A Plunge Into Wall Street: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 7

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The father of Edward Bok passed away when Edward was eighteen years of age, and it was found that the amount of the small insurance left behind would barely cover the funeral expenses. Hence the two boys faced the problem of supporting the mother on their meagre income. They determined to have but one goal: to put their mother back to that life of comfort to which she had been brought up and was formerly accustomed. But that was not possible on their income. It was evident that other employment must be taken on during the evenings.

The city editor of the Brooklyn Eagle had given Edward the assignment of covering the news of the theatres; he was to ascertain “coming attractions” and any other dramatic items of news interest. One Monday evening, when a multiplicity of events crowded the reportorial corps, Edward was delegated to “cover” the Grand Opera House, where Rose Coghlan was to appear in a play that had already been seen in Brooklyn, and called, therefore, for no special dramatic criticism. Yet The Eagle wanted to cover it. It so happened that Edward had made another appointment for that evening which he considered more important, and yet not wishing to disappoint his editor he accepted the assignment. He had seen Miss Coghlan in the play; so he kept his other engagement, and without approaching the theatre he wrote a notice to the effect that Miss Coghlan acted her part, if anything, with greater power than on her previous Brooklyn visit, and so forth, and handed it in to his city editor the next morning on his way to business.

Unfortunately, however, Miss Coghlan had been taken ill just before the raising of the curtain, and, there being no understudy, no performance had been given and the audience dismissed. All this was duly commented upon by the New York morning newspapers. Edward read this bit of news on the ferry-boat, but his notice was in the hands of the city editor.

On reaching home that evening he found a summons from The Eagle, and the next morning he received a rebuke, and was informed that his chances with the paper were over. The ready acknowledgment and evident regret of the crestfallen boy, however, appealed to the editor, and before the end of the week he called the boy to him and promised him another chance, provided the lesson had sunk in. It had, and it left a lasting impression. It was always a cause of profound gratitude with Edward Bok that his first attempt at “faking” occurred so early in his journalistic career that he could take the experience to heart and profit by it.

One evening when Edward was attending a theatrical performance, he noticed the restlessness of the women in the audience between the acts. In those days it was, even more than at present, the custom for the men to go out between the acts, leaving the women alone. Edward looked at the programme in his hands. It was a large eleven-by-nine sheet, four pages, badly printed, with nothing in it save the cast, a few advertisements, and an announcement of some coming attraction. The boy mechanically folded the programme, turned it long side up and wondered whether a programme of this smaller size, easier to handle, with an attractive cover and some reading-matter, would not be profitable.

When he reached home he made up an eight-page “dummy,” pasted an attractive picture on the cover, indicated the material to go inside, and the next morning showed it to the manager of the theatre. The programme as issued was an item of considerable expense to the management; Edward offered to supply his new programme without cost, provided he was given the exclusive right, and the manager at once accepted the offer. Edward then sought a friend, Frederic L. Colver, who had a larger experience in publishing and advertising, with whom he formed a partnership. Deciding that immediately upon the issuance of their first programme the idea was likely to be taken up by the other theatres, Edward proceeded to secure the exclusive rights to them all. The two young publishers solicited their advertisements on the way to and from business mornings and evenings, and shortly the first smaller-sized theatre programme, now in use in all theatres, appeared. The venture was successful from the start, returning a comfortable profit each week. Such advertisements as they could not secure for cash they accepted in trade; and this latter arrangement assisted materially in maintaining the households of the two publishers.

Edward’s partner now introduced him into a debating society called The Philomathean Society, made up of young men connected with Plymouth Church, of which Henry Ward Beecher was pastor. The debates took the form of a miniature congress, each member representing a State, and it is a curious coincidence that Edward drew, by lot, the representation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The members took these debates very seriously; no subject was too large for them to discuss. Edward became intensely interested in the society’s doings, and it was not long before he was elected president.

