by: Carl Sifakis
140 of the Greatest Human Interest Stories ever told.
It is not easy to be an eccentric in America today. At first glance, it might not seem too difficult. All that appears necessary is a bit of engaging, or perhaps obnoxious, deviant behavior and you are an instant eccentric. However, we Americans no longer are the tolerant social beings we once were.
Today, more than ever in our history, we accept in only a few the sane whimsy or crazy sanity that marks a true eccentric. An ordinary person is no longer trusted with such traits. We generally apply a class test to judge behavior: If you are poor and act bizarrely, you’re crazy and perhaps dangerous. If few poor persons can make the grade, virtually no middle-class person would dare to try, preferring strict conformity over eccentric chic. Only the very rich can be humored in their eccen-
tricity. This was not true in colonial days or in the first three or four generations of the new nation. Rich, poor, and in-between, early American eccentrics were, if not honored, regarded as a diverting and even beneficial ingredient in a new nation without completely fixed social hierarchy or identity.
As American society came of age, we somewhere along the line lost our appreciation for poor or middle-class eccentrics; only the super-rich now seem to be both amazing and unthreatening in their deviations from normal standards of behavior. Most important, they have the wherewithal to cater to their whims without becoming public charges. For example, there was Horseback Billings, the chairman of the hoard of Union Carbide, who threw the most grotesque dinner in American history. He had his guests, horse lovers all, eat in the ballroom of Louis Sherry’s famous New York restaurant while mounted on their steeds, partaking of a $250-a-plate pheasant dinner from feed bags and guzzling champagne from large rubber casks. The cost of the feast came to $50,000, including the planting of sod on the ballroom floor and its later removal with a rather noticeable amount of manure, a fact of nature, the society writers sniffed, that diminished the elegance of the event. Still, Billings’ squandering ways brought him fame, just as the fabulously rich and miserly Hetty Green was celebrated for hardly ever parting with a dime. We still celebrate the recluse if he is a millionaire, a Ia the Collyer brothers, or, if only a poor man, one who turns out to be a secret miser like Stephen Senior who played the poor beggar, but used thousands of dollar bills to insulate the porous walls of his rude shack from the sub-zero blasts of wind. Overall, we prefer the rich who flaunt it. Berry Wall could change his attire at Saratoga Springs forty times in a single day to win the nickname “King of the Dudes.” Mrs. Jack Gardner, a mainstay of Boston society, could indulge herself by paying Paderewski $3,000 to conceal himself behind a screen and play at teatime for an elderly friend and herself.
This hook is arranged in rough chronological order, and what becomes apparent as we read about 20th-century eccentrics is that most of them are rich. Those not blessed with wealth—such as compulsives Burro Schmidt, the human mole; Edward Leedskalnm, the builder of Florida’s amazing coral castle; Shipwreck Kelly, the flagpole sitter; and One-Eyed Connelly, the great gate-crasher—were required to perform impressive deeds. Johnny Appleseed may he celebrated in story and verse today, but he and other strange itinerants such as Jules Bourlay, the Old Leather Man, would more likely be rousted as cranks or derelicts striking chords of fear in the minds of modern Americans., rather than treated with the charity and respect earlier Americans gave them. Rather than being permitted to practice their acts of ethics or contrition, arid even offered bed and board, they would he relegated to fringe society and regarded as outlaws. The 20th—century counterparts of Calamity .lane, as well as the grizzled loner prospectors who had no real interest in striking it rich, are to be found in every big city in America—as hag ladies and homeless men. We no longer honor such individuals with colorful nicknames. They are suffered in silence while our gaze is fixed elsewhere. A century or two ago the rules of social intercourse were 1)roader, and eccentrics, rich or poor, were tolerated and excuses sought for their behavior.
