Oral History Transcript — Dr. Henry G. Walter, Jr.
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
Interview with Dr. Henry G. Walter, Jr.
Dr. Henry Walter; May 24, 1996
ABSTRACT: Henry G. Walter Jr. lawyer and head of the Vetlesen Foundation that supported the Lamont Observatory and weather research discusses his life and becoming a lawyer; his involvement with Unger Vetlesen and the Vetlesen Foundation, the schooner Vema, and the foundation's support of oceanography; his relationship with Maurice Ewing.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:This is an interview with Henry G. Walter Jr. We are recording this on the 24th of May 1996, in Manhattan, New York, and I know that you were born, as you say, right at midnight on September 25th, 1910 in Queens, New York, and I should add, at this point, that you have just given me a copy of something that you wrote one year ago, "Random Leaves" — " More Random Leaves From A Traveler's Notebook — A Reprise At Eighty-Five," which is in part an autobiography, but I'm curious about your family, and your early life. Who were your parents, and what did they do?
Walter:Well, as indicated in the reprise, I had four European grandparents, and two were from Ireland — my mother's people — and two were from the German part of Switzerland. My two parents were born in the United States — first generation in the U.S. They married and I was the first-born. My mother died when I was seven. We were very close. I had the misfortune to be a pretty little boy, with curls which my mother kept on, and so on. It caused me quite a lot of grief among my friends, as you might imagine.
Doel:I can indeed.
Walter:And she was very kind to me, and because I had problems with my contemporaries, she taught me at home a great deal.
Doel:Were you attending school regularly, or did she usually do your —
Walter:No, this was up to seven — but no kindergarten, because that was traumatic — and she discovered that I could learn rather easily, and so she did this. And I didn't go to school until I was six and a half, shortly before her death. Then she died — and she was very warm, close, and affectionate, and gave me great security. As you know, the first two years are very important for the limbic system and the emotional balance up to — having tender loving care up till six or seven is very important, and I was very fortunate to have that. My father had been a blacksmith, and then he was also an amateur boxer, and he became — because of his reputation, he got into Tammany [Hall] politics, and as he later told me — it was proposed that he run for Borough President on the Tammany ticket, but he was told that he would have to hand out the sewer contracts, and he declined. Someone else accepted and that ended that man's career in politics.
Doel:He objected to doing this?
Walter:He objected to this. The man who did go in, a man named Lawrence Gresser, subsequently served time in jail for doing the same thing. My father had quite a sense of rectitude, as you can see, and he certainly drilled it into me.
Doel:How old were you when this came up, the possibility that he would run for Queens Borough President?
Walter:I asked him when I was twelve "Should I go into politics like you?" and he told me the story.
Doel:And that's when he told you?
Walter:Right. So, the territory where we lived, the population was largely Polish and Italian —
Doel:What part of Queens was that?
Walter:It was a place called Elmhurst, and in those days it was mostly fields, and a long way to walk to P.S. 89. It was the road back that involved running the gauntlet. Fortunately for us in those days, there were no knives and guns, just gangs and rocks, and I learned that hit-and-run was the only way to survive — I remember one time, telling my father when he came home from work that I'd really escaped from a large gang. He said "Did you bloody some noses?" I said "No, Papa, I ran." He was so furious, he took his belt off, and chased me around the table, and I thought "My God, there is no justice," but anyway, I survived.
Doel:[Laughing] That's interesting. How old were roughly at that time, you think, when you told him that?
Walter:Ooh, I was pushing all the time. My mother had said ''You can get out of school at p.s. 89 sooner if you go to summer school. I did that and skipped grades, and I went to Newtown High School which was much closer.
Doel:How many were in your family when you were growing up?
Walter:Just myself and my younger sister.
Doel:I can imagine that losing your mother at age seven, though, is a traumatic event in your life.
Walter:Yes, and our father became one of the first of the single parents. In my mother's Irish family there were many aunts, one of whom acted as mater familias, and helped us a great deal. We were very fond of Aunt Anna.
Doel:The extended family then, lived reasonably close to one another in Elmhurst?
Walter:No, no, my mother's family lived in a place called Corona — which was not then as black as it subsequently became — and we lived in Elmhurst, so it was quite a ways. My maternal grandmother did not approve of my father, since he was not Catholic. As children of a mixed marriage, the usual compromise was made: my sister and I were raised as Catholics. My father kept the faith even after my mother was gone.
Doel:What sort of house did you live in when you were growing up?
Walter:Well, we lived in a single attached house. I remember part of my jobs was tending the coal furnace in the basement, it was very dark, and I'd sometimes hear mice or rats running around. My job was to bank the fire at night, and it really scared the living daylights out of me, but the old man said "Well, part of the job, kid," so I went through it. After a while, my father must have suffered some reverses, because the house was sold. And then we moved closer to Newtown High, on the second floor of — I guess it was a two-family house.
Doel:I was curious; you had mentioned a moment ago that you were thinking about going into politics when you were twelve, or at least you had asked your father —
Walter:Well, like many kids at twelve, I thought the thing to do was what the old man did — maybe follow in his steps, which was all. He was a lieutenant in the local fire company, and we used to go see the fire horses, and walk down to the boulevard to watch the cars go by. Remember, we're talking about a long time ago.
Doel:Yes, I can imagine. That's around the early 1920s, that we're talking about here.
Walter:I went from high school to Columbia, where I had a scholarship.
