University of Rochester Library Bulletin: My Friend George Eastman

Volume XXIII · Fall 1967 · Number 1

My Friend George Eastman

The Reverend George E. Norton, Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Rochester, New York, from 1923 until his retirement in 1948, was one of the small circle of friends of the late George Eastman. Consequently, Dr. Norton and his wife, Lillian, shared many experiences with Mr. Eastman until the death of the industrialist and philanthropist in March, 1932. Dr. Norton, who now lives in Honeoye Falls, N. Y., has graciously consented to the publication of some of his reminiscences, thus allowing the reader to gain a further insight into that complex and interesting personality which was George Eastman. The Editors.


It was recently suggested that I record some of my experiences with Mr. George Eastman. I decided not to go into the details of the hunting trips and other occasions which I shared with him; but rather to relate some episodes which would recall facets of his character not generally known to the public or even to some people who knew him casually. He was a person not easily known or even understood.

I came to Rochester as the Rector of St. Paul's Church in September of 1923. It was in late October that I first met Mr. Eastman. Mrs. Norton and I were invited to dinner by Mr. & Mrs. Hiram Sibley. When we arrived Mr. Eastman was one of the guests. I was seated at one end of the table beside Mrs. Sibley. Mrs. Norton was at the opposite end between Mr. Sibley and Mr. Eastman. They were talking and laughing constantly. After dinner, we all retired to the living room. When she had a chance, Mrs. Norton moved over to me and said, "We are having breakfast tomorrow morning with Mr. Eastman at his house." Taken by surprise, which is an understatement, I asked, "Who is going to be there?" She said, "Just you and Johnny and myself." John was our ten-year-old son. The next morning over we went. We were ushered into the dining room where Mr. Eastman greeted us. The organ was being played, I don't remember by whom. Many breakfasts followed that, and Harold Gleason, of the Eastman School, always played the organ. But this first breakfast was an experience for me. I found Mr. Eastman not easy to talk to. Lillian, on the contrary, was completely at ease with him and their exchanges were vivacious and scintillating.

Breakfasts at Mr. Eastman's became a regular thing, two or three times a month. He still seemed to look at me with a jaundiced eye. I suspected that he had an idea that I was going to try and convert him to the faith.

Then came the picnics. Now picnics have never been a favorite outdoor sport of mine. I prefer my meals at a comfortable table, in a comfortable chair, free from bugs and other flying objects; but we were invited.

Harvey Padelford, the chauffeur, came with Mr. Eastman in the large car with much baggage in back. We went to a lovely spot in the country. Harvey got out a table and four camp chairs. A tablecloth was laid and we were comfortable. The food was delicious. If it had to be a picnic, this was my kind. It was at this picnic that the ice began to melt. Mr. Eastman finally said, "Why do we continue to be so formal? My initials are G.E. and yours are G.E. Why don't you call me G.E. and I will call you G.E." From then on things were easier and more normal — at least as far as I was concerned. I actually began to look forward to his company.

Later that fall, we received a formal invitation to one of his Sunday evening musicales. We enjoyed this. The company was very congenial, the conversation stimulating, and we loved the beautiful chamber music. The next week another invitation came. We went again, and so it continued. We noticed that the people who came were different groups with a few exceptions, but there were a few who seemed to be there every Sunday evening. These guests obviously were on the regular list and apparently we were on that list. There were times, when due to my work I could not go. That happened several times and G.E. called Lillian and said, "Don't you like my Sunday evenings?" She replied, "Of course we do." G.E. said, "Then why don't you come?" In her direct way she said, "Now, G.E., George has a job to do. After all, he is the Rector of St. Paul's Church. He cannot be at your beck and call." She was direct and definite. I was startled and said to myself, "This does it." His reaction was surprising. For a minute he said nothing and then said, "I am sorry, but you will come when you can, won't you?" From then on his whole attitude toward us changed. It was not "We will do this," or "I am planning a party for you and G.E.," but rather "Would you like to go with me to the opera?" and "Could you come to my house next week?" Our relationship had become that of friends.

