Category — Scoundrels
Salvador Dalí came to New York for the first time in 1934. In a symptom of the Civil War to come, the provincial government of Catalonia had unilaterally declared independence from Spain. The subsequent street fighting terrified him and he would not return to Spain for many years.
He was Catalonian himself. Catalonians consider themselves a people of seny, common sense or wisdom, and rauxa. Robert Hughes, in Barcelona, defines rauxa as “any kind of irrational or Dionysiac or (sometimes) just plain dumb activity—getting drunk, screwing around, burning churches, and disrupting the social consensus.” He suggests “the most pervasive form of rauxa is an abiding taste for…obscene humor.”
In this, as in many things, Dalí was truly Catalonian. Other surrealists had shocked the French bourgeoisie; Dalí had shocked the surrealists with his excremental and onanist obsessions. Hughes once asked Dalí who was the great unknown modernist artist (aside from Dalí, of course). “Joseph Pujol,” Dalí replied. Hughes had never heard of Pujol.
He was a turn-of-the-century Parisian music hall artist who performed under the stage name “Le Petomane” (frequently translated “Fartiste”). Hughes notes that “Pujol had a vast gas capacity and perfect control over his bowels and anal sphincter. Not only could he fart tunefully, but he could absorb a whole bowl of water on stage by sitting in it and drawing it up, like an India yogi.”
Dalí insisted these were not simply natural endowments, but achievements of incessant practice and relentless discipline. With them, Pujol would keep packed houses rolling in the aisles with renditions of popular airs, “La Marseillaise,’ even snatches of Verdi and Offenbach. He would also imitate the posterior sounds of animals—the deep bass elephant, the gibbon, the mouse—and do character sketches, such as the imperious fart of the President of the Republic or the nervous squeak of the “petite postulante de quatorze ans.”
So much for Picasso.
Dalí was not a feminist. He proclaimed, “Talent is in the balls…. Have you ever heard of a great female painter? One as great as Velasquez or Michelangelo? Only men. Talent, creative genius, is in the testicles. Without them, one can create nothing. For women, creation is procreation; they can bear children, but they will never decorate the Sistine Chapel.”
In youth he had been admired by Garcia Lorca. Dalí later said, “He was homosexual, as everyone knows, and madly in love with me. He tried to screw me twice…. I was extremely annoyed, because I wasn’t homosexual, and I wasn’t interested in giving in. Besides, it hurts. So nothing came of it…. Deep down, I felt that he was a great poet and that I did owe him a bit of the Divine Dalí’s asshole.”
Perhaps his perversion was most openly expressed through his aversion to physical contact, reflected in his novel Hidden Faces. Its protagonist tells his mistress that they must reach orgasm without ever touching. Thus it was, apparently, in his marriage. His wife, Gala, would he his business manager, his companion, and for most of their life together his best friend. But apparently ordinary sexual relations didn’t enter into it. Certainly he was impotent: he may have lacked the common courage to drop his mask and his guard, to be simply, nakedly himself.
But he did not lack the courage to conquer the world. In art school, he demanded that his teachers show him how to mix his oils, spread the colors, and blend the tones. He wanted rigor, method, and objective training. To his disappointment and rage, his teachers espoused a slovenly post-impressionist anarchy: Their students should paint what they saw. In response, when assigned to paint a Gothic statue of the Virgin, he carefully produced a pair of scales. His teacher stopped in frozen silence. “Perhaps you see a Virgin like everyone else,” the professor finally said, “but I see a pair of scales.”
Eventually, like any artist, he trained himself, developing, as one critic observed in the mid-50s, “an absolute mastery of the craft that is equaled by no other artist alive today.” His approach was strictly formal, as classical as the most hidebound Academician, and however bizarre the subject matter, his paintings always had geometric rigor and detachment. And he usually worked a fourteen-hour day.
