Henry Clay Frick’s contemporaries always felt there was something not quite human about him. “No man on earth could get close to him or fathom him” the extroverted steel magnate Charles M. Schwab told an interviewer in the 1930s, long after Frick died. “He seemed more like a machine, without emotion or impulses. Absolutely cold-blooded. He had good foresight and was an excellent bargainer…. His assets were that he was a thinking machine, methodical as a comptometer, accurate, cutting straight to the point…the most methodical thinking machine I have ever known. ”
In some respects Frick was the nineteenth-century forerunner of an executive type that became widespread in the late twentieth century: the “pure entrepreneur”—like, say, Saul Steinberg, Charles Bluhdorn, or Jack Welch—whose pursuit of growth and profits is unfettered by sentimental attachment to any particular industry, company, or product. But Frick was so far ahead of his own time that he baffled and intimidated almost everyone who crossed his path—including his parents and, as we shall see, the Leisenrings. Even today it is difficult to pinpoint the precise forces of heredity and environment that created Frick’s exceptional business personality.
He was born in 1849, the year of the California Gold Rush and a watershed moment in the psychology of the Western world. Gold, unlike coal, possessed little intrinsic value at that time. But if only by virtue of the glittering spell it cast upon people, gold had served as a universally favored backing for currency since ancient times. Its supply had long been presumed to be finite, but in the five years after the Gold Rush began, more than half a billion dollars would be taken out of California; over the next