Biographies & Memoirs



IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HARVEY FAMILY TUMULT, A LETTER FROM Hollywood arrived at Byron’s office. It was from Bing Crosby’s production company with Paramount, Major Pictures, which had just finished Pennies from Heaven with Crosby and Louis Armstrong and Go West, Young Man with Mae West and Randolph Scott. They were going to make a movie set at a Fred Harvey eating house in New Mexico in 1900, about a woman who comes west to be a Harvey Girl.

The letter came from William Rankin, who had written the screenplay—which he said treated the Harvey restaurants “with the greatest respect, attempting to show that they were greatly responsible for the development of the Southwest.” He wanted to know whether Fred Harvey could help them make their film authentic. Rankin even offered to submit the final shooting script to Byron for his approval. The project, originally called Susannah Was a Lady and then Parade to Empire, was expected to star Janet Gaynor and Fred MacMurray.

Byron Jr. quickly checked out the production company with a friend in Hollywood, a young costume designer at Paramount, Edith Head. Once she assured him that any film they produced would be “perfectly legitimate and worthwhile,” he told his father that Fred Harvey should assist the producers in any way they could. Byron put John Huckel’s old assistant Harold Belt on the case. Belt would devote much of the next ten years to the project, for the Harvey Girls movie, like Fred Harvey itself, spent the better part of that decade in turnaround.

TO THE TRAVELING PUBLIC, Fred Harvey was still a western powerhouse: While many smaller locations had closed, its major hotels, restaurants, and union station operations still appeared to be going strong. Increasingly, the company was known for its Santa Fe dining car service, especially on the Super Chief—its first all-diesel service between Chicago and California, the fastest and classiest train ride ever. The glistening, modern, all-steel Super Chief was the transportation of choice for business and Hollywood types still anxious about flying. In fact, they became so reliant on the train, after its 1936 debut, that it was not uncommon to hear people use “chief” as a verb, as in “I just chiefed in from the coast.”

While the Super Chief had the same excellent Fred Harvey dining car service as its predecessors, it had an extra touch inspired by the sensibilities of the Kansas City Harveys in the “good old days.” Mary Colter designed a revolutionary china pattern, called Mimbreño, just for its dining cars. She based her design on the whimsical pottery made by Indians in New Mexico’s Mimbres valley during the thirteenth century, so all the pieces were decorated with blood-red paintings of stylized, floating animals: amusing fish chasing each other’s tails, genuflecting parrots, leaping quail, wrestling birds, and all manner of funny bunnies. The dishes were almost too enchanting to sully with food. They were used in an exclusive dining car space called the Turquoise Room.

The only downside to the Super Chief was that its terminus in Los Angeles was the antiquated Santa Fe La Grande station on East First Street. But that changed in 1939 when the Santa Fe, Union Pacific, and Southern Pacific finally completed construction of the new $11 million ($171 million) Los Angeles Union Station. Considered the last great railroad station in America, it was also the last for which Fred Harvey was hired to run all the restaurants and retail stores. While Mary Colter did not design the entire majestic station complex, she did create a remarkable space for the Fred Harvey eateries. It had a spectacular arched ceiling that brought to mind the inside of Jonah’s whale, spacey Deco fixtures, and a dazzling floor, which appeared to be random zigzags and geometrics until you stepped back and realized it was actually a block-long Navajo blanket made of linoleum tiles.

Colter also designed a marvelous Deco cocktail lounge. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper immediately dubbed it the “newest rendezvous in town … so pleasant there it’s a joy to miss your train. No one wants to catch one.”

Unfortunately, Hedda was right—a lot of people didn’t want to catch the train anymore. The Super Chief itself was successful. So was a new economy train called the Scout, which even had a car for women and children traveling alone, with a Santa Fe “Courier-Nurse” to help out. (It quickly became known, in the words of one corporate historian, as “a rolling nightmare of diapers, midnight feedings and a constant parade of women moving back and forth to the diner seeking warm bottles of milk.”) But in general, passenger traffic was falling, along with the prices that passengers were willing to pay. The Santa Fe tried getting into buses, which also stopped at the remaining Harvey eating houses. Fred Harvey even opened its first bus-only restaurant and lounge in the new Santa Fe Trailways bus terminal in Hollywood, on Cahuenga Boulevard. But in general, the railroad’s business was flat—just when new investment was needed for more speedy diesel trains to keep up with the times.

BY MOVING FRED HARVEY’S main office to Chicago, in the same building as the headquarters of the Santa Fe, Byron had brought the family business closer to the railroad than ever before. So much so that Fred Harvey actually lost its long battle with the Interstate Commerce Commission over whether dining car employees really worked for the Harveys or for the railroad when it came to qualifying for union membership. In a decision the company fought hard, railroad workers were allowed to unionize the Fred Harvey dining cars, which eventually led to unions in other parts of the operation.

