Volume XXVI · Spring 1971· Number 3
The George Eastman I Knew
--MARION GLEASON, Research Associate (Pharmacology), University of Rochester
Harold Gleason and I came to Rochester in 1919, Harold to become George Eastman's private organist, to arrange programs for the Eastman House musical events, and to establish an organ department at the School of Music. We soon became aware of the near-hatred many Rochesterians had for G.E. (as his friends called him) and this feeling was frequently expressed in the sly gossip that rolled under the tongues of some of the city's so-called best citizens. It was difficult for Harold and me to understand this antagonism toward G.E. in his own city, a city richly endowed by his support for developments such as the University of Rochester, the Rochester Institute of Technology (The Mechanics Institute at that time), beautiful parks and many other benefactions.
A wise student of psychology tried to explain this to us by pointing out that people unconsciously resent being grateful and under obligation to dispensers of favors, especially if they are rich and powerful. Today, in 1971, we are experiencing on an international scale somewhat the same antagonism toward the wealth and power of the United States, despite the costly generosity of this country.
There was also the fact that George Eastman lived in an era of great change in public thinking. In the 1800's the rich man was regarded as the good man no matter how his wealth was acquired. Then, during the first half of the 1900's public opinion swung away from the hero worship of the wealthy to the muck-raking scramble to reveal the ruthless business methods of the leading industrial giants, the Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Mellons. In the case of George Eastman, one of the last of the generation of self-made tycoons, this shift in attitude reached its culmination in the book, By His Own Hand, a fictional biography of Eastman, written by Henry Clune, a Rochester newspaper man, and published in 1952. I shall refer to Clune's book later.
I did not share this popular feeling of resentment towards G.E., but I did reject the enormous control he exerted over his fellow citizens, for it seemed to me that he did not have the imagination and human sympathy to use such power wisely. It is almost forty years since G.E.'s death, and I have had time to grow in wisdom and gain the perspective age gives one. Now, as I remember some of the things he said and match them against the events that are happening today, G.E. becomes a man of considerable stature with an amazingly clear and prophetic vision.
Some recollections from our thirteen years of friendship come to mind and may clarify what I am trying to say.
Breakfast was a luxurious meal at Eastman House and G.E. enjoyed sharing the luxury of the beautiful flowers, the organ music and the perfect food with an occasional friend, a business associate, a civic leader, and often one or more distinguished guests from many parts of the world. One morning I was a breakfast guest together with a professor from Yale, I believe it was the economist, Irving Fisher, who at that time was actively involved in the then-popular National Eugenics League. G.E. had apparently supported this movement generously and it was a blow to his guest for G.E. to refuse any more funds for the League's activities. As I recall, G.E. said: "This is a project that can only succeed if it has the support of each and every citizen. It will not have that support until people are overburdened with taxes to keep the mentally ill in hospitals and chronic criminals in prison, nor until we are unsafe in our homes and afraid to walk our streets at night." Prophetic.
He told me on a number of occasions that he advocated some humane way of eliminating the hopelessly insane and fourth-offender criminals. I wonder if he would change his mind now that there are new wonder drugs to treat the mentally ill, and a drive toward the rehabilitation of criminals is underway.
The Kilbourn Quartet, named after Mr. Eastman's mother, gave string quartet programs every Sunday evening at Eastman House when G.E. was in town. At one time, three of the members came from Russia. One of these, the finest artist in the Eastman School at that time, was a White Russian who had barely escaped with his family from the first revolutionary devastation. His fine cello had been taken from him, or ruined by the Bolsheviks, and it grieved him that he had to concertize with an inferior instrument. Mr. Eastman offered to buy him a good cello if he could find one he liked. An acceptable one was finally found, costing $4,000--not too exorbitant a price for a truly fine instrument. G.E. learned, however, that the artist would receive a $2,000 commission from the agent if Mr. Eastman bought the cello. Harold and I were shocked when Mr. Eastman told us this one evening at dinner.
