Talking with Alfred

Steven Shapin

  • Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science that Changed the Course of World War Two by Jennet Conant
    Simon and Schuster, 330 pp, £9.99, July 2003, ISBN 0 684 87288 9

Alfred Lee Loomis was well connected. Some of his most valuable connections flowed from the accident of a fortunate birth. On his father’s side, the family came to New England only a few ships after the Mayflower, and Loomis’s father was a wealthy Gilded Age New York physician who combined fashion, philanthropy and philandering in ways that could have made him a character in a Henry James novel. More consequentially, Loomis’s mother was a Stimson, of the patrician New York banking and professional family. Loomis was extremely close to his older cousin Henry Stimson, who, after establishing himself as a corporate lawyer to the East Coast establishment during the 1920s and 1930s, served in the cabinets of five US presidents, and was secretary of war under Taft, Roosevelt and Truman. Like his cousin (and both Presidents Bush) Loomis went to Andover and Yale, later moving on to Harvard Law School. He started his legal career as a clerk in Stimson’s New York law firm, subsequently acting as his cousin’s financial adviser, making him even richer through excellent stock-market tips. During World War Two, Loomis was described as Stimson’s unofficial ‘minister without portfolio’, connecting him efficiently with the worlds of business and finance. His marriage in 1912 to Ellen Farnsworth, ‘the prettiest girl in Boston’, brought him additional Brahmin connections, and their doings in high society were conscientiously chronicled in the quality New York papers.

Loomis was also very wealthy. After Harvard, his spell in the Winthrop & Stimson law firm and several years as an army boffin helping develop new forms of artillery, he fetched up on Wall Street, where he quickly made an immense fortune underwriting the bonds that financed America’s burgeoning electric utilities and took an active part in shaping the institutional geography of the electric power industry. He was, Jennet Conant writes, ‘a corporate capitalist of the first order’. In 1928, Stimson warned his cousin about the massive speculative bubble that was developing in the stock market, and particularly in the electric utilities, but he was preaching to the choir. Loomis had already come to the same conclusion, and in the first few months of 1929 he liquidated all his stocks, prudently turning them into Treasury bonds and cash – just before the Great Crash of 24 October. That was the fortune he lived on for the rest of his life, and it was quite big enough to allow him to retire at the height of the Depression, aged just 46.

Loomis was very posh, too. His social network centred not on Wall Street but on Tuxedo Park, an exclusive (as in no Jews, few noovs) development about fifty miles north-west of Lower Manhattan, where he established his family during his bond-dealing days. (The ‘tuxedo’ was named after the development, the dinner jacket being its male residents’ iconic evening wear.) One of America’s original ‘gated communities’, Tuxedo Park was ringed by an eight-foot-high barbed-wire fence to ‘keep out the riff-raff’, though the astronomical prices for Italianate palazzi and mock French châteaux did the job quite well enough. Handsome, dashing, well-coiffed and supremely well-tailored, Loomis kept a chauffeured Rolls, and he and Ellen dressed for dinner even when there was no company. In the early 1930s, as the unemployed were selling apples for a nickel in Wall Street, Loomis financed and skippered a no-expense-spared, state-of-the-art America’s Cup yacht, which, nevertheless, finished dead last in the final Newport trials.

But that extravagance was as nothing compared to Loomis’s development of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. On land that General Sherman had given to freed slaves during the Civil War, he constructed an opulent sporting preserve, where he ‘played the country squire’ and treated Yankee visitors to dinners of Rabelaisian vastness: ‘The big kitchen sent out a tempting fragrance of roast turkey and venison, of duck with orange sauce made from bittersweet island oranges, Carolina shrimp pie, oyster stewed with crisp bacon and onions and served with fluffy rice. There was crunchy benne seed candy in the crystal dish, or perhaps a plate of pecan pralines, with the nuts fresh and crisp from island trees.’

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