Life lesson number one for a would-be robber baron: Don’t cross Andrew Carnegie.
Prolific genre novelist Standiford (Havana Run, 2003, etc.) turns to fact to portray the fraught partnership of steelmaker Carnegie and Henry Frick, supplier of industrial coke to the world. Frick was a tough dealer, but Carnegie was tougher; when the coke producers of Pittsburgh agreed to fix a price of $1.50 per ton for the stuff, Carnegie countered that he would pay Frick $1.15 a ton, “and there would be no further discussion of the matter.” Frick became the lesser of equals as the chairman of Carnegie Steel and enjoyed considerable freedom of movement as Carnegie spent more and more of his later life in his native Scotland and left routine administration to Frick and Carnegie Steel president Charles Schwab. Indeed, Frick orchestrated Carnegie Steel’s response to the Homestead Strike of 1892; although Carnegie was doubtless troubled by the hired strikebreakers’ brutality, “the fact is that he had chosen to absent himself from Homestead when he was well aware of what was coming.” For his trouble, Frick was nearly assassinated by the anarchist Alexander Berkman, who shot and stabbed him. When he recovered, Frick busied himself pushing out executives whom he felt insufficiently served his interests, including the superintendent of the Homestead plant. For various reasons, Carnegie and Frick, never fond of each other, began to develop a serious mutual dislike; as Standiford writes, plots thickened as Carnegie looked for ways to force Frick out while Frick, it appears, tried to leverage the company in what Carnegie regarded as “a despicable exercise in speculation.” Frick remained a member of the board when Carnegie sold out to Andrew Mellon, but he seems to have dedicated his later years to one-upping Carnegie’s charitable work (“ ‘I’m going to make Carnegie’s place look like a miner’s shack,’ Frick told friends”) and otherwise spreading poison about the old man.
Sometimes a little too breezy, but Standiford’s glimpse into the greed-is-good Gilded Age will interest business-history buffs.