"But Harold," said Mr. Eastman, "this will make no difference in my attitude towards the fellow--except to make me more careful in my dealings with him. Of course I don't want to lose $2,000 any more than anyone else, and this artist will respect me for not letting him get away with this. But I understand these people for I have had many business experiences with them. Accepting a $2,000 commission on a gift is not unethical from his point of view. It is just good business." Perhaps our government should consider this philosophy of G.E.'s in its transactions with alien cultures.
One evening I waited in G.E.'s car outside the house of another member of the Kilbourn Quartet, while G.E. went inside to reprimand the artist about some infringement of contract. As G.E. got out of the car, I said, "I envy you, your ability to be hard when you need to be." "Yes," he said, "one has to be hard, hard, in this world. But never forget, one must always keep one part of one's heart a little soft."
G.E.'s attitude toward Negroes was typical of his time--paternalistic, but strictly against social fraternization. He built model cabins for the Negroes on his place in Enfield, North Carolina; and he once took me to visit a school which I believe was on his land and which he had built. He had complete confidence in the black manager of the large estate; one of the heartbreaking disappointments in his declining years was when he learned that his faith in the honesty of his manager had been misplaced. G.E. also gave lavishly to Hampton Institute and Tuskegee Institute-and perhaps to other Negro institutions--but his attitude, the usual one for the white man toward the black in 1925, remained paternalistic. However, I remember Miss Cherbuliez, his housekeeper, telling me about an unexpected visit from Booker T. Washington (I hope my memory serves me correctly) who arrived at G.E.'s home just at dinner time. G.E. invited Mr. Washington to join the guests at dinner; but the housekeeper's comment seems significant: "Fortunately the guests were British and did not object to a black man dining with them."
G.E. seemed to dislike having anything published about his social life, preferring to "direct attention to institutions he founded or financed rather than to any individual," to quote Carl Ackerman in the preface to his biography of George Eastman. I remember reading to G.E. a chapter in manuscript of Ackerman's book describing, in detail, the informal Sunday night suppers and musicals at Eastman House: the beautiful formal dinners, the distinguished guests, unusual entertainments there like "The Secrets of Suzanne," performed by members of the Metropolitan Opera Company on a small stage set up between the dining room and the conservatory, with the orchestra made up of the Kilbourn Quartet and other Eastman School artists. This chapter was well written, and the information was just the type of material the public would have liked, but when the biography was published it was not included.
John Marquand, a friend of Harold's and mine, was interested in doing a fictional story about G.E., somewhat like his successful Pulitzer Prize novel, The Late George Appley. John and I discussed the idea at some length; but, for a reason unknown to me, the project was dropped. André Maurois was also intrigued with the possibility of this same type of novel, and he spent a number of days in Rochester interviewing G.E.'s friends and former business associates. I collected a considerable amount of data for Maurois. I remember making a trip to New York with him, talking all during the train trip about my recollections of G.E. which I thought might be useful for Maurois' type of book. But, like Marquand, Maurois discarded the idea. Perhaps there was not enough romance in G.E.'s history to relieve the apparent bleakness of his personal life. There may have been other reasons, but we shall probably never know.
On the other hand, Henry Clune perhaps had a more facile imagination and fewer inhibitions. It's possible, also, that he had a deeper insight into G.E.'s character. I have just reread By His Own Hand, and my reaction is about the same as it was when the controversial book first appeared. I don't believe that G.E. would have rejected the romantic escapades that Clune attributed to Eastman's fictional counterpart as violently as did many of Rochester's outraged citizens-offsprings of the same people who rejected G.E. in 1919. In fact, I have a notion G.E. would have been somewhat pleased to think that such episodes could have been imagined as happening in his romance-starved life.
Not long before he died I visited G.E. for tea, and I arrived before a man from the Tennessee Eastman plant had left. He had been showing G.E. some beautiful ties made from Eastman Celanese thread. When the man had gone, G.E. sighed and said: "To think that what I started so long ago should develop in so many different ways. All I had in mind was to make enough money so that my mother would never have to work again."
At the same time he looked around his beautiful living room and said: "I am glad I never had any children. This house seems to me just perfect. If I had brought children up in this atmosphere and permitted them all the luxuries I enjoy, they might have been worthless. If I enjoyed this luxury myself but deprived them of it, they would have hated me." And yet he loved children.
