Oh, how he dances. The night before, Ben Feldman, at 66, discoed at the Apple Tree, his heavy-lidded moon face trickling with sweat, his arms and legs pumping away "until I was wringing wet," he confesses on this lambent spring morning in his suite at the Sheraton Park.
And he didn't think about life insurance at all.
"The other time I don't think about life insuranc e is when I'm deep-sea fishing," he says.
"I think about it while I'm waiting for a strike, but when I get the strike . . . " And he giggles, lids lifting, face puckering with mischief, as if not thinking about life insurance were a vice.
Feldman has sold more life insurance than anyone in history, over $100-million worth in a good year, more than scores of other good agents combined-which several thousand of them are, right now, waiting to hear him address an insurance sales conference, lining up to buy books by and about him: "Creative Selling for the Seventies," "The Feldman Method," 'Ben Feldman's Presentation Book," "Ben Feldman at Work."
"I try to get him to slow down," says his wife, Ethel, "but . . . " And by now, of course, Ben Feldman could spend the rest of his life (insured at $6 million) hauling home varnished marlin to nail on his office walls.
But he's still out there every morning, prowling the country around East Liverpool, Ohio, in his blue 1979 Eldorado, spieling into a tape recorder when he isn't radioing in to his office.
"I'll try to coin a phrase, these beautiful phrases like the cigarette ads."
He spreads meaty hands, asking for indulgence as he offers a sample: "You pay the premiums and I'll pay the dollars. After all, wouldn't you say that in America, marketing is packaging? (Feldman waits for listeners/prospects to answer all rhetorical questions before he continues.) I make a package. This package is a bundle of money, a bundle of money for you, a bundle of money for your family . . . "
Ahhh, the repetitions, the pithy parallelisms- Feldman has a low, velvet-edged voice with just enough lisp to draw attention:
"A man needs credit to live, but cash to die."
Or: "The wife should be left something that will take car of her-not something she will have to take care of."
Or . . .
It's just this kind of quick-frozen homily, reality whittled down like a set of Ozark souvenirs, that can make people loathe insurance salesmen, in addition to their image as henchmen of the Grim Reaper, ghouls.
Yet, when Ben Feldman Talks . . .
And he talks this way all the time, talks to his wife like this, even recounts his rise from a $5-a-week high-school dropout poultry salesman this way.
"I've always thought: If you could do it, so can I. I didn't know that I didn't how to do it. I've found that you can do whatever you want to do. Would you agree?"
Wife Ethel agrees. "I suppose you have to set a goal," she says, a caesura of mere prose in the midst of his poetry . She is sleek and tan from weeks at the Fort Lauderdale apartment Feldman doesn't have time for.
"If a man has no place to go," says Feldman, smilin glike a good-news Edward G. Robinson, "he won't get ther."
He tries to help the next person," says Ethel "he's always been sincere."
"I try to help people help themselves," he says. "I want to solve problems. The man walks out and the money walks in-that solves a lot of problems."
STOP! Feldman corners the listener with benevolence, provoking retorts dredged from the depths of cynicism. Says the listener: What will I care about my family after I'm dead?
But no, Ben Feldman knows the listener is better than that.
"After I'm dead, what do I care," he repeats, three times. Then: "What's your biggest asset?"
An Aspen condominium? A body like a coiled steel spring? No, the answer is obvious and Feldman waits for it-Socrates in ankle socks.
"That's right.Your biggest asset is your life. You insure your car for its full value, don't you? You insure you belongings. You insure them first, and your life last," he says in a tone that implies it's a simple mistake, anybody could make it.
The listener, as it happens, has a little insurance already.
"If I asked you to work for me for the rest of your life for what you'd make from that life insurance, would you do it"
The answer, again, is a tragically obvious "no."
Feldman sells whole life insurance, not term. Term is like car insurance-when you stop paying, so does it. ("Term," Feldman will say, "Term is time. Time terminates.")
From 1939 to 1944, he sold whole life to anybody who'd buy, policies as small as $500. Then his officer manager suggested he aim for rich owners of small companies around Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Wo years later, Feldman was over the million-dollar mark, with time-tested sales techniques-sending blotters with his name on them to key prospects, putting a calendar on his celludloid calling card, leaving a present, like golden slippers, with the receptionist.
Once past the front desk, Feldman may encounter the executive who decides to head him off by coming out of his office to talk. Feldman merely introduces himself and leaves, returning another day to hit him with his "disturbing questions," as he calls them. Such as: "I'm looking for a job, will you hire me? I'll work for less than you lowest-paid office clerk-but I'll pay your taxes."
STOP! The thing is, though, that Feeldman believes it all, sitting there massaging the back of his left hand. Feldman cares. Feldman knows that if he can get you to understand you problems and his insurance, you'll buy. What apostate can bear the thought of the infinite reservoirs of Ben Feldman's pity emptying on him?
"When you're gond" . . . "when the man walks out" . . . Life insurance is death insurance, of course, and selling it is euphemism rased to an art form.
Feldman flips with slow inexapability through his presentation books, a lot of pages before be gets to death. Glued inside the front cover, for instance, is a scattering of bills, crowned with a $1,000 bill, bearing the likeness of Grover Cleveland, and pasted over with a red ribbon bearing the words: DISCONTINUED DOLLARS.
Inside are the color-coded charts and tables Feldman works and works over, simplifying, trying to make people understand.
He sends out birthday letters, of course, warning: "On July 14th, your insurance rate goes up $1.00 per day forever. Best wishes. Ben Feldman."
But if they still don't understand-and didn't Freud say that none of us truly believes he'll die, didn't contemplatives once meditate on rotting corpses, trying to understand?-Feldman has his death pages.
Sunlight is crawling across the Oriental rug, up the Eames chair.
"Prominent men," Feldman says, cradling this breviary of sad truths. "This is what happens to a man." He raps a soft, heavy finger on the photograph of a chairman of the board who left $12,092,253, but all his family got was $4,006,490, after taxes: "OVER 66 percent SHRINKAGE" (printed in red).
"People do die," Feldman says, as if he didn't want to, but he's been pushed. "Here are a few.I cut them out of The Wall Street Journal, you knowtheir obituaries?"
He clips only the best: John D. Rockefeller, Frederick Weyerhauser, Margaret Mead.
It's pointed out that they're all fairly . . . recent.
The advantage of heavy eyelids is now obvious. He can raise them. Those soft brown eyes-he could stare at a psychopath all day without provoking him - suddenly go hard, brigth: "Yes They are!"
It's only a moment, and then he eases back into the velvet incantations . . . I tell a man, let us pay your taxes . . . you can sign the little check today, and we'll sign the big one tomorrow . . .
Ahh, the rhythm of it all, pumping and swaying, life and death; oh, how he dances.