Peter Rosengard is a legend in his own breakfast-time (he once had 753 of them in a year, all at Claridges,). But then he’s not only the world’s most successful life-insurance salesman, he’s also the man who invented Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall. Richard Askwith meets a man dying to be funny.
‘It was the glamour,’ says Peter Rosengard, in his deadpan drawl. ‘The groupies. The women who’ll stop at nothing.’ There’s a tiny pause. ‘That’s what drew me to life insurance – it’s the sexiest profession in the world.’
The pause might be for laughter, but it’s hard to tell. Despite his gag-a-minute patter, and Groucho Marx eyebrows and cigar, the world’s greatest life-insurance salesman is not – as his friend Alexei Sayle will confirm – a natural comedian. In any case, he probably thinks it’s true.
In outline, the story of his career suggests corporate slavery rather than glamour. Rosengard will shortly complete his 30th successive year of selling life insurance for Abbey Life. Yet few careers outside showbusiness have encompassed such vivacity, such bravado, such adulation, such immodest rewards – in short, such sexiness.
Actually, it hasn’t all been outside showbusiness. This is the man who, 20 years ago next month, imported the idea of the Comedy Store from Los Angeles to London, and briefly helped to run it, with culture-changing results. While his Abbey Life colleagues dashed to catch trains back to the Home Counties, Rosengard was dashing to Soho to assist Sayle, Mayall, Edmondson, Elton and others at the messy birth of alternative comedy. He has also had successful interludes managing (as a sideline) Curiosity Killed the Cat and Gerry Sadowitz – and tried his hand, rather less successfully, as a disc jockey and a stand-up comic. And he owns his production company, The Last Laugh, which has just completed a £250,000 pilot for Planet 24 of Cloud Cuckoo Land, an animated sit-com that he believes will become a British Simpsons.
Yet compared with selling life insurance, his comedy work was mere dabbling. It is his gift for selling, not showbusiness, that cements his friendships with the likes of Clive Anderson (a typical client). It is life insurance that pays for he Aston Martin Virage Volante, the homes in Maida Vale and Sussex and it is life insurance that finances his £300 – a-week Havana cigar habit, and £200-a-week Claridge’s breakfast habit.
Rosengard’s admirers won’t need reminding that he is also in The Guinness Book of Records as the seller of history’s biggest life-assurance policy from a cold call – $100 million’s worth on the life of entertainment mogul David Geffen. What they may not realise is that his whole life has been lived at a similar level of vertiginous chutzpah.
Born in 1946, Rosengard started out in life as Peter Rose, the eldest of three children of a hyper-active Jewish-Glaswegian doctor – from whom he inherited a horror of boredom that has driven most of his life at or near full speed. A happy but frenetic childhood in East Acton was disrupted by financial crises that Rosengard finds hard to talk about. ‘It could be very difficult,’ he mutters, lowering his gaze. He veered between private and state education, without, he claims, any lasting traumas (if you don’t count two facial scars, one inflicted by a pencil stabbing and one by a toy telephone).
By the age of 14, Rosengard was already showing prodigious get-up-and-go – notably through his habit of getting up the middle of the night and sneaking down a drainpipe to sample the casinos and clubs of Soho. By 19 he’d won a place at dental school, dropped out after a year (‘I hated teeth’), and discovered the talent that would change his life. ‘I’d set my heart on a sports car, and I saw an advertisement which said: International publishing company requires young executives for marketing venture.’ He applied, and within a week was knocking on doors in Uxbridge, selling encyclopedias.
He found it ridiculously easy. ‘No one told me it was supposed to be difficult. No one really even told me it was selling.’ By the time he’d worked it out, he had broken all company records and was being feted, promoted and – starting the habit of a lifetime – indecently rewarded.
It took a few years more for the penny to drop. In 1967 he flew out as a volunteer to fight for Israel in the Six Day War. (‘If you’re going to fight a war, choose a six-day one.’) Shortly afterwards he re-judaicised his name from Rose to Rosengard – a relatively unusual step that was also taken a few years later, by the then Monica Lewis, who as Lewinsky was to put even Rosengard’s passion for cigars in the shade.
In 1969, after a trail of career false starts involving mothballs, bubble-bath, prams and fridge magnets, he was persuaded by his grandfather to apply for a job at the newly formed Abbey life company. He did, and the rest in life-insurance history.
He sold 11 policies in his first week, including one to the driver of the taxi he hailed to take him home at the end of his first day. ‘Nobody told me that most salesmen were pleased if they sold four policies a month.’ Soon he could afford an E-type, a Rolls, and countless other extravagances. It was like becoming a rock star overnight. He wasn’t the first smooth young man with a taste for clubs, casinos and fast cars to be let loose in London with implausibly large quantities of money. Nor was he the first to come to grief. He is reluctant to go into details – once again lowering his eyes and licking his lips, as he tries to find acceptable words. ‘By 1971 I was in as deep a hole as it’s possible to be in. I owed thousands of pounds…’ He contemplates his smouldering Havana. ‘On 21 March 1971 I had my last bet, and my life began again.’
