Americans Looked Beyond ‘Modern Art’ to a Grander Project … the Panama Canal

Henry Lyman Sayen’s Cubist Composition, 1917, realized $100,000 at a November 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art was the first large exhibition of its kind in America. It was held at the 69th Regiment Armory in NYC, before moving on to Chicago and Boston. More than 70,000 people walked the length of the Armory to witness the visions of Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp. Judging by press reports, not a single person appears to have left without voicing an opinion, most likely a negative one.

Who, they asked, could call such rubbish art?

Americans, generally accustomed to realistic art, were astonished by the experimental styles of Fauvism, Cubism and Futurism – the avant-garde experimental styles of Europe. Many in the New York crowd would have nothing to do with it and in Boston and Chicago, art students burned Matisse and others in effigy.

Kenyon Cox, a prominent author, illustrator and teacher, saw in the show nothing less than the “total destruction of the art of painting.” The star image of the exhibition was Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” or as Teddy Roosevelt called it, “Naked Man Running Down Stairs.” TR added it reminded him of a Navajo rug he stood on each morning while shaving. Still, other people saw something else entirely … “An Explosion in a Shingle Factory” or “An Earthquake on the Subway.”

As New Yorkers were scoffing at modern painting, a more contemporary and pleasing project was nearing completion 2,300 miles south of Manhattan. The dream of uniting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans dated back to the Spanish explorations in the 16th century.

It seemed like such a simple task to dig a canal bisecting the thin strip of land connecting North and South America. Americans wanted a connecting waterway all their own, a way to move freight and passengers coast to coast with ease.

A French company had tried and failed miserably in the 1880s, as malaria and yellow fever crippled their plans. 20,000 laborers had died and it destroyed the reputation of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the builder of the Suez Canal. His insistence on a sea-level canal (à la the Suez) neglected equatorial rains, half-submerged trees and, most significantly, the extraordinary amounts of terrain involved.

For perspective, the site required the excavation of three times the dirt removed to create the Suez, an unprecedented reconfiguration of the earth itself. Equipment for such a task did not exist yet.

But no president loved a challenge more than Teddy Roosevelt, who launched into it with vigor in 1904. America would dig the Big Ditch just as they would later land a man on the moon. The secret sauce included controlling malaria, creating an elaborate system of locks to minimize the digging, and a vision for world leadership. TR sensed it was America’s destiny to use the two oceans to safely convey the civilized world into the new century.

When the Panama Canal opened on Aug. 15, 1914, six months ahead of schedule, Teddy Roosevelt was long gone from the presidency. Attention turned to Europe and an event that would soon cast a giant shadow over the earth: a world war!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Immigrants Have Made Traditionalists Uneasy, But Controversy Will Soon Pass

A Roy Lichtenstein screen-print, I Love Liberty, 1982, sold for $27,500 at an October 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Immigration is back in the news and it’s easy to forget this is not the first time. Out of the enormous industrial growth in the middle of the 19th century came an almost insatiable appetite for unskilled labor. The result was a tremendous wave of immigration, landing 26 million here between 1870 and 1920. They came from all over the world.

However, this was a new kind of immigrant, fashioned for an industrial society, and it made traditionalists uneasy, just as Thomas Jefferson had once been uncertain about the mixing of the American population. Prominent economists voiced concerns about people wholly incompetent as pioneers mixing with independent proprietors and threatening the democratic theories of the founders.

In 1870, over half of Americans toiled on the farm (close to Jefferson’s vision of yeoman farmers) and yet in the first decade of the 20th century, two-thirds of workers were in factories – semi-intelligent work described by Henry Ford as a job “the most stupid man could learn in two days.” The old immigrants of home-seekers had become new immigrants of job-seekers. A nativist movement was inspired to protect America for people of Anglo-Saxon stock.

This was not the first expression of this sentiment. In the 1850s, a secret society in New York City, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, morphed into the Know-Nothing Party, which inveighed against the arrival of Irish and German Catholics and with them “popish alliances.” Although the Know-Nothings disappeared after 1860, the tendency toward defining Americans according to ethnicity came roaring back after the Civil War.

Today, we hold up the Statue of Liberty as our beacon to the world, but it was originally intended to be a symbolic gift from sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi over admiration for American liberties, not a statement about immigration. It was only after Emma Lazarus’ give-me-your-tired sonnet was added to the statue 17 years later that the image of America as an asylum for the oppressed and poor of the world would emerge.

And even this was followed by the Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918, which allowed the government to prosecute pacifists, socialists and left-wing organizations, all of which had sizable immigrant followers. Then the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 imposed strict quotas to preserve America as an Anglo-Saxon nation. For the next 40 years, immigration slowed to a trickle and in the 1930s there were years when more people left America than came to live here.

It is a complicated story, but we have thrived as a nation due to the many, many contributions of immigrants. I predict this controversy too shall pass … as it has every time in the past.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Siege of Leningrad was Devastating for Russian People

nicolai-fechin-russian-girl
Nicolai Fechin’s Russian Girl, an oil on canvas laid on masonite, sold for $109,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The suffering brought on by World War II was enormous, but when the total picture is considered there is little doubt that the greatest pain was borne by the people who lived within the grasp of the century’s most vicious tyrants: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

While Americans were busy managing the factories that made them the “Arsenal of Democracy” and focusing on Japan, the people of Central Europe and Western Russia were in a life-and-death struggle fought on the very streets of their cities.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42 and onward for 900 days, the people of Leningrad were suffering dramatically. Concerned that his German army might encounter enormous losses if they launched an all-out assault, Hitler ordered a blockade of the city. By starving its 3 million people, he hoped to break Russian morale and force them to surrender.

Since Leningrad was closed on the west by the Baltic Sea, to the east by the 80-mile-wide Lake Ladoga and to the north by the Finnish army, the Wehrmacht only needed to seal the southern flank to isolate the city. But even as the Germans closed ranks around them and started bombing warehouses and supply routes, the hearty citizens showed they would not be so easily defeated. Volunteers built thousands of air-raid shelters and pillboxes, and cut down trees to block the Germans’ path.

By late December 1941, Leningrad was down to two days’ supply of flour and people had to make bread from cellulose, sawdust and floor sweepings of flour. Animal feed became human food, weeds were boiled to create soup and the dead were hidden so families could continue receiving their daily rations. 53,000 perished that month, and by February another 200,000 would join them.

Somehow the city hung on.

Then came a breakthrough. Scientists discovered Lake Ladoga had frozen so deeply that it could support truck traffic. They cautiously started sending convoys across the “Road of Life.” In the first seven days, 40 trucks sunk to the bottom, but dozens of others made it and returned with precious food. Then women and children were evacuated and the city limped along in darkness and silence since there was no oil to light the lamps and even the birds were dead. In fact, every creature – living or dead, including the human corpses in the gutters – had been picked over by the hungry hordes.

Leningrad Radio broadcast from the generator of a ship frozen in a river and aired the sound of a metronome between programs to let listeners know the city was not dead, yet. By the time Leningrad was liberated in January 1944, nearly 1 million people had died.

There were more civilians dead than in any city, in any war, in the history of mankind.

During this siege, Hitler became obsessed with conquering Stalingrad and that proved to be a fatal mistake that cost him the war. The little colonel from Bavaria proved to be a poor general.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Deep Divisions Within a Political Party Nothing New

andy-warhols-screenprint-teddy-roosevelt
Andy Warhol’s screenprint Teddy Roosevelt (from the Cowboys and Indians portfolio), 1986, ed. 183/250, realized $23,750 at a May 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in September 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley. Teddy was 42 years old and remains the youngest man to hold the office (JFK was 43).

