Henry Clay Frick: “The Man” was a Businessman

Reviewed by R. Jay Gangewere

This long-awaited book on Henry Clay Frick is less a traditional biography about The Man (as Carnegie called him) than an overview of the industrial history of coke, iron and steel in the half century between 1870 and 1920. It fills the historical need for more information about the relationships among the H.C. Frick Coal & Coke Company, the Carnegie Steel Company, and the early period of United States Steel, as well as many of the permutating companies which developed during the Golden Age (or was it the Iron Age?) of industrial capitalism in western Pennsylvania.

This is the book that the Frick archives were opened for, as well as the long-sealed records of U.S. Steel, allowing the scholarly review of the correspondence, production and financial reports, and other hidden records of Frick’s business life. This is the book in which Appendix A gives historians of industry the date, number of ovens, shipments, average price and Bessemer pig price of the Connellsville Coke Industry from 1880 to 1919.

But for observers of Pittsburgh’s legendary Heroes of Industry and/or Robber Barons, it offers more. Amidst the flood of business details it offers new evidence of the way Captains of Industry thought, and how they treated each other. What a treat it is to have such written evidence, before the telephone silenced the literary record of business operators. “The Senior has stumbled” writes Frick to one partner, referring to a business blunder made by Andrew Carnegie, the senior partner. In an ingratiating note to Carnegie, he says: “Aside from my deep personal regard and feeling for you, you have heaped honors and riches upon me and I would indeed be an ingrate to do otherwise. My interests and best efforts will always be for you and the old firm, and when they don’t want me any more, I even then shall never give a thought to any other.”

But among all the letter-writing partners of Carnegie Steel—such as Henry Phipps, Charles Schwab and George Lauder— Carnegie stands as the master of literary duplicity in the high command. He supported Frick during the Homestead strike with his secret encouragements, and praised him nine weeks after the strike: “His four years management stamp him as one of the ablest managers in the world. I would not exchange him for any manager I know. People generally are still to learn of his virtues, which his partners and friends well know. His are the qualities that wear. He never disappoints. What he promises he more than fulfills.”

But after several years and several disagreements with Frick, Carnegie changed. Thus he confides to George Lauder, as Frick is about to be evicted from the chairmanship of Carnegie Steel in favor of Charles Schwab (CMS): “I was with Schwab always—Schwab has behaved far too kindly to Frick, but this was best after all—You may tell CMS he will be the man and the only man and that next election Chairmanship will be abolished—CMS can manage all this nicely—Everyone likes him at heart, not like Frick. I have nothing but pity for Frick, not one iota of temper—this recent exhibition is childish.…”

In this treacherous world of high finance and false confidences, you can understand Frick’s explosion when he finally has his fill of Carnegie’s manipulations, and throws him out of the office, exclaiming: “For years I have been convinced that there is not an honest bone in your body. Now I know that you are a god damned thief. We will have a judge and jury of Allegheny County decide what you will pay me.” Here is a once-in-a-lifetime dramatic moment for any biography. Frick and Carnegie part for good after that. But their business acumen ends their courtroom battle with a financial solution. Carnegie Steel absorbs Frick Coal Company, and recalculates the value of the new company. Frick gets a percentage in the new company that compensates him for the value of the coke company that he had created, but was now losing control of.

Such struggles are perhaps matters of pride rather than money. Henry Phipps, in defending Frick and trying to bring peace between the partners, explains to Carnegie: “To feel that I have been rightly treated is a greater pleasure to me than any probable or possible gain of money; that is subordinate, the first is everything; and next to it is the feeling that the business in which my heart has ever been, has been dealt with on time honored, safe and just business principles.” Phipps was the peacemaker—but peace could also lead to more profit for the partners.

However much Pittsburghers may dote upon the personal drama, the real value of this book is in tracing the record of Henry Clay Frick’s life in his own terms as a businessman. Frick adroitly took control of the coal fields of Connellsville in the 1870s and expanded his control of mining and coking operations until he became a millionaire by the age of 30. The finest metallurgical coke in the world was his to sell, and he sold it to Carnegie Steel, eventually becoming a partner in that firm as well as remaining the King of Coke.

Unremitting work and unflinching determination was his style, to which he added his genius for seeing immediately into the heart of a business problem and taking command of the solution. Extremely organized, he knew the details, and quickly made executive decisions. Elbert H. Gary, speaking for U.S. Steel, observed that Frick “talked little but…said much.” Frick knew the value of time. He listened to a problem, made a decision, and promptly asked, “Is there anything else?” The conference was over.

The author of Triumphant Capitalism, Kenneth Warren, Emeritus Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and author of The American Steel Industry, 1850–1970, has a professorial command of his subject. Whether lecturing on variations among “management structures and conditions,” the westward drift of American steel-making operations, or pointing to weaknesses in other historical accounts, there is always the sense that Warren wants to bring academic clarity to a subject too long bedeviled by the emotional struggle between labor and management, and sensational journalism. He avoids lengthy passages over well-trodden ground, such as the Homestead strike. Sometimes he confesses directly an historian’s difficulty: “It is difficult to strike the right balance here.” Triumphant Capitalism is positioned very clearly as to bring new perspectives by which to judge the standard biographies, such as those of George Harvey on Frick, or by Burton Hendrick and Joseph Frazier Wall on Carnegie.

There is little here about Frick’s education, his family origins, his marriage and children, or his love of art. Only in the final chapter, “Assessing Frick’s Life,” does Warren frankly analyze the non-business implications of it all.

One important new element is a much-needed view of Frick’s career after leaving Carnegie Steel. At the age of 50, his coke company behind him, Frick still had two-fifths of his working life ahead of him, and remained active as a finance capitalist and as a respected leader in the steel industry. Intensely private, Frick wanted none of the public attention and approval that Charles Schwab, Carnegie and others craved. Those who knew him well, like the Englishman James Bridge, said that behind the protective armor of his imperious business facade, “there was a singularly charming, humane and charitable side to the character of Henry Clay Frick.”

When Frick died in 1919, he left 80 percent of his 145 million fortune to purposes from which the public could benefit—a charitable conclusion to a life by any standard. For years he planned his New York house to be the future home of the Frick Collection of art, and endowed it to fulfill that purpose. In Pittsburgh his legacy included the 151-acre Frick Park (to which he added 2 million for upkeep), and some of the city’s greatest buildings: the William Penn Hotel, the Union Trust building, and the Frick Building. He gave 5 million each to Harvard, MIT and the Educational Commission of Pittsburgh, and his gifts to hospitals included Mercy Hospital (where he was treated after the attempt on his life) and the hospitals of coke region towns such as Connellsville, Mount Pleasant and Greensburg, and to steeltowns such as Braddock and Homestead.

To his 31-year-old daughter Helen Clay Frick he gave $6.5 million to be spent for charitable and educational purposes, and during her life the Frick Fine Arts building of the University of Pittsburgh was constructed. After her death, the family home Clayton became the Frick Art & Historical Center.

Cast too simply in the drama of American labor history as a single-dimension character, and without Carnegie’s silver tongue to give posterity a benevolent view of his life, Henry Clay Frick is seen here from a business perspective that he himself would have understood. While not “The Man” of Carnegie’s managerial dreams, says Warren, Frick was nevertheless an outstanding man in the transformation of industrial America.

R. Jay Gangewere is the editor of Carnegie Magazine.

Reviewed books are available at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.