Henry Villard: Gutsy Reporter, Railroad Baron and Nice Guy

In 1881, raising capital on the strength of his name alone, Villard took control of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan , by Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 414 pages, $30.

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American lives,” he was not all wrong: Often there are no second acts in American “Lives.” American biographers like to show characters following the same simple impulse all their lives: emancipation, money, the Super Bowl, whatever. I’ve lost count of the business biographies in which the hero is doing discounted cash-flow models for his paper route.

Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan is not like that. A minor character of the Gilded Age, Henry Villard is known to New Yorkers, if at all, as the builder of the “Villard Houses,” the brownstone palazzo at the back of St. Patrick’s Cathedral that serves as the lobby and courtyard of the Helmsley Palace Hotel. Yet he emerges from this biography as a figure more interesting (and much more pleasant to read about) than more celebrated monomaniacs such as Jay Gould or Andrew Carnegie.

In the course of his life, Villard was a rebel, a penniless immigrant, a Pikes Peaker, an outstanding Civil War newspaperman, a financier and railroad baron, a family man. It is one of the virtues of this handsome book, written by his great-granddaughter Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and the German specialist John Cullen, that it breaks open the stock characters so reassuring to American writers and makes a human being out of them.

It helps, of course, that Villard left copious memoirs in both German and English, lived in an age of photography and wrote cloying letters to his wife, Fanny Garrison. He was a thorough and intelligent reporter of his own life, even if his writing sometimes sounded more German than English. The account here of young Henry’s ghastly first year as an immigrant is terrific, as good a piece of American biography as I’ve read. In general, you come away from the book with a much clearer idea of the Civil War as opportunity, not merely disaster, and as the watershed in U.S. history.

Heinrich Hilgard, who was to anglicize his name as Henry Villard, was born in 1835 into a well-to-do professional family in the medieval town of Speyer on the Rhine. His father, whom he could never please, was a legal official in the service of the king of Bavaria. Uncles and aunts of a more republican persuasion were already established in a German colony on the Mississippi at Belleville, Ill. With the surge of revolutionary fervor in 1848, Heinrich was expelled from high school for refusing to pray for the king. That was the first of several assaults on patriarchal authority till he ran away to New York, on the steamer from Hamburg, with one and a half Prussian dollars in his pocket. It was August 1853, and he was 18.

While his Illinois relations cautiously waited for direction from his father, Henry (as he now became) found himself stranded in the Midwest. Painfully fastidious and a snob, he was confined by his bad English to crude and penny-pinching German employers as he tramped his way as farm hand, cooper, barkeep, bricklayer, lumberjack and railway man from one starveling German outpost to another. This is Horatio Alger in a welter of dirt, homesickness, degradation and illness.

Rescued by his relations’ change of heart, Henry found himself equally unsuited to the more genteel professions of the law, encyclopedias and real estate. Yet his failures could not dent his good nature or his liberalism. His opportunity came in the lowering political storm of the late 1850′s. In Racine, Wis., he was invited by local Republicans to take over the German democratic paper, named the Volksblatt. The paper failed, but after further false starts, Villard suggested to the Staats-Zeitung of New York that he cover the debates on slavery between Senator Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln slated for Illinois in the summer of 1858. Though Villard at first despised Lincoln as a hayseed, he refined his opinion when they were stranded together at a flag railroad station west of Springfield, and he covered the President-elect’s triumphant progress to his inaugural in Washington for the New York Herald in 1861. In between, he traveled out west for the Pikes Peak gold rush, and “to the detriment of his future heirs,” as Ms. Villard de Borchgrave has the candor to put it, sold his land-holding in what was to become downtown Denver for $1,200, a gold watch, a wagon, two horses to pull it and a rifle.

With the outbreak of war, Villard was syndicating his reports to newspapers in Cincinnati and Chicago as well as James Gordon Bennett’s Herald. He covered the first battle of Bull Run and, switching to Horace Greeley’s Tribune, the carnage at Shiloh. His dispatch from the battlefield was lost in the mails, but Villard scored a world scoop (or “beat,” as it was known in those days) by bringing to Washington-and the President himself-the report of the Union disaster at Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862. Though General Ambrose Burnside, the Union commander, had ordered the roads closed, Villard rode through the night, hired two fishermen to row him out into the middle of the Potomac, jumped from the boat onto a steamer bound for Washington, wrote and filed his story, briefed Lincoln himself and still had time before bed to punch out his editor for querying his expenses. Villard also covered, from within the ringing hull of the New Ironsides, the Union’s ironclad marine assault on Charleston Harbor on April 7, 1863.

The war occupies most of the book, and is quite enthralling. Villard appears to have been a very good reporter, indeed-brave, conscientious and cautious. Captain C.R.P. Rodgers, commander of the New Ironsides, wrote to the Tribune of the “untiring fidelity with which [Villard] sought to perform his duties as an observer and recorder of all that was occurring.” But by 1863, the slaughter and discomfort were destroying his health. His introduction that spring to Fanny Garrison, the daughter of the fiery Boston abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, may have suggested there was more to life than death. Though present at Chattanooga, he was too ill to report the storming of Missionary Ridge that gave the Union victory. He continued as a correspondent in Washington and in Europe, but by 1868-and now married to Fanny Garrison-he was losing his enthusiasm and his touch.

The second act begins with the death of his father in Germany. Scouting around for something to do, Villard started promoting U.S. railroad bonds to German investors. Acting as an agent for the German holders of depressed securities, Villard found he had a taste for negotiation. He maneuvered himself-quite scrupulously, it appears-into control of the Oregon & California Railroad and the Kansas Pacific Railroad (where he had a brush with Jay Gould). In the course of 1881, raising capital on the strength of his name alone in an $8 million blind pool, he took control of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

In forcing through the Northern Pacific to the terminus at Portland, Ore., Villard was no doubt just as brutal as any industrialist of his age. The authors prefer to concentrate on his grandest gesture. In the summer of 1883, Villard assembled a procession of four trains, brimming with celebrities, financiers and reporters from the United States, Britain and Germany, to drive in the last spike of the transcontinental road at Gold Creek, Mont., on Sept. 8.

This Kane-like expedition, lavishly photographed, could not conceal the road’s shaky financial condition: The Northern Pacific was engulfed in the financial panic of that autumn. Villard resigned the presidency, moved out of his magnificent new house on Madison Avenue and betook himself to Europe.

That was not the end of the story. Villard was to regain control of the railroad. He helped Thomas Edison create the Edison General Electric Company, though both men were eventually sidelined by J.P. Morgan. Shattered by the death of his young son Hilgard in 1890, in scenes that might have come out of Dombey and Son, exhausted by ill health and frustrated in business, he died at his beautiful country house Thorwood, on the Hudson, on Nov. 12, 1899.

Villard was an attractive character: optimistic, generous, affectionate. His attitudes toward slavery and female emancipation need cause his great-granddaughter no blush. The authors say that idealism “set Villard apart from most of the tycoons of the age, who seemed more thoroughly at home in the material world.” That may be so. Or perhaps it is because we have so much information about Henry Villard that he comes alive for us as no other businessman of his age.

James Buchan’s latest novel is The Persian Bride (Houghton Mifflin).