When reelected in 1904, it was the first time an incumbent president won reelection after ascending to the presidency upon the death of his predecessor. Calvin Coolidge (1924), Harry S. Truman (1948) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1964) would later match this historic first.

When 1908 rolled around, TR honored his earlier pledge “not to seek a third term” and then maneuvered his associate William Howard Taft into the White House.

At the time, it seemed like a sound strategic transition for the Republicans. But it would turn out to be a colossal mistake that would grow in importance and haunt Roosevelt for the rest of his life.

When he returned from the historic Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition two years later, the group had collected 11,400 animal specimens that took Smithsonian naturalists eight years to catalog. And the political animals had also been busy during his absence.

A major rift developed between President Taft and TR over policies that had become administration priorities. This, in turn, caused a deep divide in the Republican Party that could not be reconciled. It was so serious that neither faction could generate enough support to defeat Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election.

Later, many politicians were convinced that Roosevelt was still popular enough to seriously contend for the 1920 Republican nomination. However, this conjecture was never tested since the mighty Bull Moose’s health was broken and he died on Jan. 6, 1919.

He still regretted making “that damn pledge not to run in 1908” and took it with him to the grave.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Rights Granted to Barons in Medieval England are Bedrocks of Modern Society

charter-of-liberties-cardinal-langton-archbishop-of-canterbury
A painting by William Martin (1753-1836) shows Cardinal Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, producing to the barons the Charter of Liberties, issued in 1100. It’s considered a landmark document in English history and forerunner of the Magna Carta.

By Jim O’Neal

During the heated debates between our Founding Fathers while formulating the Constitution and Bill of Rights, many invoked the principles of the Magna Carta to bolster their arguments. For almost 600 years, the Great Charter had stood as a beacon whenever men discussed their inherent rights.

The truth is somewhat more complicated.

On June 15, 1215, King John of England signed a charter at Runnymede, a meadow beside the Thames River near Windsor fortress. The Archbishop of Canterbury had proposed the charter as a means to make peace between the king and a group of rebel barons. The document – which eventually became the Magna Carta – promised access to swift justice, no illegal imprisonment and limitations on feudal payments.

When John was enthroned as king in 1199, England was a feudal society, a land-based hierarchy where the king owned all the land. The tenants-in-chief (i.e. barons) received land from the king in exchange for loyalty and military service. They, in turn, leased the land to their own retainers, who leased to peasants. However, English monarchs had been levying ever-increasing higher taxes and financial burdens on the barons.

Starting with Henry I (1100-1135), the Crown established a series of Royal Courts that also raised revenue through fines and taxes. Discontent intensified under King John, who had lost a series of expensive campaigns against the French from 1200-1204 and had also lost the land in Normandy, which put the squeeze on the entire system. In addition to being inept at war, King John broke his commitments to the barons and both sides then disavowed any promises made.

One significant irony was that the Magna Carta originally only included the king and the barons. Ordinary citizens were totally ignored.

A new Magna Carta was issued in 1216 by Henry III and revised again in 1226 to raise taxes once again. Finally, in 1297, Edward I agreed to rights that evolved into English statute law, with a broad array of rights granted to all citizens.

The Magna Carta has acquired almost mythical status as the constitutional bedrock of citizen rights. It contributed to the development of parliament from the 13th century and was used by 17th century rebels to argue against the divine right of kings. Several American colonies’ charters contained clauses modeled on it, while the design of the Massachusetts seal chosen at the start of the Revolutionary War depicts a militiaman with sword in one hand and the Magna Carta in the other.

Americans believed the Crown had breached the fundamental law enjoyed by all English citizens, which led to the U.S. Constitution enacted in 1789 and the Bill of Rights adopted two years later. We are fortunate to live in a country governed by the rule of law and limitations on the arbitrary power of a government against its citizens.

