- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

Keeping up with the Joneses' is an American saying, but it has never been an American ideal. We have always been more interested in getting ahead of the Joneses than in trying to match them. Two new biographies and a memoir remind us that onward and upward, by one means or another, has long been the American way.
Hotel Kid: A Times Square Childhood (Paul Dry Books, $22.95, 214 pages, illustrated) by Stephen Lewis, is the story of how one New York family stayed ahead during the Depression. Mr. Lewis' father was the manager of the Hotel Taft, at that time the biggest hotel in midtown [Manhattan] and, until Rockefeller Center went up, the tallest building in the neighborhood. Mr. Lewis and his brother Peter spent an enchanted childhood living like little princes in the Taft. They were spoiled by the staff while their father, legendary for his attention to detail, and their mother, legendary for rarely being satisfied by the efforts of Taft employees, ruled the hotel like benevolent despots.
The Taft had either 2,000 or 1,437 rooms. The former figure was the nice round number preferred by the Taft management. The latter was the New York Times more realistic estimate. But, as Mr. Lewis writes, "[i]llusion is as necessary to a hotel as passkeys." Once inside the revolving doors, everything in the Taft, from the jumbo size of the drinks in the Tap Room to the dance tunes played by the then-famous Vincent Lopez orchestra in the Taft Grill, and from the "four check-in clerks and three check-out cashiers and two or three clerks to hand you your key and your mail," to the European chefs, was carefully calculated to foster the illusion that the hotel represented the best of everything: "[H]otel life was like a French fairy tale: inside, magic; outside, dark and wintry woods."
Hotel Kid is one of those memoirs that sets out to perform a specific, if limited, task in this case, to evoke another age and introduce the reader to a charming and eccentric family and does it successfully with brevity, wit and (Mr. Lewis is, after all, his fathers son) painstaking attention to detail. The authors mother, in one of her typical complaints, once said: "[The roast beef] looks as if it has a lot of fat on it and I don't 'like it when they leave all that fat on. That's pure fat." She would no doubt be glad to know her son has written a memoir with not an ounce of fat on it, just pure, nostalgic, delicious narrative, about how one family stayed ahead during the Depression, when the Joneses were falling behind.

Another way to get ahead is to persuade otherwise rational, prudent human beings to give you money based solely on your word that you will make them rich (see recent financial headlines for details). In Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the Worlds Greatest Confidence Artist (Doubleday, $22.95, 224 pages, illustrated), Richard Rayner tells the story of Oscar Hartzell (1876-1943), whose long-running con game was so ingenious that it eventually took the combined efforts of the United States and British governments to bring him to justice. Even after his conviction there were still thousands of people eager to give Hartzell their money, so strong was their belief in his integrity.
His scheme (which he inherited from two other sharpsters) was simplicity itself: If you gave him money he promised to eventually give you a fabulous return, because he alone knew how to claim the unimaginably large fortune of the great Elizabethan adventurer/pirate/hero, Sir Francis Drake. Did British authorities and the American State Department repeatedly deny that such a fortune existed, and, even if it did, Hartzell would have no legitimate claim on it? Well, of course they said things like that, Hartzell told his suckers. "The Powers That Be" (a phrase he loved to use), sinister forces eager to deprive good honest folks of Drakes fortune, were arrayed against Hartzell, or so he said. But why was it that years and years went by, with Hartzell living in luxury in London, without anyone ever seeing a penny of the return he promised? These things are difficult, Hartzell argued, and the British courts move slowly. But trust me, I have the King's word that the deal is almost done. The author believes that at the very least 70,000 to 80,000 Americans were duped (the State Department believed the figure was closer to 200,000).
There is some question as to whether Hartzell died mad in a prison hospital or whether his madness was faked, in which case he was a true con man to the end. Mr. Rayner tells his story with personal anecdotes (his father was a con man), good humor, and a grudging, but genuine, admiration for Hartzell.

Has there ever been an American more dedicated to the theory and practice of getting ahead than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)? Indefatigable, insatiably curious, as prominent in scientific experiments as he was in public affairs, Franklin was also a highly successful businessman. His printing business did so well that he was able to retire in his forties and devote the rest of his long life to his many interests. Franklin, whose "Poor Richard's" maxims educated generations of Americans in the art of living wisely, doing good, and doing well, was never idle. In an age of great orators he said little publicly, using his seemingly inexhaustible energies as a problem-solver, working with others to find ways to get useful things done.
In Benjamin Franklin (Yale University Press, $24.95, 368 pages, illustrated) Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University starts Franklin's story not in 1706 when Franklin was born in Boston, but in 1724, when "an athletic young man on a sailing ship, headed back to America from his first trip to England." That we first glimpse Franklin midway between America and England is no accident. Mr. Morgan's book is almost totally concerned with Franklin's life-long dilemma: he considered himself a "true Briton," loyal to the British empire, but also a Philadelphian, a Pennsylvanian and an American, loyal to the land of his birth. How he tried to reconcile these opposing loyalties and failed is a riveting story and a sad one, because even Franklin's diplomatic skills could not stop the inevitable violent split between the "imperial community" he admired and the country he loved.
Note: I must confess I have always found Benjamin Franklin boring. He was my least-favorite Founder. Those platitudes, that experiment with the kite, and his reputation as a pragmatist all seemed inconsequential when one considered the stoic grandeur of George Washington or the fiery intellect of Jefferson. Well, as my sainted grandmother used to say, you're never too old to learn. This book is a superb introduction to Franklin's wide-ranging intellect, shrewdness, common-sense, good will, and his "innate affinity for people of all kinds."

William F. Gavin is a writer in McLean, Va.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide