- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

Convoys of carriages dropped off 600 New York socialites, splendidly costumed as 18th-century grandees, at the Sherry Hotel on Fifth Avenue the night of Jan. 31, 1905. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra entertained in a ballroom transformed to resemble the gardens of Versailles — “grassy turf, sweet rosebushes trained on lattice panels, fragrant wisteria and soft, spicy heather.” The acclaimed French actress, Rejane, performed in a play written specially for her at the ball given by 28-year-old millionaire James Hazen Hyde.

Lavish parties were standard-issue affairs in the “Gilded Age.” They were gaudy and expensive, reported in profuse detail by the newspapers. The conspicuous splendor of those parties seems vulgar now, from the perspective of a century beyond — though such judgment should not be asserted too smugly in today’s celebrity-crazed culture awash in money and lacking usually dignity or grace.

At the time of Hyde’s party, writes Patricia Beard in “After the Ball,” “everyone — those who were invited, and those who had never seen a lobster or a silver spoon — instinctively knew that a big party had serious social significance.” And the glittering gathering on Fifth Avenue ignited a “business brawl that entangled the most famous railroad entrepreneurs, industrialists and financiers of the era … The spectacular fight surrounding one of the three most powerful insurance companies in the world commanded 115 front page stories in the New York Times and 122 in the World in a single year.”

The big three were the Equitable Life Assurance Co., New York Life, and Mutual Life. Their combined assets were $1.2 billion, a pool of capitol that was an important source for corporate investment borrowing. At the turn of the century, half of all the nation’s savings were in life insurance or annuities. The failure of one would decisively affect the fortunes of the other two and destroy the security net for millions of Americans.

Young James Hyde, son of the founder of the Equitable became at 22 the majority shareholder in the closely held enterprise when his father died in 1899. It was his father’s intent that James would become Equitable’s president when he was 30. Well over six feet in height, handsome and incredibly spoiled and dominated by his father, Hyde would prove to be a goldfish swimming with sharks.

Only days before his opulent party, Hyde had found his status as a director and first vice president of the company severely attacked by the older man Hyde’s father had appointed as his mentor and whom he was to succeed as president, J. W. Anderson. Joining in what young Hyde considered a betrayal was the man just beneath him in the Equitable hierarchy, Gage Tarbell.

The ostensible reason for the double-barreled campaign to unseat Hyde was that he lacked the capacity to direct a company with a billion dollars of insurance in force and that he was frivolous and extravagant. He owned a New York brownstone, a house in Paris, a private railroad car, a 400-acre estate on Long Island, and was already famous as one of the top drivers of four-in-hand coaches, “a sport that was almost unparalleled for its expense.” Hyde was considerted the most eligible bachelor in New York, and for a time dated President Roosevelt’s dazzling daughter, Alice. His reputation as an eccentric and ladies man was a stock of the New York gossip writers, the author notes.

“A favorite rumor was that he traveled with three valets, and trunks of black draperies, black silk sheets and black carpet to refit his room in even the grandest houses so he could sleep in absolute darkness. He was well into his sixties when a nephew glanced in this bedroom and saw the [black silk pajamas] laid out on the bed with its lustrous black sheets. Thinking of James’s reputation as a ladies man, he commented wryly, ‘Uncle’s working clothes.’ ”

As the nasty episode over control of Equitable unfolded, the self-righteousness and ambition — and indeed a mental instability — of Hyde’s supposed mentor, Anderson, became evident in his motivation to oust the young man.

The corporate infighting already had caught the public eye. When reports began circulating, likely leaked by Hyde’s opponents, that the ball had cost $200,000 (false) and had been charged to the Equitable (false), what had been a pretty good fire on the scandal meter quickly swelled to an inferno. Lurid details of intricate and ethically questionable dealings quickly emerged, many of them legal at the time but not considered legitimate practices.

Within six months of the ball, James Hazen Hyde was gone in a blaze of notoriety, his company shares purchased for $2.5 million, far less than their intrinsic value. He left for France, a country in the culture of which he had immersed himself, and would not return to the United States for 35 years. Neither of his principal antagonists would emerge from the searing conflict intact in reputation.

The scandal erupted in the shank of the “Gilded Age” and the era of the “robber barons” — a label coined in the 1930s by leftists for liberal consumption to denigrate the dynamic years of American corporate creativity and growth. While there was unalloyed greed and devious dealings, many of the principals also believed, honestly if naively, that they were serving a public interest. James Hyde’s father preached to his son, for example, the “sacred trust” of insurance, though it became known during the dustup that he was at the same time financially crafty.

The dominant industrialists and financiers of the period where giving way to the next generation, and involved in the Equitable fuss were Astors, Vanderbilts and Goulds among them. But many of the big dogs were still active: E.H. Harriman and Henry Clay Frick conspicuous in the institutional carnage that would shake the Equitable to its foundations.

Patricia Beard has done a vivid job in portraying the era and its principals. Her narrative is lively and astute and, perhaps most impressive, she navigates the tangled financial structures and maneuverings with great clarity. This is not a small chore: In the turbulent six months after Hyde’s ball, there were committees upon committees, investigations and inquiries, private and governmental. Out of the turmoil came legislation that, for a time, would better regulate Wall Street, the powerful banks and the insurance companies.

The author invariably compares the events that surrounded the Equitable scandal to the corporate shenanigans of the past few years. It is the case, of course, that when vast wealth is sluicing through a society’s veins, there also will be individuals whose behavior will violate both regulations and permissible bounds of conscience — though most of those involved in the Equitable conflagration seem to have a degree of character not evident in the brittle dot.com malfeasances.

While Mrs. Beard’s profiles of the principals are consistently thorough and compelling, it is odd that the one individual whose character remains elusive is James Hazen Hyde’s. This has less to do with the author’s skill, it strikes the reviewer, than with the young man himself. There does not seem to be any there there. Though he clearly could be a charming fellow and was neither stupid nor uneducated, the more he is on the stage, the less there seems to be to him. Mrs. Beard perhaps suggests an explanation:

” … [H]e was the prince who would rather support the arts than run a kingdom; he was surrounded by advisers who tried to control an underage heir; and he was oppressed by a parent’s strangling love. Uneasy, unready, and alone … He began well, but when he lost his bearings, he did what spoiled and frightened princelings often do: he played when it was most important to work.”

Woody West is associate editor of The Washington Times.

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