Much blood has been spilled by many in defense of these beliefs.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

When Nation Faces Uncertainty, Good Leaders do What They do Best

MERRITT MAUZEY (1897-1973)
Merritt Mauzey’s Depression-era oil on masonite, Uncle Fud and Aunt Boo, realized $77,675 at a December 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In January 1931, a 46-year-old tenant farmer drew the nation’s attention to a small event in rural Arkansas. Homer C. Coney harvested corn and cotton on land he rented for $8 an acre. But a tremendous drought the previous summer meant that most farmers had no crop, no money and no way to survive the winter.

Coney tried to sell his truck for $25 … no takers. So he and his family – trapped in a one-room shack – tried to exist on a Red Cross relief ration of $12/month. Coney, his wife and five sons lived on beans mixed with lard (to “give it flavor”).

A young neighbor mother visited the family frantically seeking help because her children had not eaten for two days. Coney said, “Lady you wait here. I am a-going to get some food over at Bells – the Red Cross man that never give out nothing.” In England, Ark., Coney discovered a big crowd of people, hungry since the Red Cross office there was out of food vouchers. Soon, there was a crowd of 500 people who confronted the mayor and chief of police. “We’re not beggars and will work for 50 cents a day, but we will not let our families starve.”

All over the country, people read about the brave souls who gathered to demand food. “500 Farmers Storm Arkansas Town Demanding Food for Their Children,” read the front page of The New York Times. “You let this country get hungry and they are going to eat, no matter what happens to budgets, income taxes or Wall Street values,” wrote populist Will Rogers in his newspaper column. “Washington mustn’t forget who rules when it comes to a showdown.”

The Great Southern Drought of 1930 was a catastrophe, to be sure. But this act of desperation was only a small part of the bigger issue in the new decade. In 1930, 26,000 businesses collapsed. In 1931, 28,000 more, and by the beginning of 1932, 3,500 banks, holding billions in uninsured savings, went under. 12 million people (25 percent of the workforce) were unemployed and real earnings fell by one-third. In some cities, it was worse; 50 percent of Chicago was out of work, 80 percent of Toledo.

Soup lines stretched as far as the eye could see. America the land of possibility was the land of despair. In 1931, the people of Cameroon in West Africa sent a check to the people of New York for $3.77 to aid the “starving.” About 20,000 veterans of WWI arrived at the U.S. Capitol to demand early payment of their pensions. On July 28, 1932, General Douglas MacArthur – side by side with Major Dwight Eisenhower with a parade of infantry, cavalry and tanks – routed the squatters as ordered.

Today, it is hard to imagine the level of expectation that greeted President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he took the reins from the much-maligned Herbert Hoover. However, the Democratic platform in 1932 was much the same as Hoover’s: a balanced budget and a curb on spending. Even the term “New Deal” was a fluke line from a nomination acceptance, until it surprised everyone and became popular.

But Roosevelt had a supreme confidence, enormous energy, and a determination equal to that of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. He quickly cribbed a line from Henry David Thoreau (“Nothing is so much to be feared as fear”), began fireside chats with the American people from a room with no fireplace, and started leading.

That’s what good leaders do.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Great Britain’s Constitutional Monarchy had a Bloody Beginning

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, Scotland, France, and Ireland, 1816, by C. Turner
Oliver Cromwell is often included among lists of the most important Britons of all time.

By Jim O’Neal

During the 1640s, England was plunged into a series of wars that, collectively, became known as the English Civil War. On one side were the Royalists – predominantly the aristocracy who supported King Charles I and his right to rule independently of Parliament.

On the other side were the Parliamentarians – mainly smaller landowners and tradesmen who held puritanical beliefs and disliked Charles’ autocratic rule.

Initially, the Royalists gained the upper hand, but in 1644 the Parliamentarians reorganized their troops under Oliver Cromwell and forced Charles to surrender in 1646. However, the king restarted the war two years later and this Second Civil War – which ended in a Royalist defeat at the Battle of Preston in 1648 – began a chain of events that led to King Charles’ trial for treason and his beheading in 1649.