He combined intellectual strength with a pose of utter helplessness. When first in Paris, he claimed inability to use the Métro until a friend took him there and then left him on the train, instructing him to get off at the next stop. “You’ll see ‘Exit’ in large letters. Then you go up a few steps and you go out.”
Dalí later wrote of this ordeal, “Reaching the surface, I stood haggard for a long time. I felt I had been spewed out of some monstrous anus… And, O miracle! My lucidity, my pride, my strength returned instantly…with increased power. I understood I had been through a great initiation.”
In 1931, Dalí created The Persistence of Memory, which remains his most famous painting. His biographer, Meryle Secrest, writes that he had eaten a strong Camembert that evening. He sat at the dinner table meditating on the notion of super-softness that the cheese seemed to exemplify. Then he went to his work-in-progress, a landscape, “deserted, forlorn, lit by a fading sun and with a leafless olive tree in the foreground. He knew it was the setting for an idea, but he didn’t know what, and besides, he had a headache. Suddenly, in a flash, he saw the solution. Two hours later he had added his famous soft watches.”
Times critic John Canaday later called The Persistence of Memory a jewel “in its brilliant colour, its small size, its immaculate precision. It is in the technical tradition of early Flemish and Venetian painting; also, it is parasitic in its forms. The deep distance with its sea and its rocky promontories picked out in golden light is all but a steal from the early Venetian Giovanni Bellini, whose allegories would be Surrealist if their symbolism were morbid instead of poetic.”
His first New York show in 1933 had been mildly successful. A year later, Dalí traveled to New York with Gala (as his business manager, she was described as having “a gaze that could penetrate bank vaults”) in a third-class cabin. He said, “I am next to the engine so that I’ll get there quicker.” During his rare walks on deck, he wore a life jacket.
Upon landing, during the inevitable press conference, he was asked which was his favorite picture. He responded, “The Portrait of My Wife,” which represented Gala with lamb chops on her shoulders. “I used to balance two broiled chops on my wife’s shoulders,” Dalí said, “and then by observing the movement of tiny shadows produced by the accident of the meat on the flesh of the woman I love while the sun was setting, I was finally able to attain images sufficiently lucid and appetizing for exhibition in New York.”
During this first visit, he uttered his immortal observation: “The only difference between a madman and myself is that I am not mad.” Most of the time, his English was nearly unintelligible. He used an exaggerated French accent, threw in a few extra Catalan vowels as he saw fit, and rolled his r’s as in Spanish. Thus, “butterfly” came out “bouterrrrflaaaaaeeee.” Usually, no American audience understood a word, but if they did the result was deafening applause.
The reporters loved him; so did Society; so did the collectors, who swarmed his new show at the gallery of Julian Levy. By the end of his 1934 visit, he would be far richer in several senses for his stay in New York. On the night before his departure for Europe, he gave a Bal Onirique, inviting guests to come as their dream and be wined and dined from ten in the evening until ? for only $10 a couple. He dressed as a rotting corpse with a bandage around his head. He had cut a square hole in his white formal shirt, which framed, as Meryle Secrest wrote, “a shadow box for a pair of tiny breasts, decorously enclosed inside a bra.” The ball was a tremendous success: The New York Mirror blared “Mad Dream Betrayal of New York Society at the Astounding Party to its Newest Idol.”
He returned in 1939. He had been hired to design shop windows for Bonwit Teller. The central Feature of the window he called Day was a bathtub lined with black astrakhan and filled with water, beside which stood an old-fashioned mannequin, decorated only with red hair and green feathers. In Night, another mannequin appeared to be asleep on a black satin bed, the canopy of which was composed of a buffalo’s head with a bloody pigeon in its mouth. She lay on a pillow of apparently live coals.
Several complaints were received by the management that the windows were obscene. They changed the mannequins. Dalí was outraged. He protested, demanding that the store either take his name off the windows or restore the work. Bonwit Teller refused to do either. He stepped into the window and overturned the bathtub, which crashed through the plate glass. He was booked on malicious mischief, later reduced to disorderly conduct with sentence suspended.
On August 16, 1940, Dalí returned for an exile that would last eight years. Unlike most exiles from World War II, he set himself up at the St. Regis, where he painted society portraits for fees reportedly running as high as $25,000. He diversified into ballet, opera, the novel, and film. He also began to emphasize commercial art.
Dalí believed his serious painting was the standard by which he would be judged. Everything else was for sale. He would take on any kind of advertising project if it paid well enough. By 1947, he was being paid up to $2,500 for an ad and $5,000 for book illustrations. His dismembered arms, limp watches, ruined columns, pieces of driftwood, tables with women’s legs, crutches, and ants were advertising Gunther’s furs, Ford cars, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Schiaparelli perfume, and Gruen watches, as well as the products of Abbott Laboratories and the Container Corporation of America. His waxed mustaches, rolling eyes, and walking sticks became trademarks, thanks largely to photographer Philippe Halsman, who over thirty years contributed as much to the Dalinian image as anyone save Dalí himself.
Halsmann photographed Dalí in every conceivable position and juxtaposition: nude in the womb; his face melting like one of his watches; his mustache on the Mona Lisa, or its pointed ends piercing a newspaper that he was reading, eyes crossed. His “Dalí Atomicus”—with Dalí, cats, water, canvas, and chair suspended in midair—was only one of their many collaborations for Life magazine; they even created a book about Dalí’s mustache (one hair of which Dalí sold to the Beatles for $5,000).
He usually wintered in New York, believing it to be “the most stimulating town in all the world…It’s the only place where I can do my deals.” In 1970, one writer observed that “forty years after his soft watches dropping over a barren landscape made him famous, Dalí is still Everyman’s idea of the mad genius of modern art, and mad genius sells like nothing else.” He was earning half a million dollars a year after taxes, and was worth around $10 million. He was designing shirts, fabrics, ties, cognac bottles, calendars, ash trays for Air India, stamps for Guyana, bathing suits, and gilded oyster knives. The only proposition he was known to have refused was that of the American who proposed opening a chain of “Dalícatessens.”
Until the 1960s, Dalí had produced few prints. Now he made up for lost time. His prints became a happy hunting ground for fraud. There were reprints of supposedly limited editions; unlimited artist’s proofs; plain outright counterfeits. Worse, he began signing blank pages. Then, a forger might merely use sheets with authentic signatures to produce completely fraudulent prints—neither drawn nor overseen in any way by Dalí.
As Secrest wrote, “Why bother to create an image? All he had to do was sign a sheet of paper to receive $40. An eyewitness described the way it was done. One aide slid the paper under his pencil and another pulled it away, for the greatest possible efficiency, meaning that the artist could sign one every two seconds. Assuming he could keep it up for an hour, Dalí was $72,000 richer—the easiest way to make money.” It was very Catalonian: the transformation of merde into gold.
No one knows how many he signed. His American lawyer doubted it was more than 40,000. His former agent once claimed as many as 350,000. The market in Dalí prints has never recovered. New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s affected even Dalí, who complained that city life had become, “Total decadence! Even the St. Regis is not what it used to be…they have cut out the cherry on the breakfast grapefruit!”
In 1980, he left New York never to return. After Gala’s death in 1982, Dalí was devastated. He lived in solitude, increasingly aware of his own mortality. During one of his last trips outside, a friend pointed out an orange tree laden with fruit. Dalí shook his head. “Do not show me things that I have loved so much and that hurt me now because I know that I must leave them.”
He died on January 23, 1989, listening to his favorite scratched record of Tristan und Isolde, which reminded him of sardines frying in oil. The Marques de Dalí de Pubol (King Juan Carlos had ennobled him in 1982) now rests above the women’s room in the museum that he founded in his home town.
For many, Dalí remains a genius and prophet. I think of a friend’s father, a tough, cynical, and supremely unillusioned journalist. In 1955, he covered the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s opening of Dalí’s Corpus Hypercubus. He entered the gallery, gazed at the painting of Christ crucified, and wept.
