A Very Private Public Citizen: The Life of Grenville Clark

A Very Private Public Citizen: The Life of Grenville Clark

by Nancy Peterson Hill

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Grenville Clark was born to wealth and privilege in Manhattan, where his maternal grandfather, LeGrand Bouton Cannon, was an industry titan, retired Civil War colonel, and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Clark grew up on a first-name basis with both Presidents Roosevelt, and his close friends included Supreme Court justices. He was well known and respected in the…  See more details below


Grenville Clark was born to wealth and privilege in Manhattan, where his maternal grandfather, LeGrand Bouton Cannon, was an industry titan, retired Civil War colonel, and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. Clark grew up on a first-name basis with both Presidents Roosevelt, and his close friends included Supreme Court justices. He was well known and respected in the inner circles of business, government, and education. In A Very Private Public Citizen: The Life of Grenville Clark, Nancy Peterson Hill gives life to the unsung account of this great and largely anonymous American hero and reveals how the scope of Clark’s life and career reflected his selfless passion for progress, equality, and peace. As a member of the “Corporation,” Harvard’s elite governing board, Clark wrote a still-relevant treatise on academic freedom. He fought a successful public battle with his good friend President Franklin Roosevelt over FDR’s attempt to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937. He refused pay while serving as a private advisor for the Secretary of War of the United States during the Second World War, and he worked closely with the NAACP to uphold civil rights for African Americans during the tumultuous 1950s and ‘60s. Clark devoted his last decades to a quest for world peace through limited but enforceable world law, rewriting the charter of the United Nations and traveling the globe to lobby the world’s leaders. An enthusiastic husband, father, and friend, Clark was a lawyer, civil rights activist, traveler, advisor, and world citizen at large. Memories from Clark’s family and friends weave through the book, as do Clark’s own inimitable observations on his life and the world in which he lived. A Very Private Public Citizen brings Clark out of the shadows, offering readers an inspiring example of a true patriot and humanitarian, more concerned with the well-being of his country and his fellow man than with his own fame.

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A Very Private Public Citizen

The Life of Grenville Clark

By Nancy Peterson Hill

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7319-2


Ninth-Generation Manhattanite

Grenville Clark's heritage was textbook early American; his ancestors trace to the earliest European settlers of New England and New York in the early 1630s. His family tree includes no Mayflower originals, but they were not far from it. On his mother's side Grenville was the ninth generation born on Manhattan Island. As he put it: "In that sense, at any rate, I was born a good New Yorker."

His mother's forebears, the Cannon and de Forest families, were largely French Huguenots—Protestants who were "very well-to-do and solid people" in France but fled to escape increasing persecution by Catholics. The de Forests came first to Manhattan Island, arriving from Europe around 1630. The Cannons arrived at New Rochelle, New York, fifty-five years later when conditions had grown even worse for non-Catholics in France under Louis XIV. Clark's great-grandfather Cannon was an early ironmaster with a foundry and plant in Troy, New York, where a street is still named Cannon and many generations of Cannons are buried in family plots.

On his father's side were the Clark and the Crawford families from England and Scotland, respectively. The earliest Clarks came to Dedham, Massachusetts, from England, also around 1630. Near the end of the seventeenth century they migrated to the Connecticut Valley at Northampton, where they "had a farm for something like a hundred and fifty years on the [present] site of Smith College." Grenville's grandfather, Luther Clark, was one of three close brothers who headed west to seek their fortunes around 1830. The brothers prospered, starting a trading post and a number of banks in the St. Louis area.

By the end of the 1830s they had returned and fanned out along the east coast, settling, one each, in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Luther Clark cofounded the Wall Street banking firm Clark, Dodge and Company in 1845. (The company now is headquartered on Long Island.) The other two brothers became similarly well established in their respective cities, and the three remained close throughout their lifetimes. In the twentieth century the Clark name "pretty well died out" in the New York branch after nearly half (three of eight) of the male descendants were killed in World War II. (The Philadelphia Clarks, on the other hand, were quite prolific. The most famous was Grenville Clark's younger cousin and close friend, the two-term U.S. senator Joseph Clark.)

The Crawford branch of the family arrived from Scotland around 1730 and settled in Putney, Vermont. They were mainly farmers, successful enough to build a "very good-looking substantial brick house back in the country." Clark's grandmother Crawford probably met his Grandfather Clark in the Connecticut Valley "since Northampton, Mass and Putney, Vermont are not so very far apart." The couple ended up in New York City at 18 Gramercy Park "in a great big brick house on the corner of Irving Place next to The Players House, which still stands there, although [the Clark home] has long been demolished to make way for an apartment house."

All these substantial forebears notwithstanding, Clark's strongest family influence by far was his maternal grandfather, Colonel LeGrand Bouton Cannon (a marvelous homophonic name—it has the roar of cannons when spoken aloud). Grenville Clark remembered Cannon (1815–1906) as "a man of great force and ability who influenced me greatly.... a small man in stature, but [he] had a very piercing eye and an air of great authority, and he was a man of immense vigor and natural authority—acquired, I suppose, partly from his inheritance from his Huguenot ancestors and partly from his experience in life as a builder and employer of labor, and also very largely through his experience in the Civil War."

It is easy to see what a powerful impression Colonel Cannon would have made on his grandson, or on anyone. He was a railroad builder and industrialist, an early member of the Republican Party, and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln's and the New England statesman Daniel Webster's. A staunch Unionist, Cannon served with distinction in the Civil War, which he invariably referred to as "the rebellion." Cannon wrote with characteristic flourish of his battlefield and administrative experiences in his autobiography, Reminiscences of the Rebellion, published privately for his family in 1895. The book includes accounts of intimate conversations with President Lincoln on matters ranging from their shared love of Shakespeare to the shattering loss of Lincoln's cherished son Willie. It also details Cannon's role as the first Union officer to allow freed slaves to serve in the Union army.

Cannon's lofty position and influence in the railroad industry meant travel by private railcar for the family. His friends in high places at the New York Central line also allowed Grenville and his brother Louis the considerable rush of a ride in the engine's cab with "our hands on the throttle" of a powerful locomotive steaming through New York City's Grand Central Station tunnel to the next junction and back. In an era when train engineers might be compared with today's jet pilots or even astronauts, it was "a terrific thrill" for the two young boys.

"The Colonel," as Cannon was usually called, lived half the year in New York, where he was senior vice president of the Delaware and Hudson Railroad company, which operated iron and coal mines as well as railroads. The other half of the year he spent in Burlington, Vermont, where he ran a steamship company on Lake Champlain in addition to a large farm where he bred dairy cattle and trotting horses. He also had an interest in "one or two" Burlington banks, among various other business concerns. In Burlington Cannon lived in a great mansion called Overlake that he built in 1850 on sixty acres high on a bluff overlooking the town of Burlington, Lake Champlain, and the Adirondacks to the west, and the Green Mountain range to the east. The home was described as one of Vermont's premier mansions in its day.

The young Clark family joined the Colonel for summers in Burlington, staying in a house on the property built for that purpose. During the summer of 1894 Cannon took eleven-year-old Grenville to find the neglected gravesite of the abolitionist John Brown in North Elba, New York, across the lake from Burlington. Few historical figures are as controversial as John Brown—leader of the doomed Harper's Ferry raid to start an armed insurgence among captured slaves in Virginia. But LeGrand Cannon was an unequivocal supporter, calling Brown "the rugged, heroic man whose name is one of the greatest and brightest in the history of America and the world." They found Brown's grave covered with weeds and virtually abandoned. Cannon worked with the local preservationist Kate Field to purchase and restore the gravesite and its 250 surrounding acres as "an enduring monument [to] perpetuate the memory of the famous martyr to liberty." In 1895 the group donated the property to the State of New York, where it remains an official historical site within the national Adirondack Park.

Cannon's reverence for John Brown was just one manifestation of his strongly held "ideas about slavery and the Negro." These ideas had a serious and formative influence on Clark. So did Cannon's overall philosophy of life: "That you must look after yourself and as to government doing everything that was required, don't trust that at all; and if government didn't do the right thing or wouldn't move, take things in your own hands and try to move them yourself." Testament to the mutual affection and respect between grandfather and grandson was that the twenty-three-year-old Grenville Clark served as executor of Cannon's substantial estate when the august maverick died in 1906 at age ninety-one.

Clark's parents do not factor nearly as prominently in his childhood reminiscences. The son describes his father, Louis Crawford Clark, with ambivalence: "[He] was well educated and read considerably, devoted to sport, especially shooting ducks and upland game, fond of horses, very popular with men, had weaknesses of habit and temperament but was hard working and devoted to my mother." Louis Clark went to Harvard, as had his father. Louis married Marian Cannon in 1880 and spent his career at Clark, Dodge and Company, his father's Wall Street banking firm. By Grenville's account, Louis seems to have coasted on his inherited wealth and social station—by no means a novel or sinister course but one his second son found inadequate.

Clark's mother, Marian de Forest Cannon Clark, was LeGrand Bouton Cannon's youngest daughter and clearly his favorite. A complete picture of Marian is difficult to form. The collected family history, handed down for generations, burned in a fire in the home of the Colonel's only son, Henry LeGrand Cannon (1856–1895). (Henry Cannon became an accomplished and recognized artist during his short life. The Genealogical and Family History of the State of Vermont calls him "one of the most brilliant and promising American sculptors of his day.") Throughout Grenville Clark's numerous, fairly detailed family remembrances, his mother's name invariably triggers a memory, story, or some other connection to her colorful father. She seems to have enjoyed a good relationship with her son, however, with much warm maternal correspondence through his early adulthood. Louis and Marian had five children and an apparently happy marriage until Marian's death at fifty-two, in 1912, of "pernicious hardening of the arteries."

Grenville Clark's childhood in late nineteenth-century New York City seems pulled from the pages of a Gilded Age novel. He was born on November 5, 1882, in the stately home of his grandfather Cannon. The infant Clark was, as he later chuckled, "quite carefully baptized, I assure you!" Elaborately baptized might be more accurate, beginning with a spectacular procession along the streets of Manhattan in Grandfather Cannon's ornate horse-drawn carriage, complete with uniformed coachman and footman. The procession began at Cannon's Fifth Avenue mansion and made its stately way to Grace Episcopal Cathedral on Broadway. There a High Church ceremony was performed, after which the christening party returned to the Cannon mansion for a lavish feast. The requisite gifts given to satin-gowned Baby Grenville included, naturally, a silver chalice from his godfather, H. Walter Webb, senior vice president of the New York Central railroad.

The Clark family lived in the Cannon mansion for Grenville's first eleven years, sharing the home when the Colonel was in residence in Manhattan and serving as its primary occupants during his considerable time elsewhere. The house had plenty of space for multiple generations. The property included a stable out back and "a good pair of horses" to pull the two carriages or the sleigh. A fleet of servants attended the family. As Grenville Clark matter-of-factly explained, "It was the custom for anyone with a good amount of money in those days to live in a good deal of style."

Grenville was the second of Louis and Marian's five children, with an older brother, Louis Jr., two years his senior; a younger sister, Mary; and two younger brothers, Harry and Julian. Louis, along with two nearby cousins who were a year or two older than Grenville, formed his early play group. They spent their childhood roaming Manhattan with a freedom and independence hard to imagine today. Their major playground was Central Park, where Clark and his pals "went continually to walk and play." They had regular football games on the Great Meadow at Sixty-fifth Street on the park's west side and rode the newly popular bicycles all over the park and throughout Manhattan. ("There was at the time a very good bicycle path all the way up Riverside Drive from 72nd Street to Grant's Tomb, which, as I recall it, was then under construction.")

