Real Lace: America's Irish Rich

Real Lace: America's Irish Rich

by Stephen Birmingham

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Extraordinary true stories of the Irish in America, their remarkable rise from urban poverty, and the powerful dynasties they engendered

Author Stephen Birmingham, who chronicled the rise of Jewish immigrants to extraordinary wealth and success in “Our Crowd”, now turns his attention to the Irish. Real Lace tells the colorful and fascinating true stories of America’s most renowned Irish-Catholic families. Scions of courageous, driven, and resilient men and women who escaped starvation during Ireland’s terrible potato famine in the mid-nineteenth century, they battled their way out of the slums of Boston and New York, overcoming prejudice and poverty to achieve great wealth, fame, and political power.
Here are the remarkable tales of the Kennedys and Cuddihys; the astonishing rise and tragic fall of the McDonnells of Wall Street; thrilling yarns of Floods, Mackays, O’Briens, and other so-called Silver Kings of California; and unforgettable stories about brilliant, if not always scrupulous, Irish politicos who learned how to retain enduring power by perfecting the urban political machine. Birmingham’s enthralling history celebrates the pluck, blarney, and unshakeable spirit of a remarkable group of achievers.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504026307
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 12/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 322
Sales rank: 157,492
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Stephen Birmingham (1929–2015) was an American author of more than thirty books. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he graduated from Williams College in 1953 and taught writing at the University of Cincinnati. Birmingham’s work focuses on the upper class in America. He’s written about the African American elite in Certain People and prominent Jewish society in Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York, The Grandees: The Story of America’s Sephardic Elite, and The Rest of Us: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. His work also encompasses several novels including The Auerbach Will, The LeBaron Secret, Shades of Fortune, and The Rothman Scandal, and other non-fiction titles such as California Rich, The Grandes Dames, and Life at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address.

Read an Excerpt

Real Lace

America's Irish Rich

By Stephen Birmingham


Copyright © 1973 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-2630-7



On an unseasonably warm early spring evening, Thursday, March 12, 1970, strollers past the tall glass windows of McDonnell & Company's main uptown office at 250 Park Avenue were presented with a curious sight. It was as though, someone commented, burglars had rifled the elegantly decorated offices of this, one of New York's oldest and most respected brokerage houses. Drawers of filing cabinets and secretaries' desks hung open, with papers cascading out and strewn about the floor, wastebaskets were overturned disgorging their contents, and lampshades were standing at rakish angles. New Yorkers in the neighborhood had become accustomed, over the years of the firm's tenancy at that prestigious address, to the normally tidy and ordered appearance of the offices behind the big panes of glass. Now, in their dishevelment, the offices looked as if they had been hastily, even angrily, vacated by the entire McDonnell & Company staff. "What's happening here?" one puzzled spectator asked.

The next morning, the New York Times provided the ominous answer. The staff had indeed left hurriedly and in some distress the night before because, after sixty-five years in business, McDonnell & Company and its chairman and chief executive officer, T. Murray McDonnell, had, as a result of a spiraling and tangled series of fiscal problems that had at last become insoluble, announced its financial collapse, with over $20 million in debts.

The firm's troubles, it seemed, were the immediate result of the 1969–1970 stock market decline, the so-called Nixon Recession. McDonnell & Company had become the first major Wall Street house to fall victim to this decline (there would soon be a number of other firms to go under). But the firm's woes appeared to extend much further than this. It was soon announced that Murray McDonnell himself was being singlehandedly held responsible for his company's demise, and in a sharply worded statement the New York Stock Exchange accused McDonnell of "failure to provide adequate supervision and control, and ... violation of capital, bookkeeping and segregation rules." The Exchange noted that, in an offer of settlement, "Mr. McDonnell consented to a suspension as a registered representative for a period of 12 months. ... In addition, Mr. McDonnell further consented to an imposition of a penalty that he will not make application for, nor be granted, the position of an allied member or member of the Exchange or any supervisory position with any member or members of the Exchange." This latter punishment, a particularly harsh one, in effect permanently barred Murray McDonnell from ever again becoming an officer or partner of a Big Board member firm — for the rest of his natural life.

