In the book, you write about quite a few of the members of the class. Did you have a favorite?
I had a number of favorites. I really liked James Burke, the chairman of J&J. He was very wry. He was modest, very funny and very confident. I also really liked Tom Murphy. He was the guy who basically bought this dinky little company called Capital Communications, three crappy little radio stations in upstate New York. He joined forces with a budding young investor named Warren Buffett and he ended up buying ABC at some point. He was a very impressive character.
There was a guy named Ernie Mitchell whose father had been a laborer during the Depression. He was a very smart kid. Out of Harvard Business School, he went to work for a company that made bread wrappers. His contention was that if you wanted to learn business, learn it on the shop floor. He ended up being the chairman of one of the really big paper companies, chairman of a $3 billion company. These were guys I really admired and thought were characters. They were proud of what they had done, without taking themselves too seriously. They were genuinely enjoyable and a privilege to talk with.
Were they initially receptive to the idea of having a book written about them?
At the start, I thought, ‘I’m a young journalist. I didn’t have a lot of credentials at the time, and these guys are millionaire chairmen and CEOs. Why would they make time to talk to me?’
What I found is that first of all they were a very, very close-knit group. So once I had met and earned the trust of the first couple of guys, I was pleasantly surprised that I could get to speak to everyone. The other thing I assumed was that, Oh my God, these guys are such important people they must be very busy.’ But of course by the time you get to become chairman of the board, you have this magnificent corner office and this big desk with one piece of paper on it. On the way up, these guys were working 12 and 14 hours a day and wouldn’t have had time to talk to a mere writer. By the time they were chairmen, they had plenty of time.
I will say that these guys were very accustomed to dealing with the business press and the business press really treated them with kid gloves. The Fortune articles really were hagiographic. They didn’t bring any kind of critical objectivity. Again, I wanted to write social history. I didn’t have an axe to grind. I had nothing against the class, but nor did I go in thinking I was dealing with Gods. I knew I was dealing with flesh and blood people. I do think there were some members of the class who were surprised and unhappy with how they were portrayed. But again I was working as a journalist. I called ‘em as I see ‘em. And I think that by and large the people I interviewed respected that and were open.
In your reporting, did you discover members of the class who weren’t quite as successful? Who didn’t meet the highly successful image portrayed of the class as a whole?
I did. One of the men I was fondest of as a person and who was really kind to me and was key to providing access to others was a guy named Stanley Greenfield. He was kind of the class cheerleader and social director and head of the reunion committee. He had a very modest career in media. When I met him, he was working out of a dingy little office in New York City. This is how long ago it was: He had the idea of doing a phone book for fax numbers because the fax was relatively new. He thought he was going to make his fortune creating a fax directory. I make it clear that he was not a raving success in the business world. I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings.
But again, I think if we learn nothing else in life, we learn that there is no such thing as a sure thing. And even a Harvard MBA does not guarantee you a brilliant, successful career in business. There is a lot of luck involved and there are a lot of decisions that can go awry. There are things that can go wrong with the economy or a given company that is nobody’s fault. There were a couple of other guys in the class who had inherited major wealth. They didn’t do much in business, partly because they didn’t have to. Some of those guys were interesting; some of those guys I honestly felt were a little sad.