There was a famous contest one night there, however, between President Roosevelt and Senator Foraker, who at the time were intensely antagonistic, which can never be forgotten by those present. There was a delightful interplay between William J. Bryan and President Roosevelt, when Bryan charged the president with stealing all his policies and ideas.
If the speaker grasped the peculiarities of his audience and its temperament, his task was at once the most difficult and the most delightful, and my friend, Mr. Arthur Dunn, has performed most useful service in embalming a portion of Gridiron history in his volume, "Gridiron Nights."
Pierpont Morgan, the greatest of American bankers, was much more than a banker. He had a wonderful collection in his library and elsewhere of rare books and works of art. He was always delightful on the social side. He was very much pleased when he was elected president of the New England Society. The annual dinner that year was a remarkably brilliant affair. It was the largest in the history of the organization. The principal speaker was William Everett, son of the famous Edward Everett and himself a scholar of great acquirements and culture. His speech was another evidence of a very superior man mistaking his audience. He was principal of the Adams Academy, that great preparatory institution for Harvard University, and he had greatly enlarged its scope and usefulness.
Mr. Everett evidently thought that the guests of the New England Society of New York would be composed of men of letters, educators, and Harvard graduates. Instead of that, the audience before him were mainly bankers and successful business men whose Puritan characteristics had enabled them to win great success in the competitions in the great metropolis in every branch of business. They were out for a good time and little else.
Mr. Everett produced a ponderous mass of manuscript and began reading on the history of New England education and the influence upon it of the Cambridge School. He had more than an hour of material and lost his audience in fifteen minutes. No efforts of the chairman could bring them to attention, and finally the educator lost that control of himself which he was always teaching to the boys and threw his manuscript at the heads of the reporters. From their reports in their various newspapers the next day, they did not seem to have absorbed the speech by this original method.
Choate and I were both to speak, and Choate came first. As usual, he threw a brick at me. He mentioned that a reporter had come to him and said: "Mr. Choate, I have Depew's speech carefully prepared, with the applause and laughter already in. I want yours." Of course, no reporter had been to either of us. Mr. Choate had in his speech an unusual thing for him, a long piece of poetry. When my turn came to reply I said: "The reporter came to me, as Mr. Choate has said, and made the remark: 'I already have Choate's speech. It has in it a good deal of poetry.' I asked the reporter: 'From what author is the poetry taken?' He answered: 'I do not know the author, but the poetry is so bad I think Choate has written it himself.'"
Mr. Choate told me a delightful story of his last interview with Mr. Evarts before he sailed for Europe to take up his ambassadorship at the Court of St. James. "I called," he said, "on Mr. Evarts to bid him good-by. He had been confined to his room by a fatal illness for a long time. 'Choate,' he said, 'I am delighted with your appointment. You eminently deserve it, and you are pre-eminently fit for the place. You have won the greatest distinction in our profession, and have harvested enough of its rewards to enable you to meet the financial responsibilities of this post without anxiety. You will have a most brilliant and useful career in diplomacy, but I fear I will never see you again.'"
Mr. Choate said: "Mr. Evarts, we have had a delightful partnership of over forty years, and when I retire from diplomacy and resume the practice of the law I am sure you and I will go on together again for many years in the same happy old way."
Evarts replied: "No, Choate, I fear that cannot be. When I think what a care I am to all my people, lying so helpless here, and that I can do nothing any more to repay their kindness, or to help in the world, I feel like the boy who wrote from school to his mother a letter of twenty pages, and then added after the end: 'P. S. Dear mother, please excuse my longevity.'"
Where one has a reputation as a speaker and is also known to oblige friends and to be hardly able to resist importunities, the demands upon him are very great. They are also sometimes original and unique.
At one time, the day before Christmas, a representative of the New York World came to see me, and said: "We are going to give a dinner to-night to the tramps who gather between ten and eleven o'clock at the Vienna Restaurant, opposite the St. Denis Hotel, to receive the bread which the restaurant distributes at that hour." This line was there every night standing in the cold waiting their turn. I went down to the hotel, and a young man and young lady connected with the newspaper crossed the street and picked out from the line a hundred guests.
