Sunday, May 19, 2013

61. Jim Fisk, part 1: Prince Erie

            Here begins the Saga of Jim Fisk, a series of posts relating the later adventures and misadventures of the nineteenth century's most colorful robber baron.  We last saw him in post #46, where, at the end of the Great Erie War, he and his pal Jay Gould inherited the Erie Railway, its coffers empty, its track two streaks of rust.  He immediately moved the Erie offices into an opera house that he had just bought and renamed for himself: another Erie first -- a railroad in an opera house.  What follows is slightly fictionalized, being drawn from my unpublished fiction, but it adheres closely to historical fact, and most of the dialogue is drawn from contemporary sources.

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            It was a marriage of opposites: Jim Fisk all grin and girth, a ruddy-faced glad-hander in check trousers and an orange or red vest, fingers studded with rings, punning and chortling to chorus girls, clerks, and reporters, the observed of all observers about whom gossip gushed; and Jay Gould, a feather of a man, puny-chested, skinny-limbed, with big dark silent eyes under a soft felt hat, and the pallor of a back-shop clerk: a thin talker, a dainty eater, gray-suited, his thoughts like quiet mice.  Together, they ran the Erie Railway.  Both stole; they called it “financiering.”

Fisk in full regalia, hair pomaded, mustache
waxed to a rapier tip.

            Jim Fisk was a joyous thief, loose as change, his mind all flash and froth.  To seize a little upstate railroad, he bought stock, fired off a volley of injunctions, and sent a trainload of Erie employees armed with shovels and wrenches against a trainload of workers loyal to the management.  They met head on, engine to engine, whistles screeching, with a jolt, a hubbub of oaths.  Fists flew, clubs thumped, skulls were cracked and gashed; outnumbered, the Erie men fled.  Quipped Fisk, when informed by wire at a safe remove, “Nothing is lost save honor!”

File:Jay Gould 1911.jpg
Some thought he looked a bit sinister,
even devilish.
            Jay Gould was a whispery thief immune to the bite of conscience, passionless as dawn.  To meet him was to walk in river mist or a soft frost.  He sat at his desk for hours, his brain tensile as a gymnast, felted as a stalking cat.  Nothing so pleased him as submarine flowers of intellect, faceted crystals of thought.  His mind hatched schemes so daring that even Jim Fisk gasped.  When Jay Gould’s schemes fired up Jim Fisk’s bounce, Wall Street popped and sizzled.

            When they locked up all the greenbacks in sight, markets splintered into panic; from all sides, insults and oaths glanced off their iron-plated egos.  When they cornered Dan Drew in Erie and he came to them owing them millions, pleaded through the night (into the Sabbath – for a churchgoing Methodist, a sacrilege), huffed up, and puckered down, waxing hot, cold, hot in a web of pleas and  wiles, they were adamant; and when, shoring up his pride, he said good night in a choked voice and scuffed out into the dawn, they guffawed.

            Those seeking access to Jim Fisk in his Opera House office – money men, journalists, humble suppliants – entered a marble-paved lobby through portals guarded discreetly by a squad of bruisers whose job it was to keep out process servers: Fisk’s minions, the very sight of whom made Jay Gould wince.  From there visitors mounted a grandiose staircase to traverse a huge hall frescoed with flowers and vines, among which nestled naked cupids and nymphs, then passed through carved oak doors into an anteroom staffed with ushers where, if approved, they were waved through a bronze gate into another great hall with frescoed walls and ceiling. 

            There, on a leather-cushioned throne behind a mammoth black walnut desk, sat Prince Erie, surrounded by mirrors and silk hangings, with sixteen buzzers close at hand to summon any employee in the sixteen departments of the Erie offices.  While male secretaries scribbled letters that he dictated three at a time, clerks and messengers scurried to do his bidding, their laughter at his constant jokes bubbling upward under a cerulean ceiling splashed with ERIE in gold.  Amid this splendor and bustle, visitors were received, schemes conceived, interviews granted, acts of random charity performed.

