A SHORT HISTORY OF LUCK

Blood_on_the_tracks Here in Silicon Valley, it would be nice to know why some people are lucky and some aren't. A convincing explanation would require an author closely acquainted with fortune. It would need familiarity both with second chancers such as Steve Jobs and with rookies like Sergei Brin and Larry Page, those lucky boys at Google, who have accumulated a more substantial fortune over the last five years than the English monarchy has collected in a millenium.

The source of luck, both good and bad, has always intrigued people. Bob Dylan is good on luck. Think of his “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” from Blood on the Tracks (1975), Dylan's own creative second chance:

The festival was over, the boys were all plannin’ for a fall,
The cabaret was quiet except for the drillin’ in the wall.
The curfew had been lifted and the gamblin’ wheel shut down,
Anyone with any sense had already left town.
He was standin’ in the doorway lookin’ like the Jack of Hearts

Like a crooked pack of cards, Silicon Valley is indeed stacked with guys standing in the doorway looking like the Jack of Hearts. The question is whether the festival is all over or just beginning. The question is whether we are all planning for a fall.

One of the earliest published writer on luck was the 16th century Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli wrote extensively on the cause of good fortune. In his short book, The Prince (written in 1514, but published posthumously in 1532), an essay of advice to his patron, Lorenzo de Medici, Machiavelli explains that fortune favors the bold thus advising his Prince, not without controversy, to always act decisively:

Fortune is a woman and if she is to be submissive it is necessary to beat and coerce her.

In 1958, almost 500 years after Machiavelli wrote his Prince, Alfred Hitchcock made Vertigo, his motion picture about bad luck.  He took the idea from a 1956 French novel called The Living and the Dead by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It’s a classic Hitchcock nightmare. An ordinary, innocent man falls into spiral of deceit, suicide and murder. There is no reason for this, no metaphysical justification. It’s just bad luck in a world without meaning. A cruel twist of fate.

For Scottie Ferguson, the innocent central character of Vertigo, (mis)fortune was not one woman, but two – blonde Madeleine and the dark haired Judy. Vertigo is a movie within a movie, the first featuring Scottie’s relationship with Madeleine, the second with Judy.  Scottie’s great luck, his second chance comes at the end of the second act, after he has dressed Judy up to look like Madeleine and then realized that they are, in fact, the same woman, and that, in his misfortune, he has been the victim of a murderous confidence trick.

Recognizing this truth makes Scottie bold. Maybe his luck will change. Perhaps fortune is, indeed, a woman. Following his revelation, he drives Judy from San Franscisco, down the peninsula, south of the then sleepy town of San Jose, to the little Spanish colonial mission of San Juan Bautista.  Scottie drags Judy to the scene of the original con – across the mission’s green, through the church door and into a narrow spiral of steps leading up the tower. He seizes her hand. She struggles.  Their claustrophobic fight is more pathetic than heroic since, in reality, they are equally unlucky victims of the same crime. And then Scottie fires his words, amongst the most resonant ever written about luck:

One doesn’t often get a second chance, I want to stop being haunted. You are my second chance, Judy. You are my second chance.

The words were probably written by Samuel Taylor, the movie’s screenwriter, but Hitchcock might have even written them himself, given the close collaborative relationship he had with Taylor. Just as Hitchcock’s movies included his own cameo appearances, they also contained fragments of autobiography. For Hitchcock, California, and Hollywood in particular, represented a lucky second act. As a promising young movie director, Hitchcock came to America in March 1939 on the invitation of David O. Selznick, the movie mogul most famous for producing Gone with the Wind (1940).  Like so many lucky immigrants (for example, Karl Rossman in Franz Kafka's Amerika),  Hitchcock made his American entrance on March 6th 1939 through New York Harbor, sailing past lady luck herself, the Statue of Liberty, on board the Queen Mary before taking the train westwards, out to California.

Selznick had signed Hitchcock to make Rebecca (1940) and seven other films – and he went on to direct thirty two movies as an increasingly iconic Hollywood figure. But there was probably nothing lucky about Hitchcock’s ascent to greatness. He could have just as easily -- like the unlucky Orson Welles -- fallen out of favor with the studio chiefs and out of fashion with the viewing public. But as a talented pioneer of a new type of thriller movie as well as a familiar face on the revolutionary medium of television, Hitchcock made the most of his second chance in California. He stayed until his death in 1980, establishing his home in the Los Altos Hills (then a rural retreat, now a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb) and making many of his movies on location in the Bay Area.

One of those locations was the mission town of San Juan Bautista, fifty miles south of Los Altos and the scene of Scottie Ferguson’s second chance in Vertigo.  San Juan Bautista, originally settled by the Spanish in 1797, is also connected to one of the luckiest second acts in American history. In 1846, about 100 years before Alfred Hitchcock arrived in California, the American population of the state was no more than 500 people. Gold wouldn’t be discovered by James Marshall at Sutters Fort until January 1848, thus unleashing the State’s first great wave of good luck hunters. In 1846, a group of 87 pioneers, led by an Illinois farmer by the name of George Donner, set out for California. Included in the party were Patrick and Margaret Breen, recent immigrants from Canada and their seven children. In the winter of 1846-47, the Donner Party, as it became known, got trapped in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few miles north of the modern town of Truckee, not far from the current route of the Interstate 80 highway. The nightmare of the Donner Party’s ordeal is worse than anything even Hitchcock could have dreamt up. Tortured by starvation and cold, the living were forced to eat the dead in order to survive the brutal winter. What bad luck! Of the original pioneers, only forty five souls would have the good fortune to experience their second acts in California.

All nine Breens survived. The senior Breen, Patrick, not only came down from the pass, but he transformed his ordeal into media. His diary, from which historians have depended for their accounts of the tragic journey, is now the property of the University of California at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.  Patrick’s eldest son, John also made much of his lucky second chance. Having arrived in California, he settled in San Juan Bautista and, in 1848, went to the gold fields, returning in March 1849 with $12,000 in gold. He invested the money in the biggest house and stables on the square in San Juan Bautista and in buying 400 acres of land in the San Juan Valley. John Breen’s stables are easy to see today – Hitchcock filmed them in Madeleine’s final scene in Vertigo, before her fake suicide.

Since 1846, California has become American’s second chance, the stage of generation after generation of entrepreneur, eager to make their fortune. Many of these pioneers, like Hitchcock, John Breen and the Silicon Valley crowd, got lucky. But not all these second acts have ended as happily. Take another Scott as an example – this one a real person rather than a movie character. Arriving in California as the acclaimed author of a number of novels including The Great Gatsby (1925), F. Scott Fitzgerald came to Hollywood to write screenplays. But he never took to the movies and the movie business never took to him. He was hired, then quickly fired, by the mogul David O. Selznick, to write the screenplay for Gone With The Wind. By the late Thirties, Fitzgerald was washed up, a has-been, a bad luck Hollywood failure and a drunk. In 1940, the same year that Selznick gave Hitchcock his first chance in Hollywood, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack. In addition to a wife and daughter, he left an unfinished Hollywood novel called The Last Tycoon based on the life of the mogul Irving Thalberg. Fitzgerald also left us with some much quoted autobiographical sentence on bad luck:

"There are no second acts in American lives."

Even after death, Fitzgerald can’t quite shake off the great seduction of California. We look back to Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway and that whole West Egg scene to make historical sense of Silicon Valley. It has become common-place now to juxtapose the Twenties and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 with the Nineties and the Silicon Valley crash of April 2000. It doesn't take a F. Scott Fitzgerald to see that both decades were characterized by excessive optimism, an irrationally exuberant bull market and an evangelical faith in future prosperity. The Twenties invented the new media of radio and the movies; the Nineties invented the new media of Internet and cellphones. What good luck; what ill fortune.

One can’t but wonder what sort of history of luck an outsider-on-the-inside like Fitzgerald would have written, had he had the (mis)fortune today of doing his second act in Silicon Valley, next to Steve and Larry and Sergei, amidst the vertiginous hype of Web 2.0, the trumpeted second coming of the digital media revolution. But this time the bad luck is ours. Today, there is neither a Scott F. Fitzgerald, nor an Alfred Hitchcock, a Bob Dylan or a Niccolo Machiavelli to help out. The festival might, indeed, be over and the boys could all be planning for a fall, but we've got to work out the consequences of it all for ourselves. Today, those consequences remain unrecorded, unwritten and unfilmed. And here, in the heart of Silicon Valley, the place that is reinventing the technology of media, we continue to wait with uncharacteristic patience to learn why some people are lucky and why some aren't.