I was born into the ’twenties—flapper days, the Charleston, Great Gatsby days, the economy on a roll. Republican presidents—Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. A decade blind to the signs of looming economic disaster. During the 1928 presidential race, I was disciplined in kindergarten—while we shook milk in jars to make butter—for mindlessly shouting a Democratic slogan for Al Smith in a Republican Hoover-for-president-pure stronghold. Forewarnings, perhaps, of my many familial rebellions that even now persist.
Our father had largely supplanted his father in running their principal business, the manufacture of carbon black. Carbon black—pure carbon linked in colloidal form, soot, we’d call it—had been a minor product, used in ink and carbon paper, when my grandfather first started producing some in a shed in West Virginia, burning natural gas from nearby wells he had begun buying up. During World War I, it was discovered that if carbon black were added to rubber in large quantities, it would vastly improve rubber’s durability.
This opened an enormous and mushrooming market—tires. And it was relatively cheap and easy, in the early days, to make it. Natural gas, which was at first free in the Texas Panhandle, being flared off at oil wells to get rid of it, was simply burned in myriad small flames, starved of oxygen, under miles of moving metal sheets sliding over scrapers dropping the carbon black onto screw conveyers. A byproduct was blackish milk from local cows and permanent eye shadow for all the neighbors. The business flourished, keeping ahead of competition and eventually spreading around the globe—and into the Forbes Five Hundred.
Feeling flush, ignoring the signs of a dangerous economic bubble, our father bought eleven acres in a more exclusive suburb nearby. Construction of our imposing stone home actually began well after the 1929 crash—with cheap Italian laborers and masons, landscaped by a war-hero neighbor.
How did he finance it in the midst of the Great Depression?
We moved in shortly before the run on the banks that resulted in going off the gold standard. The gold bars that sat in Fort Knox, where are they now? Bank deposits were lost, the stock market tanked. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, suicides.
However, we, my family, somehow we did not go under.
As children, we were largely not directly affected by the Great Depression. The weekly handing to Mother of a tiny twenty-dollar gold coin for her household expenses stopped. Our parents tightened their belts. We children were protected in a safe family capsule.
But the impact of the Depression on the world around us was inescapable. The dole, the soup kitchens, the homeless, the begging, pitiful families knocking at our door for help, starvation, misery, Okies escaping the Dust Bowl. The Grapes of Wrath. The appeal of communism, the chicken-in-every-pot socialist movement, labor unions finally on the rise, the strikes.
Early in the Depression years, I became aware, even in my insulated life, of extreme racism. Racially segregated schools, Jim Crow laws, Whites Only, poll taxes. The Ku Klux Klan, the burning crosses, the burning homes and churches, the many thousands of lynchings. Until 1967, interracial marriage was illegal in sixteen states.
Anti-Semitism was everywhere in our White-AngloSaxon-Protestant world. Jews, even the most famous, were not permitted in the best hotels and clubs. It crept into my own family. My father would speak of Jew-boys, and almost in the next breath would self-righteously declare that some of his best friends were Jews.
Shortly before I was born, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified prohibiting the sale and importation of “intoxicating liquors.” The bigotry, hypocrisy, and futility of Prohibition—the speakeasy culture of illegal bars for those who could afford it, the bath-tub gin for others, the all-pervasive cynical disregard of law—were glaringly evident. Organized crime—Lucky Luciano, John Dillinger, Al Capone, the godfathers—was given an enormous boost from the made-to-order folly of Prohibition. In 1933, the American electorate had the good sense to repeal the Amendment. Yet four years later, in 1937, the possession or transfer of cannabis was criminalized by federal law.
The decade of the thirties was dominated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had swept Hoover and the Republicans away in 1932 and stayed in the White House until he died in 1945, a few months into his fourth term. He brought together the ideas and the people to lead us on our way out of the Depression—and into and through World War II. His leadership acumen was evidenced from the beginning.
He turned to an elite group of advisors, the Brain Trust—the Happy Hotdogs, named for one of its stars, Felix Frankfurter. Frankfurter later became, surprisingly, a rather conservative Supreme Court justice. He rented our Cohasset, Massachusetts summer house once, visiting our Uncle John often in his stone castle. Thomas Corcoran, Tommy the Cork, another of the Happy Hotdogs, eighteen years later, by then a top-drawer lobbyist in Washington, guided a callow Yale Law School graduate, me, into a career with the government.
FDR’s key adviser throughout the Depression and World War II was the immensely effective recovery czar Harry Hopkins. FDR’s wife, Eleanor, was a key independent force throughout the entire presidency. But Roosevelt’s own mix of political skill, courage, willingness to experiment, wisdom, and charisma—that was the ultimate source of his extraordinary successes.
We lived for years in what came to be called FDR’s Alphabet Soup—his National Recovery Act, his WPA, CCC, PWA, TVA, AAA, REA, many others I’ve forgotten, the Social Security Act, and the Workmen’s Compensation Act. Rebuilding a badly broken America. Dams, highways, electricity to rural areas, affordable housing, hospitals, schools, theaters. National Parks, National Forests, recreation facilities—in the mid-thirties we skied on trails cut by the Civilian Conservation Corps in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Plays, novels, poetry, paintings, sculptures, music, ballet were subsidized. And FDR’s New Deal built the backbone of America’s social security net. The remarkable beginnings of democratic socialism, though eighty years later we still lack the universal single-payer health care that Roosevelt—and most subsequent presidents—fought for unsuccessfully. And as of this writing, with Trump, it is but pie in the sky.
America spent its way out of the Depression—a lesson we, and much of the world, have largely ignored as capitalism falters in the twenty-first century.
The New Deal was everywhere around us, and it gave hope to the country and the world, however much some economists may argue that it was really the enormous government spending as we engaged in World War II that pulled us out of the Depression.