Sunday, August 19, 2018

369. Power: Reapers and Railroads, an Off-Key Diva, the Rio Puerco, and Scandals Galore

A Reader Views review of Fascinating New Yorkers by Paige Lovitt concludes:  "Readers will enjoy Clifford Browder’s lively, descriptive writing. Fans of non-fiction and more recent history will really appreciate the research that he put into these pages. His writing will definitely captivate your interest as it did mine. 'Fascinating New Yorkers' is a pleasure to read and I look forward to reading more works by this author."

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The print version of Fascinating New Yorkers 
is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Excellent reviews so far; see below. The e-book version is now available from Amazon with Kindle for $4.99. 

For my other books, see BROWDERBOOKS following the post below.

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Short biographical sketches of colorful people who lived or died in New York.  A cardinal who led a double life, a serial killer, a baroness with a tomato-can bra, and a film star whose funeral caused an all-day riot.  Plus Andy Warhol, Boss Tweed, J. P. Morgan and his purple nose, Al Sharpton, Ayn Rand, and Polly Adler, Queen of Tarts.


"Fascinating New Yorkers by Clifford Browder was like sitting down with a dear friend and catching up on the latest gossip and stories. Written with a flair to keep the reader turning the pages, I couldn't stop reading it and thinking about the subjects of each New Yorker. I love NYC and this book just added to the list of reasons why, a must read for those who love NYC and the people who have lived there."  Five-star NetGalley review by Patty Ramirez, librarian.

"Unputdownable."  Five-star review by Dipali Sen, retired librarian.

"I felt like I was gossiping with a friend when reading this, as the author wrote about New Yorkers who are unique in one way or another. I am hoping for another book featuring more New Yorkers, as I couldn't put this down and read it in one sitting!" Five-star NetGalley review by Cristie Underwood. 


         It has been said that in any population 5% want power, 5% want justice, and the other 90% simply want to get on with their lives.  So this post deals with the first group, those who embrace the Way of Power.

         Power means getting others to do your bidding, and having the ability to make things happen.  When I think of those with power, I think immediately of that trio of dictators who flourished in the 1930s and for a while thereafter: Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.  And a rum bunch they were, causing the death of millions and, especially in the case of the first two, bringing disaster and ruin upon their countries and themselves.  But why not add Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Charlemagne, Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, Napoleon, Bismarck, the U.S. robber barons, J.P. Morgan, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Lenin, Putin, most of our presidents, and the Donald?  Some of them brought ill, some of them did good, and most of them managed a bit of both. 

         But one can well ask, “Aren’t there men and women of power who for the most part did good?”  I would nominate the two Roosevelts, Abraham Lincoln, and Mayor La Guardia of New York.  I’m no doubt omitting names from other cultures that I’m not familiar with.  And haven’t there been women with power?  Of course.  Cleopatra (though we know precious little about her), Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, Margaret Thatcher, and maybe Queen Victoria, though she really lacked true political power. 

         But there is more to the Way of Power than rosters of famous people.  Since I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, let’s look at the most famous moneyed clan of Second City and how they affected my family and myself.  I mean, of course, the McCormicks.  Virginia-born Cyrus Hall McCormick was the inventor in 1831 of the McCormick reaper, a horse-drawn contraption that let one man do the work of many.  As farmers learned that the darned thing really worked, orders poured in, including many from the Midwest, where the farms were bigger and the ground more level than in the East.  In 1847 McCormick moved to Chicago and, with help from his brothers, established a factory there that was soon turning out thousands of reapers.  An army of salesmen went out into the field, farmers bought, money poured in, and since Cyrus finally got around to marrying and having children, Chicago had its first great moneyed clan of the Gilded Age.  When Cyrus died in 1884, his sons and grandson took over, and the reaper, horse-drawn at first and then motorized, continued to reap prodigious profits, including even in Europe.  In 1902 the eldest son, Cyrus Jr., teamed up with J.P. Morgan to create the International Harvester Company, and it was under this name that I first heard of it.

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The McCormick reaper, circa 1910.  