Doel:O.K. I want to get to Columbia in just a moment. In fact, I was curious too, do you remember reading a lot when you were growing up?
Doel:What sort of things were you interested in then? Say, junior high or high school?
Walter:My goodness, I read — there were all kinds of Edgar Rice Burroughs books, Tarzan and the Apes, etc. — our Irish aunt indulged us in buying books. I used to use the library a great deal. I was very slow in developing physically, so I took refuge in reading. I was a total failure in athletics in high school, to my father's absolute disgust.
Doel:He really was pushing you in that direction, or wanted you to succeed?
Walter:He'd been a fighter, a blacksmith — he felt it was part of being a man, and he was disappointed that his son was nowhere. I went out for cross-country and finished last regularly. Finally he said, "Well son, I guess you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear", and that really stuck in my head, so when I went to Columbia, I decided to go out for rowing to try to prove the old man wrong. Now that's the biggest incentive a son can have, I think. So I worked my fool head off as a freshman and got on the freshman crew, but I really wanted to get on this, and I was fortunate enough to make the bow seat on an all-winning varsity crew in my sophomore year, and that got me off the hook. The old man said, "Well, you're O.K."
Doel:Would he come down and see you when you had rowing events at Columbia?
Walter:Oh, yes, yes, he would go to the races, particularly Poughkeepsie.
Doel:You mentioned you had spent a lot of time at the library in growing up. Was this the library in that part of Queens, or the school library?
Walter:The Queens library. I used to go to read books on magic, fables, and adventure. Nothing very serious.
Doel:Novels as well as non-fiction, a pretty wide range of interests?
Walter:Yes. I read a lot of fiction in which I could fancy myself escaping from some awful position, where someone was beating the hell out of me, [laughter] after my mother was gone; I had the curls cut off.
Doel:This was naturally curly hair that you had growing up?
Walter:It was just a question of time; I had practically no self-confidence at all. The rowing of course helped, particularly since we had a championship crew that won everything. I just lucked out.
Doel:Yes. Did you have any particularly memorable teachers in junior high or high school?
Walter:Oh, yes. I had a lot of them. I had one fellow in high school that was a one-armed Latin teacher, and he was very supportive, because I was fascinated by Latin.
Doel:Languages, you mean, were easy, or —
Walter:Most studies, I could handle. And I was fascinated by Latin, so I was one of the few who took four years of it. The teacher was very kind to me. I could ask him about Valhalla, and other mysteries. He had me teach some classes. He encouraged me to ask questions and think. He was superb. I had a good math teacher in high school. I could ask him "How do we know that two times two is four?" He knew I had little money for college and would need a Regent's scholarship, he said, "Why don't you retake the algebra exam?" You could do that. And I said, "But I scored 98%," and he said ''You should be able to score a hundred." Which I did. [Laughter] I took his advice and got the 100. There were a number of teachers who were helpful, and I was beginning to realize that there was an awful lot that I didn't know. But the big experience in my life was when I was eighteen, and I had an accidental meeting with [Albert] Einstein.
Doel:That's very interesting.
Walter:It was probably the most humiliating experience I've ever had.
Doel:I should say, you're pointing to the reprise — that you've written about it there. Why was it the most humiliating experience?
Walter:Well, I had a summer job taking care of a rich man's grandchildren, teaching them tennis, swimming, that kind of thing, and this was a man who had a great many friends in Germany, including Einstein.
Doel:And who was this person?
Walter:This was a person named Henry Goldman. He was the Goldman of the Goldman, Sachs firm, and he'd been thrown out of the firm, because after World War I — because of his strong pro-Germanic feeling.
Doel:Right, and certainly in the First World War, prejudice against Germans was very strong.
Walter:He was very wealthy, and he had rented the Otto Kahn Camp up in the Adirondacks, and I looked after these kids. There was a central mess hall, and then many cabins around, and the parents would take their morning leisure resting, while the kids and me — and the old man — he was almost blind — and his German reader and his English reader would have breakfast together, and we'd have a hilarious time, and I was getting fifty bucks a week and board, and that was a lot —
Doel:That was good money in those days.
Walter:He would occasionally bait me for his pleasure, which I took as part of the job. So, when I saw Einstein, I thought "My God, what's going to happen," because math was not one of my specialties.
Doel:But that's interesting, you recognized him, just seeing him.
Walter:Oh yes, I was eighteen, so this must have been 1928 — and it wasn't long before the old man, my boss, started to bait me about math, and finally he thundered, "And you mean to tell me, Hank, that after two years at Columbia you can't answer these two simple mathematical questions?" Well, they weren't simple to me. I blushed down to my toes, hung my head in shame, and said "No sir, I cannot." The silence was painful. Suddenly Einstein spoke up, and he said "Young man, when you say you don't know, you've taken the first step toward learning. Now all you have to do is find out the answer." I was delighted that somebody had gotten me off the hook. I never saw him again, but I was very grateful. I then began to think about this, and I realized, "This guy has just told me what to do with the rest of my life, that learning is never finished, and that we have to keep on learning to fill in the holes in the past. And I soon realized that knowledge is constantly changing, so it's the only way of keeping up. The lesson was very useful. I had trained for the law, but most of my life has been outside of law. I've had to learn discipline after discipline outside the law.
Doel:Yes. I was curious, when you say that about Einstein, did he answer in English or in German?
Walter:Oh no, in English. He did speak English.
Doel:Yes. His English was difficult, at least in the 1920s, many have said, prior to the time that you say —
Walter:Yes, but this wasn't very much. I've told you everything he said. [Laughter] I've mentioned this story many times to friends, and they said, "Well, did you know that Einstein had a little trouble himself as a student with math?" [Laughter] I said, "No, I didn't know that, but it would never have entered my mind, and I'm sure it didn't his." I'm sure he felt it was awkward for me, and tried to help me out. I was very appreciative. He went out, went out sailing, and in a sense, went by.
Doel:Did Henry Goldman talk to you about his relationship with Einstein, or any other German intellectuals, when you were in his employ?
Walter:Oh, yes, he knew Einstein, and he bought a very fine fiddle for a German violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. Goldman was a learned man. He was very rich, and a patron of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Joe Levine was one of the people he loved to listen to, [during] bridge games. He was an extraordinary man.
Doel:That is very, very interesting. How did you get that job, that summer job with him? This is the end of your sophomore year that we're talking about?
Walter:Yes. I had just finished a championship rowing season. Nicholas Murray Butler had cabled us his "Hurrah, hurrah," because we had won the varsity 4 mile race at Poughkeepsie rowing in the middle of the river, so rough that four of the eight crews entered sank.
Doel:That's very interesting. The names of all those who had been on the crew were widely known at the time.
Walter:Oh, yes. Rowing is a very old American sport, and for years Columbia had done very well. I'm sorry to tell you that 1929 was the last year that the Columbia heavyweight varsity won all its races. And the four mile race is no longer. I used to go with the others to church on Sunday, not because I was so religious, but just to get away from the camp on the river. In the Catholic Church which we attended, there was a psalm that I thought was particularly appropriate for the four mile race. It was called "Mother dear, oh pray for me," Because the last mile of the race was marked by a bridge which was when the psalm was on all our minds.
Doel:It comes to mind, doesn't it?
Walter:Myself. Yes, that was where you won or lost the race. Well, I'm talking too much about
Doel:This is all very interesting. I'm curious what you were doing during your high school summers. I assume you were working.
Walter:I worked in any job I could get. I had a part-time job as a telephone answering machine for a local doctor, and other odd jobs.
Doel:You'd take his messages when people would contact him.
Walter:Yes. And, of course I was trying to keep in shape. I appreciated that my father was making a great effort to keep the family together, so I learned to cook, and do other things, and tidy up the house. I wouldn't claim that I was so very good at that, but he was a marvelous man. We always had a very good breakfast prepared by the old man. I tried to prepare the dinner, so I learned to bake cakes, and other things. The days were pretty full [Laughter]. We didn't think anything of it, just, that was it. We didn't have a mother, and my sister and I knew that we had to help out.
Doel:You mentioned earlier that those studies came easily to you.
Doel:Did you have an interest in science during your high school years, particularly?
Walter:None. The old man had told me, "Well, son, if you don't know what you want to do, one of the best things to do is study law. That will give you three alternatives: practice law, go into politics, or it's also a good basis for business."
Doel:So you were thinking in terms of being a lawyer at the time you were in high school?
Doel:How did you come to go to Columbia? How did that work out, with the financing of your education, and —
Walter:Oh, well, I had a state scholarship, and I lived at home and commuted to Columbia. It was a college of distinction within my commuting range. I also had a New York State Regent's scholarship, and I thought Columbia was a better place than NYU or CCNY.
Doel:What were your impressions of Columbia when you first got there?
Walter:I was overwhelmed! I was concerned primarily about making sure I could retain my scholarship, so I had to watch that, and I also wanted to win my father's esteem. Between working my tail off on rowing, and working on the books just to be sure that I would stay in, I had my hands full.
Doel:How much time did the rowing take once you got involved in that?
Walter:Oh, a lot, because we would have to go from Columbia, which was at 116th street, to 218th Street, off of — the boat house was at Baker Field, so it was a long commitment, took up a lot of time, and well, that was — but I didn't have any money, and these other guys are asking girls out, and so on. Well, I was interested in girls, but I had no money to take them out, buy them flowers, or entertain them. So I said "Walter, you just have to postpone that. Never mind!" [laughing]. Of course, rowing was fabulous, and for part of the season we ate for free at a training table. Some of my rowing pals were friendly, and they said "This guy Walter eats wind pudding with air sauce." At that time for 15 cents you could get a bowl of soup, plus two rolls, and a pat of butter. But when you got on training table, holy cow! This was three meals! This was an unexpected thing. [Laughter] But then, the marvelous thing about the rowing was that Columbia had a special camp on the New Jersey bank of the Hudson River, north of the town Poughkeepsie, right next to the railroad tracks. The trains would roar by, and there was a donkey engine going on and off to keep the water running, but after three or four days, we got accustomed to that, and the noise was forgotten. It was wonderful to be there in June — classes were over, I could talk with my fellow oarmen, and row. "What is as rare as a day in June...?”
Doel:Sounds like it was a very memorable occasion.
Walter:Oh, yes, yes, and we were doing well.
Doel:Were you there for four years, as an undergraduate, did you finish in four?
Walter:Credits. I got my B.A. in three and a half years. If you got a lot of A’s, you got a bonus.
Doel:Which one of your teachers was particularly memorable at Columbia?
Walter:Oh, there was a marvelous man, named Harry Carman, a professor of history. He had two pals, one was Dean Hawkes, and the other was a professor of philosophy whose name, I think, was John Coss. They used to pal around together. Whenever I had any problems or concerns, I could talk to them. They were always very kind to me. I took courses with Carman particularly, when I was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the end of the third year, I didn't have the money to buy a key, they offered to do it for me. [Laughter] They said, "No, we'll buy you the key." Tears rolled down my cheeks. But I declined, and ultimately was able to buy one.
Doel:What did you feel that you should have been doing?
Walter:Well, I didn't feel I had enough original thought, I thought I was just absorbing a lot of stuff. The editor of the college newspaper, the Spectator, was a friend of mine. I talked to him about this. He said "Hank, refuse it and we'll run a big story on it." But I didn't want to cause any trouble for my faculty friends and I said no. I did find funds for the key. Through all of this, which I note in the booklet, my social graces lagged. I became aware that I was something from the sticks, but I learned by watching how other people handled themselves.
Doel:I was going to say, that clearly at the end of the Columbia period, you were already in the midst of the Great Depression.
Walter:Right, and it just continued on and on.
Doel:I meant to ask you before, what history did Carman teach?
Walter:American history. He was a marvelous man. He came from upstate, I think around Saratoga. Everyone regarded him as a fine gentleman and scholar who did not parade his intelligence to impress people.
Doel:Where did you talk to him mostly? Was it at table, that you would see him, or did you meet him in the office?
Walter:He was a fellow I'd taken a course with, and I had to write some papers for him and so on, and discuss these back and forth. So I would talk to him about things, and I found I could help with some kids.
Doel:What sort of things do you have in mind? How were you helping him with those kids?
Walter:When I say kid, I mean another student who wasn't doing too well. I'd say, this kid seems lonely or something, I'd try and to see what I could do. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't. I felt he was so great, that I would do anything to help him — I ran a study hall at the college. Our grandsons also have done well at jobs while at college. Between rowing and hitting the books, and running a study hall, and doing the other things, I was just hanging on.
Doel:What did running a study hall entail?
Walter:Well, maintaining order, and looking around for some kid who seemed to have trouble, and then trying to help him, that kind of thing. It wasn't very difficult, and I had the cachet of being a varsity athlete.
Doel:It involved some tutoring in different subjects?
Walter:Well, yes, encouraging, and so on. Not really extended tutoring. Some kids get along by themselves, and just need to have an atmosphere of study. Others did need some help.
Doel:I'm curious; you've mentioned of course the rowing and the study hall. Were there other jobs that you were working during your years at Columbia?
Walter:Well, I had the summer jobs, and the summer jobs produced winter jobs. Some were for very rich people, helping out with their kids. I used to go down and play with them, and take them out to play in the park, and so on. What amused me was that, as a boy I never had expensive presents. When some snow came, and I found an old box, and said "Come on, we'll go sliding down the hill, no need for a sled and it's more fun!" I got a football, and threw it back and forth, and gave one kid a football helmet for a Christmas present. His parents were very nice, but they didn't seem to know how to handle this boy. In return I was given a Tiffany clock! And I thought, "Oh my God, what on earth is this." I belonged to the generation of kids who said, "Where are you going?" "Out." There were no Nintendo toys or anything else. We learned to amuse ourselves.
Walter:Yes, just being out and around — throw simple things, buy a tennis ball, and "Come on, let's play catch." This was just S.O.P. [standard operating procedure] in my circles. My sister and I would have a regular routine every summer. In June we would say to our father "Dad, do you think we'll go away to the mountains this summer?" ''Yes.'' "And will we have a carriage?" "Well, of course." "Who will drive?" "Well, we'll have to see." Now, we knew this would never happen but this thing went on for four years. We enjoyed it tremendously. My sister would say "Now, Hank, you've been driving long enough, it's my turn!" and I'd say O.K. We never thought anything about it and had a fine time — we weren't the only ones who did this, that was the way things were then.
Doel:I understand. Was the Great Depression particularly hard on your father, and on the family, or was he relatively sheltered?
Walter:Yes, at that time he was selling real estate, and he had worked in the Internal Revenue Department — he was out of that, so he was also an income tax consultant — but those were thin times. I remembered I learned about the five cent cigar. He was a smoker of White Owls; he'd need a good nickel cigar. I never smoked, I didn't like the smell of them, [laughter] they were pretty stinky — you know, you could imagine, around an old house. But we never felt deprived, or anything else, so no problem. I was a little leery as I got on about my own social lacks.
Doel:You had mentioned this was something that you were watching others to see —
Walter:Yes, yes. Try and pick up on.
Doel:Yes. One other thing I was curious about, during the time you were at Columbia, what fields — what particularly intrigued you? What courses seemed to be most interesting that you took? You mentioned of course, the history under Carman.
Walter:Well, history and economics were fascinating, because I never had any, and also, well the whole thing was — we had a marvelous teacher of English literature, who's named Van Doren, who's son's name unfortunately lives in infamy.
Doel:Yes, I know of whom you speak. [Laughter]
Walter:They were all new to me, and fascinating, the Greeks, the Romans — you know, it was all fascinating to me, and it was all new!
Doel:Had you ever thought possibly of going into another career as you were going through Columbia, or did the law still seem to be where you thought you were heading?
Walter:Oh, I was just going along with what I was doing, that was about all I could handle. [Laughter] I had my hands full.
Doel:Yes. And you mentioned that you had gotten out after three and a half years. I should ask at this point, is there anything else that was particularly memorable, meaningful for you during your Columbia years that we haven't spoken about yet?
Walter:No, it was all part of growing up. I was twenty — no, I was nineteen when I finished, actually, and it was all part of new experiences for me. My social life was pretty limited, but I never felt deprived in any way. I was just always wishing I had more time, and sometimes I would wonder what would ever happen to me later on and so on, but I didn't go out very —
Doel:Sure, yes. When you had a few spare hours, did you spend much time in the museums in New York? Did you have time for that, or an interest in that at the time?
Walter:No. There were the libraries, and I must have gone to the Museum of Natural History, of which I'm a longtime trustee, but I don't remember. I'm sure I must have gone.
Doel:Did you do much traveling outside of the city? You mentioned of course going out to Poughkeepsie. [Sound of door opening]
Doel:I was just curious, if during any of the time that you were at Columbia, did you get to travel outside of the immediate New York area and the city?
Walter:No, not that I can remember. I'd go down to Washington occasionally. When I finished, as I note in this book —
Doel:You're pointing to the "Reprise," right.
Walter:Right. The great disappointment of my life came when I was the decision editor of the Bugle, the Law Review in my year, and I was one of two candidates to work for, to act as a law clerk for Chief Justice — what's his name? He's a Columbia man, and my rival was a fellow — was a graduate student, and I lost out, in spite of my Phi Beta Kappa, and my Law Review, and this was a blow not just to my ego, but also to my purse, because — it was Harlan Fisk Sloan, was the Chief Justice at that time — because that job carried a salary of $4,000, in 1934, which was a whopper. I lost that, and I took the next best thing, a job with a Wall Street firm called Cravath, de Gersdorf, Swaine, and Wood, at $2,000. [Laughs]
Doel:But it is — that's a significant difference, for sure.
Walter:Oh, yes, yes.
Doel:This is the first year after you had finished law school that we're talking about at this point?
Doel:And you had stayed at Columbia for your training, for law school?
Doel:Had you thought about going —
Walter:I spent seven years at Columbia.
Doel:Yes. Did you think about going to any other law school, or did Columbia seem to be the one that you wanted to be at?
Walter:No, because I knew the territory, and I had a scholarship there, I thought "Well, just stay where you're at." One of the amusing things when I was in law school — I was really on my uppers, and I used to wear some very old clothes, because I didn't give a damn. But there were some other fellows that 1'd known from other schools, from Princeton and Yale who rowed, and these guys came from wealthy families, and I arranged to go up and we'd row a couple of times. They didn't think anything about the fact that I was wearing old clothes, so we had a very good relationship, and they didn't mind my old clothes at all. Whereas some other people, who were not so rich, said "Gee, that's just terrible, that you walk around like this." [laughter] So, you know, you never know. And this was a guy named Penny Whitehead from Princeton, and Reeve Slye — the family was related to the Governor, the present Governor of New Jersey, Madam Whitman. But actually, at the end of my first year in law school, we had picked up a crew based on a twenty nine crew, and we were rowing in the Olympic try-outs, '32 try-outs, and we got to the finals of that when we were beaten by California, which went on to win the Olympic gold.
Doel:That's interesting. California Berkeley, you mean.
Walter:So this carried a certain amount of "cudas" with these other types [laughter] at the thing, and it was amusing, but, that was it. I never thought about going anywhere else. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know about Cravath until somebody else said "Do you know you can" — I was sure I'd get this other job. It's a good thing to find out early on that you're -and I'm sure the other man was better qualified. It had a tremendous effect on my life, because if I'd been there, I would have probably gone on into working on appellate briefs — that's the normal course — whereas that's not my forte, my forte is ventureship.
Doel:Of course, that's the sort of thing one sees better in retrospect than at the time.
Walter:Only in retrospect, right.
Doel:That's very interesting. Clearly that was a fork in the road that you encountered then. How did you support yourself when you were in law school? Was it the same sorts of summertime activities that you had before?
Walter:It was the summertime, and then I had these other things as well, and I even helped my sister get through New Rochelle College.
Doel:Financially help her get through.
Walter:Yes. Not put her all the way through, but I — I found a number of ways to earn money.
Doel:What sorts of things were you doing? You had new things by that point.
Walter:Well, I'd mentioned taking — I had the summer jobs, take care of things for kids, and the study halls, and one thing and another, and it all seemed to — I mean the summer job was sheer profit, and there it was.
Doel:When you look back on your law school education at Columbia now, do you feel it was offering the kind of variety and depth in legal training that you wanted, or were there areas in which you later saw that you wished the curriculum had been stronger or more focused?
Walter:Oh, I thought the curriculum had been real good, and the real chance — and I think every law student would agree [that] your real education comes in working for the Bugle. You really have to work your butt off in that, in addition to the class work, so I had that advantage.
Doel:Yes. That's a good point. How much time did you end up spending on the Bugle staff?
Walter:Wooh. That was — I mean, the days would go from eight to twelve midnight, and I could row, you see I could get exercise at the gym, it was easy for me to keep it in balance — and then also at this time I think the Childs began to run "All you could eat" for two dollars or something, and about once every two weeks I and three or four guys would go down and we'd have about five plates [laughter] for two dollars or whatever it was. Other than that it was air pudding with wind sauce, but I mean grown men were selling apples on the corner there for a nickel, so I felt pretty lucky.
