Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Frank Munsey of Maine

Frank Munsey

When the publisher Frank Munsey died in 1925, Americans took notice. Rather than grieving, however, most speculated about the disposition of his fortune.  A bachelor with no record of philanthropy, Munsey had accumulated wealth since 1894, having trekked from Maine to New York City with $40 in his pocket twelve years earlier. Eventually, Munsey’s investments in real estate and U. S. Steel, along with his consolidation and sale of newspapers and magazines, begat millions. 

The tributes poured forth, from President Coolidge down the line: “His purpose was high and his efforts never ungenerous.”  “In his death a dynamic, forceful, and enterprising personality is gone.”  And so on.

Several colleagues wrote that Munsey’s life was inspirational, dramatic and romantic. A few offered examples of his kindness. But the truth was revealed at the funeral service, attended by hundreds at the Cathedral of St. John Divine. Not a eulogy in sight.  

A Munsey Company vice president sent his boss an
embarrassingly sycophantic thank-you for a
Christmas bonus, 1914. 

Amidst the coverage a theme emerged: the life of Frank Munsey was a Horatio Alger story. Horatio Alger, Jr., a nineteenth-century writer, penned more than 100 books – most famously The Story of Ragged Dick, or, Street Life in New York With the Boot-blacks – in which the heroes were usually destitute young boys, alone in the city, who achieved financial success through luck and determination.

Somehow, more than his self-made contemporaries such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Sr., Munsey embodied the boy with a dream.

Born in rural Maine in 1854, Munsey went to work as soon as he could.  At the age of 12, he made his way to Augusta, where he got a job as a telegraph clerk.  The state’s forests produced paper as well as lumber, and Augusta had become a publishing and shipping center. Here, Munsey developed a consuming interest in newspapers and magazines.  At a time when the nation’s literacy rate was rising, he imagined an adventure magazine for boys called Golden Argosy.  He asked friends to fund his venture, including the Maine politician James G. Blaine who thrice ran for president. 

“You will be swallowed up in New York by the sharks in very little while,” Blaine reportedly said.

Frank arrived in New York City in September 1882 with $40 in his pocket. He rented a room and toiled by candlelight year after year, writing stories, striking out until the 1890s when he found the right formula with Argosy, the nation's first pulp magazine.  Later, he started Munsey’s Magazine, which soon turned a profit.

During the next few decades, Munsey launched more magazines with mixed results. And he bought and sold newspapers in New York, Boston, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia, bent on creating a monopoly similar to the railroads.
The New Republic often editorialized about Munsey. 

His really was a “rags to riches” tale.  No wonder that Editor and Publisher, the preeminent trade journal of the day, ran this rambling headline:

Frank Munsey’s Boy Dream of Power and Wealth Came True – Indomitable Will Triumphed over Countless Obstacles – Fortune Estimated at $40,000,000 – His Amazing Adventures with Magazines and Newspapers in Five Cities

Historians have long debated the Alger mythology. Was it propaganda or a narrative that mediated between the agricultural economy and industrialism? Or was it authentic?

However you slice it, the Alger heroes were distinguished by earnestness and sweetness.  It is doubtful that Frank Munsey, beset with ruthless ambition, ever possessed either quality.

In early 1926, the public learned what was in Munsey’s will. The publisher left bequests to several longtime employees. He generously remembered his sister as well as a woman he knew as Annie Downes, who had spurned his marriage proposal years earlier in Maine. And, in a grand gesture, he left the rest of his estate – estimated at $40 million – to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Many a head was scratched upon learning that Munsey had become a major benefactor of the art world.  Not only had he never evinced an appreciation of paintings, drawings, and sculpture, but in 1921 he had turned down a nomination to become a member of the museum corporation.  That was less than five months before Munsey executed his last will. 
It’s hard to figure how Frank Munsey reached the decision to bestow so much money on the Met. One acquaintance believed Munsey’s lawyer had persuaded his client; others thought the publisher admired the business efficiency of the museum trustees. But I believe that the gift constituted the last bid of a very lonely man for acceptance into New York society.  

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1917
(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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