Herbie Cohen gives a talk in Brooklyn Heights analyzing the film...

Herbie Cohen gives a talk in Brooklyn Heights analyzing the film "12 Angry Men." Credit: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

In “The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27), bestselling author Rich Cohen returns to his favorite subject: his wild and larger-than-life father. This time, he’s tracking dad Herbie’s meteoric rise from a tough-talking kid on the streets of Brooklyn to an advisor of presidents and author of the iconic business book “You Can Negotiate Anything.” And there was also a blissful period of living the good life in Syosset.

Cohen spoke by phone from his home in Connecticut about his father’s Brooklyn pals, negotiation tips and belief that the secret of life is to care, but not that much.

Your father grew up in Bensonhurst. How did this contribute to his success?

The secret to negotiation is reading people, and Bensonhurst had so many kinds of people. It was such a rich environment with a mix of immigrants, children of immigrants, young people, old people, families. The city was right there, but they weren’t in it. Bensonhurst was the equivalent of a coral reef for fish, so many different types of people and so many things were always happening. He loved to get in the mix and solve problems.

And the family moved to Long Island next?

My parents were part of this very natural thing — even though it is all the same island, if you are immigrants from Brooklyn, the goal is to move out to Long Island. My parents still speak of Syosset as this heavenly place. Perfect yard, perfect garden. My family lived there for three years. But then my father’s life took this wild turn and we left for the Chicago suburbs, where I was born.

What did your father tell you about living on Long Island?

My whole life I was told that before I was born, we lived in Eden. Then we left and I was born out here in the middle of nowhere. I was constantly told: the years before you were born were the best years of all. My childhood was bland in comparison to my father’s, and as soon as I left the house the moving truck came and now my dad is back in New York, living in Brooklyn Heights and visiting his family on Long Island all the time. All my cousins live in Long Island, Brooklyn, and Queens — we were the weird Chicago relatives.
 

Your father’s move to Chicago was part of his meteoric rise that would earn him the nickname of the “World’s Greatest Negotiator.” What were some of his most high-profile negotiations?

He did a lot of sports negotiations, including for Major League Baseball during the 1979 umpires strike. He worked for Jimmy Carter during the Iran Hostage Crisis, also for Reagan and the first Bush. He worked on START, the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, helping to negotiate the last remaining nuclear deal that hasn’t been broken yet. He worked for every company you can think of, all the Fortune 500s, from lecturing to training or representing them in deals. He also trained people at the FBI and CIA in things like hostage negotiation and helped set up the FBI Behavioral Science unit.

Your dad is such a larger-than-life character. How did you balance writing the hero vs the human story?

To have a father like I have, you want to see him as a person just so you can live your own life. When I was a kid, he was a god. But as I grew up, I realized he messed up along the way. That doesn’t make him less, that makes him more. He figured it out and survived it. He continued to be what we needed him to be.

What does your father think of the book?

I think he loves the book. He loves parts of it more than others, but he sees it very much as my story. This is my point of view, and this is how I lived it. He has always been a big proponent of the idea that everyone should get to tell their own story. His real dream was to become a playwright or novelist. So, he turned the real world into a novel that he could read: what goes on in people’s heads.

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