Monday, June 2, 2014

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

PHOTO: CUNY
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 dalef@titansoffortune.com.

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