Thursday, August 30, 2012

Clarence W. Barron & Mary Bancroft

Mary Bancroft’s recollections of her step-grandfather Clarence W. Barron
From Autobiography of a Spy (William Morrow, 1983, p. 24-)

….my stepmother’s stepfather, Clarence W. Barron – or “CW” as I called him – publisher of The Wall Street Journal….C.W. had married, rather late in life, a widow with two daughters whom he had adopted, the elder of whom became my stepmother. He was exactly fifty years older than I was, but I adored him, and he was a tremendous influence in my life.

A short man, about five feet inches tall, weighing well over three hundred pounds, CW had rosy cheeks, bright blue eyes twinkling behind rimless spectacles, and a beautiful white beard that he combed with a small gold comb at the table after meals, much to my stepmother’s annoyance. Until I was six, I thought he was Santa Claus.

When at home from his many travels, he entertained lavishly both at his house on Beacon Street in Boston and his summer place at Cohasset. In the downtown front room at Beacon Street, a white bear rug with head attached lay on a highly polished floor. I loved to stick my fingers in the bear’s open mouth with its bright red tongue, thrilled by the thought that the bear might come alive and bight my fingers off.

There was a large conservatory off the dining room where several brightly colored macaws squawked from their perches among CW’s magnificent orchid collection. Huge fantailed goldfish swam in and out among tiny stone castles in a pool over which an illuminated fountain played on the nights when CW entertained. The whole house smelled of fresh flowers, and the meals were delicious.

This setting was very deferent from the world into which CW had been born. His family had been of extremely modest means. His father worked as a teamster all his life to support a wife and may children of whom CW was next to the youngest and the only one to achieve such worldly success.

CW was the pioneer in financial journalism as we know it today, the first to tie the industrialization of the country into its history, the first to realize that the “news” lay not only in the building of railroads and the establishment of corporations but also in the character and mode of operation of the men involved. He knew and interviewed them all. Even those who were up to no good realized it was not in their best interest to refuse him an interview. Not only was he a crack reporter and the proprietor of an influential newspaper, but he was also the owner of an important news ticker service over which he exercised strict control. No company was mentioned on the Dow Jones tickers that CW had not investigated, either personally or through the gifted reporters in his employ.

In his vest pocket he always carried a pack of three-by-four-inch white cards on which he’s quickly jot down shorthand notes during an interview. He would later use these as references points for enlarged reports about the people he’d seen, what they’d said, as well as what they were planning to do and how this fitted into the larger picture. He worked at such a pace that he had two, sometimes even three, male secretaries dancing attendance, living at the house when he was home, or accompanying him on his travels.

He would stay in bed, dictating until noon, for he seldom retired before, two, three, or even four A.M. I learned more on a wide range of subjects when I dropped in on those morning dictating sessions than I ever learned at school. I became familiar with names like Morgan, Rockefeller, Schwab, Carnegie, Frick, Harriman, Ford, DuPont; with what these men were thinking; what they were planning and how they intended to go about it. I learned what was happening in the stock market, in railroads, oil, mining, shipping, public utilities, the automotive industry, and on the commodity markets. I learned how the stock market itself operated, about mergers, options, “puts” and “calls,” about “buying on margin” and “selling short.”

CW always kept a volume of the Bible on his bedside table and read in it first thing on arising in the morning and before retiring at night. He gave me what he considered the most useful edition of the Bible, “The Oxford Self-Pronouncing Bible – S.S. Teacher’s Edition,” printed on extremely thin paper, with many excellent maps and an elaborate Cyclopedic Concordance. He often quoted the Bible to make a point in the letters he wrote me from his travels and on his return would question me as to what I thought of the relevance of the quotes. His letters meant so much to me that I pasted them into a special scrapbook. And I am still amazed at the way in which he was able to write to a girl fifty years younger than he was in a way that meant so very much to her at the time.

His letters were full of anecdotes about the people he met. And scattered throughout were bits of advice that I have never forgotten such as “Always put the unpleasant truth in the interrogative form” and “Remember that facts are not the truth, but only indicate where the truth may lie.”

When my first husband, Sherwin Bdger, was working for the United Fruit Company and we were spending a year in Banes, Oriente, Cuba, I wrote CW how unhappy I was with life in the company-owned sugar mill town, how disgusted by the intrigues and disloyalty that I saw around me. In answer to my letter, he wrote,

It doesn’t make any difference where you take hold of the world, whether in Cuba or South Boston, if you only get down to the bottom and master the situation there. The railroad presidents are the men who came up from the coupling pins. They do not graduate from Harvard or Yale as a rule, but from the college of hard knocks….We should be grateful to our Heavenly Father if we get the rough experience of life in early youth and learn the lesson it provides….You will run up against a lot of adventures, I believe, in Cuba, a lot of bad politics, bad manners, disloyalty, and dishonesty. But never hesitate to meet people from all walks of life – even gamblers and crooks – always study them and learn to differentiate clearly between the good and bad you find everywhere, not only among people, but within individuals themselves. 

I was only twenty-one and CW’s comments struck just the right note, making it possible for me to look at my surroundings with different eyes. I realized that no matter what happened, I had CW’s backing. He was always there to help me incorporate the most bizarre experiences, the most unconventional thoughts and feelings into an enlarged and more detached view of the world. There was no one else in m life in those days with his particular type of vision, or anyone I felt had such genuine affection for me as I actually was. I could confide in him exactly how I felt, exactly what I thought, and he would not pooh-pooh it as nonsense. Nothing seemed strange to him. He was interested in everyone and everything in some particular way, and he took endless pains to explain to me just what that way was. He was my one real and trusted friend from the time I was fifteen until I was thirty...

