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The poet Delmore Schwartz once said of literary critic Philip Rahv that he “does have scruples, but he never lets them stand in his way.” That’s as good a summation as any of the philosophy of American steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, one of the two subjects of Les Standiford’s Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America. As for Standiford’s second subject, the “Coke King” Henry Clay Frick, the verdict is simpler: He had no scruples.
In the 1890s, Carnegie was the guiding hand and chief stockholder of the Carnegie Steel Co., the “largest and most powerful steelmaking company on earth.” Frick was the company’s chief operating officer and a major stockholder. In Meet You in Hell, Standiford, who is best known as a writer of thrillers, set out to write about how the men’s partnership transformed the United States. What he succeeds best at doing, however, is showing how the partnership transformed Carnegie and Frick.
The two men had more in common than ridiculous wealth. Both were, at 5-foot-3, little men with great big ambitions. Both considered themselves rags-to-riches stories, but both had gotten help—Carnegie from an early boss at the Pennsylvania Railroad, who provided him with insider information on a company set to get a lucrative railroad contract and advanced him the funds to buy shares, Frick from a grandfather who bequeathed him the $10,000 he used to buy his way into the coke business. And both men skirted the law however, wherever, and whenever they could.
In one crucial way, however, the two men were very different. As Standiford makes clear, Carnegie was, depending on how you look at it, either a man who wanted desperately to be liked or a world-class hypocrite. His writings are full of high-blown phrases concerning the rights of the working man; in real life, he paid his employees as little as he possibly could. But no one could call Frick a hypocrite. An unapologetic prick is more like it. He was your classic businessman who never pledged allegiance to anything but the profit margin.
Photos of the future tycoons at the start of their respective careers tell the whole story. The 26-year-old Carnegie is cherubic-looking—the beard that covers the underside of his jaw and neck might be an attempt to make him look older—but there’s ambition in his gaze. At the same age, Frick looks like your archetypical silent-movie villain. Slouched against a brick wall in a dark suit and bowler, with his arms crossed and his hands tucked out of view as if to hide the bruises on his knuckles, he looks felonious down to his mustache.
Standiford wisely begins his story at the end—in 1919, long after the Carnegie-Frick partnership had ended in legal wrangling and mutual antipathy—with the episode that led to the book’s title. What a terminally ill Frick—who had harbored an almost pathological enmity toward Carnegie since 1899, when the latter muscled him out of Carnegie Steel—actually said, upon receiving word that a dying Carnegie desired to mend their 20-year rift, was “Yes, you can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him. Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.”
Frick’s reference was more than idle talk; both Carnegie and Frick had blood on their hands, the result of their ruthless handling of an 1892 strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead, Pa., plant. In one of the darker episodes in American labor history, Carnegie and Frick opted to break the strike, vowing never to deal with the union and bringing in roughnecks from the Pinkerton Agency to pave the way for the use of scabs. When the barges bearing the Pinkertons landed on Carnegie property, several thousand angry steelworkers were waiting. In the ensuing melee, eight or more—historians argue over the number—died and more than 200 were wounded.
The steelworkers won the battle, forcing the surrender of the barges, but lost the war. The Pennsylvania National Guard occupied Homestead, and the workers, unable to prevent Frick from reopening the plant with replacements, faced a stark choice: They could crawl back to work, sans union representation, or starve. They chose not to starve.
Standiford dedicates a good half of the book to the Homestead episode, which he not only considers to be the beginning of the end of the Frick-Carnegie partnership but rightly sees as a watershed event in labor history. “[T]he most profound effect of the unwinding at Homestead,” he notes, “was to put an ignominious end to unionization within the industry.” Carnegie Steel’s brutal handling of the Homestead strike set an ugly precedent, and by 1903 big steel was union-free. More than 30 years would pass before there would again be a union lodge within an American steel works.
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If the real human costs of Homestead were borne by steelworkers and their families, Carnegie and Frick also paid a price. Frick was nearly assassinated during the strike by Alexander Berkman, an anarchist chum of Emma Goldman’s who figured the only good boss of capital was a dead boss of capital. But Berkman failed to reckon on the sheer doggedness of Henry Frick. Not only did the man decline to die after being shot twice in the neck and stabbed three times for good measure—he even stuck around afterward to finish the day’s correspondence.
Frick came in for a less physical savaging in the newspapers, too—not that he cared. And his press was downright glowing compared with that received by Carnegie, who spent the siege hiding out at his castle in Scotland. The press made hay of the fact that the same man who had written, “Thou shalt not take thy neighbor’s job” was preparing to employ scab labor on a massive scale. The Times of London dismissed Carnegie as a “Scotch-Yankee plutocrat meandering through Scotland in a four-in-hand opening public libraries, while the wretched workmen who supply him with ways and means for his self-glorification are starving in Pittsburgh.” But the most damning verdict on Carnegie’s actions came from the St. Louis Dispatch, which wrote, “Say what you will of Carnegie, he is a coward. And gods and men hate cowards.”
