Golf vs Work

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We’ve all got one, haven’t we? The friend or relative who’s always emailing you jokes – usually about golf. Here’s one that I got sent for the umpteenth time a few weeks ago. As you can tell, it’s obviously a few years old …

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The joke

In 1923, who was:
1. President of the largest steel company?
2. President of the largest gas company?
3. President of the New York stock Exchange?
4. The greatest wheat speculator?
5. President of the Bank of International Settlement?
6. The “Great Bear of Wall Street”?

These men were considered some of the world’s most successful in their days… Now, 80 years later, the history book asks us if we know what ultimately became of them.

The Answers:
1. The president of the largest steel company, Charles Schwab, died a pauper.
2. The president of the largest gas company, Edward Hopson, went insane.
3. The president of the NYSE, Richard Whitney, was released from prison to die at home.
4. The greatest wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died abroad, penniless.
5. The president of the Bank of International Settlement, Leon Fraser, shot himself.
6. The Great Bear of Wall Street, Cosabee Livermore, also committed suicide.

However, in that same year, 1923, the PGA Champion and the winner of the most important golf tournament, the US Open, was Gene Sarazen.

What became of him?
He played golf until he was 92, died in 1999 at the age of 95. He was financially secure at the time of his death.

The Moral: To hell with work. Play golf.

Now the thing about this joke is that it’s plainly rather old. A variation on the gag has a group of businessmen, including most of the above, meeting in a Chicago hotel in the 1920s, at which point they were collectively worth more than the US Treasury. Of course they all end up ruined, in prison, or killing themselves.

Now to investigate the above in detail:

1. Half-true. Charles Michael Schwab (1862-1939) headed Bethlehem Steel and had huge debts at the time of his death, though he continued to live an opulent lifestyle. Bethlehem in its time was only America’s second-largest steel firm.

2. Half-true. His real name was Howard Hopson and he amassed a huge gas and electricity empire, mostly through fraud. He died in 1949 aged 67 in a sanatorium, but his mental health problems might well have been played up to get him a lighter sentence.

3. Quarter-true. Financier Richard Whitney, one-time head of the New York Stock Exchange, did three years in Sing Sing prison for embezzlement and was released in 1941. He started a modestly successful business and lived another 34 years. So he did die at home. Just not that soon after getting out.

4. Not really. Commodities trader Arthur Cutten (1870–1936) didn’t die “abroad” if this is an American gag. He died in Chicago while facing charges for tax evasion.

5. True. Fraser suffered from depression and shot himself in 1945, aged 55.

6. True-ish. His actual name was Jesse Lauriston Livermore (no idea where that ‘Cosabee’ name comes from) and he was one of the most remarkable characters Wall Street ever produced, reputedly making (and losing) four fortunes as a speculator. He also suffered from depression and shot himself in 1940, aged 62. He was his wife’s fifth husband; her previous four had all committed suicide, too.

Golfer Gene Sarazen died aged 97 after a long and successful life, living two years longer than the joke says.

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The moral might more accurately be given as: being a successful professional golfer is better than being a crook. Some might of course prefer the quote (probably wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain and/or William Gladstone about golf being “a good walk, spoiled.”