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A Fresh Look at the Founder:

Carnegie as CEO    


Carnegie, by Peter Krass, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002, $35.00



The new biography Carnegie proves it is impossible ever to have the last word about Andrew Carnegie.


Who would have thought that the current generation needed another Carnegie biography?   Joseph Wall's monumental Andrew Carnegie (1970) was reprinted by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1995 and seemed to lock up the subject for our time.  Before that there was the official The Life of Andrew Carnegie, and Carnegie's own autobiography, plus numerous other books that paint him as a saint or a devil. The "Star-Spangled Scot" was recently treated in two major TV biographies, and a third is in the works.


But in Carnegie Peter Krass deliberately avoids the building blocks of former writers, and his Carnegie has the fresh narrative energy that goes with the discovery of a new subject.   


Krass has family roots in western Pennsylvania, where his great grandfather William Danziger worked in a Carnegie mill, dying before the age of sixty from a hard life and alcohol.  This ancestry fuels the author's need to understand, and justify, Carnegie's success in amassing a fantastic fortune built on the hardships of millworkers, and then turning it to public use in uplifting the lives of millions.


Krass has a business background, and his vision of the entrepreneurial Andrew Carnegie is of a modern, micromanaging CEO, complete with the sharp wit and great self-confidence that made him a successful salesman. In the current climate of scrutinizing big business practices, this version of Carnegie, who was a master strategist in the age of unregulated big business and Robber Barons, has special meaning.


The polarities of Carnegie's financial life do not change: a relentless penny pincher when it came to making money, he was an inspired philanthropist when it came to giving it away.  This tension keeps his story fascinating, and raises questions about the meaning of accumulating wealth and the ultimate value of money.  Krass poses a psychological transformation of Carnegie in retirement in later years, arguing that he tried to right the wrongs he thinks he might have done during his years as an industrial giant.


There is no doubt that Carnegie did change, reversing his attitude on protective tariffs and rebates, which he had once used to advantage to build his steel empire.   In old age, called before a congressional committee ten years after retirement to testify on tariff laws, the wily steel master made congressmen into his comic foils.  He presented himself as a jovial, retired old man whose only goal in life was to do good.  As far as steel was concerned, he said that U.S. Steel could now make steel so cheaply the question of protective tariffs was moot.


A clever philanthropist, he did not believe in an afterlife, and tried to make people's lives better now, rather than in the future.   Thus, he put in place institutions and charities that had an immediate public effect, and he gave to board members flexibility of control.  In this he set the pattern that other philanthropists admired, and became the prototype of the modern benefactor.


A classic example is his founding of what became TIAA-CREF, the largest retirement organization in the country, to help teachers survive old age without becoming destitute.  He also funded the meritocracy of the poor --two-year trade schools, schools for black students, and free public libraries--rather than the rich Ivy League schools which besieged him for money and came away frustrated.


For a fresh look at Carnegie, Peter Krass's biography is a good fit for our time.  The author's next book targets another famous American figure: whisky baron Jack Daniel.






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