Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 2

continued from Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 1

I must have read the news stories about the case that, in the fall of 1978, began to appear in the papers that I daily perused in the subway train that took me from my rented flat in the Dupont Circle to my place of work in Downtown Washington at that time. But, with such events as the recent Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, the death, after only thirty-three days in office, of Pope John Paul I, the election of his successor, Pope John Paul II, Vietnam’s incursion into Cambodia, the Jonestown mass murder/suicide, in which 913 people died, including 276 children, the abortive military coup in Spain, the assassination of George Moscone, mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, the openly gay city supervisor, and riots and demonstrations in Teheran, it constituted a tiny blip on the radar screen of my attention, and I could not then have imagined how, within a few months, this apparent suicide would, in the short term, “impact upon”, and, in the longer term, change the whole course of, my life.

This had begun some twenty-five years earlier in my parents’ home in one of the lower eighties in Upper East Side, New York. My father’s side of the family were wealthy, White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants whose forbears had settled in America in the late 1600s. They had come over with the Whitneys, Lords, Phelpses, Wadsworths, Allens, Bundys, Tafts, Gilmans and Perkinses, to many of whom we were by marriage, if not by blood, distantly or otherwise, related. They came not to escape religious persecution (they had been quite comfortable in the established Church of England), only to perish of hunger and cold in the rigours of the Massachusetts winter, nor indeed to build John Winthrop’s “citty on a hill”, but “in the hope of gain in time to come”.

This hope was soon realised, first, from farming, then from shipbuilding and from carrying loads of codfish to England, Spain and Portugal and returning with much needed manufactured goods. They also exported to the West Indies, which was supplying molasses to Boston rum distilleries and slaves to wealthy landowners.

Some Westingleys, tiring of Winthrop’s theocracy, followed Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson to Narragansett Bay, where they established shipbuilding yards in Portsmouth and Newport, cotton plantations in South County, and, in time, cotton mills in Pawtucket and Providence.

During the American Revolutionary War, they were initially unenthusiastic about independence but, having bought heavily discounted public paper from impoverished Virginia farmers, were won over to Republicanism when, at the behest of Alexander Hamilton, the newly-formed Federal Government bought them back at par value. Sharing Hamilton’s deeply cynical view of humanity, they were profoundly suspicious of democracy, and might, as he is reputed to have done, have declared, “The People is a great beast”. Believing that the governance of the newly formed Republic was too important to be left to the masses, they took an active part in the political life of the Nation, siding with Hamilton’s Federal Party, which represented northern, mercantile concerns and the centralised power of the federal state, as opposed to Jefferson’s Republican (Democratic) party, which drew its support from southern, agrarian interests and which championed the power of the individual states against central government.

Conscious, perhaps, of having profited from a war in which others had sacrificed their lives for such unalienable rights as Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Westingleys had fought in every foreign conflict that the United States had been involved in since the Barbary Wars, in which one of my illustrious forbears had served as a fourteen-year-old midshipman on a frigate in Jefferson’s fledgling Navy and had seen the Philadelphia burn. They did so whether or not they agreed with its expansionist, as in the case of the Mexican, or, in the case of the Spanish, imperialist, war aims.

Damaged by Jefferson’s ban on imports, Westingleys had taken their place amongst delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut who met in Hartford in October, 1814, to discuss making a separate peace with Britain. Unable for the time being to make money from trade, some converted their ships into privateers and raided British merchantmen in their own waters, raking in millions of dollars from the proceeds of the sales.

In the early eighteen twenties, my direct forbears made the move to New York, where they built ships on Corlear’s Hook on East Side, managed their business from counting houses above their warehouses on Schermerhorn Row, and gradually amassed a fortune from importing olive oil, dried figs, and dates from the Mediterranean; ivory and wool from Africa; bags of coffee beans from Brazil; and, above all, exporting furs to the Far East and bringing back tea, cinnamon, cloves, cassia and pepper. They lived for a year or so on lower East Side, before transferring to the healthier climes of Greenwich Village and, eventually, took up residence in fashionable Washington Square until the centre of New York high society shifted once again.

Having invested heavily in the South, they initially opposed going to war against the Confederate States, but served loyally in the ranks of the Federal Army once it had become clear that war was inevitable. During the Civil War, my great, great-grandfather enrolled at Cesnola’s private military school, which took up an entire floor in the Hotel St. Germaine on the corner of Broadway and Twenty-second Street. After enlisting in the Fourth New York Cavalry, he fought with him in the battles of Chantilly, Berryville, and Aldie, where, in a foolhardy and reckless attempt to capture enemy artillery, his horse was shot from under him and he was captured. Following his release from Libby Prison in an exchange of prisoners, he rejoined his regiment and fought under General Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley Campaign.

Following the War, he resumed his career as a trial lawyer, a career distinguished by dramatic victories on behalf of wealthy clients and powerful corporations. He became active in Republican politics and played a leading role in exposing the iniquities of the Tweed Ring. One of the most popular after-dinner speakers of the day, he once raised eyebrows when he remarked that he admired the pilgrim mothers more than the Pilgrim Fathers because, as well as having had to endure the same hardships as their husbands, they had also had to put up with the Pilgrim Fathers!

With Olmstead and Vaux magically summoning Central Park from the swampland of Upper Manhattan in the 1870s, the Danforths bought a plot of land alongside Fifth Avenue and built a Venetian-style Renaissance Palace with Gothic arches and intricate Moorish latticework. As the price of land on “Millionaires’ Row”, as that stretch of Fifth Avenue was then known, rocketed, so, too, did the temptation to sell. The mansion was demolished, along with a few others in the block, and, in their place, rose a limestone clad, twelve-story Italian Renaissance Palazzo-style apartment house, in which my great-grandfather reserved a duplex situated on the top floors that had more floor space than the original mansion.

As a young man, my grandfather rode in 1914 into Mexico with General John “Black Jack” Pershing in pursuit of Sancho Villa, and fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the final months of World War 1. In 1926, missing the excitement of war, and tiring of sitting on the boards of the several companies in which the family had interests, he borrowed money on the call market, and, like many others at the time, bought stock on margin.

Towards the middle of 1929, shortly before the bubble finally burst, he liquidated his entire stock holdings, which had grown to four times the value of his initial investment, paid back his creditors and invested some of the proceeds in gold and government bonds while retaining a large cash reserve.

On October 24 (“Black Thursday”), Wall Street crashed.

October 29 (“Black Tuesday”), found him once again on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, this time not to sell, but to buy undervalued stock in otherwise sound companies that those who, like him, had borrowed heavily in order to buy stock, but who, unlike him, had not bailed out in time, found themselves forced to sell in order to obtain much needed liquidity, and which, in the bear-mood that prevailed on Wall Street at that time, nobody wanted to buy. According to family tradition, it was my grandfather who was the “stranger” who, recognizing Winston S. Churchill on Wall Street, had invited him to the visitors’ gallery of the New York Stock Exchange to observe at first hand the dizzying dégringolade.

Text copyright © Anthony T. Hopkins 2008. All rights reserved by the author.


1 Response to “Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 2”

  1. 1 Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 3 « Suzie-Q Trackback on March 15, 2008 at 12:56 pm
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