October 31, 1875, is the birthdate of Eugene Meyer, the financier and public servant who in 1933 bought an ailing Washington Post, and turned it into one of America’s great newspapers, an endeavor that was continued by, among others, his daughter Katharine Graham.
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Eugene Isaac Meyer was born in Los Angeles, and spent his youth in that city and in San Francisco. He was the fourth of eight children of Marc Eugene Meyer and the former Harriet Newmark.
Marc Eugene Meyer Meyer (like his son, he went by the name “Eugene”) was a Strasbourg-born Jew whose father and grandfather had both been rabbis, the latter having been a member of Napoleon’s Congress of Jewish Notables, also called the Sanhedrin. Harriet was the daughter of Joseph Newmark, who as a lay Jewish leader founded both Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York, and Congregation Bnai Brith, in Los Angeles.
After co-founding and running a successful general store in Los Angeles, the elder Meyer gravitated toward banking, and in 1893, moved his family to New York, after being appointed a partner in the investment bank Lazard Freres.
No bar mitzvah, thank you
Eugene Isaac’s family belonged to what his daughter Katharine described (in her 1997 memoir, “Personal History”) as a “Reformed” congregation in San Francisco, but he declined to become a bar mitzvah. He attended the University of California, Berkeley, but left after a year when his family moved east. He continued his studies at Yale University, graduating after two years, in 1895, near the top of his class.
After a brief time at Lazard, Eugene went to Europe to work at an apprentice at banks in England, France and Germany. He also began investing his own money – starting with the $600 his father had given him for abstaining from smoking cigarettes until he turned 21 – in the financial markets.
When he returned from abroad, Eugene again went to work at Lazard, but again didn’t stay long. According to his daughter, he had read a book called “The Map of Life,” whose author, William Edward Hartpole Lecky had written that, “a man’s life should be planned as a single whole in which each stage would be a prologue to the stage that followed.” He then founded his own eponymous investment firm, which is said to have been the first to have a professional research department.
By 1901, Meyer owned a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and owned shares in companies dealing in copper, gold, chemicals, and automobile financing. By 1915, his holdings were valued at $40 million.
In 1910, Meyer married Agnes Elizabeth Ernst, who was descended from a line of Lutheran ministers. A former newspaperwoman, she was by all accounts beautiful and charismatic, and she became an early feminist and a patron of the arts. The couple had five children, the fourth of whom was Katharine (1917-2001).
Time to attend to the public
Based on Lecky’s guide, Meyer had decided that the years 40 to 60, after he had made his fortune, would be devoted to public service. And indeed, he served under every U.S. president from Woodrow Wilson to Harry Truman, most notably as head of the War Finance Corporation, during World War I, and as director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Herbert Hoover’s unsuccessful attempt to restore health to the economy during the Great Depression. He was also chairman of the Federal Reserve System (1930-33) and the first head of the World Bank, in 1946.
Eugene Meyer is best remembered today, however, for buying the Washington Post in a bankruptcy auction in 1933.
As its publisher, and also its chief editor – in 1940-46 – Meyer built the Post into a formidable institution, although it became a profitable one only in the 1950s, after he had bought the competing Washington Times Herald and merged it into the Post.
Meyer was succeeded as publisher by his son-in-law Philip Graham, whose wife, Katharine Graham took over after his death, in 1963.
Eugene Meyer died on July 17, 1959, as a result of a combination of heart disease and cancer.
His advice to a young associate regarding the secret to success, was, “Know more than anyone else in the same business, work harder than anyone else, and be absolutely honest.”