The gaudy old fraud had shown him a truth, perhaps the Truth.
New York Press, March 21, 1999
March 21, 2015 No Comments
“Are you a politician, Roscoe?”
“I refuse to answer on grounds that it might degrade or incriminate me.”
~ From Roscoe, by William Kennedy
In Roscoe, William Kennedy continues working the vein prospected by two minor classics, William Riordan’s Plunkett of Tammany Hall and Edwin O’Brien’s The Last Hurrah. The seventh Kennedy novel set in the author’s hometown of Albany, New York, is elegantly crafted, often uproariously funny, and betrays both a profound understanding of human frailty born of original sin and the sure knowledge that man born of woman is doomed to sorrow.
His characters, of course, enjoy themselves as best they can, usually at each other’s expense. Thus, one of Roscoe‘s numerous memorable minor characters, Mac, one of the cops who assassinated Legs Diamond when the racketeer failed to understand that the Albany County Democratic organization was far more powerful than the mob, reflects on the stabbing murder of an informer: “Robbed and stabbed, and he dies naked, broke, full of holes, and covered with blood. I like it.” Later, just before a fixed cockfight between birds owned by two brothers and party bosses, Patsy and Bindy McCall, Bindy introduces Roscoe to his cock.
“This is the Swiggler,” says Bindy. “You ever been swiggled?”
“Not by a chicken,” answers Roscoe.
“Blame Roscoe,” the novel’s closing sentence, is not an evasion of responsibility but an admission of artistry. Kennedy closes the book with his author’s note, expressing his gratitude to numerous persons, living and dead, whose stories and knowledge helped him to form his work. Kennedy may have begun with facts. His novel is full of historical figures, from FDR and Al Smith to Herbert H. Lehman to John McCooey and John Curry, the one-time Democratic bosses of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Of course, these are all invented characters, just like the other invented characters.
Yet having been born and raised within ten miles of the city of Albany, I know that many of his other invented characters are closely modeled on once-living persons. A knowing Albanian might read a William Kennedy novel merely to pick out the old pols, pimps, and hangers-on. This would be vulgar and more than a bit of a mistake. I admit indulging in it anyway. In reflecting on Kennedy’s fictional political boss, Patsy McCall, I think of the great Dan O’Connell, who ruled Albany’s Democratic party and thus Albany for over half a century. He had a certain knack for massaging election results. A story Mario Cuomo once told had Dan marooned on a desert island with another fellow, and only one coconut between them. They voted on who should eat it, and Dan won by 110 to 1.
Happily for the rest of us who may not know the “Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels,” the book stands on its own. It has been five years since his last novel: Kennedy has used his time well. He is among the handful of important contemporary novelists trained in the old school of journalism: the discipline of publishing facts with an economy of words to a daily deadline. And it is honorable praise to note that even his lesser books are exquisitely finished and all have integrity, for they are the work of an honest man.
Roscoe is a novel set in the summer and fall of 1945, in which Roscoe Conway, lawyer, orator, and Democratic political operative, attempts to escape from the life he has made. This summary does not hint at the amazing tangle of subplots, from fixing elections to child custody suits, suicides, payoffs, assaults, brothel raids, cockfighting, murder, sibling rivalry, and gambling rings. Yet, the narrative is not confusing. Kennedy’s art captures the essence of life—just one damned thing after another, with nothing ever finally resolved but merely overcome for the moment.
In reflecting on the novel, I flipped back to his author’s note. I found it poignant for personal reasons. One of his sources was the first politician to give me an interview, when I was writing for the Shaker High School Bison in 1971. Erastus Corning 2d (he preferred the Arabic to the Roman numeral) was elected mayor of Albany eleven times before his death in May 1983. No American mayor has served longer. As Kennedy notes in his offbeat history of the city, O Albany!, Corning held power “longer than Trujillo, Franco, Peron, Batista, Somoza, Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, Henry VIII, Ferdinand and Isabella, Ethelred II, and…Augustus Caesar.” Even at sixteen, I found the urbane man across the table from me both a great gentleman and one of the toughest guys I would ever meet. Thirty years have passed, and I am still right—on both counts.
