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Triumph, tragedy, tobacco

Review : The Gilded leaf

Christine Harland is a director of Camden Writers.

As the setting sun turned the salt marshes to gold and the Atlantic rolled in and curled over the long white beaches, an odd assortment of guests milled uncomfortably around the big house on St Simon's Island, off the Georgia coast. The year was 1975. The guests were all related to RJ (Dick) Reynolds, Jr, deceased heir to the great tobacco fortune, and they had been called together to bid on family furniture and personal effects in advance of a public auction. On this beautiful southern evening, three of RJ's six sons, all of whom had been disinherited by their father, met their stepsister, Irene, for the first time. It was she, born 36 hours after Dick's death, who'd inherited over $100 million, the beneficiary of a last-minute, handwritten will. The will and Irene's paternity had long been in question.

When author Patrick Reynolds contracted polio, his father, Dick Jr, responded to the urgent telegram by saying only that he saw no reason for the illness to delay divorce proceedings. Patrick saw his father only five times after his parents separated. In The Gilded Leaf, Patrick looks into the past to better understand his father's abdication of parenthood, and finds a fatal combination of financial inheritance and absence of commitment and connectedness between parent and child, reaching back to his grandparents. It is a book well worth reading for the insights and lessons embedded in history.

Patrick's grandfather, RJ Reynolds, Sr, a savvy entrepreneur who amassed a fortune in the tobacco industry, married at age 57. His wife, Katharine, 30 years his junior, produced two sons and two daughters, of whom Patrick's father, Dick Reynolds (or RJ Jr), was the oldest. This aging father related poorly to his young brood, looking forward, instead, to mentoring them in business. That day never came. RJ contracted pancreatic cancer and died at age 68 in 1918, when Dick was 13.

When Katharine Reynolds remarried two years after her husband's death and moved out of the house, the Reynolds children were turned over to retainers. Katharine's death three years later removed any vestige of parental supervision. Two guardians, a step-father and a remote uncle, finding the boys hard to handle, sent them to boarding school where discipline and character development were delegated to yet another set of strangers.  RJ Reynolds believed, with Henry Ford and William K Vanderbilt, that "fortunes destroy those who inherit them". In an interview, RJ spoke his mind. "A rich man's boy," he said, "has only half a chance to make good, and I do not want my boys hampered by the money I have made." To that end, his will provided for the slow escalation of his children's access to their money through age 28. When Dick Reynolds did eventually come into his more than $28 million inheritance, he admitted that it was a lot of money but that, somehow, he couldn't get very excited about it. The fortune had always been there, in the background. As Patrick Reynolds remarks, "An allowance doesn't control a child's spending habits, a parent does."

The guardians also made a passing but unrealistic attempt at controlling the young Reynolds' spending. In a halfhearted effort to instill the work ethic, 16-year-old Dick Reynolds was brought into the company and given a make-work position at ten cents an hour. When day-to-day life includes a 60-room mansion, challenges and rewards need to be realistic to be satisfying, and Dick soon rebelled against meaningless occupation. More worldly than his peers, Dick also became bored at college, but there was no one, as Patrick describes, who invested the time and energy "to put him behind the plow" and insist on perseverance.

With the bar set high, Dick Reynolds needed an edge to life to capture his imagination. At a young age, he earned a pilot's licence signed by Orville Wright, just one of his many extraordinary accomplishments. He skippered his yacht to a winning position in the San Francisco-Hawaii race; he started a number of potentially successful companies; he served in politics; and he was awarded a Bronze Star for unusual valour in the Navy during the Second World War. Sadly, there was no one he admired to praise or encourage him, no one to celebrate his accomplishments or trust in his abilities. Very quickly, a hedonistic lifestyle, fuelled by alcohol, overtook the more substantive aspects of life and the prospect of a balanced and productive existence grew ever more faint.

"On balance," writes Patrick of his father, "his life was a series of unfulfilled opportunities." "Time after time," he continues, "both in work and in love, my father gave up one promising enterprise and turned his energy and resources to another." Dick Reynolds, having received little affection, in his turn, gave little; no accomplishment provided the self-esteem that would have come from a strong parental hand. The legacy he left to his own children featured neither affection nor fortune: it would seem that all the lessons that he might have learned through his own experience were lost.

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