By Martin Plimmer
The paranoid suspicion of those of us who spend our lives trying to avoid life insurance salesmen – that life insurance salesmen are gaining the upper hand – has been given alarming credence by the news that the mother of all life insurance salesmen, Peter Rosengard, has engaged a publicist.
Not just any publicist either, but Mark Borkowski, the publicity stunt-man who famously specialises in getting fire breathers, fakirs and fantasists on to front pages. It’s debatable whether Damien Hirst has any talent, but Borkowski, his publicist, certainly has.
Now Peter Rosengard hopes Borkowski will do for him what he has done for Hirst. Together the two of them will make a dream team, leaving little hope for the insurance dodger. From now on you will either have to pay the premium, or pretend you’re already dead. Few of us will have the strength of mind to say: “Get thee behind me Peter Rosengard!”.
You might think that Peter Rosengard doesn’t need a publicist. There can be few people who haven’t heard of him already, because there can be few people who haven’t been approached by him already. He sells life insurance every waking hour of the day and everybody is a lead to him: his taxi driver, his waiter, his friends, himself. He’s sold life insurance to life insurance salesmen. He runs other businesses on the side – he started London’s Comedy Store, he managed Curiosity Killed the Cat, he currently manages comedian Gerry Sadowitz – but these are just fronts: the man lives to sell life insurance.
He is famous for seducing his victims over a cigar and a sausage at a Claridges breakfast table which is permanently reserved for him. He’s in the Guiness Book of Records for selling a record $100 million policy on the life of record company boss David Geffen. He could sell life insurance to his mother. Yet he didn’t succeed in selling it to me.
By rights I should be in the Guinness Book of Records, too, but I’m not going to split hairs. I’m just grateful to have survived a meeting with Peter Rosengard and still be able to call my life my own. Life insurance salesmen are the most insidious of adversaries. They ring you up cold on the sunniest of endless Summer days, and allude, in the softest of tones, to your death. “Have you considered what might happen to little six-year-old Hector if you were to have an accident?” It’s a cunning sales pitch that frightens you to death by stressing your own mortality, then makes you feel guilty about it. They will take your last brown coin, and in exactly a year they’ll tell you that your policy (which they sold to you), is insufficient.
“What if you don’t die, but end up permanently disabled?” They have a financial solution for that, too, though it will cost you an arm and a leg.
“How is Debi?” they say next, expertly changing the subject, “How is Clive? And June?” and they reel off the names of half of your friends, who you realise they have already infiltrated. The net is closing in. A police whistle, blown into the mouthpiece, will sometimes drive them away, but they’re more persistent than Jehovah’s witnesses. In person, they are even harder to deal with. You can’t hide from them because they look just like you and me. Like Midwich cuckoos, they manifest themselves in the places you feel safest, and attack when you’re not on your guard. At a friend’s dinner party, for instance, a stranger will show an unusual, yet not unpleasing interest in you. Beware, this is the insurance salesman in friend of a friend’s clothing, interrupting his busy schedule managing Curiosity Killed the Cat, or whatever, in order to make small talk with you. If you are alert, you might spot a predatory glint in his eye; otherwise you will be sucked into a conversation which reveals more and more about yourself, until you find you are telling him all your common-place worries and insecurities.
You will be flattered by his detailed interest in the names of your children, and will just be thinking how much more interesting you were than you had previously suspected, when suddenly he will slip a warrant under the door of your conscience. “Aren’t you worried about what would happen to little Hector in the event of your death? Don’t you think you should be insured?” You can’t deny the appositeness of the question. It’s one you’ve been avoiding for some time. And your friends are staring at you like a roomful of Anabaptists contemplating a sinner.
You can get out of this situation by pretending to choke on a fish bone, in which case a member of the party will perform the Heimlich manoeuvre on you and probably break your back, or else by paying off the insurance salesman for the rest of your life.
When I first met Peter Rosengard he was operating under superb cover. He was running the London Comedy Store. I had no idea he was an insurance salesman. Every night comedians would die on his stage, then eagerly buy up his life policies. I went there to write about the emerging generation of new comics who now dominate our TV screens. I had a few words with him and that was that.
A couple of days later, he rang me at my home and asked me if there was anything else I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything, but he told me to hang on and he’d be round for a chat. It was the first time anyone I’d interviewed had ever followed me home. Half an hour later, he parked his Rolls Royce by the council flats opposite. At the time, I was squatting in a lean-to on the roof of a half-derelict terrace which had just been condemned by the local council. He climbed my rickety stairs, perched on my hippie floor cushions and pointed out how easily my home could be blown off the edge. Then he sold me a life policy.
I was so surprised I signed up, though the next day I phoned him and cancelled it. He was extremely tetchy. Years have gone by since then and I, too, have flirted with stand-up comedy. I, too, have died on the stage. Yet I have managed to stay away from Peter Rosengard. To tell you the truth, I am more than a little piqued that he never offered me the Claridges sausage.
And now I wish I hadn’t said that because I know that tomorrow morning when I open my eyes, he will be standing by my bedside with a breakfast tray, like a hit man with an unusual interest in the well-being of little Hector, aged six.