March 21, 2012

'The Pet Economies of Well-Known Millionaires'

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I came across a 1910 article from the New York Times while mining for information on an upcoming post about live-in servants (stay tuned). This piece wasn’t helpful to that end, but it made for an extremely amusing read.

“The Pet Economies of Well Known Millionaires: Peculiar Characteristics of John D. Rockefeller, His Son, Paul Morton, Andrew Carnegie, August Belmont and Others.”

Details about the penny-pinching ways of some of America’s greatest millionaires are aired like dirty little secrets, and the writer relays this mix of anecdotes and gossip with such sheer boldness and self-importance it’s hard not to be entertained. See the subheadlines “August Belmont Picks Up Every Pin He Sees Lying Around,” “Mrs. Hetty Green Prefers Boarding Houses to Her Own Home,” and then—why not?—reference their successors, that exclamatory Us Weekly section about things celebrities do—They Jog to Music! They Use the ATM! They Shop at Whole Foods!

The writer doesn’t hold back the sarcasm: If Charles Schwab were to wear a different cravat pin than the same old one he donned day in and day out, “there would be a decided flutter in the office of the Bethlehem Steel Company.” August Belmont’s valet is given the following honorary titles: “valet and courier and private office boy and Lord High Everything Else.” Mark Twain doesn’t even escape, the cheapskate; he’s pinned for cutting down on word length while not sacrificing on word count—at 30 cents a word, he makes just as much dough but saves time writing “city” instead of “metropolis.”

Most of the habits accounted for were economic in nature, but others are just plain strange—like how John D. Rockefeller took every girl in Tarrytown out for a spin in his car and gifted each with a replica of his own white paper vest; she would then hang it “solemnly” in the parlor.

My favorite moment is the dramatic re-creation of Rockefeller, Jr., giving a waiter a tip in the section titled “John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Hates Tips.” After eating “quite a lot” and paying the restaurant bill “cheerfully enough,”

…a sad expression steals over his face, and slowly, reluctantly, he lowers his hand into his pocket, there is a struggle seen going on there, and the hand comes out clutching a nickel. This coin is impressively placed in the centre of the waiter’s hand.

Then Mr. Rockefeller, Jr. leaves the restaurant at peace with the world. He has fought his battle and won.

These are trivial matters indeed, and I imagine the Times would be horrified to print a similar article today, but reading it gives a little quirk and color to American legends who basically amount to names and Wikipedia factoids for most of us today. (Paul Morton turns out his electric lights when they’re not in use? Why, the stars really are just like us!)

 

—Lindsey Howald Patton

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