- Historic Sites
The Passion Of Henry Clay Frick
His reputation obscures a complex man haunted by tragedy
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
History is full of misnomers that, like it or not, we are stuck with. Columbus, understandably confused about where he was, thought the people he encountered in the Bahamas were “Indians.” Like it or not, they have been ever since. Another undoubtedly permanent misnomer in American history is the phrase robber baron. The original robber barons, for whom the phrase was coined, were men who owned castles overlooking the Rhine River in the Middle Ages. They made tidy livings forcing those who sought to use the river for commerce to pay tolls to pass their castles. These men were, economically speaking, parasites, no better than the racketeers who in a later age would extract “protection money” from local merchants.
The image, if not the phrase, was first used in a modern context by The New York Times, in 1854, to describe the men, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, who ran the steamboat lines on American rivers. Often these men were perfectly happy to withdraw from competition on a particular run, provided they were well compensated to do so. Vanderbilt, for instance, was paid a hundred thousand dollars by his competitors, plus five thousand dollars a year for ten years, to take his ships off the Hudson River.
If that were all there was to it, then Vanderbilt, too, would have been an economic parasite. But unlike the original robber barons, who contributed nothing, Vanderbilt’s competitive threat forced down prices. Harper’s Weekly, more economically astute than the Times, wrote in 1859: “This great boon—cheap travel—this community owes mainly to Cornelius Vanderbilt.”
However unfair, the phrase stuck. By 1878 it was being applied to those who were piling up huge fortunes in the rapid industrialization the country underwent in the post-Civil War years. Here its use was perhaps even more unfair. However ruthless their behavior at times, these men created wealth in prodigious quantities. While self-interest played no small part in their economic calculations, the “invisible hand” saw to it that they provided hundreds of thousands of workers with better jobs than could be had elsewhere and millions of consumers with better and cheaper products than had existed before. Moreover, many of these men used part of their wealth to endow a nearly endless number of museums, colleges, hospitals, libraries, concert halls, and other eleemosynary institutions that have made us all substantial heirs to their fortunes.
The writers who used the phrase with such glee—themselves known by the term muckrakers —were not, of course, much interested in the truth. Essentially propagandists, they were interested in making a point, and robber baron served their purposes admirably. In four short syllables it portrayed these men as all alike, indifferent to the needs of society as a whole, and interested only in money. In fact the robber barons were as varied as the rest of humankind. Some, to be sure, were interested in little but money. Others, however, led rich, full lives that were only made richer and fuller by their wealth.
A new biography of one of these men, Henry Clay Frick, is an extraordinarily powerful brief for this assertion. Written by his great-granddaughter Martha Frick Symington Sanger and called Henry Clay Frick: An Intimate Portrait (Abbeville Press), it is one of the handsomest examples of bookmaking I have seen in some time.
Somewhat larger in size than a regular biography, it has a standard-length text, much of it drawn from family papers and letters not previously used by historians. And it is illustrated with a wealth of photographs, drawings, and paintings, many never before published. The book is at one level a window into the fascinating and vanished world of the very, very rich at the turn of the century. It is also a catalogue of Frick’s art collection, pound for pound possibly the finest ever assembled and now open to the public at what was once Frick’s Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City.
But at another level the text and the illustrations together paint a rounded portrait of a complex man who could be tough as nails in business and then come home and roughhouse happily with the children he adored. The tragic death of one of these children, his daughter Martha, for whom the author was named, would cause Frick the greatest pain he ever suffered.
Martha was born a happy and healthy child on August 5, 1885. She flourished until she was two. Then she took ill, and despite the best possible medical care, her condition became chronic. No one knew what the cause might be until one day, two years later, her nurse noticed a small wound on the child’s right side that was oozing pus. She wiped it away and was horrified to find a pin emerging from the wound. Apparently Martha had swallowed it just before she took ill, and for two years it had slowly worked its way through her body, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake.