I’ve always liked the New York Public Library. I liked its magnificent facade, and the people who sat on the steps during summer days, the hustle-bustle of the city surrounding it and I even liked the bar scenes nearby. When my best friend proposed marriage to his now wife in front of the library, with the two lion statues Patience and Fortitude as their witnesses, I started to associate the word “romantic” in addition to “elegant” and “regal” to the place.
As a wedding gift to them, I was going to create a painting or a collage with two pompous and somewhat animated lions gazing at the couple with knowing smiles. But at the end I didn’t do the painting, as the wedding date was not settled for some time, and I was never good with any projects that had no deadlines.
During my normal business readings in the morning, the name Ward McAllister was mentioned in one of the articles. I automatically googled the name because I was never embarrassed about not knowing names. Even if I had come across some famous names in my elementary or high school education, I most likely won’t recognize them due to the language differences and the translation. For someone like Ward McAllister, who died in 1895 and was famous for being the originator of the phrase “the Four Hundred” to designate New York City’s society elites, there was no way on earth that I could have known the name or the background without the help of Mr. Google and Ms. Wikipedia.
My reading on Ward McAllister led me to John Jacob Astor. Per Ms. Wikipedia:
At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million. His estimated net worth, if calculated as a fraction of the U.S. gross domestic product at the time, would have been equivalent to $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars, making him the fifth richest person in American history.
Ok, maybe I should recognize this name, I thought to myself. Then my mind was forced to make an ugly turn. Apparently, a large amount of his fortune was made in China, partly from selling opium to Chinese. Thinking about the one-hundred-years-of-humiliation China had endured during that period of time, all a sudden I wished that I didn’t read about this guy. To add insult to injury, I discovered that J. J. Astor was one of the founders of the now New York Public Library. They even named one of the lion statues after him as “Leo Astor” before it was ultimately changed to the current name. I was utterly disgusted.
Later, I was chatting with a client about geo-political risks among other macro topics. Then I thought, no matter how many years have passed, how much a mixed-pot society we are, and how flat and interconnected the world is today, the history is there black and white on paper. The slave trade, the holocaust and the eight nation alliance. At which point will people start to forget? Will we ever?