Amazing Grace: A Rags to Riches Biography

Article excerpt

IN 1851, a 19-year-old Irish boy, William Russell Grace, left London with his father on a long passage to Peru.

Once there, the boy flourished, becoming a chandler - providing canvas, tar, and supplies - to clipper ships on the New York to San Francisco trade. In a short time, young Grace was trading with the Peruvians and providing supplies to the ships hauling guano from islands off the Peruvian coast.

This enterprise ultimately became the basis for a shipping line transporting Yankee-made goods around Cape Horn. By the 1860s, Grace was rich and had laid the foundations for W. R. Grace & Co., which now is mainly in the chemical business.

But Grace's story is more than a Horatio Alger tale. Marquis James, a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer, chronicles how the Irish-born Grace was elected mayor of New York, defeating the Tammany Hall organization.

There was Grace, the kingmaker - helping to ensure the election of Grover Cleveland as president. Grace, running for his second term, was elected mayor by 10,000 votes, helping Cleveland carry New York State by 1,200 votes.

And, there is Grace the visionary. By the late 1890s, Grace was urging Washington to build a canal across Nicaragua. He never persuaded President William McKinley to let private enterprise construct the canal, which was eventually built in Panama.

James detailed all these aspects of Grace's life in a company-sponsored biography, finished in 1948, but not released by the Grace family until this year. The family had apparently been concerned that the book might cause political problems for the company in Peru. Today, W. R. Grace & Co. no longer operates in that country.

There is plenty of South American history here, but some of the most fascinating material comes from Grace's foray into city politics. …