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Mister Carnegie’s “Libary”

July 2024
12min read

When I was very young, I thought Andrew Carnegie lived in Moberly, Missouri (population 12,000, smack dab between St. Louis and Kansas City), because he gave Moberly what we natives called the “Libary.” Possibly he lived in the big red brick house at the end of Fifth Street, the one with the tennis court and the curved drive, or perhaps in the yellow stone mansion with tall white nillars on West Reed Street. They were both immense solid buildings similar to the library, and certainly appropriate as a dwelling for a man of Mr. Carnegie’s importance.

When I was older and wise enough to know that Mr. Carnegie would sniff at anything under a sixty-six-room castle, my mother, one of Mr. Carnegie’s high priestesses, and my two sisters and I went to New York. From behind a tall iron-spike fence we gazed respectfully for a long while at Mr. Carnegie’s Fifth Avenue mansion, noting with pleasure the handsome pink brick, imposing enough for one of his own libraries. We half expected to see Mr. Carnegie’s ghost peering out at his Moberly librarian from one of the windows of his walnut-panelled study. But no Mr. Carnegie appeared, just as there had been no Nicholas Murray Butler all summer at the Butler residence on Morningside Drive. Mother had rented rooms for herself and three daughters right across the street, sideways, from Mr. Butler’s house, there being nothing available near Mr. Carnegie’s. And besides, Mr. Butler was the president of Columbia University, where she was taking a library course while Helen and Eloise went to Teacher’s College. I, being only thirteen, was experimented on in education classes by budding teachers.

Each of us was expected by Mother to look out the window once a day in hope that we could glimpse Mr. Butler—“just to say you’ve seen him.” And just as Mr. Butler was never at his windows, now there was nothing but plain glass in Mr. Carnegie’s, not even a ghost or anything alive.

“I simply don’t believe it,” Mother said suddenly, with an alarming vehemence, and I knew exactly what she meant. We didn’t believe it when we read it in a book, and we certainly didn’t believe it now, looking at the fine respectability of Mr. Carnegie’s house.

“Imagine Mr. Carnegie being called a robber, an octopus. I never heard anything so ridiculous. There wasn’t a crooked bone in his body. That fine man, the Giver of Libraries.”

Mother’s—and Mr. Carnegie’s—library was a square, solid gray stone building with pillars and pigeons decorating its front. The pillars Mother was proud of. I am not sure whether they were Doric or Corinthian or just plain Moberly in design, but they were stout, impressive columns of stone giving a proper dignity and tone.

The minute you entered the library you knew you were in some place absolutely different from anything else in Moberly. It was not only the rows and rows of books, but it was the smell of paste and people, and the soft little noises that wouldn’t be sounds at all except in the library: the quiet turning of magazine pages and rustling of a newspaper, the cautious tread of a footstep, the surreptitious crunch of a bar of candy.

The first thing you saw in the library was Mother sitting at the half-moon-shaped golden-oak desk. She looked very imposing and majestic rising above the desk, but if you were to glance inside, you would see that she had her legs curled around the rungs of the high stool. She was sitting on a pile of books, not the best new ones, of course, but some old Kathleen Norris or Grace Livingston Hill Lutz, whose literary merit she regarded as distinctly inferior.

Mother judged people by their reading habits, and she was proudest, perhaps, of Ben Jacks, who lived in the library. That is, he lived in the library as much as anyplace else, because he had no home at all. He slept nights in the railroad station, spent the mornings in the post office and his afternoons and evenings in the library. Ben Jacks limped and walked with a cane, and he ate candy while he read. Eating was forbidden in the library, but Mother pretended she did not see this. He read the best magazines and the New York Times, and this made up for the fact that he was disobeying a rule. (Mother herself liked to eat while she read and often did so at home.) It was her belief that anyone who delved so deeply in the Times was bound to be a superior sort of person, even if he did sleep in the railroad station. Sometimes Ben Jacks took naps in the library, leaning back comfortably in the rocking chair by the window. Unless he was holding on to the New York Times when he fell asleep, Mother did not disturb him.

Three other persons in Moberly besides Ben Jacks also read the New York Times daily, but Ben Jacks usually got it first, and I think Mother was secretly glad. She knew that of all people in Moberly the library and Mr. Carnegie meant more to Ben Jacks than to anyone else except herself. Most people, she was sure, took the library and Mr. Carnegie’s beneficence for granted, but Mr. Jacks received too much from the library to regard it with nonchalance. It was his home as well as his hobby. He and Mother had even discussed Mr. Carnegie together, and Mother said you could tell he had a fine mind: he agreed with everything she said.

Ben Jacks held a particular fascination for me. I had heard that when he was younger he had been a house mover. But surely not more than two houses in Moberly had ever been moved from their original moorings, so how Ben Jacks lived after and between the two jobs of his lifetime I do not know. Rumor had it that a house fell on him and that was why he was lame. I have a feeling that he was always what some people would call lazy and what Mother and I would call the cultured type.

The other two constant intellectuals in the library were the Count and Mr. Beiden. Mr. Beiden had a substantial hardware business and took trips around the world, so you could see that he did not belong in Moberly at all. A few persons in Moberly had been to Europe once in their lives, but certainly no one else had been around the world, so everyone considered him peculiar.

I think Mr. Beiden loathed Ben Jacks but felt a cultural responsibility for him. He was Ben Jacks’s meal ticket. He provided Ben with driblets of cash with which Ben bought his meals at the station sandwich counter. The cash also covered the daily noisy paper bags of candy that were Ben Jacks’s luxury. He always selected a good magazine, a comfortable rocking chair by the window, and then opened a bag of sugary lemon drops. A nap sandwiched between the New York Times and Theatre Arts rested him for an evening with the Atlantic Monthly and National Geographic . Ben Jacks actually felt superior, in spite of his limp and his shabby clothes, to most of the men in Moberly. He toiled not, neither did he spin, and yet he lived a good life. I do not think he was particularly grateful to Mr. Beiden for providing him with the necessities of living. Mr. Beiden had money; why should he not divide it? Mr. Jacks, with nothing in the world to share, except possibly his ideas, was by nature an actual if not professing communist, in the true sense of the word.

Mr. Belden did not toil very much either. He frequented his business only when more pressing things such as trips to Europe did not demand his attention. A long-standing and almost childish feud existed between him and Ben Jacks about the New York Times. They fought for it. They hovered around the desk at mail time waiting for it to be unwrapped and put in the rack along with the Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Tribune and, of course, the Moberly Monitor-Index .


Also hovering and often swifter than either of them was the Count. His real name was Mr. Marchand, but Mother and I always referred to him by the title we had given him and that seemed to become him. He was a courtly gentleman who seemed much above his official position, which was secretary of the Moberly Chamber of Commerce. Someone had told us that the Count lived in a room bare of all furniture but a table and a wooden board that he slept on. But he was always immaculately dressed, and he called mother “Madame,” and he read strange, ancient books on spiritualism that no one else in Moberly ever asked for. If he got the New York Times first he read every item in it, so that it was hours before Mr. Belden or Ben Jacks could lay hands on it. Ben Jacks would limp restlessly about the periodical room, stopping frequently to stare rudely over the Count’s shoulder, and Mr. Belden would come up to the desk at least two or three times to complain bitterly and loudly about people who hogged the newspapers.

Mother was extremely fond of most of her library customers, but she had a keen dislike for one of them, Mr. Medley. True, he was a New York Times reader, but he had done an unforgivable thing. He had shown Mother an article in a book that referred to Mr. Carnegie as a financial octupus, a pirate, a violent and ruthless grabber for power.

“Strange old chap, wasn’t he?” and Mr. Medley looked up sneeringly at Mr. Carnegie’s grim, aristocratic portrait, which dominated the library entrance. “What was the cost of his little old libraries to him, with all those millions he fleeced the public out of? Not a drop in the bucket, no sir, not even a little drop in a great big bucket.”

Mother naturally did not put this book back on the shelves. She sat on it instead, along with Grace Livingston Hill Lutz.

Mother was so much a part of the library that it never occurred to me—or, I am sure, to her—that anything, certainly not Miss Pearl Horner, could disrupt our way of life and threaten her position as Mr. Carnegie’s most admiring employee. The threat, the undreamed-of danger, came on a board meeting night. For this event Mother always wore a silk dress and her little round gold watch fastened to a fleur-de-lis, and she got a marcel. The Private Room—really the office—which we both regarded as very special and ours alone, was dusted and swept and piles of books arranged neatly, for it was in this room that the board held their meetings. How we hated sharing the Private Room with anyone else! Here all the new books were unpacked, and we naturally took our pick of them before they went on the shelves. Here, while waiting to walk home with Mother, I curled up in one of the big black leather chairs with a National Geographic or Sara Teasdale’s poems and, like Ben Jacks, munched on lemon drops. Or lay lazily on the black leather couch and admired the elegant, greenish-colored fireplace at one end of the room. The carved mantel was top-heavy with marble statues, stuffed birds under a glass dome, and other objets d’art that people had donated with embarrassment to the library, things too bizarre or too ancient for their own homes but too valuable to discard.

When I saw the board members leave the library, I went into the office. Mother was sitting very still in front of the golden-oak roll-top desk, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. Usually she was in high spirits after a board meeting.

“What’s the matter, are you sick?” I asked anxiously.

“You know Pearl Horner,” Mother said quietly.

“Of course I do.” Pearl Horner had worked in the library last summer, a large blonde girl who went back to college in the fall.

“Pearl wants to be librarian,” Mother said lifelessly.

“But you’re librarian!”

“Pearl has a degree in library science now. She told the board about the new methods she learned. It made a big impression on Mr. Albans and some of the others. Not that she could improve anything here. I read the library bulletins, I go to the conventions. Of course,” Mother mused hopefully, “they aren’t planning on a thing yet. It’s just that they mentioned it to me, and I know some of them think Pearl might be a better librarian because of her degree.”

“But you went to college,” I argued. I was always fascinated by the college Mother had gone to. Her school days had been so long ago that the college no longer existed, but it had had a wonderful name, Central Female Academy.

“They didn’t have library science then,” Mother said sadly. “Not at Central, anyway.” She had taken German and painting and philosophy, and our house was filled with hand-painted china, German grammars, and philosophy books. But she had not learned to be a librarian in college. That had corne when she started long ago as an assistant in the library after my father died. She had pasted torn pages and book jackets, catalogued books, stacked magazines, kept files, checked books in and out, pored over book lists, placated board members, and had done all the countless things that must be taken care of in a library. Only on Saturday nights after work did she find time to do what people thought librarians spent all of their time doing, read books. And here was Miss Pearl Horner, a snip of a girl armed with determination and a degree, trying to persuade the library board they needed a librarian with more education.

“What will we do?” I whispered. And, after a moment’s thought, “What will happen to Ben Jacks?”

The New York Times , of course, was what saved the library for us. Mother had innumerable clippings from it for the library files about Columbia University in New York. And now everything seemed amazingly clear. Helen and Eloise, who had just started teaching careers, wanted to go to summer school, and Mother would go, too, and study library science. We would all go—to Columbia University, holy of holies, as far as library schools were concerned. That would fix Pearl Horner, who certainly had never studied at such a sacred place.


In those days the university offered true hospitality to its summer students. “Columbia is going to meet us,” Mother told us excitedly. I would not have been surprised if the representative chosen to welcome us had been Mr. Butler himself, but we were all perfectly satisfied to be rescued from Grand Central Station by a nice young student wearing a red carnation in his buttonhole for identification.

At that period life was surely not so hectic, and universities were not so demanding, because there always seemed to be time left over from studying to explore New York and to watch for artists and writers and other well-known persons. Mother said if we got a chance to see a famous man to just go right up to him and tell him our names—he would be flattered that people all the way from Missouri knew who he was.

Before the summer was over, as a special treat, Mother and I went for a hansom-cab ride in Central Park. We listened eagerly to what our driver said and craned our necks to see landmarks that he pointed to. He was familiar not only with everything in the park but with almost all that could be seen from it. At one point he waved his hand vaguely beyond the park and rattled off a list of houses that were now or were at one time owned by famous rich men. Among them was Mr. Carnegie’s. Mother and I looked at each other smugly. Of course we knew all about Mr. Carnegie’s house. Probably much more than our hansom-cab driver. Did he know there was a pipe organ near the grand staircase and that the house had two main boilers of a type and size used in ocean-going liners? That a mining car transported coal from the bunker to the stoking floor, running on its own track and turntable? And that the house had five elevators, including one small one with a black leather seat used exclusively by Mr. Carnegie’s widow? We were only from Missouri, but there weren’t any flies on us when it came to information about Mr. Carnegie. The house, we could have told him, cost one million dollars when it was built in 1900.

“Them old robbers,” our driver suddenly said vehemently, giving his horse a slash with his whip as though the horse was somehow responsible for his anger.

“What old robbers?” Mother asked, bewildered, wondering at the strange way the travelogue had progressed.

“Vanderbilt, Morgan, Carnegie, all them rich thieves, bloodsuckers, they took the bread right out of the poor man’s mouth and never so much as thank you.”

Mother’s voice was cold and terrible sounding. “Did you refer to Mr. Carnegie?” she asked, and I knew something dreadful was going to happen. “Mr. Andrew Carnegie?”

“Old Carnegie himself. Biggest crook these United States has seen. Steel, iron, railroads, nothin’ he wouldn’t pxit his hands on. His house there is built on bodies, lady, on bodies of the poor.”


“Stop your horse!” Mother shouted at him furiously, and the driver, alarmed, drew his gentle horse to a stop and turned around to stare at Mother.

“How dare you say such things about Mr. Carnegie?” Mother cried out angrily. “Do you know that I am an employee of Mr. Carnegie?”

The driver looked at her in amazement. “Of that old duff?” he asked incredulously. “He’s dead and gone, that old robber is, nobody works for him.”

“Mr. Carnegie will never die,” Mother said, not angrily now, but firmly, her eyes glowing. “Mr. Carnegie will live forever in his libraries, and I̵—she repeated this proudly—“ I am one of his librarians.”

With this exit line Mother and I got out of the hansom cab, Mother paid the cab driver for half of his fare, since our drive was only halfway completed, and imperiously waved him on. We lost our way in the park and wandered around for hours before we knew where we were, but we did not blame each other. “Just keep the general direction of Mr. Carnegie’s house in mind,” she kept saying, “and we’ll come out all right.”

When we got back to Moberly at the end of summer we knew something was wrong when we did not see Ben Jacks in the library. Ben Jacks had gone crazy, Mr. Medley told us rather triumphantly. He had taken to jumping out at women on dark corners, holding a newspaper over his head to try to hide his face. He had used old New York Times papers, too, that he had stolen from the library. Mr. Beiden did not ask for the Times at all any more. Mostly he just sat in Ben Jacks’s chair and stared in front of him, shaking his head.

We were something of a mild sensation for a while, a complete family educated at Columbia University, from a fifty-three-year-old mother down to a thirteen-year-old daughter, with two daughters aged nineteen and twenty in between. Mother always took great care to explain that we had been to Columbia University in New York, so it would not be confused with the State University at Columbia, Missouri, where anybody could go.

Oh yes, we had brushed elbows with writers and artists and had seen where great and important people lived, including Mr. Andrew Carnegie. Mother gave talks on this at high school assembly, at Thursday Club, at the Daughters of Susanna Wesley Missionary Society, and, of course, to the library board. Soon afterward she got a raise in salary. She now made sixty-five dollars a month. The day the library board notified her of this salary increase I noticed her looking benevolently at the portrait of Mr. Carnegie. I am sure she was thanking him for the raise. Then she looked sadly over in the corner by the steps where always before Ben Jacks’s battered old hat and frayed coat would be hanging, and I know that she felt something important was gone from the library. I think Mr. Carnegie felt this, too. His picture was looking darker and grimmer and lonelier than ever, but still aristocratic. …

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