FORD’S SON, FREDDY, HAD GROWN FROM A CUTE LITTLE RICH kid who wrote postcards home from Europe to see if his daddy would send him “the funny papers” into a dashing and daring young man. By the time he got to Harvard, he had a reputation for fearlessness, his life a seemingly endless game of chicken. He loved fast horses, fast boats, and fast cars: His classmates were awed by his breakneck drives between Harvard and Manhattan, a trip he regularly made in just four hours, averaging an unheard-of speed of sixty miles an hour. And he played his favorite sport, polo, as if every match were sudden death. When the family was at the Grand Canyon, he climbed where only eagles or idiots dared; in his sister’s favorite picture of him, he was hanging by his fingertips from the canyon rim. Strong and lithe, with sleepy eyes and a trim mustache that made his face look older than his body, Freddy had complete trust in his physical strength and his instincts.
He was also fearless socially and sexually. With good looks and charm inherited from both of his parents, he was a well-known ladies’ man whose name struck fear in the hearts of society parents with ripe daughters. According to one of his classmates and fellow jocks at Harvard, they might also have worried for some of their sons as well. Prescott Townsend, the Boston Brahmin who grew up to be one of the nation’s earliest gay advocates, told his biographer that he lost his virginity to Freddy at Harvard.
“I was very frightened,” Townsend recalled, but he said Freddy made him feel as if he were being welcomed into “a distinct brotherhood” so he didn’t “ever feel guilty.”
In 1917, America finally entered the war. Among the final straws were Germany’s overtures to Mexico to join the conflict in January, and then the Russian Revolution in March, which undermined Russia’s active support for the Allies. On April 6, America declared war on Germany.
Twenty-one-year-old Freddy Harvey dropped out of Harvard, where he was a junior, and enlisted, as did a great many of his classmates. Most signed up for the army or the navy. But Freddy was a “born flyer,” in the lingo of the nascent field of flight instruction. So he joined the fledgling American Air Service, a precursor to the air force, which was just a small division of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Like tanks, planes had never been used in combat before this “Great War.” So while the European countries had been stocking up on planes and pilots for several years, America had barely started. When war was declared, the country had just two small airfields and 225 planes, not one of which was safe for combat. There were forty-eight officers in the air service, and only 1,330 men.
“We lacked men of experience; we lacked aviators of mature judgment; we lacked airplanes fit to fly against the Huns; and we lacked facilities for building them … The Air Service was a genuine expression of the ‘American Idea’… splendid courage accompanied by a high degree of disorder,” said one of Freddy’s flight school colleagues, Hiram Bingham, the celebrated Yale professor who had led the expedition to the “lost” Peruvian city of Machu Picchu (and decades later helped inspire the daredevil movie archaeologist Indiana Jones). Bingham was more than twice the age of his fellow trainees, and recalled, “never in my life have I felt so old as I did during my two months of association with this brilliant group of young pilots.”
Freddy was in the first class of volunteers trained after America joined the war—part of a group shipped off to Miami, Florida, where the government had commandeered a facility owned by America’s premier plane manufacturer, Glenn Curtiss. It was as much a laboratory and testing range as a flight school, but there were planes to fly—at least one was always in service, and sometimes even three or four. Freddy was learning how to fly just as Glenn Curtiss himself was learning how to build better military aircraft, improving on his standard plane, the JN-4, known as a Jenny. So students and instructors discovered design and manufacturing flaws in new planes the hard way: in the air. It was not uncommon for propellers to break apart or spin off the plane in flight, forcing young inexperienced pilots to improvise landings. One time a new plane was sent up with wings that didn’t exactly match. It went into a tailspin at fifteen hundred feet and slammed headfirst into the ground, its engine partially buried. Somehow, both instructor and student survived. After ten days in the hospital, they were back at the airfield hobbling around, anxiously awaiting a chance to fly again.
