Monday, June 16, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Gene Autry: The mogul with more friends than money

PHOTO: Museum of Western Heritage
Gene Autry, “America's Singing Cowboy,” grew up in Oklahoma, bailing hay, listening to cowboy music, learning to ride on his father's farm and singing in the choir of his grandfather's church.

After graduating from high school, Autry worked as a telegraph operator in a railroad depot. During his breaks he would step outside and play his guitar. A passenger overheard Autry singing and urged him to go to New York and get on the radio. The passenger was Will Rogers.

New York didn't open its doors to the singing cowboy, but Oklahoma did, with a spot on the radio as “Oklahoma’s Yodelin' Cowboy.” By 1931, Autry, 24, had signed up with Columbia Records and was a featured artist with the “National Barn Dance” on WLS in Chicago. He also co-wrote and sang, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." It sold a million copies, the first gold record, an honor created for Autry by a studio executive.

In 1934 Autry went to Hollywood to play a minor role and to sing a song in a Western film. Republic Studios liked what it saw. Between 1934 and 1942, Autry became a leading Western film star, earning $600,000 a year, but in World War II he enlisted in the Army Air Corps and his income dropped to $125 a month. "I didn't intend to look for some loophole to keep me out," he said. "If you were healthy and able, you either served or learned how to shave in the dark." Barry Goldwater was one of his squadron commanders.

Autry’s popularity was unprecedented. He was the first performer to sell out Madison Square Garden. His film career spanned 93 films. The Gene Autry Show on CBS television had 91 episodes, while Melody Ranch, one of the most popular radio shows, lasted 16 seasons.

Autry also recorded 635 songs, writing a third of them, and amassed a dozen platinum records and two dozen golds. His song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” sold more than 30 million records, the third best-selling single in history.

But Autry's greatest successes arose after he retired from films, television and recording. He acquired hotels (including San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins), oil wells, ranches, music publishing and recording companies, and radio and TV stations. Golden West Broadcasting, his media empire, included KMPC, purchased for $800,000 and KTLA, acquired for $12 million. He sold them later for $18 million and $245 million, respectively.

In 1961, Autry purchased the Los Angeles Angels franchise for $2.5 million. He renamed the team the California Angels, and sold 25% of it to Disney in 1995 for $30 million.

A self-made billionaire, Autry is the only man to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for recording, radio, films, television and the theater. Smiley Burnette, his TV and film sidekick, summed it up best: "He used to ride off into the sunset. Now he owns it."

Autry established the largest repository of Western artifacts in the U.S., the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage. He died in 1998 at age 91.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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Monday, June 9, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Emile Berliner: Father of the recording industry

 PHOTO: Library of Congress
Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone; he was just the first to patent an improved version of it. Thomas A. Edison was not the inventor of the record player. The credit for inventing the microphone and transformer, the heart and guts of the telephone, and the record player and records, belongs to one man -- Emile Berliner, father of the recording industry. Yet few of us know of Emile or his accomplishments.

He was born in Germany in 1851. The family was of comfortable means until Emile's older brothers were mustered into the military. Without their help, their father could not support the family, forcing Emile, 14, to quit school and get a job. Facing military service during the Franco-Prussian War, Emile bolted for America.

He spent years in New York and Washington D.C., working at odd jobs, and survived the Panic of 1873 by selling glue, painting backgrounds for portraits and giving German lessons.

In Washington he became secretary to Dr. Constantine Fahlberg, the discoverer of saccharine, and attended the Cooper Institute, studying electricity and physics. His room was filled with wires, batteries and other electric devices.

In 1877, Emile built a carbon microphone and filed a patent caveat on it. Edison applied for a patent on a remarkably similar device 13 days later!

Emile also got a patent for a transformer to amplify electronic waves and prevent transmissions from fading rapidly. He demonstrated these devices at the Smithsonian Institution. The National Republican called Emile's invention "the contact telephone,” a device “to enable persons to communicate."American Bell acquired his patents, which made Bell's telephone viable. It was called the "Bell-Berliner Telephone" and was a great success. It made Emile a wealthy man.

Acquiring the rights to Edison’s microphone, Western Union sued, but Bell and Emile prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court—after 17 years of litigation! In 1881 Emile became an American citizen and married Cora Adler, another German immigrant.

Emile invented the gramophone, the first practical record player, and the flat disks later known as “records.” The gramophone established the 78 rpm standard, and “His Master’s Voice,” depicting a little dog, Nipper, listening to a gramophone became his trademark. The gramophone needed a motor. Emile arranged for the Consolidated Talking Machine Co. to produce it, but the owner patented the motorized gramophone in his own name. The company became the Victor Talking Machine Co. “Berliner” and “Gramophone” disappeared in the U.S., replaced by “Victor” and “Victrola.”

In 1898, Emile formed Deutsche Grammophon in Germany, and built the world's first factory devoted exclusively to manufacturing records.

A lover of music, Emile composed "The Columbian Anthem," a paean to America. Many thought it should become our national anthem.

 In 1907 Emile built one of the earliest helicopters. It was the first time a rotary engine had been used in an aircraft.

