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Islander Michael Coles on his years at sea and in the air

When Islander Michael Coles’ book “A Boyhood in Wartime Britain” came to a close, readers began wishing to hear more from this witty, wise man who has been such a keen observer of the world. Our wishes have been fulfilled, as his new book “Lucky, Not Smart” has just been published. Mr. Coles has packed several notable careers into his eighty-plus years, and the new book shares with us his aviation exploits, maritime duty, courtship and marriage to his first wife, the late Joan Collins Coles. 

Told in as self-deprecating a voice as possible without projecting false modesty, Mr. Coles gives Ms. Coles major credit for his going to Harvard Business School and succeeding in a career that took him to the leadership of Goldman Sachs.

Sprinkled with poetry and fond personal reminiscences of people important to him, from his family to fellow pilots, the book carries the reader quickly along. Robert Lipsyte, a noted author and writer of the Reporter’s Codger column, said he’s been encouraging Mr. Coles to write a followup to the earlier memoir and greatly enjoyed the new one. “He’s a natural, with a really good eye for detail.” he said recently. “It has a kind of jauntiness about it, like an Errol Flynn adventure.”  

Far from his days of wartime aviation, Michael Coles enjoys a peaceful flight in his Tiger Moth over the Island’s Bug Light. (Courtesy Photo)

The stories flow smoothly, covering his service in the British Royal Navy during the Korean War and the civil war in Cyprus, as well as teaching other pilots. His rendition of the intensity of rocket-assisted aircraft takeoffs (“the most sphincter-tightening and mind-boggling experience of all”) is matched by the ardor that leaps off the page when he speaks of the courtship of Joan Collins. He describes her as looking like Grace Kelly but more beautiful, and supplies photos to bear that out. 

There were obstacles to overcome before they could be married, from her Irish Catholic family in Boston to the inconvenient conflict in Cyprus. But there was indeed a wedding in Cyprus, followed by a honeymoon cruise to America on the S.S. United States. A family of five children came along in short order. 

Joan Coles died in 1999 following a struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. A handicap-accessible trail in Mashomack Preserve, where the Coles family has been active and generous, is named in her memory. “After Joan died, I felt that life had come to an end for me,” he said. “Then I met Edie, and when she learned to her shock that I hadn’t become an American citizen, she said I needed to take care of that right away.” 

Soon he would indeed be an American, and Dr. Edie Landeck would become his second wife. Among the lessons learned he cites in his book is, “One really happy marriage is a sign of considerable luckiness; two puts you well beyond the outer realms of probability.” Dr. Landeck and Mr. Coles can be seen around the Island, stopping in Marie Eiffel’s for coffee or browsing at the Farmers Market. He describes great joy at knowing that his children and grandchildren have Island homes nearby. He has clearly embraced not only being an American but an Islander as well. In addition to his philanthropic work for Mashomack, he recalled particular pleasure working with other Islanders on local projects, including a playground at the school and the conversion of the American Legion hall to a youth center.

Mr. Coles, after having a military career and earning an MBA at Harvard Business School, then rising through the ranks at Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of its International Corporation, earned a Master’s Degree in History from Columbia University. He’s published a nonfiction account of naval history, in addition to his earlier memoir.

Along with books by other Island authors, “Lucky, Not Smart” is available at Finley’s Fiction in the Heights.