A rich man attempts a noble experiment with human nature. The result is an etched-in-acid portrayal of universal greed, hypocrisy, and follies of the flesh.
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Dial Press Trade Paperback
September 08, 1998
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Excerpt from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.
The sum was $87,472,033.61 on June 1, 1964, to pick a day. That was the day it caught the soft eyes of a boy shyster named Norman Mushari. The income the interesting sum produced was $3,500,000 a year, nearly $10,000 a day--Sundays, too.
The sum was made the core of a charitable and cultural foundation in 1947, when Norman Mushari was only six. Before that, it was the fourteenth largest family fortune in America, the Rosewater fortune. It was stashed into a foundation in order that tax-collectors and other predators not named Rosewater might be prevented from getting their hands on it. And the baroque masterpiece of legal folderol that was the charter of the Rosewater Foundation declared, in effect, that the presidency of the Foundation was to be inherited in the same manner as the British Crown. It was to be handed down throughout all eternity to the closest and oldest heirs of the Foundation's creator, Senator Lister Ames Rosewater of Indiana.
Siblings of the President were to become officers of the Foundation upon reaching the age of twenty-one. All officers were officers for life, unless proved legally insane. They were free to compensate themselves for their services as lavishly as they pleased, but only from the Foundation's income.
As required by law, the charter prohibited the Senator's heirs having anything to do with the management of the Foundation's capital. Caring for the capital became the responsibility of a corporation that was born simultaneously with the Foundation. It was called, straightforwardly enough, The Rosewater Corporation. Like almost all corporations, it was dedicated to prudence and profit, to balance sheets. Its employees were very well paid. They were cunning and happy and energetic on that account. Their main enterprise was the churning of stocks and bonds of other corporations. A minor activity was the management of a saw factory, a bowling alley, a motel, a bank, a brewery, extensive farms in Rosewater County, Indiana, and some coal mines in northern Kentucky.
The Rosewater Corporation occupied two floors at 500 Fifth Avenue, in New York, and maintained small branch offices in London, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Rosewater County. No member of the Rosewater Foundation could tell the Corporation what to do with the capital. Conversely, the Corporation was powerless to tell the Foundation what to do with the copious profits the Corporation made.
These facts became known to young Norman Mushari when, upon graduating from Cornell Law School at the top of his class, he went to work for the Washington, D.C., law firm that had designed both the Foundation and the Corporation, the firm of McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee. He was of Lebanese extraction, the son of a Brooklyn rug merchant. He was five feet and three inches tall. He had an enormous ass, which was luminous when bare.
He was the youngest, the shortest, and by all odds the least Anglo-Saxon male employee in the firm. He was put to work under the most senile partner, Thurmond McAllister, a sweet old poop who was seventy-six. He would never have been hired if the other partners hadn't felt that McAllister's operations could do with just a touch more viciousness.
No one ever went out to lunch with Mushari. He took nourishment alone in cheap cafeterias, and plotted the violent overthrow of the Rosewater Foundation. He knew no Rosewaters. What engaged his emotions was the fact that the Rosewater fortune was the largest single money package represented by McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee. He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law. Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands.
"In every big transaction," said Leech, "there is a magic moment during which a man has surrendered a treasure, and during which the man who is due to receive it has not yet done so. An alert lawyer will make that moment his own, possessing the treasure for a magic microsecond, taking a little of it, passing it on. If the man who is to receive the treasure is unused to wealth, has an inferiority complex and shapeless feelings of guilt, as most people do, the lawyer can often take as much as half the bundle, and still receive the recipient's blubbering thanks."
The more Mushari rifled the firm's confidential files relative to the Rosewater Foundation, the more excited he became. Especially thrilling to him was that part of the charter which called for the immediate expulsion of any officer adjudged insane. It was common gossip in the office that the very first president of the Foundation, Eliot Rosewater, the Senator's son, was a lunatic. This characterization was a somewhat playful one, but as Mushari knew, playfulness was impossible to explain in a court of law. Eliot was spoken of by Mushari's co-workers variously as "The Nut," "The Saint," "The Holy Roller," "John the Baptist," and so on.
"By all means," Mushari mooned to himself, "we must get this specimen before a judge."
From all reports, the person next in line to be President of the Foundation, a cousin in Rhode Island, was inferior in all respects. When the magic moment came, Mushari would represent him.
Mushari, being tone-deaf, did not know that he himself had an office nickname. It was contained in a tune that someone was generally whistling when he came or went. The tune was "Pop Goes the Weasel."
Eliot Rosewater became President of the Foundation in 1947. When Mushari began to investigate him seventeen years later, Eliot was forty-six. Mushari, who thought of himself as brave little David about to slay Goliath, was exactly half his age. And it was almost as though God Himself wanted little David to win, for confidential document after document proved that Eliot was crazy as a loon.
In a locked file inside the firm's vault, for instance, was an envelope with three seals on it--and it was supposed to be delivered unopened to whomever took over the Foundation when Eliot was dead.
Inside was a letter from Eliot, and this is what it said:
Dear Cousin, or whoever you may be--
Congratulations on your great good fortune. Have fun. It may increase your perspective to know what sorts of manipulators and custodians your unbelievable wealth has had up to now.
Like so many great American fortunes, the Rosewater pile was accumulated in the beginning by a humorless, constipated Christian farm boy turned speculator and briber during and after the Civil War. The farm boy was Noah Rosewater, my great-grandfather, who was born in Rosewater County, Indiana.
Noah and his brother George inherited from their pioneer father six hundred acrees of farmland, land as dark and rich as chocolate cake, and a small saw factory that was nearly bankrupt. War came.
George raised a rifle company, marched away at its head.
Noah hired a village idiot to fight in his place, converted the saw factory to the manufacture of swords and bayonets, converted the farm to the raising of hogs. Abraham Lincoln declared that no amount of money was too much to pay for the restoration of the Union, so Noah priced his merchandise in scale with the national tragedy. And he made this discovery: Government objections to the price or quality of his wares could be vaporized with bribes that were pitifully small.
He married Cleota Herrick, the ugliest woman in Indiana, because she had four hundred thousand dollars. With her money he expanded the factory and bought more farms, all in Rosewater County. He became the largest individual hog farmer in the North. And, in order not to be victimized by meat packers, he bought controlling interest in an Indianapolis slaughterhouse. In order not to be victimized by steel suppliers, he bought controlling interest in a steel company in Pittsburgh. In order not to be victimized by coal suppliers, he bought controlling interest in several mines. In order not to be victimized by money lenders, he founded a bank.
And his paranoid reluctance to be a victim caused him to deal more and more in valuable papers, in stocks and bonds, and less and less in swords and pork. Small experiments with worthless papers convinced him that such papers could be sold effortlessly. While he continued to bribe persons in government to hand over treasuries and national resources, his first enthusiasm became the peddling of watered stock.
When the United States of America, which was meant to be a Utopia for all, was less than a century old, Noah Rosewater and a few men like him demonstrated the folly of the Founding Fathers in one respect: those sadly recent ancestors had not made it the law of the Utopia that the wealth of each citizen should be limited. This oversight was engendered by a weak-kneed sympathy for those who loved expensive things, and by the feeling that the continent was so vast and valuable, and the population so thin and enterprising, that no thief, no matter how fast he stole, could more than mildly inconvenience anyone.
Noah and a few like him perceived that the continent was in fact finite, and that venal office-holders, legislators in particular, could be persuaded to toss up great hunks of it for grabs, and to toss them in such a way as to have them land where Noah and his kind were standing.
Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.
E pluribus unum is surely an ironic motto to inscribe on the currency of this Utopia gone bust, for every grotesquely rich American represents property, privileges, and pleasures that have been denied the many. An even more instructive motto, in the light of history made by the Noah Rosewaters, might be: Grab much too much, or you'll get nothing at all.
And Noah begat Samuel, who married Geraldine Ames Rockefeller. Samuel became even more interested in politics than his father had been, served the Republican Party tirelessly as a king-maker, caused that party to nominate men who would whirl like dervishes, bawl fluent Babylonian, and order the militia to fire into crowds whenever a poor man seemed on the point of suggesting that he and a Rosewater were equal in the eyes of the law.
And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.
And Samuel begat Lister Ames Rosewater, who married Eunice Eliot Morgan. There was something to be said for Lister and Eunice: unlike Noah and Cleota and Samuel and Geraldine, they could laugh as though they meant it. As a curious footnote to history, Eunice became Woman's Chess Champion of the United States in 1927, and again in 1933.
Eunice also wrote an historical novel about a female gladiator, Ramba of Macedon, which was a best-seller in 1936. Eunice died in 1937, in a sailing accident in Cotuit, Massachusetts. She was a wise and amusing person, with very sincere anxieties about the condition of the poor. She was my mother.
Her husband, Lister, never was in business. From the moment of his birth to the time I am writing this, he has left the manipulation of his assets to lawyers and banks. He has spent nearly the whole of his adult life in the Congress of the United States, teaching morals, first as a Representative from the district whose heart is Rosewater County, and then as Senator from Indiana. That he is or ever was an Indiana person is a tenuous political fiction. And Lister begat Eliot.
Lister has thought about the effects and implications of his inherited wealth about as much as most men think about their left big toes. The fortune has never amused, worried, or tempted him. Giving ninety-five per cent of it to the Foundation you now control didn't cause him a twinge.
And Eliot married Sylvia DuVrais Zetterling, a Parisienne beauty who came to hate him. Her mother was a patroness of painters. Her father was the greatest living cellist. Her maternal grandparents were a Rothschild and a DuPont.
And Eliot became a drunkard, a Utopian dreamer, a tinhorn saint, an aimless fool.
Begat he not a soul.
Bon voyage, dear Cousin or whoever you are. Be generous. Be kind. You can safetly ignore the arts and sciences. They never helped anybody. Be a sincere, attentive friend of the poor.
The letter was signed,
The late Eliot Rosewater.
His heart going like a burglar alarm, Norman Mushari hired a large safe-deposit box, and he put the letter into it. That first piece of solid evidence would not be lonesome long.
Mushari went back to his cubicle, reflected that Sylvia was in the process of divorcing Eliot, with old McAllister representing the defendant. She was living in Paris, and Mushari wrote a letter to her, suggesting that it was customary in friendly, civilized divorce actions for litigants to return each other's letters. He asked her to send him any letters from Eliot that she might have saved.
He got fifty-three such letters by return mail.