“My Conversation with Bill Reese” by Bill Rees

All Wales is divided mostly into four surnames: Jones, Williams, Thomas, and Rhys, or so they say. The Rhys has morphed into Rees in the United Kingdom and generally to Reese in States. Maybe the ancestors of Pee Wee Reese, when they got off the immigration boat, put an “e” at the end of their names to probably appear more Anglo-Saxon. Or maybe a poetic Ellis Island clerk thought that, since Rees rhymed with Greece, it should end with an “e”. If so, that grease stuck. My forebears were either too obstinate or too loyal to their Welsh roots or maybe met with more prosaic clerks: my paternal grandfather, for whom I was named, remained William Howard Rees. In New Haven, where I reside, there is another man, a well known rare book dealer, with the same first name, but who spells his surname the American way. People often confuse us: in fact for decades we have been trading mistaken identities.

Many years ago, when I was a rooky life-insurance salesman, a home office representative, desiring to persuade me to add his company’s portfolio to my inventory, visited him by mistake. He should have realized soon after beginning his sales pitch, he was not talking to someone familiar with the benefits of dividend-paying policies. After probably listening patiently for an extended period, Bill Reese must have said: “My dear man, are you sure you’re in the right place? I’m in the book business.” It seems odd a recruiting maven would have failed to notice the shelves of leather-bound books but no Steelcase filing cabinet, no metal desk and no autographed photograph of an insurance company’s president.

Years later, I began collecting paintings by contemporary Bay Area artists. One of these, an oversized canvas, was delivered to him in error. I never knew if gentleman Bill was amused to hang out with a bona fide piece of California Funk.

Then, there was a classmate who wrote to congratulate me for being featured in a recent New Yorker magazine article, asserting he had known since we were in college I was bound to flirt with fame. Thanking him for the kind remarks, I replied the article was not about me but about my probable cousin, several-thousand times removed, who significantly gathered together the world’s finest collection of diaries by pioneering American women. I am told he also purchased at auction an original Guttenberg Bible and the French copy of the Louisiana Purchase, signed by Napoleon and Jefferson, the American copy being in the National Archives.

One of my responsibilities in business was to deduct Federal Income Taxes and Social Security Taxes from employee’s wages and pay them to an authorized bank within three business days. This I did from the time I hired my first employee. One day, in a bout of fiscal exigency, a clerk from of the Union Trust Company, my payee bank, telephoned my home instead of my business and spoke to my wife, Joanne, informing her that my company checking account did not have in it the required minimum to service my withholding payments. Joanne correctly guessed the bank had been accepting such payments for years and asked the clerk to review this matter with her supervisor. Within minutes, the supervisor got on the phone to profusely apologize: “Oh! I am so sorry, Mrs. Reese. Your husband is indeed a good customer of ours, a very good customer, and has more than enough in his account for us to accept his tax payments. Please excuse the call. Our new employee is a trainee and did not properly review all of his accounts. Oh, yes, he has more than enough money with us.” After asking, Joanne learned there was a substantial six-digit amount in the checking account and was stunned. Assuming I was surreptitiously accumulating funds for some disingenuous endeavor, she confronted me when I arrived at our door-step. I told her I had a doppelganger in town and, and, if we tried to withdraw any of those funds, we would be arrested. The episode ended happily: Joanne was happy to know I had nothing secret up my sleeve, and I was happy to be able to pay the Union Trust my withholding taxes without ever being questioned again.

In 1981 I was the Chairman of the 25th Reunion of my Yale College Class. In appreciation for my efforts, the Class Secretary, the President in other organizations, at our Class Dinner presented me at with a beautiful watercolor by a favorite artist, which left me breathless. Several years later, when his term had ended, I was asked to locate a suitable gift for him. Since he was an American Civil War aficionado, I called Bill Reese to see if he had an original Antietam battlefield map or a signed first edition of Ulysses Grant’s Autobiography. He said he didn’t and referred me to another book dealer.

This was the first time I spoke with him. I took the opportunity to tell him I received many of his phone calls over the years. “Just yesterday I got a call in the late afternoon from some guy in Texas: ‘Hey Bill, got any books on cows for me?’”

He replied: “And I get many of your calls from nurses wanting to enroll in a retirement-savings plan or needing to take a loan or from a classmate asking to share a room with another classmate during a reunion or to be placed in a room in a specific entry.”

“But, I get your bills, one for an IBM typewriter.”

“Yes, but I had to get out of bed in the middle of the night to go the New Haven Railroad Station to pick up a nun, who called to say she was a friend. I picked her up and drove her to a convent in Hamden.”

“Oh, shit! That must have been Mary Ellen. She’s neither a nun nor a friend but was a neighbor when we lived on Dwight Street. If she was wearing a nun’s habit, she probably stole it from at a second hand store. I first met her perched on top of a 6-step ladder recounting her conversations with the Holy Spirit and of her attempts to become a nun that were stymied by stupid priests, while Joanne was on her hands and knees scraping varnish off a floor in our hundred-year-old, brick row-house. A few days later she told me she was going to be an opera singer and sometime after that a doctor and then she vanished.”

“When she got out of the car, she took a good look at me and said: ’But you’re not Bill Rees’. I answered: ‘Oh, yes, I am’.”

“I later heard from a priest she turned that convent upside down, keeping everyone awake until 4:00 AM. I didn’t know you had to get involved and am sorry about that. On another matter I remember receiving a bill of yours from the Lawn Club for $400.00 for a pheasant dinner, which would be at least twice that amount by today’s values. I’m from Meriden; I wouldn’t know a pheasant if I fell over it. I accused my teen-aged son of treating his entire Hamden Hall high-school class to dinner, which he firmly denied. When I phoned the Club’s office, I learned of their faux pas.”

“Oh, yes, I remember that dinner. It was an important dinner for me and was absolutely awful. The Lawn Club’s kitchen was so terrible I canceled my membership.”

“That’s not why you quit.” Twisting an old Groucho Marx joke that he didn’t want to be in any club that had him as a member, I said: “You quit because you didn’t want to belong to any club that had Bill Rees as a member.”

I don’t recall that he laughed. With that our conversation then ended.

W. H. H. Rees

January 05, 2007, edited September 21, 2018.