Freddy was a leader among this noisy bunch of pilots. After six months of training in Florida, he was commissioned as a lieutenant and put in charge of the 27th Aero Squadron, which was sent to Toronto to train with the British Royal Flying Corps. Soon thereafter he was appointed assistant officer in charge of Scott Field, the first air-training facility in the Midwest, just outside of St. Louis in Belleville, Illinois. It was named for Colonel Frank Scott, who only weeks before Freddy transferred there had become the first American flyer to die in a plane crash.
Just before Thanksgiving 1917, Freddy let his parents know he would be flying home for the holiday. A huge wooden cross, painted white, was placed on the polo field at the Kansas City Country Club, the site of so many of his athletic triumphs, as a landing marker. And on a blustery Friday afternoon, the Ford Harveys, along with two dozen family friends, could be seen standing alongside the polo field staring into the sky for nearly two hours. Finally, at about two o’clock, the crowd gasped and pointed as the small Curtiss biplane—painted army drab except for red, white, and blue crosses on the wings—materialized in the distance. It buzzed through the chill fall sky, touched down on the polo field, and rolled to a stop just in front of where Ford stood.
Young aviator Freddy hopped out “with as much calmness and aplomb as if he was stepping out of the train coming home from school,” according to one account, and greeted his family and friends. With him was a fellow airman, Major Claude Rhinehardt.
“It’s the greatest sport in the world,” Freddy told the assembled throng, who peppered him with questions. “Frightened? Not a bit. I’m blasé to most of the scary part now. We averaged a hundred miles an hour several times, but if it had not been for some bad air currents and a lot of clouds that persisted in bothering us, we would have arrived here sooner. Hazardous? Well, sometimes you think so and then again you feel as safe as though you were on the ground. We traveled for the most part at a height of about four thousand feet and you feel pretty safe when you’re this short distance from the ground.”
He promised that if folks returned the next day, they would see a dazzling aerial show—a promise that appeared on the front page of the Kansas City Star. Several thousand patriotic adults and “wriggling youngsters” took him up on the offer, lining up all the way around the polo field at the country club the next afternoon. At the appropriate time, the crowd parted for Lieutenant Harvey and Major Rhinehardt, “two leather-rigged, behooded and begoggled figures,” who the Kansas City Times claimed were also wearing spurs for effect. The pilots took turns putting the plane through a series of daredevil moves, spins, and loop-de-loops that had one fan in the audience crowing, “Those chaps do a flip with no more thought about the spectacular than you would have about asking the waiter for a clean spoon.”
At one point the engine stopped in midair and the plane began to plunge—“a dead stick!” Freddy exclaimed—but it was quickly restarted and landed safely.
The event was big news in Kansas City society, where the Independent’s breathless columnist Betty Ann reported that Ford was bursting with pride for his “very expert bird man … fearless to a fault and as at home in his high perch as on the floor of a dance hall.” But the city’s social arbiter admitted, “If I was the mother of a son who was a bird man I would never have a happy moment; no sophistries or would-be consolations or positive assertions that there was no danger would place or impress me, and I haven’t a doubt that Mrs. Harvey feels the same way, but she is too good a sport to show it.”
In fact, while Ford was proud of his son for enlisting—and becoming the first Harvey to ever fight for his country—he was, if anything, even more nervous about Freddy’s flying than his wife. This was his only son, and the namesake future of Fred Harvey. Ford did his best to remain stoically optimistic, even after Freddy was appointed an officer in charge of flying at one of the most hazardous airfields in the country, the massive aviator training facility at Camp Taliaferro in Fort Worth, Texas. Over six thousand men, American and British, were trained there in just six months—and at such breakneck speed that thirty-nine men died in training.
Freddy became a legendary instructor in Texas. Flight students reverently referred to him and two fellow captains as “The Three Bombardiers.”
SHORT OF SACRIFICING his son, Ford was willing to do anything to help the war effort. When America joined the fighting, Woodrow Wilson chose one rich and powerful man in each major city to lead the fund-raising drive for the American Red Cross. In Kansas City, the president appointed Ford.