            Such magnificence masked the frantic vibrations and rumble of a steam-operated printing press buried deep in the bowels of the basement, whereby, through what director Fisk termed “freedom of the press,” blank sheets of paper were converted into certificates of Erie stock.  Thrown in abundance on the market, this watered stock had brought instant profits to Messrs. Fisk and Gould, while depressing the stock’s price to the nethermost depths.  “When Erie declares a dividend,” went a Wall Street saying, “icicles will form in hell.”  Though headquartered in a marble palace, the railroad was pinched for funds.

File:Cornelius Vanderbilt three-quarter view.jpg
He didn't look quite so stern and imposing,
when Fisk barged into his bedroom.
            Jim Fisk decided that Erie’s finances required his personal attention.  Lugging a carpetbag and with a lawyer in tow, he barged into Commodore Vanderbilt’s red-brick residence on Washington Square to confront the richest man in the nation.  Brushing past a servant, he and the lawyer bounded up the stairs and burst into the Commodore’s bedroom. The titan was sitting on the edge of his bed in a dressing gown, one slipper on, one off.

            “Commodore,” said Fisk, “I’m here on behalf of the shareholders of the Erie Railway, to collect the money you swindled us out of in that settlement last July.  Now here” (he opened the carpetbag) “are fifty thousand shares that you made us take off your hands at 70, which comes to three and a half million.  And we want another million back that was paid you to cover your losses.  So please make out a check for four and a half million dollars, with interest from July 11.”

            Astonished, Old Eighty Millions reddened with rage, all the more so in that the stock was now selling for 40.  “I hain’t sold no stock to Erie,” he lied, “nor received no million bonus!  I hain’t payin’ you one cent!”

            Hot words followed, with Fisk’s demands splintering against the iron of the old man’s will.

            “Well then,” said Fisk, scooping the stock certificates back into the carpetbag,  “We’ll sue.”  With his lawyer he headed for the door.

            Thundered Vanderbilt, “Sue and be damned!”

            In the lawsuit that followed, Jim Fisk testified before the august wisdom of Justice George G. Barnard about his first meeting with the Commodore during the recent Erie war.  Questioned by his attorney, he assumed a whimsical expression that had the courtroom smiling from the start.

            “Sometime after our little vacation in New Jersey” (laughter), “I had an interview with the Commodore.  It was pretty warm – not the interview but the weather.”  (Laughter.)  “I remember, because the Commodore was a bit profane about it.”  (Great laughter.)  “It shocked me to hear him talk that way.”  (Continued laughter.)

            “Did you call on Mr. Vanderbilt?”

            “I think I did.”

            “Do you know that you did?”

            “Most undoubtedly.”  (Laughter.)   “The recollection is vivid and the memory green.”  (Laughter.)

            “What happened?”

            “The Commodore received me with the most distinguished courtesy and overwhelmed me with a perfect ambulance of good wishes for my health.”  (Laughter.)  “Then we came plump up to the matter at hand, and we had it out.  He said he couldn’t make sense of us – our outfit had no head nor tail, and old Drew was no better than a batter pudding.”  (Great laughter.)  “It distressed me to hear him say that, but upon reflection I said that I agreed.”  (Continued laughter.)  “While we were talking, I was looking at his shoes.  They had four buckles.  I thought to myself, if men like this have shoes like them, I must get me a pair.”  (Hilarious laughter.)

            During his whole testimony laughter rippled through the courtroom, cresting at times in great waves, until the judge himself was wiping tears from his eyes.

            Months later, when Vanderbilt testified, he provoked no ripples of mirth.  He denied heroically, lied with grandeur, or announced defiantly, “Them’s are things as I keeps to myself.”  Called in turn as a witness, Uncle Daniel, sweet-tempered throughout and brimming with injured innocence, evinced pits of ignorance and bottomless chasms of oblivion.  The case promised to drag on for years.

William Magear "Boss" Tweed (1870).jpg
Yes, his name rhymes "greed," but
let's not push it.
            Jim Fisk decided that Erie’s lack of political connections required his personal attention.  He went to see Boss Tweed in the Boss’s Duane Street office.

            “What can I do for you, Mr. Fisk?” asked the massive Tweed.

            “Boss, I’d like to talk to you about a railroad.”

            The Boss grinned broadly.  “Always glad to talk about a railroad.”