In the winter of 1924, G.E. asked us if we could go to New York for a week with him. We went. Mr. Jules Brulatour donated his Packard and chauffeur for our use. I never saw so many stage plays and operas in one week. One day it turned cold and it rained and the rain was mixed with sleet, a dreadful day. Of course, this would be the day that something would go wrong with the Packard. We were to go uptown to a theatre on Central Park West to see Walter Hampden in Cyrano de Bergerac and had to take a taxi. As we approached the theatre, Mr. Eastman said to the taxi driver, "Will you call for us after the theatre?" The driver said, "I will, sir, but can you find me?" Mr. Eastman said, "We'll wait for you." When we came out after the show, it was pouring and taxis were at a premium. Three or four came past and Mrs. Norton said, "G.E., why not take one of these, that man can pick up a fare." Mr. Eastman said, "No, we'll wait." Sure enough, the taxi came along. He was surprised to find us waiting, but Mr. Eastman had given his word to a taxi driver and there was no going back on it.

It was on the way back to the hotel one night that Mr. Eastman said, "Would you like to go on a hunting trip with me next summer? We could go up to Alaska and into Northern British Columbia and do our hunting in the Cassiar Mountains." We were thrilled and jumped at the chance. Mr. Eastman made elaborate plans all summer. The party consisted of Mr. Eastman, Dr. Albert Kaiser, Mrs. Norton and myself. We left Rochester on July 25. I'll quote one paragraph from Mrs. Norton's diary about our "send-off." "We left Rochester at 5:30 PM in the private car, 'Newport,' with a 'send-off' outrivalled only by Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford — camera men eager for snapshots, reporters clamoring for last news and the eternal feminine, like the Wise Men of old, bearing parting gifts for our delightful host."

It was a radiant group that sat down to our first dinner aboard of broiled lobsters and huge, fresh, red raspberries. The car was aglow with flowers and Lillian's corsage of exquisite tea roses added the final touch to our carnival mood.

We reached Vancouver on August 7 and the next day boarded the "Princess Louise," a delightful steamer, for Wrangell, Alaska. Mr. Eastman and I were sitting alone on the deck one evening. (Note that this was eight years before his death.) Presently he asked me, "G.E., in case a man has taken care of all his obligations and has no family or anyone dependent on himself, then finds himself facing a prolonged illness knowing that he will become a 'vegetable,' do you see anything wrong in his taking his own life?" I said, "That is a hard question. The only reason against it that I can give, is that every man has to face ultimate dissolution, come as it may. Perhaps if we see it through to the end ourselves it may give courage to others." His reaction to that was, "That is not convincing. It's too much to ask of anyone. I will never be just a 'vegetable." It must be remembered here that the long, lingering death of Mr. Walter Hubbell was constantly on his mind. He had been an associate and close friend of Mr. Eastman, and, in spite of his condition, Mr. Eastman would call on him although the experience was a horror.

Many times I have been asked, "What was Mr. Eastman's relation to religion and the church?" To answer that question, first let me quote from a wonderful letter to a fine woman friend of his who was disturbed because he had not identified himself with some church. I have a copy of this letter. It was dated March 19, 1886, and reads in part as follows:

"When I went to Sunday School two things were taught, man's duty toward God and man's duty toward man. It was the performance of this latter duty as interpreted through the Christian Religion that the human character shows its most charming qualities and causes its motives to be respected even when its aims do not entirely meet the views of the observer.

"I am afraid it would pain you and I am sure it would do no good for me to try to answer your questions as to the obstacles existing against embracing the faith. They are strong but I am conscious that they may be removed by circumstances at some future time but it is not probable that any further investigation or reasoning on my part could remove them at the present time."

To carry this a little farther, I will cite two episodes that occurred on the hunting trip in the Cassiar Mountains. On that trip we had thirty-nine horses, four for the party, five for the guides and the rest pack horses. In moving from camp to camp, we would often go above the timber line to avoid fallen trunks and burned-over forest. Frequently, I would ride beside Mr. Eastman and hear him quoting. "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord, than to dwell in the tents of ungodliness." After hearing him say this on several occasions, I asked him, "G.E., when did you learn that passage from Psalms?" He said, "When I was in St. Luke's Sunday School. We had to learn by heart passages from the Scriptures."

