Fighting the Inevitable
The kindest and perhaps the fairest thing that can be said about him is that he has been Napoleonic both in his aspirations and in his superiority to scruple. But that won't do. Napoleons are too dangerous. It is not so much that they break too many eggs, as that the omelet when they get it done is apt to be their omelet. Mr. Harriman has made an omelet, but it is too much his. We wish he could be employed to make one for us. He ought to do penance for his misdeeds, and the particular penance we would choose for him would be to build the Panama Canal. If he could be put in charge of that, we would be willing to lend him the key of the United States treasury, and ask him no more than to leave us the change when the job was done.
—Wall Street Journal, March 16, 1907
During the turbulent winter of 1907, as Harriman prepared to testify before the icc on his fifty-ninth birthday, he had remarked that another year might well find him ready to quit the game. When that milestone approached in February 1908, however, he told a reporter that things were too unsettled for him to call it a career. “It isn't a case of changing my mind,” he explained, “but of not having had time to think about retirement.” 1
Talk of retirement was very much in the air that winter among Harriman's friends. Stillman and Schiff both felt an urgent need to cut back their workloads. The October panic had left Stillman drained and his nerves frazzled. For some time he had been working on a plan to make Frank Vanderlip president of the bank and himself chairman of the board. The bank's opulent new building was scheduled to open the first of the year; perhaps, mused Stillman, that was the time for the change. Schiff too was reducing his commitments and looking to turn more work over to younger men. After talking for years of going to Egypt, he finally embarked in the winter of 1908 and boarded a houseboat provided by his old friend Sir Ernest Cassel for a leisurely cruise down the Nile. 2
Floating along those historic waters put Schiff in a philosophical mood. “Here I am on board of a Nile steamer, thinking of you,” he wrote Harriman, “while the imposing ruins on shore remind me how hollow everything earthly is; how we strive so often for naught; how short a time we live, & how long we are