Victor Talking Machine acquired "His Master's Voice" trademark in 1924. Emile died in 1929, the same year RCA acquired Victor Talking Machine and renamed it RCA Victor. Emile's legacy? His inventions are incorporated into every telephone, radio, television and public address system. And Deutsche Grammophon still exists, an integral part of the Universal Music Group.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Bernard Baruch: Lone Wolf of Wall Street

It was customary for the titans of the 20th century to envelop themselves in immense, plush offices, reeking of leather and opulence. Bernard Baruch dispensed his advice from a bench at Lafayette Park across from the White House or at Central Park. But the recipients were not ordinary folk; they were presidents, senators, corporate kings and foreign dignitaries.

Although Baruch spent most of his years in New York, he had strong Southern roots. His father settled in South Carolina and served as a surgeon on Robert E. Lee's staff. Born in Camden, S.C. in 1870, Baruch lived a Tom Sawyer-like childhood before moving to New York when he was 10. An outstanding student, Baruch matured into a rugged 6-foot-3 athlete who loved to box and play baseball.

After graduating from college, Baruch, meaning “blessing” in Hebrew, headed to Wall Street. On an errand to Drexel, Morgan, he ran into J. Pierpont Morgan, the king of American banking. The man's awesome power inspired Baruch's determination to pursue a financial career.

Baruch became a preeminent speculator. He made no apologies for it. “The word comes from the Latin speculari -- to observe,” he said. “I observe.” One of his first coups, American Sugar Refining Co. in 1897, provided Baruch with enough funds to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Known as the “Lone Wolf of Wall Street,” Baruch played the market adroitly and quietly, making a fortune in railroad and mining stocks en route to becoming one of the five wealthiest men in America.

Baruch never lost his love for the South, purchasing Hobcaw Barony, a 17,000-acre plantation in South Carolina; his neighbors insisted he was more Southern than Northern. He spent several months a year at his “Garden of Eden,” entertaining such visitors as Winston Churchill and FDR.

Baruch met Woodrow Wilson in 1912, a meeting that changed the course of Baruch's life and possibly history. Baruch’s contributions to Wilson’s successful run for the presidency gave him entrée to the White House, unimpeded access that continued through successive presidencies all the way to John Kennedy.

In 1915 Baruch drafted a plan for economic mobilization that became the War Industries Board; he chaired it for three years. The board controlled the American industrial machine during World War I. Hindenburg was said to have suggested that Baruch “won the war for the Allies.”

Baruch accompanied Wilson to the Versailles Conference as his economic adviser and argued against imposing overbearing reparations on Germany. Unfortunately, Baruch’s advice went unheeded and the world subsequently paid an enormous price—World War II—for the excessive burdens imposed on Germany. Nevertheless, Wilson awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal and offered him a seat on the Cabinet as treasury secretary, an offer Baruch declined.

Churchill and Herbert Hoover were some of Baruch’s best friends. FDR was not. His Brain Trust resented Baruch, and Baruch’s relationship with FDR was strained; Baruch was too conservative for FDR’s New Deal.

 Baruch's last years were devoted to major philanthropic efforts, with special attention to medical schools and hospitals. He died in 1965.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Historical July 4th Festival Being Planned in Manhattan

 Click the link below to read the full article on the excellent New York History Blog:

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Monday, May 26, 2014

Great American Fortunes - Bennett Cerf: Published at Random

PHOTO: Library of Congress
While older Americans may recognize Bennett Cerf from CBS Television’s “What’s My Line?” many may not know he was also a syndicated columnist and the author of 21 joke books. Cerf was also one of the 20th century's greatest publishers, whose imprint literally and figuratively changed the world of publishing.

Cerf was born in Manhattan in 1898. When he was 16, his mother, the scion of a wealthy merchant died, leaving him a $125,000 trust fund. Cerf entered Columbia's School of Journalism in 1915, where he wrote a daily column for the school paper and edited the humor magazine.

After graduating, Cerf became a financial columnist for the New York Tribune, while simultaneously becoming a Wall Street stockbroker. Balancing the two jobs was difficult, but then Cerf got a lucky break.

Richard Simon of Boni & Liveright, a major publishing firm, resigned to form a new publishing house called Simon & Schuster. Short of cash, Horace Liveright offered to make Cerf the vice president of Boni & Liveright, provided Cerf would lend him $25,000. Cerf agreed.

Boni & Liveright published 60 titles a year and founded the Modern Library, a series of the best-known titles in publication. Subsequently, when Liveright was again short of cash, he sold Modern Library to Cerf and his friend Donald Klopfer.

The Modern Library turned into a cash cow, providing them with hefty salaries. And as the Library grew, Cerf and Klopfer decided to start their own publishing company. Picking the name randomly, they called it Random House. At first Random House distributed high-priced limited editions, but when the stock market crashed demand for limited editions disintegrated. Their Modern Library, however, remained Depression-proof.

Publishing was then a gentleman's profession. Books were sold with dignity and decorum, but Cerf saw it differently. "Everyone has a streak of pure, unadulterated ham," he proclaimed. "Many won't admit it. I revel in it!"