            What exactly the two men said in the Boss’s inner office no one ever knew, but when they emerged a half hour later, they were basking in a warmth of newfound friendship that soon extended to dinners at Delmonico’s.  Fisk savored the aroma of power that wafted off the Boss, while the Boss appreciated Fisk’s bonhomie, his zest for keen living and astute financiering unvexed by petty qualms.  When their camaraderie expanded to include intimate suppers at Josie Mansfield’s brownstone, Tweed found Fisk’s ladylove to be a charming and most attentive hostess, while Josie, entertaining the city’s grand mogul and his cronies, was thrilled to the cockles of her heart.  At the next annual election, William Marcy Tweed and City Chamberlain Peter “Brains” Sweeny joined the board of the Erie Railway.

            When Judge George G. Barnard, once the wrathful nemesis of Erie, learned of Boss Tweed’s growing partiality for Jim Fisk and Jay Gould, his hard feelings toward the duo softened like a warmed lump of wax.  Meeting them socially through Tweed, he found them both to be perfectly delightful fellows, and discovered that he shared specifically with Fisk (Gould being a hearth-clinging family man) the delights of good liquor, fine cigars, and the teasingly shapely legs of a cancan.  Thereafter his glistening black locks, ruffled shirtfront, and diamond sleeve buttons were seen increasingly at Josie’s, where he dropped in for poker and champagne.  Fisk and Barnard relished in each other a heroic risk taker immune to the buzz of fools. 

            This new friendship showered benefits on all.  When Erie stockholders, outraged by the company’s dubious financing and perennial lack of a dividend, leagued together to enjoin Fisk and Gould and oust them from control, the duo obtained from their favorite magistrate (now a recipient of Erie stock) an injunction enjoining the enjoiners that left the two directors with their railroad snug as rats in cheese.  Thereafter Fisk sent Barnard two stuffed owls symbolic of his double wisdom, and the judge’s name was blazoned on an Erie locomotive in gold.

            Jim Fisk decided that the state of theater in Gotham required his personal attention.  No sooner installed in the Opera House, he leased two other theaters as well, hired directors and performers, and overnight became the biggest theatrical producer in the city.  Having a go at Shakespeare one month and at farce or opera the next, he piled failure upon failure until he found a winning formula at last: The Twelve Temptations, a splashy musical with a real waterfall, Spanish dancers, an Egyptian ballet, and  one hundred tantalizing females kicking high in a cancan that at once became the talk of the town.  He advertised like crazy; multitudes flocked.  

Received Nightly with Wild Enthusiasm
-- The Mystery Still Unsolved
-- The Most Novel of Novelties
The Wonder of Wonders
Contains Nothing Objectionable

            Flaunting his shirtfront diamond, producer Fisk posted himself in the lobby before curtain time to fling a jovial greeting at Boss Tweed, Judge Barnard, dapper Mayor Oakey Hall, and lesser luminaries and friends.  During intermissions he hopped from box to box or mixed with tipplers at the bar, giving of his abundant good cheer to all.  At the Opera House Miss Mansfield had a box of her own just above his, though as a sop to propriety he forbore to visit it, being well aware that select members of the audience were craning their necks to glimpse the lady in question and whoever cared to be seen in her company.  At the final curtain he took a bow with the cast. 

            So taken was impresario Fisk with Offenbach, that he sent the respected Austrian-born director Max Maretzek to Paris to lure the master of light opera to New York.  Maretzek returned not with Offenbach, who declined, but with a bevy of renowned female performers to spice up the Opera House offerings.  From then on manager Fisk was often seen driving in the Park with such stunning beauties as Mlle Irma and Céline Montaland, if not a whole troop of dancers.  Rumors soon circulated of naughty doings in the wings of the Opera House, then tales of nightly orgies in his frescoed office, with Fisk cavorting among half-naked dancers amid a catered spread of caviar and champagne.  How Prince Erie could find time for such escapades and still manage or mismanage a railroad, and keep Miss Mansfield reasonably content, no one quite explained.

