Clarks of Cooperstown

Clarks of Cooperstown

by Nicholas Fox Weber

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Nicholas Fox Weber, author of the acclaimed Patron Saints (“Exhilarating avant-garde entertainment”—Sam Hunter, The New York Times Book Review) and Balthus (“The authoritative account of his life and work”—Michael Ravitch, Newsday), gives us now the idiosyncratic lives of Sterling and Stephen Clark—two of America’s greatest art collectors, heirs to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and for decades enemies of each other. He tells the story, as well, of the two generations that preceded theirs, giving us an intimate portrait of one of the least known of America’s richest families.

He begins with Edward Clark—the brothers’ grandfather, who amassed the Clark fortune in the late-nineteenth century—a man with nerves of steel; a Sunday school teacher who became the business partner of the wild inventor and genius Isaac Merritt Singer. And, by the turn of the twentieth century, was the major stockholder of the Singer Manufacturing Company.

We follow Edward’s rise as a real estate wizard making headlines in 1880 when he commissioned Manhattan’s first luxury apartment building. The house was called “Clark’s Folly”; today it’s known as the Dakota.

We see Clark’s son—Alfred—enigmatic and famously reclusive; at thirty-eight he inherited $50 million and became one of the country’s richest men. An image of propriety—good husband, father of four—in Europe, he led a secret homosexual life. Alfred was a man with a passion for art and charity, which he passed on to his four sons, in particular Sterling and Stephen Clark.

Sterling, the second-oldest, buccaneering and controversial, loved impressionism, created his own museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts—and shocked his family by marrying an actress from the Comédie Française. Together the Sterling Clarks collected thousands of paintings and bred racehorses.

In a highly public case, Sterling sued his three brothers over issues of inheritance, and then never spoke to them again.

He was one of the central figures linked to a bizarre and little-known attempted coup against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency. We are told what really happened and why—and who in American politics was implicated but never prosecuted.

Sterling’s brother—Stephen—self-effacing and responsible—became chairman and president of the Museum of Modern Art and gave that institution its first painting, Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad. Thirteen years later, in an act that provoked intense controversy, Stephen dismissed the Museum’s visionary founding director, Alfred Barr, who for more than a decade had single-handedly established the collection and exhibition programs that determined how the art of the twentieth century was regarded.

Stephen gave or bequeathed to museums many of the paintings that today are still their greatest attractions.

With authority, insight, and a flair for evoking time and place, Weber examines the depths of the brothers’ passions, the vehemence of their lifelong feud, the great art they acquired, and the profound and lasting impact they had on artistic vision in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307494528
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2009
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Nicholas Fox Weber was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Columbia College and Yale University. He has curated retrospectives of the work of Josef Albers and Anni Albers, and is the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation. He is the author of twelve previous books. He lives in Bethany, Connecticut, and Paris.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Edward

The person whose amassing of a fortune made all the collecting and high living possible was Edward Cabot Clark. Edward’s grandsons—Sterling and Stephen and their brothers, Edward and Ambrose—would not have been who they were without the wealth they acquired thanks to Edward’s phenomenal business success. They reaped the rewards of their grandfather’s financial acumen, legal expertise, and common sense; and Sterling and Stephen, if not the other two, also felt the imprint of Edward’s personality. While on the surface Edward, a Sunday-school teacher as well as a lawyer, was a man of traditional bearing who comported himself with conservative demeanor, he was intensely strong-willed, determined, and uncompromising, as well as crafty. Even if their own father, Edward’s son Alfred, was a bird of a different feather, Edward’s triumph in the world of commerce gave Sterling and Stephen their mettle and sense of entitlement.

