Too Rich for Comfort

Atlantic Portrait: Charles J. Bullock, Professor of Economics at Harvard, was the first man to hold the George F. Baker Chair, which was established in 1920. The economist and his forthright wife, HELENA BULLOCK, became close friends of the great financier, and were the people he knew best in the Harvard community. It was to them that he turned with mischievous candor at the time he was donating his millions to the Harvard School of Business Administration.

WHEN Harvard College asked Mr. Baker for some money, he said he would give them $150,000 if they would name one of their professorships the George F. Baker Chair of Economics. At that time there was only one professor of economics who wasn't already on some "chair," and that was my husband, who was proud of the fact that he was paid by the College itself. He said that if they wanted him they had to pay him themselves. However, he was notified of his appointment to the George F. Baker Chair of Economics.

At first we were pleased, thinking it would mean that his salary would be the income of the $150,000, but we soon found it made no difference in his salary at all.

One day I got to thinking and wondered if Mr. Baker would be interested to know a little about his professor of economics, and I wrote him a short letter enclosing a snapshot of our little girl and her collie puppy. He was pleased and answered at once, sending us a picture of himself and his dog, and after that I wrote him occasionally as the years went on.

When our daughter went to Vassar she wasn't far from Mr. Baker's summer place at Tuxedo, and he used to ask us there once in a white. We loved these glimpses of wealth and comfort, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

On our first visit he took us through his greenhouses and especially the orchid house. G.H. was crazy about the orchids, and Mr. Baker told the superintendent to cut her everything she admired so that she could go back to Vassar with an armful of orchcids. Just as we were leaving the greenhouse spied a lovely one running along a trellis up near the roof. It was like a flight of white birds. "Oh, that is the loveliest of all," she said.

"Cut them all for her," said Mr. Baker, just as they went out the door. I stayed behind to watch the gardener get his ladder and shears, and was struck with the expression on his face.

"Wait a minute," I said, "is that anything special?"

"I've tried for fifteen years to get that orchid to bloom, and this is the first time it has ever blossomed. I thought I'd put in the orchid show, but it is all right, I'll cut it."

"No, of course not. She wouldn't want it if she knew that. Orchids are just orchids for her; anything else is just as good."

"But I must, now that Mr. Baker has ordered it," he said.

"No, I forbid you to, and I forbid you to say anything about it. Get something else now." This was the beginning of my giving orders in Mr. Baker's household.

One time, I got into trouble by ordering something done without his permission. I was there alone for a weekend and did not like the room I was put in. It was a lovely big blue room overlooking the lake; but there was a deep balcony outside the windows with heavy stonework, which made the room dark. There was only an hour before dinner and Mr. Baker was resting, so I rang for the housekeeper and asked her to have Marie, the French maid, move my things into the next room, the Pink Room. When I came down to dinner Mr. Baker said,

"I understand you didn't like the room I put you in."

"No. It was too dark."

"But if you don't mind, I would like the privilege of giving the orders to my servants myself."

"Now, Mr. Baker, what do you care what room I'm in? I didn't like the Blue Room, you were resting and I didn't want to disturb you, so I moved myself. I'm in the Pink Room now and I love it."

"But I want you to understand you are in my very best guest room."

"That's what I thought. It's lovely. The sheets are all embroidered and trimmed with lace, and there are bows tied on all the legs. I love it."

He never forgot this incident, and every time I visited there after that he would say, "I hope you like your room this time," and I always replied that if I did not I would change it.

We got a glimpse of what it means to have so much money one Saturday when G.H. and I were there for the weekend.

"What are you two planning to do this afternoon?"

"We thought we might go out rowing on the lake, or go in swimming."

"No. It is against the rules to do either of those things in Tuxedo Park. I thought you might like to go to the Horse Show in New York with me."

"We'd love to, but we don't know how to go to a horse show. We've never been to one."

"Well. Get yourselves up in white sports clothes, and be ready at two o'clock."

So we started off in the new Rolls, chauffeur and big police dog Queenie in front of the glass partition and we three in the back.