Corning’s unusual first name (after forty years in office, some believed his real first name was “Mayor”) is a Latinized version of the Greek erastos, meaning beloved. He was brilliant (Yale ’32, Phi Beta Kappa, with a dual major in history and English literature), precocious (Assemblyman at twenty-six, State Senator at twenty-seven, Mayor at thirty-two), and hardworking (he routinely worked a sixty-hour week). He inherited wealth and made more through his political connections (his insurance agency, Albany Associates, wrote ninety percent of Albany County’s insurance, meaning some $1.5 million in annual premiums; as he was a city official, not a county official, the law found no conflict of interest).
At the height of his power, his authority over the city and the county of Albany was absolute. A local newscaster once told him on camera, “…you hold such power that if you told the Common Council to meet in pink lingerie, they would.” Corning replied, “I think you go too far. Blue lingerie, perhaps. But pink is too much.”
Kennedy has written elsewhere that Corning was uninterested in the truth. I disagree: Corning’s capacity for deceit was merely another weapon in his intellectual arsenal. Like Talleyrand (who would have found him a kindred spirit), Corning believed language existed to conceal truth.
Most people who rely on lies to get through the day eventually lose touch with truth. Corning never did. After all, you do not have to believe your own lies. When lucidity was required, his gifts for written and oral expression made him utterly, often brilliantly, clear. The same gifts let him obscure, obfuscate, and evade. At the height of his power, he played the press and the people like grand pianos.
Even Kennedy was not exempt, apparently. The story goes that some forty years ago, as a working reporter for the Albany Times-Union, during a mayoral press conference, Kennedy told Corning that a recent visitor had said the abandoned buildings in Albany made it look like a ghost town or a demolition project, and how did he respond? The Mayor replied that a well-known television commentator had come to Albany and seen all the construction and said it was one of the most vital, growing cities in the Northeast. After the press conference, Kennedy asked the Mayor, “Who was the well-known television commentator?” And the Mayor asked, “Who was the recent visitor?”
I can still imagine the Mayor’s sparkling joy as he declaimed his most famous epigram, “Honesty is no substitute for experience.” How could any intelligent man with a sense of humor resist a politician so brazen, so magnificently audacious, so in command of his wit that when asked his favorite color he replied, “Plaid.”
Corning, who was elected Mayor in 1941, did not seek a draft deferment and served as a combat infantryman in Europe. In Roscoe, Kennedy creates a character, Alexander Fitzgibbon, whose personal and political careers are nearly identical with Corning’s. The resemblances are purely intentional. So are the resemblances between numerous persons and characters. Dan O’Connell seized power over the Democratic party and then over the city and the county of Albany with the help of his brothers between 1919 and 1921. So had Patsy McCall, the crude, violent, corrupt party boss in Kennedy’s novel, who has been “in politics since he was old enough to deface Republican ballots.” But to suggest that Kennedy has merely copied the facts and changed the names is wrongheaded. In fact, Fitzgibbon and McCall, despite Kennedy’s artistry, are simply not as tough or as coarse as their models. It would be difficult for them to be. No one would believe it.
At its heart, the novel lives in a corrupt world. Thus, Kennedy quotes Roscoe’s dead father, Felix Conway, a disgraced ex-mayor, in a passage, “Felix Declares His Principles to Roscoe”:
“Never buy anything that you can rent forever.”
“Give your friends jobs, but at a price and make new friends every day.”
“People say voting the dead is immoral, but what the hell, if they were alive they’d all be Democrats. Just because they’re dead don’t mean they’re Republicans.”