Cromwell formed a republic called the Commonwealth of England, but he too had trouble with Parliament and imposed a stern puritan authority on both the Scots and Irish. Soon after he died, the country welcomed back Charles I’s exiled son, Charles II, and then his Catholic brother, James II.

However, this did not go well because of favoritism to Catholics, which offended both Anglicans and Protestants. Finally, in 1688, James was deposed by the Glorious Revolution and replaced by Protestant Queen Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange.

In 1689, William and Mary accepted the Bill of Rights, trial by jury, and made the monarchy subject to the law of the land.

Since that time, Great Britain has remained a constitutional monarchy, in which no king or queen can ever defy Parliament, as King Charles I had attempted. Perhaps it is because it is easier to wear a crown if one has a head to place it upon!

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bastille Day Reminds Us That Freedom Crucial to a Civilized World

French Carved Ivory Figure Of Louis XVI
This 20½-inch high French carved-ivory figure of Louis XVI from the 19th century realized $19,120 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It’s Bastille Day.

On July 14, 1789, an enraged Parisian mob, seeking weapons to defend their city from a rumored royal attack, stormed the crumbling fortress known as the Bastille and murdered its governor and guards. This violent defiance of royal power has become the symbol of the French Revolution, a movement that not only engulfed France, but also reverberated around the world. The ideas articulated in the revolution spelled the end of Europe’s absolute monarchies and inspired their eventual replacement by more democratic governments.

The indecisive French King Louis XVI was hardly the person to confront any crisis, especially one as serious as that facing France in 1789. In the previous century, his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had established France as an absolute monarchy with all power concentrated in the king’s hands. His palace at Versailles was the most sophisticated court in Europe and a bastion of aristocratic privilege.

In October 1789, events suddenly accelerated when a vast crowd, outraged by a lack of bread in Paris, descended upon Versailles and forcibly removed the royal family to Paris, ransacking the palace for good measure. In what would become an unnerving foretaste of the violence to come, the severed heads of the guards at Versailles were paraded on stakes as Louis and his family were escorted to the capital.

By September, a kind of hysteria gripped the city. A mob stormed the Tuileries, where the royal family was held, slaughtering the Swiss Guards. Louis XVI was put on trial as a traitor and executed on the guillotine in January 1793. Eventually, order was restored by the end of 1795.

Whatever the importance of the French Revolution, it remains the subject of intense historical debate. Its goals of ending repressive monarchy and championing universal rights were confused and often violent. Furthermore, by 1804 Napoleon had effectively swapped one form of absolutism for his own, albeit more effective than any had known since Louis XIV.

Still, it remains a pivotal moment in the belief that freedom should underpin the civilized world … a principle we still embrace with every ounce of energy.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

China’s Fall to Communists Launched Dark Period in American History

ANDY WARHOL's Mao (With Orange Face) 1972
Andy Warhol’s screenprint Mao (With Orange Face), 1972, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 4, 1949, the day the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a Communist General by the name of Chu Teh began massing a million of Mao Tse-tung’s seasoned troops on the north bank of the Yangtze River. This was the last natural barrier between Mao and the few southern provinces still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

Three weeks later, Chu Teh’s veterans stormed across the Yangtze, but only met token resistance. Chiang had withdrawn 300,000 of his most reliable soldiers to form a rear-guard perimeter around Shanghai. A week later, Chiang fled across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan, along with a cadre of KMT, but it seemed clear that China was a lost cause.

Mao Tse-tung proclaimed Red China’s sovereignty on Sept. 21, 1949 – the same day West Germany declared its sovereignty – and this was followed by Chiang announcing the formation of his new government in Taipei. Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen’s 50-year-old vision for a democratic China was dead, and the U.S. expectation that Chiang would establish the non-communist world’s eastern anchor died with it.

The world now had two Chinas!

