One hundred and twenty two years ago, on the site of 17 Lexington Avenue, Bernard M. Baruch walked the halls of the then College of the City of New York. Just one in a crowd of three hundred entering students, none could have guessed that his alma mater would eventually bear the name of this distinguished alumnus.
The public life of Bernard M. Baruch is well-known, but a glimpse of the private life of the man and his family can be revealed through photographs that are part of the Baruch College Archives.
Bernard Mannes Baruch, son of a German immigrant and an impoverished southern belle, was the second of four children born in Camden, South Carolina in 1870. Moving to New York City at the age of ten, he struggled to adjust to his new surroundings. At the age of fourteen, he began his studies at the College of the City of New York, located on Lexington and 23rd street (in those times there were no public high schools and a student could go directly to college if he met the entrance requirements). To save money he would walk the roughly forty blocks every day from his home on 60th street, saving a dime weekly; his entire allowance was only a quarter a week. His college days were a time of intellectual enlightenment as his knowledge of the world grew, and he completed his growth spurt, transforming from a rather frail boy into a six foot three man of athletic build. After graduation, Baruch became a runner on Wall Street, trying to learn as much as he could about business and becoming a partner at the age of twenty five at A.A. Housman & Company.
As the twentieth century progressed, Baruch’s fortune increased, and he began to want something more out of life. His father’s words always made Bernard reflect on the direction his life was taking.
I could not forget my father’s look the day I proudly informed him I was worth a million dollars. The kindly, quizzical expression told me, more clearly than words, that in his opinion, money making was a secondary matter… Of what use to a man are millions of dollars unless he does something worth while with them (My Own Story, 177-178).
Bernard was often envious of his brother Herman, who followed in their father’s footsteps and was now a doctor, working toward the greater good. From this point on Baruch became interested in the public sphere.
My first real introduction to civic affairs came in 1910, when Mayor Gaynor offered me a trusteeship at my alma mater, the College of the City of New York. I took this civic task seriously, for I felt a very deep sense of gratitude to the College for the educational opportunities it had given me… To this day I retain a deep interest in City College and am a firm supporter of the tradition of free higher education. Municipal colleges have educated thousands of men and women who, for financial reasons, would have been denied the chance for college training.
My acceptance of the College trusteeship was, as it turned out, the first link in a chain of circumstances that led me to more important tasks. It brought me into touch with William McCombs, a fellow trustee. And it was McCombs who led me eventually to Woodrow Wilson (The Public Years, 4-5).
This acquaintance would soon propel Baruch into national and then the international spotlight.
When World War I began, Baruch was among the first to champion preparedness in the event of America’s entry into the war. Although his warnings went unheeded, he continued to agitate for it up until the United States’ entry in 1917, when he was appointed to the War Industries Board, eventually becoming the head of that organization. His mobilization of the resources of the country was immensely successful and he resigned at the end of 1918 to follow President Wilson to Europe for the peace conference.
Baruch returned to America a changed man. While much of the country was regretting the involvement of the United States in the war and slipping back into isolationism, it was a turning point for Bernard. He decided not to return to his financial career full-time and try to concentrate on public affairs as much as possible. As he himself admitted, public service was much more satisfying than making money.
At the age of forty-nine, I had already enjoyed two careers – in finance and, much more briefly, in government. The war had taken me out of Wall Street, often described as a narrow alley with a graveyard at one end and a river on the other, and plunged me deeply into the broad stream of national and international affairs (The Public Years, 149).
As the euphoric 1920’s were winding down, Baruch became increasingly concerned with the wild speculation going on in America. He was one of the few who withdrew, saving themselves from ruin when the stock marked crashed in 1929.
With the deep depression griping the country, Baruch tried to remain optimistic.
Even in the darkest day of the depression, however, I never lost sight of the fundamental strength and wealth of America. … I was sure that, with proper encouragement and help, we could recoup the grievous losses of the depression if the people’s belief in themselves and their country could be restored (The Public Years, 230).
At this time, Hitler’s rise in Germany worried Baruch immensely and he continually advocated for preparedness. Baruch’s continual demands for preparedness went mostly unheeded until the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
Now I was to be involved almost full time in the war effort. I had no office, no title, but functioned, in effect, as an unofficial free-lance, helping wherever I could, taking emergency assignments from the President and his assistants in the production and procurement programs (The Public Years, 294).
During the entire war, Baruch would involve himself in whatever sector his help was needed. After the war, Baruch was appointed to serve as an American representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission but his plan was rejected by the Soviet Union.
As the Soviets thwarted an atomic agreement, lowered their Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, and broke one promise after another in those early postwar years, it became clear that they were waging war against us. It was a new kind of war, to be sure, in which guns were silent; but our survival was at stake nonetheless. It was a situation that soon came to be known as the “cold war,” a phrase I introduced in a speech before the South Carolina legislature in April, 1947 (The Public Years, 388).
For the remainder of his life, Baruch remained a prominent advisor and a major participant in civil service. In 1953, City College’s School of Business Administration on Lexington and 23rd street was renamed in his honor.
Utilizing materials from the Baruch College Archives, this exhibit will show the private and public life of Barnard Baruch and his immediate family.