A FULL CUP: SIR THOMAS LIPTON'S EXTRAORDINARY LIFE AND HIS QUEST FOR THE AMERICA'S CUP
By Michael D'Antonio
Riverhead, $26.95 354 pages, illustrated
When Kaiser Wilhelm II was in a particularly waspish humor and wanted to denigrate his Uncle Bertie, King Edward VII, he would say of him that he goes sailing on his grocer's yacht. Since he was referring to the retail magnate and purveyor of tea Sir Thomas Lipton, one is tempted to say "some grocer." And on reading "A Full Cup," part biography, part an account of Lipton's lifelong quest to win the America's Cup in an ever more magnificent vessel, "some yacht," as well.
Tommy Lipton was a poor lad from a tough quarter of Glasgow, Scotland, where his parents, themselves immigrants from Ireland, eked out a very modest living in a tiny store where they sold butter, ham and eggs sent over each week from a family friend back home. Unlike the rest of the British Isles, Scotland offered even its humblest children an education, but Tommy was impatient to go out to make his fortune and conquer the (commercial) world, and so left school at 15. Even as a child, the author informs us, he "offered precocious suggestions, including the idea that eggs be served to customers by his mother, because her small hands made them seem bigger."
Clearly blessed with a genius for retail from the earliest age, the mature Lipton made his fortune not by sleight of hand, but by consistently offering a quality product at the lowest possible price. A rough steerage passage transported him to a youthful apprenticeship in the booming post-Civil War United States, enabling him to save some money by working a variety of jobs all over the country, if not to make his fortune exactly. Still, he had learned a lot from what he had seen in the New World, and he returned home in some style, ready to transform first the family shop and then the entire British grocery trade:
"Repeatedly I kept telling myself, that if I could make eighteen pounds by selling a few hams, I could make hundreds of pounds by selling a thousand of them. The operation was the same. The quantities didn't matter. All that did matter was the possession of a vision, determination, quickness to see an opening and to seize a chance."
So on and on he went, making his name famous by creating the first chain of grocery stores and going from there to make it synonymous with tea.
Lipton knew a good thing when he saw it. "By the late 1880s," the author tells us, "the average Briton drank thirty-five gallons of tea per year." Lipton not only used his commercial skills to revolutionize the tea market, but he actually grew his own product, eventually owning vast tracts in Ceylon, then a British colony and now Sri Lanka.
Indeed, by producing a quality Empire product at a good price, he displaced what had been the dominant, but not always superior, Chinese tea: an Imperial preference in every sense of the term. And he told people how to prepare the brew, both at home and even more importantly across the Atlantic, where he made enormous strides in putting it on the map alongside the ubiquitous coffee.
His "spoonful for each person and one for the pot" was to become a byword in tearooms and in homes across the world. It was an excellent way of upping the quantity of tea consumed: No wonder he was known popularly as "Tom Tea" or, after he was knighted, by the grander "Sir Tea."
Lipton had a flair for publicity, and this was an integral part of his marketing genius. His funding of a banquet for the poor of London - featuring Lipton's tea, natch - on the occasion of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee earned him a knighthood from her, and his work with the future Queen Alexandra on such projects brought him into favor with the new court that dominated the early years of the 20th century.
Yachting was indeed a shared passion between Lipton and Edward VII, and he also performed more discreet services for his sovereign. He not only welcomed the royal favorite, Alice Keppel, on his yacht, but gave her husband a job - in New York, which kept him far away as well as ensuring the Keppels an income suitable for a royal mistress.
No wonder the king made him a baronet, which is a grander hereditary knighthood and not, as this book would have it, a peerage. The fact that baronetcies passed to an heir was a moot point with Lipton, since he never married despite being dubbed one of the world's most eligible bachelors for decade after decade.
Much of "A Full Cup" details Lipton's dogged but ultimately unsuccessful quest to win the America's Cup, the last attempt being only a year before his death in 1931, aged 83. It is clear from this account that there never was a more passionate competitor, but equally never a more gracious loser. And his failed quest drew great admiration and sympathy.
Will Rogers "called on his readers to donate to a fund to buy a loving cup for Lipton 'bigger than the one he would have got if he had won' and suggested an inscription celebrating 'the world's most cheerful loser. You have been a benefit to mankind Sir Thomas. You have made losing worthwhile.' "
"A Full Cup" celebrates a remarkable man: a great philanthropist and entrepreneurial tradesman, blessed with style, flair and, most of all, great spirit.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
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