From the Publisher
“Fascinating . . . a beefy and rambunctious history that is both a Victorian-age saga and true crime mystery.”
“Engrossing. . . . [A] fascinating story, full of strange and surprising details. . . . Although Muybridge was a chameleon-like figure throughout his life, Ball uses exhaustive research and vivid details to pin him down so we can have a good look at him.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Superb. . . . Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge were an odd couple. . . . A beautifully written account of the collaboration of these two ambitious, contentious and ultimately incompatible men.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Rich in history. . . . Muybridge’s projections were the beginnings of the media culture that holds us in thrall today.”
“The Inventor and the Tycoon involves capitalism, money, murder, trains, horse racing, photography and the beginning of moving pictures. Ball has infused the famous and the infamous into a story so large it might as well be fiction.”
“Amusing and informative. . . . What lifts The Inventor and the Tycoon . . . is that both of the principals can lay claim to achievements of national, and one might even say global, significance. . . . Mr. Ball details the story of the two men’s long association with sympathy and flair.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Engaging. . . . This story has all the elements of a fascinating HBO drama—wealth, greed, sex, adultery, genius, betrayal, murder, scandal and tragedy. At the center of Edward Ball’s compelling yet complicated biographical saga of two formidable men during The Gilded Age of late 19th-century California is an unlikely alliance of invention whose peculiar tale is vividly telling of the place and times.”
“[A] remarkable story of the alliance between the eccentric inventor of the motion picture and the mogul who built the nation’s rails. It is a story that, for all its whirling parts and divagations, tells us a great deal about the crossroads of money and art in America. What is most interesting about this book is the making of an astonishing artist, the marvelous photographs that attest to his genius, the rousing good yarn at the nexus of industry and art.”
—The Washington Post
“In The Inventor and the Tycoon , Ball, author of the National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family, has brilliantly fused the stories of two larger-than-life figures into a single glittering object: part social-cultural history, part melodrama, part chronicle of American self-invention. one gallops through this book with undiminished ardor [and] Ball carefully sculpts prose of bright exuberance.”
—The Boston Globe
“Sprawling and richly detailed. . . . The Inventor and the Tycoon tells the story of how wealthy mogul Leland Stanford and photographic wizard Edward Muybridge joined forces to create the moving picture, the technology that now dominates our image-flooded age. This nonfiction book, which reads like a Hollywood-style thriller, is set mainly in the City by the Bay, with a raucous history of westward railroad expansion (with Stanford as lead) thrown in for added depth. Fans of both early photography and the history of the West will be rewarded by the story Ball weaves together.”
—The Seattle Times
“Ball tells this interesting tale of invention and mayhem in The Inventor and the Tycoon. Ball’s book pairs the stories of Muybridge, gifted photographer and one of the founders of motion pictures, and Stanford, creator of the Central Pacific Railroad and the university that still bears his name. Detailed and thoroughly researched, The Inventor and the Tycoon is at its best describing the milieu of a frontier world where ordinary men like Leland Stanford could amass great fortunes, and where Edward Muybridge could find what genius he possessed (and evade justice in the process).”
“The Inventor and the Tycoon displays Ball’s particular ability to mine history and create a compelling narrative that includes larger-than-life characters and reveals something about our inheritance.”
—The Post & Courier
“National Book Award-winner Ball returns with a complex story about railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and the murdering man who for a time was his protégé, pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. . . . A skillfully written tale of technology and wealth, celebrity and murder and the nativity of today’s dominant art and entertainment medium.”
For biography lovers those of us who can't get enough of the engaging and often instructive mix of happenstance, striving, conniving, satisfaction, and woe that factors into the lives of both the well known and unknown dual biographies can add up to a double treat. Frequently about married couples, these twofers often focus on famous pairs like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, whom Hazel Rowley chronicled in Tête-à-Tête, or relatives of the author, such as Vikram's Seth's great-aunt and -uncle in Two Lives, or Francine du Plessix Gray's parents in Them.
