- Historic Sites
Mister Carnegie’s “Libary”
February 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 2
At that period life was surely not so hectic, and universities were not so demanding, because there always seemed to be time left over from studying to explore New York and to watch for artists and writers and other well-known persons. Mother said if we got a chance to see a famous man to just go right up to him and tell him our names—he would be flattered that people all the way from Missouri knew who he was.
Before the summer was over, as a special treat, Mother and I went for a hansom-cab ride in Central Park. We listened eagerly to what our driver said and craned our necks to see landmarks that he pointed to. He was familiar not only with everything in the park but with almost all that could be seen from it. At one point he waved his hand vaguely beyond the park and rattled off a list of houses that were now or were at one time owned by famous rich men. Among them was Mr. Carnegie’s. Mother and I looked at each other smugly. Of course we knew all about Mr. Carnegie’s house. Probably much more than our hansom-cab driver. Did he know there was a pipe organ near the grand staircase and that the house had two main boilers of a type and size used in ocean-going liners? That a mining car transported coal from the bunker to the stoking floor, running on its own track and turntable? And that the house had five elevators, including one small one with a black leather seat used exclusively by Mr. Carnegie’s widow? We were only from Missouri, but there weren’t any flies on us when it came to information about Mr. Carnegie. The house, we could have told him, cost one million dollars when it was built in 1900.
“Them old robbers,” our driver suddenly said vehemently, giving his horse a slash with his whip as though the horse was somehow responsible for his anger.
“What old robbers?” Mother asked, bewildered, wondering at the strange way the travelogue had progressed.
“Vanderbilt, Morgan, Carnegie, all them rich thieves, bloodsuckers, they took the bread right out of the poor man’s mouth and never so much as thank you.”
Mother’s voice was cold and terrible sounding. “Did you refer to Mr. Carnegie?” she asked, and I knew something dreadful was going to happen. “Mr. Andrew Carnegie?”
“Old Carnegie himself. Biggest crook these United States has seen. Steel, iron, railroads, nothin’ he wouldn’t pxit his hands on. His house there is built on bodies, lady, on bodies of the poor.”
“Stop your horse!” Mother shouted at him furiously, and the driver, alarmed, drew his gentle horse to a stop and turned around to stare at Mother.
“How dare you say such things about Mr. Carnegie?” Mother cried out angrily. “Do you know that I am an employee of Mr. Carnegie?”
The driver looked at her in amazement. “Of that old duff?” he asked incredulously. “He’s dead and gone, that old robber is, nobody works for him.”
“Mr. Carnegie will never die,” Mother said, not angrily now, but firmly, her eyes glowing. “Mr. Carnegie will live forever in his libraries, and I̵—she repeated this proudly—“ I am one of his librarians.”
With this exit line Mother and I got out of the hansom cab, Mother paid the cab driver for half of his fare, since our drive was only halfway completed, and imperiously waved him on. We lost our way in the park and wandered around for hours before we knew where we were, but we did not blame each other. “Just keep the general direction of Mr. Carnegie’s house in mind,” she kept saying, “and we’ll come out all right.”
When we got back to Moberly at the end of summer we knew something was wrong when we did not see Ben Jacks in the library. Ben Jacks had gone crazy, Mr. Medley told us rather triumphantly. He had taken to jumping out at women on dark corners, holding a newspaper over his head to try to hide his face. He had used old New York Times papers, too, that he had stolen from the library. Mr. Beiden did not ask for the Times at all any more. Mostly he just sat in Ben Jacks’s chair and stared in front of him, shaking his head.
We were something of a mild sensation for a while, a complete family educated at Columbia University, from a fifty-three-year-old mother down to a thirteen-year-old daughter, with two daughters aged nineteen and twenty in between. Mother always took great care to explain that we had been to Columbia University in New York, so it would not be confused with the State University at Columbia, Missouri, where anybody could go.