The mild-mannered but tough man whose estate of twenty-five million dollars, no mean sum in 1882, allowed his heirs to do everything they did gave the impression of being an ordinary upright citizen, but he had a phenomenal grasp of power. He recognized the possession of patents as a key to triumph in commerce; and he had rare acuity about the needs and desires of ordinary citizens. With nerves of steel, and his finger on the pulse of the average American housewife, this well-situated business lawyer in New York City had at a young age burst beyond the confines of his milieu. On the surface he appeared to be an ordinary civic leader of correct bearing. When he died after thirty years of growing his money into the stratosphere, one of his business associates interviewed for his obituary simply called him “quiet and undemonstrative.”[1] A manager in one of his businesses credited him with a bit more aplomb as “a delightful companion, genial, entertaining and witty,”[2] but no one seemed to know what a fighter he was. The realities of Edward’s professional life, however, were grounded in the rough-and-tumble: nasty litigation, and an affiliation with one of the most uncouth people who ever lived.

The reason for the family fortune is that Edward Clark had allied himself with the sewing machine developer, Isaac Merritt Singer. These two very different men achieved their meteoric rise in the world of commerce in perfect tandem, to such an extent that the outrageous Singer was a major part of the family legacy. Singer would become infinitely better known, in large part because his name was on every one of those machines that entered households, at first all over America and then worldwide. But without Edward, Singer would not have succeeded, and the two men’s lives were closely intertwined. The financial benefits that Edward reaped on such an enormous scale were inextricably connected with Isaac Singer’s drive and inventiveness, but turning those qualities into a vast fortune was something both men owed to Edward’s shrewdness.

The natures of these two exceptional men profoundly affected the fate as well as the personal values of their heirs. Sterling and Stephen Clark were to the manor born, but they grew up with a keen awareness of Edward’s business partner, a true heathen who exemplified eccentric creativity and personal flamboyance. Sterling and Stephen would resemble Isaac Singer even more than their grandfather in the scale on which they lived and the extent of their personal extravagance, as well as their obsession with the culture of Paris, even if they modeled much about themselves on Edward—each in a different way—and bore many echoes of his strong character.

The most attractive aspect of their grandfather to penetrate Sterling and Stephen was his strong social consciousness and belief in using his position for the benefits of humankind. “The high moral beliefs of its controlling founder” caused the Singer Sewing Machine Company to treat its employees “without regard to race or creed” and, as it developed outposts and marketed its products all over the world, to have its manuals translated into fifty languages—an unusual step that was counter to the practices of many businesses in the era of colonialism. Even before the United States Civil War, the word “singer” was becoming synonymous with “sewing” and “sewing machine” in many tongues, indicating the reason the company was seen at the forefront of the idea of globalization.[3] For Edward Clark, that penetration into many different societies inspired a sense of responsibility to humanity at large that he would pass to subsequent generations—although sometimes the notion of knowing best would have outrageous ramifications.

Born on December 19, 1811, in the small town of Athens in New York state’s Greene County, Edward started life in relatively easy circumstances given the rigors of life in early-nineteenth-century rural America. His family belonged to the upper-middle-class establishment that had begun to take root in the recently formed United States. Two years before his birth, his father, Nathan Clark, had established the Athens Pottery Works. It was a successful business, known nationwide, and Nathan and his wife, the former Julia Nichols, brought up their three sons—Edward was followed by Nathan Henry and Nathan Jr.—in comfortable circumstances. Nathan Sr. was a senior warden in the Episcopal Church and well respected in the community. This highly rational man would be alive for most of Edward’s life—he lived to be ninety-two years old, predeceasing his oldest son by only two years—and was always the foil to Edward’s more colorful life. He was described in his obituary as “one of the sturdy, active but modest men who make their mark in American life without creating excitement.”[4] This “prudent, temperate” man did, in a small way, what his son Edward would do on an infinitely larger scale by virtually monopolizing the sale of pottery in northern New York State and then establishing branches to increase the territory in which his wares were sold. He helped build the local church and was known for his generous giving to charity. If his descendants would not completely follow his model of being “free from ostentation” and certainly would not emulate the way he never left his small hometown, they nonetheless maintained his consciousness of the needs of his community.

