Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America by Les Standiford

Did you see the miniseries last year on the robber barons, The Men Who Built America? It was great. And one of the more fascinating stories was the story of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Frick, the guy who endowed hundreds of libraries, and the guy who created my favorite museum. Turns out they were both grade-A jerks, although in entirely different ways.

Both pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and worked their buns off to create massive companies -- Carnegie in steel and Frick in coke (an essential ingredient in steel). Frick hit a ceiling in his business pretty early on but instead of changing to a different industry altogether, he was hired to run Carnegie Steel, putting his income on par with other magnates like Carnegie. It was a good relationship for both of them because Carnegie got to disappear to Scotland and other estates and leave the dirty business of running the steel mills to Frick, a man who never backed down from a fight no matter how petty. Carnegie on the other hand got his feelings hurt easily and would lie a blue streak just to get people to like him, while stabbing them in the back. Frick would tell you to your face what he thought of you. They were very yin and yang.

Unfortunately, their partnership lead to a couple of colossal catastrophes. The first was the flood in Johnstown, PA which was caused by Frick and Carnegie's club both narrowing and refusing to maintain a massive dam it sat atop. When it failed, more than two thousand people were killed. The second and more famous was the Homestead Strike, when Frick brought in Pinkerton Detectives as guards, but due to a couple of foreseeable problems with getting the Pinkertons into the mill, they were pretty much slaughtered by a mob of striking workers, leaving at least 14 killed, 34 seriously injured, and 305 somewhat injured, and causing the National Guard to be called in by the governor. Two weeks after the incident, Frick was attacked by an anarchist assassin who would have killed him had his gun not jammed. Two weeks after the assassination attempt, Frick's baby son died. As much of a jerk as he was, it did seem that Frick had had a tough time of it and he soldiered on.

Meanwhile, Carnegie washed his hands of everything including Frick. Carnegie had signed off on Frick's plans at Homestead, but afterwards he maneuvered to have Frick removed from his position. The two men never had the same relationship and in fact spent their latter years not speaking to each other. Carnegie, the guilt-ridden man who always wanted everyone to like him, started giving his money away as an effort to buy his way into people forgetting about Homestead. I would say that after more than a century, he's been successful as your average American probably never heard of that dreadful part of U.S. labor history. But Frick, who knew exactly what had happened behind the scenes, never absolved Carnegie's guilt. In their old age when Carnegie made overtures of peace, Frick said he'd talk to Carnegie when they were both dead since they both knew they were both going to hell. In some ways Frick was the much bigger asshole, but I appreciated his honesty about it. Carnegie was a whiner not willing to stand behind his decisions and more than happy to throw other people under the bus whenever possible.

Two very fascinating jerks who helped shaped America today. This was a riveting book that was hard to put down, in the same way it's hard to look away from a car accident.

I bought this at the independent bookstore on Jekyll Island, Georgia, which was a favorite vacation spot for various robber barons of the Gilded Age.

1 comment:

Christy (A Good Stopping Point) said...

I did not know this about the Johnstown Flood and I had never heard of the Homestead Strike. I guess it doesn't surprise me to hear that Carnegie was a jerk, and I agree with your assessment regarding who was the "better" jerk. I do appreciate all those libraries though. The town I grew up in had a Carnegie library.

The truth behind some of the well-known philanthropists reminds me of when I read about the abolition movement in England. The author pointed out how some of the philanthropists who have statues in British cities got their money from the slave trade and from enslaved labor in the Caribbean.