Fred Harvey was also feeding tens of thousands of American soldiers a day as they traversed the country by train en route to their new training assignments. Kansas City Union Station became the primary crossroad for troops, who spent their layovers getting assistance from the famous Red Cross station in the main concourse, and enjoying discounted meals at the Harvey lunchroom across the way. Fred Harvey also had contracts to serve soldiers at many of its other locations: Ford had negotiated a rate with the War Department of sixty cents ($10.08) per meal. Sometimes the dining rooms would be reset for military feeding, all the tables lined up so as many soldiers as possible could be served. At other times the staff would prepare hundreds of hearty bag lunches to be quickly distributed through train windows. Former Harvey Girls were brought out of retirement to help serve the troops. And army officers from bases all over the Midwest and West besieged Ford to lend them Harvey chefs. Gus Burkett, the chef from the Emporia Harvey House, was now cooking for General Leonard Wood at Camp Funston, in Manhattan, Kansas, and Fredrick Sommers, a chef from the Kansas City Union Station, was cooking for the Thirteenth Engineers in Chicago.
In all, over 25 percent of the company’s male employees had enlisted. Their hero, of course, was the founder’s valiant grandson, Lieutenant Frederick Harvey.
Ford’s influence in the war effort increased in December 1917 when President Wilson announced that the federal government would be taking over all the railroads. The secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo—who was also President Wilson’s son-in-law—was given the militarized title of “Director-General” of the new U.S. Railroad Administration.
While Santa Fe president Ed Ripley wanted nothing to do with the government takeover, his well-run railroad was clearly the model that McAdoo had in mind when building his team. The Director-General selected several Santa Fe men to help run the nation’s trains during wartime: McAdoo’s second-in-command was the former chairman of the Santa Fe’s board Walker Hines, and one of Ripley’s vice presidents was given the top position directing the nation’s train traffic.
Ford was summoned to Washington to head the advisory board on how to feed America’s troops and train passengers during wartime. After all, until the war started, Fred Harvey had been among the country’s largest bulk purchasers of foodstuffs, and probably fed more people every day than any other entity in the nation.
Under Ford’s leadership, all of the nation’s dining cars were changed over from kitchens offering elaborate à la carte meals to simpler table d’hôte menus that could be used for private passengers or soldiers. There would be no more bluepoint oysters served on America’s trains until the Germans were defeated.
AS A YOUNG COUNTRY that had never before been unified and mobilized coast-to-coast for war, the United States had never nationalized an industry before and didn’t know exactly how to go about it. The takeover began congenially enough, with the Railroad Administration working with executives to make sure that military needs always superseded those of private passengers and freight haulers. When the railroads questioned how they would be reimbursed for all this military transport, a bill was passed that basically said, “Don’t worry, we’ll pay you back.”
It was soon clear, however, that the hundreds of railroads needed more than government guidance and reassurance. Years of competition and federal regulation had created a system that was too unwieldy to operate smoothly. While western and Midwestern railroads like the Santa Fe were in pretty good shape and ran fairly efficiently, the trains in the East were not ready for the sheer volume of men and supplies that had to be moved quickly en route to Europe. The eastern tracks and cars required more repairs and upgrades than the railroads could afford, so backups in certain cities became endemic: The Pennsylvania Railroad was in particularly poor shape, and trains were forever being held up in its strongholds of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Director-General McAdoo finally had to admit that Ed Ripley had been right during all those years: Government regulation was a big reason why the railroads hadn’t been able to keep investing in new cars and better tracks. The Interstate Commerce Commission had forced them to keep passenger fares and freight rates absurdly low, and even with the recently mandated eight-hour workday, wages had not risen enough to keep those workers who hadn’t enlisted from repeatedly threatening to strike.
Yet while McAdoo knew the government had helped cause these problems, he grew impatient when the railroads couldn’t fix them. He was tired of arguing with executives about the best way to carry out his orders. So in May 1918, he took a drastic and entirely unprecedented step.
He announced that the U.S. government was summarily firing the president of every railroad in the country.
The presidents would be replaced with “federal managers” who worked for the government. Technically, all the executives were being “retired,” although their companies could still pay them and rehire them after the war. Some were even appointed federal managers at a fraction of their normal peacetime salaries. However, in most cases, younger, more ambitious, and more cooperative executives—from within a company or, occasionally, from its competitors—were put in charge.
At the Santa Fe, Ed Ripley was hugely supportive of the war effort, but he had no interest this late in his career in starting to work for the government. One of his most able vice presidents, William Storey, was named federal manager, which also made him Ripley’s heir apparent.
The new federal managers were forced to quickly standardize their railroads—doing away with competition, duplicate services, and individual corporate idiosyncrasies in all aspects of their operations. New standards were created for railcars, and the government ordered thousands of new ones. Ticket offices in railway stations were consolidated.
In order to avoid any labor unrest, the Railroad Administration gave railroad employees large across-the-board raises. For the first time ever, the government even mandated that female employees receive wages equal to men. To pay for the increases, the federal managers raised all passenger fares and freight charges. So, while the government was still promising that after the war, the railroads would get all their trains back in exactly the condition they had left them, this was already impossible. The entire economics of “working on the railroad” had been changed forever.
Most Americans today are more familiar with the changes and compromises made during World War II, because it lasted longer and is fresher in memory, than with the actions the government took during the first World War. But in many ways, what happened in 1917 and 1918 is far more significant and shocking. This was the first time major industries were impounded in the world’s largest democracy. And quite a few individual freedoms were seriously curtailed as well.
The Temperance Movement used the war as a way to convince the government to pass a temporary “War-time Prohibition Act,” which laid the groundwork for national prohibition. The 1918 law was sold as a way to help conserve grain and keep it from brewers—many of whom were German immigrants. If it kept the country’s soldiers sober, and perhaps halted drinking in America altogether, that was just an added benefit.
In the name of “social hygiene,” the government also became insidiously involved in trying to quash a sexual revolution. As young men poured into military facilities across the country, the government started to arrest and detain young women for being too attracted to the soldiers. As many as fifteen thousand women were incarcerated in “camp cities” because they could be “proven in federal court to be a menace to men in training.” Many were accused of being prostitutes—and certainly some of them were. But a surprising number were detained for being “charity girls”—so enamored of men in uniform that they charitably surrendered themselves sexually to young soldiers headed off to war. Some were arrested even before they had sexual contact with fighting men. A study of the population of one Chicago detention center described “one immoral girl” who was arrested “for writing indescribably obscene letters to various soldiers with whom she was not personally acquainted,” and another woman arrested in the middle of the night en route to visit a sailor she “was crazy about.” She was diagnosed as “an ultra-emotional and excitable type, the offspring of an erratic and probably immoral mother. She had been permitted to read sensational novels and sex stories for years.”
The entire effort was portrayed as a way to stop the spread of venereal disease among enlisted men—which, with no effective treatments, was indeed a serious problem. But the truth was, social reformers had been discussing for years what to do about young women who “forfeited their claims to the respect of the virtuous.” The war was simply a welcome opportunity to enlist government support for criminalizing sexuality.
LATE ON A SUNDAY afternoon in the early summer of 1918, as thousands of passengers and soldiers in uniform rushed through the cavernous main waiting room of Kansas City Union Station, a powerful tenor voice rang out above the din.
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain …
People stopped in their tracks and looked toward the east end of the complex, where the Red Cross booth sat below an illuminated scene of volunteers helping soldiers on a grave-strewn French countryside. The booth was being run by the usual flock of Red Cross volunteers—women from the Junior League, students from Westport High School, and a handful of Harvey Girls who were helping raise money during their break. Standing in front of them, however, was a middle-aged Hopi Indian chief in full tribal dress regalia.
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain …
The crowd quickly shuffled toward Chief Silvertongue, transfixed by his voice and his bearing.
God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
When he finished the verse, the entire concourse stood silent. So he began another verse. When that was done, the crowd still stood dumbfounded.
Then someone called out, “Let us all sing!”
And so they did, soldiers and Harvey Girls, adults and children, their voices soaring with almost religious exaltation:
O beautiful for heroes prov’d
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.
When the song ended, the throng remained in such a patriotic fervor that Chief Silvertongue led them in several others, and Red Cross volunteers found themselves deluged with contributions. Most people could afford only a dime or a quarter, but over the next several hours nearly nine thousand people made donations—including a regiment of soldiers who were passing through the station on their way to war.