Finally, Kennedy’s pols, though drawn with affection, are never twinkling benignities out of a Frank Capra movie. This is as it should be: machine politicians liked to think of themselves as means of rough justice, bringing coal and food to the poor. They never considered that the reforms they opposed might have obviated the handouts. Albany’s machine bosses were tough, ruthless men for whom democracy was always spelled with a capital D and politics merely another way of making a living.
Stendhal used the word crystallization to define the process by which the creative mind transforms mere fact to fiction. The analogy was drawn from certain German salt mines, where one might leave behind a tree branch and on returning some years later, find it encrusted with salt crystals. So Kennedy’s memories of a small American city have been transformed by time and imagination into enduring art.
March 5, 2015 No Comments
Who’s Who in the United States often rewards the casual reader because it reveals how its subjects view themselves. In the 1905 edition, the great J. Pierpoint Morgan modestly calls himself a banker and William Randolph Hearst a publisher. John W. Gates bluntly calls himself a capitalist. He lists no honorary doctorates, philanthropies, or hobbies. A reckless bravo who won and lost fortunes on the toss of a coin or the turn of a card, he had entered American folklore as “Bet-a-Million” Gates, who flinched at no stakes and feared no odds.
In 1905 Gates was stumping back and forth on the platform beside his private railroad car at Kansas City Union Station when a man introduced himself and invited Gates to play a game—any game—with him. Gates said he didn’t plaly for small sums, and anyway he was leaving in five minutes. “Show me the money,” he said. The challenger took out $40,000 in one-thousand-dollar bills. Gates reached into his pocket, took out a $20 gold piece, and tossed it into the air. “Call it,” he said. The local called heads. Both looked at Gates’s wrist. It was tails. Gates grinned, pocketed the bank notes, and stepped into his car. The loser became a local celebrity: the man who had lost $40,000 in forty seconds to “Bet-a-Million” Gates.
Gates was born poor in 1855 in Turner Junction, Illinois, passing through which, on his American tour, Charles Dickens had written, “Nothing ever has or ever will happen there.” Gates grew up a fat, angry troublemaker, driven by envy and class resentment. He was expelled from Sunday school for robbing the collection box. In his early teens, when he and his gang were skinny-dipping, a group of girls from school sneaked down to the riverbank, stole their clothes, threw them on the roof of the schoolhouse two hundred feet away, and ran back to tease the boys. Gates strode stark naked out of the river and “waved himself” at the girls as he went for the clothes.
In 1873, Gates watched a demonstration of how a new invention, barbed-wire, restrained cattle. Colonel Ike Ellison, who owned a wire mill at De Kalb, Illinois, offered him a salesman’s job at thirty dollars a month plus commissions. He took it: being on the road as a traveling salesman would be more fun than staying behind the dry goods counter in Turner Junction.
By day, Gates produced rodeos in the plazas of dusty cowtowns, building arenas of barbed-wire that restrained the wildest steer. At the end of his first week in San Antonio, he had sold every piece of steel in his possession except his corkscrew. By night, he was doubling and tripling his commissions at poker, for even then he possessed what Arabs call baraka, the true luck.
Within a decade, he had built his own wire mills, become Ellison’s boss, and become famous for his willingness to wager the largest stakes on the weirdest things: the weight of the next man to enter the room, or which raindrop would first reach the bottom of the window.
He won the nickname Bet-a-Million after his horse, Royal Flush, won the Steward’s Cup at Goodwood, an exclusive English race track. The wire services claimed he had won $1,000,000 (he had actually pocketed only $600,000). Gates loved newspaper publicity. His wild betting and extravagance were great copy beloved of desperate editors and a public clamoring for details of his incautious spending.
Once, to surprise his wife, Gates bought a townhouse near the Waldorf for $300,000. With the residence came the former owner’s personal valet, Francis, whom Gates instructed to furnish the premises. Pausing only for a quick one at the Waldorf bar, Gates and Francis visited the Wildenstein Gallery in search of paintings for the downstairs rooms. They were shown a vast assortment of paintings in the academic style—the taste of the time—largely battle scenes of the Napoleonic Wars, all in massive gold frames.
“What do you think of them, Francis?” asked the master. “Are they the McCoy?”
“I believe them to be authentic and of reputable genre,” said Francis.
“Tell the fellow to pack them all up and send them over.”
He became richer still by buying industrial lame ducks cheap and combining them into new corporations, overvaluing their assets, and manipulating the price of the stocks with insider information. Some of his companies became famous, such as Diamond Match (the match trust) and Nabisco (formerly National Biscuit, the cookie trust). He helped finance the Plaza Hotel, and when it opened in 1908, he and his wife rented a lavish apartment for $40,000 a year.
He became squat, even saurian, with a huge dragoon mustache, and his language was coarse. His private life was a succession of whores, “artist’s models,” and actresses. His manners were boorish and his personal relations a matter of gruff discourtesy, save where he might profit by a show of good manners or generosity.
His taste in interior decoration, lacking the disciplined self-restraint of Ludwig II of Bavaria, consisted largely of exploding gold over every imaginable interior surface and the display of biologically correct bronze nudes.
He was a denizen of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, holding court in a leather arm chair at a heavy oak table in the oak-paneled Men’s Bar. On days when the stock market was quiet, he played bridge for $100 a point. The journalist Albert Stevens Crockett wrote in his memoirs of a young politician who, invited to sit in on one of Gates’s card games, assumed that Gates’ statement that they were playing for “one a point” meant a dollar. The young man walked away from the table a winner, expecting a check for $330. He nearly fainted when he received one for $33,000 in the next morning’s mail.
And Gates ate, diligently packing on the poundage. It was the 1890s, the age of the lobster palaces such as Rector’s, Jack’s, Churchill’s, Shanley’s, and Bustanoby’s, restaurants of lavish decor and food of heroic quantity, variety, and expense. A late exemplar of that kind of eating was Henry George—not the social reformer, but the 300-pound head carpenter of the old Metropolitan Opera. One Christmas Day, Mr. George wandered into Bleeck’s, where he sat down to a dozen double Southdown mutton chops, a four-pound chateaubriand, and two roast capons topping five pounds each. When he ordered a Kentucky ham and six mince pies for dessert, Bleeck instructed the waiter to cut him off. “I don’t want him dead on the premises,” he explained. Mr. George shook an angry fist at the management and stamped across the street to the Greek’s, where “they wouldn’t turn away a man hungry at Christmas!”
Early in 1896, Gates learned that J. Pierpont Morgan was negotiating with Andrew Carnegie to create United States Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation. Gates hated Morgan: they distrusted each other; they had clashed in the stock market; but most importantly, Morgan was suave, masterful, and secure, the kind of aristocrat that aroused Gates’s Jacobin instincts.
Gates merged seven Illinois barbed wire factories into the Consolidated Steel and Wire Company. A few months later, he added seven steel mills and created the American Steel and Wire Company of Illinois, issuing $24,000,000 in beautifully engraved stock certificates. Less than a year later, having repeated this process in the East, he had his new company, American Steel and Wire of New Jersey, buy up the old for $36,000,000. Only old fogies sneered at the old firm’s fifty percent increase in value within eleven months. To the younger generation, it was undoubtedly the synergy of the plants with Gates’s executive talents.
Gates’s private car was rolling through Ohio one night when one of his associates glanced out the window long enough to recognize where he was. “There’s a nice plate mill in the next town,” he told Gates. “Why don’t we stop off and buy it?” Gates and his men, all of whom had been doing things with cards and bottles, located the home of the mill owner and routed him out of bed long after midnight. They suggested $200,000 as a fair price and offered to write a check then and there.
“But my plant isn’t worth $200,000 and anyway it isn’t for sale,” protested the sleepy owner. “Why don’t you gentlemen sober up and go home?”
“Let’s not be small about it,” Gates said. “We’ll make it $350,000.”
