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Character Sketches

Character Sketches
Chapter 31: American Life in the Roaring Twenties, 1919 - 1929


Henry Ford (1863 - 1947)

Ford was the automobile genius and industrialist who epitomized the new age of mass consumer production.

Although he hated farm work as a boy, Ford was always nostalgic about rural life and later re-created an idealized version of it in his Greenfield Village.

He was widely praised for paying his workers $5 a dayalthough not all of them earned that. In 1915, Ford paid for a Peace Ship full of American antiwar activists who sailed to Norway in a futile effort to end World War I. In the 1920s he published a viciously anti-Semitic paper, The Dearborn Independent, which was distributed through Ford dealerships.

Ford enjoyed his own reputation as the voice of the uneducated common person and often sounded off on subjects about which he knew nothing. For example, he asserted that earlier civilizations had had airplanes and cars, that cows should be eliminated and milk produced artificially, and that all the art in the world was not worth five cents.

Quote: I dont like to read books. They mess up my mind. (1919)

REFERENCE: David L. Lewis, The Public Image of Henry Ford (1976).


Alphonse Capone (1899 - 1947)

Capone was the brutal gangster who dominated Chicago organized crime in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Capones parents were Italian immigrants from Sicily who came to New York in 1893. Capone quit school after the fourth grade and soon linked up with other gang members, including Johnny Torrio. In one early gang fight Capone was slashed across the face with a knife, giving him his nickname of Scarface.

When Torrio moved from New York to Chicago, Capone followed him to help run the giant prostitution operation and other rackets in the city. In 1925 Torrio retired, and Capone seized control of all of Chicagos prohibition-era organized crime by gunning down his rivals. Capones worth was estimated at over $100 million and for a time in the late 1920s he had extensive power within Chicagos political, journalistic, and law-enforcement communities.

After his conviction for income-tax evasion and imprisonment on Alcatraz Island, he was discovered to be suffering from syphilis. He was released on parole in 1939.

Quote: Whats your racket? (1927)

REFERENCES: John Kobler, The Life and World of Al Capone (1992); Laurence Bergreen, Capone: The Man and the Era (1994).


Charles A. Lindbergh (1902 - 1974)

Lindbergh was the pilot whose solo flight made him the greatest hero of the 1920s and who later became a leading isolationist spokesman before World War II.

A group of St. Louis businessmen put up the money for Lindberghs plane, which had never been fully tested before he headed across the Atlantic. He dozed off several times during the flight but was awakened each time by the erratic movements of the plane. Vast crowds greeted him in Paris, although he landed in the dark.

Lindbergh was stunned by the unrelenting publicity and tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the public eye. He married the daughter of diplomat Dwight Morrow. Anne Morrow Lindbergh later became a popular author. The kidnapping and murder of their two-year-old son in 1932 horrified America and caused the Lindberghs to move to Europe. Lindberghs association with Nazism and isolationism in the 1930s cost him some popularity, but he sometimes advised the government on aviation matters even into the 1950s and 1960s.

Quote: These wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder.This is not a question of banding together to defend our white race against foreign invasions. This is simply one more of those age-old quarrels among our family of nations. (Radio address, 1939)

REFERENCE: Scott Berg, Lindbergh (1998).


Marcus Garvey (1887 - 1940)

Garvey was the black nationalist leader whose Back to Africa movement had a major influence on African American culture in the 1920s.

Garvey was born in Jamaica and worked as a printer and union organizer. During travels to South America and Britain, he learned a great deal about the history and culture of African peoples, which led him to emphasize black racial pride and to formulate his plans for a return of all blacks to Africa.

His Universal Negro Improvement Association attracted tremendous support from American blacks in the early 1920s, but the government of Liberia (where Garvey hoped to migrate) thought him a revolutionary plotter and withdrew support from his Black Star steamship lines. His conviction for fraud and his deportation to Jamaica effectively ended his political career, but he remained a hero among many blacks for his emphasis on African culture and self-determination.

Quote: Never allow anyone to convince you of your inferiority as a man. Rise in your dignity to justify all that is noble in your race.

My race is mine and I belong to it.

It climbs with me and I climb with it.

My pride is mine and I shall honor it.

It is the height on which I daily sit.

(The Negro World, 1923)

REFERENCE: J. Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey (1986).


F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940)

Fitzgerald was the novelist whose literature and life symbolized and promoted the values of the jazz age in the 1920s.

His father was from an old aristocratic Maryland family whose ancestors included the author of The Star-Spangled Banner. His mother was from a poor Irish background, and Fitzgerald claimed his dual ancestry gave him a unique view of American life.

At Princeton Fitzgerald worked harder for social than academic success and was distressed when academic probation forced him to give up his campus literary activities. Fitzgeralds glamorous postwar life in Europe fell victim to lavish spending, alcoholism, and the mental illness of his wife Zelda.

In the 1930s he returned to America and wrote Tender Is the Night (1934) and a brilliant story, The Crack-Up, about his own mental distress and feared loss of talent. When he was sober, Fitzgerald was charming, elegant, and a fine conversationalist.

Quote: America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history. . . . The whole golden boom was in the airits splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions, and the death struggle of the old America in prohibition. (1935)

REFERENCE: William A. Fahey, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream (1973).



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