Laurence Geller is a passionate man. The Edgware-born, Chicago-based businessman is all jokes, charm, and bonhomie. But when it comes to his latest project, Geller is all conviction, angrily reeling off statistics about Alzheimer's disease and dementia, revealed last week to be the biggest cause of death in England and Wales, overtaking heart disease.
Geller was in London to launch Chelsea Court Place, a purpose-built and designed residential and daycare home for residents with memory loss, which feels like one of the five star hotels on which Geller built his career. It's not cheap, starting at £2,000 a week, but everything that residents could need is included. He says other dementia facilities see sufferers "locked up behind the yellow doors. There are no yellow doors here."
So,how did a boy from a modest home in Edgware end up as an American success story? He's typically jokey: "Everyone else is an idiot, otherwise I wouldn't be where I am." His key mantra comes from his time in the Israeli army. "When everyone else is asking 'Why?', in Israel they ask 'Why not?' And that's how I operate." That philosophy has brought him wealth and a CBE, awarded for his philanthropy. He speaks seven languages, writes novels and runs marathons. He is chancellor of the University of West London and chairman of the Alzheimer's Society Dementia Appeal Board. Among his many passions is Winston Churchill. He chairs the board of trustees of the Churchill Centre, and donated $1 million to Bloomsbury Publishing to make Churchill's papers available to schoolchildren.
Geller's father, Harold, was "a broke musician" - a conductor and violinist. "He conducted Music While You Work on the radio, and he wrote songs for bands like Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich.
"We had a piano in the house, and a harp, and violins, and clarinets and saxophones. But my father was adamant that I was not to learn to play any instrument. He didn't want another poor musician in the family."
Dad said: 'Here's a one-way ticket, don’t come home'
For a time, Geller wanted to be a ballet dancer, and persuaded his mother to take him to tap lessons. He claims he can still tap-dance but refused to give the JC a demonstration.
Once at a local state school, Geller found he could not keep up financially with the other Jewish boys. He took refuge in sports. "I ended up sailing - hardly a Jewish thing - and then I was the English triple jump champion, under-15s. I was the first Jew ever to play rugby for a British team - I played for the English under-16s. That was my way out."
Geller's father had been conducting orchestras in hotels. During the school holidays he made Geller work in hotels, too.
An injury when he was 15 put paid to Geller's dreams of a sporting career. "Instead, I left home and went to Switzerland - with my father's blessing. He said, 'Here's a one-way ticket, don't come home.'"
And that, in 1962, was the start of Geller's career in the hotel business. He did almost everything: "I was a swimming-pool attendant, and then a cellar man, and then assistant in a kitchen, and then I came
to London and became a chef at
the Connaught," he says.
"Eventually I was approached by someone I had been at school with, Ronnie Cohen [later Sir Ronald Cohen], who asked me to join the Jewish Lads' Brigade athletics tournament. He said, 'If you're on our team, we'll win.' I did join, and I enjoyed it; but there was a thing called the Special Activities Section, which was sort of sub rosa, combating antisemitism. And I… was a thug. With my strength from rugby, and my general brutality, I used that against antisemitism."
By April 1967, three months before the Six Day War, Geller
was just 19 and was working as assistant manager at London's Park Lane Hotel. "There was an incident at the hotel," he recalls. He had an altercation with an Arab client and the hotel's manager told him that if that was how he felt, he should "join those Jews there and their army". And Geller "got into a cab, went to the Israeli embassy, and volunteered".
His JLB experience meant he was fast-tracked, and within the week, he was in the Israeli army.
"I didn't know anyone, I didn't speak any Hebrew. Israel changed my life."
After the Six Day War he worked for an Israeli hotel consultancy, married, and then, because his father was in trouble financially, came back to the UK for five years.
After numerous hotel ventures, Geller, who had been working for the legendary British hotelier Maxwell Joseph in his Grand Metropolitan group, was recruited to join the Holiday Inn group in Memphis, Tennessee. Joseph gave his protege advice for working in the US: "Dress British, think Yiddish," a maxim which appears to have stood Geller in good stead.
After 10 years in Memphis, Geller and his family moved to Chicago, where he has now been based for nearly 40 years, although since 1981 he has retained homes and business interests in the UK. By the 1990s, he had joined the board of the American Jewish Committee, for which he raised $1.3 million, and sponsored the training of guide dogs in Israel.
"My father died when he was 90 and was certainly suffering from dementia at the end. My mother died six years later and she had the full-blown version of the disease".
Geller funded medical research into Alzheimer's and dementia. He knew that dementia care was "under-funded and underwhelmed".
"Every three minutes somebody is diagnosed with dementia," says Geller, who adds it is "almost a certainty" that he, too, will succumb.
Along with the opening of Chelsea Court Place, which he hopes will be a model to roll out across the UK, Geller, who turns 70 next year, is funding a chair in dementia care at his alma mater, the University of West London, formerly Ealing Technical College.
He says he has a jokey approach to life. "But this is not
a joke. It is a matter of life and death. And what we need to do is
to raise awareness, and help people, because no-one - sufferer or family - should have to go through this alone."
In his beautifully tailored jacket lapel, a blue Swarovski pin twinkles. "This is the symbol of Alzheimer's disease," he says. "It's a forget-me-not."