Shall we hate another rich man today? Maybe not today. Charlie Schwab doesn’t seem the type to hate. I’ve just met him so I’ll let you know if I change my mind. Here’s what I like:
He’s one of those people my socialist theory professor told me didn’t exist–a self-made man. Can’t we all admit self-made people are pretty great? “Born in 1862, Schwab at age 18 was a stake driver for one of the Carnegie steel mills, and at 21 chief engineer. In 1897, and only 35, he became the president of the Carnegie Steel Company, a part of Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire in which Henry Frick was a partner.” NYTimes
He considered himself lucky and quite ordinary. Sadly for the massive mansion he built called Riverside, he bought what he liked and built how he felt. No grand plans to turn his home into one of the finest art museums in the country (like Henry Clay Frick did) or anything like that.
All of the Richie Riches refused buying land on the “wrong side” of Manhattan, but when the land with river views that used to house the orphan’s asylum came on the market Charles and his wife jumped on it–no matter what others said! They bought a CITY BLOCK and used a less than famous architect to design a home that included “a gym, a bowling alley, a pool, three elevators and interiors in the styles of Henry IV, Louis XIII, Louis XV and Louis XVI.” Okay, that was a bit much, but still kind of fun.
.What drives a person to build such a big house? Celebrities do it all the time and I wonder about them, too. It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it? But then I come from puritan stock and don’t go in for bowling (shoot me first).
He lost it all in the Crash of 1929. This makes things interesting. What to do with the house? Pawn it off to the city as a new mayor’s residence? Nope. The city was having none of it. Seems even they understood the neighborhood wasn’t that impressive.
He stayed married to the same woman for 50 years and died only a year after she did. After her death he left the mansion and moved into a hotel. I’m imagining him sitting at his bedside with a drink in his hand while holding a sweet picture of wifey before going to sleep. I love when men die quickly after their women.
What a strange mix of altruistic and puritanical compulsion. Spencer Trask made his fortune on Wall Street betting on the future–the future of transportation (railroads), news (he saved the New York Times from bankruptcy) and light (he invested heavily in Thomas Edison’s works). Yet the idea of gamblers roaming the streets of Saratoga Springs in August ruffled the feathers on his broad shoulders in the 1880’s and 90’s.
Maybe it was a way to keep the tragic turns in his life from pulling him under. All the money in the world could not bring back four dead children. This money afforded him land with four lakes–each one given a child’s name–Alanson, Christina, Spencer and Katrina–but lakes are mere shadows. Portraits, too. They hang in many of the rooms. Eastman Johnson was a friend. In the library there’s Katrina aged 34 just before two of her children die. Across the way are two enormous paintings of Spencer Jr and Christina (done posthumously by Eastman who would have known the children well). They are the shadows dressed in black against Katrina’s white flowing gowns.
Spencer had a newspaper in Saratoga, but no one wanted to buy it. New York state law prohibited gambling it said. Close down the gambling houses! Close down the track with its magnificent thoroughbreds and seedy wagers! He and Katrina had come to Saratoga for the healing waters and cool air. The townsfolk and the summer folk said enjoy your vast acres and free-thinking, meddlesome friends, but keep your shadow from falling on our fun.
I think Spencer was a sweetheart, but he couldn’t see the forest for the trees sometimes. Aren’t we all like that? He couldn’t prevent the shadow of death from his children. He couldn’t regulate the shadowy doings of the gamblers. He could neither save lives nor reform them. In his wallet upon his death was found a small scrap of paper with these words written on it: “For a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of things which he possesseth.”
Spencer gave a lot. Sometimes we like to give our opinions when no one wants them. At some point it seems that Spencer shut his mouth and just gave despite it all. He built hospitals and railroads, he built mansions to house his adoring wife Katrina in. We may laugh down our noses at the lavish way they lived in their castle, but in the end they gave it all away.
When Spencer died in the horrific train accident there was very little money for the artists’ sanctuary he and Katrina planned, but there was the land and the gardens and some seed money. Katrina moved into the “tiny” grounds keeper’s house to save money for the Yaddo Foundation for artists they would never know.
On a perfect September day in 2014 the public arrives for a rare tour. Some of these people look like gamblers. Some are beautiful ex-dancers who take their shoes off to feel the floors in the performance art workspace. From the house’s Tiffany windows they can see the fountain in the garden glistening in the sun, but it’s the shadows that silence them–the spirit of Katrina in her rose tinted bedroom writing poetry about chivalrous men; the children peering from behind their painted images; John Cheever begging for a swimming pool and getting one; Truman Capote sliding down the grand staircase on an antique sled.