            A scourge of old-fogey ideas, impresario Fisk barged into rehearsals to critique the scenery, calm a prima donna’s tantrum, joke with stagehands, wink at a soubrette, and offer the director some pointers based on his own vast theatrical experience (one season as a circus roustabout handling hyenas and kangaroos in his teens).  Directors resented these intrusions; stagehands and performers relished them.  Once, hearing that Max Maretzek, against his expressed wishes, had agreed to conduct a concert at a rival theater, Fisk burst into a rehearsal in a rage, assailing the director with a barrage of insults.  Maretzek was known for his violent personality, dictatorial and intransigent.  Incensed, he strode down from the podium and aimed a punch at Fisk’s nose.  Fisk parried, and the two grappled and fell to the floor in a tussle, Fisk’s bulky torso ending up on top, while divas and dancers screamed.  Stagehands broke it up; the two combatants retired in high dither, Fisk with a torn shirtfront, and Maretzek with a darkened eye.  The director, threatening a lawsuit, quit.

            Soon after this a shareholder brought suit against Prince Erie, demanding his ouster for bringing females of bad repute into the corporation’s offices, alleging “that the frequenting of the building by impressionable young clerks and by opera and theater women at the same time, with the tread of ballet girls and echoes of operas and songs, and all sorts of string and wind instruments, resounding in said building, is demoralizing to said young clerks, destructive of the company’s interests, and without parallel in railroad history.”  Informed of the suit, Fisk grinned.

Admiral Fisk
            Jim Fisk decided that navigation on Long Island Sound required his personal attention.  Having acquired the Narragansett Steamboat Company, running boats to Fall River, Massachusetts, he refurbished his boats with new carpets, plush upholstery, bronze statues, brass spittoons, splashes of gilt, and a band to serenade the passengers en route.  Also a canary in every cabin, since he loved canaries and shunned silence and solitude.  His boats, he deemed, were now more than a match for Dan Drew’s floating palaces on the Hudson, which boasted neither bands nor canaries.

            A half hour before departure Fisk would appear on the dock in a blue naval uniform specially designed by his tailor with gold buttons and braid, and three gold stars on the sleeves – an outfit identical with the dress uniform of a United States admiral, except for lavender kid gloves and a shirtfront sparkler.  Thus attired, he stood by the gangplank uttering nonsensical commands to the crew that impressed boarding passengers but by agreement were otherwise ignored, his nautical knowledge being nil.  Soon afterward he hurried ashore to watch the boat depart, flags fluttering and band blaring, and receive the captain’s salute.

File:Appletons' Greeley Horace.jpg
Known to his readers as Uncle Horace.
            One afternoon an older man in spectacles and with a fringe of whiskers, wearing floppy trousers and a wide-brimmed, low-crowned hat, shuffled up the gangplank.  In this rumpled seeming rustic Fisk recognized Horace Greeley, the most influential editor in the nation, whose New York Tribune had spiked the Erie management on many an editorial prong.

            “Welcome, Mr. Greeley,” he said warmly, reaching to take the editor’s carpetbag.  “Come right on board.  We’ll be off directly.”

            Greeley’s pink moon face registered surprise; he grabbed his carpetbag back.

            “My name is Fisk,” the admiral announced with a grin.  “You’ve probably heard of me.”

            Greeley looked puzzled, then nodded.  “Oh yes,” came the high-pitched, squeaky voice.  “You were an ensign in the North Atlantic blockading squadron in 1864.  I wrote about you once.”

            Fisk laughed merrily.  “No, Mr. Greeley, I’m James Fisk, Jr., of the Erie Railway.  I’m indebted to you for several editorial compliments.”

            Owl-faced, Greeley eyed him through his spectacles, then announced in resonant tones, “Long ago I invested five thousand dollars in the construction of that line and to date have an eighty-percent loss.  That railroad is grossly mismanaged.  It should pay a handsome dividend.  It runs through a rich agricultural region and – ”

            Bystanders had cocked an ear, but the rest of Greeley’s tirade was lost, for at a signal from Fisk the nearby band saluted Greeley with strident blasts of “Hail to the Chief.”

            Not all criticism could be muffled with a blast from a band.  Erie’s workers were underpaid or sometimes not paid at all.  At a machine shop in Jersey a reporter interviewed one of them, who exclaimed bitterly:  “This road’s close to bust!  How could it not be, when so much money goes for wine, women, and opera houses full of actresses and dancing girls?  They tell me Fisk went driving in the Park the other day with a woman whose hair was full of diamonds.  Diamonds, by God!  We work twelve hours a day for a lousy dollar and sixty-two cents.  No wonder there’s talk of a strike.”