Doel:Did you play any role in politics at all during your time at law school?
Walter:No, no. I was just trying to get by. I had a full plate.
Doel:I'm sure you did.
Walter:And I was very conscious of the fact that all these other guys were going elsewhere and doing things, and [they'd] say ''You know Walter, if you're going to get around, I mean, how are you going to get any clients?" I hadn't thought about that.
Doel:This is already at law school that this discussion is going on?
Walter:So that was — it went on. But I've been very fortunate in my genetic make-up, which the gene for depression is missing. I don't know why, but I've always been — I get angry or other things, but I always have the feeling that whatever happens, I'll find a way out.
Doel:That sounds like that sustains you often during the —
Walter:Oh, yes. And I really — I have, like many another, cancer of the prostate, and atrial fibrillation and a few other things. Doesn't bother me, I figure it'll just — I'll go on and, it'll go on — and it's always proved to be right, I've been a, you know, a lucky stiff.
Doel:Was your father that way? Did he also avoid depression, and your sister?
Walter:Ooh, I couldn't — he was a man of fierce principles, going back to this thing I mentioned. So many of the things that he would talk to me about — he'd say "Goddamn this" or "Goddamn that."
Doel:I like that. We're resuming after another quick telephone break. You had been speaking generally about attracting — thinking about clients for your future practice when you were in law school, and I was curious, generally, what — of course you did apply and didn't get the one clerking position, but how did you see your career progressing? What idea did you have in mind in law school? What seemed to be satisfactory to you?
Walter:I really didn't know. I was so busy, I knew I had to get through first, and when I'd got through, then I'd deal with the next thing, which was where to get a job, and I thought if I could clerk for this Chief Justice that would be the best beginning. So I didn't get that and I took the next thing. And I describe, in this booklet, my experiences in the law firm, which I was there until the war began, and — well, there were the trivial and the unimportant things happened. And the one thing that began — this was the beginning of my Lamont experience, where I was — I had a nothing job of preparing a simple agreement to provide for drilling for oil on the Duke Fork. We represented a Cravath client, a client who was going to finance this, on the Duke of Windsor's Calgary ranch, and my job as lowest man on the totem pole was to take a bunch of papers up to the Waldorf for the Duke to sign, so he signed them and we had some chitchat, and "Good-bye." Wouldn't surprise you that the hole was dry, which meant another trip up, just to — another small amount of chatter, and "Good-bye," and I was impressed with the fact that the Duke would even spend a few minutes on chitchat with the likes of me, who was certainly not a — and he was actually very — but that was part of the training. And a lot of time goes on, and this is — what I'm telling you is all in here in the booklet, and I've —
Doel:You were in your mid-twenties at this time?
Walter:Yes, and the boss I worked for at Cravath was counsel for Time, Inc., so as a result of this I got to know a number of Time, Inc. writers, including an Irishman named Charles J.V. Murphy, whom I struck up a close personal relationship with, and he asked me if I could help him at one time. He explained that he had ghosted a book for Admiral [Richard E.] Byrd called "Alone." This was the story of Byrd's personal experiences while in this tent all by himself for several days. I marveled at my friend's ghosting these intensely personal -" Oh, yes," he said, "that's what writers can do." He said, "The only thing is I was promised part of the royalties, and the Admiral is a very slow payer. Could you help me?" "Oh," I said, "Charlie, this is the kind of case every lawyer dreams of!" So it didn't take much of a suggestion from me to get Charlie, so he was extremely pleased with me. Time went on, and the war intervened, and everybody did their things. Windsor was down in Nassau. I was running a couple of plants, as you can see in here —
Doel:Right. You mentioned — this is when you had left the firm, just before World War II, around World War II, to —
Walter:I left the firm, and ran a penicillin plant and explosive plant for a small client of the firm, who didn't have enough people to do that.
Doel:And this involved the general management of —
Walter:Well, from scratch. I mean penicillin was brand new —
Doel:Indeed, that was a wartime development.
Walter:— and explosives were brand new. But I thought this was a balanced plate. Kill them and then cure them. [Laughter] But it was not a lifetime thing for me, so when the war was over, I didn't want to go back to Wall Street, that was not my —
Doel:Right, yes. I'm curious, though, during the time, during the war, when you were involved in that, did you come into contact with scientists, medical doctors on a pretty routine basis, or did your job not involve that kind of involvement?
Walter:Yes, it did, but only incidentally. We began making penicillin, if you can believe it, on this thing with milk bottles, and I said "This can't be a very smart way to do this, isn't there some other way?" And our source was Merck [Chemical Company], and they soon developed the steel tank thing, so that was — I learned from that, but in this — my case was one of complete learning. This was brand new to me, so everything was new on that, and I learned — at any rate, after the war was over and I left, several of my old Cravath friends and I, who didn't want to return to Wall Street, formed our own firm. One was a guy named Hugh Fulton, who represented Harry Truman's Senate Committee investigating the war, and he knew a hell of a lot about almost everything. He was a litigator, and I and another man named Harmon Duncombe, who had served in the intelligence in Washington —
Doel:You mean ASS or —
Walter:No, the Army.
Doel:The Army intelligence.
