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 entrĂ©e 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

For more information about Wall Street and New York's Financial District, join a Wall Street Walks guided walking tour!