I turned the page in Don DeLillo's new ten-ton novel, Underworld, and right there, smack in the middle of the book, a character named Rochelle asks, "Who in the world was Fred F. French?" She is standing in the polished art-deco lobby of a Fifth Avenue skyscraper named the Fred F. French Building. I wanted to grab the shoulders of Rochelle or Don DeLillo and answer that, not only do I know who Fred F. French was but that I saw the man himself in Pawling, New York, while making house calls with my father.
It was during FDR's first term. I was waiting in our Studebaker parked in front of French's country house, a handsome, new, red brick Georgian building of agreeable proportions, surrounded by recently transplanted shrubs and a huge elm tree, also newly transplanted and held upright by guy wires staked to the ground.
Father came out of the front door carrying his black medical bag, and walking alongside him was Fred F. French. They were both bald, bespectacled, bow tied, and in shirtsleeves, chatting amiably. I remember how much they looked alike, and how surprised I was that the mythic Fred F. French appeared very much the everyday human being.
But Fred French was not an everyday human being. He rose heroically from dire poverty to become a self-made real estate tycoon. Born in Manhattan in 1883, he was the eldest of four, whose father, a cigar maker, died when Fred was a child. To help keep the family together in their tiny house in the Bronx, where they had moved, the boy peddled papers, washed windows, and mowed lawns. But Mother French was a strong, willful woman, and a graduate of the University of Michigan. She insisted her son get an education. He won a Pulitzer scholarship, ensuring him of four years of high school, and eventually, after a year at Princeton and a spell out west, he took an engineering course at Columbia. Thereafter, in a series of what we would now call "temp jobs," his salary rose from $5 to $18 a week, and when the last one expired, in 1907, he found himself sitting in City Hall Park, broke, tired, and hungry.
"The only person in the world I could think of to ask for aid," he recalled, "was Andrew W. Edson of the Board of Education." Edson had offices on 59th Street, so Fred French set out walking the five miles straight up Broadway from City Hall to Columbus Circle, caught Edson coming out of his office, went up to the man and said, "Mr. Edson, may I borrow $500?" Edson asked, "What security do you have?" to which French replied briskly, "Nothing but my personal note." Edson was about to write out a check when the audacious French said, "And pardon me, Mr. Edson, but could I have $10 of that in cash?" The man peeled off a ten spot, wrote a check for $490, and Fred French was on his way. He spent the $10—all of it—on "one glorious meal" at the Savoy Hotel.
His first move as a real estate wheeler-dealer was to buy the Bronx house where he lived. By leveraging it, he raised the capital to put up a small building in the Bronx, which he sold at a profit. That, along with his hands-on learning as a building-construction superintendent, emboldened the energetic youth and led to his forma-tion of the Fred F. French Companies, developers of Manhattan real estate. "You can't overbuild in New York," was the phrase he used to clinch many a deal.
The system that brought French success—he called it the French Plan—was to repay investors their original investment plus a 6 percent dividend before taking any profits for the French company. This was the financing principle in play when he announced his intention, in 1925, to build Tudor City—at that time, the largest housing development ever undertaken in mid-Manhattan—at the east end of 42nd Street, then crowded with slaughterhouses and tenements. He was content, he said, with a small profit margin on a large business. The French Plan also financed that spectacular art-deco skyscraper on Fifth Avenue. But Knickerbocker Village downtown, a massive, low-income, 1,600-apartment complex between the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, had been financed by a loan from FDR's Reconstruction Finance Corporation, as one of the nation's first publicly subsidized urban-redevelopment projects. If Fred French was a first-rate builder, he was, alas, a third-rate landlord in this project, because on the day his eager new tenants moved into their new Knickerbocker digs, they found conditions unlivable. A study by Fordham professor Mark Naison describes how the ensuing confrontation between the stonewalling Fred French Management and the Knickerbocker tenants led to the rent-control laws that, greatly to New York's disadvantage, have lasted to this day.
New Yorkers knew Fred F. French as a tough landlord, but that's not how we knew him in our small town. Though our neighbors and townspeople never saw him, his Ozymandian outrages were much discussed in the downtown barbershop, pool hall, firehouse, and saloons. So it was little wonder a nine-year-old kid would clearly remember his first sighting of Fred F. French.
He had arrived in town during the craw of the depression, a time when hobo camps multiplied alongside the tracks at Libby's Crossing, and when it was common to have our mealtimes interrupted by transients begging at the back door for food scraps. Yet at this desperate time, French was buying up fields, meadows, woodlots, streams, and whole farms on Quaker Hill. Eventually, his holdings were counted in miles rather than acres.