Each society creates the ground rules for its own eccentrics, and the standards constantly change. Many well-known eccentrics of the 18th and 19th centuries find no place in this volume because they cannot meet present-day criteria. The Reverend George H. Munday is one. He was noted in Philadelphia in the first quarter of the last century for an idiosyncrasy that would not cause a ripple today. . Yet, Philadelphians gathered by the hundreds to listen to the torrential sermons of the Reverend Mr. Munday whom they referred to as the “Hatless Preacher.” For that was the sum total of his erratic behavior, that he was a man of the cloth who wore no hat in this capital of hat-wearing Quakers. Of more lasting fame, although his deviations would be of minor mettle today, was Joseph Palmer who became one of the most hated eccentrics of the I 830s, subjected to what is now mind-boggling persecution. His offense: wearing a beard at a time when no Americans did so. For this he was sneered at, denounced as a “degenerate,” stoned, and finally arrested. Ironically, within two decades beards became commonplace, and not long afterward Abraham Lincoln became the first of several U.S. presidents to sport whiskers.
As the fabric from which the eccentric is cut changes, some say eccentricity is vanishing from the American scene. They are unimpressed by the so-called nonconformists of the recent past—the longhairs, the acidheads, the bearded ones (again)—denying that these are true eccentrics. They are probably correct: These supposed aberrations are in fact the conformity of their own generation. As sociologist Werner Cahnman has stated: “Eccentricity frequently becomes only the transition between two conformities.” Not long ago TIME magazine bewailed what it called “the sad state of eccentricity in the United States. Where were those, it asked, with “the grand style and creative bursts ... that marked the golden age of English eccentrics, among them one exotic aristocrat who habitually (lined with dogs dressed as humans and another who spent his life trying to breed a symmetrically spotted mouse.
In what may have been almost an act of desperation, the publication tried to churn up interest in possible eccentrics among some of its own targets; it settled especially on atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whom it saw as a person with “more religious fervor than anyone since Cotton Mather,” and twitted for her announcement, “I’m no eccentric. I’m the leader of a valid movement. Iii any event TIME’s effort to pin the label of eccentricity on O’Hair by citing such statements of hers as “I will separate church and state, by God!” falls a bit short of convincing. Dismissing ones opponents as eccentrics has become the American way of battle. When Ralph Nader first set his aim on the least enviable accomplishments in matters of car safety, the officials of General Motors sought to tar him with the eccentric brush. What else could a male American be who didn’t even own an automobile?
Who then is the real eccentric in modern America? Harvard sociologist Peter McEwan described him as a person who is “extraordinarily secure. Other people are either wrong or going about life ineffectually. He thinks that he has the answer
The U.S. Census, alas, (does not classify and count eccentrics, but even the most casual research makes it readily apparent that an earlier America had many more, from the likes of Appleseed to Thoreau, marching to their own drummers. Is the record different elsewhere? The British Isles have long been reputed to be the most fertile breeding ground for eccentricity, and it is said that the British embrace engaging practitioners of the odd and bizarre in a manner no other people has achieved. That may well be more myth than reality, especially in the present .Dame Edith Sitwell in her 1957 classic English Eccentrics finds no way to break the 20th-century barrier in quest of delightful deviates.
The study of eccentrics hardly achieves the level of a science, and most generalizations prove no more dependable than their subjects. Are there really more English eccentrics than Americans; if so, why? Do the English truly honor their eccentrics more, or is it simply a case that they produce more eccentric people? There are those observers who insist an island country that suffers over 200 days s of rainfall a year has a running start toward unusual behavior. On the other hand,, England’s colonial cousins certainly have no trouble matching their overseas eccentric counterparts, quirk for quirk. Major Peter Labcllière, described by Sitwell as “a Christian patriot and citizen of the world was so disenchanted with the
state of the planet that he declared in his will that “as the world was turned topsy-turvy it was fit that he should be so buried that he might be right at last.” An American counterpart in odd burials could well be ‘Texas-horn millionairess Sandra Ilene West who had a love affair with automobiles; upon her death at the age of 37 she was buried, according to her instructions, “next to my husband in my Ferrari, with the seat slanted comfortably.” A shade more materialistic in outlook than the good major perhaps, but Labellière made his departure in 1800 and West in 1977; materialism by the later date had had its impact on the appreciation, and indeed the definition, of eccentricity.
Among odd members of the clergy Sitwell offers the Reverend Mr. Jones, curate of Blewberry in Berkshire, who wore the same hat and coat (during the 43 years of his curacy. When, after some 35 years the brim of his hat had worn away, he stole the hat from a scarecrow and appropriated its brim; jet black and tar-twined, it fit rather jarringly to his own brown crown. Then too there was the Reverend Mr. Trueman who stole turnips in the field as he trekked on his works of righteousness among the farms of Daventry. Cajoling invitations to spend the night, the Reverend Mr. Trueman would pinch “the red or white worsted out of the corners of the blankets, and with these variegated pickings he mended his clothes and his stockings. These gentlemen suffered from the sin of parsimony, but their behavior passes as trivial oddity compared to Handkerchief Moody, a pastor in York, Maine, who for the final two decades of his pastorage wore a fold of crepe knotted above the forehead, covering all his facial features. In church he preached with his back to the congregation, his masked appearance adding unneeded elements of dreariness to 1)0th weddings and funerals. Of course, the Reverend Mr. Moody had a heavier cross to bear—complicated motivation best left to his entry—than either Reverend Messrs. Jones or Trueman.
The writing of any book requires the author to start with pre-conceived notions, but even the most logical-sounding theories on eccentrics teeter. It certainly seems logical, and rather profound, to declare we can measure a society by the way it treats its eccentrics. Sadly, the facts soon intervene. As surprising as it seems, the true eccentric probably thrived as much in Nazi Germany as in democratic England, despite the latter’s concept of personal liberty for the individual.
Nazi Germany may have been barbarous to its mental defective, yet, even under the stress of war, the Nazis could not escape what may be called the Captain of Kopenick Syndrome, named after Wilhelm Voight’s character who won the hearts of the German people by his eccentric belittling of the German army. Thus, even though during World War II the rooting out of “defeatists” became a Hitlerite obsession, scores of offenders picked up by security forces for declaring the war was lost suffered no worse fate than a lecture by the Gestapo. Then they were released (after a check on possible Jewish ancestry, of course). Belittling of Nazi demigods was far more rife than Germany’s opponents could have guessed. All of Munich could laugh about the fish peddler who was snatched up for hawking his wares: “Hering, Hering, so fett wie Goring.” (“Hering, Hering, as fat as Goring.”) Arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, the man was back peddling his wares after a mere three weeks imprisonment, announcing: “Hering, Hering, so fett wie vor drei Wochen.” (“Herring, Herring, as fat as three weeks ago.”)
Naturally, the fact that Hinmler’s S.S. and Goring’s Luftwaffe were jealous rivals helped the heroic peddler. But even the Gestapo itself could be hoaxed, as was Luftwaffe intelligence, by a young Austrian private named Elfried Schmidt, celebrated by author Joseph Wechsberg as The Man Who fooled Hitler.”
Before he was even 20, Schmidt far outdid Voight’s Captain from Kopenick of 30-odd years earlier.. Schmidt masqueraded as Ingenieur Honoris Causa, claiming to have been personally so dubbed by the Führer himself in the Reich Chancellery Berlin. He got.this “award” for having provided the Third Reich with the designs of an electric diesel rail car. Hitler had been supposedly so impressed by Herr Engineer Schmidt’s invention that he had even slipped him his secret telephone number in case he ever had any problems.
Of course, none of this ever happened, hut Schmidt parlayed his daring tale into an honored position of fame in his home village outside Vienna. He strutted through town wearing a special silver fourragêre or cord on his left side—also an alleged special dispensation from Hitler. Later Schniidt was drafted into the Luftwaffe and served as a common private until his superiors were made aware—circuitously by Schmidt—of his special standing. Why had he not informed them, flustered officers asked. He said he simply wanted “to do my duty like any other soldier.”