One of Clark's most amusing Central Park memories involved two small alligators his father brought back from the South for Grenville and Louis to play with. It was a questionable parental move but one surely popular with the boys: "We kept [them] up in our room on the third floor.... But as they got a little bigger they began to crawl all over the place and my mother rebelled and said we had to get rid of them. So we took them up to the Park and dumped them in the Swan Boat Lake right by the 59th Street entrance." The story approached urban legend status nearly thirty years later when "an item turned up in the newspaper saying that, to the surprise of everybody, two good sized alligators had been found living in the Swan Lake."

Clark's early recreation included every manner of sport—shooting game (mostly ducks), all ball and racquet games, and rowing on Central Park's lakes. Winter play was equally zestful—Clark fondly recalled how frequent snowstorms and few snowplows meant serious sledding down Fifth Avenue, either solo or hitched to the back of a lumbering carriage, taxi, or bus. Conditions permitting, the family also enjoyed Currier and Ives- worthy horse-drawn sleigh rides through Central Park in his grandfather's elegant sleigh.

Weekly attendance at the Met (New York's newly opened and already famed Metropolitan Opera) was mandatory and enjoyed. Clark mostly remembered ingenious games of tag and "hare-and-hounds" played in back of the plush boxes and long corridors of the Met. The world-class performances on the stage, although at the time a mere backdrop for mischievous amusement (including "making up little packages of water to [throw] down from the box onto the people in the orchestra [section] and spatter them a bit, although not doing them much harm"), must have had a lingering subliminal effect on Clark. He acquired a deep lifelong fondness for opera, despite cheerfully admitting to having "no ear at all" and apparently no natural talent for singing. (Clark's children recall their enthusiastic father would burst into full-throated and unfortunately tuneless arias when the mood struck him.)

Dancing lessons at Dodsworth's Dancing School on Fifth Avenue were another requirement. These were less well received than the Met, although creative mischief availed at least a temporary solution: "We had to wear gloves, besides patent leather shoes, and the whole thing was considered very obnoxious and rather sissy. [So] it was a regular practice of some of us bad boys to put pins in our gloves so that when we took hold of a little girl's hand to dance with she'd give a shriek and then we'd be sent downstairs and sent home and we'd get out of any further instruction." By his own account Clark never did become much of a dancer.

Life for a young boy in late nineteenth-century Manhattan was not all culture and tea dances, however. From around 1890 until he left for boarding school in 1894, he engaged in regular bare-knuckle dustups with "the tough boys from Sixth and Seventh Avenues who kept a running feud with us boys who went to Cutler School." Clark recounted one early and humbling episode in which "my brother, Louis (who was two years older than I, although considerably smaller), and my first cousin, Crawford Blagden, were sitting on my Grandfather's front stoop and a group of 'Micks,' as we called them, came along and taunted us and put forward a champion to fight one of us if we had the nerve." Clark's brother and cousin "united in putting me forward," as the young Grenny was large and strong for his age. Clark's personality was anything but street fighter, and he warmed slowly to the challenge: "I hadn't any quarrel with this boy, of course, and it was all in absolute cold blood so that I didn't have, I guess, very much spirit for the fight.... [So] this other boy who was a well-practiced fighter very soon hit me a tremendous uppercut and knocked me out cold. The next thing I knew was that I had been carried upstairs to my bed and was being revived."


Excerpted from A Very Private Public Citizen by Nancy Peterson Hill. Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Nancy Peterson Hill is a writer and Administrator of Diastole Scholars’ Center, a nonprofit conference center, art gallery, and event space affiliated with the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She also serves on the board of the Edgar Snow Memorial Foundation, a U.S./China friendship group and is active in cross-cultural activities in Kansas City and China. She lives with her husband, Larry, and her enthusiastic Giant Schnauzer, Hu-Too, in Kansas City, Missouri.

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