         And heard of it aplenty, for long before I arrived on the scene in 1928, my father, an Indiana-born lawyer who specialized in railroad law, had gone to work for the company in Chicago and remained in its employ till his retirement.  During the Great Recession of the 1930s, my father got a steady salary from Harvester, so McCormick money saw us through.  When my father went to Washington to plead a case before the Supreme Court, as he did more than once, he would bring my brother and me little bars of soap with the name of some impressive hotel.  The cases he pleaded involved the baffling intricacies of railroad law and were not something the general public would hear about.  Sometimes, when preparing a case, he would spread out on a card table in the living room the huge map of some urban location with railroad tracks and intersections indicated.  We never asked him what was involved, since he lacked the ability to explain legal complexities in terms a layman could grasp, but it surely involved Harvester and/or the Illinois Northern Railroad.  Harvester owned that railroad and my father was secretary of it.  Secretary of a railroad – sounds great, doesn’t it?  Real power!  Alas, no.  The Illinois Northern was a dinky little line with all of 2.38 miles of track within the city limits of Chicago.  Its sole purpose was to link up the different railroads that converged on the city, so that cars could be shifted from one line to another.  And what does this have to do with International Harvester?  Two of its plants were close by and needed connections to ship their products by rail.

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An International Harvester dealer, 1930s.  Trucks as well as tractors.

         As a child I and my brother often visited my father’s office on the 18th floor of the spanking new Harvester building at 180 North Michigan Avenue, just north of the Loop.  Everything about that soaring edifice said money and power.  From the windows of my father’s office there was a magnificent view out past Michigan Avenue, showing the submerged tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad, whose trains crawled there like tiny toys, unseen from the avenue.  Beyond those tracks lay the broad stretches of Grant Park and, beyond that, Lake Michigan.  Like the building itself, that view said money and power.  My father once took his sons to the treasurer’s office, where the treasurer showed us neat stacks of crisp, new ten-thousand-dollar and even one-hundred-thousand-dollar bills; our eyes popped.  Like the building itself, the lakeside view and those bills said money and power, and it all had to do with the McCormicks. 

Here speaks power.   Who else would need such a denomination?

         A history buff, I studied them up and from my parents gleaned scraps of gossip.  Cyrus Sr. had two sons of interest, Cyrus Jr., his successor, and Harold Fowler, whom my father described, without disparagement, as “sensitive.”  In 1895 Harold married Edith Rockefeller, the youngest daughter of John D. Rockefeller.  “The marriage of the century,” my mother called it, echoing the press of that time, for it united in holy matrimony a generous portion of the International Harvester millions and the Standard Oil millions.  The richest couple in Chicago, they moved into a 40-room mansion on Lake Shore Drive that she fixed up like a French-style palace.  But she and her father had had a stormy relationship, since her extravagance outraged his frugality, which hardly boded well for her marriage.
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Harold and Edith, 1895.  Her hat alone spells trouble.

Indeed, Edith proved to be a troubled wife and mother, and a spendthrift as well, creating a lavish 300-acre country retreat for herself in Lake Forest, Illinois, that cost over $5 million and was rarely used, though it was kept fully staffed and ready, in case she should decide on a whim to show up there.  Meanwhile she was buying jewels like crazy, including an emerald necklace with stones that had once graced the throat of Catherine the Great.  But when two of her children died, and she had a long bout of tuberculosis, she sank into a depression and in 1913 went to Zurich to be treated by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, a treatment then new enough to be the province of the wealthy elite.  She stayed in Zurich for eight years, first as a patient and then as a patron of Jung's, and finally as a lay analyst herself.  In 1918 James Joyce, a struggling young writer also living in Zurich, received a gift of 12,000 francs from an anonymous donor who turned out to be Edith Rockefeller McCormick.  But when she urged him to be analyzed by Jung and he refused, she stopped her payments.

          Edith stayed abroad for eight long years.  Eight years for her three surviving children to have no mother.  And eight years for her forsaken spouse, a great fan and patron of the opera, to transfer his interest to an aspiring singer by the name of Ganna Walska.  Edith finally returned to America in 1921, and before the end of the year she and Harold had divorced.  After that they met chiefly in court in lawsuits over the divorce agreement. Harold was certainly glad to be clear of her, all the more so since in 1923 she informed the press she had come to realize that she was the reincarnation of the wife of King Tutankhamen, whose tomb had just been discovered. 

