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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Lilliputian Revenge–How Tiny Larry Finkel Rejected ‘The Little Man’ And Became A Scion Of Capitalism

Larry Finkel was the son of jeweler in Elton, Connecticut, the only Jew in Oak Hills Country Day School, the only Democrat, and an Adlai Stevenson supporter.

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Oak Hill was a school for the wealthy, well-heeled sons and daughters of the town’s first industrialists – the Captains of Industry of the 19th Century who made Elton into a manufacturing hub and the home of hardware, tool-and-die works, locks, and ball bearings.  In its day Elton was one of the largest towns in America and produced armaments for the Union Army, munitions and materiel for the United States in WWI, and for the expansionist post-War economy.

Image result for images 19th century ball bearing factory

The fathers of Larry Finkel’s classmates at Oak Hills no longer worked at the mills and factories of Elton, but lived on private incomes thanks to their grandfathers.  They led an easy, privileged life, wintering in Palm Beach or Gstaad and summering on Nantucket, and spending the rest of the year playing golf and tennis at the Country Club.

Few of these West Enders were politically engaged.  They had the characteristic diffidence of their English ancestors, rested on the knowledge that given their substantial wealth neither Republicans nor Democrats could either dislodge them nor disinherit them, and left politics to those of lesser means who had something more at stake.   Their life in fact was no different from that of manorial England – privileged, sheltered, and removed.

Of course they had to leave the West End occasionally but only reluctantly.  Downtown Elton was typical of a rustbelt city which had lost its 19th century luster.  The clothing stores no longer catered to the carriage trade but to factory workers who still kept the old plants running. 

Although West Enders could choose from among their own for professional services, there were no exclusive pharmacies, barbers, hardware stores, or jewelers; and so the Eliots, Lawrences, Lodges, Sargents, and Lowells had to occasionally drink from local waters.

Dwight Finkel, Larry’s father, was a jeweler on Main Street in Elton – a good, trusted, competent one who had worked in the Diamond District in New York before moving to Connecticut. Thanks to his respectful treatment of the West Enders and his generous contributions to the Hospital Auxiliary, the Downtown Improvement Project, and to local scholarship funds, his son was given a once-in-a-generation admission to Oak Hills Country Day.

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Dwight Finkel, however, despite his careful husbandry of the town’s upper class and successful attempt to enroll his son in the exclusive school for the old-family Anglo-Saxon legatees, was a Progressive.  In his days in New York he had joined the labor movement begun by Samuel Gompers and continued with the support of Lower East Side activists and Upper West Side Jewish intellectuals, and by the time he had moved to Elton he was a committed socialist.

At the same time, he understood the capitalist class system well enough to know that only by working and manipulating it, could his son leave the merchant class and join the professional one.  Oak Hills was a feeder for Choate, Andover, Hotchkiss, and St. Marks which in turn gave Yale, Harvard, and Princeton well-educated and –tailored young men.

Somehow Finkel was able to convince local labor leaders of his commitment to their cause and his West End supporters of his loyalty.  He saw no contradiction in working within an oppressive system if it meant reward for his children and yet fighting to erode the influence of class, privilege, and money. 

“Stevenson is for the little man”, Larry Finkel would tell his classmates at Oak Hill, all of whom were from rock-ribbed, immovable Republican families.  None of them had any idea what Larry was talking about, what a ‘little man’ was or why he was important.  The only thing they knew from the brief, dismissive chatter they overheard at home was that Adlai Stevenson was a socialist, communist, Leftist anarchist who had no place on any legitimate party ticket. 

Larry could not articulate his father’s well-reasoned arguments – the cabal of Wall Street, Park Avenue, and industrial robber barons which kept the working man in chains, social progress stunted, and true freedom impossible. 

Unfortunately, Larry Finkel was very little himself; so small and thin in fact that his nickname was ‘Needles’.  A boy with more size and presence might have acquitted himself more successfully as a young political advocate; but there was no way that Little Larry could possibly get this or any other point across to his blond, blue-eyed, insouciant classmates.

The truth of the matter was that although these classmates were from Elton’s old-line, old-guard, privileged class, most had fallen far from the ancestral tree.  Bobby Winthrop, for example, grandson of Henry Winthrop, who not many years after leaving Hertfordshire invested his family fortune in Standard Oil, made millions in the pre-Crash market, and built the Winthrop Bearing Company at exactly the right time.  American tanks and armored cars ran on his bearings and he recouped the English Winthrop fortune many times over.

Bobby Winthrop struggled with English, math, science, and language.  Oak Hill was far too small to keep students back and no headmaster would even consider such disciplinary measures for the child of one of Elton’s premier families. 

He was not alone.  Few children of the other families of the West End ever inherited the genes of their accomplished forbears.  Once they graduated from Elton, they went on to New England remedial boarding schools and then on to third-tier colleges.

So even if Larry Finkel had been a big person and forceful and articulate in conveying his father’s progressive concerns, they would have fallen on deaf ears.  The fact that he was so tiny made the task impossible.

Despite the hectoring and teasing he had to endure at Oak Hills, Larry went on – again thanks both to his native abilities and his father’s continued generosity - to St. Paul’s, perhaps the most conservative, Anglo-Saxon, Christian, elite boarding school in New England.  His father was adamant about his choice.  He was aware of the abuse his son took at Oak Hills and would likely suffer at St. Paul’s, but a credentialed Jew was always better than one without papers, and his son’s resolve would be strengthened an annealed in the forges of WASP furnaces.

On the contrary, Larry learned an important lesson – elites always rule, the little man is always forgotten or ignored; and the only path to success, wealth, and ease is become one of their number.  At Yale, of course, he could not join Fence Club – the exclusive above-ground fraternity for children  of the best New England families; nor was he ever considered for Skull and Bones, the secret society of the university whose privileged members included many American presidents, financiers, and industrialists. 

Image result for images yale logo

He could, however, heel the Yale Daily News where his ambition, aggressiveness, intelligence, and innate snoopiness were prized. Many of his colleagues privately said “Just like a Jew” but knew it would be fatal to wrong Little Larry who parlayed his university journalism into important positions at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

Larry learned both socialism and American social mobility from his father, but quickly abandoned liberalism for individualistic conservatism.  It was there that he found his voice.  There was no such thing as ‘the little man’ but only big men who kept their eyes on the prize, agilely operated on ethical margins, deftly worked the competing sides of labor and capital and supply and demand to their advantage, and most importantly knew which social hurdles were too high and which could be avoided.

Larry’s diminutive size never held him back.  He had long since internalized big man authority; and while never a Napoleon, still gave his lieutenants a shiver  every time he walked into the room.
He was older and retired when political correctness came into vogue, and much was made of ‘inclusivity’.  He, as a small person, would be a protected minority today; but he was having none of it.

Of course a psychiatrist would have a field day with Larry Finkel.  The coincidence of small stature and support of Adlai Stevenson’s little man had to be formative.  There was no way that his trajectory could have been otherwise.  He had no other course than to reject both the limitations of his Lilliputian size and the supposedly put-upon little man. 

Looked at another way, bullying works and social norms always prevail.  Had he not be so badgered as Needles he might not have been so defiant in defense of individualism.  Had he not been socialized by the American elite, encouraged in the ways of capitalism, privilege, intelligence, and social preeminence, he might have been more favorable to liberalism.


Half of his father’s ambitions succeeded far more than he had ever hoped.  His son had become a scion of American enterprise and had been accepted into its power structure.  He was discouraged that Larry had so completely gone over to the other political sides and not only had rejected progressivism but had become a hostile and outspoken critic of it.   Yet, he had known the risks, and was happy with half the rewards.

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