Reached by telephone at his home in Peapack, New Jersey, Murray McDonnell said that the suspension from working as a registered representative (which is the formal title for a securities salesman) was "the only thing I think is tough." It seemed an oddly lighthearted dismissal of the situation. And yet, a few days later, Murray McDonnell, looking shaken and tired, was seen emerging from the residence of Terence Cardinal Cooke behind St. Patrick's Cathedral on Madison Avenue, after a conference with the Cardinal. Murray McDonnell was also the chief financial adviser for the Archdiocese of New York, and had for a number of years been managing the quite considerable Archdiocesan funds.

The 1970 failure of McDonnell & Company was more than a gloomy bellwether of worse Wall Street days to come, and more than a personal tragedy and fall from grace of the son of the founder of the company. It was also a stunning blow to a vast, and vastly scattered, family — a blow that would set brothers against sisters, mothers against sons. And it seemed like the dismal final chapter to one of the most brilliant business and social success stories in America, which had been the rise to enormous prominece of the huge and intricately interrelated McDonnell-Murray-Cuddihy families, who, in their heyday, helped make Southampton, Long Island, a fashionable summer resort, and who had often set that community on its ear — such as the time pretty Mary Jane Cuddihy dated Errol Flynn. At one point, the McDonnell apartment at 910 Fifth Avenue had been the largest single apartment in New York, a duplex and a simplex thrown together to accommodate the fourteen children of Mr. and Mrs. James Francis McDonnell (the former Anna Murray). When the dining room chandelier in that apartment crashed to the table one day, the Home Insurance Company paid a $100,000 claim. In Southampton, the McDonnell summer house had required a staff of sixteen servants — or exactly one for each member of the family — and, what with all the Murray and Cuddihy cousins in the family compound, there were never less than twenty for Sunday dinner, with four huge turkeys in the oven to feed them. There were yachts, Daimlers, racing stables, a polo field. In happier days in Peapack, Murray McDonnell had had, as his house guests, the likes of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children, in keeping with Mrs. Onassis's policy of camouflaging her own children with hordes of others so that photographers had difficulty telling one child from another.

The Murrays, McDonnells, and Cuddihys had, furthermore, in just three generations' time, not only managed to decorate voluminously the pages of the Social Register in various American cities, but they had also managed to ally themselves, through marriage, to a number of other American and international fortunes. Murray McDonnell's sister Anne, for example, had married Henry Ford II in what had been described at the time as "The Wedding of the Century." A first cousin, Jeanne, had eloped with Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, and another married a Byers from Pittsburgh, related to Mellons. A niece had been married to the Greek shipping tycoon, Stavros Niarchos, and another to an Italian named Giancarlo Uzielli. The relationships became so mind-boggling that when, not long ago, one of Murray McDonnell's sisters was asked to list her own brothers and sisters in the order of their ages, she could not do so — though her mother, Anna Murray McDonnell, remembers the names and birthdays of all her sixty-five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. When, in 1957, one of Grandpa Thomas E. Murray's heirs petitioned, through the Kings County Court in Brooklyn, for a change in the trust set up by his grandfather, all the possible recipients of funds from the trust had to be notified. A legal document addressed to a total of 152 different people had to be composed — people with names such as Cooley, Murphy, Hennessy, Conniff, Sullivan, Harris, MacGuire, Cavanagh, Sheridan, as well as Murray, McDonnell, Cuddihy, Ford, Vanderbilt, Niarchos, and Uzielli, and including several Jesuit priests and at least one Sacred Heart nun. Lawyers had to travel to such places as San Francisco and Beirut to track down signatures.

And now, with the liquidation of McDonnell & Company, and family affairs in a shambles, it seemed that, in just three generations, a whole segment of this dynasty had fallen by the wayside. One episode in the glittering and complicated saga of the American Catholic rich had ended — or, as one of Murray McDonnell's sisters, Charlotte McDonnell Harris, put it dryly at the time, "The Catholic ex-rich — thanks to my brother."

What did happen? It is a story that begins, just a little more than a century ago, in the bogs and narrow country lanes of Ireland.



The little town of Drumlish (population 212), County Longford, some fifty miles northwest of Dublin, is a hamlet which contains, in addition to a cluster of stained and woebegone houses all along a single street, a trim little church, a parish house, a greengrocer's shop, and a pub. A few farms dot the surrounding hills, but that is all. There is only one visible beggar in the town — an aging crone in a black shawl, who wanders up and down the street with hand outstretched to the occasional tourist or passer-by, seeking funds, she says, to send to ailing relatives across the county. But otherwise the atmosphere of Drumlish is one of hard and steady poverty.

There are few people in the town today who remember the McDonnells. One man pauses, scratches his head under his gray cap and says, "Yes, there was a McDonnell who had a farm, years ago, on the hill up there. Decent folk, the McDonnells were. But they're all gone now." Other villagers associate the name with great wealth in America, but look startled when told that, until a few years ago, one American McDonnell was married to a man named Henry Ford. "Gotten very fancy, have they?" they ask. And there is a story told in the local pub — possibly apocryphal, as are so many stories told in this land of dreamers and tellers of tall tales — of a rich McDonnell who came back, a long time ago, to visit relatives and old friends in Ireland. At the pub, this McDonnell encountered an old schoolmate from boyhood days, recognized him, clapped the fellow on the back, and said, "Paddy, I remember in the third grade when you came to school in your first pair of shoes!" Slyly the Drumlisher eyed the American for a moment and said, "Yes, and I remember you asking me what they were."

It is true that in the 1940's the late James Francis McDonnell, at that point a millionaire, who headed the Wall Street firm of McDonnell & Company with assets in the tens of millions, took his wife and tribe of fourteen children back to Ireland to inspect the McDonnell roots in Drumlish. The family and their retinue of servants took over a huge section of First Class on the old Queen Elizabeth and, as the children recall it, when the family got to Dublin, they managed to "demolish" a good deal of the fashionable Gresham Hotel. There was a great flurry of interest in the Dublin press about the visitors, and the McDonnell children amused themselves by granting interviews and giving out fanciful accounts to the reporters, with exaggerated descriptions of the family yachts, polo ponies, houses, and motorcars. Then James Francis McDonnell engaged a fleet of Daimlers with chauffeurs to take the family to Drumlish, which none of them had ever seen. The visit was, in many ways, a disappointment, for Drumlish was no more prepossessing then than it is today. But the children visited the grocery store and were treated to lemon squashes, and the villagers sang songs and danced jigs for the assembled family, at the patriarch's request. Outside, in the street, a little boy was playing in the dust and the senior McDonnell stepped across to the lad and asked him his name. "Peter McDonnell, sir!" the boy replied. Delighted that he had found some sort of relative, James Francis McDonnell stepped over to his Daimler, and returned with a sackful of copper pennies, which he presented to the owl-eyed child.

That Peter McDonnell, along with all the others, is gone from Drumlish now. But the first McDonnell of the Drumlish clan was also a Peter, who emigrated to New York at some point between 1845 and 1855 — no one is quite sure of the year, for family records were sketchily kept — to escape the great potato famine that ravaged the face of Ireland throughout that decade, and from which the country has never really recovered.

"What hope is there for a nation that lives on potatoes!" a nineteenth-century English official once wrote. And yet, for centuries, potatoes had been Ireland's only hope. One estimate has placed the population of Ireland in 1791 at 4,753,000. In the next fifty years, some 1,750,000 Irishmen departed for America, and yet, despite this emigration, the Irish census of 1841 revealed that the population of the tiny country had jumped to at least 8,175,000. With more than eight million mouths to feed, in a land that had been condemned by British colonial rule to agriculture, and forbidden to compete in world commerce or industry, the only answer had been to subdivide the landscape into tiny farms, and the only crop that could be raised with any profit at all on these farms was the humble potato. An acre and a half of land, for example, could provide a family of five or six with food for a year, while to grow the equivalent amount of corn or grain would take an acreage four to six times as large. The potato, furthermore, was ideally suited for growth in the moist soil of Ireland. Only a spade was needed to grow potatoes. Trenches were dug and beds were made, and potato sets were laid out, and earthed up from the trenches. When the shoots appeared, they were earthed up again. Potatoes could also be grown on hillsides too steep to be plowed for any other crop, and, as the population grew through the early 1800's, potato fields extended up the mountain slopes. Best of all, the potato was an extraordinarily useful food. It could be cooked in a variety of ways, it could be ground into flour, it produced fat and healthy children, and one did not tire of its taste. Chickens, pigs, and cattle thrived on it. His potato crop, in fact, solved nearly every Irishman's need — provided it did not fail.

And yet the potato is also one of the most unstable of crops. In Ireland, potatoes were packed in barrels which were buried in pits, but still they did not keep well and could not be stored from one potato season to the next. Each year, some two and a half million Irishmen more or less starved during the summer months when the old potatoes were gone and the new ones had yet to come in. June, July, and August were therefore known as "meal months," when there was danger that the potatoes would run out and meal would have to be eaten instead — bought at outrageous prices or on credit from the hated "gombeenman," or the village usurer.

