The Most Interesting Man in the World

Remembering Phil Harvey.

The Most Interesting Man in the World

Phil Harvey, a sometime reviewer and longtime supporter of this journal, died last week. Let me try to explain why the news rocked so many people in so many places around the planet.

Unless you live in a cave, you’ve seen the commercial. Hot babes cluster happily around a bearded guy in expensive clothes. Revelers revel in smoky lighting. The soundtrack is upbeat, and a voice congratulates “the most interesting man in the world,” who (it turns out) drinks the sponsor’s alcoholic beverage.

Every time I saw it, I shouted at the screen: “That’s wrong. Phil’s the most interesting man in the world.”

I didn’t think so when I first met him in a writers’ group. Slender, quiet, with sleepy eyes, Phil didn’t stand out in a room of voluble literary wannabes. His wardrobe was Early Yard Work, topped by ball caps he folded and stuffed in his back pocket. His age was incalculable. But the eyes, cool and watchful, had seen a good deal.

He pitched into our critiques of each other’s work on Saturday mornings. He was a shrewd reader, impatient with indirect storytelling. One of his mantras was, “Remember the lazy reader. Don’t make it so hard.” His short stories and novels followed his dictum. They were spare, crisp, closely observed, and relentlessly ironic. Phil’s fictional worlds weren’t sunny. Many of his stories were published.

Phil shocked me one Saturday when he distributed a book he had just published. What? We’re beating our brains out to get into print, and he just casually brings in something already Out In The World?

The title struck me as odd: The Government vs. Erotica: The Siege of Adam & Eve. The cover bordered on salacious. This was weird.

That’s when I discovered that I had no idea who Phil was. The story — told at greater length here and here — would be implausible for a fictional character:

  • He graduates from college with a degree in Slavic languages and literature, serves in the Army, then enlists in famine-relief work in India.
  • Disenchanted with famine relief, a Sisyphean task, he decides a better approach would be to assist poor people with family planning. Think of it as The Long Game in famine relief.
  • He attends graduate school in public health; his thesis project is a business he and a classmate start to sell condoms through the mail; in the late 1960s, this was illegal in most states. He gets his degree, and the business takes off.
  • Phil and his partner continue the business, using the profits to support family-planning work. Because selling contraceptives places them in their customers’ intimate lives, they (in Phil’s low-key characterization) “follow the market.”
  • The business evolves into Adam & Eve, purveyor of sex toys and devices, erotic films, and similar items. Phil is a libertarian. What people do in their private lives is all right with him, so long as no one gets hurt.
  • The money is really good, and Phil and his partner direct the profits to charitable causes.
  • President Ronald Reagan appoints Edwin Meese his attorney general. Meese launches a crusade against pornography. Phil Harvey and Adam & Eve are in the crosshairs.
  • For five or six years, the battle rages in the federal courts. A believer in free speech, Phil retains a leading First Amendment lawyer. Other sex-related businesses crumble under Meese-ian pressure. Not Phil’s.
  • Phil wins. He keeps on his mission, one he described to me as “making money from first-world libido to serve third-world needs.”
  • The nonprofits he founded and inspired — DKT International and Population Services International — distribute hundreds of millions of birth-control devices around the world, throughout Asia, Africa, and South America. They create groundbreaking AIDS-prevention programs, often focusing on sex workers and military personnel. They receive billions of dollars from leading foundations and governments worldwide.

One Saturday, I asked Phil why he looked so worn out. He had just returned, he explained, from the round-the-world trip he made a few times every year to check in on the projects his programs sponsored in the Philippines, or India, or West Africa, or Brazil. He was thinking he should cut back on the travel.

Phil had so many sides. His first book, Let Every Child Be Wanted: How Social Marketing Is Revolutionizing Contraceptive Use Around the World, explains what he learned in decades of designing and supporting prevention of unwanted pregnancy and AIDS.

Phil’s libertarian convictions fueled his recent Welfare for the Rich: How Your Tax Dollars Ended up in Millionaires’ Pockets — And What You Can Do About It. Before that were Government Creep: What the Government Is Doing That You Don’t Know About and The Human Cost of Welfare: How the System Hurts the People It’s Supposed to Help.

And then there’s Phil’s novel, Show Time, which our writers’ group read; it portrays reality television run amok. Phil had no trouble imagining dystopia. He saw versions of it as he traveled the world, trying to help people.

I have a personal reason to be grateful to Phil, which readers of this piece share. When we were attempting to start this nonprofit journal, I tried to raise money to pay the bills. I was bad at it. One potential donor, exasperated with my bumbling, explained that I should ask for commitments for multi-year donations, with regular reports back of our progress so the donor would know that she or he wasn’t tossing dollars down a rathole.

So I sent a message to Phil with that carefully calibrated request. He immediately called. He said he would give the amount I proposed, but he wanted to donate it all now, that day. Five years later, he did it again. Who does that? Phil did.

Many other people were much more important to Phil than I was. But he, and his example, are important to me. A quiet man. Thoughtful. Easy to miss even in a small group. Yet I don’t know anyone with a more consequential life.

Or anyone else I could have shouted was the most interesting man in the world.

David O. Stewart was the first president of the Washington Independent Review of Books and currently serves on its board.

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