It was a remarkable assemblage. The dinner provided was a beautiful and an excellent one for Christmas. As I heard their stories, there was among them a representative of almost every department of American life. Some were temporarily and others permanently down and out. Every one of the learned professions was represented and many lines of business. The most of them were in this condition, because they had come to New York to make their way, and had struggled until their funds were exhausted, and then they were ashamed to return home and confess their failure.
I presided at this remarkable banquet and made not only one speech but several. By encouraging the guests we had several excellent addresses from preachers without pulpits, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients, engineers without jobs, teachers without schools, and travellers without funds. One man arose and said: "Chauncey Depew, the World has given us such an excellent dinner, and you have given us such a merry Christmas Eve, we would like to shake hands with you as we go out."
I had long learned the art of shaking hands with the public. Many a candidate has had his hands crushed and been permanently hurt by the vise-like grip of an ardent admirer or a vicious opponent. I remember General Grant complaining of this, of how he suffered, and I told him of my discovery of grasping the hand first and dropping it quickly.
The people about me were looking at these men as they came along, to see if there was any possible danger. Toward the end of the procession one man said to me: "Chauncey Depew, I don't belong to this crowd. I am well enough off and can take care of myself. I am an anarchist. My business is to stir up unrest and discontent, and that brings me every night to mingle with the crowd waiting for their dole of bread from Fleischmann's bakery. You do more than any one else in the whole country to create good feeling and dispel unrest, and you have done a lot of it to-night. I made up my mind to kill you right here, but you are such an infernal good fellow that I have not the heart to do it, so here's my hand."
On one occasion I received an invitation to address a sociological society which was to meet at the house of one of the most famous entertainers in New York. My host said that Edward Atkinson, the well-known New England writer, philosopher, and sociologist, would address the meeting. When I arrived at the house I found Atkinson in despair. The audience were young ladies in full evening dress and young men in white vests, white neckties, and swallow-tails. There was also a band present. We were informed that this society had endeavored to mingle instruction with pleasure, and it really was a dancing club, but they had conceived the idea of having something serious and instructive before the ball.
Mr. Atkinson said to me: "What won me to come here is that in Boston we have a society of the same name. It is composed of very serious people who are engaged in settlement and sociological work. They are doing their best to improve the conditions of the young women and young men who are in clerical and other employment. I have delivered several addresses before that society, and before the audiences which they gather, on how to live comfortably and get married on the smallest possible margin. Now, for instance, for my lecture here to-night I have on a ready-made suit of clothes, for which I paid yesterday five dollars. In that large boiler there is a stove which I have invented. In the oven of the stove is beef and various vegetables, and to heat it is a kerosene lamp with a clockwork attached. A young man or a young woman, or a young married couple go to the market and buy the cheap cuts of beef, and then, according to my instructions, they put it in the stove with the vegetables, light the lamp, set the clockwork and go to their work. When they return at five, six, or seven o'clock they find a very excellent and very cheap dinner all ready to be served. Now, of what use is my five-dollar suit of clothes and my fifty-cent dinner for this crowd of butterflies?"
However, Mr. Atkinson and I made up our minds to talk to them as if they needed it or would need it some day or other, and they were polite enough to ask questions and pretend to enjoy it. I understand that afterwards at the midnight supper there was more champagne and more hilarity than at previous gatherings of this sociological club.
During one of our presidential campaigns some young men came up from the Bowery to see me. They said: "We have a very hard time down in our district. The crowd is a tough one but intelligent, and we think would be receptive of the truth if they could hear it put to them in an attractive form. We will engage a large theatre attached to a Bowery beer saloon if you will come down and address the meeting. The novelty of your appearance will fill the theatre."
I knew there was considerable risk, and yet it was a great opportunity. I believe that in meeting a crowd of that sort one should appear as they expect him to look when addressing the best of audiences. These people are very proud, and they resent any attempt on your part to be what they know you are not, but that you are coming down to their level by assuming a character which you presume to be theirs. So I dressed with unusual care, and when I went on the platform a short-sleeved, short-haired genius in the theatre shouted: "Chauncey thinks he is in Carnegie Hall."
