07 August 2013, 18:13
9804 |

Mark Geragos: Rewriting Saroyan

For most people in the US with a television set who watch news programs, Mark Geragos needs no introduction: he is one of the most prominent lawyers in this country; over the past several years he became the face of the Armenian community in many charity organizations, hosting the Armenian Fund Telethon and presiding over the Board of the Armenian Bone Marrow Registry. He has recently directed his efforts on behalf of Armenians by trying to establish ties between the Californian and Armenian governments. My conversation with Mr. Geragos revealed his family’s past and its connection to who he is now.

Tell me about your family. If you can, start with your grandparents.
My grandparents from both sides emigrated from Turkey. My maternal grandparents were from Aintab. They fled from the Genocide and came to live in Fresno, where my mother was born. While living in a Turkish orphanage during the Genocide, my father's mother escaped and came to live in Chicago. There she met my grandfather and married him. Sadly, my grandfather died when he was quite young during the Great Depression. My grandmother remarried. Her second husband, Aram, was also an Armenian man, and became the grandfather that I knew. They came to California in the late forties – early fifties. I have a certain special connection to Downtown Los Angeles. My father met my mother here, and I, myself, was born here in the city. Furthermore, my office is in Downtown LA. I married Paulette, a strikingly beautiful all-natural Armenian woman, and with her, bore two amazing children, Teny and Jake. My wife and these children are my heart and soul.

How was it - growing up in La Canada?
I grew up in La Canada. I was raised as a “shish-kebab” Armenian, which means that I ate shish-kebab, but that I understood just a little bit of Armenian. I used to go to Armenian Sunday school, and once in a while I would go to an Armenian summer camp. That was my connection to the Armenian community of my childhood.

How has our community changed since you were a child?
It has changed dramatically. In fact, when I was growing up in La Canada I was a “token” Armenian. The Marootian family was there, but that was it. And most people thought, even until recently, that I am Greek, because of my last name. When my grandfather came over to Ellis Island somebody told him, “Drop the –ian, it will make a better American out of you.” But it turns out that now most people think I am Greek and not Armenian because of the name change at Ellis Island. Over the past century, several waves of Armenians have immigrated to the States. The first wave came when, after the fall of the Shah, the Persian-Armenians arrived. They had characteristics of the Persian culture. Then the next wave came after the war in Beirut, Lebanon, so the Lebanese-Armenians came over. I think, the most noticeable change has been since the Armenians from Armenia arrived. This last flow of Armenian immigrants has dramatically changed the community. I think for the better. It is interesting to observe how each of these groups has assimilated so quickly. First, the Persian-Armenians assimilated, and then they looked down on the Lebanese-Armenians. Then the Hayastantsi came over and the Beirutsis looked down on them. So I am waiting to see who will be next. Who are the Hayastantsi going to look down on?

Later you went to Haverford College to study theology. Why theology?
I studied theology, sociology, and anthropology. I was very close to entering the priesthood. In my junior and senior years I had a professor whose courses I loved. The subject was the philosophy of religion, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was particularly fascinated by 19th century German theological thought, protestant thought. Later this brilliant professor got a deanship at Harvard and Yale Divinity School. Because of him, I was seriously considering going into theology. Srbazan Vache Hovsepian talked me out of it. He said that we had enough priests, and he thought that it would be better for me to go to law school. I had been an altar boy in the Armenian churches, as I was growing up, but it was the philosophy of religion that I loved. It was a fascinating area.

You said once that you were programmed to work in the courtroom. It seems like a huge shift from theology.
My father is a prosecutor. As I was growing up, during my summer vacations I would follow him around from courtroom to courtroom starting from around the age of five or six. I thought at that time, “This is the greatest job in the world. All he does - he goes in, he talks, and people pay him money.” I couldn’t believe that you could make a living out of talking and just arguing, “This is fantastic,” I thought. And the law seemed like the only side-track that I could take out of the priesthood.

Susan McDougal was kept in jail on charges of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify before the grand jury about the Arkansas real estate financial operations of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Nobody else wanted to take that case, how did you decide to get involved?
…and nobody thought you could win it. But inspite that it was thought to be an “unwinnable” case, we won not only here in LA, but we also won in Arkansas. All this was achieved back-to-back, within a year.

Did you experience any political pressure at that time?
There was quite a bit of that - I was threatened, I was put on “enemy’s lists”, and things of that nature. It was pretty tumultuous time. One of the interesting things about that is that it gave me a taste of how the public, depending of who you represent, can be really with you or against you. And that case really divided the law along the lines of Democrats versus Republicans. It was highly contested, I would call it “a political show-trial.”

You said once that your father supported your decision in taking this very politically charged case.
He did, because he thought that Susan is a remarkable woman, which she is. He thought that what was happening to her was an outrage. I told him, “I really want to do this. Are you OK with that?” And he said, “Yes.” So I said, “I am going to go for my little tangent, and I’ll see you… in a couple of years.”

Was the Susan McDougal case a turning point in your career?
Yes, absolutely. I would like to think that I worked really hard and inherited my father’s practice, but we were pretty much a local firm, a well-known, but essentially local firm. That case catapulted me to national and international levels. Certainly, nobody had asked me to be on TV before that case. Once that case started, which was about fifteen years ago, I became a regular commentator on legal issues. After that it just snowballed.

Thus you became a celebrity lawyer. You defended in court Michael Jackson, Winona Rider, and Lee Tamahori. You were probably invited to a lot of glamorous events.
I don’t know about that term. I have so many misgivings about that, people always call me a “celebrity lawyer”, because I have represented celebrities, but the vast majority of my clients are not celebrities. I can’t tell you how many Hollywood parties I have attended and still attend. Sometimes I look around and I can’t imagine what am I doing there. But I have represented some of these people: movie directors, TV stars, Oscar-winning actresses. One of my clients was Lee Tamahori, the director of “Die Another Day”, a movie that I like. After representing him, I went and bought that James Bond car, an Aston Martin.

The class action suit against New York Life Insurance was successful. It won $20 million for heirs of the Armenian Genocide victims. Lead plaintiff in the case of Marootian, et al. v. New York Life, Martin Marootian received the largest payout from the case, $250,000. Other Armenian Genocide heirs demanded their rights against a French firm, AXA, and two German companies, Deutschebank and Viktoria. How did you get involved in the New York Life case?
It began when Vartges Yeghiayan came to me and Rita, his wife, called my mother, and between the two of them I got involved. That was a very important case for us, because nobody had ever done it before. It was huge in terms of setting the bar - twenty million dollars. The twenty million – it was important that we get that amount. Before that case, all the litigation over the Holocaust did not really get anywhere in the courtroom, the governments were doing something, but not in litigation cases. We wanted to show that we can get somewhere.
The Japanese after World War II, Mexican migrant farm workers tried, but did not get anywhere in the courtroom. This was the first class action litigation of its kind, and then we leveraged it in the AXA case. We went to do research on it, and while we were in Paris, we found this card which had the name of Bogos Geragosian. I called my father and asked, “Could he be related to us?” My father said, “Mark, you are an idiot. My name is Paul, which is Bogos in Armenian. Who do you think I was named after? That was my uncle Bogos Geragosian.”

It was very surprising to me that such a long time ago so many people back in Turkey actually bought life-insurance policies from the American companies.
The most surprising fact about this case is that this was the oldest cause of action. People bought policies back in 1914 and the litigation was settled in 2001. In that sense, it was the oldest case in American history, ever. It is amazing to see these policies. As I looked at these policies, they listed dates that the premiums were paid, mostly in gold coins. Well, you could see that the premium stopped being paid in each village roughly on or around the same date. So one could track the Genocide by the policy cards and see how the Turks progressed in wiping people out, village by village, merely by observing the dates when people stopped paying their insurance premiums. It was the most heart-breaking thing to see. Looking at the card, one could see the name of the insured: the father, the wife, and the kids, what he did for living, where he was from. We noticed that thirty to forty percent of these people did not make a single claim, because their entire families were wiped out.

That was powerful factual evidence. Do you think that these cases had an impact on the process of the official recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the U.S. Congress?
I think it was important. The fact that two major international corporations have paid so far roughly thirty-seven and a half million dollars, obviously affirms Genocide as a fact. Nobody would pay thirty-seven million dollars otherwise. Currently, we are in litigation process with the Deutsche Bank. I have just returned from conducting depositions; clearly, they had depositors who were Armenians. It was called “depos”, which was a pre-cursor to the safety deposit box. All the stuff that was looted, two to three million marks back then, is worth a lot of money today.

Now, they say that going with you on a trial is “a full contact sport”. Is it a calculated strategy, or you do you just have the right sort of temperament for trial work?
I know; there is a long list of DA’s who would say that. I would say that I am volatile, emotional, and passionate. As soon as I lose that passion in the courtroom, I will be done going to the courtroom. If I am going into a trial, I believe in my client. If I am not going to be passionate about it, then they need a different lawyer. If somebody is attacking my client, I am going to attack back. I am like a mother bear with its baby cub, “don’t get near me, cause I will strike out.”