Morgan finally invited American Steel & Wire to join U.S. Steel. Gates, knowing Morgan needed wire mills, named an unreasonable price. Negotiations were joined.
Now, the skin of Morgan’s nose was affected by an incurable acne rosacea, which left it red, enormously swollen, and pustulous. Morgan had learned to live with it, his self-loathing channeled into a hatred of mirrors and photographers, although an occasional disgusted glance from a passerby still disturbed him.
Gates and his partners stumped into J. P. Morgan & Company for the final talks. Morgan had delegated the job to Judge Elbert Gary, U. S. Steel’s president and, by coincidence, a childhood acquaintance of Gates. Immediately noting the snub, Gates cocked his head and, referring to Morgan, asked Gary, “Where’s Livernose?”
Around 5 p.m., Gary slipped out of the room to advise Morgan to deliver an ultimatum. Morgan strode in. He neither greeted Gates nor shook his hand. He said, “Gentlemen, I am leaving the building in ten minutes. If by then you haven’t accepted our offer, we will build our own wire plant.” Then he left the room.
Turning to one of his partners, Gates said, “Well, I don’t know whether he means it or not.” “He does,” came the reply. “Then we’ll sign,” Gates said. American Steel & Wire’s market value was only $60,000,000; U.S. Steel paid $110,000,000 for it. Gates then asked for a place on the board of directors. Morgan refused, “It is impossible. You have made your reputation and we will not be responsible for it. Good day, sir.” Gates needed four days of steady drinking to regain his composure.
They tangled again during the Northern Pacific corner of 1907, when E. H. Harriman (backed by the Schiffs) and James J. Hill (backed by Morgan) fought for the railroad’s control. Gates sold short at 110, agreeing to deliver shares for future delivery. Gates believed once the issue of control was resolved, Northern Pacific would go down. But Harriman and Hill between them had purchased 78,000 more shares than actually existed. There were no shares for future delivery.
On one terrible day, Northern Pacific closed at 1000. The short-sellers had to liquidate everything: stocks, bonds, gold. The securities market collapsed. Thousands of speculators and dozens of brokerages were wiped out. Gates lost nearly everything he had made in the American Steel and Wire deal.
Gates brooded over his misfortunes, “snarling like a trapped wolf whenever anyone mentioned the great J. Pierpont, even by implication.” Months passed. Then he devised a plan.
Morgan dominated southeastern transportation through the Southern Railway. Its greatest potential competitor was the Louisville & Nashville. The railroads cooperated through a pooling agreement. But if another person bought control of the L&N, the agreement could be abrogated and Morgan made to sweat blood.
Secretly, Gates and his partners began buying L&N stock through intermediaries. On Monday, April 14, 1908, Morgan, aware of the purchasing through not of the purchaser, caused the L&N to issue 50,000 shares of stock and dump them on the market in a lump, hoping to break the demand. Gates bought it all.
That evening, J. P. Morgan & Company announced its surrender. Morgan bought out Gates at his price. The bank announced it had “consented to take control of the stock…purchased (by Gates)…solely to relieve the general financial condition and not for the benefit of any railroad company.” Gates made $7,500,000 for himself and more for his associates. A few days later, when Gates handed Diamond Jim Brady a check for his share of the profits, $1,250,000, Brady shouted, “I consent to receive this money solely for the purpose of relieving my general financial condition.”
It was Gates’s last big deal. In 1911, he died suddenly while in Paris, where he had gone for a rest. His only son, Charlie, a good-looking man without an ounce of brains, preferred booze and babes to business. In 1913, Charlie traveled to Cody, Wyoming, for a reunion with his old friend, Colonel William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. A single evening in the company of that accomplished drinker finished him. He died the next morning aboard his private car, Bright Eyes. “I didn’t know he was a tenderfoot,” Cody murmured. “I never should have ordered those last six bottles.”
New York Press, October 20, 1998
January 29, 2015 No Comments