I had the good fortune to participate in a workshop at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library led by the talented Claudia Ricci. What a relief to leave behind research and early twentieth century America for a few hours!
I sit in the summer house at the back of my garden while the red squirrel cuts half-ripe cones from the spruce tree high overhead. In the distance, I hear the first calls of the geese taking this year’s brood for a practice flight. The sound brings with it the smell of golden leaves lit by low sunlight.
The plants that surround me are pushing out their last flowers in a rush to make seed before a frost cuts short their leafy lives. All this beauty underlain with desperate determination – all life writ small.
I hear a rustle in the viburnums. Suddenly, she’s there, still as a statue. Only her ears move. She takes a step, then another, and then behind her are this year’s fawns.
I stay so still, so quiet, and the doe begins to move along the border, delicately snipping flowerheads one by one, thoughtfully masticating. The fawns are less discriminating, trying plant after plant.
“Deer resistant!” they seem to say. “Take that, allium, and that, you prickly holly!”
Enough, I think, and sit up straight. A startled look, a quick retreat, and I am alone again.
“Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.” (Emphasis mine.) – In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, New York, Crown Publishers, 2011.
This remarkable study of the sinking of the Lusitania effectively captures both the nervous gaiety of this massive ship’s last voyage and the cold despair of her passengers in the waters of the Irish coast where so many met their end. In a parallel thread, author Diana Preston takes us into the cramped and musty submarine, U20, to meet her captain, Walther Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo attack.
Perhaps even more interesting to the student of the history of the Great War is Preston’s analysis of reactions on the US, England and Germany. While there was blame all around – from the US’s unacknowledged bias toward Britain, to the Royal Navy’s fudging of records – newly available German records show the Imperial Navy’s commitment to unrestricted use of submarine warfare and their unwillingness to respect the international agreement to “stop and search” commercial liners.
This volume provides a riveting read as well as adding significantly to our understanding of this pivotal event the American path toward war.
I’ve just finished John Dean’s biography of Warren Gamaliel Harding, American president from 1921 to 1923[i], and I am struck by the parallels between that period almost exactly 100 years ago with the political drama playing out today.
(For those of you who haven’t read Dean’s book, I should say here that I am not making the obvious reference to the scandals that plagued Harding’s last year in office and the decade after his death. With the rediscovery of his presidential papers[ii], thought to have been destroyed by his widow, a new image of Harding and his presidency emerges in this biography.)
Warren Harding was, by all accounts, a handsome man who looked presidential — perhaps no parallel here — and who spoke in easy if not profound platitudes. (William McAdoo described his “bloviating” thus: “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it dies of servitude and over work.”[iii])
The intelligentsia were not impressed:
“The New Republic called Harding ‘…without strength of character, without administrative experience, without knowledge of international politics, without any of those moral or intellectual qualities which would qualify him even under ordinary conditions for statesmanlike leadership.’ ” [iv]
Harding was a businessman, having owned and run the Marion, Ohio, Star newspapers for some years, and he was exquisitely aware of the problems plaguing the American economy after the World War – hundreds of thousands of men returning all at once to the work force, threats to agriculture and other sectors from stabilizing European markets, labor unrest, and the burden of emergency war taxation. The League of Nations had been voted down in Congress, and Harding offered voters a chance to turn their focus inward. He said:
“[We must] make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of Old World stabilization. Call it selfishness or nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion — to safeguard America first, to stabilize America first, to prosper America first, to live for and revere America first.”[v]
He might have added, let’s make America great again.
“Harding … talk[ed] about his new favorite subject — Americanism, which had become something of a Republican mantra in 1920. What was Americanism? When asked, Republican senator Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania said, ‘Damned if I know, but you will find it a damn good issue to get votes in an election.”[vi]
His focus on Americanism brought two corollaries with it. Dean describes the first:
“Nativism, that ugly sister of nationalism, had emerged in the aftermath of the war [World War I]. Foreigners were suspect and unwanted. The fact that they were taking jobs during a time of serious unemployment aggravated the nation’s nativistic mood and produced almost universal support … for restricting immigration.” [vii]
The result was Per Centum Law, signed on May 19, 1921, which limited the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.