At a time when Fred Harvey was under intense economic pressure, it was the last thing the company needed. Every page of the annual report was pockmarked with red ink. Their retail business was so disastrous that Byron urged Herman Schweizer to start liquidating the Indian art.

Schweizer resisted, and somehow managed to keep most of the best pieces hidden in his vault and on his inventories so his priceless collection would not be sold off at bargain prices. But it was hard for him to believe how much American tastes had deteriorated. Where he once had bought pieces that museums fought over, the “Harvey ethnographer” was now handling only the cheap stuff he originally had commissioned for the least discriminating tourists. Instead of stocking handsome shops, he was selling turquoise and silver trinkets through a mail-order catalog.

The Harvey chain was on life support—there were only twenty-nine restaurants left, and half of them were consistently losing money. Byron even had to close the historic first eating house, in Topeka. And when he did, journalist William Allen White was already writing the obituary for Fred Harvey, and for a way of life in America:

The newspaper announced yesterday that the … oldest surviving Harvey house on the Santa Fe system, the one at Topeka, had closed … For 50 years and more, Harvey Houses … were beacons of culinary light and learning, chiefly because they broiled steak instead of frying it and also used French dressing on head lettuce. Before that, sugar and vinegar were regarded as proper dressing for lettuce in these latitudes. Also, the Harvey houses introduced au gratin potatoes and rare roast beef. Small things these, but devastating to the cook who fried her steak and her potatoes and regarded floating island as the acme of all desserts.

Being centers of good cooking, the Harvey restaurants … became centers of good fellowship. When a man wanted to give a stranger or a fellow citizen a good meal, he took him to the Harvey house. When a lady wanted to throw a luncheon party, the swellest thing she could do was to go to the Harvey house. And this custom prevailed through two generations.

The revolution in railroading which has taken off the local trains that stopped for meals, the revolution that has made the railroad the long distance carrier and turned the local traffic over to the bus, made the Harvey house a symbol of the ancient days and olden times. If any Harvey House survives this decade it will be a collector’s item, strange, weird, inexplicable in the commerce of tomorrow.

Evidence that we are passing through a great social, economic and political revolution is none the less convincing because the revolution is bloodless. The Harvey house in Topeka was bombed in the mop-up of that revolution. It might well be marked by a tablet. The tablet should display these lines: “Here, for sixty years, women who put water in the skillet to fry beefsteak rolled in flour learned of their sins, repented and were saved unto full culinary salvation!”

WORLD WAR II began in Europe in September 1939, and even though the United States was still watching and waiting, preparation for war was like an antidepressant for the U.S. economy. This was especially true for the railroads, which were rediscovered as the only dependable way to transport large numbers of troops and heavy munitions long distances. After years of moribund business, the empty seats in the Fred Harvey dining cars and restaurants were starting to be filled again by men in uniform, and while the economy was hardly robust, the worst appeared to be over.

In Hollywood, there suddenly was renewed interest in the Harvey Girls movie. It had fallen through the cracks at Paramount, but the project was then sold to Louis B. Mayer at MGM, who envisioned it as a straight-up Western with Clark Gable and Lana Turner. The film headed into preproduction in the fall of 1941, and MGM was so high on its prospects that Mayer reached out to his friend Bennett Cerf, the forty-three-year-old editor and co-owner of Random House publishers, to have a novelization done of the new screenplay so it could be released with the film.

Cerf called a writer he had always admired but never managed to work with: Samuel Hopkins Adams. The prolific Adams had first made a name for himself at the turn of the century with a shocking series of investigative articles about the pharmaceutical and patent medicine business in Collier’s, “The Great American Fraud.” From then on, he published a book a year, as well as hundreds of magazine articles and short stories, everything from hard-core investigative reporting to biography, mainstream fiction, erotic fiction (under a pen name), and literary criticism. His work had spawned eighteen feature films, including Frank Capra’s immortal It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, based on a short story Adams published in Cosmopolitan.

Now seventy, Samuel Hopkins Adams looked like W. C. Fields on a late-in-life fitness kick, and showed no signs of slowing down, which is why Cerf was so excited when he agreed to do the novelization. “I have a hunch that Adams is going to do a story that will be really important both for us and for you,” Cerf assured Louis B. Mayer.

Before Adams could get started, however, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and America finally joined the war. The author assumed this would derail the project; instead, several weeks after the attack, he was told to get writing, the book was due in five months. He was brought to Hollywood to take a few meetings with executives brimming with plot points and ideas, all of which he found worthless. The highlight of his trip was a conversation he had with a waitress who served him lunch at the MGM studio commissary. She had been a Harvey Girl for seventeen years, and had lots of wonderful stories he could use.

Adams was then sent to Chicago to meet Byron, whose ego he was instructed to massage as heavily as possible. MGM had signed a deal giving Fred Harvey approval rights on the book and the movie. The studio didn’t want any legal hassles over the use of actual company names, and Bennett Cerf at Random House was respectful of the powerful Harvey bookstores and newsstands. To woo support, Adams told Byron Sr. and Jr. that he was writing an epilogue to the book—and it would feature them. The novel was set in the late 1890s, when Fred was still living, but the epilogue would be set decades later, at a reunion of Harvey Girls, and they would be characters. They loved the idea.

Retreating to his winter home in Beaufort, South Carolina, Adams banged out the first two chapters, over six thousand words, in just two days. He went on to briskly weave everything he had heard from the Harveys, and from that waitress at the MGM commissary, into a story so convincing—if not always consistently compelling—that it would later be quoted as if it were historical nonfiction. He told the tale of three women coming to the imaginary New Mexico town of Sandrock to become Harvey Girls, where they are viewed as fresh meat by the local cowboys, and prissy little busybodies by the only other single women in town, the morally casual waitresses at the Alhambra saloon. Much drama and hilarity ensue as the cowboys and showgirls resist the civilizing impact of the Harvey House, stealing its revered steaks and even trying to burn the place down. One Harvey Girl falls in love with a local rancher with a checkered past, but he turns out to have a heart of gold and they live, of course, happily ever after.

Adams finished the first draft of The Harvey Girls well ahead of schedule. He got the revisions done in a month and then held on to the manuscript until the day before his June 1, 1942, deadline, so Bennett Cerf would think he had been working hard on it up until the last minute.

In the meantime, MGM decided to put the movie on hold yet again, and was reportedly trying to dump it off on 20th Century Fox. But Cerf decided Random House should publish The Harvey Girls book anyway—and much to everyone’s surprise, it was a big seller, immediately going into a second and then a third printing, no doubt helped along by the marketing might of the Fred Harvey bookstores. It sold 8,354 copies in standard hardcover and another 50,589 copies in the less expensive Forum Books hardcover with no movie to support it at all—just the nation’s continued nostalgic attachment to Fred Harvey.

AS THE WAR ESCALATED, not only was the entire Fred Harvey system mobilized to feed the troops, but its long-shuttered restaurants were recalled to active duty. Dining rooms were converted into mess halls, the handsome carved-wood tables lined up end to end and supplemented by long banquet tables, so each Harvey House could serve as many as three thousand soldiers a day. The company set up eight large sandwich-making operations in Chicago, Kansas City, Newton, Clovis, Albuquerque, Gallup, Williams, and Los Angeles, which produced tens of thousands of sandwiches a day. Some of them were served in the eating houses, but many others were passed up to soldiers through train windows and doors, since the dining cars could not possibly keep up with demand.

It was a herculean undertaking—much larger than anything the company had experienced during World War I—and the Harvey System was initially unprepared: After so many years of downsizing, the firm hadn’t needed to train many new Harvey Girls. So when the government leaned on the Santa Fe to increase the number of servicemen it could transport, and urged Fred Harvey to dramatically increase its capacity to feed them, the company had to go on a major hiring spree, quickly adding two thousand workers. Luckily, Dave Benjamin’s old system of maintaining records on all employees, current and former, was still in place. Every old Harvey Girl who could still stand up and carry a tray was called back into service.

Still, that didn’t produce nearly enough servers for all those soldiers. So, in 1943, the sixtieth anniversary of the hiring of the first Harvey Girls in Raton, the vaunted Harvey System of carefully training young women and dispatching them to live in chaperoned dormitories finally gave way to expedience. Harvey Girls hired in Chicago and Kansas City were sent out into the field before they were ready, some Harvey Houses hired local women—which they had never done before—as waitresses or “troop-train girls,” and many other regulations were relaxed.

It really changed the Harvey standard … They were really desperate. They took anybody,” recalled Margaret Reichenborn, a Kansan who became a Harvey Girl in Las Vegas, New Mexico, just before the hiring spree:

When I first got to the Castañeda, there were about eight to ten Harvey Girls. When the troop trains started coming through, there were about twenty-five Harvey Girls. They were mostly local girls. They didn’t have to meet the old contracts—no promise not to marry, and they weren’t strict about the rules … During the war, we couldn’t even wear the same uniforms. We couldn’t get white hose, then we couldn’t get any hose at all. We had long-sleeved white shirts, and we had to keep those clean. But it got so difficult we finally cut off the sleeves to make it easier … We often had a lot of very inexperienced waitresses working under very difficult circumstances … We all did the best we could.

