Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Crash

Eighty years ago this week Wall Street laid an egg. That, at least, was the famous headline in Variety. It began on a Thursday, Black Thursday, October 24th. Thursday was followed by Black Friday. Then Black Monday, when losses set in in earnest. By the time Black Tuesday closed stocks traded on the New York Exchange had lost 17% of their value. And the slide would continue, jigging up and then dropping like a stone into 1931. The lives of millions of Americans changed dramatically. Some knew it immediately. For others the realization would dawn more slowly, like a landscape adjusting to a drought. Even those who survived relatively intact, employed and fed and housed, carried scars from the experience.

Writing this book I developed the habit of looking at people's dates. Looking at anyone's life that began in the few decades before the Crash, rich or poor, famous or not, you can think about 1929 as a pivot point. It's been said that people who purchased stocks in 1929 never saw them recover their value during their lifetime. The Crash, and then the Depression, created several generations characterized by caution and insecurity. But there were still risk takers. Some took chances on new ideas because they had nothing to lose. Ideas were their capital. And ruin was commonplace enough to make failure less stigmatizing. There was less to be cautious with. A generation that had grown up during the Depression was perhaps readier––fatalistically or realistically––to undertake a World War. Perhaps their parents made that war more likely by being afraid to confront it early and boldly.

Great lives have defining moments. FDR arrived at his inauguration prepared to deal with a paralyzing crisis because he had experienced his own in 1921, at age 39, when polio took away the use of his legs. He had the necessary courage and resolution, but it was Eleanor whose eyes and ears told him what was happening on Main Streets and back streets across America. Harry Truman had already experienced the failure of a small business. He'd been there. William F. Buckley Jr. was four years old at the time of the Crash, living in Paris with his family, and had yet to learn English. His family had experienced reverses, mostly because of the revolution in Mexico, though they were hardly paupers. Far from it. Winston Churchill, who visited Wall Street on Black Thursday, lost most of his money and began writing books for a living. He was 55 and considered a failure by most observers. Ninety year-old John D. Rockefeller lost half of his fortune but still had enough left to build Rockefeller Center, found the Museum of Modern Art, restore Colonial Williamsburg and buy enough of Jackson Hole to create a national park. Richard Nixon never forgot being poor and eating ketchup sandwiches for lunch. Lyndon Johnson saw poverty firsthand. He was a 21 year-old school teacher in 1929. F. Scott Fitzgerald's father had lost his business when Scott was a boy. Scott's fiction forever balanced on that razor's edge between euphoria and ruin. In 1929 he was spending much of his income on Zelda's care in private asylums. The Crash informed the films made by Frank Capra and John Ford, the novels written by John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison, the poems of Langston Hughes, the film performances of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, the songs written by Yip Harburg and Johnny Mercer and sung by Billie Holiday, the music composed by Aaron Copland. References to the Great Depression appear at different points in many lives throughout A Book of Ages. It all began during one late October week eighty years ago.

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