- Meet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Transformed America
- Crown, 336 pp.
Mr. Carnegie begs to differ…
Since our society began its retreat into Social Darwinism tricked out in the guise of laissez-faire economics, those of us who enjoy our economic history red in tooth and claw have the guilty pleasure of reading about business scandals. There is no new evil under the sun and for every Donald Trump posing as a wheeling, dealing tycoon, there is an Andrew Carnegie who actually built something lasting, often over the bodies of the thousands of men who worked for him. Carnegie himself has been given a somewhat easy ride by business historians thanks to his penchant for building libraries the world over and giving away his many millions of dollars as the greatest American philanthropist of his age.
Well, rejoice, lovers of business scandal. Meet You in Hell, Les Standiford’s outstanding new look at Carnegie and his tempestuous relationship with his iron-fisted business partner and trusted company manager, Henry Clay Frick, offers its subject up on a plate. Dipping deeply into Carnegie’s personal correspondence with Frick (and vice versa), Standiford reveals a hypocrite who prided himself on being a friend of the working man, while at the same time planning and executing what turned out to be one of the bloodiest labor lock-outs in U.S. history, the Homestead Strike. When Frick carried out Carnegie’s union-busting scheme to the letter, the Scots-born industrialist bent over backwards to hide his participation in the scheme.
Inevitably, he and Frick fell out over the strike. Frick, who was shot by Russian anarchist Alexander Berkman during the strike, never forgave Carnegie for disowning his actions during the lock-out. Nearly thirty years after the Homestead debacle, Carnegie dispatched a servant bearing a letter begging his old partner to let bygones be bygones to Frick’s New York mansion. Frick’s reply to Carnegie’s appeal was blunt and to the point: “You can tell Carnegie I’ll meet him. Tell him I’ll see him in Hell, where we both are going.” Frick was obviously laboring under no illusions about the moral stands he had taken in clawing his way to the top. Both men died within months of one another shortly after Carnegie’s abortive attempt to make amends with Frick.
Standiford highlights the similar backgrounds of Carnegie and Frick, both of whom began their adult lives as lowly clerks and took advantage of the business connections they made to begin amassing riches. Carnegie’s emphasis on cost accounting meshed well with Frick’s managerial genius. Carnegie originally met Frick when he tried to buy the latter’s coke-producing empire. Rather than let himself be bought out, Frick so impressed the tight-fisted magnate that Carnegie hired him to run his entire steel-making empire.
In Frick Carnegie found an alter ego who kept his finger on every aspect of the steel-making process and a protégé whom he could groom over the years. What Frick got in return was a boss who could not be counted upon to stand firm when things got heated. When the duo decided in 1892 to eliminate the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) from their Homestead mill outside Pittsburgh, Carnegie wasted little time in repairing to his rural retreat in Scotland, leaving Frick to abort contract talks with the union and bust the inevitable strike.
Homestead turned into a nightmare when Frick brought in Pinkerton Detective Agency workers to put down the strike. Instead, the workers fought a pitched, day-long gun battle with the infamous Pinkertons. When the smoke cleared, the Pinkertons had surrendered to the strikers, but not before killing nearly nine men. A sharp coda to the Homestead battle came days later when Berkman drew a bead on Frick after bursting into his office and pulled the trigger of his pistol. Frick was hit twice in the neck, but the attack didn’t deter him from keeping the mill closed. The AAISW eventually capitulated, in the process cutting off the union movement in the steel industry at the knees. It would be over 30 years before Big Steel began to be unionized again.
Throughout this chaotic and bloody struggle at Homestead, Carnegie sent Frick constant telegrams, urging him to stick to the hard line against the union. At the same time, he tried to wash his hands of responsibility for what happened at Homestead among his and Frick’s fellow steel magnates. “Matters at home bad – such a fiasco trying to send guards by Boat and then leaving space between River & fences for the men to get opposite landing and fire,” Carnegie grumbled privately to his cousin and business partner George Lauder. “Still, we must keep quiet & do all we can to support Frick…”
For his part, Frick knew Carnegie well enough to send him telegrams reminding the steel baron that he had agreed to the idea of bringing the labor crisis to a head. “We were only letting our property lie idle,” he cabled Carnegie. “awaiting the pleasure of one of the worst bodies of men that ever worked in a mill, so concluded it was better to have trouble, if we were to have it, at once.”
Homestead didn’t destroy Carnegie and Frick’s relationship. That would take several more years and at least one attempt by Carnegie to swindle Frick out of his fair share of the business. But the strike was the first blow to the trust both men had extended to one another up to that point. In the end, the prickly Frick and the devious Carnegie were bound to collide. But while they stood together, they reshaped the face of American manufacturing and re-invented the steel industry. This fascinating read gives the full measure of Carnegie and Frick’s interactions and gives some indication of why a man who knew the great philanthropist so well would vow to only come face-to-face with him in an antechamber of Hades.