|Joseph G. Robin on the way to jail
In January 1913, fallen
far from grace, New York financier Joseph G. Robin was sentenced to one year at the New York City
Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, a narrow island in the middle of the East
River, which is now called Roosevelt Island.
How much had Joseph embezzled? Reports ranged from $10,000 to millions. The amount mattered, of course, but it was the light sentence that drew the public’s outrage.
|The Queensboro Bridge crosses Blackwell's Island,
renamed Welfare Island in 1921 and Roosevelt Island
Hoping for leniency, Joseph had dropped his initial plea of insanity and cooperated with the D.A. He implicated a former city official and two Carnegie Trust bankers in bribery schemes involving the investment of city funds.
Joseph entered the penitentiary on a mild spring day. Once on the inside, overcome with a desire to clear his name, he requested and received a pardon from New York Governor Sulzer. But the pardon would be ruled invalid because Sulzer was in the midst of an impeachment trial.
|New York State Governor William Sulzer,
who cultivated a resemblance to Henry Clay.
After his release, Joseph received a pardon from the new governor and testified further about bribery in the railway business. Then, it seemed, he disappeared from the record.
But the internet agreed to be prodded and finally gave Joseph up. His name appeared on a list of deaths that occurred during April 1929, information that unlocked what may be the most interesting part of the story of Joseph G. Robin.
It turns out that the American novelist Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945) met Joseph in 1908 when the banker was nearing the peak of his wealth and influence. By that time, Dreiser, a native of St. Louis, had published at least a dozen short stories as well as Sister Carrie, one of several novels he would write about strivers who rise high and fall hard.
|Newspaper illustration of Theodore Dreiser,
Dreiser, like Joseph, was sitting on top of the world. As editor-in-chief of Butterick Publications, which owned three women’s magazines—The Delineator, Designer, and the interestingly named New Idea Women’s Magazine—Dreiser mingled with the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt and H.L. Mencken. He and Joseph took to galivanting around town. They hit it off because, scholars have written, both men were the children of immigrants, had bouts with mental illness, and overcame adversity to achieve success.
|Joseph G. Robin's estate, Driftwood Manor, once
located in Wildwood State Park on the north shore
of Long Island.
Dreiser found inspiration
in Joseph’s life. When he sat down to write Twelve Men (1919), a
collection of largely biographical stories about men he had known, he based “’Vanity,
Vanity, Saith the Preacher” on the life of Joseph G. Robin, referring to him as
“X.” Here, Dreiser recalls a visit to Joseph’s Long Island mansion:
He was always so grave, serene, watchful
yet pleasant and decidedly agreeable, gay even, without seeming so to be. There
was something so amazingly warm and exotic about him and his, and yet at the
same time something so cold and calculated, as if after all he were saying to
himself, “I am the master of all this, am stage-managing it for my own
At the end of “Vanity, Vanity,” Dreiser defends Joseph:
. . . the man had been a victim of a cold-blooded conspiracy, the object of which was to oust him from opportunities and to forestall him in methods which would certainly have led to enormous wealth.
The men stayed in touch after
Joseph’s release from prison. Dreiser encouraged Joseph to write, and during
the 1920s the former banker published two plays under a pseudonym. But it
appears that his real talent was double-dealing.
|Joseph G. Robin easily made it into
Volume II of Henry Ford's 1921 compilation,
The International Jew.
*Dreiser also drew on Joseph G. Robin’s personality for the character of Frank Cowperwood in The Financier (1912).