Yet for many women in the Southwest, who previously would not have considered applying to work for Fred Harvey because they were Hispanic or Indian, this change in Harvey hiring was a civil rights breakthrough. They burst with pride to be the first Harvey Girls of color. There was something deeply powerful about walking into El Navajo in Gallup and seeing that all the Harvey Girls were Navajo. (Troops of color were always fed the same way as white troops. Still, while Fred Harvey was never known to refuse black patrons, it was sometimes guilty of seating them together in less desirable tables—and blueprints for some Harvey Houses in New Mexico and Texas did specify “colored” seating areas. But any such vestiges of what race reformers called “Jim Crow seating” disappeared during the war.)

These newer, more multicultural Harvey Girls rejected the notion that they were somehow lesser. “Although they hired a lot of local girls, there were still many they turned away,” recalled another wartime waitress. “Working as a Harvey Girl, even during the war, was a privilege. I felt lucky to have the job.”

The troops on their way to war were just happy for the female attention. “The men were always real friendly,” this Harvey Girl continued:

They were often very lonely and they asked for our names and addresses. Each of us received hundreds—literally hundreds—of letters. We couldn’t even remember who the boy was who had written it. I had a milk carton full. One train came through with French troops on board. We couldn’t understand them and they couldn’t understand us. Still, they wrote us lots of letters.

But, proud though he was of his company’s war effort, Byron was clearly mortified that Fred Harvey could no longer “maintain the standard.” Not only was service slipping, but the food itself suffered because so many ingredients were rationed. So he did what many executives of service-related companies were doing. He ordered a series of ads in national magazines to apologize—and also to explain why civilian patrons were being asked to get up and leave Fred Harvey restaurants whenever a troop train approached. The campaign began with a generic ad showing a Harvey Girl holding a chair for a serviceman, with the headline “Sit Down Sergeant, Mr. Harvey’s Saving This Place for You,” followed by copy about the company pitching in for the war effort (and a small plug for El Tovar).

As tourism ground to a halt and even El Tovar became primarily a rest stop for furloughed soldiers, Fred Harvey unveiled its “Private Pringle” campaign. It revolved around—but never actually showed—a ubiquitous private who became the company’s symbol for the American fighting man.

One Private Pringle ad showed a large potato being peeled, with the line “K.P.? Not for Private Pringle!” while another showed a “Do Not Disturb” sign and a shushing bellhop, with the line “Shhhh! Private Pringle’s Asleep!” The ads ran in Life magazine and other major publications, and as the war worsened, they included patriotic asides about how many Fred Harvey employees had “joined Private Pringle” in the armed forces, and admonitions such as “Victory will come SOONER if we: Conserve food in our households, Refuse to buy from black markets, Pay necessary taxes uncomplainingly, Buy War Bonds instead of luxuries, Kill rumors that aid our enemy.”

The ad campaign took on a life of its own—especially when it turned out there was a Private Pringle, who wrote from Africa to inform the company that he was now Corporal Murray Pringle, and hoped that upon his return they might help him arrange to have dinner with Lana Turner. But while the Pringle ads helped a little, they could not assuage the feeling within the company that although they were doing their duty, they were also allowing Fred Harvey’s sacred standards to slip away.

A HANDFUL OF DEATHS severed even more links to the company’s founder. Minnie Harvey Huckel died in July 1943 at the age of seventy-two. She left a large estate to Kitty and to Byron’s sons—even to her housekeeper of twenty-three years—because she had no children of her own. Three weeks later, her sister, Sybil, died. Married late in life and widowed, Sybil was still living in the original Harvey family home on Olive Street in Leavenworth, which was donated to a local hospital to be used as a dormitory for nurses.

Later that same year, Herman Schweizer died in Albuquerque at the age of seventy-two. In his later years he had become active at his local synagogue, Temple Albert, and with the B’nai B’rith, and spent more time with his sister and her daughter in Chicago. But he never married, and his legacy was the Fred Harvey art collection—which he had spent his entire career amassing, and the last five years of his life successfully protecting from philistine bean counters at the Chicago office. The company collection would remain intact, under Harvey family ownership, for decades after his death, and was eventually donated to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Schweizer’s own personal collection of blankets, however, was consigned to one of the local traders in Gallup with whom he spent so many of his fondest hours haggling. Nelson Rockefeller bought one of the fine Saltillo blankets, while several of the institutions Schweizer helped get off the ground—such as the Laboratory of Anthropology in Santa Fe and the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff—also acquired pieces.

William Randolph Hearst did not buy anything, because he had long ago lost interest in Indian art. While he had originally planned that his castle in San Simeon would primarily be a showplace for his Navajo textiles, the project and his collecting of other styles of art had spiraled out of control. The blankets he had begged Schweizer to sell to him years ago were sitting in warehouses with the Fred Harvey tags still on them—an image conjured perfectly by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.

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