7.  MICHAEL IN AMERICA

 

In December 1938, Michael was sent by his firm to spend four months working in the offices of partner organisations in America. His father had a number of contacts in New York, notably Jules Bache, a rich banker (see note to letter 1.30) with a famous art collection. Other contacts included the internationalist Sir Alfred Zimmern and his wife. Florence disliked Lady Zimmern (a French-born musician), who appears to have had a hand in turning Michael’s parents against her.  Michael was also given other contacts among the Jewish community in New York by his friend and colleague at Deloitte’s, Tim Simon. These included Henry Morgenthau, a well-known businessman and diplomat who was the father of the then US Secretary to the Treasury.

 

As all letters went by sea, the timing of letters was dictated by which liners were crossing the Atlantic that week, and all the letters from Michael in New York are marked with the ship by which they are intended to go.

 

Letter 7.1. Michael Lambert on board the Cunard White Star “Queen Mary” to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 26 November 1938.

 

Most darling heart,

 

   Forgive the uneven writing, but I am balancing Picture Post on my knee. I can get this posted in Cherbourg so that you will get a letter Monday morning. Then a cable on Thursday will keep you reasonably well posted.

 

   I found that the next cabin is occupied by your bête noire Lady Zimmern¹. She was delighted to see me, as she had purposely avoided getting hold of me as we would merely have argued. She enquired if we were still together and, hearing we were, confessed she must have been wrong. She thought that, if we were going to get married, it ought to be soon. So I think you have nothing to fear from her. Besides, I shall not be seeing much of her once the voyage is over.

 

   Mother produced this morning a magnificent gold cigarette case as a parting present. I now look very plutocratic with this and the gold pencil Mrs Lang [his godmother – see note to Letter 2.5] gave me for my birthday.

 

   A friend of Daddy’s who is Vice-Chairman of the line has arranged for me to have a magnificent cabin. I had got a rather poor one at first, but now I am ensconced in a three-berther, or rather one bedder-and-two-berther. But what is the use of all this accommodation if you are not there to use it? Darling heart, how I wish you were. Next time I hope you will be. It is the only cheering thought I have.

 

   George [his brother] came down to Southampton with me and we explored the ship. As you probably know, it is of great size. It is not really a ship. It has a certain nautical atmosphere, but I never know whether I am in the stern or the bows or the bilges or any other intestinal organ. As for getting a general survey of the ship, that is quite impossible. It is more like a rabbit-warren than a hotel even. The second class accommodation is remarkably fine with quite a lot of deck space. The first class decks just don’t come to an end. It is all very magnificent, but I think I would prefer something smaller and more homely. …

 

¹ Lady Zimmern (née Lucie  Hirsch) (1875-1963). She was a spirited Frenchwoman who was a noted musician. With her husband Sir Alfred Zimmern, she founded the Geneva School of International Studies. Both were friends of Michael’s father.

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Letter 7.2. Michael Lambert on board the Cunard White Star “Queen Mary” to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 1 December 1938.

 

Most darling heart,

 

   This is not quite my first letter from America, as I shall post it on the ship. However, long before it arrives, you should know I am safely in New York.

 

   First to deal with the enclosure. Your bête noire Lady Zimmern and had not mentioned you until suddenly she said yesterday morning ‘Does Florence know I am on board? Poor girl, how worried she must be thinking I am trying to separate you’. Then she said she thought I had developed admirably under your tuition and wanted to send you a letter to tell you so, which I enclose. She further revealed that attempts had been made, indirectly or directly, she did not know which, to persuade her to try and separate us. Now that she found this was unnecessary, she was very angry. When I told her how my family was behaving, she got into a towering rage. First she wanted to see Margaret, then she decided to see Mother, perhaps taking you with her, in order to have the matter out [it is not clear whether she ever implemented any of these schemes]. She thought, before seeing Mother, you ought to be made less nervous in order to show yourself off to best advantage. She then gave me a long tirade on how families are so restrictive and how she had been treated in just the same way. She seemed very concerned about you, lest you were ruining your health through worry. … The last paragraph in her letter is inspired by her present mood of hatred for Hitler and Mr Chamberlain and her belief that the present barbarism is due to the loss of the spiritual values of life and our incapacity for moral indignation. …

 

   Now I must tell you about our crossing. The weather at first was atrocious and one day the ship covered less distance than ever before, i.e. 488 knots. I had all my meals but I felt very queer. Since then it has been delightful and the ship runs very smoothly. However, we shall be twelve hours late.

 

   The passengers are mostly refugees from Germany or Czechoslovakia, which rouses Lady Z.’s ire. They are a most pathetic crowd. One girl’s father was beaten to death in the recent pogrom [Kristallnacht, a very nasty coordinated attack on Jewish shops and businesses in Germany the previous month]. They are all dazed and rather lifeless. These too are only the lucky few who can get to America. Sir Alfred Zimmern² pointed out that much of their tragedy was in store for them. Their American relations won’t like the old mothers and grandmothers wearing shawls, and the mothers and grandmothers will loathe American ways. It is obvious that all the older ones will be quite unable to adjust themselves to the new ways of life. The stewards on the ship are the most rabid lot of anti-Nazis you have ever met and it is easy to understand why. The refugee children were very sweet yesterday as there was a ship’s party for them and for the first time they looked really happy. There is on board a friend of the Zimmermans and he has the most appalling stories of atrocities.

 

   I feel rather like a refugee going to New York with hardly any money in my pocket and not knowing where I am going to stay. I shall be extremely annoyed if I am not met on the quay. However, I expect I shall be able to get in touch with Bache fairly easily. It is going to be quite a strain getting into American ways, and particularly so as every American is going to be very critical of the government [over appeasement and the Munich agreement], and even if one sympathises with them it is not very pleasant. I shall return rabidly anti-Chamberlain. …

 

Enclosure

Dear Florence,

 

I want to send you a word to let you know that I am happy to witness the change which has taken place in Michael’s personality – I cannot say more now – and I hope you will understand the complex reasons which dictated what must have seemed to you rightly a horrid attitude.

 

If the spiritual values of life are the foundation of your whole relationship for Michael, all will be well.

 

With my sincere best wishes

Yours sincerely,

Lucie A. Zimmern.

 

² Sir Alfred Zimmern (1879-1957). Born in Britain of German-Jewish and Huguenot parents. He was a brilliant classicist and polymath who became active in promoting international relations – a subject he taught in both British and American Universities (he was the first ever professor of international politics, at the University College of Wales).. A co-founder of Chatham House, and a contributor to the founding of both the League of Nations and UNESCO.

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Letter 7.3. Michael Lambert, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street, New York to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 9 December 1938

 

Dearest Heart,

   Now for my experiences in New York. We arrived at six on Thursday and I was duly met by Mr Bache’s secretary. A room has been engaged for me here, which is a hotel just around the corner from Bache’s house. Having got here, I had dinner and went to a party at Bache’s house at 11.30 pm and managed to get away at 3 am. There I got hold of a New York matron of about twenty-eight, who luckily let me into the secrets of the Bache household, as there is a great family feud going on. The rest of the guests were stage-people, as the party was a first-night affair, and rather dull.

 

   Next day, Bache took me down town to his office, where I met the people I shall be going with. The rest of the day was spent mucking around and looking up people. Saturday, a German-Jewish refugee was told to take me round. This was very useful, as he gave me all sorts of side-lights on New York. Being a socialist, he did not let me know there was only a rich and fashionable part. We took the elevated railway all through the slums and then went to one of the art galleries, the Frick collection, which is one of the best here. There were two lovely Rembrandts and quite a nice Vermeer. The other paintings were mostly van Dycks and Bouchers or Fragonards. There was also a beautiful Turner and Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral, which I had long wanted to see but did not know where to find.  After this, we went a long way up through Harlem to the new George Washington Bridge, a magnificent structure over the Hudson. Then dinner, a cinema and finally to Greenwich village. This is an old part of New York, supposed to be the most like London, and aping Montmartre. We went to a place called the Village Barn [a club where there was dancing and dining], which was all nice and jolly, and so to bed.

 

   Sunday I lunched with my boss and his family. This was funny, as they are very bourgeois Jews and the wife was trying hard to impress me and the children made such a noise. However, it went off very well. Tea I had with the Zimmerns and some of the students of their Geneva school. I was very pleased with this, as I met two people whose address I did not know but whom I wanted to look up. One was a girl whom, with her husband, I had entertained at Oxford. The other was a girl I met in Geneva, a cleverer girl than most Americans and exceptionally pleasant. She has promised to show me more of New York. I have no doubt you would approve of her, as she is not exactly a beauty and is not likely to lead me astray.

 

   I had long talks with Lady Zimmern about you. She is quite furious with my family, as all along she has been used to try and separate us. Now she realises what they have been doing, she is longing to be up and at 'em. She is quite determined to put them in their places. She wants to get hold of you shortly before I return and start a campaign. She has made up her mind to see Mother herself. She was very sweet, so concerned lest you should be worrying too much and ruining your health. She saw to it that I sent you a wire immediately I left the boat. …

 

   Your photograph has been much admired by everyone who has seen it. It is a source of comfort to me as I miss you no end. … Tomorrow I hope to get a letter by the Aquitania.  You will not have to wait so long for my next letter, as the Bremen sails on Tuesday.

 

Good-bye darling and all my love. I think of you so often every day.

Mickie.

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Letter 7.4. Michael Lambert, Hotel Fourteen, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street,  New York to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 14 December 1938

 

Darling heart,

 

   There is an American boat leaving at noon today which I can just catch if I go to work early today. That is one advantage of New York, that a letter can be posted almost up to the time of sailing. …

 

   These Americans are most odd. Any one who wants to give me a good time starts off by suggesting the various things I should do and invariably suggests at the end that of course I want to meet lots of pretty girls. They always seem disappointed when I protest that I did not come here to get married. I have not yet dared to say that I don’t think American girls pretty. They are very striking and beautifully turned out but not really pretty. They have such empty faces. At lunch at Bache’s, there was a French girl who has just got married to an American. I thought she was very good-looking, hardly made-up at all, a broad forehead and pleasant complexion. All the Americans thought she was very plain. I had quite an argument defending her. But there was the difference. I liked someone who looked interesting and they liked someone who looked very smart and painted. There are many girls wonderful at a distance but such bores. But that is all Americans want, something to show off. So I feel you need not fear the competition. …

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Letter 7.5. Michael Lambert, Fourteen Hotel, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street, New York to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 16 December 1938

 

   … Tonight has been most hectic. First dinner at the Council for Foreign Relations in honour of Eden. Then a birthday party at Bache’s house. Now correspondence. Then, I hope, bed.

 

   Eden spoke very well and more freely than I expected. He stuck to generalisations, but he made it quite clear that either Fascism or Democracy had to go under. He excused again in very broad terms our current predicament [i.e. after the Munich agreement with Hitler]. My only criticism was that his waistcoat and trousers had not been introduced. However, he can go home with the knowledge of a highly successful visit.

 

   The birthday party was all right. Bache had promised many days ago that I should see the elite of New York youth. So I went hopefully to see the beautiful creatures. The men were most unattractive. The women were passable, indeed quite pretty in their hard characterless way. But I have no doubt whatsoever that you could create a furore far greater than any of them. You see I am not attracted by these women. It is amazing how many beautiful faces, wonderfully gotten up, can have so little character. Not one looked as though a thought had ever entered her head, and as for trying to judge what they liked or were like was beyond me. There is also a horrible purple lipstick, that looks very fashionable by the number of people using it, that reminds me of a tart. … Another thing I find so very trying is that not one has anything to say. As in England, I make a bee-line for the married women, who at least seem to have something to say. The fine English game of not letting the conversation flag is, as you may imagine, quite hopeless. At least I am improving my powers as a monologuist. It really is curious how an American, when he or she gets married and reaches the late twenties, becomes the most charming of people; until then, they are dull and mannerless. …

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Letter 7.6. Michael Lambert at the Hotel Fourteen, 14 East 60th Street, New York to Florence Macaskie, 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 20 December 1938

 

Dearest heart,

 

   My opinion of Americans is falling even more than I expected. They are within limits very charming people, but most of their efficiency is just a façade. As Mr Kettle told me, being efficient consists of attending conferences. The office I am working in is actually very efficient and maintains a very high standard. But that is not the rule as far as I have been able to see. One or two seem to know how to get things done, but they are generally rather quiet.

 

   In one branch they excel, and that is engineering. Their skyscrapers and bridges are magnificent and, when they are put up by engineers who want to make a good job of it without any thrills, they achieve a real beauty. … But once you get away from the show-pieces, a very different standard applies. That is one of the great faults of this country. As long as one or two things are first class, all else can go hang. …

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Letter 7.7. Michael Lambert at the Hotel Fourteen, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street, New York, to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 26 December 1938

 

Darling Heart,

 

   Christmas without you has passed and, though everybody was very nice and entertained me well, I missed you sadly. I have no wish to spend another Christmas away from you. It is odd what little things remind one of home. This morning, coming into my room after breakfast, I got a breath of fresh air from the open window which was just like a spring morning at home. A few days ago walking down Broadway, the crispness of the air brought back to me very vividly Christmas in Bonn. At times I get a sudden desire to see Italy or France. This last is I think a revolt against the uncultured atmosphere of New York. A lady aspiring to culture at lunch yesterday started talking about the Vermeers in the Italian exhibition. That is a more pleasant feature about Jules’ Sunday lunches which I attend. The company is cosmopolitan. Generally there is someone amusing. The ordinary conversation here has no bite; the people one meets are extraordinarily devoid of a critical faculty.

 

   Yesterday’s lunch (i.e. Christmas day) was great fun. There was Bache and a Hungarian staying with him; Bache’s unmarried grand-daughter; a stockbroker; an Englishwoman who was the friend of the wife of the stockbroker; Baron Maurice de Rothschild¹; Princesse de Quelquechose; the Baron’s mistress, Adelaide Zamoyska (pronounced Donia); the Baron’s illegitimate daughter by an earlier mistress; and myself. It was a little confusing, as the Baron arrived separately from his women, between which the connection was not only obscure – which it would have been in any case – but completely non-apparent. For an awful moment, on learning of the relationship afterwards, I had to search back to see if I had made any rude remarks about the Baron to his daughter.

 

   The daughter was great fun as she had a lively sense of humour. I took her round after lunch and together we pulled the Bache masterpieces  to bits. Like all American collectors, he has a varied collection of Titians, Goyas, Rembrandts, van Dycks, Crivellis, Watteaus, Paters, Fragonards, Holbeins, Memlings, Bouts and so on. But very few are first rate. There is a Rembrandt, a Crivelli, a Goya, two Holbeins and two Memlings that I like, and also a Gainsborough. Most of the objets d’art appear to have come from the Baron or his family. Of course the Baron was most complimentary, but from what he said about other American collectors, it appeared that he only sold his cast-offs. I don’t think this penetrated to Bache, but the daughter certainly saw it. We carried on a long exchange of winks. She was certainly an amusing girl, but in a way that is quite foreign to Americans. …

 

¹ Baron Maurice de Rothschild (1881-1957) was a member of the French branch of the Rothschild banking dynasty. A playboy who was divorced early on from his wife. Businessman and race-horse owner, he also entered French politics and was one of the Senators to vote against giving full powers to Marshal Petain in 1940.

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Letter 7.8. Michael Lambert in New York to his mother Barbara Lambert at Coffins, Spreyton, Devon, 3 January 1939

 

Dearest Mother,

 

   Many thanks for the New Year’s cable. It arrived very auspiciously just as I was going out to celebrate the New Year. I had also just got your Christmas mail which came by a German boat. Just now the mails are rather scarce as all the big transatlantic liners are cruising the West Indies, except the Queen Mary which is laid up and the Normandie which is going on a cruise shortly. However, the service will improve shortly, as there is a whole spate of boats returning this week.  

 

   Last night I celebrated the New Year with Mr and Mrs Morgenthau¹ and some of his children and grandchildren. … We all went to a theatre, a piece called Leave it to me [musical by Cole Porter], a satire on foreign affairs and the American ambassadorial system. Everybody and everything came in for a jibe and most of all Joe Kennedy [then US Ambassador in London]. It was almost as though it had been written round him. Some of it was very funny and other parts dragged. After that came a typical New York party which went on most of the night. Coming home from the theatre was very funny. New York goes quite wild on New Year’s Eve. Everyone goes on the streets, particularly round Times Square, where all the theatres are. Of course, any sort of conveyance was out of the question. After a great amount of pushing and shoving, we got to the Underground, which was far fuller of people in evening clothes than otherwise. It was literally the only way of getting about the town.

 

   Today being Sunday, I am as usual having lunch with Jules and dinner this evening with the Zimmerns.

 

   Friday, Mr Morgenthau¹ got me a pass to Ellis Island, a depressing place. As a German boat had just arrived the day before, a large number of immigrants had been detained as their papers were not in order. The place was pretty rough, although I believe it used to be much worse. In the old days, thousands of immigrants used to be taken there every day straight from the ship and despatched all over the U.S. Now it is used simply for people who cannot satisfy the authorities that they are bona fide visitors. When I was there, there were about fifty or sixty people, all refugees from your sometime hero Hitler. They looked very poor and very harmless. I have heard so many sad stories both here and on the boat that I did not enquire very far. When one meets so many people whose fathers or brothers or sons have been killed or beaten or put into concentration camps, it is not easy to regard Hitler quite as a hero, or a knight sans peur et sans reproche. One of the most unpleasant moments I have had here was meeting a Czech girl I knew very well at Oxford whose brother had been shot last October and another brother exiled and ruined. She was not Jewish either.

 

   Jules, of course, is the most awful Jeremiah. After five minutes he starts on how the whole world is being ruined by Hitler and how we are too spineless to stand up to him. Gilmour, the butler, always tries to counteract this influence by a few pertinent phrases as I am leaving the house. I try to be as agreeably non-committal to both as I can. There certainly is an acute difference of opinion between upstairs and downstairs.

 

   I was going to send this by the Europa, but seeing that I have not flattered Hitler and letters are censored on German boats, it had better wait for the Aquitania.

 

All my love,

Mickie

 

¹ Henry Morgenthau senior (1856-1946). American businessman and diplomat (he was American Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during the First World War). German Jewish by origin. His son, Henry Morgenthau junior, was the Secretary of the Treasury in the Roosevelt administration when Michael was in New York.

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Letter 7.9. Michael Lambert, Fourteen Hotel, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street, New York to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 10 January 1939

 

   …Yesterday (Friday) dinner at Mr Morgenthau’s was quite amusing. I was sat between two ladies: one was the wife of an American professor at Beirut, Syria [Lebanon had been part of Syria and was not yet an independent country], and the other Mr M’s daughter. The professor’s wife complained to me that the Americans were living in a fool’s paradise. This was unconsciously but ably exemplified by Mr M’s daughter. She maintained the utter inferiority of all things European, the heating system as usual, and most particularly the educational system. As to the heating system, I pointed out that to a European New York was equally uncomfortable, and at least we don’t suffer from sinus trouble, as most Americans do (the extreme prevalence of sinus in N.Y. is generally attributed to central heating).

 

   Her remarks on the utter backwardness of our educational system annoyed me. The chief complaints were two: first, the standard of life (particularly plumbing) was backward; and secondly there was too much Latin and Greek taught and not enough science and sociology. I had to admit that I had lived for three years at Oxford without running water in my bedroom, and a bathroom fifty yards away, but that I was not aware that this great hardship had impaired my education; science under a good teacher was an excellent discipline, but as such teachers were rare, the common student of science was simply a dogmatist, unable to distinguish hypotheses from, and propounding them as, ultimate verities. As for sociology, this was ninety-nine parts common sense and nonsense mixed, and that it was more important to train a mind to be able to distinguish between the common sense and the nonsense than to cram it with the two as if they were both equally valid; finally, of these ‘useful’ subjects like science, the part that is going to be useful in ordinary life is so elementary that it can be learned in a few months, and that specialisation beyond that point was quite as ‘useless’ as studying Latin and Greek. …

 

   Mr Morgenthau had an amusing story of Pilsudski¹. After the War, Mr M. was sent by President Wilson as his personal representative to study the Jewish problem in Poland. During their first interview, Pilsudski attempted to browbeat him; so Mr M. pointed out that he was the personal representative of the President of the US, compared to whom Pilsudski was a man of the smallest importance. After that they got on very well. Mr M. asked Pilsudski one day what made him decide to become leader of Poland. Pilsudski said that in a German prison during the War a fortune-teller told him he would be the Polish dictator, basing her deduction on a star in a certain part of his hand. Mr M. then found to his great delight that he had the same star, which we all admired. Of course every one of us looked to see if he had the same star. As no one volunteered with the same symbol, I suppose that no one was successful. I have a star there, but it looks distinctly bogus. …

 

¹ Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) was the leader of the Polish socialist party and Polish head of state 1918-1922. In 1926 he took power again in a coup d’état and became effectively dictator of Poland.

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Letter 7.10. Michael Lambert, Fourteen Hotel, Fourteen East Sixtieth Street, New York to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 12 January 1939

 

   … Of course people here are inclined to suffer two personal backgrounds, particularly the immigrants. In business they are Americans; at home they are foreigners.

 

   Mr Macan [unidentified] told me how he was lost in this way. His parents were Italian immigrants. Two examples he gave were very illuminating. When he was a small boy at school, his teacher suspected him of whispering, and made him stand in front of the class. She then began questioning him and he could not answer, as his Italian background forbade him use the vulgar ‘you’ to a superior and he just burst into tears. Again at home he never said ‘thank you’ if his mother passed him anything – apparently that is the Italian custom in the family; at school he was taught to say ‘thank you’! When he said it at home, his mother felt she was being treated as a stranger.  You can see the duality would greatly upset a child. …

  

Letter 7.11. Michael Lambert at the Brook-Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 22 January 1939

 

   …Detroit is an odd place, quite interesting in its way but deadly dull really. It is nothing more than an industrial town, practically everything being centred on the motor industry. The inhabitants are very parochial, like all Middle Westerners. They know about their jobs and little else. The press is very isolationist and one can understand why. It lives in a district a thousand miles from the coast and, except for Canada, no foreign country for miles and miles. New York business, especially the financial business, depends so largely on world conditions that New Yorkers are constantly having to take outside influences into account and so become interested in them. Here they are at least once removed. … The big problem here is Henry Ford¹, who has by far the biggest plant in the place, a few miles out. I went over it on Friday; the morning I spent at the works and the afternoon at his model village [a sort of open air museum]. …

 

   The Ford works are technically superb with endless cars being gradually assembled and driven off. The intriguing part, however, is the question of the labour relations; it seems to intrigue most of Detroit. Ford will not have union labour at any price and being the only shareholder is prepared to close down. As he employs directly about 80,000 men, the Administration will not force the issue. The whole set-up is utterly soulless; no man is secure in his job. I heard of a woman who held quite a high executive post, and had been there for twenty years, being told at noon that her services would not be required after lunch and, before she got back to her desk, the men had arrived to remove it. The only reason for her dismissal was age. Sometimes a whole Department is fired just like that. Ford once boasted that he was too tender-hearted to fire an employee but that he had men who could.

 

   The personnel manager is a man called Harry Bennett² whose job is to provide an adequate supply of men, which he does by boosting the works in all the surrounding districts. Men are always coming in to Detroit to work at Fords. Bennett’s job is also to stop labour trouble, for which he is prepared to do almost, if not, anything. There is a girl who works for us in the evenings with a comptometer. Her brother does most of Bennett’s dirty work, as he is a species of gangster. I can hardly imagine many people are killed. There is, however, an intricate network of espionage. There is a special staff of odd-job men called Service Men. They act as guides and drive cars about when needed. One took me, for example, as a privileged visitor, to the village from the works. These men form the basis of the spy system. Sometimes they work in the plant to find out what the men are saying. If a man is indiscreet, he gets shoved onto some particularly unpleasant job, no reason being given and probably at the same wage. There was a doctor working at the hospital who had his wage cut for no particular reason. Eventually, it was discovered that the departmental head had got a letter supposedly from the doctor’s wife saying that he drank and gambled. The idea behind this being that a man should do his own work and ask no questions.

 

   Against all this is the fact that Ford pays extremely high wages and works the plant only forty hours a week. The average wage is $7.28 a day, which is about 30/- a day [this compares to average wages in Britain at the time of between £3 and £4 a week]. That is what is so puzzling. The actual conditions of work are fairly good and the pay is high, but nobody dares open his mouth or knows whether he will be there tomorrow. I rather gather that the best type of man does not stay long. Yet the people seem to be quite contented, largely because of the difficulty of getting a job anywhere. The attitude seems to be that Ford pays well and, if he wishes to have an espionage system, that is his look-out. I left feeling like the proverbial socialist: if these men are not communist, they ought to be. Actually, they mostly vote Republican. …

 

   The Detroit dentists are great advertisers, particularly on tramcars. There is one about everywhere that intrigues me:

 

Dr. Toole

Dentist

All teeth ½ off.

 

I cannot make out what it means. ….

 

¹ Henry Ford (1863-1947). Founder of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit and inventor of the mass assembly line for the production of cars. He promoted “welfare capitalism”, paying high wages for a short working week (to the consternation of many other U.S. industrialists), but offering no job security. The Ford Motor Company was massive, and in 1939, when Michael visited Detroit, he was one of the most famous people in the world.

 

² Harry Bennett (1892-1979) was an ex-Navy boxer and ruthless Ford Motor Company executive in the 1930s and 1940s who, as head of the “Service Department” had the reputation of doing Henry Ford’s dirty work, in particular to keep out the trade unions. He was a notorious figure in Detroit when Michael was there.

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Letter 7.12. Michael Lambert at the Brook-Cadillac Hotel, Detroit, to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 25 January 1939

 

Darling Heart,

 

   Once again it is my pleasant duty to address myself to you and I suppose I had best now tell you how I have been living here. There are four of us from Schapiro’s office, a qualified accountant, two juniors and myself. We have taken a suite of rooms in the hotel, that is two bedrooms and a parlor, as they say here. The two juniors sleep in one room and I and the qualified accountant in the other. The last is called Charles Haskill. His father was French and mother American and he was naturalised ten years ago. That is one of the oddest things here: one just cannot assume that the person one is talking to was born in the U.S. It is difficult to realise what a strain it is until experienced.  Charlie, as he is called, is that rare thing in this country, a left-wing moderate. Nearly everyone is either a militant die-hard or a militant trade-unionist – and the trade unions here are militant. Charlie is also very good company; in fact we get on hand in bosom. The two juniors are both New Yorkers. One has married a strong-willed wife who wears the pants, like you. The other and baby of the party comes from Brooklyn and is very much the uncouth American. He is quite young and dreadfully unpolished; however, he is very good-natured, which is just as well as he is the butt of the wit. Such is our party.

 

   The greater part of the day is spent at work. We arise between six and half-past, breakfast at seven and begin work at eight. We quit work at four-thirty, return to the hotel, have dinner soon after six and work again until bedtime. I do not always work in the evening as I have to write to you. Our job is a ship-building firm of considerable size. Several of the employees are English; one still speaks with a strong Yorkshire accent. I was talking to another, a Cockney who left thirty-four years ago, and telling about the changes in London and the poor man nearly broke into tears. Of course all the English are delighted to see anyone from home.

 

   The weather here is very variable. When we are called, the telephone operator says what the temperature is. One morning it will be about thirty [fahrenheit] and the next ten. Tonight it is likely to get below zero, as it is fearsomely cold.  Today I was out in the yard where the works and docks are, inspecting their stock. The snow was everywhere a foot deep, except on the paths, which were covered with ice. The wind was pretty sharp and the cold unbearable.  We spent about ten minutes at a time in the open and then hurried into one of the shops to get warm. After a couple of hours of this, my eyes and feet were quite numb. Even one’s breath froze around one’s nostrils. For all that, it was most invigorating and tonight I feel better than I have felt for a long time.  I am sitting writing in the American way, without coat or waistcoat, trying to keep cool. …

 

   Despite the hard work, my visit has been extremely interesting. Detroit is in some ways the leading city of the U.S., leading in the sense that what happens here then happens everywhere, although in not quite so extreme a way. In 1929 it led the prosperity, in 1931 it led the depression, in 1933 it led the bank crash, and in 1939 it is leading the labour movement. The struggle by which trade-unionism will live or die is going on here at this moment, with strikes and riots and fights. There was a big fight last Sunday. The centre of all this, as of everything in Detroit, is Henry Ford. It is very difficult to get to the bottom of what is happening. Everyone I meet, I pump and pump and pump for information, but they not only contradict each other but themselves at times. Of course the whole place is rotten with corruption and intrigues. There certainly is trouble ahead and plenty of it.

 

   I will give you the background of the place. Detroit has long been an important industrial centre. Before the War the motor industry began to grow up and, as you know, expanded unbelievably after the War. Wages were very high and labour was attracted from all parts. At times there were between three and for hundred thousand transient people. Vast numbers came from Poland; the Polack colony as it is called, is the biggest in the world outside Warsaw; there are large numbers of Hunkies (Hungarians), Bohunks (Central European Slavs), Armenians and Syrians. These people came from the poorest parts of Europe and began earning up to £2 a day. They spent all this, paying £2 for silk shirts, £5 for shoes and sums like that. The employers were rather silly in that they treated labour simply as a commodity like iron and steel. If you don’t need it, you don’t buy it. There was no sense of responsibility, or feeling that workers should be instructed or given a feeling of security.

 

   Then suddenly in this orgy of spending and ever increasing prosperity, depression came. Everyone was out of a job, with no savings, no relief, no dole. You can imagine the effect on the Central European peasants, who left home to come to the world of endless prosperity and who experienced great prosperity for a while, of being plunged into a poverty far greater than they had ever lived in at home. …

 

   In the great distress, a trade union movement grew up. As wages in the motor industry are high, there was more money in organising a union here than, say, in the coal-mines. Immediately, as always here, the business became a racket and whoever could form and control a union of automobile workers had enormous funds at his disposal. Against this, the automobile employers were prepared to fight unionism to the bitter end. … The struggle is going on to the accompaniment of endless small strikes and the ever-present threat of violence. Industry is so closely integrated that quite a small strike will disorganise several plants. The employers are rather powerless as they live in mortal dread lest the workers break up the plant. …