Kanonier Schmidt was immediately relieved of all military duties and provided with private quarters where he could perform his special work. He didn’t stay in barracks but slept in Vienna, reporting to the base at 8 A.M. When he entered, the sentry called out the guard of honor, which was clone only for the garrison commander
and general officers. Later Schmidt was transferred to Luftgaukommamido XVII and assigned to Secret Projects, studying drawings of foreign aircraft engines that had been obtained by the German Secret Service. Schmidt’s downfall came when Colonel-General Eduard von Lohr decided that, despite the Führer’s fascination with a brilliant private, the young Austrian deserved officer rank. He forwarded his recommendation to the Air Ministry and in due course Schmidt was exposed. Brought before a Luftwaffe court, Schmidt was charged with being a foreign spy, a far more rational view than the one Schmidt was to advance. Happily for Schmidt he wrote a letter to a girl friend in his home village, bewailing his fate and that he was charged with spying when actually he had taken up the impersonation simply to impress her. The letter was seized when he tried to have it smuggled out of his cell. By the time the trial started, the military was convinced that Schmidt was not a foreign agent, but rather merely “verrückt,” or eccentric. the judges frequently tittered during the trial and even the chief prosecutor had trouble keeping a straight Lice. The presiding judge burst into laughter as testimony revealed Schmidt’s frustrated love life. The espionage charge against him was dropped; Schmidt was convicted of forging an official diploma,” of “unjustified use of an academic title,” and of “insolently exploiting the name of the Führer and Reichskanzler.” It was clear the order had come down from high—one can only speculate how high—to end the matter expeditiously.
Schmidt was sentenced to six months imprisonment, did only three, and served out the war as an ordinary soldier. When Schmidt married in 1940 the army forced him to wear his old uniform with the silver fourragêre so that his home villagers would not be suspicious. At the time the Nazis did not want the truth out.
The eccentric label is often applied loosely and too frequently. It is easy now to view with amusement the babblings of erratic pseudoscientists and flat-earthers, as well as those we have dubbed UFO-nuts, but that was the same fate suffered in their respective days by both Galileo and Freud. It would be easy to classify the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford as eccentric because they all held to some wild-eyed theories or suffered from bizarre conduct or belief, but their serious accomplishments far outweigh their peccadilloes. In fact, their touches of madness may have sparked their genius. Nonetheless, they fail to qualify as full-time, card-carrying eccentrics. Nor will Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan qualify as one, even though he achieved fame in July 1938 for taking off from New York for Los Angeles, flying instead through fog to Dublin, Ireland, allegedly by mistake. He captured the imagination of the country and was dubbed by journalists as an eccentric of the clouds but, alas, he did nothing for an encore and his feat remains, the suspicion never downed, more commercial than erratic.
The true eccentric follows his own rules of behavior 24 hours a day—because he knows his code is the right one and everyone else is wrong; because he does not want to compete by conventional standards; or because eccentricity seems the only way to gain recognition as an individual. Even among the super-rich, there are those who turn to the outrageous in their desire not to be considered just another millionaire. Even Howard Hughes, the so-called billionaire recluse dubbed by Fortune “the Spook of American capitalism,” is given more credit for bizarre behavior than he is entitled to. If Hughes was a true eccentric, he was only one in his final years, when age tipped the scale. His earlier loner behavior was more often a convenient and calculated method of avoiding subpoenas that would have hauled him before various judicial and legislative bodies. Hughes’ behavior during his movie-making days reflected little more than that of a big-shot Hollywood lecher. And certainly Hughes did not buy up so much of Las Vegas’ real estate because, as the lurid press hyped the facts, he wanted a city in which to be alone. Rather it repre sented a vital multimillion-dollar dodge to avoid the undistributed profits tax. It was a matter of either spending the money or giving it to the government. Howard Hughes was simply too cunning to be dismissed as a complete eccentric.
When we shut ourselves off from authentically unconventional people, we lose an important way to put conventional wisdom to the test. When we fail to nurture eccentrics, we run the risk of turning conventionality into the greatest eccentricity of all. We rob ourselves of great joy. The “town character” is becoming less of a fixture. Wide-spread conformity is allowing fewer and fewer exceptions.
New York’s Mohawk Valley is renowned for its historical legends, but it is just as rich in its heritage of “characters.” Fort Plain may be regarded as a sleepy sort of community, but it has its own legends, one of which concerns an unlikely 19th-century pair, Wells Grant and Winnie (no one alive and no written records provide us with the latter’s last name), who became the talk of the village because of their physical statures. Wells was all of two feet four inches tall, and he never saw a big woman without falling in love. By contrast Winnie towered seven feet six inches, and he loved most of all his dogs and of course Wells. The pair was inseparable. Shy with women, Winnie took delight in the town’s first fire company and was deeply touched when it was named the Winnie Hose Company. Winnie and Wells were the grand masters of all parades in the town as long as they lived, and when they died, Fort Plain buried them next to each other.
Another charmer of Fort Plain was John Baxter whose greatest thrill was watching boats on the canal. Young John one day decided he was going to build his own boat with which to navigate the canal, and he spent a entire winter constructing a stream runabout in his cellar. Only when he was finished did John realize his craft was too big to get out of the cellar. Undaunted, John ripped a gaping hole in the cellar wall and got his beloved creation to the water. The whole town turned out the day John was ready to launch. John polished his equipment, tooted his whistle, and shouted to his beaming mother on the canal bank, “Here I go, Ma!” John certainly did go —straight to the bottom of the canal. John Baxter had his fill of boat-building, and he never made another one, but for decades thereafter he never forgot his first one. The children would follow him, shouting, “Toot, toot, here I go, Ma,” and old John would chase them with his cane. Wells, Winnie, and John are still remembered fondly in Fort Plain, their eccentricities still worth a chuckle.
In Queens, New York City, today there is an elderly man who shops at a Queens Boulevard supermarket. After he pays, his custom is to leave a tip of $2 and some silver for the cashier. As he leaves, the cashier, pocketing the money, will shake his or her head and, twirling a finger at the temple in a familiar motion, explain to other customers, “The nut does that with all the cashiers.” Queens is today’s reality. We will not see Fort Plain and its eccentrics again.
copyright @ 1984 by Carl Sifakis
Facts on File Publications
New York, N.Y. * Bicester, England
Random Selection - 3 Men - 10 Pages 183 - 193
Tattenbaum, William (1855-1881)
The Saga Of Russian Bill
A long-haired Russian named William Tattenbaum was one of the most colorful figures to hit Tombstone, Arizona, which he did in 1880. He was a flamboyant contrast to the grimy desert rats and saddlebums attracted to that glittering silver Mecca amid the sagebrush.
A saddle-sore cowboy coming to Tombstone was always warned by his comrades to be ready for anything—and that was good advice. There wasn’t anything like Tombstone for miles around. A town of some 500 buildings in 1880, no less than 100 of them were licensed to dispense alcoholic beverages; 50 more could be called businesses of ill fame. But there was much more, including such magnificent sights as the Bird Cage Theater. Crystal Palace Concert Hall, Schieffelin Concert Hall, and the Elite Theater. Their patrons included the odd, the painted, the dandyish, and the foppish, among others, but few matched Tattenbaum, who quickly achieved a measure of notoriety as the town fool. He was to the awed westerner quite a sight, described by many as “a white Chinaman.” He had long hair and would spend hours grooming it, to the delight of old and young alike.
And “Russian Bill,” as he was called, sure could tell tall ones. Among his crazy chatterings was a claim that he was late of the Czar’s Imperial White Hussars, the son of the Countess Telfrin, a wealthy Russian noblewoman. Why had he left? He had faced a court-martial for striking a superior officer. He also told of his many feats of daring, which Tombstonians considered to be down-right lies. They were unimpressed when Russian Bill decked himself out in the finest cowboy raiment and armed himself with the best in shiny six-guns. Townsfolk much preferred to regard him as an eccentric and the butt of humor. As a character, he was later perpetuated by Hollywood; the likes of comedian Mischa Auer played the Russian-
Bill type in movie westerns.