His was the front center box. It had three chairs, and in the back there were two openings into the tiers. We sat in the three chairs, and all the afternoon a file of people passed in front of us, coming in at one gate and going out the other, and all of them asking for something. He was obdurate to everyone, even to one beautiful old lady who said, "Don't forget you promised to take three tickets for my charity ball." "I don't remember, I don't remember," he grumbled. It was very tiring and very boring, this constant begging line.

One morning when I went into his room the mail had just come. Such a pile of it.

"And not one real letter in the pile, probably all begging letters. I'll tell you what I'll do. If you will read them to me I'll do whatever you say about every one."

"Really and truly?"

"Cross my heart."

"All right. I have $300,000,000 and I'm going to grant every request."

"Very well. Go to it."

I remember the first one. It was from a young man who was studying to be a doctor. He had invented a machine that could be put on the back of a patient's neck where it would automatically register what ailed him and also what the cure should be. His uncle owned a piece of land on top of the Palisades and he wanted Mr. Baker to buy the land for $150,000 and build him a hospital there so that he could use this machine for the great benefit of mankind.

Regretfully I put this letter into the wastebasket. Even with three hundred million at my disposal I couldn't do that.

A great many of the letters were second or third attempts and merely threatening. "This is my third letter, and if this isn't answered in one week I shall shoot your son" or "kidnap your five-year-old granddaughter." Some of these appalled me but the old gentleman was unmoved and only beckoned, them all toward the wastebasket.

I remember one from a young girl in Spokane. She said she was eighteen and her husband bad recently died. He was eighty-four and his children had managed to keep all his property from her by saying that she wasn't really married to him, but she had the specifications for a patent the old man had once thought of taking out. Now her boy friend, who was a lawyer, said that if Mr. Baker would send him $50,000 at once he would start working on getting the patent.

By this time I was getting discouraged and I considered this briefly, but I couldn't quite make it, and this letter followed the others into the wastebasket.

I had saved till the last a letter whose sender was plainly a poor woman — cheap envelope, green ink — and I promised myself I would grant this request no matter how silly it was. The writer was the widow of a streetcar conductor in Chicago who was killed in an accident. The streetcar company was paying her a pension, comfortable enough, but she had five children and she wanted Mr. Baker to adopt them all and bring them up as his own. So my morning as a great philanthropist ended in a no score.

2

MR. BAKER had diabetes and had to be careful of his diet. Whenever he was at our house for a meal, I had only the things he could eat. But one luncheon he came unexpectedly when I was making pickled peaches and the house was full of the rich aroma. He insisted on having some for lunch, saying sotto voce as he helped himself generously, "I can resist everything but temptation."

In the fall, when I made mince meat I made up a batch just for him, leaving in the things he could have and substituting for the others — saccharin for sugar, and so on. I made a pie for ourselves to see how it tasted, and my family didn't know the difference. I sent him a stone crock of it, but as nothing was ever said about it I never knew if he had any.

One day when my husband came home to lunch he was very depressed. Harvard had asked Mr. Baker to give a million dollars toward the five million they were trying to raise for the Business School, and his answer was that if G.H, would ask him for it he would give it through her; so they were all enthusiastic for us to tell her to ask him right off. She was still at Vassar. We sat speechless looking at each other across the table. We couldn't bear to tell her to beg for money, especially from Mr. Baker, for the secret of all our good times with him was that he never gave us anything and we did not want him to. Probably we were the only people he knew who were free to quarrel with him if we wanted to, and quite frequently he and my husband had violent arguments and shouted at each other to their hearts' content.

So we refused to have G.H. do the begging. Mr. Baker was just as obstinate, and the whole project hung fire. One day when the committee went to see him he said he didn't care to be one of five but he would give the whole five million if the Bullocks wanted it. More pressure was brought to bear on us and requests that were really commands that my husband should ask for it. He squirmed at begging for money from a friend, but by this time Mr. Baker was interested in the plan and only wanted an excuse for giving in, and he said that it would be sufficient if my husband would write him a letter and say he thought it would be "a good thing to do." So C.J. did write him just that — that if he wanted to give the money for the Business School it would be a good thing — and Mr. Baker gave the five million.

Presented by

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In