An Exclusive Excerpt from Jeanette Watson’s It’s My Party

Friday, October 6, 2017

My grandfather and grandmother, Thomas and Jeannette Watson, lived in a double townhouse at 4 East Seventy-Fifth Street, between Madison and Fifth. My grandfather bought the fifty-foot-wide mansion in 1939 from Stanley Mortimer, an heir to the Standard Oil of California fortune and a descendant of John Jay, the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The house was built in 1896 for the McReady family and designed by Trowbridge, Colt and Livingston in the French Renaissance style. The McReadys lived there with seven servants. When Mortimer bought the house, he put in a bronze gate designed by Carrère and Hastings. In 2006, the house was sold for $53 million, at the time the highest price ever paid for a Manhattan townhouse.

My grandfather was a self-made man, the personification of the American dream. He was born in a small house in Painted Post, New York, to parents newly emigrated from Ireland, to avoid the potato famine, but originally from Scotland. One time my father visited the Watson homestead and found the house being rebuilt after a fire. Daddy said to the workmen, “I didn’t know my father grew up in a house as nice as this.” One of them said, “Hell no—this is much bigger than his house. It’s the house he would have liked to have grown up in.”

Grandfather attended a one-room schoolhouse and later, for a short time, a business school. One of his early jobs involved selling musical instruments from a horse and buggy. One day, while at work, he saw a bar, tied up his horse, and got drunk. On leaving the bar, he saw that his buggy had been stolen, along with the musical instruments. He vowed not to drink again and amazingly kept his vow. Much to the dismay of their guests, my grandparents served only one small glass of wine before dinner at their parties. After that, it was cold turkey!

In fact, my grandparents met at a dinner party, where my grandfather looked down the table and saw that my future grandmother was the only other person not drinking. (I feel I would have been biased the other way if I noticed a man not drinking!)

After an undistinguished early career, he started flourishing while working for the National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio, where he met and married my grandmother. My grandfather and thirty-eight other NCR employees were accused of unfair business practices and were tried and convicted. He appealed, and the case was dropped. Grandfather argued with the top executive John Henry Patterson and was fired at age forty, just as he married my grandmother.

He came to New York, penniless, to look for work. My father told me that my grandfather, in order to present a good front and impress any employer, hired a limousine to take him to his interviews. Ultimately he was hired by an obscure company, the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, and became the driving force behind its transformation into IBM.

Grandfather literally went from rags to riches. At one point he’d owned only one suit and had to wrap himself in newspapers while waiting for it to be cleaned. By the time I knew him, he looked very distinguished, always formally dressed in three-piece suits made by Henry Poole of Savile Row, Winston Churchill’s tailor. In the summer, he wore white suits and a Panama hat with a broad brim. Years later, on a trip to London with Alex, a man at Poole’s showed me the records of my grandfather’s suits. My father, who had his clothes made at Chipp in New York, never matched his elegance.

Grandfather became general manager of Computing-Tabulating-Recording (CTR) Company in 1914, the year my father was born, and its president in 1915, when he was forty-one years old. My grandfather has been called “the world’s greatest salesman,” and he was among the first to create a distinct corporate culture. His salesmen dressed in suits, ties, and white shirts, giving them more self-respect and a greater ability to connect with their customers. As children we often mocked the inspirational slogan THINK. We used to sing “T H I N K spells think: that’s our family motto.” IBM had its own symphony, country club, and songbook. In 1936, my grandfather amazingly earned the highest salary in America—$365,000, which would be around $6 million today.

As one of the highest-paid men in America, it seemed fitting that my grandfather raised his family in the wealthy suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey. My father remembers that some of the neighboring families considered the Watsons to be “nouveau,” and they were often excluded from the more “exclusive” parties. This probably accounts for my grandfather’s determination to see his family rise in society. I wonder what his old neighbors in Short Hills thought when my grandfather became FDR’s man in New York, entertaining heads of state and royalty. I heard that, because of all the IBM stock he acquired, my grandfather’s chauffeur became one of the richest men in Sweden when he retired there.

