Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Richard Le Gallienne > Text of Lack Of Imagination Among Millionaires

An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Lack Of Imagination Among Millionaires

Title:     The Lack Of Imagination Among Millionaires
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

Considering the truly magical power of money, it must often have struck the meditative mind--particularly that class of meditative mind whose wealth consists chiefly in meditation--to what thoroughly commonplace uses the modern millionaire applies the power that is his: in brief, with what little originality, with what a pitiful lack of imagination, he spends his money. One seldom hears of his doing a novel or striking thing with it.

On the contrary, he buys precisely the same things as his fellow-millionaires, the same stereotyped possessions--houses in Fifth Avenue and Newport, racehorses, automobiles, boxes at the opera, diamonds and dancing girls; and whether, as the phrase is, he makes good use of his wealth, or squanders it on his pleasures, the so-called good or bad uses are alike drearily devoid of individuality. Philanthropist or profligate, the modern millionaire is one and the same in his lack of initiative. Saint or sinner, he is one or the other in the same tame imitative way.

The rich men of the past, the splendid spendthrifts of antiquity, seem usually to have combined a gift of fancy with their wealth, often even something like poetry; and their extravagances, however extreme, had usually a saving grace of personal whim to recommend them to lovers of the picturesque. Sardanapalus and Heliogabalus may have been whatever else you please, but they were assuredly not commonplace; and the mere mention of their names vibrates with mankind's perennial gratitude for splendour and colossal display, however perverse, and even absurd. The princes of the Italian Renaissance were, of course, notable examples of the rich man as fantast, probably because they had the good sense to seek the skilled advice of poets and painters as to how best to make an artistic display of their possessions. Alas, no millionaire today asks a poet's or painter's assistance in spending his money; yet, were the modern millionaire to do so, the world might once more be delighted with such spectacles as Leonardo devised for the entertainments at the Villa Medici--those fanciful banquets, where, instead of a mere vulgar display of Medici money--"a hundred dollars a plate," so to say--whimsical wit and beauty entered into the creation of the very dishes. Leicester's famous welcoming of Elizabeth to Kenilworth was perhaps the last spectacular "revel" of its kind to strike the imagination; though we must not fail to remember with gratitude the magnificent Beckford, with his glorious "rich man's folly" of Fonthill Abbey, a lordly pleasure house which naturally sprang from the same Aladdin-like fancy which produced "Vathek."

I but mention one or two such typical examples at random to illustrate the difference between past and present. At present the rich man's paucity of originality is so painful that we even welcome a certain millionaire's _penchant_ for collecting fleas--he, it is rumoured, having paid as much as a thousand dollars for specimens of a particularly rare species. It is a passion perhaps hard to understand, but, at least, as we say, it is "different." Mr. Carnegie's more comprehensible hobby for building libraries shows also no little originality in a man of a class which is not as a rule devoted to literature. Another millionaire I recently read of, who refused to pay the smallest account till it had run for five years, and would then gladly pay it, with compound interest at five per cent., has something refreshing about him; while still another rich eccentric, who has lived on his yacht anchored near the English coast for some fifteen years or so in order to avoid payment of his American taxes, and who occasionally amuses himself by having gold pieces heated white hot and thrown into the sea for diving boys to pick them up, shows a quaint ingenuity which deserves our gratitude. Another modern example of how to spend, or waste, one's money picturesquely was provided by the late Marquis of Anglesey, a young lord generally regarded as crazy by an ungrateful England. Perhaps it was a little crazy in him to spend so much money in the comparatively commonplace adventure of taking an amateur dramatic company through the English provinces, he himself, I believe, playing but minor roles; but lovers of Gautier's _Le Capitaine Fracasse_ will see in that but a charmingly boyish desire to translate a beloved dream into a reality--though his creditors probably did not take that view. Neither, one can surmise, did those gentlemen sufficiently appreciate his passion for amassing amazing waistcoats, of which some seven hundred were found in his wardrobe at his lamented death; or strange and beautiful walking sticks, a like prodigious collection of which were among the fantastic assets which represented his originally large personal fortune on the winding up of his earthly affairs. Among these unimaginative creditors were, doubtless, many jewellers who found it hard to sympathize with his lordship's genial after-dinner habit, particularly when in the society of fair women, of plunging his hand into his trousers pocket and bringing it forth again brimming over with uncut precious stones of many colours, at the same time begging his companion to take her choice of the moonlit rainbowed things. The Marquis of Anglesey died at the early age of twenty-nine, much lamented, as I have hinted--by his creditors, but no less sincerely lamented, too, by those for whom his flamboyant personality and bizarre whims added to that gaiety of nations sadly in need today of such figures. A friend of mine owns two of the wonderful waistcoats. Sometimes he wears one as we lunch together, and on such occasions we always drink in silence to the memory of his fantastic lordship.

