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One Tycoon's Family: the Real-Life `Dynasty' of du Pont

ALFRED I. DU PONT: THE MAN AND HIS FAMILY by Joseph Frazier Wall, New York: Oxford University Press, 685 pp., $27.95 NOTHING succeeds like success. Or does it? Twenty years ago, Joseph Frazier Wall of Grinnell College wrote a hefty, 1,000-page biography of Andrew Carnegie. It was widely reviewed, won a Bancroft Prize from Wall's fellow historians, and remains the definitive work. And with good reason. Carnegie was a pivotal figure in American life, and not merely for all those libraries: He helped transform the American economy, and overflowed with ideas about the industrial world he was creating - and the traditional world he was helping to destroy.

Now Wall has weighed in again, with this stately, lumbering, and rather pallid narrative - of imagination there is little, of analysis even less - about the du Pont family, primarily Alfred I. du Pont (1864-1935), one of its ruling triumvirate in the early 1900s. A caveat is in order, however: This is a sponsored biography, with Alfred's estate (now a charitable foundation in Florida) providing both access to his voluminous papers, and also ``funds for [Wall's] research.''

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Academic historians may well shrug this off as quite normal in books about great corporations and tycoons. But this raises some tricky questions. How do sponsored historians retain their independence, and avoid becoming mere court chroniclers? Who gets such sugarplums? Surely not scholars likely to make waves. And shouldn't those academics who condemn government management of the news ask similar questions of themselves?

Wall's book is not an economic, not even a corporate history. The transformation of the du Pont enterprise from a family company into a huge, bureaucratic, diversified corporation and the controversies this triggered among its leaders receive scant attention. Context is lacking, and Wall turns to personal jealousies, rivalries, and prejudices as the book's forces.

Everything is seen through the eyes of Alfred du Pont, an old-fashioned production boss who knew all about making gunpowder - and all the first names of every worker in the isolated du Pont duchy on the Brandywine River in Pennsylvania - but was terribly upset by major changes, whether triggered by labor unions or by his big-time cousins, Pierce and Coleman.

Alfred's difficulties were compounded by personal traumas: a neglectful, highly unstable mother; growing deafness; the loss of an eye in an accident; and two fractious, bitter marriages (his third, to a young, rural woman, was a success). The result was a wary, unimaginative, not very bright man who wanted to be left alone to do what he did best - run the factory - and who lashed out brutally when crossed.

Take two examples. As the family quarrels about his first divorce worsened in 1910, Alfred du Pont had his ex-wife summarily evicted from Swamp Hall, the most venerable of the family mansions, and then had it completely destroyed, with even the foundation stone removed, and grass planted on the spot.

In 1913, he went still further, trying to push a bill through the Delaware legislature that would change the name of his 12-year-old son by his first marriage. His ``reasoning'' was revealed in a letter to his ex-wife: ``Owing to the gross immorality of Mrs. B.G. du Pont ... and knowing of indecent conduct on the part ... of the children of this person, I am determined that her son shall no longer bear my name or that of my grandfather.'' The bill almost passed - the legislature was accustomed to obedience toward the du Ponts - before Bessie du Pont mobilized her forces and blocked it at the last moment.

Such shockers out of ``Dallas'' and ``Dynasty'' were of course pure gold for the newspapers, and for muckrakers and populists such as Theodore Roosevelt, who railed against ``malefactors of great wealth.'' And it angered Alfred's relatives, who had retained the aristocratic reticence of their French ancestors.

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Wall quite candidly reports on Alfred's behavior during the 15 years or so before he finally broke loose from The Family, acquired a third wife, and exiled himself to Florida business activities in the 1920s. But there is no general interpretation, no assessment of why Alfred behaved as he did.

Instead, Wall keeps insisting that Alfred du Pont was indeed a good man, a bit wild, to be sure, but certainly more sinned against than sinning, by a family who ganged up on him, hitting hard below the belt.

That Alfred was, instead, a man of power but not of vision, more a clerk than a leader, and that he was utterly blind to the great changes affecting American business between 1880 and 1914 - changes from which Pierre and Coleman du Pont wished to profit - is not for Wall to present. His defense might well be that this is a family and personal account, not corporate history. But how can Hamlet be played without the prince himself?

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