Books: May 8, 1996
Henry Clay Frick's style of management made him as hated as he was successful
Henry Clay Frick: The Gospel of Greed
Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr. '42
St. Martin's Press, $24.95
Henry Clay Frick is best known to generations of Princeton alumni as the donor of the chemical laboratory bearing his name. In fact, according to Samuel A. Schreiner, Jr. '42's biography, Frick's 1919 bequest of securities, valued at $6 million, endowed faculty salaries. The laboratory, built 10 years later, was named after him as a gesture of thanks.
Schreiner's study is a spirited attack on all attempts to rehabilitate Frick as a businessman, connoisseur of art, and philanthropist. In Frick's own lifetime, his intransigent fight against organized labor won the admiration of his Pittsburgh peers and the enmity of organized labor and its middleclass sympathizers. The rest of public opinion wavered. A heroic risk taker, Frick acted out the script of a 19thcentury romantic industrialist.
Of all the successful bankers and industrialists of his generation, he was probably the finest manager. Born in western Pennsylvania in 1849, he became a leading refined-coal (coke) entrepreneur while still in his 20s, borrowing his first $10,000 from Judge Thomas Mellon in Pittsburgh to build coke ovens. He became a leading supplier of coke to Andrew Carnegie's steel company and eventually became Carnegie's partner and chairman of his company, in 1889.
Frick's style of management made him as hated as he was successful. He had a prodigious capacity for work and for making rapid and accurate mental calculations and speedy decisions. (Frick would probably sneer at today's spreadsheet programs as wimpish, then find entirely new and profitable ways to use computers.)
His great strength and flaw was his ability to use economic fluctuations of every kind to improve his position. This ability was a strength because the repeated economic crises of Frick's day wiped out many other brilliant entrepreneurs. But Frick thrived in depressions and panics, seizing market share. This same ability was a curse, because increasing market share during economic crises put him on a collision course with his employees: At will, he dismissed workers and slashed wages.
Frick's strong-arm tactics with workers at Carnegie Steel Company resulted in one of the bitterest strikes in U.S. history, the Homestead Strike of 1892. A conflict initially involving only a small minority of skilled workers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, became a contest between Frick and Carnegie and the entire labor force of the Homestead Works. Frick's fortification of the plant and deployment of barge loads of armed guards from Pinkerton's National Detective Agency led to a bloody confrontation between the Pinkertons and strikers, resulting in 10 deaths and dozens of injuries. Frick's cool detachment during the events, and his refusal to hire back the great majority of the strikers, confirmed him as representative of industrialism at its cruelest.
Schreiner tells the rest of Frick's story in a dry and entertaining style, inspired by Thorstein Veblen and the early muckrakers, but with due, if grudging, respect for Frick's legendary abilities as a manager. He seems to prefer Frick to the more squeamish Carnegie, who appeared to retreat to his castle in Scotland in difficult moments. He takes Frick's side in the men's bitter conflict over the terms of their partnership at the turn of the century-a battle that led to their parting in 1899 and to the formation of the U.S. Steel Corporation, of which Frick was a director.
Frick spent his last two decades not as an industrialistmanager but as a supercapitalistconnoisseur. He bought mainly railroad stocks ("the Rembrandts of investments") with his share of U.S. Steel and used part of the proceeds to erect a sumptuous skyscraper that adjoined, and dwarfed, the Carnegie Building in Pittsburgh. Schreiner, a native of Pittsburgh who now lives in Connecticut, grew up under the shadow of Frick's building and reputation. He makes it clear that whatever Frick's $6 million did for Princeton, the bitter legacy of the Homestead Strike still lives in western Pennsylvania.
In the mid 1890s, Frick began to realize his youthful dreams of building a great private art collection, trading his railroad shares and bonds for old masters. He moved to New York City and built a mansiongallery that a contemporary critic called "the most beautiful example of domestic architecture and interior decoration produced in the 20th century by our American plutocracy."
Schreiner is a clear and forceful writer, but something is missing from his account of Frick. He doesn't come alive as a threedimensional villain, probably because he was such a cool and taciturn man. We see ample greed, but learn very little about what motivated his lust for money or what transformed him from a distillery bookkeeper to master manager and later to connoisseur. Schreiner implies in his preface that Frick's family may still have material that would help us better understand him. Perhaps a Rosebud hides among the family papers. More likely, the secret of Frick, if there was one, was entombed with his remains in his 18inch thick concrete vault.
Schreiner's real target is today's conservative nostalgia for pure market forces and profit motive as keys to national prosperity. Reading contemporary politics and economics into the past has a point. Frick's confrontational attitude, which brought him such wealth in his lifetime, also helped poison industrial relations in at least part of the steel industry for decades. But Frick was a fascinating product of a time and place, worlds apart from the equally greedy leveraged buy-out kings of the 1980s and the payroll-slashing executives of the 1990s. Schreiner's biography does not unlock the mystery of the man. Nor does it alter our picture of his time and place. But it does recreate it with originality, gusto, and conviction.
-Edward Tenner '65
Edward Tenner is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. His new book, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, was published this month by Alfred A. Knopf. © 1996 by Edward Tenner.
A YEARNING FOR THE SOIL
In Good Hands: The Keeping
of a Family Farm
Charles Fish *64
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $21
Dream Reaper: The Story of an
Old-Fashioned Inventor in the
High-Tech, High-Stakes World
of Modern Agriculture
Craig Canine '81
Alfred A. Knopf, $25
We are all farmers under the skin. Not too many generations ago, the majority of people lived off the land, and deep in our collective soul there endures a yearning for the soil. Perhaps that is the main appeal of Charles Fish *64's In Good Hands and Craig Canine '81's Dream Reaper.
Although their approaches to the subject differ, both books deal with farming and the attraction of a way of life increasingly out of step with our urban culture. In Good Hands describes the author's boyhood on a farm in Vermont and the extended family that made the enterprise work. The sketches of his strong-willed grandmother and his three uncles are loving and respectful but unsentimental. So too is Fish's take on the attitudes and patterns of rural living, in which life and death are inseparable. Animals are practically part of the family, but as an uncle reminds him, there was "not an animal on the place that did not have its price." And the author revels in his youthful passion for hunting, whose aim was "the pleasure of artful killing: the caution, the stalking, the cooperation of boy and dog, the technical challenge of digging out the woodchuck, all culminating in the animal's death."
In contrast to Fish's extended biographical essay is Canine's narrative of two Kansas cousins and their 13-year quest to build and market a new type of mechanical harvester, or combine. Mark Underwood, an "Edison of agriculture," is the inventor half of the team, and Ralph Lagergren is the salesman half, who relentlessly seeks corporate backing for their project. Success, which ultimately proves elusive, depends on the intelligence and perseverence of both. Canine stands in awe of their optimism, but he can't decide if it is courage or lunacy as the dream takes its toll in strained finances and a wrecked marriage. Woven into the account is a history of agriculture and the succession of technologies, from sickles to satellites, which by increasing farmers' productivity have also imperiled their existence. Calling modern agriculture "simultaneously one of the greatest wonders and saddest tragedies of Western civilization," the author poses an ironic question: Isn't the invention of efficient machines like yours, he asks Underwood, "part of the reason why grain prices are so low, and why so many farmers have had to leave their farms?"
The question rankles, but as the author observes, the "wellsprings of invention flow regardless of the consequences, and from no baser motive than the desire to create something new."
-J. I. Merritt '66