George Gershwin had just finished a concert in Cincinnati when an elegant lady came back stage with a songbook for him to autograph. Her name was Beatrice Horchow. They got to chat- ting and Gershwin told Horchow that he would be taking a train to Chicago sometime after midnight. As it was now only ten o’clock, Gershwin had some time to fill. “You can come to my house,” Horchow offered, “we live near the train station.” And so he did. There Gershwin played selections from his signature repertoire on the woman’s piano, awakening her six-year-old son who was sleeping upstairs. The young Roger Horchow was used to hearing his mother play Chopin or Bach, but the music now rising up from the family’s piano sounded completely different. He snuck downstairs and marveled as one of America’s most celebrated musicians played a private concert right there in his living room. Little did the boy know at the time that this chance encounter would prove instrumental in his life.
Eighty years later, Roger Horchow is a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer, with many other credits to his name. He’s a Yale grad, a Korean War veteran, an entrepreneur, an author of three books, an occasional film actor, a father of three, and a grandfather of five. As a Broadway producer, his latest endeavor is the revival of Annie, which closes this January after 487 performances and a Tony nomination. Yet when asked how he would best describe himself, Roger Horchow responds with perfect comedic timing: “Old.”
We’re sitting in the living room of his home on Cliff Road, where the Horchows have spent thirty-nine summers on Nantucket. An all-white, upright piano stands in the far right corner of the room, playbills are framed on the walls, toys and trinkets sit on individual shelves, and there is a plate of wax spaghetti on the coffee table. Everything is perfectly appointed and tastefully placed, which should come as no surprise considering Roger Horchow was once the arbiter of taste for hundreds of millions of
In 1971, he started the Horchow Collection, a mail order catalogue that became an instant success. His experience in retail literally began at the ground level. After serving in the Korean War, Horchow got a job ironing curtains in the basement of Foley’s department store in Houston, Texas. As he had done as a soldier, Horchow rose up the ranks in retail and was eventually hired by Neiman Marcus, where he would be put in charge of its mail order catalogue.
In those days, suppliers like Estée Lauder would purchase pages of the catalogue and advertise the products they wanted, whether consumers were buying them or not. Horchow thought,“What if you had a catalogue where you didn’t accept any money from the suppliers and you just bargained for a lower price and paid for the advertising yourself?” This would allow him to pick products that people actually wanted and sell them at a profit. He tried to sell the idea to Neiman Marcus, but the company didn’t buy it. So Horchow and his wife Carolyn created the catalogue themselves.
In the span of three catalogues, orders grew exponentially, from 4,300 to 48,000. “It was dazzling people,” he says. As the self-proclaimed “czar” of what made it in the catalogue, Horchow traveled the globe with his wife Carolyn in search of the next hot item for American consumers. “We picked things we liked. Like that was in the catalogue, that spaghetti,” he says, motioning to the fake plate on the coffee table. “I found that in Japan.” The Horchow Collection became gospel for American consumers, and the company grew from twenty employees to over five hundred. Fittingly enough, in 1988 Neiman Marcus bought the Horchow Collection for $117 million.
“When I sold the company, I was out of work,” Horchow says. And here’s where George Gershwin reentered his life.Back when he studied at Yale, Horchow would pay two dollars to see Broadway plays perform at the Shubert Theater in New Haven before they hit the big time in New York City. “I enjoyed it, but never thought I would get involved in the theater,” he says. Years later while running the Horchow Collection, he invested in two plays that you may have heard of, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera. Both did exceptionally well. Now with no job but plenty of money to invest, Horchow decided he wanted to play a new role on Broadway.
“I’d always wanted to have a Gershwin musical on Broadway,” he says, recalling that private concert in his living room all those years ago. “So I decided that I would do it, because no one else would.” Despite having never produced a play, Horchow “went for broke,” putting up seventy percent of the $8.3 million to produce Gershwin’s Crazy for You. The musical won overnight acclaim. “When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolu- tion began last night,” gushed New York Times critic Frank Rich after seeing the play. Crazy for You ran on Broadway for four years and was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, ultimately winning Best Musical. Four musicals and another Tony Award win later, Roger Horchow proved that his sixth sense for what people want extends far beyond retail.
“Life isn’t very scientific,” he says, summarizing his years. “Somehow everything happens for the best. You never know what anything leads to.” Indeed, Roger Horchow’s life breaks down to a series of small choices that played out dramatically— as can be said for most things. For instance, how could Neiman Marcus know that Horchow’s idea for a new catalogue would revolutionize retail? Or how could George Gershwin know that accepting the invitation of a fan would bring new life to his work many years after his death? And how could Roger Hor- chow know that taking a job ironing curtains in a basement in Houston would ultimately lead him to this living room over- looking Nantucket Harbor? Perhaps George Gershwin said it best, “Life is a lot like jazz…it’s best when you improvise.”