A.A. Housman & Company, Bernard Baruch, Biography, Central Park, Finance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, history, Jordan Belfort, Lafayette Square, National Recovery Administration, New York Stock Exchange, Park Bench Statesman, politics, The Wolf of Wall Street, War Industries Board, Woodrow Wilson, World War One, World War Two
Jordan Belfort is not the real Wolf of Wall Street. The original holder of that title was Bernard Baruch, a wholly admirable investor and public servant whose life – an exercise in panache and prudence – serves as an almost perfect juxtaposition to the nouveau riche Rabelasian, flash-in-the-pan fraudster caricatured in Martin Scorsese’s most recent film.
Bernard Mannes Baruch was born in Camden, South Carolina in 1870. At 11, his family moved to New York City, and in little over a decade he had landed a job as a broker with Wall Street’s esteemed A.A. Housman & Company. By the time he was celebrating his thirtieth birthday, Baruch had made enough money to buy himself his own seat on the New York Stock Exchange (roughly $450,000 in current USD), becoming known as the “Lone Wolf of Wall Street” since he opted not to associate with any of New York City’s established financial houses.
But Baruch was more than just an avaricious businessman who accumulated wealth by himself, for himself. In 1916, he placed his lucrative career on hold, leaving Wall Street to work as an advisor on President Wilson’s national defense and peace team. Through this position he became chairman of the War Industries Board, which helped to ratchet up the American economy during the First World War. As the conflict drew to a close, Wilson asked Baruch to serve as an envoy to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919; Baruch, taking on the role with enthusiasm, became one of the most vociferous critics of the restrictions and reparations levied by Britain and France on the ravaged German state.
As easy as it would’ve been to resort to I-told-you-so cynicism in the decades that followed, Baruch spent those tumultuous years doing his part to prepare the United States for its impending collision with Eurasian fascism. A supporter of President Roosevelt’s domestic economic initiatives, Baruch was part of the “Brain Trust” behind the National Recovery Administration that helped offset the structural unemployment and liabilities which were gumming up the gears of the U.S. economy. When the war finally began, Baruch helped craft the “work or fight” bill. After it ended, his prescience led him to push for the creation of an international body to oversee all of the world’s then-novel atomic energy. Baruch also coined that soon ubiquitous term “Cold War.”
Despite his myriad financial, political, and philanthropic offices, I think Baruch’s greatest title was that of the “Park Bench Statesman.” Regardless of the city, he preferred to do his best thinking while taking walks, preferably in parks and usually on Sunday afternoons. Whether in Washington’s Lafayette Square or New York’s Central Park, Baruch would regularly amble for a while then rest on a park bench, where he would converse about matters governmental and economic with whomever was nearby. For his 90th birthday, the Boy Scouts of America dedicated a bench to the Wolf in Lafayette Square across from the White House. It sits there today.
The majority of this information is sourced from James Grant’s biography Bernard Baruch.
“It will fluctuate.” – Baruch, when asked by an eager journalist to predict the market
“Vote for the man who promises least; he’ll be the least disappointing.” – Baruch, when asked which candidate to support
I’ve added that aphorism to the quotes page.