One of his favorite stories was about his chauffeur's little daughter who often met him in his garden as he strolled about in the morning, watching his chickens run about in their pens, checking the progress of his tomatoes and corn, and seeing about his cows. His chauffeur lived in a house on the University Avenue side of the Eastman House grounds. One day a friend asked the little girl if she knew Mr. Eastman. "Oh, yes," she replied, "I know him very well. He lives in my backyard."
I remember seeing him stoop to tie the shoe of a three year old son of ours; and once he thoughtfully ordered Young, the butler, to cut up the broiled chicken for this same son one evening at dinner in the Eastman House.
Osa Johnson, the wife of the photographer-hunter and explorer, Martin Johnson, fascinated G.E. perhaps for some of the reasons that children appealed to him. Although Osa was a big game hunter in her own right, a crack shot, and a person able to endure the hardships of long and arduous safaris, there was a naive simplicity and naturalness about her that was childlike and lovable. She cherished pink silky underwear which she made herself and took with her on the long safaris.
For some reason, on a trip into the African wilds on which Mr. Eastman was a guest, she included an elaborate evening coat in her luggage. The trunk containing it fell into a river as they were crossing, and when it was retrieved and opened Osa's first thought was for her precious coat. Mr. Eastman told me how Osa sat on the river bank and cried bitterly when she saw the lining of the coat wet and streaked above its hem.
G.E. was equal to the occasion. "I told her," he said to me, "that the coat could easily be repaired, for I had often noticed when I helped my women guests into their coats that the linings were in two parts, divided by strips of passementerie." And so, consoled by the industrialist, Osa dried her eyes while the sun dried the evening coat spread out on the banks of that African river.
Very few people, I believe, were aware of G.E.'s many kindnesses to his friends and others. When I had breakfast at Eastman House, I often watched him open his voluminous mail. Many letters went into a pile for his secretary to take care of; some he put in that pile most reluctantly. They were requests for money or help of some kind. One day G.E. said, "How I wish I didn't have to turn some of these people down with a form letter. Like this." Then he read me a letter from an Egyptian boy who wanted so much to come to this country to study. Doubtlessly, Miss Whitney, G.E.'s secretary, directed the boy to the proper sources for such assistance, but G.E. would have enjoyed the personal pleasure of helping the lad. Unfortunately, experience had proved that one exception to his rule of impersonal refusals could result in an avalanche of requests, and also in disappointments when they could not be fulfilled.
As long as G.E. could work he apparently felt justified in spending some of his vast earnings on the amenities of living. But underneath his pleasure was the philosophy he shared with another great person, Einstein, who, it has been said, "insisted that it was parasitic to use up the labors of others." I remember G.E.'s usual reaction to our announcement each time another child was on the way: "Is that child going to clutter up the world, or will he repay the world for all the labor and goods his existence will cost?"
When G.E.'s mental and physical faculties began to decline and he was no longer able to contribute more to the needy world through his activities, his suicide is understandable in the light of his philosophy. To me, his death seemed justified and, in a certain sense, heroic. He had twenty million dollars in the bank, money that could be put to good use if he were no longer living. His belief that no one should clutter up the world uselessly no doubt was a factor in his decision to kill himself, a decision expressed so pitifully and tragically in his suicide note, ". . . My work is done. Why wait?"
He had no religion in the Christian sense. Instead he believed our bodies and personalities were made up of organizations of chemical substances which were merely reorganized after death. He did, however, want a funeral in a Christian church--St. Paul's Episcopal, where his friend George Norton was pastor and my husband was organist. One of G.E.'s favorite musical compositions was the "March Romaine" by Gounod. He liked its verve and vigor and he decided he wanted Harold to play it at his funeral. Again and again, while listening to his breakfast music he would call out to Harold, half facetiously, "Play my funeral piece."
While I sat listening to the service at St. Paul's for G.E.'s funeral I kept wondering if Harold, emotionally, would be able to keep his promise to his old employer and friend. The church was almost empty of the hundreds of friends and associates gathered to pay final tribute to Rochester's great citizen, when suddenly the full organ blared forth triumphantly the resounding opening phrases of Gounod's March. G.E.'s wish was fulfilled.