It was the last day of the biggest National Red Cross campaign yet. The White House had set a goal of raising $100 million ($1.4 billion) in one week. Ford Harvey, Dave Benjamin, and John Huckel had worked furiously, sending their office employees, Harvey Girls, and family members out to canvass every train that came through the station, going window to window along the broad platforms until the stroke of midnight on Sunday. The quota set by the government for Ford’s operation in Kansas City was $800,000 ($11.4 million). When they finished the tally early Monday morning, they realized they had doubled it.
OVER THE SUMMER, as his fellow flyers were sent overseas into combat, Freddy remained stateside, training pilots and flying in government air shows. His squadron’s performance was the highlight of New York City’s “loyalty parade” for Independence Day—in which more than seventy thousand foreign-born Americans, grouped by nationality or religion, proceeded in formation down Fifth Avenue in what was called “the greatest ‘march for freedom’ the world has ever known.”
Freddy and Major Rhinehardt led a squadron of twenty-two planes that buzzed New York City, taking off from Mineola Field in Queens, hovering over Belmont Park, and then zooming across the Bronx before putting on a show just off Riverside Drive. Then they turned and flew low down Fifth Avenue, the pilots dropping leaflets with the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When the planes reached Madison Square and the Flatiron Building, they separated into three squadrons and veered off to fly amazing stunts all over Manhattan. There was even a pretend near accident over East 72nd Street—which was made more ironic when, at day’s end, one of the planes did a nosedive and crashed into crowded Van Cortlandt Park, with some two thousand spectators watching. (Reportedly, no one was hurt, although police immediately confiscated all cameras, destroying all negatives at the Kingsbridge Police Station.) The New York loyalty parade show was such a success that the government sent Freddy and Rhinehardt out in August to do a fourteen-city national tour.
Freddy finally received orders to ship out for Europe in September 1918, with the war still raging. His departure was delayed only because of a medical procedure: He had his tonsils removed. The twenty-two-year-old aviator probably didn’t have tonsillitis; the operation was most likely done to prevent influenza, the deadly virus that had arrived with epidemic vengeance in the United States from the pestilent trenches of the war in Europe. Tonsillectomies and tooth extractions were among a handful of procedures believed to ward off the flu, along with inhaling chloroform and drinking Scotch whiskey. In some cities, people were being arrested for spitting or coughing.
Ford was in Washington when Freddy, who had been promoted to captain, got his orders. Besides Ford’s Railroad Administration business, the lobbying for national park status for the Grand Canyon had reached a critical stage. He wrote to his brother, Byron, from Washington’s New Willard Hotel that Freddy was “pretty miserable” after the tonsillectomy, and everyone else in the family was upset about his going to war. His wife and daughter, Kitty, were, “of course, depressed.”
By the time Freddy sailed for France in mid-October, it was becoming clear even to the Germans that they would soon have to surrender. But the war was still on, and the risks remained high. On October 27, Freddy’s Harvard classmate Hamilton Coolidge, who had been flying in Europe for six months and had survived more than a hundred missions and eight dogfights, was killed by a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun while flying over Chevrières. His plane exploded on impact, and his comrades watched his body free-fall to the earth.
That week was one of the deadliest in American history, but not only because of the war. In Europe, some twenty-seven hundred American soldiers died in combat; but at home, during the same period, over twenty-one thousand people died of the flu. When the end of fighting was celebrated on November 11, Armistice Day, many people stayed indoors to avoid unnecessary contact, and those who dared to venture out to celebrate wore masks. It was not uncommon in major cities to see priests on horse-drawn carts rolling down the streets calling, “Bring out your dead!”
Freddy ended up being stationed at the Third Aviation Instruction Center at Issoudun in central France. He was there for only four months, but they were months that forever changed the country he had left behind. America endured an endless stream of funerals. The worldwide death toll for the war, over four years, was about 16 million; America lost about 100,000 men. The death toll for the flu pandemic, the worst of which took place during the last few months of the war, was at least 50 million worldwide, with more than 675,000 lives lost in the United States. Together, the two calamities wiped out at least 3 percent, and perhaps as much as 6 percent, of the world’s population. The final weeks of 1918 passed like one long global wake.
