‘A hell of an underwriter’: three insurance men with a difference

Here are three unlikely leading lights of the life insurance bizz for you:

1. RichardPrice_afterBenjaminWest_portrait_lowresThe Welsh moral philosopher Richard Price,  an important Dissenting thinker of the eighteenth century,  pretty much created the modern idea of life insurance.

Dr Price had been involved with, and thinking hard about, the assurance and benevolent societies for decades when he presented a paper (‘on the proper method of calculating the values of contingent reversions’) (Richard Price Society) to the Royal Society in 1770 – helping to turn what had been ‘an unreliable service to commerce and individuals where ‘bubbles’ could and did bring financial ruin to many’ into a service ‘based on mathematically proven calculations’. His book Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771) became a classic, setting the standard in actuarial work for a century. 

Dr Price’s work over his lifetime influenced several important areas of enlightenment thought: politics, ethics, and finance. This was on top of his work as an influential preacher at the meeting house in Newington Green for decades, visited by thinkers and dignitaries (including eg Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin). Dr Price was also a mentor to Mary Wollstonecraft, who had her school nearby, and was awarded an honourary doctorate from Yale University in the same year as George Washington.

Martyn Hooper of the Richard Price Society has said: ‘Dr Price’s pamphlets outsold Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man by 40 to one. He was a hugely influential figure throughout Britain and indeed the world and his contribution to the Enlightenment was immense’.

Richard Price is one of the three subjects (all called Richard Price) of my poem, ‘Richard Price’.

2. CharlesIvesCharles Ives, the American  modernist composer and ‘Father of American music’, was a very successful insurance executive. His 1912 booklet, The Amount to Carry and How to Carry It, was tremendously influential on the development of modern American insurance practices, and the insurance company he co-founded and ran was the first ever to have a school for training insurance salesmen. Ives himself was the force behind the training. Innovative in every arena!

Like Dr Price, Charles Ives saw insurance as a social benefit, a way in which people could save up against calamity, and his work came out of a social conscience. He also became very prosperous indeed, and it wasn’t (I hear you say) as a result of his music.

In fact, Ives conducted his insurance career and his period of musical creativity simultaneously, working full time and composing in the evenings and weekends. In this way he’s a bit like the young TS Eliot, who wrecked his health working at the bank by day and writing his important essays (to say nothing of his poetry) before work and so on. (The main difference here is the beautiful love story between Ives and his wife, whose name, amusingly enough, was Harmony.) In 1918 Ives had a major heart attack, and by 1930 he had retired from his business and also for the most part stopped composing new work.

The rest of his life was devoted to getting his existing work performed; some of it he also published himself. There’s an apocryphal story about the premiere of his Symphony No. 2 in 1951,  in which  he refuses to go to the performance at Carnegie Hall but instead listens in the kitchen on the maid’s radio, but I’ve just discovered the true version:

Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the Second Symphony on February 22, 1951 in Carnegie Hall, New York City. The concert was also broadcast nationally. The story of Ives’ reaction to the premiere is an interesting one. Ives refused to attend the concert, so his wife Harmony attended the concert at Carnegie Hall without him. In his biography of Ives, Jan Swafford relates Ives’ reaction to the radio broadcast of the concert:

In legend, [Ives] heard it on the maid’s radio and did a little dance of joy afterward. In reality he was dragged next door to the Ryders’ to hear the broadcast and, unlike similar occasions, sat quietly through the whole thing. It was one of his soft pieces, as he called them; it was also perhaps the warmest audience reception of his whole life. As cheers broke out at the end everybody in the room looked his way. Ives got up, spat in the fireplace, and walked into the kitchen without a word. Nobody could figure out if he was too disgusted or too moved to talk. Likely it was the latter (428-9).

3. xwallace-stevens.jpg.pagespeed.ic.kfCkRJFNtnThe most famous insurance-executive poet of all is also the ‘Father of American Modernism’. Wallace Stevens, a vice president of the Hartford Insurance Company,  is famous for keeping his two lives nearly as separate as Charles Ives did – but it was harder for him, since his work was being published while he still worked at the insurance company. He once barked at a young publishing employee who haplessly rang him at work: ‘I told you never to call me here!’ (He also refused an event in his honour at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, saying, ‘In Hartford I’m known as a businessman’.)

Wallace Stevens used to walk to work along the same route I used to ride to school on, composing his poems as he went, and he’d apparently give a draft to his secretary to type up when he got in.  This route now forms the Wallace Stevens Walk. (I rode the route for two years and at the end of it if I had had to find my own way home I’d have starved to death. before making it. I must have been busy composing…)

We know from his poems that Stevens had a secret inner life, a colourful one, and possibly dreams of another kind of life (or self). But in his actual life he kept it all under wraps. It came out in unlikely ways, one of which was a slightly nonconformist tendency in the workplace. He was a walker; he didn’t drive. One day  in I think the forties he was going to Philadelphia for a meeting, and the company he was going to meet offered to meet him in a car at the train station. He refused; he would walk. They were flummoxed but he was insistent. When he did arrive, he walked into the meeting room, in the starchy insurance office, and put a large bag of fresh doughnuts on the table.

Like Ives, Stevens had a heart condition and was told he would probably die in his fifties. Even so, he never published his first book of poems until 1923, when he was 44. Harmonium (not, so far as I know, titled after Mrs Ives) is possibly the most influential book of American poetry in the twentieth century. Of his nerves-of-steel decision to put off publication for so long (although he was publishing poems in magazines), he said: ‘To publish a book of poems is a very serious matter’.

I once met a poet from Texas, William Wenthe, who told me about a poem he had heard, read by a poet who met a wedding guest with a story to tell:

Within a Stone’s Throw of Greatness

Among the guests I talked to once
at a wedding in the late sixties–
back when the principals at such affairs

were my own friends, not my children’s–
there was the father of the groom,
who turned out to be a vice-president
with the Hartford Insurance Company.
It had been almost thirteen years
since the death of Wallace Stevens,
but I put the question anyway.

“Yeah, yeah, I knew Wally.
I even know why you’re asking.
I’m aware that he wrote poetry.
I never read any of it,
but I’ll tell you this:
he was a hell of an underwriter.”

……….Henry Taylor


Previous post:

Next post: