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Villard: The Life and Times of an American Titan

Sunday, 08 April 2001 12:00 AM

Henry Villard was one of the most remarkable and important figures to shape the tumultuous history of nineteenth-century America. A pre-eminent Civil War journalist, an industrialist and a financial maverick, his courage, perseverance and farsightedness made him the equal of such titans of his day as J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.

Penniless and unable to speak a word of English, Villard emigrated in 1853 from Germany at the age of 18, leaving behind the privileges and expectations of his affluent, stifling parentage. Within five years of arriving on American soil, he had mastered the language and was covering the events of the day for the nation's top newspapers. Villard reported firsthand on the Lincoln-Douglas debates and later, from the front lines of the Civil War, filed graphic, hard-hitting reports that earned him the admiration of the newspaper community. His circle of acquaintances included President Lincoln, General Grant and the famed abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, whose daughter he married.

When the Civil War ended, Villard's penchant for risk-taking and adventure and his uncanny business acumen led him to become a restless innovator, breaking new ground in many areas. In journalism, he launched the first news syndicate in the United States; in the world of finance, he was a pioneer of venture capitalism and one of the first to employ the leveraged buyout.

He catapulted himself into presidency of the Northern Pacific Railroad and shared with Thomas Edison the vision of an electrified nation. His investment in Edison's electrical enterprises eventually paved the way for Villard to mastermind the consolidation of what is now known as the General Electric Company. In 1883, triumphantly driving the last spike himself, he completed the nation's second transcontinental railroad.

Later that year a financial panic nearly ruined him, but within a few years he made a phenomenal comeback based on his faith in Edison and the future of electricity. Throughout his life, Villard's unfailing ability to impart his convictions to others, and his talent for meeting the right people and gaining their confidence, enabled him to conquer adversity.

Drawing on unpublished letters, Henry Villard's German and English memoirs, and many other sources, Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave and John Cullen's fast-paced, absorbing biography vividly recreates Villard's times and tells the rags-to-riches story of a German immigrant who made major contributions to his adopted homeland.

"Henry Villard is a name not widely known today, but a century ago this would not have been the case. Alexandra de Borchgrave and John Cullen's biography of her great-grandfather's rise from penniless and prospectless young German immigrant to prominence and wealth has the fast pace and rich detail of a good novel and the meticulous research of a good history."

"Henry Villard's great-granddaughter Alexandra de Borchgrave and John Cullen have brought us a fascinating, brisk, and judicious life of one of the most intriguing figures in American history. Villard is the story not only of one man's heroic enterprise, but also of Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Civil War, the rise of railroads, the contradictions of the Gilded Age, and New York's arrival as a world-class city."

"A spruce, engaging account of the life and services of one of the great public and private figures of our time. Anyone engaged with New York and American values in the past century should certainly read it. It will be time admirably spent."

"The stirring saga of a truly remarkable man who enthusiastically embraced the challenges of his turbulent century. Immigrant, journalist, explorer, war correspondent, entrepreneur, tycoon, and visionary – Villard's boundless energy, adventurous spirit, and courage in the face of adversity are an inspiration."

"Alexandra de Borchgrave and John Cullen at last do justice to a forgotten giant of American journalism and finance. A Civil War correspondent who invented the news syndicate and knew and was admired by President Lincoln, he then entered the world of finance to tussle with the likes of J.P. Morgan in the building of American railroads and the founding of what became General Electric. Almost ruined in the panic of 1883, he returned to rebuild his empire and regain his place both in business and society. It's a great addition to the story of America."

"A remarkable, illuminating portrait of one of the great figures of New York history. Superbly told. An important adjunct to the library of anyone who is interested in the history of New York City."

Alexandra Villard de Borchgrave is the great-granddaughter of Henry Villard. A distinguished photographer, she has taken portraits of such notables as George Bush, Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat. Her work has appeared on the covers of Newsweek and other international publications. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Arnaud de Borchgrave.

John Cullen graduated with a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Texas. His translations from German and Italian include Christa Wolf's "Medea," Adolf Holl's "The Left Hand of God" and Susanna Tamaro's "Follow Your Heart." He lives in upstate New York.

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Henry Villard was one of the most remarkable and important figures to shape the tumultuous history of nineteenth-century America. A pre-eminent Civil War journalist, an industrialist and a financial maverick, his courage, perseverance and farsightedness made him the equal...
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Sunday, 08 April 2001 12:00 AM
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