Review

Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan

by Alexandra Villard De Borchgrave and John Cullen



If the name Villard means anything to American readers these days,
they probably think of Oswald Garrison Villard, the editor and
author long associated with the New York Post and the
liberal magazine The Nation. This book, however, brings back
to literary life Oswald's father Henry Villard, who arrived in New
York from his native Germany in 1853 penniless and without a word
of English and went on to become a famous (and immensely wealthy)
journalist, newspaper owner and railroad magnate before his death
in 1900.

Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave is Henry Villard's
great-granddaughter. Her collaborator John Cullen is a scholar,
translator and writer. The exact nature of their collaboration is
not spelled out, which is a pity; the book is vividly and
perceptively written, and it would be nice to know exactly how to
apportion the credit.

Henry Villard (born Heinrich Hilgard) came to America largely to
escape an autocratic father and a highly regimented but personally
galling upbringing in Germany. He manifested his free spirit even
as he got off the boat by Americanizing his name. The first two
years or so of his life in America are an incredible odyssey of
temporary menial jobs --- barrel maker, bartender, manual laborer,
door-to-door salesman --- which nearly crushed his hopes. He
traveled all over the Midwest, but was thoroughly miserable most of
the time. He does not seem even to have learned much English during
that wanderjahr. What he had going for him was a basic faith
in his own destiny and an uncanny ability to ingratiate himself
with influential people.

His first break came in 1858 when he was hired to cover the epochal
Lincoln-Douglas debates for a German-language paper in New York
City. Typically, he met both Lincoln and Douglas and was soon on
cordial terms with both men. His English improved rapidly, and when
the Civil War broke out three years later he became the star
front-line correspondent, first for the New York Herald and
later for its rival, the Tribune.

Villard gained great fame, but not much money, as a war
reporter. This biography reflects the fact that he himself regarded
his Civil War experiences as the greatest events of his life. The
war narrative (Villard was an eyewitness at First Bull Run,
Fredericksburg, and Shiloh, among other bloody battles) is
colorfully written, horrifying in its grisly detail, and extensive.
It takes up fully one-third of the book and dwarfs in interest the
many years of postwar financial wheeling and dealing that made him
rich, temporarily lost him his fortune and then finally restored
it. The two authors have not found the means to make complex
railroad financial transactions as interesting as warfare; one
wonders if any author could.

Along the way, though, they paint a rounded picture of a complex
and fascinating man --- filled with class prejudices inculcated in
his youth in Germany, both forthright and crafty in his business
dealings, prone to judge people by outward appearances, dogged by
poor health but incurably optimistic even at the worst of times
("he prepared for luck as others might prepare for trouble"). True
to his genius for befriending great people, he married the daughter
of William Lloyd Garrison and was an early associate of Thomas
Edison, who confessed that he could never quite understand
him.

De Borchgrave and Cullen have done a fine job of bringing this
interesting but now largely forgotten man to life on the page. One
major source for them was Villard's own autobiographical writings
--- an account of his youth written in German, and one of his
American years written in English. The authors recreate the sense
of a country drifting irresistibly toward catastrophe in the years
leading up to the Civil War and they have a nice sense of the
larger society within which Villard moved during his American years
(he died, wealthy and influential, in 1900). They have a knack for
striking off memorable character portraits of those, both famous
and obscure, whose lives intersected with their subject's. This is
biography set against a background of memorable history. It is
respectful but not worshipful. It is a book that Henry Villard
deserved.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan
by Alexandra Villard De Borchgrave and John Cullen

  • Publication Date: March 20, 2001
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
  • ISBN-10: 0385486626
  • ISBN-13: 9780385486620