Just as the New Year began, the first great hero of the new American century, Theodore Roosevelt, died in his sleep of a coronary embolism at the age of sixty. When Congress came back into session in January, it passed his final piece of pet legislation at last. The bill to make the Grand Canyon a national park was approved and sent on to President Wilson for his signature. At El Tovar on the South Rim and in the Fred Harvey offices on the second floor of Kansas City Union Station there was a mixture of jubilation and relief.
Yet the Harvey family was also rejoicing for another reason: Freddy was coming home. And true to his seemingly charmed life—or perhaps his father’s growing influence in Washington—he was unharmed. Freddy’s flight-training colleague Hiram Bingham made a curious statement about why the young flyer hadn’t seen combat. In his memoir of the air service, he claimed that Freddy “was so greatly appreciated that he was not permitted to go abroad” until the fighting had ended. It isn’t clear whether the air service or his powerful father “appreciated” him too much to let him risk his life.
When Captain Frederick Harvey’s ship pulled in to New York harbor in mid-February, America was in a state of national relief and grief. But Freddy hadn’t changed a bit. From a phone in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, he called home and his sister answered.
“How are you?” he asked. “Where’s Father?”
“I’m fine,” she replied. “Father is in Washington.”
“And where’s Mother?”
“In New York,” she said, “at the Plaza.”
“So am I,” he said, laughing. “Goodbye.” He hung up and dashed off to find her.
Two weeks after his discharge, the news came from Paris that President Wilson, still trying to hammer out the details of the Treaty of Versailles, had taken time out to attend to some domestic business and signed the bill creating Grand Canyon National Park. Since no other company could make a serious bid for the contract to serve all the tourists at the canyon, it was only a matter of time before Ford made a deal with the National Park Service.
If Freddy had any thoughts about returning to Harvard to finish up his degree, the National Park bill ended them. His father wanted him home in Kansas City so he could begin basic training all over again. For the next few years, he would toil as an apprentice to traveling Fred Harvey supervisors. If he was going to assume command of Fred Harvey someday, he would have to start as a private.
ALTHOUGH THE WAR was over, the federal government did not immediately relinquish control of the railroads. And while the Santa Fe waited to get its trains back, Ed Ripley announced that he was stepping down as president. His protégé William Storey, who had been running the Santa Fe as federal manager, would take over, and Ripley would become chairman of the board, charged with helping oversee what was certain to be a rocky transition back to private control.
Hailed by the New York Times as America’s “greatest living railroad man,” Ripley planned to live full-time at his winter home in Santa Barbara, on Pedregosa and Laguna streets near Mission Park. His mustache now snow-white, he wanted to play a lot of golf, spend more time with his family, finish a book he was writing about California wild birds, stay active in the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, and keep a hand in his pet project, the damming of the Colorado River to provide electricity to Arizona. (This was the lobbying effort that led to the construction of the Hoover Dam.) Mostly, Ripley planned to spend long, sunny Santa Barbara afternoons giving sage advice as the emeritus professor of railroads, the conscience of American big business.
Ford was looking forward to sharing some of those expansive afternoon chats. He had recently bought a splendid family vacation home in Montecito, several miles from the Ripley estate. It was called Arequipa, a ten-acre property with elaborate gardens that had been built in 1899 as a wedding gift for a prominent local couple. Its name—invoking a city in Peru—meant “yes, here” or “here, rest” in the South American native language Quechua.
Unfortunately, Ripley did not live to see the government return his beloved railroad to the company he had led for over twenty years, or to have those expansive chats with Ford. On a Wednesday afternoon in early February 1920, he rose after a light lunch and told his wife and daughter he was retiring to his bedroom for “a short siesta.” Only minutes later, his daughter checked in on him and discovered that he was not breathing.
One of the biggest hearts in American industry had finally given out. And Ford Harvey had lost his closest friend and mentor in the railroad business.