The second corollary was more complex and had consequences for every American. Harding began his term as a supporter of strong tariffs to protect the interests of American business. As he studied the problem with the help of economist William S. Culbertson, his views became more nuanced and he advocated a tariff policy with restrictions that could be adjusted to respond to changes in American and foreign markets. Dean again:
“By July 1921 the House passed a bill that increased tariffs across the board…. Harding soon found that the new law was not sufficiently flexible to prevent repercussions, and agriculture was first to suffer from the high tariffs, followed soon by other industries in later years…. While in office [Harding] remained favorable to protective tariffs. So too did his successors (Coolidge and Hover), until the American financial system collapsed in 1929, with tariffs playing their own role in the financial market’s crash.” [viii](Emphasis mine.)
After his election, it was Harding’s desire to bring a business-like management to the federal government. To give credit where it’s due, he established the Office of the Budget and Management and combined three competitive organizations into the new Veteran’s Administration. Both of these actions resulted in savings and increased efficiency.
He was soon to learn, however, that running the government had little in common with running a family business, and the hands-on approach that had worked well in Marion, OH, was less effective in the Oval Office. His determination to master his ever-increasing workload most certainly hastened his death by heart failure three years into his term.
Can we say with Karl Marx, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”?
[i] John W. Dean, Warren G. Harding (The American President Series, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., General Editor), New York, Henry Holt & Company, 2004.
“Gaston B. Means. I think he was the worst crook I ever knew….He was a complete scoundrel. But he was the type some people liked — a sort of lovable scoundrel.”
So said J. Edgar Hoover in one of his last interviews as quoted by Curt Gentry in J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets. Gaston’s roller coaster career as America’s most likable scoundrel was fueled by his tall tales told with absolute conviction and a cherubic smile. But much of Means’ story remains a puzzle to those who know him from Boardwalk Empire or who speculate about the truth on conspiracy web sites.
Gaston was my grandfather, and now, 100 years after his first trial, I’ve come to believe that Gaston cannot be understood except in relation to his beloved wife, my own grandmother and namesake.
What follows is a portion of his story as told in my work in progress,The Ring of Truth: The Private History of Gaston B. Means.
On November 14, 1897, when Gaston Means was confirmed in the new All Saints Episcopal Church, Concord was a bustling town in the red clay hills of piedmont North Carolina. Cotton was the staple crop, the railroad was running again, and J.W. Cannon’s new mill was up and producing the housewife’s favorite Cannon cloth. After the disruptions of Reconstruction, this was a good time to be a young man in the South.
After the service, the family assembled in their North Union Street dining room for Sunday dinner. When the table had been cleared, Gaston called to his brothers, “Let’s head downtown to see what’s doing, boys.”
Brandon Means and Gaston walked together down Union Street toward the businesses south of Cabarrus Avenue. Large young men, they walked as thought they owned the sidewalk, and as sons of the mayor, perhaps they did. Afton, the youngest and always called Tony, stuck close to Gaston, and Frank as usual brought up the rear.
The boys stopped in front of the Cannon & Fitzer windows, and the older boys gazed at the display of hats and shoes while Tony kicked a stone into the street. Gaston jingled the change in his pocket and frowned.
“What’s eating you, Bud? You sure don’t have much to say today.”
“Just thinking about the bishop, Brandon. By rights, he should have had dinner with us today.”
“Aw, you know the Gibson’s dining room is bigger, and they can afford to make a fuss over him, I guess.”
“But with all the time Mother has put into that damned church, and Pop being the mayor, it should have been our place, I’m thinking. That’s all.” He glanced around. “Things are pretty quiet today. No chance of a ball game on a Sunday, I suppose.”
“Bud, you’ll be out of here before any of us,” said Frank. “Wish I was going along to Chapel Hill with you,” he added softly.
“Wait your turn, Frank. Meanwhile, I could use some amusement!” His eyes swept the all but empty streets and closed storefronts. “I’m going home. How about some horseshoes?”
Brandon spat. “Might as well,” and he headed back up the street.
“Will I be able to visit you at college, Bud?”
Gaston looked down at his youngest brother and smiled. “Sure, Tony, and I’ll be home in summer and for the holidays. Meanwhile, you’ll have to keep these two out of trouble.”
“Aw, Bud, you know Frank never gets up to anything, and Brandon’s bad as you.” Tony grinned and ran ahead up the walk.
