Decades later on a balmy South Florida January day, Peter Georgescu remembers the cold of long-ago winters.
And gnawing, desperate hunger.
Those twin miseries were some of the only constants during a childhood spent in forced labor in Romania as the son of enemies of the Communist state.
The kindness that saved his life — especially from an extraordinary Congresswoman who owned a mammoth Palm Beach estate — came later.
He remembers that most clearly.
As a result, Georgescu, a part-time North Palm Beach resident who rose to head the Young & Rubicam advertising agency in New York, has spent a lifetime pondering the human impulse toward good and evil.
While another man might view the world through the grim lens of his childhood, Georgescu has become a student of goodness.
More precisely, he’s fascinated with epigenetics, the process in which our behavior alters our DNA. What we eat and drink and smoke and how we act changes bits of our genetic code, which can be passed down to future generations.
A propensity toward evil is embedded in our genetic code, Georgescu believes, but so is goodness. We can change the world, he says, one act of kindness at a time. And he’s written a book about it, “The Constant Choice: An Everyday Journey from Evil Toward Good.”
“Epigenetics says, if we keep doing these things for the common good, we’ll turn out to be better people and so will our children,” he said.
He was 8 when the Iron Curtain clanged shut on his country in 1947, marooning his politically-connected parents in New York, while making him and his older brother, Costa, targets of the Stalinist regime.
The Communists relocated the brothers and their grandmother to a small village where they were installed in a filthy hut with little heat and no plumbing.
As children of exiled affluent intellectuals, the Georgescu boys were told they would now “sweat blood.”
Instead of attending school, they spent up to 90 hours a week in forced child labor, always cold, forever hungry.
It was a time, Georgescu recalls, when evil became more than just an esoteric concept.
It stared back at him daily from the faces of sadistic foremen who ordered the brothers to spend days underground, clearing sewers of frozen excrement or chipping icy garbage from village streets, their upper lips coated in ice.
Evil kicked his politician grandfather to death in prison and kept his desperate parents apart from their sons for seven years.
In trying to understand evil, goodness became the motif of Georgescu’s life.
His book, written with David Dorsey, chronicles his quest as he tries to persuade readers that even small acts of goodness can change the world.
“Goodness is a skill you learn through daily practice,” said Georgescu recently during lunch at Cafe Boulud, a temple of sumptuous French cuisine in Palm Beach, where he orders an abstemious plate of eggs over-easy with toast and tea.
A trim man in a navy jacket and a trustee of the Norton Museum of Art, Georgescu fits easily in the Palm Beach setting, yet there’s something of the ascetic long-distance runner about him. At 74, he still pounds the pavement for at least three miles every day. Impatient with small talk, his conversation quickly turns to big themes.
“In the book, I say choosing the good is a conscious deliberation with self. If I understand where evil comes from, I can diminish it. If I know that there is a force of good in the universe, then I choose to align myself with that force.”
He offers a prescription for beginners.
“Start small. Take care of your family, your kids. Put a smile on someone’s face. You make hundreds of decisions every day. Decide also how you choose to interact with humanity.”
In 1954, Georgescu was 15 and his brother 20 when Ohio Congresswoman Frances Payne Bolton persuaded President Eisenhower to arrange the release of the two Romanian brothers, whose fate had become a Cold War cause celebre.
Bolton was a member of the wealthy Bingham-Blossom family that owned Figulus, a 160-acre estate built on the ocean in 1894, just south of where Southern Boulevard meets South Ocean Boulevard today. Years later, Bolton, the first female Congresswoman from Ohio, would fly Georgescu down for spring break when he was attending Princeton in the early 1960s.
“It was an extraordinary place,” he said. “But Frances was even more remarkable, with a high sense of purpose. I was one of the people she saved. She created me.”
The Georgescu boys arrived in New York in 1954 knowing one word of English: Coke.
They became immediate celebrities at a time the West was intent on demonizing the USSR and its satellite states.
“Rumania Frees Boys Held as Spy Pawns,” wrote The New York Times.
(Years later, a man who said his name was “Mr. Smith” visited Georgescu. “I was never here and my name’s not Smith,” he told him, then went on to say friends had asked him to look into the circumstances of the brothers’ release. Records were spotty, but it appeared the boys had been freed in exchange for the release of a Soviet spy. Bolton apparently persuaded Eisenhower to make the swap.)
After reuniting with their parents, the Georgescu brothers met President Eisenhower at the White House and Dave Garroway during an interview on The Today Show. They shook hands with Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field, although they knew nothing about baseball. Their photographs appeared in Life, Time and the Saturday Evening Post.
The headmaster of Phillips Exeter offered him a spot at the prestigious prep school even though Georgescu spoke no English and hadn’t been in a classroom for more than five years.
“I was shown great kindness.,” Georgescu said. “Strangers did extraordinary things for me. Why? Why did they do that?”
Goodness, he believes.
After Exeter, he graduated from Princeton, then was personally plucked off a waiting list by the dean of Stanford Business School. Again, Frances Bolton played the role of guardian angel by paying part of his Stanford tuition.
Georgescu writes, “this green zone of benevolence around me solidified my worldview: Everything good in life comes to those who are, themselves, trying to do good.”
He joined Young & Rubicam at the height of the boozy, sexed-up Mad Men era, although Georgescu says he was the antithesis of rapacious Don Draper.
“I never drank at lunch. I never had women come on to me, that I knew of, anyhow,” he said.
His success, from account executive to regional vice president to eventually company CEO, was the result, he believes, not of his own brilliance, but in helping others become better writers, artists and marketing strategists.
But Georgescu’s past wasn’t far behind. He became increasingly troubled by the question of evil. “Vacations” with his wife, Barbara, included trips to Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia. Then, a colleague was killed by a package bomb mailed by Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
When he retired after 37 years at Y&R, Georgescu began reading — Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Elie Wiesel and evolutionary biologist Paul Ehrlich as well as the religious leaders who spoke at the Chautauqua Institute in upstate New York, where he and his wife own a summer home.
Eventually, he synthesized a personal religious philosophy that depends on acts, not contemplation, in which compassion is more important than dogma.
He put his considerable energy where his beliefs are.
Georgescu serves as vice president of the board of the New York Presbyterian Hospital and is a trustee of the Paul & Daisy Soros New American Fellowship Program and A Better Chance, programs that help educate immigrants and children of color.
He writes a monthly column for Huffington Post, in which he discusses the impact of people making choices for good.
“I’ve signed up to be a soldier in this army of the good, to move the herd roughly west,” he says. “I’m saying, ‘there’s water, there’s sunshine and the grass is growing over here.’”