Beyond The Joke review of Talking to Strangers

Book Review: Talking to Strangers: The Adventures of a Life Insurance Salesman by Peter Rosengard

Peter Rosengard has already told the story of his involvement in the alternative comedy boom in Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law? This new autobiography by the legendary life insurance salesman shows that while his involvement in the Comedy Store was only a small part of his lengthy career, having fun has kind of oozed into almost every area of his work.

The story takes us from shy post-war Scottish-Jewish kid to extrovert salesman who has never had an office and tends to do his business on the phone, on the hoof or over breakfast at Claridges where he has a regular table. This is not quite a self-help book, but along the way Rosengard certainly gives away a few of his trade secrets. Don’t take no for an answer, always talk to strangers (as the title suggests) and if in doubt have a handy saying such as “No one has endurance like the man who sells insurance!”

Rosengard’s legendary chutzpah has got him into umpteen scrapes over the years. There are colourful stories here of brushes with Russian gangsters, African rulers and all sorts of unsavoury characters. Invariably Rosengard comes out on top, but even when he doesn’t he takes it on the chin, dusts himself off and learns from it.

The all-too-brief Comedy Store section may be of greatest interested to readers of BTJ. Just in case you don’t already know, Rosengard visited the original Comedy Store in Los Angeles and returned to London in the late 1970s determined to open a UK equivalent. He met Don Ward, the legendary London Comedy Store was born and the rest is history.

Rosengard and Ward’s partnership ended and I’d forgotten until I read this that he did later open a club of his own – The Last Laugh at the Barracuda near Baker Street. He also promoted Glasgow Airport terrorist puncher John Smeaton at the Edinburgh Festival. And for a while he managed Jerry Sadowitz. But then who wasn’t?

But this is a book that ultimately puts Rosengard in the spotlight, which one feels is where he has always wanted to be. He comes across as a hybrid of Jason King and Russell Brand, a larger-than-life Zelig-like figure with an addictive personality who when not out gallivanting or gambling always seems to be bumping into famous people, from Steven Spielberg and Larry David to the President of Israel. Although maybe who wouldn’t see stars if they spend so many mornings in Claridges? The difference with Rosengard is that rather than admire them from another table he actually goes and talks to them.

And not always to sell insurance either. He has dipped his toes in the film industry, “discovered” foppish funksters Curiosity Killed The Cat and one of the running themes of Talking to Strangers is his attempts to get a 9/11 monument erected in London. There is clearly a serious side to this ultimate wheeler dealer, but it usually seems to take second place to the thrill of the chase.

This is not the best edited book I’ve ever read. There are occasional errors – Cream recorded “Sunshine of Your Love” not “Sunshine of Your Life”. But Rosengard’s runaway train energy and zest for life leaps of every page and he can certainly tell a tale with gusto. It is no surprise that he even found his way into the Guinness Book of Records for selling the world’s largest life insurance policy ($100 million, if you were wondering…). The only person I’ve ever encountered with similar nerve was Malcolm Hardee (who coincidentally looks a little like Rosengard and gets a small mention here as “Malcolm Hardy”).

You should buy this book for the comedy anecdotes but you’ll soon be hooked on the rest of Rosengard’s remarkable story. He can clearly sell anything to anyone and now in his mid-sixties plans to keep going until he reaches his century, so plenty of strangers reading this may still talk to him in the future. Just don’t meet him for breakfast at Claridges unless you are in the mood for buying some life insurance.

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