The Means boys were known around town as great fun but mean as snakes when crossed. Word was, they got that from their grandfather, “General” William Cresswell Means, now buried beside his wife, Catherine Barringer, in Oakwood Cemetery. The General had been the largest landowner in Cabarrus County before the War, an innovative farmer and instrumental in bringing the railroad to Concord. He had married well and was prosperous enough to provide his six sons with university educations.
Emancipation and then the death of his wife had been his downfall. He took to squabbling with his neighbors, and finally his son William Gaston Means was called home to manage his affairs. W. G., “the Colonel,” had been practicing law in Memphis when he brought his wife, Corallie née Bullock, and their three daughters back to the home place at Blackwelder’s Spring. Gaston was born there in 1879.
When W. C. died in 1880, there was little left of his estate but land. The farms were divided among his children, some were sold to pay expenses, and the Colonel moved his family into a three-story house on the east side of North Union Street.
Gaston was a bright boy with charming manners and deep dimples. His father was pleased to take him along to the office and often used him to run notes to clients in town and to the courthouse one block away. The boy soon found that the best entertainment to be had was listening to the grown men around him chewing over their neighbors’ affairs, both business and personal. If there was something puzzling to his young mind, he took the story to his father for explication, and the Colonel often found these tidbits helpful in court. When Gaston’s Uncle George Washington Means went to work for the Secret Service in Washington, D.C., the boy made up his mind to pursue a career as an investigator and began the habit of carrying a small notebook in which he recorded the habits of those around him.
In the fall of 1898, he left Concord for the University of North Carolina. By all accounts, Gaston was a middling student and, although suited to the football field at six feet and two hundred pounds, a lackadaisical athlete. His sharp wit and dimpled smile, along with his willingness to laugh at his own failings, made him a star of the Chapel Hill social scene, however, and in his sophomore year, he was elected to the Dialectical Society, Theta Nu Epsilon, and Zeta Psi.
By his third year, Gaston was tiring of his pre-law classes, and with Brandon at the Bingham School in Mebane, North Carolina, money for tuition was tight in the Means family. Word that the new Albemarle Graded School was looking for a superintendent brought him home, and a whisper in the right ear from his father secured him the position. He took up residence at the Hearn Hotel and worked hard, even returning to Chapel Hill for summer courses. He was well respected, but by 1902, Gaston was restless. The town of Albemarle was too small and his position too prominent to allow much personal scope. The trip back and forth to Concord was tedious over the unimproved dirt road, and his social life had been reduced to an occasional Sunday dinner with the family. When his father’s new client James Cannon mentioned his plans to expand his sales efforts into the northeast, Gaston was ready to assist.
The Cannon Manufacturing Company was a powerhouse in the South, and James Cannon was its driving force. His vision and skill had given the housewife Cannon Cloth, sturdy enough for sacking and fine enough for fashion, and had opened the Chinese market to American cotton fabric. Through these innovations, Concord had weathered the economic depression of the 1890s with barely a hiccough. An early proponent of vertical integration, in 1903 Cannon created his own selling agency, Cannon Mills, Inc., and sent John C. Leslie from Concord to open an office in New York City. Gaston accompanied him as a traveling man.
The new sales office was a grand success, and by 1905, Gaston was wearing custom-made suits and silk bow ties and contributing articles on the cotton business to industry publications. He stayed in touch with a cadre of Tarheels now living in New York, including Phillips Russell and the brothers Ralph and Louis Graves who had moved their entire family north while they pursued careers in journalism.
On a warm September evening in 1908, Gaston returned to his rooms on West 16th Street from a successful trip through the Midwest. As he stood in the foyer thumbing through his mail, he was greeted by his fellow lodger Milano Tilden. “Bud, you’re home! Were the Detroit shopkeepers in a mood to buy?”
“They were when I got though with them,” Gaston laughed. “Where are you headed all buffed up like that, Miles?”
“A few of us are taking in that revue at the Casino Theatre, The Mimic World. A chum of mine is in the production and says it’s closing soon. Say, why not join us and we can get some supper after?”
“I need to get out of these duds and send off a note or two first. I’ll meet you in the lobby at eight.”
“Fine! We’ll see you there. I hear there are some remarkable young women on show,” he added.