Russian Bill strived for better. He ingratiated himself with Curly Bill Brocius and the rest of the outlaw Clanton Gang, especially the mysterious Johnny Ringo, a strange cowboy who mingled culture with meanness. Ringo was fond of quoting Shakespeare, and one can imagine the face-downs between Ringo quoting the Bard and Russian Bill countering with everything from Plato to Tolstoy. Alas, there was no one else at the outlaw camp at Galeyville to record or probably even comprehend the verbal jousts. Ringo had a killer reputation, which held the other gunmen in line, but Russian Bill enjoyed no such immunity from ridicule. If the outlaws were awed or baffled by his recitations, they were thoroughly amused by his hair grooming. Besides, he was to be tolerated because he could run errands for the gang. There is little doubt Russian Bill wanted to be taken for a great bandit, but there is no evidence that he was. If anything, the most he ever became was a “horse-holder” during the gang’s forays. His pleas for an active role were met by raucous laughter.
To escape such derision Russian Bill struck out in 1881 for New Mexico Territory in an ill-fated horse-stealing enterprise of his own. He quickly fell into the hands of the Law and Order Committee of Shakespeare, New Mexico Territory, where unfortunately his reputation as a softhead was not known. Had they been aware of Russian Bill’s eccentricities, he might well have gotten off with just being run out of town. Instead, he and another malefactor named Sandy King were given a speedy trial in the banquet room of the Grant House hostelry. Shakespeare’s vigilantes were noted for the swiftness of their justice, and Russian Bill and King were strung up without further ado from a ceiling beam in the very room where the verdict was rendered.
When news of the hanging drifted back to Tombstone, many folks were upset, feeling it was an unkind act toward a feeble-minded character, but what was done was done, most decided. The final word to the Russian Bill saga was not written until 1883, when the Countess Telfrin with the aid of agents traced her erratic son as far as ‘Tombstone, and finally to somewhere in New Mexico. Tombstonians were rather chagrined to learn that all of Russian Bill’s ramblings were true. He had been a lieutenant in the service of the czar. The embarrassment in Shakespeare, needless to say, was even more acute when the townsfolk learned they had hanged “an honest-to-God son of a countess.” To save the countess needless grief and protect the town from a troublesome investigation by Washington, it was decided that the wisest course was to report that Tattenbaum had met with an accidental death. Not long afterwards Shakespeare turned into a ghost town, but as late as the 1950s a small marker indicated Russian Bill’s grave.
Gates, Bet-A-Million (John W.) (1855-1911)
THE KING OF THE PLUNGERS
Waiting for a business meeting to start, two men in a New York office watched raindrops slithering down a windowpane, as if their lives depended on it. Then one raindrop plunged downward suddenly, and one of the men roared: “My win! That makes $50,000 you owe me. Let’s go again, double or nothing.”
However, the other man had had enough. He was not the compulsive gambler that the winner, Bet-A-Million Gates, was. In fact, he didn’t know how he’d been talked into playing in the first place. His opponent, barrel-chested, heavy-jowled John Warne Gates was the King of the Plungers. He got his nickname of Bet-A- Million when, one day at Saratoga Race Track, he tried to place a million dollars on a horse, causing the bookmakers to run for cover.
Gates would bet on anything—cards, dice, roulette, or he’d make up games like betting on raindrops if nothing else was available. He had used the same tactic in business, speculating, trying to anticipate what the other great movers of the day —financiers like the Morgans and the Carnegies—wanted. Then he’d head them off and force them to pay till it hurt to get it. Almost anyone with money hated Gates. “The man cannot be entrusted with property,” J. P Morgan railed about the Illinois barbed-wire salesman who had pyramided a $30-a-month salary selling wire to Texas cattlemen into a $50-million fortune. “He’s a broken-down gambler,” Andrew Carnegie raged. Once, after Gates took Morgan in a $15 million deal, the latter in vengeance retaliated by seeing to it that Gates x~as barred from admission to the Union League and the New York Yacht Club.
