When I read a biography of someone I have not heard of, I want the words to jump out and grab me with the impact they had on others and the world they lived in. I want to learn from them and I especially want to be inspired. Harry Guggenheim is a larger-than-life historical figure who checks all of those boxes, and he’s far more than the godfather of flight, a publisher accolade given to this extraordinary visionary.
- Perhaps we’ve heard of Benjamin Guggenheim who went down with the Titanic – reasons we don’t know this name very well
- Harry’s resume is long and very broad
- A visionary who wanted a family name and brand to extend 50, 75, or 100 years or more
- Comparisons and contrasts with the Vanderbilt family
- A stove polish origin story
- The entry point to mining operations and smelting
- The Bond of Brothers
- The purpose of the aviation endowment and the 30-plus sparkplugs
- Europe was ahead of the U.S. just twenty years after the Wright brothers’ invention
- The lifelong friendship with Lindbergh
- The investment in Robert Goddard’s rocketry experiments
- The Cuban ambassadorship
- Harry’s inflection points
- … but not a perfect person by his own admission
A Reader’s Observations
The Business of Tomorrow is already on my list of favorite biographies I’ve read over the past 30 years. I need to analyze this list further as the story of Harry Guggenheim may possibly reach my top ten. Why is that so?
I can only think of one thing–he did so much in one lifetime that reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt. Casual students of Roosevelt remember him as a two-time president. Further examination of his life before the presidency uncovers he was a rancher, soldier, police commissioner, a lover of botany and numerous fields in the humanities, a prolific writer, and I’m just getting started.
And then there is Harry Guggenheim. Below is an incomplete list of his accomplishments:
- He studied for one year at Yale.
- Harry spent time working at a family mining operation starting at the lowest level
- He graduated from Oxford and participated at Wimbledon in the doubles competition
- He worked in Chili at one of his family’s smelting operations – there we get a glimpse of Harry’s leadership and communication skills (he was a gifted negotiator where both parties typically got what they wanted)
- He leaves the family firm and develops a passion for flying at a time when airports were not in existence (or where there were very few across the country)
- After his father retires from the family business, Harry helps him establish an aviation endowment to provide numerous sparkplugs in an industry that didn’t have a name, a vision, or a roadmap.
- Harry’s next big project is the Cuban ambassadorship during a tumultuous time period where the political scene was anything but stable.
- His commission was renewed in the Navy during World War II. I found this astounding given his age. I’m now calling him a wreckless Theodore Roosevelt who charged San Juan Hill on a horse with machine guns firing at him during his rough rider days. Couldn’t Guggenheim have done something safer during the war? That wasn’t Harry Guggenheim.
- I appreciated that Dirk included his work on a 1952 New York watchdog committee on criminal justice. During this project, we see his analytical capabilities elevated or revealed in this biography.
- He also experienced success at the Kentucky Derby as he was a thoroughbred racehorse owner and breeder. Similar to his work on analyzing crime in New York, Guggenheim was not a passive owner. He used his Moneyball mindset to gain an edge in races.
- His purchase of Newsday was only supposed to be a small venture to keep his wife busy. Little did he know that it would become the leading daily tabloid in the country in just a few short years after several significant investments in this publication.
- His oversight of the Guggenheim Museum also brings out the best in Harry’s leadership abilities where he was constantly dealing with inflated egos and was working with an architect who had to continually be managed.
Had Roosevelt and Guggenheim been friends, I’m sure their lunches would be colorful with stories worthy of being published by Mark Twain.
… the present number of failures in life as I see it are due to lack of tenacity. You have the brains, I am confident. I hope you will not fail in the tenacity.Excerpt from Daniel Guggenheim to his son, Harry (from The Business of Tomorrow by Dirk Smillie
Books Mentioned by Dirk Smillie
- Working by Robert Caro
- Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold
- Inside Money by Zachary Karabell
- The Bond King by Mary Childs