What Would Halbert Do?

Thursday, 11:09pm
Reno, NV
“We still miss ya, man…”


This past Tuesday — the first anniversary of Gary Halbert’s abrupt exit from this mortal coil — my first call was to Bond, his son.

We laughed a bit, shared some memories, and — in Gary’s honor — even discussed some business. (Please watch for emails from Bond and Kevin — they’re getting www.thegaryhalbertletter.com cranked back up, and I’m doing all I can to help.)

Bond and I know each other well. I still think of him as a cocky teenager, but he’s grown into a fine man. Kevin, too. I’m proud of both of them.

Anniversaries are funny things. It’s good to have a reason to remember someone, or to celebrate something… but I’ve largely avoided any kind of official remembrance of the mounting number of significant events and deaths in my life.

I don’t have a clue, for example, exactly when my mother passed away. I know the year, but not the month. I’m not entirely clear on the season. I could find out, easily enough… but I don’t feel the need to.

Sometimes, time is a stupid way to keep track of life.

What I remember from Mom’s demise is that it had been almost a full year of horror and grief and fatigue, and then, after a final stretch of pure, undiluted shock… it was over.

The months before had lost meaning — the sun came up, and the sun went down, and the only change seemed to be the incremental increase in numbness. I deeply appreciate that numbness, too — without it, the days would have been one long scream of indignant frustration. With it, I was able to stumble through my duties as a writer and a son.

The months after seemed just as unmoored to time. And yet, with each sun-up/sun-down, a faint sense of renewal stuck around, and grew. I quit advertising, wrote a novel (finishing just before my 40th birthday, to fulfill a promise), and took stock of my life.

Thanks to Halbert, I had enough moolah stashed away to be leisurely about deciding what to do with myself. The events that unfolded over the next year were the impetus behind where I am today.

I was fried to a crisp, as far as my career went. Over the previous several years, I had increasingly ditched all other clients, and teamed up with Gary exclusively. It was the period we were producing those infamous “Hot Seat” seminars down in the Florida Keys (inventing the model, actually)… and while there was a lot of fun going on, the foundation of Gary’s little empire was actually crumbling.

We all sort of hit a wall at the same time. I was just done with advertising, and burying Mom took me to a place where it was simply impossible to stand up and get back after a career. (If it wasn’t for guys like Joe Polish and Dan Kennedy keeping my name alive in the entrepreneur niche while I was AWOL, I may have disappeared forever.)

Maybe it was a mid-life crisis. I hid out in my bitchin’ little hovel in Hermosa Beach, hanging around the beach and immersing myself in writing fiction. Very theraputic.

And I severed contact with everyone for a few months.

Except Gary, of course.

For all his faults — and believe me, his faults were legendary and multiple — he, at his core, was perhaps the sweetest and most caring man I’ve ever known.

When my mother fell sick (vicious, wasting cancer), I held it together with gritted teeth, because people depended on me. I did the seminars, sharing the stage with Gary and tending to the backstage bullshit that always accompanied the events. I wrote copy, wrangled with clients, did my best to keep Gary focused. (Tough job, lemme tell ya.)

I also flew across the country almost every month. Mom was in Southern California, about as far from Key West as possible in every way. But I made the jaunts (piling up around 100,000 miles on Pan Am in the process) because I felt it was also my job to be there during doctor visits and chemo and all the other tortures the medical establishment had lined up.

At one point, the doc pulled me aside and revealed that we were the only family doing this. Nearly every other patient he had came alone to the consultations, and faced down the radioactivity without family present.

I think about that sometimes.

Because something very similar was happening in my own life. Close friends were not returning phone calls… a stunning development. They didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing. And, I dunno, eventually they just couldn’t muster up the energy to even stop by and say nothing.

The ONLY friend I had who stuck by me during that time (while I was admittedly distracted and not fully myself)… was Gary Halbert.

Gary had a selfish side, and was even proud of it. He proudly listed one of his hobbies as “finding new mehtods of self-aggrandisement”. His personality could suck the air out of any room he entered, and he enthusiastically enjoyed humiliating friends and colleagues, both publicly and privately.

Oh, he could piss you off.

But you always forgave him. Because when push came to shove, there wasn’t a more loyal man on the planet.

Gary called me almost every day that year. Just to say hi, and — if I needed to vent — to listen patiently to the latest absurd travails of my journey through the hell of western medicine.

And he made me laugh. God dammit, no matter how grim it got, that dude could force me to smile through the pain, and then start guffawing lustily.

Oh, it was good to laugh. It was so, so necessary to laugh once in a while…

And to able to vent to someone who cared, and took my side.

For all his faults… Gary harbored a profound humanity. He truly would face monsters with you, shoulder-to-shoulder. I believe — and his friends will likely agree with me here — that he would die for you, if that’s what needed to be done.

Over the ensuing years, I found myself armed with a new tool for living life well. We all know the phrase “do the right thing”… but I now understood what it meant to actually DO the right thing. Every freaking time.

Absorbing that lesson freed me from a lot of competing bullshit in my head. There was no longer any chatter from my other urges. I had a single rule: Never turn away, never abandon responsibility.

Life is actually easier when you no longer struggle with decisions when friends need you. You siimply figure out the right thing to do… and do it. Immediately. And without keeping score.

Gary taught me that.

I took many more trips across the country in the following years, hopping on planes with little notice to go do battle with Gary’s demons. I never thought twice about it… and I still don’t, today, when the often-arduous duties of being a friend demand sacrifice.

The world can seem like such a lonely, dangerous place. Hostile to happiness, aggressively working to destroy everything good and righteous.

I know I can’t change much about that, either. A bit, here and there, perhaps.

But we’re in a big damn mess here, and it’s gonna take a whole generation of people doing the right thing to make any real difference.

Still, it all starts with a simple decision, on a personal level.

Outsiders might find it funny to hear, but I discovered there is honor in business.

I know. The embodiment of that honor was a close friend of mine, and I’m damn glad I got to hang out and learn from him.

Gone, but never forgotten, pal.

Thanks for everything. We’re still down here, trying hard to stay frosty…

Oh… and I don’t need a freaking anniversay to remember you. You’re here every day…

John Carlton

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  • Yoav says:

    You are very fortunate to have had such a friend

  • A few years back, you promised us some very juicy stories you knew about Halbet’s adventures and antics – and that you’d save them for after his departure. How about it?

  • john-carlton says:

    Hi Brett. Yeah, I often joked with Gary that I’d have to wait until he was gone before I could write about the “True Adventures” we’d had.

    Trouble is, there are other people still here who would be implicated, too. Writing biographies is an art form that pisses off almost everyone involved and starts lawsuits without end. So I gotta tread carefully…

    I’ve been quiet about Gary because his sons have had their hands full settling up his estate. The time will come when we can open the door on some of those stories (not all, but some) as well as start thinking seriously about Gary’s legacy.

    The year went by fast.


  • Peter Frank says:

    Hi John,
    Love to hear the ‘good’ about people. The news broadcasters of this world all seem to think we want to hear bad news… and unfortunately most in the western world do. It makes them feel good that others are also suffering.

    I count myself lucky to have had parents who taught me to always strive to do the right thing. I know I’ve failed at times but I always try… especially in business when I’m dealing with strangers.

    Even my father-inlaw (middle european) eventually said he loved me just before he died, just took 25 years to get through his hatred that a useless Aussie boy took his only daughter away. Maybe it was because I nursed him for six months injecting morphine through the night etc while panceatic cancer took a strong man down.

    I loved to read Gary’s letters and emails. His ireverent take on life semed to fit my sense of humour and his insights were amazing. Although I never met him… my inbox will never be the same.


  • Deb Williams says:

    Hi John,

    I honor you for accepting the responsibilities of parental care. It’s NOT easy & neither is the after survival. I lost Mom in ’03 & am presently caring for my father (he’s 84 & has Alzheimer’s).

    “Lovers are a dime a dozen, but TRUE Friends are priceless”. You have been very lucky to have had a True Friend in Gary & also to be a True Friend in return. I would simply state that you are a Rebel with Honor. 😉

    In Light,

  • JoeyC says:


    This reminded me of a Travis McGee quote that floats around in my head. I was able to Google the proper wording:

    “In all emotional conflicts, the thing you find the most difficult to do is the thing that you should do.” – Meyer

    It’s one of those quotes that pops into my head when I’m temepted to wuss out on what I know I should do.

    On behalf of the Forum Rats, our thoughts are with you, and always remember how much we appreciate you sharing what you know – about copy writing and more importantly about life. I bet Gary’s proud of you.

  • John,

    The part of Gary you loved is still around. Isn’t it great you don’t have to pick up the phone to talk with him?


  • Darwin says:

    Sounds like an awesome friend and mentor.

  • Awesome post…

    Gary is still here… and will always be here.

    He never left. He just relinquished his physical body.

    Because he figured out how to bridge the schism.

    right time and right place…

    always in between-

    Where we all always are…






  • Laura says:


    I have been reading your posts for quite some time now, and thanks to my mentor/coach Beth Ann Erickson, I was introduced to Gary Halbert and his letters, but was saddened to hear he had passed away. “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” sang John Lennon.

    True friends are those that stick around through the bad times, the good times and everything else in between, and it sounds like Gary was the best, which is what I have been hearing from those who met or knew him, warts and all.