One night, after a long, hard day, we were sitting and talking around the camp fire, as was our custom. Presently, G.E. came out with some statement about the church to which I took exception. I said, "G.E., how can you make such a statement? You are not a member of the church and consequently you don't know what you are talking about." He instantly replied, "Young man, who are you, and by what right do you think you can read me out of the church. I was baptised in St. Luke's Church and I was confirmed by Bishop Cox. You can't read me out of the church." He was quite serious about it. I will return to this subject later in the account.

We got back to Rochester on October 11 and settled down to our regular routine with many trophies and happy memories. Shortly after the New Year, G.E. came over and said, "How would you like to go on an African Safari? We will leave Rochester on the first of March and be gone until October." Then he outlined the trip. I said, "G.E., that sounds fabulous but I can't do it." He came back with, "Why not?" I told him the timing was wrong for me; moreover I could not be away that long. He said, "I don't see why not if you really wish to go." I told him that St. Paul's was paying me a salary to carry on the work of the church, that I enjoyed my work, and that the trip would come right in the busiest part of the year. He came through with the statement, "All that could be arranged." If I thought it would be possible to dissuade him easily, I was mistaken. It was a month before he accepted the fact that I could not go. I learned what he was like when he set his mind to a thing.

Once he had made up his mind and adopted an objective it was next to impossible to divert him. This may be why some people thought he was a hard-driving character.

Occasionally he would mention something about his early life and I would question him about his boyhood. He said he had no boyhood. His father died when he was twelve years old leaving the family with no resources. His mother was obliged to work hard to provide for their needs and to clothe and educate him. Mr. Eastman had a deep and abiding affection for his mother. He admired her courage and sense of direction. He was resentful that she had to assume such heavy burdens. How could he get her out of such a situation? He took small jobs to earn what he could to help. It became an obsession with him. He once told me, "G.E., I never smiled until after I was forty. I may have grinned, but I never smiled."

The hard-driving purpose must have had its roots in that period. The long-range plans which resulted in the development of the Eastman Kodak Company must also have been germinating through all those lean years of striving. An incident occurred just before he left for his African trip. It had to do with the hospitals of Rochester. The plans of the hospital boards and Mr. Eastman's plans met head on. Mr. Eastman was adamant and the hospitals felt they could not accept his policy. Mr. Eastman gave them his ultimatum. They would accept his ideas or he would withdraw his contribution to the Community Chest. Such a blow would have been devastating.

So it stood, and Mr. Eastman was leaving shortly for a three months' trip to Africa. I have recently learned that Dr. Rush Rhees, President of the University of Rochester, talked with Mr. Eastman on behalf of the hospitals. I did not know this at the time.

On the Saturday night before he was to leave on his trip, I telephoned him and asked if he could spare a half hour. He told me to come over. I found him waiting alone in his study. I said, "G.E., forgive my presumption. I would like to talk with you about your stand on this hospital situation." He said, "All right, go ahead." I told him that I knew very little of the details but I understood he had used "the big stick." His reply was, "That's right, and I'm going to use it." I told him I thought he was making a mistake, that there was something he had not taken into account. I said, "You have some real friends in this city who think the world of you. You have done a great deal for this community and the city looks up to you. You are leaving for Africa and will be gone for a long time. Anything might happen to you during that time. Let's face it! In case something did happen, your friends would be hurt to have the impression of the 'big stick' left in their memories. The city would feel badly about it. You have, through the years, built up a feeling of confidence, admiration, and affection in this city and beyond it. Think this over." He was quiet for a minute or two and then said, "G.E., a few days ago I asked three men to come and talk this over with me. I thought I could get a cross-section of the public's reaction. I didn't get it. They made up their minds what I wanted and became 'yes men.' I haven't changed my mind but thanks for coming over."

He left the next week for his trip. As I remember, his first port of call was Genoa, in Italy. When he reached there he sent a cable back to the Community Chest. "My subscription will be the same as last year."