Always crude and boisterous, (Gates was only tolerated at the Waldorf Hotel because he was its highest-paving guest, keeping a $20,000—a—year suite there just for use as a clubhouse. Because he was such a liberal tipper, management discovered they could pay lower salaries to staffers who were eager for a chance to hit it big with Gates. Gates had started gambling while still a schoolboy. playing poker with railroad hands in idle train cal-s iii his native ‘Turner’s Junction, some 30 miles from Chicago. Gates knew how to stack the odds in his favor and, although in later years he might drop as much as a million dollars in a poker session that lasted several days and nights, he always won far more than he lost. Generally that was because he could always afford to come t)ack, having enough money to double his bet after a loss. Once, in Kansas City, a local sport begged an audience, saying he represented a local syndicate that wanted to gamble with him on any sort of game. “You know I don’t play for small sums,” Gates said. “How much have you got to spend? The sport produced a roll of $40,000. Gates flipped a gold piece in the air. “Heads or tails,” he said. “You call it.” The local gambler lost, and Gates pocketed his winnings. The loser became a sort of local celebrity who was pointed out as the man who had lost $40,000 to Bet-A-Million Gates in less than 10 seconds.
Once Gates was dining with wealthy~ playboy John Drake, whose father had founded Drake University and was a governor of Iowa. With their coffee, Gates suggested they each dunk a piece of bread and bet $1,000 a fly on whose bread attracted the most flies. Gates collected a small fortune. Slyly, he had turned the odds in his favor by first slipping six cubes of sugar into his coffee cup.
From the moment Gates awoke in the morning, he was looking for action. On a train en route to the races at Saratoga once, Gates needed a fourth for bridge and told a newspaperman he knew casually: “We play for five a point, but I’ll guarantee your losses and you can keep what you win.” When the game ended, the reporter tallied up his points and gleefully told Gates he was clue $500 at Five cents a point. Gates leaned back and howled with laughter until tears came. He wrote out a check for $50,000. They had been playing for $5 a point, not Five cents..
These and many, many, many other bizarre incidents made Bet-A-Million Gates a popular hero. That as much as anything got to Morgan, who was himself labeled a “robber baron.” He regarded himself far less an unprincipled speculator than Bet-A-Million. Finally though, Gates had his run of bad luck. He found himself without cash and down to his business investments, and they were held as collateral, payable on demand to his nemesis Morgan. It is said that Gates literally dropped to his knees, begging Morgan not to destroy him completely. Morgan relented to the extent of letting Gates keep a portion of his former holdings, provided that he got out of Wall Street and out of New York—and stay out forever
Gates moved to Port Arthur, Texas, where he was only a shadow of his former affluence and influence. He searched around for a new gamble. In 1901 Spindletop, the greatest gusher in petroleum history, had been brought in. Gates formed his own oil company with several backers and hired an army of geologists and drillers. They brought in a long string of dry holes, but then they started to hit winners. In 1902, Standard Oil offered to buy Gates company, called The Texas Company, for $25 million. Gates just laughed.
By 1911 Gates was personally worth somewhere between $50 million and $100 million. He sent his firm’s latest financial statement to Morgan. Later that year Gates died in a Paris hospital while on vacation with his wife. He had already broken his promise to Morgan, having been living in New York in the new and sumptuous Plaza Hotel since it opened in 1908. On his instructions, Gates was buried in a kingly mausoleum not far from Wall Street. Probably to his way of thinking, Bet-A-Million had taken another pot from old J.P.
Brady, James Buchanan “Diamond Jim (1856-1917
Greatest Of The Gourmands
One of the great fashion plates and most valiant, voracious eaters the world has ever seen, Diamond Jim Brady could be said to have eaten his way to success. Born to poor, working-class Irish parents in New York, Brady started out as a baggage handler at a railroad station. He rose to be a champion railroad-equipment salesman when the railroad was king. He did it by holding clients, such as visiting Midwest railroad nabobs, in awe of his diamond-encrusted appearance and compulsive gluttony. A railroad man might head back to Kansas City and, instead of bragging that he had closed a million-dollar deal, he would recall his experience of a lifetime—breaking bread with the famed Diamond .lim.
