Amor Towles - A Gentleman In New York

Richard Branson and Amor Towles in New York City
Greg Rose
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 31 October 2023

I was flying to New York with Virgin Atlantic recently, when I got completely engrossed in a wonderful book by Amor Towles: A Gentleman In Moscow. When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my assistant Helen had got in touch with Amor to surprise me. He lives not too far from Virgin Hotels New York, so we invited him over for breakfast and a chat.

We discussed the charming characters in his book, from The Count to Nina, from Anna to the Hotel Metropol itself. I also quizzed him on his own fascinating story, going from the world of business to the life of a novelist. It was a real pleasure to talk, and I’m delighted his book will soon become a TV series starring Ewan McGregor too.

Richard Branson and Amor Towles in New York City
Greg Rose

A few things have stuck with me from Amor’s novel, which I wanted to share.

“After all, what can a first impression tell us about someone we’ve just met for a minute in the lobby of a hotel? For that matter, what can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration—and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.”

I have long lived by an unwritten rule of trusting my first impressions – I have found it has set me in good stead when it comes to judging business propositions and people in general. However, Amor gave me reason to rethink. I look forward to making many more repeat impressions!

“If a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.”

In the book, the Count is forced into a very unusual lifestyle, which he handles with grace and poise. It reminded me of times when I have found myself in tricky situations – from balloon flights to boat crossings - and wish I had this line for company.

Richard Branson looks up through the porthole of his balloon

“What matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.”

This sentiment really hit home for me – I’ve always been more focused on the journey than the destination, and found that success comes when we do what we love, not because we yearn for acclaim:

Cups of tea and friendly chats! the modern man objects. If one is to make time for such idle pursuits, how could one ever attend to the necessities of adulthood?

The Count believes cups of tea and friendly chats deserve immediate attention, a worldview I very much subscribe to. It is in these moments of shared discussion over a cuppa that problems are often raised and solved, helping hands are offered, different viewpoints are shared, and smiles and understanding emerge.

Richard Branson sits with Moammed, the master tea-maker at Kasbah Tamadot
Kami White

“No matter how much time passes, those we have loved never slip away from us entirely.”

As all of us who have lost loved ones know – which is pretty much all of us – this is profound truth. It made me think of the beautiful song my son Sam wrote about my mother Eve, Colours Fade.

If you haven’t read A Gentleman In Moscow yet, I highly recommend it. Next on my list? The Lincoln Highway.