          Edith's life post-Harold can be summarized in one word: grandeur.  She lived in opulence, gave formal dinners with the menu in French and the servants in knee breeches, and entertained guests in her opera box wearing jewels worth millions. Every morning she walked Lake Shore Drive followed at ten paces by one of the six private detectives on her staff.  But she was also a great patron of the arts and gave generously to worthy causes.  She also acquired a paid boyfriend whom she put up in the Drake Hotel.  Developing a taste for film, she and the boyfriend would go each afternoon in one of her plum-colored Rolls-Royces, escorted by detectives, to the cinema, where they saw as many as three films a day.  When she died in 1932, her fortune was greatly diminished.  Sold by her heirs, some of her jewels ended up adorning heiress Barbara Hutton's tiara, and others, Elizabeth Taylor's necklace.

          A year after his divorce from Edith, Harold, age 50 and fortified by implanted animal glands to improve potency, married the Polish-born opera singer Ganna Walska in a quiet civil ceremony in Paris.  It was his second marriage and her fourth.  Many sources say that he then began promoting her career as an aspiring singer, but my father told me that he wasn’t sure that she even spent one night with him before taking off with a chunk of his money.  This was probably gossip prompted by later developments.

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Harold and Ganna, 1922.  Spliced, I gather.  (The photograph, I mean.)

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La Walska, date unknown, but while she was Mrs. Harold McCormick. 

         As for Madame Walska’s career, there was just one problem: she was a lousy singer.  Try as she did, she simply couldn’t bring it off.  Soon after the wedding she bought the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris – with her own money, she insisted, and not his – but vowed not to appear there until she gained recognition as an artist.  Recognition never came.  Appearing in the opera Fedora in Havana, she was so persistently off key that the audience pelted her with rotten vegetables.  (They must have come well prepared.)  But at least she had flair.  She used to drive about, they say, in a limousine the length of a city block.  By the time she and Harold divorced in 1931, her career was just about over.  Harold's promotion of that career inspired Orson Wells in his film Citizen Kane, whose Hearst-like protagonist similarly promotes the career of a young woman not equipped for opera (whereas I had thought the inspiration came from Hearst's promoting the film career of his mistress, Marion Davies).  Flamboyant as ever, la Walska went on to marry two more husbands, and in 1941 purchased an estate near Santa Barbara, California, that she named Lotusland and turned into a world-famous garden that is open to the public today.  Meanwhile Harold became chairman of the board of the Harvester company in 1935, married his third wife, Adah Wilson, a trained nurse, in 1938, and died, unflamboyantly, in 1941.

         With the third generation of McCormicks I had a brief encounter.  One day when I visited my father in his office and we were waiting for the elevator while going out to lunch, a well-dressed man greeted my father in the hall, “Well Clifford, with this mild weather, it’s time to get out those golf clubs!”  My father then introduced me to Fowler McCormick, Harold’s son.  “Glad to meet you, sir,” I said, and shook his hand.  I was impressed, for he had greeted my father by his first name and knew that he played golf, which implied a more than casual acquaintance.  In the elevator Fowler McCormick and my father exchanged a few more pleasantries and then we went our separate ways, Fowler McCormick to who knows what, and my father and I to a restaurant on South Michigan Avenue in the Railroad Exchange Building, the very name of which said power.  (The Santa Fe and other railroads had offices there.)  My father watched, delighted, as his younger son, usually a slow and picky eater, gobbled with gusto some juicy roast beef sliced very thin. 

         For me, it wasn’t the lunch that made the day memorable, but the brief encounter with Fowler McCormick.  Well-groomed and well-mannered, with a resonant voice and an affable manner, he struck me as different, special, unique.  Born to money and power, he had had all the advantages -- including, at his mother's insistence, a kindergarten where only French was spoken -- but they had served him well.  He was, in the best sense of the word, a gentleman, and quite open to contact with his less privileged fellow citizens.  And it must be said for the McCormick men, they weren't playboys; they helped manage International Harvester.  But my family and hundreds like us were only on the fringe of power.  We were not of that world, the world of Fowler McCormick, for we were very middle class and quite content to be so.

         But there was more, much more, to the Fowler McCormick story than that.  My father told me that all Harold McCormick’s children, Fowler and his two younger sisters, married spouses much older than themselves.  They did this, he conjectured, in hopes of finding the attention and support that their mother, Edith Rockefeller, had been unable to give them.  In Fowler’s case this meant involvement, however distantly, in a scandalous divorce case.