You are involved in many charitable and community organizations. The Armenian Bone Marrow Registry is on its way to become a major life saving organization. Can you tell us more about it.
I am the Chairman of the Board of the Armenian Bone Marrow Registry. I helped to establish it back in 2001. I had a client whose daughter contracted leukemia. I discovered much to my surprise, that the Armenians have their own DNA. This is due to the fact that we have been around for so long. You couldn’t really find a match through traditional bone marrow registries, because the markers of Armenian DNA are so different. We have the most beautiful women in the world, and there is a reason for that. So we set out as our goal to have ten thousand people registered in our registry. I am happy to say that now we have over fifteen thousand registered donors. I am also happy to say that recently I went to Armenia to open a Stem-cell Harvesting Center in Yerevan. We have already made many matches that worked perfectly, which brought happiness to many families.

You also helped us to raise many millions of dollars on Thanksgiving during the Telethon.
I do it every year. Thanksgiving is a good time for raising money for a meaningful cause. I think, it is important that the Armenian Fund becomes established, and that the Telethon becomes established as a place to tune in on Thanksgiving Day. We should all contribute to our common cause. I think it should be an institution.

What is your vision of the future of the Armenian Republic?
Armenia needs foreign investments. The Diaspora needs to support Armenia. As good as the Armenian Fund is, when we started the Armenia Fund, (and I wasn’t even there yet) we raised three-to-six million dollars. And the budget for Armenia as a nation was three-to-six million dollars. When I was there the last time, the President was saying that their budget is now three billion, so the Diaspora needs to step up. We have a wonderful thing, a country of our own, but we also have an economic engine that needs to be fed and fuelled. That needs to be done.

And how do you see that happening?
People from the Diaspora are starting to make Armenia their destination annually. I think they should go there, spend their money, buy property, invest in Armenia, invest in the infrastructure, donate to the villages, donate to industry, educational institutions, etc. and, particularly, invest in Armenian banks. Investing in the economy and these banks will help the country support itself and promote an increase in its economic growth rate. Investing in Armenian banks gives resources to lenders who turn around and loan the money back out to the locals. An economy cancot grow without investments, and these investments will serve not only to support the status quo economy, but also to promote an increase in the economy's per annum growth rate. I always compare the Armenian community to the Jewish community. The Jewish community holds Israel in a special light, and rightfully so, because it’s their “never again”, so to speak. We, Armenians, should be the same way.

How often do you visit Armenia?
I just went there last month, and I am planning to go again in two months. I went for the Armenian Fund, and now I will go for the opening of the Stem Cell Harvesting Center. Next time, I will go with a special mission, I will not go into details, but I am trying to foster a connection between California and Yerevan.

What do you think of Yerevan Magazine?
It is a real glamour magazine, which is very appropriate. During my last visit to Yerevan, I was sitting in front of Yerevan Hotel and watching all these women go by, I thought that they really look very glamorous, more so than in any city that I have ever seen. And dressed up with such a taste. So, I think we need this kind of a magazine, that makes us, Armenians, feel better about ourselves.
As I thanked Mr. Geragos for the interview, he pointed to a poster on the wall, “Now let me show you something interesting here.”
The poster depicted William Saroyan’s profile and Mr. Geragos’ and my own favorite quote from Saroyan:
“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race; this small tribe of unimportant people whose history is ended, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, whose literature is unread, whose music is unheard, whose prayers are no longer uttered. Go ahead, destroy this race. Let us say that it is again 1915; there is war in the world. Destroy Armenia. See if you can do it. Send them from their homes into the desert. Let them have neither bread nor water. Burn their houses and their churches. See if they will not live again. See if they will not laugh again. See if you can stop them from mocking the big ideas of the world. Go ahead, try to destroy them.”
And then Mark continued, “But do you know what’s interesting. All of it is not true anymore. Our history has not ended, our wars are not lost, we build our wonderful houses wherever we are, our music is again heard. We have System of a Down, our books are read, we have the Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian and we have Saroyan. I think, if Saroyan lived today, he would have to come up with something else. I look at it every day, it is a great motivational force for me.”
“Yes,”, I thought to myself as we parted company, “It is truly fascinating to witness that statement “re-written” Mark Geragos’s style.”

Yerevan Magazine, Winter, N3, 2008

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