The famous Tim Sullivan, who was several times a state senator and congressman, and a mighty good fellow, was the leader of the Bowery and controlled its political actions. He came to see me and said: "I hope you will withdraw from that appointment. I do not want you to come down there. In the first place, I cannot protect you, and I don't think it is safe. In the second place, you are so well known and popular among our people that I am afraid you will produce an impression, and if you get away with it that will hurt our machine."
In the course of my speech a man arose whom I knew very well as a district leader, and who was frequently in my office, seeking positions for his constituents and other favors. That night he was in his shirt-sleeves among the boys. With the old volunteer fireman's swagger and the peculiar patois of that part of New York, he said: "Chauncey Depew, you have no business here. You are the president of the New York Central Railroad, ain't you, hey? You are a rich man, ain't you, hey? We are poor boys. You don't know us and can't teach us anything. You had better get out while you can."
My reply was this: "My friend, I want a little talk with you. I began life very much as you did. Nobody helped me. I was a country boy and my capital was this head," and I slapped it, "these legs," and I slapped them, "these hands," and I slapped them, "and by using them as best I could I have become just what you say I am and have got where you will never arrive."
A shirt-sleeved citizen jumped up from the audience and shouted: "Go ahead, Chauncey, you're a peach." That characterization of a peach went into the newspapers and was attached to me wherever I appeared for many years afterwards, not only in this country but abroad. It even found a place in the slang column of the great dictionaries of the English language. The result of the meeting, however, was a free discussion in the Bowery, and for the first time in its history that particular district was carried by the Republicans.
After their triumph in the election I gave a dinner in the Union League Club to the captains of the election districts. There were about a hundred of them. The district captains were all in their usual business suits, and were as sharp, keen, intelligent, and up-to-date young men as one could wish to meet. The club members whom I had invited to meet my guests were, of course, in conventional evening dress. The novelty of the occasion was so enjoyed by them that they indulged with more than usual liberality in the fluids and fizz and became very hilarious. Not one of the district captains touched a drop of wine.
While the club members were a little frightened at the idea of these East-siders coming, my guests understood and met every convention of the occasion before, during, and after dinner, as if it was an accustomed social function with them. The half dozen who made speeches showed a grasp of the political questions of the hour and an ability to put their views before an audience which was an exhibition of a high order of intelligence and self-culture.
In selecting a few out-of-the-way occasions which were also most interesting and instructive, I recall one with a society which prided itself upon its absence of narrowness and its freedom of thought and discussion. The speakers were most critical of all that is generally accepted and believed. Professor John Fiske, the historian, was the most famous man present, and very critical of the Bible. My good mother had brought me up on the Bible and instilled in me the deepest reverence for the good book. The criticism of the professor stirred me to a rejoinder. I, of course, was in no way equal to meeting him, with his vast erudition and scholarly accomplishments. I could only give what the Bible critic would regard as valueless, a sledge-hammer expression of faith. Somebody took the speech down. Doctor John Hall, the famous preacher and for many years pastor of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, told me that the Bible and the church societies in England had put the speech into a leaflet, and were distributing many millions of them in the British Isles.
It is singular what vogue and circulation a story of the hour will receive. Usually these decorations of a speech die with the occasion. There was fierce rivalry when it was decided to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the landing of Columbus in America, between New York and Chicago, as to which should have the exhibition. Of course the Western orators were not modest in the claims which they made for the City by the Lakes. To dampen their ardor I embroidered the following story, which took wonderfully when told in my speech.
It was at the Eagle Hotel in Peekskill, at which it was said George Washington stopped many times as a guest during the Revolutionary War, where in respect to his memory they preserved the traditions of the Revolutionary period. At that time the bill of fare was not printed, but the waiter announced to the guest what would be served, if asked for. A Chicago citizen was dining at the hotel. He ordered each of the many items announced to him by the waiter. When he came to the deserts the waiter said: "We have mince-pie, apple-pie, pumpkin-pie, and custard-pie." The Chicago man ordered mince-pie, apple-pie, and pumpkin-pie. The disgusted waiter remarked: "What is the matter with the custard?" Alongside me sat a very well-known English gentleman of high rank, who had come to this country on a sort of missionary and evangelistic errand. Of course, he was as solemn as the task he had undertaken, which was to convert American sinners. He turned suddenly to me and, in a loud voice, asked: "What was the matter with the custard-pie?" The story travelled for years, was used for many purposes, was often murdered in the narration, but managed to survive, and was told to me as an original joke by one of the men I met at the convention last June in Chicago.