Cerf wanted James Joyce's "Ulysses," but it was banned in the United States. In 1932, he met with Joyce in Europe, and returned with a copy of "Ulysses." Upon arrival in New York, Cerf forced a reluctant customs officer to seize the book.

 Cerf anticipated the case would end up in court, so he inserted special reviews of "Ulysses" by notable literati into the copy that customs seized, to ensure their admissibility at trial. The court decided for Cerf and dealt a staggering blow to censorship. Today, "Ulysses" seems about as shocking as "Green Eggs and Ham."

Random House grew after the Depression. Merging with Smith & Haas, whose list included William Faulkner, Random House became a very important publisher.

Cerf continued to staff Random with exceedingly competent editors, including Albert Erskine Jr. and Jason Epstein. He was also known to keep his authors happy. In 1960, Random House acquired Alfred A. Knopf for 135,000 shares of Random House stock, worth roughly $3 million, followed a year later by the purchase of Pantheon books. In 1966 RCA acquired Random House.

Cerf died in 1971, at his 42-acre country home in Mount Kisco. His legacy? Under his leadership, publishing entered the 20th century and Random House became the world's largest English-language trade book publisher.

© 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Wall Street Walks Offering FREE TOURS for Night at the Museums on June 24th

Wall Street Walks will offer free tours of Lower Manhattan on June 24th as a part of the River to River Festival's Night at the Museums.

Tours will leave every 30 minutes, on the hour and half hour, from 4PM to 7:30PM, starting on the sidewalk outside 57 Wall Street. Each tour is limited to 60 people per time slot. 

You may reserve a free advance ticket here. 

Space will also be reserved for walk-ups.

What is the River to River Festival?

Spend the evening visiting the 13 museums and historic sites in Lower Manhattan for free. One of the most concentrated and diverse group of museums in the world, the museums of Lower Manhattan are a genuine American treasure. Museum content and exhibits range from fascinating multimedia shows to intimate galleries of moving personal artifacts to dramatic historical landmarks.And, the sites are within comfortable walking distance of each other. Lower Manhattan is where New York's history and culture begin - start your own journey here.

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Great American Fortunes - August Belmont: The Grand Sachem of New York City

PHOTO by Kurz & Allison circa 1871
In 1877, Charles Dana’s New York Sun reported: “He taught New Yorkers how to eat, how to drink, how to dress, how to drive four-in-hands, how to furnish their houses, how to live generally according to the rules of the possibly somewhat effete, but unquestionably refined, society of the Old World.

August Belmont, the subject of Dana’s story, was a man who ended up in the U. S. by accident, not by design, fell in love with the country, amassed a great fortune, and changed New York forever.

 Born in Germany, Belmont attended a Jewish school, where he was considered untidy, ungovernable, rowdy, and as bullheaded as he was bright. When his father stopped paying for his tuition, Belmont landed a job with the Rothschilds, sweeping floors and polishing furniture. At night he studied French, English, and honed his writing and math skills. Ultimately Belmont became Amschel von Rothschild’s private secretary.

The Rothschilds had major interests in Cuba and sent Belmont to Havana in 1837 to analyze the impact of the Spanish civil war on the island’s economy and on their investments. En route, Belmont stopped in New York City which was in the grip of the Panic of 1837. Belmont decided to visit Rothschilds’ American agents, but discovered they had ceased to exist.

Without consulting the Rothschilds, Belmont remained in New York and took over their American interests. He began to acquire banks and bank notes at depressed prices and made a fortune for the Rothschilds. They rewarded him with a bonus, a $10,000-a-year salary, and a permanent position in the U.S.

Hot tempered, aloof, and at times disdainful, Belmont fought a duel over an insult, the bullet shattering his hip bone. The newspapers accused him of being a roué, but since duels were only fought by gentlemen, Belmont became a “gentleman” in the eyes of Knickerbocker society. The bluebloods began to crave invitations to his extravagant soirées.

 In 1844 he became a naturalized American citizen and five years later married Commodore Matthew Perry’s daughter. Having accumulated a fortune, he turned to politics, working for James K. Polk’s presidential campaign and developing strong ties with the Democratic Party. Subsequently he ran Buchanan’s campaign in New York for the Democratic presidential nomination, but supported Franklin Pierce after he won the nomination. A grateful President Pierce reciprocated by naming Belmont chargé d’affaires at The Hague.

Belmont’s rapid rise to power—by 1860 he was the chairman of the Democratic National Committee—brought about insulting attacks from the Republican press, especially Horace Greeley’s Tribune. Carl Sandburg applauded Belmont’s “anger and courage” in the face of such caustic assaults.

During the Civil War Belmont raised millions for the Union and became an adviser to President Lincoln.

Belmont sponsored a new horse race, the Belmont Stakes. The first running took place in 1867, making it the oldest of the three Triple Crown events. Belmont Park is named after him and his imprint is intertwined with the history of the Kentucky Derby. Belmont died in 1890, leaving a fortune in excess of $50 million.

 © 2008 by Daniel Alef, syndicated columnist and award-winning author of “Pale Truth,” an American historical novel. Mr. Alef can be reached at
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