Edward Ball's The Inventor and the Tycoon is a different sort of dual biography. Like Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman, it zeroes in on the unlikely confluence of two disparate men, a brief convergence that resulted in the creation of something with enduring value: in the case of Winchester's duo, the Oxford English Dictionary, and in Ball's, the early stages of motion picture technology.
Ball, best known for his National Book Award–winning history of his family's slave-owning past, Slaves in the Family, explores the unexpected collaboration between railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and renowned photographer Eadweard Muybridge in nineteenth-century California a meeting that brought art, technology, and money together with far-reaching cultural impact. The Inventor and the Tycoon captures not just the improvised, unpredictable life trajectories of its strong-willed characters but also the emergence of California onto the national stage and a period of unprecedented technological advancement in American history. Its themes of ambition, greed, and progress on the backs of others remain ever relevant.
Neither of Ball's subjects would win points for charm. Leland Stanford, the financial wheeler-dealer behind the western half of the transcontinental railroad, was unscrupulous in business and taciturn in person. Eadweard Muybridge, the eccentric, British-born photographer and inventor, was for a time as renowned for having killed his wife's lover as for his iconic landscapes of the American West. His early photographic work, many reproductions of which are included in Ball's book, include breathtaking views of Yosemite, extraordinary panoramas of the still-young and rapidly growing city of San Francisco, and what Ball declares was "some of the first ethnography in North America."
Muybridge was an itinerant loner who reinvented himself multiple times, down to the very spelling of his name, which mutated over the years from Edward Muggeridge to Eadweard Muybridge, with several stops in between. Although he did his most important work as "Edward Muybridge" and ended up as the unpronounceable "Eadweard," Ball has chosen to use all of the variations, "attaching each to the time in his life that he assumed it." A more difficult challenge in writing about Muybridge is that the man left so few traces beyond his photographs. Ball meets this by filling in the gaps with conjectures and suppositions supported by circumstantial evidence. The result is a text filled with more "would haves" and "might haves" than you usually see in biographies.
Yet as Ball reminds us repeatedly, both men left lasting legacies. Stanford, "the West's most famous symbol of greed," who was often referred to derisively as the Octopus for the way he engulfed smaller companies, was in large part responsible for the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad. He amassed an astounding fortune, but, lacking an heir and a raison d'être after his only son's death at fifteen, he changed his will and redirected his wealth toward the founding and endowment of the university in Palo Alto that bears his name. As for Muybridge, Ball makes the claim that he "was arguably the inventor of moving pictures" although he does acknowledge the contributions of Thomas Edison, Étienne-Jules Marey, Louis and Auguste Lumière, and Georges Méliès, among others.
Stanford first hired Muybridge in 1872 to document his opulent Gilded Age mansions "the rooms like tombs full of money" first in Sacramento and later in San Francisco on what came to be known as Nob Hill. (The San Francisco house, built in 1876, collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, rendering Muybridge's photographic record even more valuable.) While their association never developed into true friendship, it broadened for a few years into a respectful patron-artist relationship fueled by Stanford's money and their shared interest in capturing time and motion on film.
Stanford was passionate about gadgets, machines, automatons, and, especially, horses which, Ball notes, were "becoming objects of nostalgia and decoration" in the wake of the newly completed cross- country railroad. He was obsessed with the question of whether the hooves of his beloved horses actually all left the ground at the same time during a trot or gallop, a phenomenon known as "unsupported transit." It was a riddle that Muybridge's experiments in stop-motion photography helped solve: He caught the hooves suspended in midair. These elaborate experiments at the tycoon's Palo Alto Stock Farm eventually led to Muybridge's creation of the first moving picture projector, which he infelicitously called the zoopraxiscope. He unveiled his invention in the showy Pompeian Room of Stanford's San Francisco mansion in 1880, creating a sensation with his "Horse in Motion" photographs.
This soirée took place, incredibly enough, not six years after Muybridge stood trial for his life for murder. In 1874, after learning that he was probably not the father of his baby boy, the enraged photographer stalked his young wife Flora's lover and shot him point- blank and without remorse in a Calistoga miners' lodge. This revenge killing, which Ball places at the physical and dramatic center of his book, led to instant notoriety and a sensational trial in Napa. One of the three lawyers who represented Muybridge, Wirt Pendegast, was a friend of Stanford's who had earned the tycoon's appreciation when, as a California senator, he had pushed laws in the Central Pacific railroad's favor. Ball vividly conveys Pendegast's brilliant defense strategy essentially, temporary insanity and eloquent summary argument before the all-male jury, eleven of whom were married, "which made them perhaps more likely to sympathize with Muybridge, the enraged husband."
Readers should be warned that The Inventor and the Tycoon, like the early motion pictures it discusses, is a bit jerky in its execution but it is well worth sticking with beyond its shaky start. Unsure where to begin, Ball unfortunately front-loads his book with lots of throat- clearing (both a foreword and a preface!) and repetitive explanations of how his unlikely duo, "[u]sing horses and cameras and speed-built a technology of vision," and introduced "the element of speed to vision." Rather than build to the meeting of his two subjects and Muybridge's notorious crime, he jumps in headfirst and then splashes around in time to right his narrative. Eschewing chronology and trying to heighten momentum (if not suspense), Ball intercuts his various strands cinematographically, but the strain of integrating two such loosely connected biographies shows. The splicing and editing, particularly in his constant interruptions of the riveting courtroom drama of Muybridge's murder trial, often feel forced and disjointed.
Yet despite these structural difficulties, Ball's generously illustrated, richly researched book offers no shortage of meaty material to chew over. In addition to the life stories of two noteworthy men, it provides an introduction to nineteenth-century California history complete with its surprising political landscape (Stanford, although never popular, was briefly governor and later a state senator) and woeful record on human rights vis-à-vis the state's large population of Chinese and Mexican workers. In addition, the book offers a primer on the history of photographic technology from daguerrotypes to wet plates and celluloid. Ball's well-chosen illustrations lend eloquent support to his text; one especially interesting pair demonstrates the striking difference between Muybridge's 1875 photograph of a cemetery printed with and without the photographer's signature "cloud effect."
The Inventor and the Tycoon spools reels of topics meriting discussion, including parallels between our current gilded age of techno- billionaires and "the poisonously rich" of Stanford's era. Issues of unethical and often downright illegal financial maneuvers "a classic two-sets-of-books accounting scheme," deliberate overbilling, and bilking the federal government out of vast sums sound uncomfortably familiar. In flagging Thomas Edison's penchant for peremptorily staking claims to others' "borrowed" ideas by filing "caveats," or announcements of research plans with the U.S. Patent Office, Ball's book also raises interesting questions about intellectual property and the fine line between sharing and poaching innovations. Add to all this the perennial conversation about whether Muybridge's act of murder really was justifiable temporary insanity? a crime of passion? defense of marital rights? and you've got enough material to fuel several lively discussions.
Or make a movie.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
While Muybridge's photographs are widely known, his personal life has been largely neglected, which seems incredible now that, in Edward Ball's engrossing book…we have the whole fascinating story, full of strange and surprising details…Although Muybridge was a chameleon-like figure throughout his life, Ball uses exhaustive research and vivid details to pin him down so we can have a good look at him. Even the book's structure seems to mimic Muybridge's constantly shifting life. Ball moves backward and forward in time, from triumph to murder to despair and back again…This approach to storytelling can leave the reader feeling slightly disoriented, but in the case of The Inventor and the Tycoon, it seems appropriate. In a way, the technique gives us a glimpse into Muybridge's mind, which is a very interesting if unsettling place to be.