Edward had a tutor at home before going to learn Latin at a local academy run by E. King, Esq., one of the first men ever to be graduated from Williams College. When he was twelve, Edward began four years of education at the Academy in Lenox, Massachusetts, where he perfected his knowledge of Latin and added Greek to his studies; he also became a voracious reader, devouring every single book—there were about five hundred—in the school library. But he disliked boarding-school life sufficiently to declare to the powers there early on that he was leaving, whereupon he walked home. His mother was happy to receive him, but his father escorted him back—on horseback—the next day. This became a routine—his leaving, his father patiently taking him back—until he settled in.

Young Edward was transformed in the course of those years. A lonely outsider at the start, he eventually made good friends. He got used to the toughness of the teachers. And he emerged physically from being “of slight, delicate frame, and almost sickly in constitution,” to becoming “a trained athlete” with muscles “like steel.”[5] The mix of vulnerability and fitness would pass to his art-collecting grandsons, each of whom was tall and lean.

In the fall of 1826, Edward Clark went on, at age sixteen, to Williams College, from which he was graduated in 1830. To enter the legal profession back then, one could train by preparing legal papers in an existing office rather than attending law school; and that same year Edward started work at the law firm of Ambrose L. Jordan in Hudson, New York. He was admitted to practice three years later, setting up a law office in Poughkeepsie.

Edward’s early life flowed according to the rulebook of America’s most privileged population. His education and the launching of his career had gone easily and were right on target. With his straight, broad nose, perfectly formed mouth that seemed to have been drawn after a Roman statue, and large, ovoid face framed by a neat, well- trimmed beard that formed a precise curve along his jawbone and chin, the young lawyer had an appearance of rectitude. His waved, shiny wig bordered his high, wide forehead like a drapery; everything about his looks was aimed to suggest dignity, including the wire-rimmed spectacles that provided a certain tenor of seriousness. He was cut of the same cloth as most of the ancestors of characters in Henry James’s novels: as a comfortable member of the new American establishment.

In 1835, this distinguished young man married his boss’s good-looking eldest daughter, Caroline. Although he practiced law independently in Poughkeepsie from 1833 to 1837—as if following the notion that a bit of independence is requisite even for those born with a silver spoon—in 1837 he formed a partnership with his father-in-law. Although recent accounts say that Jordan had moved his practice to New York City in 1836, both Edward Clark’s obituary, written by one of his friends in 1882, and a tribute to him written by his nephew seem more reliable sources—as they do for information on the precise chronology of Edward’s connection with Isaac Singer, where there are also discrepancies—and according to those texts the partnership first moved to New York in May of 1838. In any case, Jordan & Clark soon was considered “New York City’s most prestigious law firm,”[6] and it benefited immensely from Ambrose Jordan’s position as state’s attorney general.

In 1836, Edward and Caroline Clark had had their first child, a son they named Ambrose Jordan Clark. In 1838, their second son, Edward Loraine Clark, was born; in 1841, he was followed by a sister, Julia, but she lived for little more than two months. In 1844, their fourth and last child, Alfred Corning Clark—the only one who would outlive his father—appeared. It was in this period of raising his young family while living in New York City that Edward Clark’s life, and fortune, gained a momentum that thrust him into a very different world.


Edward Clark’s background and temperament could hardly have been less like that of the man whose situation he would change immeasurably and whose temerity would in turn have such an effect on his own fortune. Isaac Merritt Singer, also born in 1811—in Pittstown, a small town not far from Rochester in upstate New York— was the son of a German immigrant and an American mother who died young. Singer grew up in dire poverty and left home at age twelve. For the following seven years, he worked in Rochester at any job he could find where unskilled labor was required. Then, at nineteen, he became an apprentice machinist, working for four months in a machine shop.

This was when the penniless lad married the fifteen-year-old Catharine Haley. They quickly had a son, and Singer was perpetually desperate for enough money simply to eat and to have a roof over their heads. They then sought refuge with Catharine’s parents in New York City, where Singer began to make “a good living because of his mechanical cleverness” and had a series of jobs that broadened his experience of machinery.[7] But after little time the young couple and their baby took off for nine years of a completely itinerant life, in which they traveled around from state to state with everything they owned in a wagon.