Walter:Yeah. He worked for Marshall. And then we had a — I had a classmate in law school named Rudy Halley, who also worked for Truman, and Halley had been counsel for the [Estes] Kefauver Committee, and he badgered Frank Costello to these — you remember these —
Doel:Indeed, yes. You were demonstrating drumming the fingers on the table, which became famous footage in later years.
Walter:Exactly. And he subsequently went on into politics, and unfortunately died early of cancer of the pancreas, and my successor at — well, George Rowe, a member of the firm, came in later, and Gene Grisanti, who succeeded me at IFF [International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc.]. So we had a lively little firm.
Doel:This was the component right there, the people that you've mentioned?
Walter:And so, at that time, it occurred to me that enough time had elapsed in the case of Windsor to — I'm going to relate all of this back to Lamont — that he and his wife might be interested in the royalties I was sure I could get him for a biography, an autobiography, and I asked Murphy if he would check with his boss at the time, to find out whether he could be made available as the paid ghost, and all of that, and I would check. So the Windsors said "Oh, fine", and Murphy said "Fine," so this went on. Now as a result of this, there were a lot of nice fees for my law firm, and in the course of this of course I learned about the life of the Duke of Windsor, I mean the Prince of Wales, the King of England, blah blah blah. We now we go to a completely different place, and a friend of mine — a financial guy — had been asked to submit a list of a panel of lawyers to the doyenne of a family — this is all in here as well — a wealthy family who needed a new counsel, and he had some leaders of the bar, like John W. Davis, and [Kurt] "Wild Bill" Donovan. And I said, "Thank you very much, but nobody is going to take a nobody like me for that." He said "Well, I need to fill out the list." So, I met this lady, whose name was Mrs. Monell Vetlesen, and she started off by explaining how interested she had been in England. "Oh," I said, "if you're interested in England, perhaps the most interesting thing I found was my shock that the Queen of England, this embodiment of English Royal Family, spoke with a German accent!" "Oh!" she said, "Really?" I said, ''Yes, you may have forgotten that she was originally the Duchess of Teck," and one of the few things. Well, the net result was to my surprise, I was selected as counsel. Not because of anything, it was just because of this —
Doel:But this is often personal chemistry that works in such matters.
Walter:Now, because of that, I represented her. She had married a man named G. Unger Vetlesen, in here, and they purchased the Vema. Hello!
Doel:Which in much later times becomes very important in the Lamont story.
Walter:And Vetlesen was a marvelous man, he was a —
Doel:Yes. What sort of person was he? How well did you get to know him during this —?
Walter:Oh, very well. May I read you from this? I have just a —
Doel:You're looking again at the "Reprise."
Walter:G. Unger Vetlesen was a hearty, Norwegian Viking, who had married the widowed Maude Monell, some years earlier." This is on page eleven on the "Reprise." 'He had piloted the family schooner, the Vema, to a record transatlantic crossing before the family donated her to the U.S. Navy for its use during World War II. He was a director of SAS [Scandinavian Airlines System], and of a Norwegian shipping line. He was a close friend of Prince Axel of Denmark. He'd been a leader in the Norwegian Underground operating from London during the war. He was a delightful man, and my principal source of Scandinavian lore, 'L-O-R-E.’ With some maritime friends, he developed a bottled gas business, which had grown substantially in value. In time his health failed. He wanted to use most of his estate to further his own interests. As his condition worsened, I managed in ten hectic days to create the Vetlesen Foundation, as a charitable entity, to receive his gift of the bottle gas shares, which I then sold — had the foundation sell — to Morgan Granfel. He was very pleased, and the Vetlesen Foundation has made many grants for the studies of oceans, and so on, which would please him.
Doel:It raises a lot of questions that I'm very interested in pursuing. How often did you come to talk with him prior to the time of his illness, and —
Walter:Maybe once a week. He was a fascinating man.
Doel:What particularly intrigued you about him?
Walter:Well, first he was a doer, he was very positive, and he'd found horrible experiences, and he'd reacted to them, during the war. He had a lot to do with the heavy water project, and so on. He was a real doer, as distinguished from all the scholars I've been talking to. And I — oh, let me finish — a Norwegian friend of mine, who is running the Moran Tug Company, also a Columbia guy, told me that he had seen the Vema in the Hudson, and had understood it had been acquired by Columbia, so this led me, being a curious guy, and a lover of Mr. Vetlesen's anything, including the Vema, to inquire, and that is how I met Mr. Doc [W. Maurice] Ewing.
Doel:Doc Ewing, yes.
Walter:And anyone who has ever met Doc Ewing is automatically hooked.
Doel:Tell me your first impressions of him when you think back to that time.
Walter:Well, I'd never met anybody like Doc Ewing, never. Of course, he was a man who seemed so dedicated to what he was doing, that I and the other people in the Vetlesen Foundation thought here was a man we should back, and one of the things that made that absolute was his telling us that at one time in his experience he'd been on a ship, in Bermuda waters, in a heavy storm, and he'd been washed overboard, and that another wave had come along and washed him back on, and I felt that a man who'd had that experience had a destiny, and I said "Let's — so, to start it off, could you use any funds?” He started off at $25,000, and so on, but he was a magnetic personality. A man of great dedication, and it was — so we used to see him, and gradually increased our support for him, and of course he ultimately ran into difficulties with the Columbia Senate as you know, which objected vehemently to some naval work that he was undertaking. I'm sure you've heard about this already.
Doel:This was in the late 1960's, when there's the general opposition to military contracts on the campus.