When he returned from the African trip he came to us and asked if we would go on a European tour with him. The following summer, 1927, he carefully arranged the time so that it would coincide with my vacation. We were to come over by ourselves and meet him in Paris. From there, we would take a tour through southern France and the Riviera, then on to Genoa, Florence, and Venice. We would come back by the way of Switzerland. All our expenses would be paid from the time we boarded the train in Rochester. Reservations were made on the "Mauritania" to Cherbourg. Before leaving, he gave me a letter of credit for $9,000 to cover any incidentals or emergencies. One morning in Paris, G.E. called me into his room. The first thing he said was, "Did you have enough funds in that letter of credit?" I said, "Why, I did not have to use any of it." He slumped in his chair and then said, "What do you mean? I gave you that money to have a good time with. Have you been pinching pennies? What kind of a man are you?" I said, "G.E., you gave us all our reservations, all our expenses were covered by our tickets on the 'Mauritania.' What could I spend money on?" His reply to that was, "I wanted you and Lillian to have a good time." I said, "Why we did, a wonderful time!" He said, "Well!! I don't get it." He was quite annoyed with me. Then he proceeded, "I want you to be the treasurer of this trip. I don't wish to be bothered paying bills, and tipping and all that. Here are 15,000 francs. You take care of all expenses. If you run out of cash let me know and I'll replenish you." I never before travelled through Europe feeling like a millionaire.

The next morning our chauffeur called for us in a limousine and we started for Avignon where we stayed two days. From Avignon we made for Nice on the French Riviera. This was a long jaunt and on the way down G.E. started asking me what I thought about the responsibility of an industry to establish a pension fund for its employees. I said that I thought when a man had given his life to an industry and had reached retirement age, it was only just for a big concern to grant him a retirement pension. His answer was prompt: "There are several things wrong with that statement. For instance, Eastman Kodak is not a philanthropic institution. Moreover, no employee has given his life to it. Kodak has given him a job so he could make a living. Also Kodak has benefited the community in which he lived, etc." He brought this matter up several times on this trip and every time he would reject all of my suggestions. I felt that I had miserably failed. Now, I must jump ahead to our return to Paris two weeks later. He called me into his room and shoved a sheaf of papers across the desk to me. To my amazement, I saw the complete draft for the pension plan which Eastman Kodak later adopted. Mr. Marion Folsom had prepared it and forwarded the complete proposal to Mr. Eastman. G.E. chuckled and greatly enjoyed my surprise. I said, "You rascal. You were just taking me for a ride."

From Nice we went through Italy and arrived ultimately at Venice. At Venice something happened that showed a splendid quality of G.E.'s character. Before he left Rochester, he asked Miss Cherbuliez, his housekeeper for many years, if she needed anything that he could get in Europe. She told him they needed good glass, especially for his dinner parties. One day in Venice, he asked us if we would go with him to a merchant on the Grand Canal to pick out some glass. We got into a gondola and arrived at this beautiful store. The proprietor met us at the entrance and took charge. The glass was gorgeous. We lost our eyes looking at it. Mr. Eastman selected a large order. When the deal was completed the proprietor said, "Mr. Eastman, how shall we send this? You know we can send this in such and such a way and save you a considerable tax. We do it all the time." Mr. Eastman looked at him a few seconds and said, "You mean cheat the U. S. Government?" The proprietor said, "Well I wouldn't put it that way." Mr. Eastman said, "Cancel the whole order," and we stalked out. I must admit we were embarrassed but admired his attitude and his principles.

From Venice, we went to the Villa d'Este on Lake Como. It was here that he gave me another hard time. He asked how my cash was holding out. I said I had plenty left. Again, he asked me if I was cutting corners to save money, if I was tipping properly. I told him I had tipped everyone just as I knew he would but in Italy it was forbidden to tip. Ten percent was added to the bill. I could see he still suspected me. We had a wonderful time and said good-bye to him in Paris, for he was going on to London on business. When we reached New York I said, "Mr. Eastman wants me to spend some of the letter of credit," so we threw a party. When he returned I went to his house and gave an accounting and returned the letter of credit, a balance of $8,865. He did not say anything but I could see that he thought I was queer.

One Sunday after we returned from Europe, G.E. met Lillian on her way to church. He asked if he could go with her. They sat in a back pew. Benjamin Chace was Treasurer of St. Paul's. He always counted the open offering after the services. While doing so, he called me and said, "Mr. Eastman was in church this morning, look at this." He showed me a bill tightly rolled up about the size of a match. He unrolled it and there was a fifty-dollar bill.

On the way home, G.E. asked Lillian if she would stop by for him next Sunday. She said, "I will not. The church is there for anyone at any time. I am not taking you by the hand and dragging you to church." G.E. said, "I like to go with someone and not alone." He said no more, but he put one over on her. His house was across from the church, and when he wanted to come to church he would watch for her and come out and join her. He came quite regularly and there was always that fifty-dollar bill tightly rolled up.