These examples of rich men of our own time who have known how to spend their money with whim and fancy and flourish are but exceptions to my argument, lights shining, so to say, in a great darkness. As a general rule, it is the poor or comparatively poor man, the man lacking the very necessary material of the art, who is an artist of this kind. It is the man with but little money who more often provides examples of the delightful way of spending it. I trust that Mr. Richard Harding Davis will not resent my recalling a charming feat of his in this connection. Of course Mr. Davis is by no means a poor man, as all we who admire his writings are glad to know. Still, successful writer as he is, he is not yet, I presume, on a Carnegie or Rockefeller rating; and, at the time which I am about to recall, while already famous and comparatively prosperous, he had not attained that security of position which is happily his today. Well, I suppose it was some twelve or fifteen years ago--and of course I am only recalling a story well known to all the world--that, chancing to be in London, and wishing to send a surprise message to a lady in Chicago who afterward became his wife, he conceived the idea of sending it by messenger boy from Charing Cross to Michigan Avenue; and so the little lad, in the well-known uniform of hurry, sped across the sea, as casually as though he were on an errand from Charing Cross to Chancery Lane, raced across nearly half the continent, as casually as though he were on an errand from Wall Street to Park Row, and finding the proper number in Michigan Avenue, placed the far travelled letter in the lady's hand, no doubt casually asking for a receipt. This I consider one of the most romantic compliments ever paid by a lover to his lady. What millionaire ever had a fancy like that?

Or what millionaire ever had a fancy like this? There was living in New York some ten years ago a charming actor, not unknown to the public and much loved by his friends for, among his other qualities, his quaint whims. Good actor as he was, like many other good actors he was usually out of an engagement, and he was invariably poor. It was always his poorest moment that he would choose for the indulgence of an odd, and surely kindly, eccentricity. He would half starve himself, go without drinks, forswear tobacco, deny himself car fares, till at last he had saved up five dollars. This by no means easy feat accomplished, he would have his five-dollar bill changed into five hundred pennies, filling his pockets with which, he would sally forth from his lodging, and, seeking neighbourhoods in which children most abound, he would scatter his arduously accumulated largess among the scrambling boys and girls, literally happy as a king to watch the glee on the young faces at the miraculous windfall. We often wondered that he was not arrested for creating a riot in the public streets, a disturber of the public traffic. Had some millionaire passed by on one of those ecstatic occasions, there is no question but that he would have been promptly removed to Bellevue as a dangerous lunatic.

Or what millionaire ever had a fancy like this? Passing along Forty-second Street one afternoon, I came upon a little crowd, and joining it I found that it was grouped in amused curiosity, and with a certain kindness, round an old hatless Irishman, who was leaning against a shop front, weeping bitterly, and, of course, grotesquely. The old man was very evidently drunk, but there was something in his weeping deeply pitiful for all that. He was drunk, for certain; but no less certainly he was very unhappy--unhappy over some mysterious something that one or two kindly questioners tried in vain to discover. As we all stood helplessly looking on and wondering, a tall, brisk young man, of the lean, rapid, few-worded American type, pushed in among us, took a swift look at the old man, thrust a dollar bill into his hand, said "Forget it"--no more--and was gone like a flash on his way. The old man fumbled the note in a daze, but what chiefly interested me was the amazed look on the faces of the little crowd. It was almost as if something supernatural had happened. All eyes turned quickly to catch sight of that strange young man; but he was already far off striding swiftly up the street. I have often regretted that I checked my impulse to catch up with him--for it seemed to me, too, that I had never seen a stranger thing. Pity or whim or whatever it was, did ever a millionaire do the like with a dollar, create such a sensation or have so much fun with so small a sum? No; millionaires never have fancies like that.

Another poor man's fancy is that of a friend of mine, a very poor young lawyer, whose custom it is to walk uptown from his office at evening, studying the faces of the passers-by. He is too poor to afford dollar bills. He must work his miracles with twenty-five-cent pieces, or even smaller coins; but it is with this art of spending money as with any other art: the greatness of the artist is shown by his command over an economy of material; and the amount of human happiness to be evoked by the dispensation of a quarter into the carefully selected hand, at the artistically chosen moment, almost passes belief. Suppose, for example, you were a sandwich man on a bleak winter day, an old weary man, with hope so long since faded out of your heart that you would hardly know what the word meant if you chanced to read it in print. Thought, too, is dead within you, and feeling even so numbed that you hardly suffer any more. Practically you are a man who ought to be in your coffin--at peace in Potter's field--who, by the mere mechanic habit of existence, mournfully parades the public streets, holding up a banner with some strange device, the scoff of the pitiless wayfarer--as like as not supporting against an empty stomach the savoury advertisement of some newly opened restaurant. Suppose you were that man, and suddenly through the thick hopelessness, muffling you around as with a spiritual deafness, there should penetrate a kind voice saying: "Try and keep up your heart, friend; there are better days ahead"; and with the voice a hand slipping into yours a coin, and with both a kind smile, a cheery "Good-bye," and a tall, broad-shouldered figure, striding with long, so to say, kindly legs up the street--gone almost before you knew he was there. I think it would hardly matter to you whether the coin were a quarter or a dime; but what would matter would be your amazement that there still was any kindness left on the earth; and perhaps you might almost be tempted to believe in God again. And then--well, what would it matter to any one what you did with your miraculous coin? This is my friend's favourite way of spending his money. To the extent of his poor means he has constituted himself the Haroun Al Raschid of the sandwich men.

After all, I suppose that most of us, if put into the possession of great wealth, would find our greatest satisfaction in the spending of it much after the fashion of my poor lawyer friend--that is, in the artistic distribution of human happiness. I do not, of course, for a moment include in that phrase those soulless systems of philanthropy by which a solid block of money on the one side is applied to the relief of a solid block of human misery on the other, useful and much to be appreciated as such mechanical charity of course is. It is not, indeed, the pious use of money that is my theme, but rather how to get the most fun, the most personal and original fun, out of it.

The mention of the great caliph suggests a role which is open to any rich man to play, the role of the Haroun Al Raschid of New York. What a wonderful part to play! Instead of loitering away one's evenings at the club, to doff one's magnificence and lose oneself in the great nightly multitude of the great city, wandering hither and thither, watching and listening, and, with one's cheque-book for a wand, play the magician of human destinies--bringing unhoped-for justice to the oppressed, succour as out of heaven to the outcast, and swift retribution, as of sudden lightning, to the oppressor. To play Providence in some tragic crisis of human lives; at the moment when all seemed lost to step out of the darkness and set all right with a touch of that magic wand. To walk by the side of lost and lonely men, an unexpected friend; to scribble a word on a card and say, "Present this tomorrow morning at such a number Broadway and see what will happen," and then to disappear once again into the darkness. To talk with sad, wandering girls, and arrange that wonderful new hats and other forms of feminine hope shall fall out of the sky into their lonely rooms on the morrow. To be the friend of weary workmen and all that toil by night while the world is asleep in soft beds. To come upon the hobo as he lies asleep on the park bench and slip a purse into his tattered coat, and perhaps be somewhere by to see him wake up in the dawn, and watch the strange antics of his joy--all unsuspected as its cause. To go up to the poor push-cart man, as he is being hurried from street corner to street corner by the police, and say: "Would you like to go back to Italy? Here is a steamer ticket. A boat sails for Genoa tomorrow. And here is a thousand dollars. It will buy you a vineyard in Sicily. Go home and bid the signora get ready." And then to disappear once more, like Harlequin, to flash your wand in some other corner of the human multitude. Oh, there would be fun for one's money, something worth while having money for!

I offer this suggestion to any rich man who may care to take it up, free of charge. It is a fascinating opportunity, and its rewards would be incalculable. At the end of the year how wise one would be in the human story--how filled to overflowing his heart with the thought of the joy he would thus have brought to so many lives--all, too, in pure fun, himself having had such a good time all the while!

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Lack Of Imagination Among Millionaires