The society derived its revenue from the dues of its members and from an annual concert given under its auspices in Plymouth Church. When the time for the concert under Edward’s presidency came around, he decided that the occasion should be unique so as to insure a crowded house. He induced Mr. Beecher to preside; he got General Grant’s promise to come and speak; he secured the gratuitous services of Emma C. Thursby, Annie Louise Cary, Clara Louise Kellogg, and Evelyn Lyon Hegeman, all of the first rank of concert-singers of that day, with the result that the church could not accommodate the crowd which naturally was attracted by such a programme.

It now entered into the minds of the two young theatre-programme publishers to extend their publishing interests by issuing an “organ” for their society, and the first issue of The Philomathean Review duly appeared with Mr. Colver as its publisher and Edward Bok as editor. Edward had now an opportunity to try his wings in an editorial capacity. The periodical was, of course, essentially an organ of the society; but gradually it took on a more general character, so that its circulation might extend over a larger portion of Brooklyn. With this extension came a further broadening of its contents, which now began to take on a literary character, and it was not long before its two projectors realized that the periodical had outgrown its name. It was decided—late in 1884—to change the name to The Brooklyn Magazine.

There was a periodical called The Plymouth Pulpit, which presented verbatim reports of the sermons of Mr. Beecher, and Edward got the idea of absorbing the Pulpit in the Magazine. But that required more capital than he and his partner could command. They consulted Mr. Beecher, who, attracted by the enterprise of the two boys, sent them with letters of introduction to a few of his most influential parishioners, with the result that the pair soon had a sufficient financial backing by some of the leading men of Brooklyn, like A. A. Low, H. B. Claflin, Rufus T. Bush, Henry W. Slocum, Seth Low, Rossiter W. Raymond, Horatio C. King, and others.

The young publishers could now go on. Understanding that Mr. Beecher’s sermons might give a partial and denominational tone to the magazine, Edward arranged to publish also in its pages verbatim reports of the sermons of the Reverend T. De Witt Talmage, whose reputation was then at its zenith. The young editor now realized that he had a rather heavy cargo of sermons to carry each month; accordingly, in order that his magazine might not appear to be exclusively religious, he determined that its literary contents should be of a high order and equal in interest to the sermons. But this called for additional capital, and the capital furnished was not for that purpose.

It is here that Edward’s autographic acquaintances stood him in good stead. He went in turn to each noted person he had met, explained his plight and stated his ambitions, with the result that very soon the magazine and the public were surprised at the distinction of the contributors to The Brooklyn Magazine. Each number contained a noteworthy list of them, and when an article by the President of the United States, then Rutherford B. Hayes, opened one of the numbers, the public was astonished, since up to that time the unwritten rule that a President’s writings were confined to official pronouncements had scarcely been broken. William Dean Howells, General Grant, General Sherman, Phillips Brooks, General Sheridan, Canon Farrar, Cardinal Gibbons, Marion Harland, Margaret Sangster—the most prominent men and women of the day, some of whom had never written for magazines—began to appear in the young editor’s contents. Editors wondered how the publishers could afford it, whereas, in fact, not a single name represented an honorarium. Each contributor had come gratuitously to the aid of the editor.

At first, the circulation of the magazine permitted the boys to wrap the copies themselves; and then they, with two other boys, would carry as huge bundles as they could lift, put them late at night on the front platform of the street-cars, and take them to the post-office. Thus the boys absolutely knew the growth of their circulation by the weight of their bundles and the number of their front-platform trips each month. Soon a baker’s hand-cart was leased for an evening, and that was added to the capacity of the front platforms. Then one eventful month it was seen that a horse-truck would have to be employed. Within three weeks, a double horse-truck was necessary, and three trips had to be made.

By this time Edward Bok had become so intensely interested in the editorial problem, and his partner in the periodical publishing part, that they decided to sell out their theatre-programme interests and devote themselves to the magazine and its rapidly increasing circulation. All of Edward’s editorial work had naturally to be done outside of his business hours, in other words, in the evenings and on Sundays; and the young editor found himself fully occupied. He now revived the old idea of selecting a subject and having ten or twenty writers express their views on it. It was the old symposium idea, but it had not been presented in American journalism for a number of years. He conceived the topic “Should America Have a Westminster Abbey?” and induced some twenty of the foremost men and women of the day to discuss it. When the discussion was presented in the magazine, the form being new and the theme novel, Edward was careful to send advance sheets to the newspapers, which treated it at length in reviews and editorials, with marked effect upon the circulation of the magazine.

All this time, while Edward Bok was an editor in his evenings he was, during the day, a stenographer and clerk of the Western Union Telegraph Company. The two occupations were hardly compatible, but each meant a source of revenue to the boy, and he felt he must hold on to both.

After his father passed away, the position of the boy’s desk—next to the empty desk of his father—was a cause of constant depression to him. This was understood by the attorney for the company, Mr. Clarence Cary, who sought the head of Edward’s department, with the result that Edward was transferred to Mr. Cary’s department as the attorney’s private stenographer.

Edward had been much attracted to Mr. Cary, and the attorney believed in the boy, and decided to show his interest by pushing him along. He had heard of the dual role which Edward was playing; he bought a copy of the magazine, and was interested. Edward now worked with new zest for his employer and friend; while in every free moment he read law, feeling that, as almost all his forbears had been lawyers, he might perhaps be destined for the bar. This acquaintance with the fundamental basis of law, cursory as it was, became like a gospel to Edward Bok. In later years, he was taught its value by repeated experience in his contact with corporate laws, contracts, property leases, and other matters; and he determined that, whatever the direction of activity taken by his sons, each should spend at least a year in the study of law.

The control of the Western Union Telegraph Company had now passed into the hands of Jay Gould and his companions, and in the many legal matters arising therefrom, Edward saw much, in his office, of “the little wizard of Wall Street.” One day, the financier had to dictate a contract, and, coming into Mr. Cary’s office, decided to dictate it then and there. An hour afterward Edward delivered the copy of the contract to Mr. Gould, and the financier was so struck by its accuracy and by the legibility of the handwriting that afterward he almost daily “happened in” to dictate to Mr. Cary’s stenographer. Mr. Gould’s private stenographer was in his own office in lower Broadway; but on his way downtown in the morning Mr. Gould invariably stopped at the Western Union Building, at 195 Broadway, and the habit resulted in the installation of a private office there. He borrowed Edward to do his stenography. The boy found himself taking not only letters from Mr. Gould’s dictation, but, what interested him particularly, the financier’s orders to buy and sell stock.

Edward watched the effects on the stock-market of these little notes which he wrote out and then shot through a pneumatic tube to Mr. Gould’s brokers. Naturally, the results enthralled the boy, and he told Mr. Cary about his discoveries. This, in turn, interested Mr. Cary; Mr. Gould’s dictations were frequently given in Mr. Cary’s own office, where, as his desk was not ten feet from that of his stenographer, the attorney heard them, and began to buy and sell according to the magnate’s decisions.

Edward had now become tremendously interested in the stock game which he saw constantly played by the great financier; and having a little money saved up, he concluded that he would follow in the wake of Mr. Gould’s orders. One day, he naively mentioned his desire to Mr. Gould, when the financier seemed in a particularly favorable frame of mind; but Edward did not succeed in drawing out the advice he hoped for. “At least,” reasoned Edward, “he knew of my intention; and if he considered it a violation of confidence he would have said as much.”

Construing the financier’s silence to mean at least not a prohibition, Edward went to his Sunday-school teacher, who was a member of a Wall Street brokerage firm, laid the facts before him, and asked him if he would buy for him some Western Union stock. Edward explained, however, that somehow he did not like the gambling idea of buying “on margin,” and preferred to purchase the stock outright. He was shown that this would mean smaller profits; but the boy had in mind the loss of his father’s fortune, brought about largely by “stock margins,” and he did not intend to follow that example. So, prudently, under the brokerage of his Sunday-school teacher, and guided by the tips of no less a man than the controlling factor of stock-market finance, Edward Bok took his first plunge in Wall Street!

Of course the boy’s buying and selling tallied precisely with the rise and fall of Western Union stock. It could scarcely have been otherwise. Jay Gould had the cards all in his hands; and as he bought and sold, so Edward bought and sold. The trouble was, the combination did not end there, as Edward might have foreseen had he been older and thus wiser. For as Edward bought and sold, so did his Sunday-school teacher, and all his customers who had seen the wonderful acumen of their broker in choosing exactly the right time to buy and sell Western Union. But Edward did not know this.

One day a rumor became current on the Street that an agreement had been reached by the Western Union Company and its bitter rival, the American Union Telegraph Company, whereby the former was to absorb the latter. Naturally, the report affected Western Union stock. But Mr. Gould denied it in toto; said the report was not true, no such consolidation was in view or had even been considered. Down tumbled the stock, of course.

But it so happened that Edward knew the rumor was true, because Mr. Gould, some time before, had personally given him the contract of consolidation to copy. The next day a rumor to the effect that the American Union was to absorb the Western Union appeared on the first page of every New York newspaper. Edward knew exactly whence this rumor emanated. He had heard it talked over. Again, Western Union stock dropped several points. Then he noticed that Mr. Gould became a heavy buyer. So became Edward—as heavy as he could. Jay Gould pooh-poohed the latest rumor. The boy awaited developments.

On Sunday afternoon, Edward’s Sunday-school teacher asked the boy to walk home with him, and on reaching the house took him into the study and asked him whether he felt justified in putting all his savings in Western Union just at that time when the price was tumbling so fast and the market was so unsteady. Edward assured his teacher that he was right, although he explained that he could not disclose the basis of his assurance.

Edward thought his teacher looked worried, and after a little there came the revelation that he, seeing that Edward was buying to his limit, had likewise done so. But the broker had bought on margin, and had his margin wiped out by the decline in the stock caused by the rumors. He explained to Edward that he could recoup his losses, heavy though they were—in fact, he explained that nearly everything he possessed was involved—if Edward’s basis was sure and the stock would recover.

Edward keenly felt the responsibility placed upon him. He could never clearly diagnose his feelings when he saw his teacher in this new light. The broker’s “customers” had been hinted at, and the boy of eighteen wondered how far his responsibility went, and how many persons were involved. But the deal came out all right, for when, three days afterward, the contract was made public, Western Union, of course, skyrocketed, Jay Gould sold out, Edward sold out, the teacher-broker sold out, and all the customers sold out!

How long a string it was Edward never discovered, but he determined there and then to end his Wall Street experience; his original amount had multiplied; he was content to let well enough alone, and from that day to this Edward Bok has kept out of Wall Street. He had seen enough of its manipulations; and, although on “the inside,” he decided that the combination of his teacher and his customers was a responsibility too great for him to carry.

Furthermore, Edward decided to leave the Western Union. The longer he remained, the less he liked its atmosphere. And the closer his contact with Jay Gould the more doubtful he became of the wisdom of such an association and perhaps its unconscious influence upon his own life in its formative period.

In fact, it was an experience with Mr. Gould that definitely fixed Edward’s determination. The financier decided one Saturday to leave on a railroad inspection tour on the following Monday. It was necessary that a special meeting of one of his railroad interests should be held before his departure, and he fixed the meeting for Sunday at eleven-thirty at his residence on Fifth Avenue. He asked Edward to be there to take the notes of the meeting.

The meeting was protracted, and at one o’clock Mr. Gould suggested an adjournment for luncheon, the meeting to reconvene at two. Turning to Edward, the financier said: “You may go out to luncheon and return in an hour.” So, on Sunday afternoon, with the Windsor Hotel on the opposite corner as the only visible place to get something to eat, but where he could not afford to go, Edward, with just fifteen cents in his pocket, was turned out to find a luncheon place.

He bought three apples for five cents—all that he could afford to spend, and even this meant that he must walk home from the ferry to his house in Brooklyn—and these he ate as he walked up and down Fifth Avenue until his hour was over. When the meeting ended at three o’clock, Mr. Gould said that, as he was leaving for the West early next morning, he would like Edward to write out his notes, and have them at his house by eight o’clock. There were over forty note-book pages of minutes. The remainder of Edward’s Sunday afternoon and evening was spent in transcribing the notes. By rising at half past five the next morning he reached Mr. Gould’s house at a quarter to eight, handed him the minutes, and was dismissed without so much as a word of thanks or a nod of approval from the financier.