In the fall of 1928, Lillian was not well. Her activities were curtailed. G.E. would often come down about six o'clock. He knew I would be home by that time. I began to see a side of him that few people knew he had. He could be very warm and personal when he fully trusted a person. He was deeply concerned about Lillian and about me. Lillian did not improve and by the late fall of 1928 it was obvious that things were serious. I learned later that he kept in touch with the doctors.

On March 1, 1929, the doctors informed me that Lillian could not live and time was short. She could still move about. One afternoon, G.E. called me and asked me to come over. The three doctors were there: Dr. Summer, Dr. Lloyd and Dr. Thomas. G.E. said, "We have decided that you ought to take Lillian away. Get her away from her present surroundings. It will give her a change and encourage her to hope for a time. I am prepared to take you and Lillian and Johnny down to Oak Lodge. Will you go?" I replied, "I don't see how I can." The doctors agreed that this was the thing to do. G.E. thanked the doctors and asked me to stay. When they had gone he said, "G.E., it is the thing to do. Don't worry about anything. All I have is behind you. Engage a trained nurse and day after tomorrow we'll take off."

Two days later, we boarded G.E.'s private car, Mr. Eastman, Lillian, Miss Catherine Nelson, the trained nurse, Johnny and myself. We arrived at Enfield, North Carolina. It was beautiful at the Lodge. Everything was done for us. Lillian was made very comfortable. I must say here that Miss Nelson, the nurse, was wonderful in her care and everything went well until March 25, when it became obvious that Lillian had entered the terminal stage. She died the following morning. G.E. said to me, "You stay here. I am going into Enfield." He took care of all the arrangements. We returned to Rochester the next day. G.E. came down to see me each day asking if there was anything I needed. He remained until after the funeral, then went to New York. While there, he wrote me a letter in which he said, in part, "When I get back I hope I shall see something of you. Don't drift away."

We kept up our relationship for the next few years. He would come over to see me or I would go to his house, but his health was failing. By February of 1932 he was very ill though it was not generally known. One afternoon in that month, I stopped in to see him. He asked if I could come in once a week just for a short time. We agreed that Friday at 5:30 would be convenient. Because of his increasing weakness it was very difficult to converse with him and he seemed to be depressed. He apparently enjoyed it most when we reminisced about incidents on our various trips.

March 11 was the last Friday I saw him. He lay on his couch upstairs. At six o'clock I arose saying that I had to go. He took me by the hand and would not let go saying, "Oh, don't go yet. You don't know what it means to be so alone. There is no one in this house who cares about me; just hired help." I stayed a little longer but he said nothing more.

On Monday, March 14, my phone rang at noon. Miss Cherbuliez said, "Dr. Norton, get over here right away. It's important." I went immediately. Nathaniel, the butler, let me in. His face was blank and he did not speak. Miss Cherbuliez and the nurse were at the foot of the stairs. They were terribly upset and shocked. They took me up to Mr. Eastman's room. He lay on the bed. He had been dead only a few minutes. I asked, "Have you called Dr. Audley Stewart?" The answer was, "Yes, he'll be here any moment." I was asking if they had notified the police when Dr. Stewart walked in. He called the police. I said we should call the press, and I suggested that Roy Snyder, of the Times-Union, was a very good man to handle the publicity. Audley called him and he came immediately and was most helpful.

In the meantime, I spotted a note on the table. I read it several times and showed it to Audley. It said, "To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?" When Roy Snyder came I called his attention to it. He put it in his pocketbook. I never saw it after that.

And now his work was finished. His body was brought into St. Paul's Church on Thursday, March 17. Mr. William Fay, of Radio Station WHAM, asked permission to broadcast the service on a national hookup. This would be the first time such a broadcast had ever been done. I had confidence in Mr. Fay and gave permission. The twelve hundred seats in St. Paul's were filled. The parish halls were also filled and amplifiers enabled all to hear the service. Thousands poured out East Avenue. All vehicular traffic was diverted at Union Street. The broadcast, with Mr. Fay at the microphone, enabled many more thousands to share in the final tribute to Mr. Eastman.

A strong and courageous personality had laid down its burdens and come to rest.

"Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."