My Grandfather’s house in New York City was on east sixty Fourth Street between Fifth Avenue and Madison ,very close to Central Park as well as the finest shopping area of Manhattan. It was an important house for an important man who had an important family and an important life. The house was brick and had six stories with a tiny elevator containing a small red velvet bench and a Persian carpet. When the front door was opened by the butler one entered the vestibule, offered your back to the butler to have your coat removed, and entered the elevator. As there were six children in our family and the elevator was small, the ascent to the living room often took several trips. If neither of our parents were in the elevator with us, we sometimes refused to exit on the living room floor and rode up and down until someone stopped us. The most entertaining part of the ride was slamming open the heavy Iron Gate before the actual door could be opened. It made a very satisfying noise.
My Grandfather never wore anything other than a three piece suit which he had made at Henry Poole in London. When I visited Henry Poole with my husband, we looked in the ledger and found his name first written there in 1937 for a three piece white suit. I spent a long time reading the black, Spenserian writing which detailed the suit: size, alterations, pocket placement and payment detail. I felt as if I were deciphering someone I had missed knowing a lot about. Taking in the measure of his chest, the length of his inseam, and the width of his waist as well as the length of his arms and even the breadth of his wrists made me feel closer to him. Almost as if I were there inside his head as he stood patiently waiting for his suit to be fitted, gazing at his reflection in the mirror, turning this way and that, I wonder if he thought of how far he had come.
I imagine my Grandfather fist hearing of Henry Poole from, no doubt, a very successful and respectable associate who informed him there was simply no other place where a gentleman had his suits made. My Grandfather had himself painted in this very same white suit sitting in a red tinted chair with his legs crossed casually and his hands patiently quiet. All traces of the young man from a simple farm in Painted Post, New York, were gone and in his place was a sophisticated and urbane man of the world. A man who held himself to very high standards, a man who never let his guard down or allowed himself to make mistakes.
Once, while on a sales call early in his career, he had stopped his horse and carriage in front of a tavern for a celebratory drink and when he emerged his carriage and all his supplies had been stolen. My Grandfather never had another drink in his life and discouraged IBM employees from drinking. He was a fatalist who believed in signs and events that shaped his behavior in life. On another occasion he was waiting in line with his wife and children at a county fair for a ride in an airplane. One of his children asked for an ice cream and so they stepped out of line. The plane the family would have been on crashed and my Grandfather never flew on an airplane again despite the fact that he traveled all over the world for IBM.
People in those days believed in fate and in the stars and in things happening for a reason much more so than we do today. It is interesting to think of how many leaders in that generation were swayed by the words of mystics and magicians, charlatans and guru’s. For all their practicality and hard work, the words of a profit were often thought of as words to live by.
My Grandfather loomed large in my life as a child as he and my father were often at war with one another. The details of whatever war was being fought at the moment were unknown to us children but the drama was something we were used to. We experienced many drives at high rates of speed up the Merit Parkway either north or south so my father could hold a meeting with his father. I don’t know why we were all herded into the car for these drives but we were. If it were summertime we really didn’t mind as my Grandparents had an enormous swimming pool with a very tall hurricane fence around it in the middle of their yard. As I recall there was even a slide into the pool and my sisters and I were allowed to swim alone: something that would never happen in today’s world. We spent hours in that old, clay colored pool diving and splashing and jumping into and out of the pool for an entire afternoon.
Voices could be heard from the pool bouncing off the great, long, covered front porch shrouded in huge boulders which held up the pillars on each end. My father and his father yelled at each other for long periods of time and we learned to ignore these yells preferring to focus on our own world of adventure and play. Sometimes my Grandfather would decide to have a lesson in one thing or another and would set up the lesson indoors so his audience (mostly us kids) would be captive. These times were more difficult to handle as there was no escape from the dull monotony of facts and figures and seemingly endless talk about one thing or another. It was very important for my Grandfather to be known as a learned man and he worked hard at this always believing himself to be lacking as he had little formal education.
What I remember most about him were his hands: gnarled and veined and having rather long but thick fingers which he often kept folded in his lap. He always looked for children to be with him and if a grandchild was not available he would go to a neighbor’s house and ask if their child wanted to go on an outing. He was at his best when acting as a mentor and loved nothing more than being with a small child while teaching them one thing or another. Once he took me with my Grandmother to FAO Schwarz and told me I could have anything I wanted in the whole store. I remember that trip, of course, but I remember more the sad but sweet feeling I felt around him of loneliness and self enforced solitude which always set him apart from the rest of the world.
He was iconic to all of us kids but also kind. Perhaps others didn’t see this side of him but I would guess most of the grandkids did. My mother remembered vividly when her first child died of crib death that it was my Grandfather who came into the restaurant where she was having lunch with a friend to bring her home. He gently held her hand in the car on the way back to the house where the baby lay dead and stayed by her side while arrangements were made for his burialn in the cemetery at Tarrytown, New York, where my Grandfather had purchased a plot. The baby is buried right under my Grandfather’s grave. There are no other Watsons buried there unlike the expectation.
When my mother became pregnant again my Grandfather had her meet him in the fur department of Saks Fifth Avenue. There she was hugely pregnant, trying on mink coats. My grandfather and my mother giggled over what the saleslady might think of this elderly gentleman buying a mink coat for this hugely pregnant young woman. My mother loved this story and she loved my Grandfather as he understood her and wanted her to feel comfortable and safe. He gave her quite a lot of IBM stock and told her she needed to always believe she was an independent woman and could survive on her own. How he knew this I will never know but my mother adored him and I can see why.
This year it is the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of IBM and there is going to be a large celebration in Yorktown Heights, New York. I like to imagine my Grandfather looking down on what he created and quietly smiling to himself. I think he would have been proud of what IBM has evolved into as the roots of what he created are still very present in the company. Was he difficult, demanding, and autocratic? Probably. Was he compassionate, loving, sensitive, thoughtful and kind, to me he certainly was.