The Classicist: Magnates, Mansions & Millionaires
The excesses of today's tycoons have come under lots of scrutiny lately due to the dire financial situation. Titans of business have always been at the forefront of American mythology however, in both good times and bad, and it's worth putting today's crop of nabobs in their proper historical context. That's what William G. Scheller has done admirably in his new book, Great Estates: The Lifestyles & Homes of American Magnates (Universe, $35). The oversized, lavishly illustrated volume celebrates the history of 40 of America's true barons of business, from the 1700s through this year's Forbes list, and opens the door into their private palaces along the way.
Beginning with the colonial era, when trade was overtaking landholding as a way to get rich, Great Estates follows the "restless careers of our most brilliant and driven merchants, industrialists, and financiers as they mastered a new economic world of textiles, railroads, oil, and steel." With the twentieth century came fresh opportunities: "automobiles, motion pictures, broadcasting, publishing, and retailing on a massive scale, and the vast horizon of high technology." And of course the massive mansions that men of great fortune erected as monuments to their success along the way.
These include Henry Clay Frick's Manhattan mansion, now a magnificent museum; William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon in California, aka Hearst Castle; and one of our personal favorites, railroad magnate Jay Gould's gothic castle on the Hudson River, Lyndhurst (pictured above on the book's cover). Shortly after he purchased the estate as a summer home in 1880, Gould was at the zenith of his power, having gained control of Western Union Telegraph, the New York Elevated Railway and the Union Pacific Railroad with rapacious methods that once caused him to be beaten by a Wall Street mob.
Gallery: Magnates' Great Estates
Scheller writes how John Jacob Astor parlayed success in the fur trade into status as Manhattan's master landlord and richest man in America, "only to be eclipsed by Cornelius Vanderbilt, who leaped like a nimble Croesus from steamships to railroads." From there he traces the fortunes of Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Fords, as well as J.P. Morgan, Hearst and Howard Hughes through to Malcolm Forbes and modern moguls like Warren Buffett, Steven Spielberg, Ted Turner, and Bill Gates. Are they any different than their preposterous predecessors?
"If there has been a sea change in the ways in which great fortunes are made," Scheller notes, "it has been more than matched by the style in which they have been spent. This isn't just a matter of the things that money can buy - the difference, say, between a private railroad car and a private jet. It's a matter of how inconspicuously so many of the very rich now consume." Scheller ascribes this mainly to what he terms "the democratization of taste"; but we'll have to wait and see how long this relatively newfound caution really lasts.