TSD Q&A: David Farber, Author of "Everybody Ought to be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist" (Best of 2013)

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Farber publicityAsk most Delawareans about the financier John Jakob Raskob, and many would probably associate him with Archmere Academy, the Catholic high school that sits on his former Claymont estate. It’s likely, however, that far fewer First Staters are aware of the extraordinary scope of Raskob’s influence across business, finance and politics the early part of the 20th century. Now, for the first time, Raskob’s inimitable, only-in-America-story is finally being told in book form.


Temple University professor David Farber, a distinguished historian and biographer, put more than eight years of research into his landmark, Everybody Ought to be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist. TSD was fortunate to connect with Farber for a special pre-book launch interview.

Town Square Delaware: John Raskob has got to be one of the most influential, yet un-heralded men of his era. Creator, in effect of the modern 20th century American Corporation, engineer of the DuPont Company acquisition of General Motors, builder of the Empire State Building, chairman of Al Smith’s Presidential campaign, etc. Why is it that Raskob seems to have escaped history’s notice?

David Farber: Raskob was well known in his own time—the business press called him America’s “organizing genius.” But I think the Crash of 1929—after Raskob had very publicly extolled the virtues of stock market investments—as well as his outspoken opposition to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal placed him on the “wrong side” of history. In the 1940s and 1950s he was blasted by popular writers as one of “the last of the Old Order.” With more historical distance, I think we can now look at Raskob’s record at DuPont, General Motors, the Empire State Building and in advocating for mass investment in the stock market and see him as one of the great architects of modern American capitalism.

TSD: Among Raskob’s many accomplishments, which do you find the most significant?

DF: Raskob accomplished so much but I think it was his advocacy for mass credit—he established GMAC, the credit arm of General Motors—and mass investment in the stock market that speaks to his real legacy. He was infamous in the Great Depression of the 1930s for exclaiming that, “everybody ought to be rich” by investing in stocks and bonds. His timing was terrible but his vision of shared prosperity through credit and good investments was prescient.

TSD: What accomplishment is least known or understood?

DF: Among other things, Raskob was a devout Catholic and I think one of the most interesting aspects of his life was his attempts to create greater oversight and management of the Church by talented and capable lay people.  Here, too, he was prescient. Raskob largely failed in getting the Church to accept greater lay involvement in what he called the “temporal” aspect of Church management, but he did establish the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities which continues to play an important role in global Catholic philanthropy.

TSD: What got you interested in Raskob and inspired to write this biography?

DF: A few years back I wrote a biography of the great General Motors CEO, Alfred P. Sloan. I enjoyed writing the book, but Sloan was in his own words, “a very narrow man.” All the while I was working on that book I kept running into his very able vice president for finance, John Raskob, who was just a delightful character—full of life and so obviously NOT a narrow man. Though not as well known today as Sloan, I really believed that Raskob’s big and adventurous life would make for a great biography. I hope readers agree.

TSD: Researching such a complex life must have been an extraordinary challenge. How did you tackle that and how long did it take?

DF: It took me about eight years to write Raskob’s biography. I could not have done it without the cooperation of the Raskob family, the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, and the incredible archivists at the Hagley Library.  Raskob is a rare capitalist in that he saved almost every scrap of paper he collected over his long life. Those hundreds of thousands of letters, business documents, newspaper clippings, receipts and assorted miscellany, brilliantly organized and archived at the Hagley, allowed me to capture not just Raskob’s business adventures but his character, as well. I was also lucky enough to talk with Raskob’s descendents and several other people who knew him.

TSD: How much time was spent here in Delaware on the project?

DF: While my search for records of Raskob’s life took me all over the country, from New Mexico to Hyde Park, New York, the bulk of Raskob’s records are located at the Hagley Library, right outside Wilmington. I am pleasantly surprised by just how many people in Delaware still feel a connection to Raskob and I am thrilled to be doing my first book signing on May 5 at the Archmere Academy, which was the Raskob family home from 1916 to 1931.

David Farber is a professor of history at Temple University. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on recent American history, including the “Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s,”  “Sloan Rules: Alfred Sloan and the Triumph of General Motors” and “Taken Hostage: America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam.”  His most recent book is, “Everybody Ought to be Rich: The Life and Times of John J. Raskob, Capitalist.” He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and fellow historian, Beth Bailey.

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