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'Carnegie' by Peter Krass

Balanced Carnegie biography tries to reconcile philanthropist with ruthless businessman

Sunday, October 20, 2002

By Robert Gangewere

Peter Krass knows the answer to a familiar question: How rich was Andrew Carnegie? Krass, translating the industrialist's worth in today's dollars, says: "Carnegie would have been worth $100 billion at the height of his wealth, bested only by Rockefeller, who would have been worth over $200 billion."


By Peter Krass

Wiley & Sons ($35)

Related article:

Researching Carnegie's life forces author to alter some preconceptions


In comparison, Microsoft's Bill Gates is worth about $50 billion today (depending upon the stock market).

This first full biography of Carnegie in 30 years takes a hard look at his business maneuvers in the Golden Age of unregulated business and shows him as a charming but often deceptive and ruthless salesman.

Right now, when the lifestyles of American CEOs are under the microscope, Carnegie's life is especially poignant. He set the pattern of the classic rags-to-riches entrepreneur who drove workers hard in a brutal workplace but ultimately translated his wealth into foundations and institutions that changed the course of history.

At a certain point, money itself becomes irrelevant, and the true subject emerges as the character of the moneymaker. The devil-or-saint choice has always divided Carnegie historians, and Krass sees the devil clearly when he starts his narrative.

But if he sets his table for another expose of a sanctimonious robber baron, by the end of the meal, the biographer has served up a lot more objectivity.

This biography presents a faster, more easily digested view of the man himself than either Joseph Frazier Wall's magisterial "Andrew Carnegie" in 1970 (reprinted by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1989) or Burton Hendrick's 1932 official bio, "The Life of Andrew Carnegie."

Krass mellows like Carnegie himself as he portrays the old magnate facing the challenge of returning his wealth to the public through wise strategies, and then going down to defeat in a wildly egoistic attempt to stave off World War I.

As the intimate and loquacious friend of presidents, kings, great authors, politicians and financiers, Carnegie wrote a roomful of letters of unsolicited advice, sympathy and reprimand and never doubted until the end that his own personal brand of diplomacy could shape world events.

Krass details how Carnegie tailored his own image for posterity.

In one example, the author points out that Carnegie apparently invented a cable he said was sent to him by striking laborers during the Homestead steel mill confrontation of 1892:

"Kind Master, tell us what you wish us to do; will do anything for you."

No such cable of medieval-sounding rhetoric exists, and Carnegie's claim until his death that he had limited knowledge of the strikers' demands is not convincing.

In truth, Carnegie was considered by his managing partners and officers in Carnegie Steel Company to be a relentless micromanager, endlessly pushing labor and management alike to higher levels of productivity and profit.

Krass uses diaries, letters and the writings of Carnegie's associates to portray a complex CEO divided by conflicts. His relentless pursuit of wealth was balanced by an immigrant's faith in possibilities for self-improvement in America.

He personally gave away four-fifths of his fortune in a decades-long effort based on his conviction that the best person to give away money was the same person who had made it.

By 1911, he was so drained by the details of philanthropy that he created the Carnegie Corp. of New York to administer the rest and gave it $125 million.

Krass poses a late metamorphosis of Carnegie in his 91st Street study in New York, beginning in 1908, as the retired magnate tried to purge the wrongs of his past.

Supremely confident in his ability to charm, amuse and get his way, Carnegie had an ego that finally led him to believe he could shape world events by his personal appeals to world leaders. But if he failed in preventing the Great War and changing the language, he did succeed in creating institutes, foundations, libraries and peace organizations that eventually did transform the 20th century.

It seems clever now to mock Carnegie's simplistic Victorian slogans, such as "All Is Well Since All Grows Better," but it is simple justice to acknowledge what his philanthropy accomplished.

Although Krass never says it, by the end of the biography he himself has come to agree with Carnegie's friend, onetime Secretary of State Elihu Root, who said to Carnegie when he was old and feeling low about his failure to disperse his fortune: "You have had the best run for your money I have ever known."

Robert Gangewere is editor of the Carnegie Magazine.

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