SINCE FORD’S DEATH, DAVE, JOHN HUCKEL, AND THE OTHER top executives had been shuttling back and forth between Kansas City and Chicago so that both Byron and Freddy could feel as if they were weighing in on decisions. But to a large degree, Ford Harvey’s company was still running itself. It proved to be an impressively self-sustaining machine—built to last, even with all the cutbacks, and still the envy of any businessman who owned, or dreamed of owning, a chain of restaurants, hotels, retail stores, anything. But it could not continue indefinitely without new, strong leadership.
Both Uncle Byron, a proper English-style gentleman in his mid-fifties, and Freddy, his dashing thirtysomething nephew, had lived fairly cushy lives provided to them by Ford and his Tenth Legion. So it was not really surprising that neither of them had aggressively grabbed the reins. Any conflict between them remained understated, as British as the family’s roots, a battle not of corporate fisticuffs but of raised eyebrows and reserved asides at family gatherings. Yet everyone in the family and at the top levels of the company knew that eventually only one of them could truly be in charge.
Besides the closings, a few small adjustments had been made in the business: A new company logo was developed using a stylized version of Fred Harvey’s own signature, prices were lowered to respond to hard times, the union station restaurants opened stand-alone retail bakeries. But Dave was semiretired and John Huckel was nearing retirement age. And neither Byron nor Freddy had stepped up to offer long-range strategic plans; they seemed to have more faith in the railroad than in themselves.
“In the 1930s, it was the common belief among the Harveys that as long as the Santa Fe remained viable, so would Fred Harvey,” recalled one of Byron’s grandsons. “‘People will always require rail transportation,’ they always said. Rather like the Pukka Sahibs’ belief in the same time period that the British Empire would be eternal—that it was too big and important to end.”
BYRON HAD NEVER done anything at Fred Harvey but manage the dining cars, so his knowledge of the inner workings of the core family business was considered limited. Also, he was still viewed as too nice, too genteel, to be a hard-core top executive. He would even joke about his own lack of business toughness, always delighted to retell the story of the black dining car waiter coming to his office expecting to be disciplined.
“Charlie,” he recalled saying, “put yourself in my position. If a waiter came to you with a report that wasn’t very good, what would you do?”
“Well, Mistah Haahvey,” Byron would recount, mimicking a stereotyped black dialect, “I’d do just like you always do … I’d put my feet up on my desk and smoke a big black cigaaah.”
Yet Byron was close to the railroad top brass in Chicago, and he had been waiting for decades to prove that his older brother, Ford, had been wrong about his leadership abilities. He wanted control for himself, but also for his sons, who were now out of college and slowly working their way up in the family business.
He and his wife, Helen, had raised their three sons—Byron Jr., Stewart, and Daggett—in a Lake Forest mansion on five and a half acres, a two-story brick Georgian building with thirteen rooms, five baths, stables, a conservatory, and apartments for the gardener and chauffeur. When the boys were away at boarding school and later at university, Byron would often write to them collectively, dictating from behind his large wooden table-desk. The letters always began “Dearest Boys” and talked about prep school or Ivy sports, family matters, and money. (“I am enclosing the dividend checks from American Steel Foundries stock. Don’t spend all of yours at once.”)
Byron Jr., who inherited some of his mother’s spunk, theatricality, and good looks and briefly considered a career in acting, went to Stanford and then apprenticed at the Palmer House in Chicago and the Fred Harvey office in Kansas City before coming to work with his father in Chicago. Stewart, the middle brother, was the rebel Harvey. An athletic rabble-rouser, he barely survived St. Mark’s, and got by at Yale for a while largely because he was a good football player. But when a foot infection ruined his chances to make the varsity team, he started spending too much time drinking and playing poker—badly. He eventually flunked out, which was particularly embarrassing because his precocious and studious younger brother, Daggett, had actually skipped a year and was in his same class at Yale, getting honors.
One night Stewart simply drove off in a secondhand Model T, and nobody saw or heard from him for ten months. During that time he did various jobs—sold cars in Port Arthur, Texas, swabbed decks and put out fires on an oil tanker—and finally decided to return to the family business, where he showed promise. But he struggled with what he later understood were alcoholism and manic-depressive illness, and his brothers often looked out for him. On his twenty-sixth birthday, Stewart received a telegram from his older brother, Byron: “Trust you will have [a] very happy birthday dear boy and that you are enjoying your work. Be sure you are getting lots of exercise so you will not gain too much weight. Am depositing $5000 [$71,000] to your credit at First National Bank as little birthday gift.”
In 1931, Byron Jr. and Stewart married within three months of each other. Byron married Kathleen Whitcomb, an heiress and aspiring actress of some talent who had trained at the Goodman Theatre. Her grandfather had started a major Chicago locomotive manufacturing firm and later moved west, where he founded the city of Glendora, California. Stewart, in turn, married Laura Hotchkiss Cornell, a fiery Hunter College–trained artist who lived in Santa Fe, where she was studying with the prominent painter Randall Davey. The couple met when Stewart was making an inspection of La Fonda.
Within a year, both sons made their father, Byron, a grandfather. But when it came time to name those two baby boys, all familial hell broke loose.
Stewart and Laura wanted to name their son after the company’s founder, a Fred Harvey for a new generation. The idea was immediately torpedoed by their Aunt Minnie—in the first of many signs that the Kansas City Harveys and the Chicago Harveys were going to fight over the future of the family and its business.
In the years since Ford’s death, Minnie Harvey Huckel had developed into the family matriarch. She was Fred’s eldest living child, and the one who had been closest to Ford. Her husband, John, was the senior executive at the Kansas City office, but she no longer had to make her opinions known through him; she now enjoyed the complete loyalty of her beloved niece and nephew, Kitty and Freddy, who also voted most of the company stock. So Minnie wielded a great deal of power. Sharp-tongued and forbidding, she made any seat her throne, her twin Pekingese perched on her lap, yapping and snapping. She had a sense of humor about her dogs—she and her sister Sybil had once staged a high-society dog wedding, complete with canine gowns and pearls, at her summer home in Colorado Springs. Yet she was deadly serious when it came to breaches of family protocol.
Minnie insisted that the right to pass on the founder’s name belonged solely to Freddy, the Kansas City heir apparent. After ten years of trying, he and Betty were still hoping to have a baby. It simply would not do for the Chicago Harveys to try to steal the birthright of Ford Harvey’s only son.
Of course, Minnie had her own issues with Freddy—as did Kitty, who looked forward to a day when she could advise her brother as he ran the company. Both were bothered by Freddy’s presumption that whatever he needed to know would simply rub off from working around the older executives, and that he didn’t really need to learn everything about the business because there would always be plenty of smart people around to advise him. They were annoyed that he was pushing forty and still didn’t seem to grasp the concept of working all day, every day. But despite all this, Freddy was the only candidate to be the family’s Kansas City savior. His legacy had to be protected.
So Minnie and Freddy both told Stewart—who was working at the Kansas City office at the time—that he needed to find another name for his baby. Since he felt a certain allegiance to the Kansas City Harveys, he quickly acquiesced and named his son Stewart Jr.
But three months later, when Byron Jr.’s son was born in Chicago, he openly defied Minnie by naming his baby Frederick Henry Harvey III. A birth certificate with the name was issued at Passavant Memorial Hospital at Northwestern University.
At that point, Minnie had a long talk with Byron Sr., who even at age fifty-five was still her kid brother. While nobody ever found out what they “discussed,” a new birth certificate was issued several days later, and the baby was renamed Byron Harvey III. To avoid Byron gridlock at family events, he was called Ronny.
And just to make certain there was no question in the family that the Kansas City Harveys would produce a namesake heir, Freddy’s wife, Betty, arrived in Chicago several weeks after the birth certificate was changed—and announced to the society columns that she was in town to find a male baby.
“Mrs. Frederick Harvey Here ‘Shopping’ for Baby Boy to Adopt,” read the headline in the Chicago American. The gushy article, which described Betty as “breathtakingly lovely” and “almost unbelievably beautiful”—in the same sentence—explained that since “no ordinary baby would do … the process of finding just the right one has been quite difficult.” Apparently, adoption had already become quite competitive by the early 1930s. Betty “found a cunning pair of twin boys at one clinic, but before she could quite adjust her plans for twin beds in the nursery, some other couple who had an option on them snapped the twins up and carried them off.”
After sizing up the “Chicago baby market,” Betty returned to Kansas City and gave Freddy a full report on her “shopping tour.” And then they flew to Santa Barbara in his new plane, which the paper said was “his pride and joy.”
As for the baby—well, they would just have to keep shopping.
IN THIS GAME of family chess, the Chicago Harveys soon made a surprising countermove. Byron Sr. announced he was doing something unprecedented in the company’s fifty-seven-year history: He was moving the company into a new business that had nothing to do with the trains, and would be opening sophisticated urban restaurants with no Harvey Girls. He and his oldest son had agreed to run five new Fred Harvey restaurants, all located in the Straus Building (now called the Metropolitan Tower), a glamorous skyscraper at the corner of South Michigan Avenue and Jackson Boulevard that overlooked Grant Park and Lake Michigan. The new restaurants were only a few blocks from where Chicago’s long-awaited Century of Progress International Exposition—the 1934 world’s fair—was slated to open in a few months.
Little is known about Byron’s decision, but there are certainly hints in the newspaper coverage that the family was far from united concerning the new restaurants. The announcement in the Chicago Tribune barely mentioned the Kansas City home base of the company or its executives. The Kansas City Star story, on the other hand, barely mentioned Byron, instead explaining rather awkwardly that Freddy and John Huckel were in Chicago “to cooperate with other officers of the company.” Between the lines, it was clear that Byron’s decision was causing a good deal of family friction.
If Byron was making a mistake, there was nobody left to talk him out of it. Dave Benjamin was the last voice of reason who had known Fred and Ford well and could remain above the fray of family fighting—and he was no longer actively involved in day-to-day business. He had cashed out his shares, and while he was still technically a vice president, he spent most of his time raising money for charity. He focused on poverty and Jewish causes. “I try to follow the teachings of Judaism,” he said, “by helping my brother, and I don’t think that help should be limited to my Jewish brother.” He was also active in the nascent YM-YWHA movement, which would eventually create Jewish Community Centers all over America. He saw them as havens for “those who can’t afford the more expensive form of Jewish clubs.” On his recent seventy-fifth birthday, he had been presented with an oil portrait of himself by the board of United Jewish Charities.
Just two weeks after the announcement of the new, non–Harvey Girl restaurants in Chicago, Dave Benjamin was in the news. The Kansas City Journal-Post reported that the serially providential business leader—“who has had his share of harrowing experiences” and had just recently “enjoyed a talk with his colleagues” about them—had survived yet another natural disaster. He and his wife were visiting Los Angeles when the city was rocked by an earthquake on March 10, 1933, registering 6.3 on the Richter scale. More than a hundred people were killed, thousands were injured and homeless, and there was over $40 million ($643 million) in property damage. But, as the Journal-Post headline read, “David Benjamin Telephones Calmly as Earthquake Showers Plaster.”
Ironically, only weeks later, Dave took ill in the safety of his own home, after playing cards on a Sunday night with his wife, his spinster sister, Fanny, and one of his sons. The game broke up just before 11:00 p.m., and ten minutes after his guests left, Dave said he didn’t feel well and excused himself. When his wife went to check on him a few minutes later, she found him in the bathroom clutching his chest, dying from a massive heart attack.
Dave Benjamin was buried that Wednesday morning, and his pallbearers were all close colleagues from the Kansas City office, led by Freddy. Later that day, in Chicago, there was an event he would have been sorry to miss. Some twenty-five thousand Jews marched on Grant Park, just across Michigan Avenue from the new Fred Harvey restaurants. They were there to protest the Nazi persecution of Jews and to demand that the Century of Progress exposition ban Germany’s chosen envoy to the world’s fair. Adolf Hitler, who had recently seized control of the German government and was now chancellor, apparently planned to send Dr. Joseph Goebbels as his nation’s goodwill representative to the exposition.
The next day, as the Benjamin family mourned, Century of Progress officials announced the Germans would not be coming to the Chicago world’s fair after all.
IN THE WEEKS leading up to the fair, Byron unveiled his new restaurants in the Straus Building. But the media and the public were considerably more interested in an utterly delightful side venture that Fred Harvey had undertaken on the fairgrounds: the first restaurant just for kids, the Toy Town Tavern.
The Century of Progress exhibition had an entire separate fair for children: the “Enchanted Island,” featuring amazing amusement rides, engaging street performers, and a special library where many of the world’s top children’s authors served as resident storytellers. There was also a kid-friendly, theater, with productions running nonstop from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every single day.
And in the middle of this colorful chaos was the Harvey Toy Town Tavern, a sleek, curved one-story building with twenty-foot-high windows, revealing an interior decorated with a smorgasbord of colorful storybook images. The chandeliers were dangling dollhouse villages and castles, the walls were painted floor to ceiling with circus images, witches on broomsticks, and life-size cows jumping over the moon. The Toy Town Tavern even had its own kid-friendly limited-edition china pattern, with hand-painted images of Mother Goose rhymes, professorial elephants teaching French grammar, and bon vivant rabbit couples out for a stroll. The decor was designed with the help of renowned puppeteer Tony Sarg, the Jim Henson of his day, who was also a prolific and beloved illustrator and had invented the first whimsical balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1928. (Sarg also designed and built the first mechanical animations for Macy’s Christmas windows.)
When the Chicago world’s fair opened in May 1933, there was cautious optimism about its chances for success in the harsh economy. The most recent Summer Olympics, which were held in Los Angeles because no other city in the world would bid on them during the economic crisis, had been something of a disaster; nearly half the countries that normally competed could not afford to send their athletes to the games, and the president did not even attend.
Yet the Century of Progress exposition was surprisingly successful. Over a hundred thousand people arrived each day. While many traveled by car, the train stations were packed with tourists—and since Fred Harvey ran all the restaurants and shops in Chicago Union Station, and the restaurant in Dearborn Station, where the Santa Fe trains came in from the West, its capacity was pushed to the limit. For the first time in years, redcaps were working up a sweat juggling luggage, and Harvey Girls were busy juggling customers.
The mood in the restaurants was especially festive, because after thirteen “dry” years patrons could legally order a beer or a glass of wine. One of President Roosevelt’s first acts when he took office in March had been to sign a bill legalizing the manufacture and sale of light wines and low-alcohol beer, and the ratification process for a full-scale constitutional amendment legalizing all liquor was under way.
Because all the Fred Harvey union stations feeding into Chicago were surging with world’s fair business, Kansas City Union Station was more crowded than usual on the morning of Saturday, June 17, as seven federal agents tried to hustle murderer and train robber Frank Nash through the terminal without attracting attention. He had recently been recaptured after escaping from prison; a car was waiting outside to take him back to jail in Leavenworth—where a new federal penitentiary had been built near the fort.