By the early 1840's the Irish had grown used to the possibility of potato-crop failure, and regarded the chances of its occurring as philosophically as one might view a change in the weather. In 1728 there was reported "such a great scarcity that on the 26th of February there was a great rising of the populace of Cork." In 1739 the crop was reported "entirely destroyed," and the following year another "entire failure" was recorded. There had been a failure in 1770, and another "general failure" in 1800. In 1807 half the Irish potato crop was lost through frost, and in 1821, and again in 1822, the potato failed completely in Munster and Connaught and "distress horrible beyond description" was reported in and around Skibbereen. The years 1830 and 1831 were ones of failure in Counties Mayo, Donegal, and Galway, and, with gonglike regularity, the years 1832, 1833, 1834, and 1836 produced failures in a large number of areas from "dry rot and curl." In 1835 the entire potato crop of Ulster was lost, and the two years following brought "extensive" failures throughout the country.

In 1839 there was again "universal failure" from Bantry Bay to Lough Swilly, and 1841 and 1844 were also disastrous years. There was, therefore, no real reason to suppose that 1845 would be any worse or any better. And yet by early July of that year the outlook was exceptionally bright. The weather had been perfect — hot, sunny, and dry, and on July 23 the Freeman's Journal was able to say with confidence, "The poor man's property, the potato crop was never before so large and at the same time so abundant." Old potatoes — "even at this advanced season" — were coming into the market and were of excellent quality, and fine new potatoes were being dug. In London, the Times reported that "an early and productive harvest was everywhere expected" in Ireland. The first ominous note appeared in August, from the potato fields of the Isle of Wight, where "a blight of unusual character" appeared to have struck the summer crop. It was indeed unusual. Freshly dug potatoes appeared perfectly healthy, but, within a few days, or in some cases a few hours, they turned black and pulpy, emitted a black, oily ooze and a noxious odor like that of rotted meat. The disease appeared to have come, ironically enough, from the United States.

Furthermore, it seemed to be spreading, and on August 23, Dr. John Lindley, professor of botany at the University of London, published an article in the Gardeners' Chronicle, which said, "A fearful malady has broken out among the potato crop. On all sides we hear of the destruction. In Belgium the fields are said to be completely desolated. There is hardly a sound sample in the Covent Garden market ... as for cure for this distemper there is none." And on September 13, in the same journal, Dr. Lindley told his readers, "We stop the press with very great regret to announce that the potato Murrain [as it had been labeled] has unequivocally declared itself in Ireland. The crops about Dublin are suddenly perishing ... where will Ireland be in the event of a universal potato rot?"

In London, meanwhile, the British Government — in order that its administration appear in as good a light as possible, and that the world might not be unduly reminded of the impoverished state of the Irish populace — took a more sanguine view of the situation, and the first official comment spoke of the "alleged" failure of the Irish potato crop, and called the reports "very greatly exaggerated." And on October 6, to counter reports of widespread starvation and death, Sir James Graham, the British Home Secretary, announced his "belief that the potato crop, tho' damaged, is not so much below the average as some of the exaggerated reports from Ireland have led us to apprehend." The Irish, Sir James implied, were a race of liars anyway. As more and more disastrous news flooded in from across the Irish Sea, the government continued to release bland and comforting news about these "false alarms."


Excerpted from Real Lace by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1973 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 "What Happened?",
2 In the Beginning,
3 "Everything but the Light Bulb",
4 "Murray Bay",
5 Mr. McDonnell's Gimmick,
6 The Greatest Nose Count of Them All,
7 The Original Butter-and-Egg Man,
8 The Wedding of the Century,
9 "Ma and Pa D.",
10 The Bubble Breaks,
11 The Decline of Mr. Fall,
12 The Silver Kings,
13 Mr. Ryan's Fortune,
14 And for My Eldest Son, One Set of Pearl Studs,
15 The Troubles of One House,
16 Why Don't the Nice People Like Us?,
17 The Duchess Brady,
18 "Atomic Tom",
19 The Buckleys of "Great Elm",
20 The Upward Climb,
21 Sons of the Priory, Daughters of the Sacred Heart,
22 Royalty,
23 Problems in the Back Office,
24 To the Bitter End,
25 Aftermath,
26 "Robert the Roué",
About the Author,

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