    Blessings to you and thanks for sharing everything. I will be watching to see what you, Bond and Kevin come up with on Gary’s legacy.

    Laura 🙂

  • Greg Thompson says:

    Wow, its been a year already… amazing. Doesn’t seem like it at all.

    I really hope one of you guys will write the real biography and put it on Amazon… it’s a shame to have such a great guy and to have learned so much from him, but all the stories I know of have had to be pieced together bit by bit by me from listening to a ton of the old tapes, seminars, etc.

    It’d be great to have everything all in one book with Gary’s picture on the cover.

  • Chris McMorrow says:

    Hi John,

    Yeah, I think about Gary nearly every day myself – while I’m driving my taxi and studying his letters during my downtime. (Gary is gonna make a copywriter out of me yet.)

    One of the best definitions of friendship I got was from an old friend of mine name John Cullen. He was an Iwo Jima combat vet that went on to become vice-chairman of what used to be Allied Stores. Mr. Cullen had a mind like a steel trap and a tongue that dripped battery acid. Believe me, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I was honored that he considered me to be his friend.

    One night after dinner, this is what he told me:

    “In life, you’re lucky if you’ve got enough true friends to count on one hand. Those whom most people call friends are really no more than acquaintances. A true friend is someone who helps you when you’re down.”

    Thanks for sharing your definition of what a true friend is.


    Chris H. McMorrow

  • Karen says:

    Yeah, time really is a stupid way to keep track of life. My Mom recently died the same way and the her last year was exactly as you described.

    When I first met the big ugly guy he lived in a marina in Marathon and cruised around the Florida Keys in a fluoro-pink Cadillac and a Rolls Royce (depending on how he felt that particular day!).
    That was Gary, he lived life at BOTH extremes of almost any scale you cared to mention. An incredibly generous, selfish, one eyed, open minded, damaged genius with a truly wicked sense of humour. Big man, huge heart, easy to love.

    The thing is, I don’t know if I ever really thanked him for everything he did for me, or told him how much it mattered and I don’t want to make the same mistake with you…. so thanks, thanks for the friendship, thanks for the insight and thanks for sharing it all with us.

    You rock.

  • Mr. Carlton,

    Although I never had the pleasure of meeting you both, one of my most prized recordings is the conversation between you and Mr. Halbert called, “The Go To Guy”.

    I try to listen to it every two or three months, and it is truly an empowering call about doing what it takes, being there when needed, and living up to the challenges of day to life and taking responsibility for your life, as well as the lives of people you care about.

    In a word, it is about…, Integrity.

    That is one of the common traits that you and the legendary Mr. Halbert seem to have in spades.

    Looking forward to meeting you someday.



  • Kip Lytle says:

    Hi John,

    I still remember with a strange sense of pride/satisfaction how Gary would single me out in seminars as the guy who had given him the single hardest copy-writing assignment of his life …

    … and the ad he wrote is still producing leads for me over four years later.

    A testimonial to his genius.

    There probably isn’t a day go by that Gary doesn’t pop into my consciousness somewhere.

    I work with Nancy J. on ads nearly every day, and we sometimes lament how much we both miss him – in our own seperate ways.

    Anyway, thanks for helping Bond and Kevin keep Gary’s work and memory alive. Personally, I plan on somehow making every page of “The Gary Halbert Letter” website available to my kids as one of the finest marketing/sales/copywriting courses available on the planet.


  • Peter says:

    Dear John, thank you for your Gary Halbert remembrance. As an “anniversary” occasion it must feel strange to note it as his departure date and remember he was a pal who was bigger than life and yet down to earth enough to be close as blood through thick and thin.

    And thank you for also sharing your feelings about Mom and the depth of your attention to her and care for her. I’m sure she was tremendously proud of you and grateful for the time you devoted to her.

    God, where we would be in this wacky world if it weren’t for people who loved us?

    Oh, the “L” word.

    Love. The little waif of human experience who takes a seat in the back of the bus because status, power, greed, vanity, ego boosting at any cost, and the others in that gang wanna hog the front seats.

    Unless of course, you’ve been blessed to somehow attract someone who does love you. And if you’re lucky enough to attract more than one person who does, yer hittin’ on some set of karmic/celestial cylinders there.

    And God Bless, you are.


  • Fabio Henri says:


    Everyone knows that you’re one of the best writers alive. Gary himself said it. And even though it is always amazing to watch how
    you discourse about anything, it is even more amazing to grasp your knowledge of human nature, your sincerity and openess about your most intimate thoughts and how you and Gary simply
    knew and know the true meaning of life (with both its pleasures and pains) You and Gary teach all of us how to live, love and leave a legacy with each piece you write. Thank you!

    Fabio Henri

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