to smoke or not to smoke -- 3/11/22

Today's selection -- from Inside Money by Zachary Karabell. The mega-wealthy banker and railroad magnate John Crosby Brown (1838-1909) gives advice to his son Thatcher Brown (1876-1954):
"Business frequently took John Crosby on travels for months at a time, and in the 1880s, he was in the habit of writing long letters to his daughter Amy and shorter notes to his son Thatcher, who was several years younger. The man who emerges from these letters is a patient, solicitous father, with a penchant for homilies much like his grandfather’s. Inspecting the midwestern Rock Island rail system, a small rail line that the firm had arranged financing for, he wrote to Amy, ‘If Thatcher were here with me he would see miles and miles of freight cars and hundreds and hundreds of locomotives of all kinds of shapes, big and little, some numbered and some named, but all of them hard at work, puffing and dragging heavy trains. No room or place for idlers or lazy bodies. Last night I slept in a nice room on the car with a big bed and everything comfortable. I hope you are trying to be a good girl and to mind Momma. … I am getting very lonely without my little children and Momma and wonder when the time will come for me to return. Good night my darling.’ In later letters, he urged Amy to keep studying Scripture, and to learn one of the great lessons of life, 'we grow by failures.'

"Nowhere Brown’s code more evident than in his long and detailed correspondence to his son Thatcher over the years. Born in 1876, Thatcher would eventually become one of the managing partners of the firm, and a key figure in the 1920s. Much like his father, he was groomed for the position beginning when he was a teen. John Crosby’s letters to him are a veritable compendium of diligent, dry, and genial advice, a trove that combined the sensibility of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard with that hectoring of Polonius. The only major parenting impasse was amusingly benign. Young Thatcher, owlish, gangly and studious looking, was at Yale in the early 1920s and facing temptation: he was considering taking up smoking. He asked his father for advice. John Crosby wrote a long letter in response. ‘Let me say first of all, it is your question, not mine, the decision with all its consequences is your own and not mine; except of what there is of moral element involved in the act of deciding, it is a question which does not involve anything morally wrong.’ He went on to weigh the pros and cons. ‘Now your position is simply this: that if you smoke in moderation, say one or two pipes a day, not as a luxury and occasionally … it will not do you any serious harm & will give you a great deal of pleasure. Let us admit in this you are absolutely correct, but let us also face the facts. One or two pipes a day is not occasional smoking but regular smoking, moderate I admit, but regular notwithstanding and must in time become a habit from which it will be hard to break off.’

"Moreover, he continued, it was his experience that stopping at will would be no easy task, nor would Thatcher find it easy to keep his habit to just a few a day. On that basis alone, he counseled waiting to smoke till at least after college. And what’s more, there was the expense to think of. ‘It will of course make a decided hole in your income, for it will be necessary for you to reckon for not only the tobacco you smoke yourself but what you will need for your friends.’ John Crosby then reflected on the whole business of sending a son off to college, and the wisdom he hoped to impart to Thatcher. ‘It is true that I never had any desire to smoke and could not therefore sympathize fully with anyone who did … Like a true manly fellow, you have told me, and you find my advice hard to follow … I take no exception to that. You have done the right thing, and it is quite possible that I may be mistaken.’ But given that Thatcher had asked the question, perhaps that was itself an indication that he was not so sure of the right course. ‘You have come to one of the crises of your life my son. I cannot settle this question for you … The good book says apropos of such questions as these: Let every man be fully persuaded in him own mind. If you can, follow that clear persuasion, whether it be to smoke or not to smoke. If you cannot, better to wait as you are till you have more eyes.’ A week later, Thatcher replied, 'Thank you for your helpful letter. I have at last decided not to smoke until I am twenty-one.’
"You know you are privileged if one of the crises of your life is whether or not to smoke."



Zachary Karabell


Inside Money


Penguin Press


Copyright 2021 by Zachary Karabell


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment