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.
More

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.

Every time Mr. Baker came to Boston he was much interested in the progress of the work, and could never understand why we were not more closely tied up with it. He thought that because C.J. was George F. Baker professor of economics at Harvard he must be head of the Business School, and could not understand how sharp the lines are drawn at Harvard between schools. The Medical School, the Law School, the Theological School, the Business School, and so on, are separate from Harvard College. They and Harvard College are all in Harvard University, but a professor in the Business School does not sit on the faculty of the College, and neither does a professor in the College sit on the faculty of the Business School. Once he said to me when we drove out to see the progress of the buildings, "It is queer how little you seem to know about the progress of your Business School."

"It's my Business School, is it?"

"Yes, I gave it to you."

"It's my Business School," I said, "and nobody knows it but me."

When the buildings were pretty well along, there seemed to be a halt in the proceedings and I found out by chance that for want of money they were not going to be able to carry out the original plans. As usual, everything cost more than expected. I thought they should tell Mr. Baker, but they couldn't bear to ask him for more money. So the next time we were having dinner with him at the Somerset I told him about it, and said that I thought he should be the one to decide whether he would prefer to have them keep within their original estimates and leave out the towers and some of the ornamental parts, or to give them another million so that they could stick to the original plans.

He said, "Why doesn't someone ask me?"

And I said, "I'm asking you now."

He gave them another million.

When the day came for the dedication, Mr. Baker had a bad case of stage fright. He made my husband promise he would sit next to him on the platform and prompt him when he needed it, and asked me to sit right in the middle of the front row where he could catch my eye. We arrived at the exercises together, and Mr. Baker clung to my husband and he was carried along in spite of himself. But when I got in the hall there naturally was no place reserved for me as I had stayed with them till the last minute. In fact there was no place anywhere. I edged up the far side aisle, and there in the center of the front row was one vacant seat, between the wife of the President of the University and the wife of the Dean of the Business School. I walked over and sat in it. Those two ladies were surprised but they showed only the best of good manners.

3

I SAID he never gave us anything. I forgot Crown Prince, our beautiful Belgian shepherd dog. Mr. Baker's Queenie came from the Queen of Belgium's kennels, and just once she had puppies by the champion police dog of America. When Mr. Baker told us about them, and that there were nine of them, I said, "I want one."

"I wouldn't think of giving you one. They are worth a great deal of money, maybe five thousand dollars apiece."

"That's all right. That's the kind I want."

"Would you take the runt?"

"No, I want a good one."

"Would you take a female? There are only three males in the litter."

"No, I want a good one."

"Well, I am not going to give you one. I am going to give these to my wealthy friends who have kennels and know how to bring up dogs."

"I want one."

After he went back to New York I kept after him about the puppy. "The puppy hasn't come yet...When are you going to send the puppy?...Don't forget that puppy you are going to send me." He never paid my attention to my remarks, so we were completely surprised one day to receive a telegram from him saying that he was sending the puppy by express and to be sure and return the crate, prepaid, the next day. So he did, and we did, and had the beautiful thoroughbred dog. We named him Crown Prince because his mother was Queen. He lived to a good old age, and whenever Mr. Baker came to Boston he wanted to see him, as all the other puppies died in the beautiful kennels of their wealthy masters, and Prince was the only one left.

Mr. Baker loved pets but could not have them in a house without a mistress, no matter how many servants there might be. The fact that his house needed a mistress was impressed on me one weekend visit. When we arrived Miss R., the nurse, asked when she could see me. I told her not to come to the library, where Mr. Baker and the Professor would be talking after dinner, but to be out in the hall at nine o'clock and I would come out there.

At nine I found her there and asked her what the matter was. She wanted to know if she might have three extra days on her vacation in order to go to Bermuda. I asked her who was going to take her place while she was away, and when she told me it was Mr. Baker's former nurse, to whom he was devoted, I told her it would be all right. She said there was something else. All the servants were paid by John, the butler. Mr. Baker's secretary brought the money the first of the month, and John paid them. She did not like to be paid with the rest of the servants, as she was a trained nurse and not a servant. I told her she might tell Mr. Baker's secretary that thereafter he was to give her her money separately and then give John the money for the rest of the household.

"I suppose you have noticed that Mr. Baker does not use his new shower bath."

"Well, I thought not. It seems to be full of things, from carpet sweeper to aprons."

"It was just as I thought it would be. The first time I tried it for him, when I turned the water on it knocked him down and I got all wet getting him out."

"If Mr. Baker wants a shower bath, then he is going to have it. Get a bathing cap for your hair and expect to get wet every time."

"I suppose you have noticed how spotted his suit is."

"Yes. It should be sent to the cleaner's."

"But he won't let me have it. He will not wear anything else, even for a day or two."

"Then I'll tell you what you must do. Have the tailor make him two more suits exactly like it, but don't tell him. Then keep one at the cleaner's, one hanging in the closet, all clean, and one on him."

"I don't know what to do about the masseur. He doesn't want to pay a masseur when he has a trained nurse here all the time, and I'm not good at it. It's too hard for me. I'm a trained nurse and not a masseuse."

"That is true, and Mr. Baker needs a good massage every night to put him to sleep, a better one than you can give him. Get that young Swede back, have John pay him without telling Mr. Baker, and tell Mr. Baker that the young man comes for the advertising he gets as masseur for Mr. Baker."

"Now John wants to see you."

Lastly there was Adah, the second-floor maid. She said she was never allowed to go downstairs, and that often a guest would ask her to get her coat, left on the piazza, or her book, left in the library, and Adah had to find another servant to do the errand and bring the thing to her. She wanted to know if, in such a case, she might go down herself. I did not know they marooned them like that but I thought maybe I had done enough mischief so I said she could not leave the second floor. I have always been sorry I left her like that, marooned on the second floor.

Mr. Baker was most generous in every way, but he did not like waste. One night at dinner he complained that the salad dressing was not tart enough, and I persuaded him to have half a lemon brought in. He said that if he could have just what he wanted he would have half of a fresh-cut lemon every night on his salad plate. "But they would throw away the other half."

"All right, come and live with me. I can have half a lemon every night if I want it."

One beautiful Sunday morning when we were both there for the weekend, G.H. and I were up and outdoors long before Mr. Baker was ready for breakfast.

"Now what have you two been doing?"

"Oh, you will be pleased. We have used every marble bench on the lawn. We'd sit on one and then get up and run and sit on another, and finally sat on them all." He really was pleased, said no one had sat on them for years. We said they had all been used now, and would last a long time.

One May when Mr. Baker was at our house I had President Emeritus Eliot, Dean Donham, and President Lowell for lunch; and upon entering the living room after being gone on a domestic crisis, I found them in the midst of a rather acrimonious discussion on age. Mr. Baker and Mr. Eliot were boasting of their ages, and they were getting older by the minute; Mr. Baker was going farther and farther on into the nineties but Mr. Eliot was always a little ahead of him. As a matter of fact Mr. Baker was just eighty-two that month, and Mr. Eliot a few years older.

During all the interminable discussions that delighted Mr. Baker and C.J., I sat and knitted and never made a remark but once. I had saved up nearly $1500, and I thought it would be fun to own one share in Mr. Baker's First National Bank that I heard them talk about so much. So, at dinner, when there seemed to be a slight pause, I said, "How much is one share of the First National Bank worth?" There was a dead silence while the two men looked at each other in dismay, and after a long discussion they told me they did not know.

"What! The professor of banks and banking at Harvard and the president of the First National Bank do not know how much it would cost to buy one share of stock?"

"That isn't what you asked. You asked how much it was worth."

A very good illustration of what a professor's wife was up against. (I never did get that share.)

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

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

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In