Uncovering an enigmatic figure whose complicated relationship with a railroad tycoon helped to usher in the proto-motion picture industry, Ball, a National Book Award-winner for 1998's Slaves in the Family, constructs a readable, dual biography rife with ambition, greed, corruption, and murder. Concentrating on each man's ascendance in their respective fields, Ball gracefully guides readers toward the confluence of these two disparate individuals' lives. Leland Stanford, former California governor and president of the Southern Pacific railroad, hired Edward Muybridge, famed photographer and eccentric, to document the former's mansion in Sacramento. However, it was not until 1872, when Muybridge captured Stanford's prized horses in motion (the mogul was interested in whether all four of a horse's legs ever simultaneously left the ground), that their relationship took on any lasting significance. While the author's research and passion for the subject reaffirm Muybridge's place as a pioneer of 19th-century photography and motion pictures, Ball's emphasis on Muybridge's 1874 murder of his wife's lover and his eventual acquittal—brought about by a defense team arranged by Stanford—falls short of scandalous drama. It is a minor default in an otherwise enlightening tale of power, the wedding of art and technology, and tragedy. Photos & illus. Agent: Kris Dahl, International Creative Management. (Jan.)
National Book Award winner Ball's (Slaves in the Family) narrative tells two stories about motion-studies photographer Edward Muybridge: his role in an 1874 murder and his work in creating moving pictures. This wonderfully illustrated and well-researched book takes readers on a journey from the photographer's beginnings in England (he was then known as Ted Muggeridge) to his rise to fame once he exhibited moving pictures for the first time. Ball pairs this with the story of Muybridge's benefactor, Leland Stanford, a railroad-magnate millionaire and founder of Stanford University. For this narrative, the ample use of Muybridge's photographs and other contemporary images are especially revealing of the world that the photographer and Stanford inhabited in Gilded Age California, where murder could be justified and defended. Muybridge found greater fame after the murder and subsequent trial—fame that stemmed from his photographic work, not his scandal-ridden personal life. VERDICT This is a story of transformation and of the drive that many 19th-century Americans felt to write their own stories. Recommended for general readers, historical true-crime buffs, and those interested in the history of photography and motion pictures.—Amelia Osterud, Carroll Univ. Lib., Waukesha, WI
National Book Award winner Ball (Writing/Yale Univ.; The Genetic Strand: Exploring a Family History Through DNA, 2007, etc.) returns with a complex story about railroad tycoon Leland Stanford and the murdering man who for a time was his protégé, pioneering photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge, as he writes, altered the spelling of his name about as often as a bored high school student. He sometimes went by "Helios." (One name he didn't use, but would have fit, was Edweird.) Ball fractures conventional chronology like a dry twig, rearranging the pieces into an appealing display. He begins on January 16, 1880, the day that Muybridge first displayed for Stanford and his guests the moving pictures of a running horse on a device Muybridge called a zoogyroscope, a device that projected images on a revolving disc. Ball tells the stories of Stanford (who rose from grocer to railroad magnate), the multiple careers of Muybridge, the technology of moving images--and, of course, the murder. Muybridge married Flora Downs in 1870, but his photography business took him away for lengthy periods, and Flora, back home, had needs--which she satisfied with Harry Larkyns (whose story Ball also relates), a handsome womanizer whom the jealous husband shot in 1874. Muybridge went on trial, but a sympathetic jury found him not guilty--despite witnesses and his confession. Ball charts Muybridge's subsequent return to favor with Stanford, who hired him to photograph his new San Francisco mansion and who endowed his research into the science of the motion picture. But they eventually fell out (two large egos), and Muybridge tumbled into obscurity after Thomas Edison's technology eclipsed his own. A skillfully written tale of technology and wealth, celebrity and murder and the nativity of today's dominant art and entertainment medium.
