Rudolph Delson (NYU law student)
Income $0 (supported by school loans)
Health Insurance $80/mo.
Rent $1075/mo. Utilities included
Phone $25/mo. Food $400/mo.
Rudolph Delson, 24, with the bright red hair on his head, was at the café talking about his money scheme.
“It was ’98 and I was living in San Francisco, my first year out of undergraduate school at Stanford, working in the antitrust division of the Department of Justice, and I decided I wanted to give myself a year sabbatical in Berlin and write a novel but still have enough money to maintain my lifestyle. So, I decided I’d sell subscriptions to my letters from Berlin and I would divulge the details of my sex life, going into long lyrical passages about the countryside and sort of applying my shrewd cultural and hip analysis to the scene in Berlin and allowing my subscribers to live vicariously through me and the avant-garde youth they never managed to contrive for themselves.
“I wrote this flyer asking people to give me $200 each, which would give them a letter every other week for a year. I gave the flyer to friends and my folks in San Jose. People started giving me money. A friend of mine from Stanford who was going to culinary school and living off a trust fund laid down $500. My mother, the real estate agent, started photocopying the flyer and someone told this reporter at the Willow Glen Resident and I immediately saw the market potential and did my best to charm her on the phone. In the end I had 22 subscribers, a total of $5000, enough to pay my $200-a-month rent in Berlin and then some.” He lived across from where U2 reportedly recorded Achtung Baby.
“I gave my sister, the investment banker at Charles Schwab, the money. As soon as I got to Berlin, the 8000- to 10,000-word letters started going really well. But the novel was going nowhere. I was on this two-week cycle. Day one through seven, I’d be dashing around trying to make something happen.” Days nine through 14, he would sit at his rickety pine East German desk and “try to concoct something out of my dull existence. For example, I sort of wondered if I’d be interested in being involved with men.”
There is one letter about how Delson spends the night with “Malte, the sparkle-eyed fellow whom I had met at Lars’s party” and Delson throws up in every room in Malte’s house, which was probably fascinating to his subscribers, “the retired couple who were planning a vacation to Heidelberg and thought it would be interesting to learn about Germany.
“Sometimes I’d run contests. There were things in Berlin I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford. So I’d write that the first person to send me this would win literary immortality and I would write about them. That had pretty dreary results.
“I was spending a huge amount of time writing these things, but soon found I didn’t have an interesting enough existence to support them. There was only one solution—lying. I was in the fortunate position of having written chunks of a novel. So I’d figure out ways to pretend they’d happened to someone in Berlin. After about half a year, the letters were so far removed from reality.”
Did people like his product better when he was telling truth or fabricating? “I don’t think they could tell the difference.” He sent out a reader satisfaction survey during the year. Except for some “missile guidance expert who wrote, ‘I hate the letters,’ ” Delson says, “people wrote back saying we love them.”
His plan now is to publish the letters in a book, become a lawyer, “maybe libel,” and have “a comfortable job I can do in 40 hours a week so I have time to write. Unless I get a book deal right away because some lackey at Random House is sitting on the train heading up to work and reads this article and says, A-hah! Fresh talent!”