Levers of Power

Ellie and I visited The Frick Collection in NYC last week, for the first time. Located in the former residence of Henry Clay Frick, prominent 19th century industrialist / capitalist who made his first fortune in coke (no… the kind used as a critical input to steel production), then, on teaming up with Andrew Carnegie, in steel.

It's called the Frick Collection, not the Frick Museum, because the vast majority of its enormous assemblage of paintings, sculpture and decorative items were hand-selected by Frick himself. (The balance have been selected by a trusteeship, whose first president was Frick's son.)

If the building was empty and had barren walls, it would still amaze. By the time he set out to have it built, Frick had split with Carnegie, amidst great acrimony. The former "junior" partner in the Carnegie enterprise was determined to build a monument that would make the formidable residence of his once colleague, just north on Fifth Avenue, look like a hovel.

Intrigued to learn more of the history of these two titans of America's Gilded Age, I sought a biographical history that might fill in some of the particulars. Which is how I now find myself reading "Meet You in Hell," and even before finishing it, recommending it to your attention.

The title is taken from a closing episode in the shared history of the protagonists. On his death bed, after twenty years or more of no contact with Frick, the older Carnegie scribbled off a note suggesting a reconciliation meeting, and had it delivered by his assistant to the very building I visited last week. On reading it, Frick crumpled it into a tight ball, tossed it at Frick's man, and said, "Tell Carnegie I'll meet him… meet him in Hell, because that's where we're both going!"

After reading only the first third of this excellent volume, it's clear to me already just what lay behind that comment.

These were hard men. Their goal was accumulation of wealth. And that's what they did. Many of the key leversLatch  they pulled toward that end would have landed them in jail today. Partners were wronged. Outside shareholders worse. Employees died and were killed.

Frick's reputation was reasonably consistent with the facts: he was viewed as a hard ass in his day. Carnegie's was more confused: he regularly used pro-union, populist rhetoric, while engaging in and authorizing the strongest of strong arm tactics against those very movements. Machiavellian? Self-rationalizing delusion? Don't know.

Regardless, it makes for fascinating history to ponder. And, as a free market capitalist by nature, it's illuminating for me the boundaries within which that game must be played if it's to be sustained.

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