Art and life; death and shadows. Spencer Trask financier and philanthropist.
Some people live large and don’t ask for permission. Charles Heidsieck. There’s your example. Champagne Charlie, as his adoring American public dubbed him, had drama in his veins like some of us have fear and loathing. His father rode before Napoleon into Russia on a white stallion to take orders for celebratory champagne (someone was going to win, right?).
Charlie toured New England and the state of New York and saw at once that these people needed some bubbly. Have you met New Englanders and Upstate New Yorkers at the end of a long winter? He seized the opportunity by hiring an agent to sell his family champagne and when he came back five years later it was to roaring crowds and banquets. He had become the toast of New York high society!
Drinks are fun, but someone has to pay for them and when shots were fired at Fort Sumter Charlie wondered who was going to pay the tab for his bubbly. The US government declared that since the South seceded Northerners didn’t have to pay their cotton debts–or their drink debts. More than half of Piper Heidsieck assets were in unpaid US drink debt.
What to do, what to do? A lot of people would throw up their hands in despair, maybe go into hiding or commit suicide, but not our good man Charlie. In the midst of war, Charlie determined to get his money directly from the merchants. All of this must be done in secrecy so he made for New Orleans in hopes of eventually sneaking north.
One merchant gave him cotton as repayment, but the boats loaded for France failed to get through the blockade and were sunk. By now all routes north were cut off so he tried getting out of the country. The consul in Mobile gave him a pouch to deliver to New Orleans before leaving, but Benjamin Butler’s men caught him, found the pouch that had documents about French textile merchants supplying Confederate uniforms and Charlie was sunk, imprisoned at Fort Jackson as a spy.
The whole thing created a big stir between France and the North and left Charles a broken man–but wait. There’s more. Once back at home he received word that the brother of the New York merchant who had cheated Charlie had a guilty conscience. He wanted to repay Charlie but only had a stack of deeds to land out west–Denver deeds. In a very short time he recouped all of his losses and with the profit rebuilt his drink business and everyone was happy.
Thanks, mbracedefreak for the great lead! If you like cryptic, opinionated blogs here’s one for all of you.
“It’s hard not to admire the skill behind Tweed’s system … The Tweed ring at its height was an engineering marvel, strong and solid, strategically deployed to control key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box. Its frauds had a grandeur of scale and an elegance of structure: money-laundering, profit sharing and organization.” Kenneth Ackerman Tweed biographer
People love a colorful criminal. Why is that?
I’m glad after so many years of progress that our politicians have improved on their skills.
Charles Francis Adams, despite being considered an authority on the management of railroads couldn’t keep the Union Pacific stable as its president. One of the reasons, according to Richard White in Railroaded, was the boys–the young men too young to have fought in the war seemed “weak, unruly, willful and hard to control.”
When the mother of one of his young subordinates (at the railroad) wrote about the hardships of his life, Adams told her, ‘You will, I fear, have to talk in vain to men of my generation . . . [T]he hardships and dangers incurred by your son seem to me quite trifling in comparison with my own recollections of four years active service, summer and winter, in Virginia.” Richard White, Railroaded.
Ouch. So here’s a few questions: Why do most cultures still value the warrior? Why do most boys play soldier? Is it possible to reach true masculinity without a battle?
So you think all Native Americans were noble? Think again. Some liked Gilded Age corruption as much as the next guy. Richard White says he was dashing (in the Custer kind of way). I say smarmy, but that’s me.
Interesting factoids: Elias was a pro-slavery Democrat despite being raised by a New England mother.
He served in the Confederate Army as a lieutenant colonel under his uncle Stand Watie and then opened a tobacco company with him after the war only to have it confiscated for not paying taxes.
He was a bought man for the railroad builders who wanted their trains run through Indian Territory (they even sold bonds to European investors as if they already owned the Indian land). Elias used his Indian status to get ahead and to help powerful men get their way. He was hated by other Cherokee and worried he might be killed by one of them when with the help of railroad big bugs he erected a huge fence surrounding a portion of Indian territory for the railroads.
He supported disbanding tribes, breaking up Indian Territory and complete and total assimilation–he’s hated even today for his work making that happen in what is now Oklahoma. The bill of goods sent east was that the tribes lived like savages (or like Sioux), but they were indeed quite civilized farmers, shop keepers, teachers and editors. They even had a Female Seminary.
The Dawes Act happened and railroads did as they pleased with even reformers in the back pockets of the powerful and dear Elias was right there with them.