A biography of a significant figure of the Gilded Age who is now generally ignored by historians of popular culture.
In 1853, young Heinrich Hilgard borrowed the surname of an acquaintance and left Bavaria with more hubris than prospects. He arrived in America as Henry Villard, possessing not a dollar and not a word of English. Promptly acquiring proficiency in the language, he practiced the emerging profession of political reporter, traveling with candidate Stephen A. Douglas in his campaign against Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, the new journalist became a pioneering war correspondent, and much of the book details Villard’s witness of battles from First Manassas to the Crater. After Appomattox, the young man went West (where he met a discomfited Horace Greeley) to report on the Pikes Peak gold rush. The evident need for western transportation brought Villard to the railroad business, thence to Wall Street. Eventually, he ran a newspaper, controlled the Northern Pacific Railroad, and helped Thomas Edison found General Electric. He was proud, frequently disdainful, and prejudiced. As his fortunes waxed and waned, he battled the most malevolent robber barons, yet his reputation remained relatively intact (muckraker Gustavus Meyers called him “a man of remarkable character and enterprise”). He knew the eminent personages of his time: Lincoln and Edison, Jay Gould and James Gordon Bennett, a squad of Union generals and William Lloyd Garrison (who became his esteemed father-in-law). Villard’s is a prototypical American story, worthy of Horatio Alger. Yet, if he is remembered at all today, it’s likely to be by New Yorkers who know the Madison Avenue palazzo he inhabited for just a few months, now straddled by the Helmsley Palace Hotel. De Borchgrave and her collaborator, a translator of German and Italian texts, rely heavily on their subject's memoirs, not always the most reliable of sources. In this case the resultant biography is quite credible and eminently creditable.
A well-told story. (Illustrations)