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How Executives Lived

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 15, 2012 08:29 AM

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Today, the top 1% make somewhere between $340,000 and $530,000 a year, which is why this article from Fortune magazine is particularly interesting: “How top executives live” was originally published in 1955, and has just been republished on the web as part of the magazine’s fascinating Fortune Classic series. In it, Duncan Norton-Taylor, a reporter (and future editor) at Fortune, travels America to find out how business executives – “men [who] sit on the top-most rungs of the business ladder either as managers or as owners of their own businesses” – live their lives on “incomes of $50,000 or more,” which is about $430,000 in today’s dollars. How an executive lived, it turns out, depended a lot on where he lived. The only thing they had in common was a wistful nostalgia for the 1930s, when “the average businessman had been buffeted by the economic storms but… had not yet been battered by the income tax.”

A sea-change in executive life, Norton-Taylor writes, occurred between the 1930s and the 1950s:

[In the 1930s] the executive still led a life ornamented by expensive adjuncts that other men could not begin to afford, a life attended by a formality that other men did not have time for. In Boston, which set the highest tone if not the fastest pace, the archetype of the high-salaried executive of 1930 arrived at his office in his chauffeur-driven Pierce-Arrow, uncompromisingly attired in dark suit and detachable stiff collar. For weekend lounging white flannels were de rigueur. Today an executive, outside of Boston at least, may arrive at his office in tan shoes, sometimes in a tweed jacket with side vents. And he may well do his weekending in shorts – pink ones this year.

In the 1930s, executives owned mansions and yachts, employed butlers and maids, and hosted “dances” for as many as 2,000 guests at their enormous “cottages.” By the 1950s, they were serving hot dogs in the backyards of their slightly-larger-than-normal suburban houses – two-and-a-half baths, kept up by “part-time help.”And they had already started to live the “type A” executive life we’re all familiar with now: long hours, a workaholic attitude, and a very un-Gatsby-like devotion to ‘intense’ leisure pursuits, like driving really fast and sports fishing. Two typical data-points:

[W]hat Quinn and Greenewalt and most other executives seem to have in common is a dislike for spending their time off in repose; sedentary diversions bore them. A case in point is the Alabama broker who had the impulse to learn to play the piano. He did in fact master O Sole Mio and Carry Me Back to Old Virginny before he thought to ask his teacher how many chords there were to learn. Told there must be several thousand, he abandoned the piano, deciding he preferred to concentrate on his fine tennis game; when it was raining he could spend his time keeping fit by exercising with his barbells.

And:

Adaptation is one explanation of how a lot of executives stay alive. As the fish in the Silurian rivers began to develop swim bladders in order to live in shoal waters, so American executives have developed certain compensating features. The process can be observed particularly in the big cities where conditions are the most trying. Executives have developed an insensitivity to noise, an uncanny time sense (needed in commuting), and an attunement to the city’s terrifying rhythms. Instead of trying to escape the phenomenon of modern life they fling themselves at it. John C. Sharp’s method of finding daily refreshment is an example. Sharp, fifty-four, is president of the Hotpoint division of General Electric and his office is in Chicago. At the end of the day he gets into his Ford, and eagerly plunges into the brawling stream of homebound traffic. Some thirty-five minutes later, when he turns into his driveway in Glen Ellyn, “I’m as relaxed,” says Sharp, “as a wet noddle.”

As for Mad Men-esque excesses: “Alcoholism, it is clear, does not go with success and is to be found only among some executives’ bored wives. Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Meanwhile, outside the big cities, executives tended to live more relaxed lives, working something close to nine-to-six and tending their flower-beds. As one exurban executive puts it, “those fellows in New York” are “always going to psychiatrists, having nervous breakdowns, and spending most of their time on commuting trains.”

The whole article is totally fascinating – read much more at Fortune.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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