After Chicago received from Congress the appointment I did all I could to help the legislation and appropriations necessary. The result was that when I visited the city as an orator at the opening of the exhibition I was voted the freedom of the city, was given a great reception, and among other things reviewed the school children who paraded in my honor.
The Yale alumni of New York City had for many years an organization. In the early days the members met very infrequently at a dinner. This was a formal affair, and generally drew a large gathering, both of the local alumni and from the college and the country. These meetings were held at Delmonico's, then located in Fourteenth Street. The last was so phenomenally dull that there were no repetitions.
The speakers were called by classes, and the oldest in graduation had the platform. The result was disastrous. These old men all spoke too long, and it was an endless stream of platitudes and reminiscences of forgotten days until nearly morning. Then an inspiration of the chairman led him to say: "I think it might be well to have a word from the younger graduates."
There was a unanimous call for a well-known humorist named Styles. His humor was aided by a startling appearance of abundant red hair, an aggressive red mustache, and eyes which seemed to push his glasses off his nose. Many of the speakers, owing to the imperfection of the dental art in those days, indicated their false teeth by their trouble in keeping them in place, and the whistling it gave to their utterances. One venerable orator in his excitement dropped his into his tumbler in the midst of his address.
Styles said to this tired audience: "At this early hour in the morning I will not attempt to speak, but I will tell a story. Down at Barnegat, N. J., where I live, our neighbors are very fond of apple-jack. One of them while in town had his jug filled, and on the way home saw a friend leaning over the gate and looking so thirsty that he stopped and handed over his jug with an offer of its hospitality. After sampling it the neighbor continued the gurgling as the jug rose higher and higher, until there was not a drop left in it. The indignant owner said: 'You infernal hog, why did you drink up all my apple-jack?' His friend answered: 'I beg your pardon, Job, but I could not bite off the tap, because I have lost all my teeth.'" The aptness of the story was the success of the evening.
Some years afterwards there was a meeting of the alumni to form a live association. Among those who participated in the organization were William Walter Phelps, afterwards member of Congress and minister to Austria; Judge Henry E. Howland; John Proctor Clarke, now chief justice of the Appellate Division; James R. Sheffield (several years later) now president of the Union League Club; and Isaac Bromley, one of the editors of the New York Tribune, one of the wittiest writers of his time, and many others who have since won distinction. They elected me president, and I continued such by successive elections for ten years.
The association met once a month and had a serious paper read, speeches, a simple supper, and a social evening. These monthly gatherings became a feature and were widely reported in the press. We could rely upon one or more of the faculty, and there was always to be had an alumnus of national reputation from abroad. We had a formal annual dinner, which was more largely attended than almost any function of the kind in the city, and, because of the variety and excellence of the speaking, always very enjoyable.
The Harvard and Princeton alumni also had an association at that time, with annual dinners, and it was customary for the officers of each of these organizations to be guests of the one which gave the dinner. The presidents of the colleges represented always came. Yale could rely upon President Dwight, Harvard upon President Eliot, and Princeton upon President McCosh.
Of course, the interchanges between the representatives of the different colleges were as exciting and aggressive as their football and baseball contests are to-day. I recall one occasion of more than usual interest. It was the Princeton dinner, and the outstanding figure of the occasion was that most successful and impressive of college executives, President McCosh. He spoke with a broad Scotch accent and was in every sense a literalist. Late in the evening Mr. Beaman, a very brilliant lawyer and partner of Evarts and Choate, who was president of the Harvard Alumni Association, said to me: "These proceedings are fearfully prosaic and highbrow. When you are called, you attack President McCosh, and I will defend him." So in the course of my remarks, which were highly complimentary to Princeton and its rapid growth under President McCosh, I spoke of its remarkable success in receiving gifts and legacies, which were then pouring into its treasury every few months, and were far beyond anything which came either to Yale or Harvard, though both were in great need. Then I hinted that possibly this flow of riches was due to the fact that President McCosh had such an hypnotic influence over the graduates of Princeton and their fathers, mothers, and wives that none of them felt there was a chance of a heavenly future unless Princeton was among the heirs.