Making money was not an end in itself for Diamond Jim; it merely allowed him to follow his coarse and flamboyant epicurean ways. Or, as he put it with delightfully insurmountable vulgarity: “Them as has ‘em wears ‘em.” Brady was at the moment discussing the Christmas-treelike glitter that had earned him his nickname of “Diamond Jim.” When Brady went to his dresser drawer, he could choose from 30-odd timepieces, many worthy of being museum pieces and ranging up in appraised cost to $17,500 apiece. The combined weight of one of his diamond rings and his number-one scarfpin, each adorned by a single stone, was 58 karats. One of his any watch chains scaled in at 83 emerald karats. A single set of shirt studs, vest studs, amid cuff links cost him a piddling $87,315.
He also maintained a wardrobe of 200 custom-made suits and..at least 50 glossy hats. All this was part of Brady’s selling technique,..and as an entertainer of clients he has been labeled the father of. the lavish expense account. But of course Brady really displayed his glitter and gilt for the glory of it, and he dined for the sheer joy of. Ravenous feeding.
He once thus explained his eating style: “Whenever I sit down to a meal, I always make a point to leave just four inches between my stummick [sic] and the edge of the table. And then, when I can feel ‘em rubbin’ together pretty hard, I know I’ve had enough.” The celebrated New York restauranteur Charles Rector described Diamond Jim as “the very best twenty-five customers we had.” Rector’s mathematics could not be faulted. Brady’s checks for.typical feedings would come to monumental numbers. An average day of Brady’s gluttony started off with a breakfast of hominy, eggs, muffins, corn bread, flapjacks, chops, fried potatoes, a beefsteak or two—all washed down with a gallon of orange juice, his favorite drink, since he never touched wine or liquor.
By 11:30 A.M. pangs of hunger hit Brady, and there was no way he could survive until lunch an hour later. A pre-lunch snack of two or three dozen clams and oysters kept him going. Then at lunch Brady wolfed down more clams and oysters, a brace of boiled lobsters, some deviled crabs, a joint of beef~ and several pieces of pie. Of course this took another gallon of orange juice as a chaser. Teatime meant a platter of seafood washed clown with a stream of Brady’s second favorite liquid, lemon soda. “Then, happily, came dinner, when Brady could get down to some serious eating. It would start with two or three dozen Lynnhaven oysters, especially selected for Diamond Jim. This was followed by a half dozen crabs and at least two bowls of green turtle soup. Then followed a number of main courses, say six or seven lobsters, two canvasback ducks, two huge portions of terrapin (turtle meat), a large sirloin steak, with assorted vegetables. Jim would then he offered a pastry platter; invariably he simply emptied it. All this would be washed down with another gallon or two of orange juice. Then Brady would cap the meal by nibbling down a two- pound box of chocolates.
Brady always had a bit of a sweet tooth; once in Boston he sampled the wares of a local candy maker and was so impressed that he wolfed down a live-pound box of the stuff, announcing, “Best goddamned candy I ever ate.” He wrote out a check for $150,000 so that the little company could expand its facilities and keep him in supply; the money was to be refunded in trade.
There are those who considered Brady to be basically an unhappy fat man who drowned himself in food. He proposed marriage to famed singer-actress Lillian Russell. She spurned him, although she remained his constant dinner companion. But the truth was that Diamond Jim loved his way of life too well to ever change. He once staged a dinner in honor of one of his racehorses, Gold Heels. The grand feeding of 50 guests ran from 4:00 P.M. until 9:00 A.M. the following morning. The tab for the food and champagne (and a gusher of orange juice for the host) topped $45,000. Brady also presented “party favors” for his guests which, brought in on velvet cushions at midnight, consisted of a diamond-studded stopwatch for each gentleman and an elegant diamond-studded brooch for each lady. The gifts cost about $1,200 each.
Naturally, medical experts kept warning Brady he was killing himself with his enormous meals; indeed many doctors were particularly alarmed by his voluminous intake of citrus juice. Still, it was no small accomplishment that Diamond Jim lasted until 56 before he developed serious stomach trouble. He lived another five years after that. A postmortem on his body revealed that his stomach was six times the normal size. Much of Brady’s fortune, including the revenues from the sale of his jewelry, went to the James Brady Urological Clinic, which he had established at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.
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