Carnegie never really got over it. He wore Homestead like an albatross all of his days, although it’s not easy to know whether he felt real remorse over the loss of lives or simply regarded the episode as casting an unjust stain on his reputation. He told British Prime Minister William Gladstone that “The Works are not worth one drop of human blood. I wish they had sunk.” And in his autobiography, posthumously published, he wrote that nothing “wounded me so deeply.”
As for Frick, he continued to regard the actions he took at Homestead as entirely proper. He couldn’t however, say the same of Carnegie, who he thought had acted duplicitously during the strikebreaking by supporting him in private while making more ambivalent statements to others. Upon his return to Homestead after the dust had settled, for example, Carnegie attempted to distance himself from the troubles at the plant by painting himself as a kind of figurehead, telling his workers, “I have neither the power nor disposition to interfere with [Frick and the other officials of Carnegie Steel] in the management of the business.”
Needless to say, such comments eroded Frick’s trust in Carnegie. As for Carnegie, he seemed inclined to the opinion that Frick had botched the Homestead situation. Neither man ever recovered his faith in the other, and by 1899, when Frick had been ousted from the board of Carnegie Steel and found himself in the position of having to cede his shares at book value—which meant, as Standiford notes, he’d “receive about $1.5 million for stock that was worth at least ten times that much”—he exploded, telling Carnegie, “For years I have been convinced there is not an honest bone in your body. Now I know that you are a god damned thief.” He then proceeded to chase the steel baron through the halls of his own building, with the clear intent of doing him grievous bodily harm.
In the end, Frick had better luck with lawyers than with his fists. He filed suit against Carnegie and ended up walking away with over $31 million worth of stock and mortgage bonds. He wisely parlayed his monies into both banking and the railroads, dabbled in politics, and bought an art collection that, as Standiford notes, was “even then said to be worth as much as $50 million.” He also expended untold wealth—not to mention mental energy—trying to one-up his former boss. When it came time to build a New York mansion, Frick made sure that his New York mansion was more gigantic than Carnegie’s. In Pittsburgh, he commissioned Daniel Burnham to build an office building that not only towered above the adjacent Carnegie Building but literally cast a shadow over it.
Carnegie spent his last years behaving as if he were trying to avoid that underworld encounter prophesied by his former chief lieutenant. The first of the big-time philanthropists, Carnegie spent more than $300 million building libraries, endowing various foundations, and buying organs for churches. He even financed a plan to popularize phonetic spelling, which led the New York Times to poke fun at “Androo Karnege” and his “Bored of Speling.”
Standiford’s focus on the relationship between Carnegie and Frick pays rich dividends in terms of bringing out the human dimensions of both men, but it also occasionally causes him to give short shrift to events in which they didn’t butt heads but still both played a part. Standiford dedicates only two pages, for example, to the Johnstown Flood, although it is as paradigmatic as Homestead of the callous disregard that men like Carnegie and Frick had for the laboring classes. The flood—which can best be termed an unnatural disaster—occurred because the exclusive club that both Carnegie and Frick belonged to had built an earthen dam to create a lake for their pleasure craft and hadn’t bothered to make sure said dam was safe. In May 1899, the water broke through the dam and swept away the working-class areas downstream, killing some 2,200 people. No one was ever held legally responsible for their deaths.
And Standiford is occasionally lazy. For example, in discussing the attempted assassination of Frick, he offers up two versions of the story, Berkman’s and a very sympathetic early biographer of Frick’s, but doesn’t go to the trouble of saying which he thinks is more reliable. This is not a small matter; Berkman’s account paints Frick as an abject coward, whereas the latter makes Frick look like Clint Eastwood. A good biographer doesn’t generally leave the reader to discover the truth from other sources.
Standiford ends the book by attempting to weigh the good that Carnegie and Frick did against the bad. It’s an impossible task. The author notes that the contributions made by Carnegie and Frick “to the emergence of the United States as the economic leader of the world are undeniable.” But he also points out that there remain, to this day, people who will not set foot in the libraries that Carnegie built. The former is a historical fact known to the reasonably educated. The latter is a bitter taste in the mouths of people several generations removed from actual events. It’s likely that nobody living—aside perhaps for some relatives who inherited their money—carries any affection for the two steel magnates in their hearts. But there are still people around who hate their guts.CP