrible stroke. If Andrew hadn’t been home from school to call 911, he would have died right there. The EMS rushed him to the emergency room and Georgia was told to start arranging a funeral. Yet somehow he made it through. When he recovered months later, they discovered he had lung cancer. That gave him five months to live. But Georgia found a doctor in Cincinnati who took out half his lung plus a couple of ribs and he survived another seven.
The last years were painful. His speech was slurred, he walked with a cane, and he was never his old self. Still, he never stopped exploring. He toured Egypt, attended international conferences in the Balkans, and wrote newspaper columns and plays, including one about his experiences with Kissinger and Haig. I saw him whenever he came to New York and he never lost the knack for intrigue. On one of his last visits, he told me how an old friend had just confessed to him at a drunken New Year’s Eve party that he had murdered his first wife. I never heard any more about that one.
And so that’s what I knew of John Andrew Christian Court. Yet there was always so much more. I found out at the funeral that he had gotten interested in the Indian mounds around Cincinnati in recent years and began sponsoring research. He ended up funding a new field archaeology center at the University of Cincinnati dedicated to the study of Ohio Valley aboriginal cultures. It will be named after him.
With Court there was always one more aspect to his personality you didn’t know about. That old girlfriend of mine had it right. Chris was always a big package of things waiting to be opened. I don’t know whether anybody ever got to the bottom of it, not even Court himself.