The American response was slow. Newspapers had carried regular accounts of the Chinese Communists and the KMT’s slow disintegration, but China was so vast, the geography so unfamiliar and movements of the unmechanized armies so slow, that Americans had lost interest in these distant battles.

However, when the KMT collapsed, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to lay out the entire situation before the American people. On Aug. 5, 1949, the State Department issued a 1,054-page white paper, conceding the world’s largest nation had fallen into communist hands. The chain of events leading to this tragic end was also explained, including the $2 billion that had been largely wasted and the 75 percent of American arms shipments that had fallen into Mao’s hands.

The American people were stunned by this admission. Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe – the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO – seemed to have been annulled by this disaster in Asia.

The burning question was … who was responsible for losing China?

Richard Nixon of California flatly blamed the Democrats. On Feb. 21, a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, said that at Yalta, a “sick” Franklin Roosevelt had given strategic places to the USSR. This, Kennedy concluded, “is the tragic story of China, whose freedom we fought to preserve. What our young men saved, our diplomats and our presidents have frittered away.”

Thus began one of the darkest periods in American history. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835 created the “Loyalty Order” program and in 1947, the FBI began stalking “disloyal and subversive persons” by conducting name checks on 2 million federal employees and background checks on 500,000 annual applicants for government jobs. During the program’s five years, the FBI screened over 3 million Americans and conducted 10,000 field interviews. Preliminary indictments were filed against 9,977, of whom 2,961 were arraigned.

Seth Richardson, chairman of the Subversive Activities Control Board, summed up his findings for a Congressional committee: “Not one single case or evidence directing toward a case of espionage has been found by the FBI indicating that a particular case involves a question of espionage.”

In the entertainment industry, “blacklisting” became a form of blackmail and took its toll on a small group for a full decade.

Time has blurred the sharp contours of the Age of Suspicion, but it was a dark period that must never be allowed to recur.

We still don’t know, or agree on, who lost China.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

It Was a Rough Road, but After His Presidency, Grant Found His Way

ULYSSES S. GRANT by Freeman Woodcock Thorp
This oil on canvas portrait of Ulysses S. Grant by Freeman Woodcock Thorp (1844-1922) sold for $10,456.25 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After President Ulysses S. Grant left office in 1877, he went on a world tour that lasted two years. Some of the highlights included dinner with Queen Victoria, and meetings with Pope Leo XIII and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in Europe.

After a trip to India, Grant and family turned to Asia and visited Burma, Siam (Thailand) and Cochinchina (Vietnam). On mainland China, they visited several cities and he ended up brokering an agreement between China and Japan regarding the Ryukyu Islands (sound familiar?).

Eventually, they returned to America and Grant was broke and badly in need of income. He tried several things, including a railroad in Mexico. Nothing was remotely successful and he was desperate.

The biggest disappointment was yet to come and it involved a brokerage house at 2 Wall Street that Ulysses Jr. started with a close and trusted friend. At first there were years with double- and triple-digit returns and Grant was feeling more secure. Then the firm had a cash crunch and Grant borrowed $150,000 from businessman William Vanderbilt. However, it was discovered to be a Ponzi scheme, which left Grant destitute and in debt … unable to repay the loan.

He then agreed to write an article for a magazine on the Battle of Shiloh (where he led Union forces to victory) for $500. Not only was it well received, but Grant truly enjoyed the writing and it lifted his spirits to recall his earlier days. After several more articles, including accounts of Vicksburg and the Battle of the Wilderness, it led to negotiations over a book.

Enter good friend Mark Twain.

Twain convinced Grant that he would give him 75 percent of the royalties in return for the publishing rights. Then Grant discovered he had throat cancer (remember all those cigars?) and it became a race between death and finishing the book. The book won (barely) and the royalties provided the Grant family with enough money to be comfortable after his death. Estimates range from $400,000 and expectations were exceeded.

The combination of ex-President Grant, his memoirs, a surprisingly literary ability and the experience of Mark Twain produced a happy ending to a remarkable period of American history.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].