When the men reached the black sedan in the crowded parking lot, the agents shoved Nash into the backseat, where he raised his cuffed hands and then ducked—a signal to three gangsters lying in wait with machine guns. One of them yelled, “Let ’em have it,” and they opened fire, a dense spray of bullets pelting the car and everyone near it. The gunmen—led by the infamous Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd—rushed to the car to get their friend, but when they opened the door, they saw that Nash, and everyone else, was dead. As they raced out of the parking lot in a dark Chevrolet sedan, a Kansas City cop fired at them, but they got away—leaving four federal agents dead and two more critically wounded.
The “Kansas City Massacre” immediately became priority number one for the fledgling federal Bureau of Investigation and its ambitious young leader, J. Edgar Hoover. The massacre investigation would become the turning point for federal law enforcement, bringing Hoover’s agency a much wider national mandate than ever before—for the first time, his agents were allowed to carry firearms and countermand local police—and leading directly to the creation of the modern FBI.
At the Fred Harvey lunchroom in Union Station, however, the massacre was just one more Depression-era drama for the Harvey Girls to gab about with their regular customers. They all howled when retelling the story of what happened in the restaurant right after the shooting. Their manager, Walter Rouzer, had missed the entire incident, but when he heard about it ten minutes later, he came running excitedly into the lunchroom, slipped at the entrance, and slid across the floor on his belly. It looked like a movie slapstick routine, and from then on they called him “Wild Dash Rouzer.”
AS PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’S first year in office came to an end, hopeful Americans looked for any sign that the nation was headed into recovery. Instead, in the spring of 1934, it started raining dirt.
At Harvey Houses all over Kansas, the exhaustively manicured front lawns were disappearing under dust that had fallen from the sky. On St. Patrick’s Day, the dirtstorm reached Kansas City, causing the temperature to plummet from a balmy sixty-eight degrees to well below freezing in six hours. Soon it was sleeting dirt and then snowing dirt. Freddy watched in disbelief from the corner office he had inherited from his father.
Weathermen called it a “freak storm,” but then it happened again. In some Midwestern towns, the dust drifted so deep that it covered the snow fences; in rural areas, snowplows were used to remove sand and dirt from roads.
In early May, Chicago was shrouded by a cloud of dirt so large that airplanes had to be rerouted, because even at ten thousand feet they couldn’t get above it. Some twelve million pounds of dust were swept into Greater Chicago by the windstorm in just over twenty-four hours—four pounds for every man, woman, and child. And then the black cloud moved east across America, in a five-hundred-mile band hugging the Great Lakes, at a rate of sixty to a hundred miles an hour. The next morning, it descended on New York City during rush hour. The sun’s rays were so distorted that Manhattan was cast in an obscure half-light, which observers likened to a partial solar eclipse.
When it was over, the topsoil that made America’s Midwest the most abundant source of grain in the world was gone—dried out and loosened by summers of drought and improper crop rotation—and the “Dust Bowl” era had begun. It decimated American agriculture and triggered one of the largest migrations in the nation’s history—nearly half a million people driving, riding, hitching, walking, hopping freight trains west. They came from Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, Missouri, Kansas, and New Mexico, mostly by Santa Fe trains or on Route 66.
Their migration put the remaining Fred Harvey hotels and eating houses under even more pressure to feed the hungry. For several years, Harvey Girls, chefs, and busboys had seen firsthand the more urban devastation of the Depression. But now the Dust Bowl was destroying the rural economy as well, and an entirely new group of Americans were begging at the Fred Harvey eating houses along their route to the “promised land” of California.
One Santa Fe conductor never forgot a scene he witnessed at the Purcell, Oklahoma, station, when railroad police, “bulls,” were trying to chase hobos away from the trains. “The thirty-six freight train was pulling out of Purcell and the hobo caught the boxcar and was trying to climb across the rods,” the conductor recalled. “He slipped and fell. The wheels cut off both of his legs at the knees. They called in a doctor and gave him some shots and … put him on a stretcher in the baggage room where he waited for the southern freight train from Oklahoma City to take him to a hospital.”
He recalled the hobo said only one thing:
“Did they get them both?”
Someone told him, “Yeah.”