Walter:Yes, yes. Right.
Doel:I want to get to all those things in detail. We'll get to that in the second, certainly when we pick up the interview. I was very curious when you had mentioned earlier, setting up the Vetlesen Foundation, that oceanography was one of the interests that he had, study of the ocean, study of the climate.
Walter:Oh, he was a man of the sea. Always. He piloted the Vema, and so on. [Tape interruption]
Doel:I'm very curious about what he talked about — when he had the vision for the foundation, what he wanted to support, what sort of things did he tell you, what did he talk about?
Walter:He didn't have the vision. He was desperately ill with prostate cancer, in constant pain, and he said — he was a hero of mine, he was a man who'd imagined — well, he'd actually done things. Now I got to know Prince Bernard later on very well, and he did a lot of things, but this guy was something else. And he said "My wife died — I don't know what to do with the money," and I said "I'll do it." And I projected in my mind what he would like to do —
Doel:That's interesting, that's interesting.
Walter:— because I thought that was part of my responsibility.
Doel:Sure, sure. Was he so ill that you really couldn't talk to him about —?
Walter:I could talk to him, but he was in too much — if you're not familiar, once prostate cancer, when the — it's slow going for a long time, but when you're unlucky is when it gets into the bones, and then it is a matter of extraordinary painfulness, and now there is finally some drugs to deal with this, but at that time they didn't have them. It was a tremendously great problem for him. But I just tried to project what if he had been able to do, he would want done, and he was a man of the sea.
Doel:Had he ever mentioned any kind of research or scientific work that he found particularly interesting, or was it more his general — this was where his life was lived.
Walter:He was a Viking.
Doel:That puts it well.
Walter:He was a Viking. And I saw him as a heroic man, whose country had been ravaged, and who really did something to try and regain it from afar. I thought he was a superb man. And his wife was blind, and she was a wonderful lady, Mrs. Vetlesen. She loved the radio, and she loved the Yankees. Whitey Ford was a hero of hers. She was furious at her financial advisors who wouldn't let her buy the club. Oh, I tell you, I had some marvelous experiences, just by chance, all by chance! So when I say — well, I've —
Walter:But, I felt, as I do on lots of things, that if I have been given a mission, it's up to me to use what God put between my ears to try and do the best I can, and not worry about whether it's ever been done or not before, and so a few years later, after the foundation had been established, I went up to Columbia, and said "I think that you should encourage Lamont, and I will have the Vetlesen Foundation" — of which I then the President — "give you a million dollars for long-term weather, climate investigation, provided you match it," and I thought this would please Vetlesen, and this was what really pushed them over into this, and I'm happy to say that my successor as President, my friend and partner George Rowe, has carried this further, and we now support climate research — and climate is different than whether it's going to rain tomorrow or not. And we supported at Lamont, at Scripps Oceanographic, at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution], and at the Rhode Island — there's a Rhode Island, University of Rhode Island program there. And this is all to push the same thing, and now we spend quite a lot of money on this, and we're getting some results from it.
Doel:The field has certainly grown considerably, particularly since the foundation —
Walter:Oh, yes. And one of the big things that we find so far is that we now, after a long period of time, and I say we — Lamont, through the extension of the EI Nino studies, has been able to predict in a slice across the ocean, with an eighty percent degree of certainty, the likelihood of rainfall in a year, not whether it will rain on Tuesday.
Doel:Right, but the averages over the period.
Walter:For a year in advance and that is of tremendous importance.
Doel:I thought that was a familiar voice.
Walter:Going to meet with him on this financing.
Doel:I want to follow this thread into the present in our subsequent interview, but I'm very curious — the Foundation was formed in 1955 as I recall, and when you went to Columbia to talk to them about getting the matching grant for funding climate research, who did you speak with at Columbia? Was this already after the time you had met Doc Ewing?
Walter:Oh, the fellow — Doc Ewing was gone. He was no longer at Columbia
Doel:Oh, this was much later that you were talking about.
Walter:This was in the 80's.
Doel:I see, O.K., that's good to know.
Walter:I talked to the President.
Doel:Was this after McGill's presidency?
Walter:Yes, Mike Sovern was the President then.
Doel:Did you have dealings at Columbia during that time when you first came to know Doc Ewing? Was it primarily your dealings with Ewing or was it through the geology department or others that it was done?
Walter:Oh, it was Ewing.
Doel:We will get back to all of those issues. Let me just ask you, if there's time for it, one last question that we normally ask in the interviews, how did you meet your wife, and when did you first meet her?
Walter:My present wife? I've been married three times.
Doel:Let me talk to you about your first wife, and if you want — if we have time to cover —
Walter:I don't know, she was a daughter of a Columbia guy I knew, and over a period of time, we were married. And we were married for I think seven years, and then divorced. And then I married after a couple of years, another lady I just met around the course of social things, and she's dead. She's — we were divorced, and she's since died. I met my present wife; it's all in here, Rosie the Riveter.
Doel:That's what I was — I didn't realize.
Walter:I think we've been married for forty-two years. It took a little time to find, and I knew her father, and her family, and that was how.
Doel:That's interesting, 'cause you had mentioned off tape that this is your third wife — Rosie the Riveter.
Walter:All described in here.
On that note, let me thank you very much for this good first interview, and you will, once the interview is done, be getting the transcript directly from Columbia.
Session I | Session II