Read an Excerpt
The Stanford Entertainment
The mansion in San Francisco had collapsed with the earthquake in 1906 and burned to nothing a day later in the fires. I walked up the face of Nob Hill to look at the place where it used to stand. Could there be a tiny remnant of this temple of money? The hill had been known as California Hill until Leland Stanford and family moved there in 1876, followed by their preposterously rich friends. After that it was Nob Hill. Stanford and the other nabobs (a word borrowed from Mughal India, trimmed in America to “nobs”) built houses that showed their money and looked with a possessive gaze at the city below. The day after the earthquake the fire came, on a Thursday morning in April, and the two disasters took down all the big houses but one.
At the top of Nob Hill today are apartment buildings, hotels, a little park. The place that survived, the last sign of the sovereigns who had set themselves up on these blocks, was the Flood house. James Flood, a mining multimillionaire, was one of the men who exploited the Comstock Lode, a thick vein of silver in Nevada that ended up in most coins. The fire had somehow wrapped around and missed his house. When the silver man died, the Flood mansion went into the hands of the Pacific-Union Club, which seems fitting—a men’s club whose members dote on money, the way the nabobs did. I looked at the Flood house, a megalith in brown stucco, and imagined it in its original setting, amid a colony of American palaces. The first and most ostentatious of them, the Stanford house, used to stand a block to the east, at California and Powell Streets. An eight-story hotel now occupied that site, planted over the ruins. Only the granite wall that used to frame the house remained.
Mark Twain’s novel The Gilded Age gave its name to the late nineteenth century, a time of monopoly with its high tide of corruption and greed. Nob Hill was one of the age’s capitals, and whatever went on here took shape in a Brobdingnagian scale. But one episode of those years, as far as I can see, has been overlooked. It could be said that the world of visual media got under way on this hill, amid the new money of California, in the late 1800s. It happened one night at a party, at which the entertainment was a photographer called Edward Muybridge.
January 16, 1880
California and Powell Streets, San Francisco
It was the night pictures began to move. Just what it was that happened that night could not be accurately described for many years. It would not be comprehensible until the movie theaters had spread and the television stations were built, or maybe even until screens appeared in most rooms and people carried them in their hands. That winter night in San Francisco pictures jumped into motion, someone captured time and played it back. A newspaperman noticed that something unusual had happened, although he did not say anything about time. He noticed only that whatever it was that happened had taken place in the home of the best-known citizen of the state of California; he noticed these facts but missed the main event. The newspaperman pointed out that a photographer of angular shape named Edward Muybridge and his new machine had been the reason for the gathering, but he did not describe what Muybridge had done. Thanks to the paper (and notwithstanding the reporter’s oversights), we know who was there, in the house. We know who came around to the stupendous mansion where Muybridge assembled his mechanism and put it in motion and carried it through its initial performance.
The event with the photographer took place in the home of an abnormally rich family. It was the end of the week. The family stayed in for the evening and invited some friends for a party and a show.
Their brown, stuccoed palazzo occupied the best site on California Hill, looking out to the flickering lights on San Francisco Bay and down at the streets of the rolling city. From a block away—and you had to get that far back to see the whole thing—the house looked to be a chunky, dark mass, Italianate in style. The owners of the house wanted it to exceed, if possible, the pomp of the European palaces, and to achieve this they had hired the New York design firm Pottier & Stymus, which had a record of extravagance, to ornament every square yard of its interior. When the decorators were finished, the place had a magnitude and pretense that no one in California had previously seen. Without rival, it was the most talked-up house west of the Mississippi.
The Stanford family lived here, just three people, a mother and father and their eleven-year-old son. The Stanfords employed about twelve servants, half of whom lived in the brown house and some of whom traveled with the family to serve them at their horse farm south of the city. Newspapers were soaked with ink about the Stanfords’ outsized lives. The San Francisco Daily Call labeled tonight’s event “The Stanford Entertainment,” and from those three words everyone knew where and for whom the photographer Edward Muybridge was doing whatever it was he did with his picture machine.
This year he was Edward Muybridge, but the spelling of his name would soon change, as it had done on four previous occasions. Every few years, the photographer would move a vowel or switch a couple of consonants. He used to be Edward Muygridge, and before that, Edward Muggeridge. For a few years he used the professional name “Helios,” the single moniker of an artist, borrowed in this case from the Greek god of the sun.
