The dramatic centerpiece of Les Standiford's dual biography of Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick is the bloody clash between striking steelworkers and imported Pinkerton "detectives" at Carnegie's Homestead, PA plant in early July of 1892. Fourteen people were killed in that battle, and many more injured.
Homestead may have been the signature event in the intertwined careers of Carnegie and Frick, but Standiford's book makes clear that it was not the reason that their close partnership turned to bitter enmity and mutual recrimination. Their breakup came seven or eight years later over a disagreement concerning a proposed sale of the giant Carnegie firm to outside investors whose credentials and intentions were suspect.
Thus, while Standiford's account of the week-long Homestead crisis is cinematically vivid, it does not by itself tell the whole story of the two men's lives. Both were born dirt poor (Carnegie in Scotland, Frick in western Pennsylvania) and rose through the industrial ranks through their own strong ambition and financial cunning. They joined forces only when they found they needed each other. Carnegie was the top man, Frick the on-site chief operating officer.
Carnegie at least publicly claimed to support working men and their right to organize, but Frick was an unapologetic anti-union hardliner. When Homestead exploded in gunfire and mob violence, Carnegie, vacationing back in Scotland, gave Frick full support for whatever means he adopted to suppress the strikers and keep the company sound. Only after it was all over and the dead had been counted did Carnegie express some mild criticism of Frick's tactics.
Standiford emphasizes the strong faith placed by both men in "social Darwinism," the idea that only companies willing to do whatever it took to survive would prosper in the industrial jungles. The welfare of the workforce made a nice topic for ceremonial speeches but was never high on their list of real priorities.
Both men also believed that the key to success in industry was strict control of costs rather than counting up profits or dividends. And after they became wealthy, both men sought to burnish their public images --- Carnegie by donating almost 3,000 community libraries and financing a host of other projects, Frick by amassing what is still regarded today as one of the great private art collections.
Standiford tells this complex tale in the style of a practiced writer (he has written ten novels and three other works of nonfiction). His research has been thorough, though his text is not without errors (Saugus, home of the earliest blast furnace in the United States, is in Massachusetts, not Michigan; Carnegie Hall was opened in 1891, not 1892). He does about as well as anyone could in trying to clarify the byzantine workings of high finance in the steel industry, a subject pretty much impossible to make interesting to non-millionaires.
Frick and Carnegie are present in Standiford's pages in all their personal complexity and baffling contradictions. There are also minor characters orbiting around them who are memorably portrayed, notably a union leader named Hugh O'Donnell who did his best to keep the militant steelworkers from erupting and tried vainly to find a way to head off the violence.
In the end, Frick was finally forced out of his high position in Carnegie's company and the two men ended their lives bitter enemies. Standiford's title is a paraphrase of a remark Frick made in the spring of 1919 in response to an offer of meeting and reconciliation from Carnegie: "Tell him I'll see him in hell, where we are both going." They died within weeks of each other that very year.
Standiford has done a good job of bringing before a new generation this classic love-hate story played out among smoky steel plants and lavish residential palaces. He has a tendency now and then to sermonize unnecessarily, but his basic story is both relevant and enthralling. The ghosts of his two protagonists, if they are still feuding in the hereafter, will at least find his book reasonably balanced and a valuable reminder of a crucial period in America's industrial history.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 7, 2011