Ten years ago, he was a genuine hero, the applauded and sought-after Canadian ambassador to Iran who spirited six Americans to safety past Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s revolutionary guards. But, in 1984, Kenneth Taylor quit diplomacy and joined Nabisco Brands Inc., the New York City-based multinational food company, as a $600,000-a-year senior vice-president. He made the move, Taylor says, because he wanted fresh challenges. He found one he had not bargained for: last year, the entire 12member management team of the successor firm, RJR Nabisco, left when the company fell victim to a takeover. Now, Taylor is unemployed, looking for work and largely unrecognized in New York, many of whose citizens once cheered him at Yankee Stadium and paraded him down Broadway in a shower of ticker tape. “I never expected to go through two revolutions,” Taylor told Maclean’s in a recent interview.
Those revolutions may not be his last. Although he walked away from RJR Nabisco last May 1 with a settlement of $800,000 payable over three years and ownership of his luxurious $2-million midtown Manhattan condominium, Taylor, at only 55, says that he is searching restlessly for a job that will give him “some satisfaction or some excitement or a sense of
accomplishment.” The key word may be excitement: sitting at his condominium’s circular dining-room table, Taylor was most animated when he talked about the 82 perilous days in Tehran when he and the Canadian Embassy’s immigration counsellor, John Sheardown, and their wives sheltered the American diplomats.
The living room of the 61st-floor condominium on West 57th Street—where he lives with his wife, Patricia, 58, a bacteriologist who works at the New York Blood Center’s Lindsley S. Kimball Research Institute, and their 25year-old son, Douglas, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs—has elements of a museum dedicated to those times of fame and glory. Two glassfronted cabinets against one wall contain scrolls, medals, ribbons and the keys to 12 American cities whose officials lavished them on the Taylors during the 11 months between Jan. 29, 1980, when the couple returned from Iran, and Jan. 1, 1981, when Taylor became Canadian consul general in New York. On the opposite wall are framed letters of praise and commendation, including ones from presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
“All of a sudden,” Taylor said, “you’re everybody’s friend. You’re the President’s friend and the Prime Minister’s friend. You’ve got press conferences with 200 people, you’ve
got people slapping medals on and awards, scrolls and autographs, private planes and helicopters and sirens and ticker-tape parades. My son once said to some friends that if his dad didn’t get two standing ovations a day, he felt ill.” He laughed at himself, and although the much-photographed curly hair is greyer and perhaps a little thinner, the smile could sell a lot of toothpaste on television. “After that year of celebration and euphoria,” continued Taylor, “I was trying to realize that this couldn’t go on forever. There is a period of withdrawal. You’re just not the celebrated individual you thought you were, and that is rather toxic.”
But there was no anonymity for Taylor in the nearly three years he spent as consul general in New York. He said that he was made aware of private criticism among Ottawa bureaucrats about the frequency of his published interviews and television appearances. Taylor said that he saw them as part of his job. “New York is a competitive city,” he said, “and making my country’s case was no different to me than merchandising, although my country is obviously more precious than another product thrown on the market.” At the same time, he and his wife appeared so often in newspaper society columns that he became known for what the press began calling “disco diplomacy.” Said Taylor: “It had a nice ring to it. New York is a wonderful place to live, and I wasn’t going to say, ‘Well, it’s 10 o’clock, this is the time most Canadians go to bed.’ I mean, life is out there.”
The Iranian revolution was a long way in the future when Taylor graduated from high school in Calgary in 1954, earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto three years later and a master’s in business in 1959 from the University of California at Berkeley, where he met and married Patricia Lee. Taylor later returned to Canada and joined the foreign service because, he recalled, “I liked the idea of finding myself in different places and different situations.” He got his wish: between 1959 and 1967, he served in Guatemala, the United States (in Detroit) and Pakistan. In 1967, the Taylors went to London for four years. His 1977 appointment as ambassador to Iran followed seven years working for the department of industry, trade and commerce in Ottawa.
Taylor said that he had wanted to stay in the $73,000-a-year post of consul general in New York for another year. But in mid-1983, Ottawa told him that he was to be named ambassador to Italy, which he described as “a splendid post and, rightly, much sought-after. But it sort of struck me as anticlimactic after New York.” As a result, he resigned from the foreign service in the spring of 1984 and, for the next few months, was courted by the election-bound Liberals and Progressive Conservatives, both on the hunt for appealing candidates. Both parties hinted that he would get a cabinet post if they won, but he decided to look elsewhere for the opportunity “to be uncomfortable again, to be in a situation where my responses were not just automatic.” Besides, Taylor added, “I’m not sure anyone needs more than 25 years of Ottawa.”
Still, he remains a committed Canadian and said that he would never relinquish his citizenship, although there were things about Canada that troubled him. “I’m not sure what has held the country back,” he said, “but to some extent it is a lack of confidence. There is too much modesty, and the country takes itself far too seriously. I sense a disillusionment in Canada at the moment. Everybody is fretting about something. There is no major conceptual thing people can point to and say, ‘That is what’s wrong.’ It’s more a sense of ‘What didn’t we do right?’ ”
On June 1, 1984, Taylor became a senior vice-president at Nabisco Brands Inc., whose Winnipeg-born chief executive officer was Ross Johnson, an old friend. Said Taylor: “Granted, the people there knew who I was, but that’s fine. They expected me to do something constructive, putting that other element aside, and I enjoyed the five years trying to do that.” He travelled around the world, giving speeches about the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, the global role of corporations and the place of multinationals in developing countries.
In mid-1985, Nabisco merged with RJ Reynolds Industries to become RJR Nabisco, which later became a target for Wall Street’s Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., one of the world’s most powerful industrial combines. It won a prolonged and savage takeover battle in November, 1988, at a cost of $29.7 billion. Recalled Taylor, who finally left last May 1: “It was the first time I had ever been fired, but, I thought, it isn’t really all that bad. I got a nice settlement, and there was no trauma.”
One of the first things Taylor did was rent an office on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and hire a secretary because, he said, “I can see where it would be hard not to have an office or start writing letters and getting replies saying thanks, but no thanks.” He spends half the week at the office “talking to people about getting something to do” and having business lunches, and the other half travelling to board meetings elsewhere in the United States and in Canada. Taylor sits on the boards of four firms, including the First City Financial Corp. Ltd. of Vancouver and The Matthews Group of Toronto. As well, Taylor serves on the boards of such New York-based agencies as the Business Council for International Understanding, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the School of International Affairs at Columbia University.
Taylor walked from the dining room to the enormous windows of the condominium, which have a breathtaking view of New York’s Central Park. “I am coming more and more to the view that I should never have thought in the first place that life is normal,” he said. He laughed and looked at his watch. It was time for another lunch.
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