Along with his name, his working life had already passed through several metamorphoses. During his twenties Muybridge had been a book and print salesman for a London publisher; he sold dictionaries and encyclopedias and art books, engravings, and lithographs. In his thirties he tried to make a living as an inventor but failed when buyers showed indifference to his patents. After that, he put on the top hat of a capitalist: he started a mining company, and then an investment firm. Both ended badly. At age thirty-seven, he invented himself for the last time, as an artist: he became a photographer. He had followed a wandering path and only came to a single road as a middle-aged man. The choice of photography, at last, seemed to him to vindicate all the disappointments and failures that had gone before.
Edward Muybridge wore a beard down to the middle of his chest, a gray weave with a dark residue. Occasionally he might have combed it. The hair on his head was white, swirling at the ears, tossed up from his brow. His eyes were sharp blue. The crinkly beard and flowing hair made him look antique, wizardlike. One newspaper said that Muybridge looked “at least ten years older” than his natural age, which was forty-nine: a man in midlife wearing a mask of seniority.
After twelve years with the camera, he was the best-known photographer in San Francisco. Part of his renown came from his pictures, notably the ones he had taken in Yosemite Valley. The naturalist John Muir had explored and written about the seven-mile-long chasm in upper California, an extravagance of cliffs and depths and vistas. A photographer called Carleton Watkins had been one of the first to descend into Yosemite’s hollows and come back with pictures. But Muybridge’s photographs of the valley’s flagrant rock faces and bridal-veil waterfalls had exceeded those of Watkins and helped to make Yosemite a part of national lore. The landscape of Yosemite, its wildness and excess, which Muybridge framed and made mythic, had come to represent the West to people in the eastern states.
Yosemite was part of Muybridge, but other parts of him were urban. Three years earlier he had made a panorama of San Francisco in photographs, the city in 360 degrees. To shoot it he had stood on the turret of the Mark Hopkins house, another mansion farther up the hill from the Stanford place. Muybridge had cranked the camera around on his tripod, measuring and panning, foot by foot, until the whole city went under the lens. He had given Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, the biggest version of the panorama, an unrolling carpet of a picture, seventeen feet long and two feet high—an expensive thank-you gift for years of assignments and friendship.
The photographer who tramped the wilderness and scaled city summits had a thin, vigorous body. The same witness who called him “old” also wrote that Muybridge possessed the jauntiness of a twenty-five-year-old man. People knew his athleticism. He was the man who skipped down flights of stairs, the agile camera operator most conspicuous around San Francisco, a blur seen in continual movement from the Golden Gate to San Jose. The tripod went up—it must be Muybridge again—and it came down.
Edward Muybridge had another stroke of renown, outside of his work, which was the fame of his crime. Wherever he went, it followed the photographer. He was a murderer, and the aura of his violence lingered, stirring an atmosphere as palpable as his acclaim as an artist. Muybridge’s crime had been reported throughout the United States, so strange were its details, so fascinating was its passion to so many people. The photographer had a reasonable claim to be the one citizen who pulled behind him the largest cloud of dark gossip in the state of California. Of course he pretended as though the talk about him did not buzz incessantly, that he was merely a member of San Francisco’s small, vivid cultural establishment. Perhaps he had no other choice but to pretend. Certainly this pose worked more to his advantage than fully inhabiting the role of a killer.
Tonight Muybridge stood at a table in the middle of a giant room. In the Stanford mansion, the rooms had names. This one, in all probability, was the Pompeian Room, the showiest room, which the family used to entertain. About forty feet square, it had four walls of murals that replicated frescoes found in houses uncovered beneath the volcanic dirt at Pompeii. The Stanfords had paid Pottier & Stymus, the decorators, to create a showplace of replica history in their house. In the Pompeian Room they had placed gilded chairs and marble-topped tables with slender legs to make a pastiche of ancient Rome, and life-size marble nymphs to stand guard.