Edward felt that this exceeded the limit of fair treatment by employer of employee. He spoke of it to Mr. Cary, and asked whether he would object if he tried to get away from such influence and secure another position. His employer asked the boy in which direction he would like to go, and Edward unhesitatingly suggested the publishing business. He talked it over from every angle with his employer, and Mr. Cary not only agreed with him that his decision was wise, but promised to find him a position such as he had in mind.

It was not long before Mr. Cary made good his word, and told Edward that his friend Henry Holt, the publisher, would like to give him a trial.

The day before he was to leave the Western Union Telegraph Company the fact of his resignation became known to Mr. Gould. The financier told the boy there was no reason for his leaving, and that he would personally see to it that a substantial increase was made in his salary. Edward explained that the salary, while of importance to him, did not influence him so much as securing a position in a business in which he felt he would be happier.

“And what business is that?” asked the financier.

“The publishing of books,” replied the boy.

“You are making a great mistake,” answered the little man, fixing his keen gray eyes on the boy. “Books are a luxury. The public spends its largest money on necessities: on what it can’t do without. It must telegraph; it need not read. It can read in libraries. A promising boy such as you are, with his life before him, should choose the right sort of business, not the wrong one.”

But, as facts proved, the “little wizard of Wall Street” was wrong in his prediction; Edward Bok was not choosing the wrong business.

Years afterward when Edward was cruising up the Hudson with a yachting party one Saturday afternoon, the sight of Jay Gould’s mansion, upon approaching Irvington, awakened the desire of the women on board to see his wonderful orchid collection. Edward explained his previous association with the financier and offered to recall himself to him, if the party wished to take the chance of recognition. A note was written to Mr. Gould, and sent ashore, and the answer came back that they were welcome to visit the orchid houses. Jay Gould, in person, received the party, and, placing it under the personal conduct of his gardener, turned to Edward and, indicating a bench, said: “Come and sit down here with me.”

“Well,” said the financier, who was in his domestic mood, quite different from his Wall Street aspect, “I see in the papers that you seem to be making your way in the publishing business.”

Edward expressed surprise that the Wall Street magnate had followed his work.

“I have because I always felt you had it in you to make a successful man. But not in that business,” he added quickly. “You were born for the Street. You would have made a great success there, and that is what I had in mind for you. In the publishing business you will go just so far; in the Street you could have gone as far as you liked. There is room there; there is none in the publishing business. It’s not too late now, for that matter,” continued the “little wizard,” fastening his steel eyes on the lad beside him!

And Edward Bok has often speculated whither Jay Gould might have led him. To many a young man, a suggestion from such a source would have seemed the one to heed and follow. But Edward Bok’s instinct never failed him. He felt that his path lay far apart from that of Jay Gould—and the farther the better!

In 1882 Edward, with a feeling of distinct relief, left the employ of the Western Union Telegraph Company and associated himself with the publishing business in which he had correctly divined that his future lay.

His chief regret on leaving his position was in severing the close relations, almost as of father and son, between Mr. Cary and himself. When Edward was left alone, with the passing away of his father, Clarence Cary had put his sheltering arm around the lonely boy, and with the tremendous encouragement of the phrase that the boy never forgot, “I think you have it in you, Edward, to make a successful man,” he took him under his wing. It was a turning-point in Edward Bok’s life, as he felt at the time and as he saw more clearly afterward.

He remained in touch with his friend, however, keeping him advised of his progress in everything he did, not only at that time, but all through his later years. And it was given to Edward to feel the deep satisfaction of having Mr. Cary say, before he passed away, that the boy had more than justified the confidence reposed in him. Mr. Cary lived to see him well on his way, until, indeed, Edward had had the proud happiness of introducing to his benefactor the son who bore his name, Cary William Bok.