Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book or both—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
The Gilded Leaf: Triumph, Tragedy and Tobacco: Three Generations of the R. J. Reynolds Family and Fortune
By Patrick Reynolds and Tom Shachtman
Little, Brown, 1989, pgs. 382
In spite of all the chaos and craziness of Hurricane Florence, the storm did give me a chance to make a dent in my “to read” stack. “The Gilded Leaf: Triumph, Tragedy, and Tobacco: Three Generations of the R. J. Reynolds Family and Fortune” by Patrick Reynolds and Tom Scachtman, has been floating around in my stack for years. Anyone who has grown up in North Carolina is familiar with the Reynolds family: the heirs to the RJR Tobacco fortune. It is a name as prominent as Duke or Hanes to North Carolinians.
How could we not be curious about how one of the companies that shaped the modern state of North Carolina developed? I had put off reading for a while, fearing the book would be dry and hard to get into (or else featuring a series of anecdotes about rich people behaving badly).
I could not have been more wrong.
One of the authors, Patrick Reynolds, is a third-generation Reynolds, and for most of my lifetime, has been a vocal anti-smoking activist. I know: The grandson of the founder of RJR Tobacco is an anti-smoking activist? That must have gone over with the family like the Hindenberg.
So the book could be a tell-all memoir used to get vengeance on the other members of the family. Plenty of people would have bought and read it just out of curiosity; celebrity trainwrecks always solicit. But the book is not that at all. It is so much more than I expected.
Tracing the family business back to Virginia before the Civil War, it focuses on the struggles of agriculture and changes in the economic landscape of the American South in the 19th century. As the robber barons and industry titans emerge, the audience watches the Reynolds brothers grow and develop a startling fortune. Simultaneously, the Dukes are building up their own tobacco empire and launching a tobacco trust. I didn’t realize the Hanes family had a tobacco company before they became synonymous with hosiery. Perhaps that is really the fascination for me: showing how names I have grown up hearing fit together—like the Cannon family, Hoey and Governor Gardner.
“Yeah, the people with names on buildings,” Jock noted with a laugh.
“Yes!” I responded. “When I was in college, there was a residence hall named Hoey and I lived in Gardner Hall.”
“This was when you weren’t living in a tent?” Jock inquired.
“That was freshman year; I lived in Gardner sophomore year,” I clarified, “in a room built to be a single but they had such a housing shortage, they turned them into doubles.”
I probably had more space in the tent, I reflected.
But back to North Carolina’s financially motivating families: To see how the tobacco industry grew and developed to become one of the major economic forces in this state is impressive, at the least. The older Reynolds brothers, RJ’s generation, were the empire builders—and what an empire they built. Understanding the extent of the Reynolds’ monetary influence in Winston-Salem is pretty hard to quantify, but this book at least tries to put it in context. As is all too-predictable, the second generation of Reynolds children observed everything falling apart.
They were millionaires before they could drive and orphans before they graduated high school; there was no sense of reality for RJ’s four children. The Z. Smith Reynolds foundation (which many local organizations have received funding from) was founded after the youngest child of that generation, Smith, died in what is still an unresolved mystery involving a gun, a Prohibition Era drinking party, involving his wife and best friend. His brother and sisters started the foundation as part of the court settlement surrounding his estate.
The oldest brother, RJ Jr. (Dick, to his friends), went through four wives and abandoned his children along the way (big surprise). Patrick, author of the book, met his father very few times prior to Dick’s death. His memories largely include oxygen tanks to treat the smoking-related illnesses Dick battled.
The general awfulness the second and third generation of Reynolds’ treat each other is not interesting to me; though, the scandal part is pretty hard to believe. For instance, Zach played trombone with the school marching band at an event dedicating the new Reynolds’ baseball field. His father made the christening speech, yet didn’t recognize his son because he hadn’t seen the boy since Zach was 3 years old. It is nothing short of heartbreaking.
While the family descend further and further into tragedy, their money builds up the state of North Carolina more and more. Perhaps that is the real lesson of the book: We have all benefited so much more than we realize from the Reynolds’ fortune—more in the long run than they did.