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Researching Carnegie's life forces author to alter some preconceptions

Sunday, October 20, 2002

By Bob Hoover, Post-Gazette Book Editor

Andrew Carnegie died in 1919 after amassing the second biggest American fortune of all time, but it's the name, not the nature, of the tiny Scotsman with the snowy beard that lives on.

Growing up in Carnegie, Peter Krass had a natural interest in the town's namesake. (Kurt Weber, Post-Gazette)


Balanced biography tries to reconcile philanthropist with ruthless businessman

From 2,500 libraries to an international peace organization, the name Carnegie is known worldwide, yet only three major biographies of the Pittsburgh industrialist have appeared since his death.

By contrast, two new biographies of Theodore Roosevelt have been published since late last year.

Because his ancestors hail from Carnegie, the town named for the charitable robber baron, biographer Peter Krass has a personal interest in his subject.

"My great grandfather worked in Carnegie's Duquesne Works, and, like a lot of the men in the mills, he was a heavy drinker," said Krass. "He never made it to 60. I don't think he had a very easy life as a worker for Andrew Carnegie."

When approached by publisher John Wiley & Sons several years ago to write Carnegie's story, Krass, author of several books on business topics, had a negative view of the man.

"The biographies of Rockefeller and Morgan had been published and were well accepted, so it seemed the time was right for one on Carnegie," he said. "The lore and legend of the man had faded.

"When I began the research, I had considered the guy a real scoundrel. By the time I finished, I had a completely new picture."

While Krass pulls no punches about Carnegie's ruthless business practices, his duplicity in dealing with labor and his carefully manufactured public image, Krass was impressed with Carnegie's motivation to use his money to noble ends.

"Carnegie struggled with a real internal conflict," said Krass. "His own heritage in Scotland was one of radicalism. His father was a strong labor man who wanted better conditions for the workers.

"When Carnegie comes to the United States, he embraces capitalism, the antithesis of what his father stood for."

It was through philanthropy that Carnegie tried to reconcile the difference, Krass believes.

He said Carnegie's first charitable efforts were aimed at helping the poor of his hometown of Dunfermline, Scotland, including efforts to improve living conditions.

"But because he was a disciple of Herbert Spencer [a proponent of social Darwinism], Carnegie insisted that his gifts go to those who deserved it, those people who worked hard and wanted to improve themselves the way he did.

"In a very broad way, he believed that all men were equal if they worked hard enough."

Despite his hard-hearted approach to his workers, Carnegie was an enlightened business leader who gave his lieutenants both major business responsibilities and a share in the profits and embraced new technology.

"He was not a fan of Wall Street," said Krass. "It disgusted him. He never leveraged any of his businesses to expand either, always reinvesting profits back into the company."

Carnegie's final years were spent in futile peace efforts throughout World War I.

"He wanted to be a power both culturally and politically," said Krass. "After retirement, Andrew Carnegie spent his days looking for the better nature he knew in his childhood."

Bob Hoover can be reached at bhoover@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.

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