Gaston grinned and waved him out the door.
After the show, Gaston accompanied Tilden and his friends to Café Martin and ordered drinks while they waited for Tilden’s acquaintance from the revue to join them. When he arrived, he had two choristers in tow. They were introduced to the party as Frank Thomas, Miss Mavis Johnson, a pretty blond with a rouged and pouty mouth, and Miss Edith Poole, a slender, Juno-eyed young woman who looked all the better for her seeming lack of make-up.
The conversation was general as they ate, but when the table was cleared, the coffee poured, and the brandies ordered, Gaston leaned back from the table, looked around at the little party, and smiled.
Leaning to his left, Tilden whispered, “Prepare yourself, Miss Johnson, to be entertained. Mr. Means tell the best tales you are likely to hear.”
“You all will have heard of the 1799 North Carolina gold rush? As you will recall, a boy called Conrad Reed found a seventeen pound nugget of solid gold in a creek bed in Cabarrus County, just down the road a piece from my granddaddy’s plantation. Well, that big old hunk of gold sat right there on the floor in that boy’s home for three years, holding open the kitchen door, before his papa took it off to Fayetteville to find out what it was. And that’s how it all began.
“Well then, you can imagine how I felt some eighty-eight years later when I heard that story. A boy of nine, I was just all fired up. Every day after school, me and my brother Brandon headed down to Three Mile Branch and marched up and down its banks, searching for a gleam of yellow. This went on for three or four weeks, and you can believe we wore ourselves out with looking.
“This one afternoon, we had about decided to give it up, when I threw myself down onto a grassy spot on the bank and set to shying stones into the water. Well, what do you know! The very first stone I threw turned over a few pebbles in that stream, and that’s when I saw it. Gold! It was just a glimmer, but I waded in and got to digging around, and before I knew it, I had unearthed a nugget almost too big to lift out of the water.
“Brandon!” I called. “You come over here and help me lift this gold.”
We pulled and tugged, but that piece of gold was just too big and too slippery for two young boys to shift. Before long, we decided to give it up and head home for a shovel and tote sack. We kicked the mud and stones back over the gold in that creek bed, and I broke off two willow switches and stuck them into the bank to mark the spot. Then we set off for the house.
“But while we were running through the woods, the wind picked up and we heard the thunder of a coming storm. The sky behind us was black as night, and the rain kept getting closer. We just made it home before all hell broke loose – a real frog-strangler. There was no way our mother was letting us out of the house. The gold would just have to wait.
“Well, the next morning was a Saturday, and after our chores were done, Brandon and I grabbed that shovel and tote sack and headed back to the creek. First thing I noticed was the bare branches and all the leaves torn off by the wind. And then I began to look for our mark, the two switches stuck in the bank. We must have searched for a quarter hour before I figured out the problem.
“Brandon,” I said. “Look here. That damned storm has washed the bank clear away and our marker with it.”
“Well, we looked and we looked for some sign of the right spot. And we took off our shoes and used our toes to dig around in the mud of that creek all up and down. But we never did hit on that big old nugget. For all I know, it’s still in there yet.
“And that, my friends, is how I almost started the Second Great North Carolina Gold Rush.”
Gaston downed his brandy to the approbation of the men in the party while Miss Johnson pursed her lips and exclaimed, “Oh, what a shame! Why, Mr. Means, you would have been as rich as Vanderbilt, and you lost it all while just a little boy.
“Hush, Mavis,” Miss Poole said softly. She smiled at Gaston. “We’ll just have to make a trip down South, Mr. Means, to find that nugget. I met a few prospectors in Denver while I was at school, and I might know a few tricks.”
“Well then, Miss Poole, you and I will just have to explore the possibilities.” Gaston’s dimples deepened.
As the party broke up, Miss Poole shook Gaston’s hand and slipped something into his jacket pocket, then walked off arm-in-arm with Miss Johnson and shepherded by Mr. Thomas. Gaston and Tilden turned south and headed down Broadway toward their lodgings. As they passed under a street lamp, Gaston felt in his pocket and pulled out a small white card. “Miss Edith C. Poole,” he read, “151 East 32nd Street, New York, New York.”
“Aah,” he said, throwing a arm around his friend’s shoulder and beginning to whistle.