Singer was six feet four inches tall, and of massive build. He stood like an operatic lothario, and had a broad chest and bulging stomach to match the role. If Edward’s beard was neatly confined to the bottom of his face, Singer had a handlebar mustache that twirled beyond the boundaries of his massive head, and his full beard looked as if it had been cultivated for maximum bushiness, hanging below his sternum. Singer spoke in a stentorian voice, and when he wasn’t working in tool shops he was performing as an actor, generally in plays by Shakespeare.

But neither Singer’s size nor his imposing appearance prevented him from being the butt of some vicious teasing in the workplace. In the town of Newark, New York, not far from Rochester, and not to be confused with the city of the same name in New Jersey, Singer worked in a large foundry and machine shop where carding machines and other devices to manufacture cloth were built. The journeyman apprentice had a hard time; the owner would “tell of the ridicule Singer had to endure from his fellow-workers for his cranky notions.”[8] It was when he was in that shop that he began to develop the idea that evolved into his sewing machine, but for which he was “subjected to the jibes and jokes of his fellow workmen who doubted the practicality of the machine.”[9]

That ability to withstand taunts, and to survive the consequences of an inventive mind that was out of sync with the less creative approach of the surrounding population, became part of the Clarks’ family lore. Different as Edward Cabot Clark was from Isaac Singer, and however staid his own background and that in which his heirs were raised, they grew up knowing the real pros and cons of original thinking.

In 1836, Singer joined a traveling theater company. In Baltimore, he met a young actress, Mary Ann Sponseler, and the next year he fathered two more children, a daughter with his wife and a son with Sponseler. Then, in 1839, Isaac Singer got his first patent. At the time he was working with one of his brothers, who was digging a waterway in Illinois; the patent was for a machine for drilling rock. The two thousand dollars the device garnered enabled him to found an acting troupe of his own. It was called the Merritt Players, and he was now Isaac Merritt, while Sponsler became “Mrs. Merritt.” The troupe ran out of money in Fredericksburg, Ohio, where Singer patented his next machine, a device for carving wood-block type. Singer moved on to New York, where this second tool became sufficiently important to warrant his seeking help from Jordan & Clark in 1848.

Ambrose Jordan, however, found Singer “too personally distasteful to represent.” But he must have seen something in the cretin, for he “referred him to his son-in-law.”[10] Between 1836 and 1844, Edward and Caroline Clark had had four children, and the young lawyer was leading a life that was not out of the norm for a hardworking family man who simply accepted his obligations and took on any tasks that came his way. The dour Edward Cabot Clark’s first task with his colorful client was to straighten out problems concerning his title to the invention for carving type. Edward helped Singer with his patent, which was awarded in 1849, and the following year Singer assigned Edward three-eighths of it, apparently in lieu of paying legal fees that the penniless inventor could not afford.[11]

In many respects, Singer and Clark were like oil and water. Besides being a Williams graduate, an attorney, and a well-connected man with a traditional marriage, Edward was a deeply religious man who, at the start of his legal career had also taught Sunday school. The “straight-laced lawyer”[12] served as the perfect foil to the “indolent, self-regarding would-be actor and self-promoter” whose showmanship and gift for advertising as well as “forceful personality” would soon help him launch the product that would transform domestic existence all over the world.[13]

[1] From an 1882 obituary in an unidentified Cooperstown-area newspaper.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Bissell, The First Conglomerate, pp. 4-5
[4] "The Late Nathan Clarke," Freeman's Journal (Cooperstown, N.Y.), Apr. 7, 1896.
[5] Beers, History of Greene County.
[6] Bissell, The First Conglomerate, p. 66.
[7] Hoeltzel, "Interesting Arcadians."
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bissell, The First Conglomerate, p. 66.
[11] Here, too, most of the recent literature, which is substantial, about the connection of Isaac Singer and Edward Clark gives the chronology differently. Most histories of Singer and his business ventures place the date a few years later and attribute their initial meeting to matters revolving around the sewing machine rather than Singer's earliest business interests. The accounts written closer to Clark's life by people who knew him, and several well-researched obituaries seem more reliable, however, which is why we depend on them instead.
[12] "Cast of Characters."
[13] Ibid.

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