Is This Guy for Real? A Tale of Instant Riches

On a Roll: From Hot Dog Buns to High-Tech Billions , by Howard Jonas. Viking, 293 pages, $24.95.

The only way I can review this fascinating book is to describe how my understanding of it changed as I went along. Here is the first paragraph of Chapter 1, in

toto: “On March 15, 1996, I made over a hundred million dollars. That was the day my company, IDT, one of the world’s largest Internet and alternative telecommunications providers, went public. As IDT’s founder, president, and majority shareholder, I was instantly rich beyond my wildest dreams. People ask me if this was the greatest moment in my business life. It wasn’t.”

To begin with, I had never heard of the author, or of IDT, whose spelled-out name I sought in vain throughout the text. I found it at last on the back flap of the book’s jacket: International Discount Telecommunications. Back on page 1, I learned about the true “greatest moment.” It had occurred 27 years earlier, when the author, then 14, pushed his newly built hot-dog stand past a butcher shop on Eastchester Road in the Bronx. Two months before, he tells us, its owner had forced him to eat five pounds of rice pudding–a task that took two hours–after catching him sampling the pudding while waiting on a customer. Now he was gloating over the fact that he was just as independent in business as his former boss. “[T]he wheels would fall off my homemade hot-dog stand many times before that summer ended,” he writes, “but that day, in my mind, I was as rich as Rockefeller.” Only then did the subtitle click; only then did I grasp that “on a roll” referred not only to the adventure of making millions, but to one that began with the peddling of frankfurters.

Things became a little clearer now. The stand flourished: special soft drinks for the nurses in the hospital across the way; pre-wrapped flowers for visitors on weekends; one Mother’s Day, the flower business alone made $300! Mr. Jonas was beginning to see the world divided between loafers and doers, with himself driven by his orthodox Jewish background to find his place in the latter group, while imprisoned by his age in the former. Looking back, he writes: “[M]y basic complaint against kids was that they were unproductive, takers and users. I still think one of the highest things a person can aspire to be is productive. That’s why the Bible says, ‘Six days shall you work and on the seventh day you shall rest.’ Everyone seems to know the rule about the day off, but a lot of people forget the rule about the other six days.… I often run into young successful people who tell me they are retiring to pursue charitable activities. What a crock! I believe in charity. I give away 20 percent of everything I make. I always have.… The good (that charity does) is important, but it’s also limited … Weigh the work of the good done by all the combined charities in the world against the good done by just one company like General Motors.”

“G-d almighty,” I said to myself, silently using Mr. Jonas’ orthodox spelling. “Who is this character?” The naïveté gave me a clue: The book couldn’t be an autobiography. It had to be fiction, written with humor and bite. Howard Jonas was a character dreamed up by a Doctorow or a Vidal–a mixture of business smarts and intellectual innocence.

Relieved, I went on reading. Real or fictional, our hero now goes to Harvard, where he does very well, but encounters an elite whose leftish values he doesn’t take to. So the hot-dog side comes again to the fore as he turns to a way of making money he had already begun to explore in the Bronx: the mail-order business. His dorm room becomes the headquarters for selling cheap merchandise through trashy magazines, with occasional profitable, but risky fliers, such as “Baby Bonsai Trees” ($1.99 plus postage and handling)–one of the most popular ads in the history of the mail order business, he tells us. To be sure, a buyer wouldn’t know for some time whether the pine that arrived in the mail was really a bonsai–true miniature–or just a baby pine. With some pride, Mr. Jonas described his business to an eminent professor at the business school, who tells him: “Really you can do more with your life than that. Why, you’re just one step above a pushcart peddler.”

“That hurt,” writes our hero, real or fictional, who now begins to take stock with regard to his future. Stay in college or go for broke? “I was frustrated with the mail-order business,” he tells us. “At best it was selling junk, and at worst it could get you into serious trouble.” After much agonizing, he graduates from Harvard and throws his lot into business. Oddly enough, toward the end of his freshman year the Harvard Crimson had written an article on student entrepreneurs. They found three. One was a classic Harvard type who became a stockbroker; did all right for a time; in the end, not so good. Second was our hero. The third? Bill Gates.

I was now beginning to wonder if perhaps this was not fiction, after all. Some pages I had read before came back to me; they expressed our hero’s disgust with television–an enemy of thought, of concentration, of truthfulness. I had laughed when I read this, thinking of how much TV advertising was the voice of those doers of good, the General Motors of the world. But now somehow the mixture of uncritical admiration for business and revulsion at behavior that would never pass

“G-d’s” muster seemed to point to a real Howard Jonas rather than a fictional one. Next morning, I called my broker and asked if there was a firm called IDT.

“And you call yourself an economist?” he answered.

“Is somebody called Howard Jonas its head?” I asked.

“Where you been?” he answered.

Where had I been? Economists don’t know too much about the business world, much less who is dynamizing it–ditto for businessmen with regard to the economist’s world. Businessmen don’t ask themselves whether selling may-be bonsai pines will make the economy grow; economists don’t ask themselves how dynamic capitalism would be if every businessman worried like they do. I don’t think like a businessman, or Howard Jonas like an economist. Maybe it’s best that way.

At last, I reached Chapter 10, titled “1-800-SCREW-AT&T.” It is a phone number that only our hero and his remarkable associates could have dreamed up, much less dared use, as they set out to introduce a low-cost international communications system that would do in fact what the phone number announced. Against all odds, it succeeded. It may not have been the greatest moment in his business life, but Howard Jonas did make $100 million.

That is not the end of On a Roll by a considerable shot, but I have no intention of spoiling the readers’ pleasure by telling of its finale.

Is This Guy for Real? A Tale of Instant Riches