If not here, Muybridge may have stood in the Music and Art Room, a gallery twenty yards long whose wine-red walls were hung with fifty-some landscapes and portraits, and whose ceiling was painted with medallions depicting the faces of Rubens, Van Dyck, Beethoven, Mozart, Raphael, and Michelangelo. “Few palaces of Europe excel this house,” said one newswriter, who may not have been to Europe but who knew the fantasies of Americans who looked up to the Old World.
Or he could have been in one of the other downstairs parlors, or in the library, the ballroom, or the aviary. Huge mantelpieces and elaborate rosewood fittings dominated each of them, and a grove of furnishing spread to the edges in leather, silk, brocade, or velvet. Wherever Muybridge was, he had to clear away the crush of decor and work around chandeliers heavy as cannon that dangled just above the head, because he needed a straight thirty feet for what he had to accomplish. Muybridge made pictures that were very different from the imagery that decorated the walls, ceilings, and floors of the Stanford mansion. His pictures were not massive, like most of the fixtures, and they were not imitations of art found in Europe. They were evanescent and thin, they were pictures flung on air.
A scattering of guests arrived in twos and threes, with buttons on bulges, lace on bosoms. Some were politicians, like the newly elected governor of California, George Perkins, and Reuben Fenton, U.S. senator from New York and former governor. Behind the lawmakers came a phalanx of rich people, a few of them as rich as their hosts, the Stanfords. In this group were the neighbors, Charles Crocker and his wife, Mary Ann Deming, who lived two blocks away in a brown house only a little less grand than the Stanfords’ palazzo. There was also a young woman, Jennie Flood, an heiress in the new California manner. She came with her father, James Flood, a silver miner who had gotten rich on specie metal from Nevada and built a supreme and impressive house around the corner, at California and Mason Streets. Lesser elites and their spouses filled out the invitation list—a judge here, a doctor there.
Servants brought in drink, gaslight drank the air. The woman of the house, Mrs. Jane Stanford, presented herself, tall, ample, and bejeweled. Jane Stanford cultivated a gothic look. She liked to drape herself in crimson velvet, with pools of hem and long trains behind, old lace circling her neck. She was sure to be wearing an arm’s length of opals or a parure of diamonds consisting of necklace, bracelets, and earrings.
The night promised a pageant of some kind, but two men already radiated something of the theater. Leland Stanford and Edward Muybridge were the best-known men at the party—Stanford for his money, Muybridge for his pictures (as well as the other thing), and together they inspired most of the hushed chatter. They had known each other for almost ten years and had spent a lot of that time talking and wondering about a single subject: the gait of horses. A narrow topic, yes, but one on the mind of many in the year 1880. Everyone knew that Stanford was horse-mad, and that he and Muybridge had formed a bond over horses. It was Stanford’s belief that during a gallop, horses at some point in their stride lift all four hooves off the ground, that in effect, they become airborne. No one knew, really—the legs of a horse moved too fast to tell with the eye. Stanford had asked Muybridge to solve his problem, to prove or disprove his hypothesis, which horse people referred to as the theory of “unsupported transit.”
Some of the talk that Stanford aroused would not have flattered him. At least some of the guests at the party, perhaps the politicians and the more middle-class group, inevitably regarded their hosts with ambivalence—envy would not be too strong a word, and maybe a touch of fear. Almost twenty years before, Leland Stanford and several others had founded the Central Pacific Railroad, with Stanford in the role of company president. The firm, using big government subsidies, and the sweat of perhaps twenty thousand Chinese immigrants, had built the western half of the transcontinental line, the 850-mile track over the Sierra Mountains that linked California to the eastern states. In the early years of the Central Pacific, Stanford had been an object of fealty. Newspaper accounts painted him as a great benefactor of California: he brought work and wealth and even glory to the West, his admirers said, justifying the stage name of California, the Golden State.