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Letter 7.13. Michael Lambert at the Hotel Fourteen, 14 East 60th Street, New York, to Florence Macaskie at 27 Kensington Square, London W.8, 4 February 1939

 

   … My intention is still to return at the end of March and save up a few more pence, and then we can get married. … In no circumstances are you to let my family get you down. That I would not permit. I am not in a mood to pay a great deal more attention to them. They will probably come round soon after we are married, and if we could afford to have a child right away, the thought of a grandchild would completely cure them. …

 

   To show you what the press here is like, it was only at the end of last week (i.e. the last weekend of January) that, by careful and diligent reading of several papers and by the exercise of considerable intellectual energy, I was able to appreciate that people in England were rather nervous. The people here are always replete with scares. I was immensely gratified to read in today’s New York Times that our rearmament is really getting under way and that the activity of the government is really prodigious. It is most heartening. I am beginning to feel a bit more proud of being English. This is especially gratifying at the moment as the Americans are that brazen. The President [Roosevelt] makes a few pleasant remarks about democracy; the Senate immediately turns on him. Yet, although we are having to defend democracy and these people won’t do a thing to help, the criticism one has to put up with, blind, ill-informed, sentimental, self-righteous, cathartic, superior, materialistic, egocentric. I marvel I have not blown up long ago. … But now, as soon as I hear the word Chamberlain, I murmur Senate, and after all the Senate is much more encouraging to Hitler than Mr C.

 

   As we must be prepared for some fifty hard and strenuous years [of married life] before us with a shocking amount to get done, you must stop moping about the next few months the whole time, or we will get nowhere. …

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Letter 7.14. Michael Lambert at the Hotel Fourteen, 14 East 60th Street, New York, to his sister Margaret at 35 Millbank, London S.W.1, 12 February 1939

 

   … I have not yet quite made up my mind about this country. In a way it is attractive. New York offers nothing much, except a night life, that London does not offer. There is a certain polish about the place, but no charm. One cannot wander around finding odd corners. In fact, off the main streets – that is the three smart Avenues, Fifth, Madison and Park – it is exceedingly drab. … Where N.Y. is spoilt is that everything is given way to utility. The smart residential area extends east to Lexington Avenue, which is all very attractive. But then Third has an elevated railway running along it which makes it appear frightfully disreputable. In the same way, Central Park is crossed and crisscrossed with roads going over and under each other, until there is very little park left. Again and again, things are spoilt for utility. Some of the skyscrapers, especially lit up at night, are very fine, but it is a hard, grand beauty, not delicate.

 

   Life here is not so full of bustle as one is generally told. As far as I can make out, people live in an atmosphere of bustle; they say they do. But I think it is merely an atmosphere, as I do not find any bustle. The reasons for this belief that everyone bustles seem to be several. The bare utility of N.Y. creates it. Another thing is that Americans, especially here, feel that they must always be up and doing something. Actually, even less is done here than in London, but people like to think they are doing things. Perhaps the chief reason is that life offers no stability and no security.

 

   The greater part of what I have seen is just talk. This is not a particularly democratic country. Not even every white citizen has the vote. Money is tremendously powerful. Yet the ordinary relationships between people are in a way democratic; there is no deference as we know it, and so there is not the servility that one finds sometimes in England, nor the same bullying of servants. The great idea is that anyone can get on, and so is treated in that way. Politically, this has a most undeniable effect. A man who gets on is given great power, but no provision is made for the enormous number who do not get on. That is Roosevelt’s problem, to give more security and more weight to those ordinary people who do not rise to the top. It would be inconceivable in England for a man to dominate a town as Ford does Dearborn near Detroit or the du Ponts Wilmington.

 

   The most unpleasant thing for an Englishman is the endless criticism of our foreign policy. Always there is the pretence that this is well-meant criticism just to show where our best interests lie, but always it soon becomes apparent that the Americans are willing, and in fact ardently desire, to see us fight Hitler and the rest without affording us the slightest help. The feeling of shame that Roosevelt has, that we are being left alone to fight what is after all a battle that directly affects America, certainly is not shared by his countrymen. Now, however, as the Senate is behaving in the same way as the Americans like to think Chamberlain did, I have an apt retort.  It is a pity that one is just driven to be a Chamberlainite by the endless criticism, which is just emotional and ill-informed.

 

   However, I shall have an enormous amount to tell when I get back about the internal troubles of this country. If Europe settles, the trouble will start over here; at the moment, the European situation keeps people’s minds off home troubles.

 

Give my love to Enid.

 

Yours fraternally,

Mickie.