Some people, in such circumstances, might have settled down to a safe life of predictability and restraint. Not Rosengard. His energy, charm and, not least, his sincere belief that pretty much everyone in the world would benefit from buying more life insurance continued to bring spectacular results. ‘He is,’ says Clive Anderson, ‘a very forceful salesman’, but that doesn’t convey what fun he is. ‘He has a tremendous impact on people,’ says his friend Keith Carby, a former managing director of Allied Dunbar. ‘He energises, interests and amuses. And he never stops selling. That’s why he’s a legend in our industry.’
Realising that he ‘couldn’t stand offices’, Rosengard began to do most of his business over breakfast. He started at the Connaught, and then – ‘after they threw me out’ – moved on to Claridge’s, where he has breakfasted with clients almost every single day, at the same table, for the past 20 years. Sometimes he’ll have three or four breakfasts there on the same day. ‘I once had 753 breakfasts in a single year,’ he says. Sometimes he’ll add a couple of lunches. His figure remains remarkably wiry in spite of this, but his cholesterol levels, he admits, must be verging on the unfeasible. Yet the ambience suits him. ‘They’ve even put in a socket by the table for my computer. Clients phone me here. In fact, I answer the phone so much that people often think I must be a waiter.’
Despite this semblance of a routine, fear of boredom has continued to spur him on. In 1976 he became a global life-insurance icon after selling 100 policies in one month – a feat as extraordinary, in its field, as the first four-minute mile. In 1979 he not only started the Comedy Store but, more remarkably, kept his nerve during that first excruciating summer when, while hecklers and would-be performers came in droves, talented comedians did not.
Only a genuine comedy enthusiast with the hide of a salesman could have watched his concept die, night after night, and still believe it would come good. When it did, he drank in the euphoria for a few years, then drifted back to the more lucrative business of life insurance, severing his connection with the club in 1984.
Perhaps he was after bigger names: in 1990, on holiday in the Seychelles, his repose by the swimming-pool was disturbed by the alarming thought that the country’s then president, Albert Rene, might be in need of life insurance. H cold-called the president, got through, and finally persuaded him to purchase a multi-million pound life insurance policy. The deal eventually foundered when the reinsures decided (not unreasonably) that President Rene represented an unacceptable assassination risk. But ‘Call the big guy. He’s not doing anything. It’s only the middle-management people who are too busy to talk to you.’
So it proved. In 1991 Rosengard made his celebrated cold call to Sidney Scheinberg, president of MCA, which had just bought Geffen Records for $500m. He hoped to persuade Scheinberg that it would be folly not to insure the life of David Geffen – Geffen Records’ chief asset – for at least $100m. It took several attempts to get through, but when he finally did, he was speaking to the right person.
Today, in addition to an insanely busy schedule of selling, managing The Last Laugh, and looking after the affairs of the Havana Club (an occasional club for cigar enthusiasts), Rosengard gets paid spectacular amounts to give motivational speeches around the world. ‘People keep saying: slow down, you’ll have a heart attack. But there are going to be plenty of empty days in my diary in the billions of years after I’m dead,’ Life’s greatest tragedy, he believes, is that most people’s gravestones, if truthful, would say, in effect: ‘Here lies Doris Bloggs, five per cent used’. ‘I want my gravestone to say: “Here lies Peer Rosengard, totally burnt out”.’
It’s an impressive thought, though less so if you really dwell on it. Would your life really be less tragic if you’d sold a few hundred more life insurance policies? Yet it’s hard not to be troubled as well as impressed. Can such drive really be fuelled solely by lust for life? Or does it compensate for inner doubts or sorrows?
Rosengard certainly seems pained by the break-up, two years ago, of his marriage. The topic plunges him into intense silence, and the debris that litters the interior of his car includes numerous photographs of his ex-wife, Shirley, and their three-year-old daughter. It’s also pretty evident that he craves recognition, not just for his salesmanship, but for his creativity. Perhaps Cloud Cuckoo Land will bring this.
In the meantime he’s taking no chances. Evenings usually find him at fashionable creative haunts like 192 and Pharmacy, or at parties attended by the likes of Stella McCartney and (in her partying days) Kate Moss. He’s starting a website (www.rosengard.com) on which people can read the humorous columns he briefly wrote – and is planning to resume – for The Independent. He’s organised an exhibition of his paintings. He’s hired a PR agency.
The effect has been great for business – in some circles it’s positively fashionable to buy life insurance from Peter Rosengard, in the same way that its smart to see a psychotherapist if it’s Adam Phillips, or to have a breakdown if it’s in the Priory. But his reputation as a creative force remains jammed on level one.
The obvious explanation is that he’s overselling himself. His gags – which recur a bit too regularly for comfort in his conversation, writing and speeches – are funny but not that funny. He’s just made them go a long way. ‘He’s terribly bright,’ says Alexei Sayle, who was Rosengard’s first compere at the Comedy Store, ‘but he’s a curious mixture of sensitivity and the kind of thick skin you need to be a salesman. I think he may have a hankering to be doing almost anything except what he is doing. He probably wishes he was a standup-up comic.’ Unfortunately, adds Sayle: ‘He stinks.’
You can see why. Real creative artists thrive on self-doubt; salesmen thrive on suppressing it. Rosengard’s greatness as a salesman limits the growth of his other talents. In a small way, that’s a tragedy, because Rosengard can be inspirational, joyous company. ‘I love life. That’s my secret. I didn’t know there were limits. Don’t believe people who tell you that there are.’
But there are, and deep down he knows it.