Any biography of Mr Harriman which omits his family life misses the point and loses the light of the whole story…. It was not unusual for him, in the midst of transactions of such importance as to make men dizzy from concentration, to stop in order to speak a word on the telephone, or send a message to Mrs Harriman about some engagement or matter of family interest. His attitude toward her was more than devotion. It was profound admiration, respect and unfailing attention and courtesy. Many times through the years business was interrupted or preceded by an order for flowers in commemoration of some anniversary. And as for the children, their education and welfare came before everything. Absolutely nothing was allowed to interfere with a visit to their schools, or the prosecution of any investigation or enterprise affecting their training or welfare.
—Judge Robert S. Lovett, letter to George Kennan
The more prominent Harriman became, the harder it was for him to live anything resembling a normal life. The upper class had always lived in a world apart, but American culture was undergoing a profound change by the 1880s. Industrialization had swollen the ranks of the wealthy and near wealthy just as immigration had increased the legion of the poor. There emerged a new material civilization in which business figures replaced politicians and soldiers as national heroes. The proliferation of cheap urban dailies fostered this process by splashing the exploits of tycoons across their pages and titillating readers with accounts of the lifestyles of the rich. By 1900 the yellow press had turned business titans and denizens of society alike into an early form of celebrity.
In this sense Harriman could measure his prominence by the growing amount of space he got in print. Some reporters made careers out of hounding the wealthy and depicting their antics in ways that were more vivid than accurate. The effect was to make the lives of the rich more accessible to the public while transforming their usual insularity into a siege mentality. For Harriman this posed a special problem. He had always belonged to the best social set, yet he also saw to it that his family shunned the worst excesses of the rich.