         In 1921 James A. Stillman, president of the National City Bank of New York, filed for divorce, accusing his wife, Anne Urquhart Potter, of infidelity, alleging that her youngest child, Guy, was the son of a half-blood Indian guide with whom she had allegedly kept company in the Canadian wilderness.  His wife – known to her friends as “Fifi” -- vigorously denied the charge and accused him of fathering an illegitimate child with a chorus girl, a charge that he later confessed to.  A messy business, much reported in the press, even with a front-page headline in the sedate New York Times. Forthcoming were accounts of Fifi Stillman disappearing into the northern wilds with Fred Beauvais, with no telling where or how they spent the chilly nights.  And the woodsman reportedly sent her letters addressed to "My Dearest Honey" and threatening to kill anyone "down there" who tried to make love to her.  Since James Stillman had inherited $45 million from his father, a hefty sum was involved, which the youngest son might or might not inherit a portion of.  But in light of the scandal, James Stillman had to resign as president of his bank.

         As my father told it, Guy Stillman was dark complexioned, hence the husband’s accusation.  He also told me that suddenly, to the surprise of everyone, Fowler McCormick showed up to give moral support to the wife.  Though still a senior at Princeton, Fowler announced that he would marry Fifi, the mother of his college roommate, as soon as she divorced her husband.  (Fred Beauvais's threats, if he knew of them, did not deter him.)  Harold and Edith, his divorced parents, joined together to oppose the marriage, but Fifi, already the mother of four children, was an attractive and adventurous redhead, and an accomplished flirt whom young men found irresistible.  When the court refused Stillman his divorce, Fifi in turn filed for divorce, but accounts differ as to what then happened.  The husband in time acknowledged that he was Guy’s father, and in 1926 the couple, seemingly reconciled, are said to have sailed to Europe to receive counseling from Carl Jung.  (Helping the reconciliation may have been the husband's gift to Fifi of a $400,000 necklace.)  Another version, which I find more reliable, says that Harold and Edith induced Jung, for a generous sum, to come to America, where Fowler met him at the dock.  (A family friend footed the bill, for Edith's finances were complicated, and Harold's were tied up with la Walska.)  The eminent psychoanalyst then advised Fowler against the marriage, but to no avail.  Leaving Fred Beauvais to the northern wilds, Fifi evidently began a liaison with Fowler that lasted until her divorce in 1931.  Then, on the very day of her divorce, she married Fowler; she was 52, he was 33.  Photographs show her even in her later years to be a well dressed, attractive woman.  And when young Guy Stillman married in 1938, who should meet again in Chicago for the wedding?  Fowler, now a V.P. with Harvester; a hefty but still stylish Fifi, who was now living quietly and accompanying her husband on business trips abroad; and her former husband, James Stillman, reinstated as president of his bank.  All was smiley smiles, and they drank a toast to the bride and groom, who then took off for Niagara Falls.
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Fifi and Fowler, now a happy couple.

         I almost worked for International Harvester, for I was interviewed for a possible summer job while in high school.  Instructed by my father, I went in a jacket and tie, well scrubbed.  The interviewer, a stern-faced older woman, called me “Mr. Browder,” which rather put me off, and advised me that the work, if an opening occurred, would be routine.  That was fine by me, since I would be working for my father’s company, the fabled International Harvester.  Alas, when an opening occurred, I was felled by some adolescent ailment and couldn’t take the job. 

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         When I went off to college, my school was Pomona, in Claremont, a small town in southern California.  By luck the Santa Fe line ran right through the town.  Harvester must have given Santa Fe a lot of business, for my father, as a Harvester employee and a railroad man, got me a pass on the railroad.  So for the next four years I traveled to and from college on the California Limited, the slowest train on the line, which took three nights and two days to get to California – one whole night and day longer than any other Santa Fe train.  Limited indeed, and the round trip swallowed up half my Christmas vacation, but when you’ve got a free pass, you don’t complain.  So eleven times I spent one whole day crossing the flats of Kansas, the only state that still had prohibition, where in every town a grain elevator loomed up like a medieval castle.  And eleven times I spent another whole day in the arid Southwest, where the only grassy lawn in town graced the Santa Fe station, and I could feast my eyes on the sluggish, muddy windings of the Rio Puerco (Pig River).  (No twelfth time?  No, for one summer I avoided the trip by flying to Alaska to work in a kitchen on a military base.  But that’s another story.)

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The Rio Puerco today.  Long ago I repeatedly experienced it, thanks to Harvester connections.