CW urged me to keep a line-a-day dairy and a journal in which to write about anything that interested me. And he persuaded me to learn to type and to set up my own files of subject for articles and stories. Because I felt he cared for me and was interested in my having a life that satisfied me, I eagerly followed everything he suggested.

He’d send me packages of book on every imaginable subject with no rhyme or reason in their selection. And he’s enclose a note asking me to write him what I thought of the books after I’d read them. He took all my ideas seriously and spent time, either arguing with me or questioning me as to why I felt as I did.

I have never known anyone more alive than CW. Even today when I think about him, as I do so often, I cannot help smiling to myself and feeling the same warmth I always felt in his presence. He made the world seem a glittering, exciting, and very worthwhile place to be and that it was a privilege merely to be alive.

He thought I should try my hand at journalism, not only because I could “express myself,” as he put it, but because he thought I had what he called “a nose for news.” Later, after I had worked with Professor Jung, I realized this nose for news was, in Jungian terms, nothing but a highly developed and extroverted intuition. Needless to say, CW himself had an extraordinary nose for news. Once, when crossing Texas on a train, he suddenly insisted that the train be stopped at an unscheduled way station because he was convinced that the Supreme Court was about to hand down an extremely important decision. There was absolutely no reason for this hunch. He had simply picked it out of the air. However, the result was that the reporter from The Wall Street Journal was the only newspaperman present when the Supreme Court handed down its decision on the Teapot Dome case, a decision that had not been expected for several months.

I was present myself on one occasion when CW’s “nose” was at work. We were playing bridge at his home in Cohasset. CW was an excellent bridge player, but on this particular evening he revoked several times and, finally flinging down his cards, said he couldn’t continue. Important news was about to break. Every ten minutes or so he sent one of his secretaries to phone the office to see what was coming in over the wires. For over an hour the secretary would report that there was nothing. Finally he returned to say there was still nothing – except that President Warren G. Harding, on a visit to California, had had crabs for dinner and was suffering from an upset stomach. “That’s it!” CW exclaimed. “Get me the Vice President!”

Calvin Collidge, the Vice-President and a good friend of CW’s was visiting his father at his home in Vermont. CW finally got in touch with him, told him about Harding, and added that Collidge should stay where he was and be sworn in as President of the United States by his father – a notary public – preferably by candlelight as that might be more picturesque. My stepmother was greatly annoyed with CW for “burying poor Mr. Harding before he was even dead.” But CW was adamant. He was positive Harding was going to die – and, of course, he did. Calvin Collidge was sworn in as President of the United States by his father – and by candlelight at that.

At one point during his presidency, President and Mrs. Collidge came to lunch with CW at Cohasset. They arrived on the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, which required deeper water than that provided by Cohasset Harbor. So the Mayflower had anchored offshore and the presidential party had arrived by launch at the dock on CW’s property. Mrs. Collidge was all charm and animation, but the President was his usual dour self. The lunch consisted of boiled lobsters that CW knew were a particular favorite of the President’s. The other guests began to argue about the rise and fall of the tides at Cohasset Harbor, while Secret Service men lurked among the shrubbery outside the windows. Some people thought the tide rose six feet, others have said seven. At that point, the President put down the lobster claw he was cracking and announced in a surprisingly loud voice, “Nine feet!” Needless to say he was right.

One of the stories current during Coolidge’s term was that once, when he had opened his mouth a moth had flown out. I heard him tell my father that he had decided he could either talk or be President. He couldn’t possibly do both. On several occasions, however, I heard him not only talk but tell very amusing stories in his dry, New England way.

CW had a photograph of Henry Ford given to him by Ford himself. It was an unusual picture with a kind of golf finish that made it gleam as if it were actually illuminated. CW, noticing the President looking at it rather crossly, began to explain its history, when Mrs. Coolidge interrupted saying, “Calivin doesn’t like Henry Ford! He gave him a maple sugar bucket for the Wayside Inn and Ford used it as a wastebasket!” Collidge nodded and, without change of expression, said. “That’s right!”

…In the last years of his life CW was subjected to increasingly sever attacks of bronchitis. Consequently, because of the severity of Boston winters, he spent the winter months on his houseboat, the Edna B., among the Florida Keys. On several occasions I went down to spend some time with him and play “bumble-puppy.” “Bumble-puppy” was his name for a kind of idiotic bridge he would play when he had as a guest someone from whom he was trying to extract a story for The Wall Street Journal. When playing “bumble-puppy,” CW would play bridge as if he were a complete idiot, carrying me as his partner, and playing for extremely high stakes He would whistle and hum, trump his partner’s ace, seem astonished when he lost a trick, and all the time amid the whistling and humming, shoot sudden questions at his victim. I was amazed at how well this strategy worked. I watched him get information out of W.C. Durant of General Motors on one occasion and out of the head of the Whelan Cigar Store chain on another, information that I am sure neither man realized he was revealing until he read later what CW had wrote about him in The Wall Street Journal.

What really made life enjoyable that first year in New York (1928) was that CW kept an apartment at the Ritz and was often in town. His death in the autumn of 1928 was a terrible blow to me. My only consolation for his loss was that he had been spared all knowledge of the stock market crash of 1929. I’m afraid that it would have broken the heart of one whose faith in the economy of this country was literally boundless.

“But remember that facts are not the truth. They only indicate where the truth may lie!”
                                                                                                         – C.W. Barron

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