Town folk would watch the doings of Fred F. French with a mixture of wonder and dismay. He'd tear down homesteads that had been the family home to several generations. He planted trees. My God, did he plant trees! As kids on the way to school, we'd watch full-grown trees from a Westchester nursery dragged up on flatbed trucks to transplant beside his mansion on the hill—one elm so large that its burlap-wrapped roots were on one flatbed, and the body of the tree rested on a second flatbed truck driving backward all the way from Scarsdale.
It was a time of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program intended to keep unemployed youth off the streets while reforesting the countryside, and Fred F. French took full advantage of it. Some said 60,000 evergreen seedlings went into his fields during one summer. Around town, people said that Fred F. French built his house so that he could sit on his front porch and look from horizon to horizon and say to himself, "It's all mine." And he did, and he could.
In addition to farms and homesteads, he bought up, fenced in, gated, and posted the mile-long pristine lake where we locals used to swim, fish, and picnic. He even tried to buy the country road running alongside his lake, but the town wouldn't sell, so, overnight, signs appeared along the road saying PRIVATE! and warning trespassers of severe consequences if they strayed over to the lake. He rebuilt his boathouse and bathhouse to give each of the French children a private changing room. The door of each room bore a sign proclaiming its owner's best school subject: one sign read "Geometry II," another "Latin," and so on.
The boathouse sheltered an array of water-sports equipment and half a dozen brand-new Adirondack rowboats bearing the engraved emblem of Abercrombie & Fitch. The boats were round-bottomed, of remarkable craftsmanship, made of layered bent wood, shellacked to a high gloss, and fitted with bronze oarlocks and basket-weave seats. Fred F. French forbade motorboats on his lake, a rule that holds to this day.
The memory of the Lindbergh kidnapping was still fresh, and French hired a bodyguard to look after the four French youngsters, three boys and a girl. The guard was said to be an ex-New York City detective and was a familiar figure in town, dressed in a dark suit, driving a shiny black Ford four-door V8. It was the car he'd use to drop off the three French boys at the nearby private boarding school where they were day students.
Fred F. French Jr. was the youngest and a schoolmate of my elder brother. His father, fearing that the frail youngster was lacking in bravado, required that the school provide the boy with boxing lessons. There was talk around our dinner table about a natural history museum that the French boys maintained in an upper story of their house. Word filtered down to the village that the whole family would set out into the fields and swamps with nets and jars to catch bugs, beetles, and butterflies, and then classify and mount them in glass cases for display.
The villager view of those who lived in the house on the hill was that they were eccentrics, with an almost Teddy Rooseveltian preoccupation with self-improvement. French, like TR before him, had spent a year of his youth as a western cowboy, named his first son Theodore, and loved being immersed in big dirt-moving projects. There the likeness ended. He was an intensely private person. From our distance, Fred F. French was a father doting in splendid isolation.
For a few months one fall, the bodyguard brought Ellen French to the public school, where she sat beside me in Miss Giberson's fifth-grade classroom. I remember taking pity on the delicate, shy, and withdrawn little girl suddenly finding herself in the midst of rough and rowdy townies. At one point, I leaned across the aisle and whispered what I thought were words of comfort. I said, "You know, Ellen, your father is very rich."
Then very early one morning in 1936, the phone rang in our house. Mrs. French was on the line asking Father to come quickly, because Mr. French wouldn't wake up. Fred F. French died in his sleep at age 54.
Mrs. French, the three boys, and Ellen moved away and were seldom heard from again. The house stood empty for a year, as various predatory speculators circled the estate. After all, the lakefront, subdivided into a thousand waterfront lots, offered irresistible fast-buck potential. But finding the combination that would separate that lake from the rest of the holding proved difficult, giving time for a white knight to gather the resources to preserve the vast French holdings.
The white knight turned out to be one of the most public and outgoing people of his day, Lowell Thomas—newscaster, adventurer, movie mogul. Thomas as a cub reporter in World War I discovered Lawrence of Arabia. And the once very private home of the reclusive Fred F. French became a destination for presidents and princes as well as for the many friends of the gregarious Thomas.
As for Fred French's New York City monuments? They still stand proud: the Fred F. French Building, designated a National Landmark; Tudor City, more than ever a prime midtown address; Knickerbocker Village, tucked at river's edge on Manhattan, overlooking the Gothic splendor of the Brooklyn Bridge.