         That was not my last connection to Harvester.  When, just out of college, I got a Fulbright scholarship to France, it was a Harvester employee who helped me get my passport.  Time was short, but he had contacts where it mattered, for he was always getting passports for Harvester people going abroad.  He got my passport, as told me with obvious satisfaction, in record time.

         If I have lingered on the vicissitudes of the McCormicks and seemingly strayed from the subject of power, it’s to show that the Way of Power involves much more than giving orders and getting people to obey.  It involves big new buildings with fabulous views; stacks of crisp new hundred-thousand-dollar bills; railroads both big and small; cases before the Supreme Court; affable, well-dressed heirs; ballyhooed weddings and scandals and divorces; and connections, connections, connections.

         Obviously, this post has focused on that form of power so typical of capitalism: the corporation.  “Corporations have no soul” proclaimed the young rebels of the 1960s, and Big Tobacco would seem to bear them out.  But in its heyday International Harvester developed useful products, gave steady income to investors, and provided jobs for workers.  Whatever their faults – and they are legion -- corporations know how to manage complex operations that often, though not always, benefit society.  Before doing away with them, be sure that their elimination won’t create more problems than it solves.

         When my father died, I inherited some International Harvester stock.  It was a solid, dividend-paying blue-chip and well worth holding.  But having been raised on Harvester money, I didn’t think I could be objective about it, so I sold it.  When Brooks McCormick, a great grand nephew of the founder, retired from Harvester in 1980, he was the last McCormick involved in managing the company.  By then Harvester had fallen on hard times.  It was too big, too unwieldy.  It failed to change with the times, and  mounting costs brought years of losses.  Finally it downsized, sold off its agricultural products division, and in 1986 became Navistar International, a manufacturer of trucks and buses.  Its glory days were over.  So it goes with the Way of Power; power doesn’t last forever.

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Coming soon:  Dying in the City.  A personal take on a familiar but often troubling subject. 


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

1.  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017 and 2018.


"If you want wonderful inside tales about New York, this is the book for you.  Cliff Browder has a way with his writing that makes the city I lived in for 40 plus years come alive in a new and delightful way. A refreshing view on NYC that will not disappoint."  Five-star Amazon customer review by Bill L.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

2.  Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


"A real yarn of a story about a lovable pickpocket who gets into trouble and has a great adventure.  A must read."  Five-star Amazon customer review by nicole w brown.

"This was a fun book.  The main character seemed like a cross between Huck Finn and a Charles Dickens character.  I would recommend this."  Four-star LibraryThing review by stephvin.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

3.  Dark Knowledge (Anaphora Literary Press, 2018), the third novel in the Metropolis series.  Adult and young adult.  A fast-moving historical novel about New York City and the slave trade, with the sights and sounds and smells of the waterfront. 

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The back cover summary:

New York City, late 1860s.  When young Chris Harmony learns that members of his family may have been involved in the illegal pre-Civil War slave trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba, he is appalled.  Determined to learn the truth, he begins an investigation that takes him into a dingy waterfront saloon, musty old maritime records that yield startling secrets, and elegant brownstone parlors that may have been furnished by the trade.  Since those once involved dread exposure, he meets denials and evasions, then threats, and a key witness is murdered.  Chris has vivid fantasies of the suffering slaves on the ships and their savage revolts.  How could seemingly respectable people be involved in so abhorrent a trade, and how did they avoid exposure?  And what price must Chris pay to learn the painful truth and proclaim it?


"A lively and entertaining tale.  The writing styles, plot, pace and character development were excellent."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by BridgitDavis.

"At first the plot ... seemed a bit contrived, but I was soon swept up in the tale."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by snash.

"I am glad that I have read this book as it goes into great detail and the presentation is amazing.  The Author obviously knows his stuff."  Four-star LibraryThing early review by Moiser20.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

4.  The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)


"At times amusing, gritty, heartfelt and a little sexy -- this would make a great summer read."  Four-star Amazon customer review by BobW.

"Really more of a fantasy of a 19th century gay life than any kind of historical representation of the same."  Three-star Goodreads review by Rachel.

"The detail Browder brings to this glimpse into history is only equaled by his writing of credible and interesting characters.  Highly recommended."  Five-star Goodreads review by Nan Hawthorne.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

©   2018   Clifford Browder   

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