I loved spending the night at my grandparents’ house in the city. My mother would drop me off and, suddenly, instead of being part of a big family, I was an adored only child. When I came up the big marble staircase to the third floor, where the bedrooms were, I turned to the left, toward the street-side of the house. At the end of a long hallway were two bedrooms, one on each side of the hall. To the left was my grandparents’ bedroom, with bathroom. They slept in a double bed. Across from my grandparents’ room was another large bedroom with twin beds, which was where I slept. I felt the energy of the city when I heard street noises outside as I was going to sleep.

A large formal portrait of my grandparents’ four children hung on the wall of “my” bedroom. There was also a television, and often we would watch a program (sometimes Lassie) as we ate our dinner. Tables would be set up in front of each of us for our dinner trays. (The townhouse was later owned by the arts patron Rebekah Harkness, and, ironically enough, a real estate agent asked me, years later, if I would like to buy it for Books & Co.)

My grandfather called me his “Precious Promise,” perhaps because I was the oldest female grandchild. When I stayed with him in New York, we would often spend mornings walking to Central Park to feed the ducks or watch the boats racing near the Hans Christian Andersen statue. Sometimes we went on horse-and-buggy rides, and I got to sit up front, next to the driver, and occasionally took the reins. Other times, my grandfather would take me into a toy store and tell me the happiest words a child can imagine: “What would you like? I’ll get you anything you want.” I always wanted a doll.

When I was about three, my grandfather took me on a business trip with him, just the two of us. We went to Poughkeepsie so that he could check out an IBM plant. I remember sleeping in the same bed and feeling happy and secure. Years later, when I went to my father’s retirement party, an ancient woman approached me and identified herself as my grandfather’s secretary and she said “I remember your grandfather asked me to give you a bath.” I can’t imagine a CEO of today asking his secretary to bathe his grandchild.

I never felt the same unselfconscious love of my father. I felt awkward just holding his hand. It was completely different with my grandfather. He wasn’t scary, he wasn’t going to scream at me, he just loved me. I could sit in his lap in a way that I never could with my father. I felt totally adored.

Daddy describes his tumultuous relationship with his father in his autobiography, which I recently reread and found far more revealing than I had previously realized. “From very early in life,” my father admitted in the first chapter, “I was convinced that I had something missing. I was never able to connect with what other people were doing.” I was shocked to read: “Father [my grandfather] must have known he had an uncontrollable temper that might feed on itself, because when there was punishing to be done, he made Mother do it…I would go up to their white-tiled bathroom. Father would stand near the basin to observe, I would hold onto a towel rack, and Mother would do the switching.”

It is painful in every sense to imagine this ritual, and it also seems weird that my grandfather would stand by as spectator. I can only imagine that these switchings had a devastating effect on my father and possibly increased his feelings of anger as an adult.

As a grownup, I could never reconcile this gentle man with the harsh taskmaster who had such a fraught relationship with my father. The switching of my father seemed so out of character, as did my grandfather’s harsh words to him when he was a boy and later at IBM. Both of them had explosive tempers, and their frequent fights at work would often end in tears. I suppose they had become rivals of sorts at IBM, with my grandfather wanting to stay in charge and my father impatient to take over.

For all of us grandchildren, the townhouse was like a palace, with marble floors and a huge winding staircase. Near the staircase was a tiny jewel-like elevator with a red-velvet interior and a tiny plush velvet bench. We loved playing in it and rode up and down endlessly. I remember a large, dark living room where sometimes the grandchildren would sit on the floor while Grandfather showed us a painting. I remember in particular a depiction of a Western landscape, where all the cows were encircled by bulls to protect them from marauding Indians.

He gave my parents a Monet for their wedding present and was an early collector of Grandma Moses. He became a patron of the arts, and the Salmagundi Club, founded in 1871 as a gathering place for artists and collectors, honored him with a dinner on his seventieth birthday. The boy from Painted Post was on   a membership roll that at one time or another included William Merritt Chase, Charles Dana Gibson, Childe Hassam, Norman Rockwell, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White, and N.C. Wyeth.


Excerpt from It’s My Party by Jeannette Watson. Copyright © 2017 by Jeannette Watson.  Used by permission of Turtle Point Press.



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