Lose your job and watch friends vanish

Alberto Vilar once promised so many millions to both New York’s Metropolitan Opera and London’s Royal Opera House that his name was engraved in both places — only to be removed in 2005, when prosecutors charged him with stealing most of his fortune.

But the former financier said that what has hurt him most in the build-up to his trial, which started last week, was that “Ninety-nine point x” per cent of the people he had known haven’t phoned him since he was indicted.

In these precarious times, he is not alone. “Who, really, are my friends?” is a question a lot of people are asking themselves. There is a real fear that you are only as desirable as your job title — when you lose your job, do you lose your friends too?

I recently had lunch with a former media titan who had, in his fifties, retired from a high-profile life. People were shocked to see us lunching. “He never comes out,” one passer-by observed.

I asked my companion why. He shrugged. “When I left my job, I knew I was leaving behind most of the people I knew. They weren’t real friends. Mentally, I checked out. It’s the only way to be sane.”

He talked about another household name who was recently fired. Even though this man was a multi-millionaire, with a nice wife and family, he couldn’t get used to the fact that the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook. “He made the mistake of believing that the people who’d sucked up to him all those years actually were his friends.”

I digested this along with my food. There’s no doubt that in New York “friendship” is a fickle term. As long as you are king, you will courted; when you are down and out, you are dumped.

But if you treat your friends well, the inner sanctum will always stay loyal. These past weeks, many people have rung me concerned about friends, some of whom have suffered extreme losses. If they haven’t rung those people themselves, it’s because they don’t want to be tactless at a time when people’s nerves are frayed.

And it’s not just changed circumstances that change friendship. I remember talking about Alberto Vilar with one of the board of the Metropolitan Opera — before the legal charges were levelled. This person told me that something about Vilar didn’t smell right. He just didn’t like him. Perhaps Vilar is wrong to blame his new isolation exclusively on his reversal of fortune. V

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