Mr. Beaman was very indignant and with the continuing approval and applause of the venerable doctor made a furious attack upon me. His defense of the president was infinitely worse than my attack. He alleged that I had intimated that the doctor kept tab on sick alumni of wealth and their families, and at the critical moment there would be a sympathetic call from the doctor, and, while at the bedside he administered comfort and consolation, yet he made it plain to the patient that he could not hope for the opening of the pearly gates or the welcome of St. Peter unless Princeton was remembered. Then Beaman, in a fine burst of oratory, ascribed this wonderful prosperity not to any personal effort or appeal, but because the sons of Princeton felt such reverence and gratitude for their president that they were only too glad of an opportunity to contribute to the welfare of the institution.
The moment Beaman sat down the doctor arose, and with great intensity expressed his thanks and gratitude to the eloquent president of the Harvard alumni, and then shouted: "I never, never, never solicited a gift for Princeton from a dying man. I never, never, never sat by the bedside of a dying woman and held up the terrors of hell and the promises of heaven, according to the disposition she made of her estate. I never, never looked with unsympathetic and eager anticipation whenever any of our wealthy alumni appeared in ill health."
The doctor, however, retaliated subsequently. He invited me to deliver a lecture before the college, and entertained me most delightfully at his house. It was a paid admission, and when I left in the morning he said: "I want to express to you on behalf of our college our thanks. We raised last evening through your lecture enough to fit our ball team for its coming contest with Yale." In that contest Princeton was triumphant.
The Yale Alumni Association subsequently evoluted into the Yale Club of New York, which has in every way been phenomenally prosperous. It is a factor of national importance in supporting Yale and keeping alive everywhere appreciation and enthusiasm for and practice of Yale spirit.
My class of 1856 at Yale numbered ninety-seven on graduation. Only six of us survive. In these pages I have had a continuous class meeting. Very few, if any, of my associates in the New York Legislature of 1862 and 1863 are alive, and none of the State officers who served with me in the succeeding years. There is no one left in the service who was there when I became connected with the New York Central Railroad, and no executive officer in any railroad in the United States who held that position when I was elected and is still active.
It is the habit of age to dwell on the degeneracy of the times and lament the good old days and their superiority, but Yale is infinitely greater and broader than when I graduated sixty-five years ago. The New York Legislature and State executives are governing an empire compared with the problems which we had to solve fifty-nine years ago.
I believe in the necessity of leadership, and while recognizing a higher general average in public life, regret that the world crisis through which we have passed and which is not yet completed, has produced no Washington, Lincoln, or Roosevelt. I rejoice that President Harding, under the pressure of his unequalled responsibilities, is developing the highest qualities of leadership. It is an exquisite delight to visualize each administration from 1856 and to have had considerable intimacy with the leaders in government and the moulders of public opinion during sixty-five unusually laborious years.
Many who have given their reminiscences have kept close continuing diaries. From these voluminous records they have selected according to their judgment. As I have before said, I have no data and must rely on my memory. This faculty is not logical, its operations are not by years or periods, but its films unroll as they are moved by association of ideas and events.
It has been a most pleasurable task to bring back into my life these worthies of the past and to live over again events of greater or lesser importance. Sometimes an anecdote illumines a character more than a biography, and a personal incident helps an understanding of a period more than its formal history.
Life has had for me immeasurable charms. I recognize at all times there has been granted to me the loving care and guidance of God. My sorrows have been alleviated and lost their acuteness from a firm belief in closer reunion in eternity. My misfortunes, disappointments, and losses have been met and overcome by abundant proof of my mother's faith and teaching that they were the discipline of Providence for my own good, and if met in that spirit and with redoubled effort to redeem the apparent tragedy they would prove to be blessings. Such has been the case.
While new friends are not the same as old ones, yet I have found cheer and inspiration in the close communion with the young of succeeding generations. They have made and are making this a mighty good world for me.