            Word of this reached the Erie offices.  As both well knew, Jay Gould couldn’t talk to a gang of workers if his life depended on it, so Prince Erie decided to give the matter his personal attention.  Visiting the machine shop where discontent was said to be keen, he went wearing a jaunty velvet cap and a sparkler, greeted the men heartily, ignored their sullen silence, mounted a crate to address them.  He was plain Jim Fisk, he told them, an angel or a devil, since the papers had called him both.  But he and Mr. Gould were spending millions on Erie's cars, engines, roadbed, and rails, so as to improve its service.  As for the workers, their homes might be humble, but when their daily toil was over and they straddled the legs of their supper table, they could enjoy the evening with their family, whereas he'd spent many a night in his office studying how to whistle up a hundred million dollars by noon the next day.  And he was doing it for them, because their interests were the same.  And if any of them should ever come to New York, and he could help them, they should come see him in his office.  With their help, he and Mr. Gould were going to make Erie the greatest corporation on the continent.  "So good-bye and God bless you!"

            Growing shouts of approval had seasoned his address; now, loud cheers accompanied his departure.  The men returned to their jobs convinced that plain Jim Fisk was the best friend a workingman could have.

            The next day he was driving six-in-hand in the Park in a turnout lined with gold cloth, three white horses paired with three black, entertaining Mlle Irma and Céline Montaland, their bright scarves plucked by the breeze; every eye in the Park was on him.

File:The drive in the Central Park, New York, September, 1860 (Boston Public Library).jpg
The Drive in the Central Park.  Here Prince Erie loved to cavort, driving six-in-hand
with a bevy of dancers.

     Follow-up to last week's post on fascism:  From the New York Times of last Thursday, May 16:


     "Under pressure from Wall Street lobbyists, federal regulators have agreed to soften a rule intended to rein in the banking industry's domination of a risky market.
     "The changes to the rule ... could effectively empower a few banks to continue controlling the derivatives market, a main culprit in the financial crisis."

     Neither the banks nor the regulators have learned anything.  No further comment is necessary.

     A solution for WBAI?  As always, but now more desperately than ever, WBAI needs money.  So imagine my surprise when, tuning in the other day during the current fund-raising marathon, I heard them offering as a premium two CDs entitled "Six Steps to Wealth."  At first I thought it was health that they were offering, but closer listening confirmed that it was wealth.  WBAI, that bastion of anticapitalism, was offering "Six Steps to Wealth" for a mere $120!  The program host praised to the firmament the author of said CDs, one Dr. John Demartini, who has toiled nobly for 38 years, so he himself declares, in the cause of human betterment.  Samples of the material were played, in which Dr. Demartini explained that the only obstacle between yourself and the wealth you aspire to is ... yourself! To redeem us from this predicament, he offers his six-step program.  But he also has the key to countless other problems, and to those willing to pledge a mere $360 a "superpac" of his wisdom will be sent, wisdom that will change your life.  That I am leery of martinis in any form has already been made clear in post #47, Discovering New York (February 2013), so I of course declined to accept these generous offers.  But I had an epiphany:  Dr. Demartini offers a six-step program to wealth, and WBAI desperately needs exactly that.  The obvious solution: all those running the station should themselves invest $120 (or $360!) to overcome whatever it is that keeps WBAI from realizing its financial potential.  What could be more clear?  I truly hope that the station will embrace my suggestion.  No more fund-raising marathons -- O joy!  O bliss!  O ecstasy!

     Coming attractions:  Next week, Abnormal and Paranormal Adventures (saving the world through a cosmic jack-off, floating in space and monoxide, coming back from immensities of light).  Also: more Jim Fisk (the great gold corner of 1869), Who is a hero? (Obama?  the Dalai Lama?  Bradley Manning?), Farewells (both tearful and nasty), the Magnificence and Insolence of Trees (I love those guys).  And in the works:  Go Ahead: The Mania of Progress (America's favorite obsession, what it has done both for and to us).  The favorite post to date: Man/Boy Love (#43, January 2013), though last week's post on fascism got a record 118 one-day views on Sunday, and another 85 on Tuesday.

(c)  2013  Clifford Browder