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.
Corot–Springtime of Life Minneapolis Institute of Art
Isn’t it wonderful to find a good capitalist man of integrity? Personally, I’m THRILLED with James J. Hill railroad magnate of the 1880’s. When all of the other creeps were begging government subsidies,grabbing land grants (I didn’t realize how much I disliked Lincoln’s support of government internal improvement schemes!), and building (or not building) unprofitable, expensive trains to no where while making a fortune and bilking the public (think Jay Gould, Leland Stanford,Collis Huntington) “JJ” as I like to call him was doing it the right and true capitalist way and what a difference that made!
At 14 his father died and he dropped out of school to support his mother working for $4 a month at farming, fur trading and railroad industries. After saving money somehow, he began investing in his own enterprises, eventually buying a failed government subsidized railroad, turning it around to become the best run and safest railroad anywhere. he eventually extended the line to build his own transcontinental railroad cheaper, better and with no help from the public! Are you impressed yet?
His motto to the public was “We have got to prosper with you or we’ve got to be poor with you.”
He believed in prospering the people who voluntarily moved onto the land around his train lines, advocating crop diversification to prevent farmers from being victimized by price fluctuation. He provided free seed grain and even cows to farmers who’d suffered under drought and depression, left wood at his depots for the farmers to stock up on and even donated land for parks, schools and churches. He transported immigrants for $10 if they promised to farm near his railroad, believing goodwill was the best thing for business. (Isn’t he a dream?)
“JJ” refused to involve himself in the railroad cartels of the day that price fixed and manipulated the public and prided himself on low rates and safe rides. Don’t you think he deserved the title of “Empire Builder”? Every bit of land he used he purchased from a willing seller. Compare this to the millions of acres Lincoln gave away to be squandered by politicians and corrupt businessmen. Oh, for more like James J. Hill!
What a bad name capitalism gets when really Jefferson was right to think governments should never have the power to subsidize or get involved in business. Free money(on the backs of the little guy) and politics don’t mix. Government programs are boondoggles then and now.
But “JJ” you outshone them all! To top it off he had ten kids with his one and only wife (a hugely romantic tale of love and devotion) and donated much of his wealth to the Catholic Church to fund charities (his wife was Catholic which I guess explains all those kids). His art collection is the foundation for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts–he had a great eye for the beautiful and sublime.
JJ on the left. PS-I Love You