I meet the grandson of Upton Sinclair’s private secretary—and reflect on today’s super-rich: Just like Sinclair’s 1908 book?

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imageI’d written the October 19th post—on The Money Changers, the 1908 Upton Sinclair classic—just before I mentioned it to Ted Gest whom I had recently met.

Without knowing of an amazing coincidence, I recommended the book to Ted as a first-rate catalogue of white-collar financial crimes.

Sinclair matters to me. His novel The Jungle even inspired a stockyards reference in The Solomon Scandals, as well an allusion to the time LBJ honored the legendary muckraker in 1967 while signing a meat inspection act into law.

Well, it turns out that Ted, whom I met at a small dinner in Georgetown, cares about Upton Sinclair for understandable reasons of his own. His grandfather, Ben Olin (1886–1969), was Sinclair’s private secretary in Mississippi and California. In fact, Olin was friends with Sinclair until the latter’s death in 1968.

imageTed (left photo), formerly a writer for U.S. News & World Report, covering the White House and later the U.S. Justice Department, is now a Senior Fellow with the Jerry Lee Center of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and continues to write. So a journalistic tradition has lived on.

I asked Ted for any family recollections, and he said he was too young to have picked up much from Ben Olin, but he did recall hearing of Upton Sinclair’s campaign for governor of California-. I Googled around and read how Sinclair wanted to help Californians deal with the Great Depression. A socialist approach? Maybe. But then you could say the same of the TVA dams. Or maybe the corporate bailouts that D.C. recently gave to Wall Street.

image image That isn’t the only little coincidence here. Ted is a graduate of Oberlin College and  donated some Sinclair-related items to the school. Margo Danialson, Jon Stone’s SO in Scandals, majored in medieval studies at Oberlin. I’m not sure if Oberlin offered that exact major, but it did let students come up with their own.

In yet another coincidence, one of our hosts for the dinner was Larry Leamer, author of Fantastic, a bio of a California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger—in many ways the opposite of Sinclair politically. Not only that, Larry’s book Madness under the Royal Palms is about the wealthy operators of the kind Sinclair dissects in The Money Changers. Sinclair wrote about them on and off the job; Larry, about their private lives. In fact, in many cases Larry’s subjects don’t even have jobs, just inherited wealth, unless you count the title “spouse of.”

image image Sinclair, I suspect, would have nodded as he read Larry Leamer’s book about the wealthy of Palm Beach.

In many ways, America’s uber-rich are still the same as when Sincair wrote them up in the early 1900s, with competitiveness from the office spilling over into family and social lives, especially when it is time to divvy up estates.

Sometimes, in fact, as shown by money-related murders Larry wrote up in Palm Beach, the proximity of wealth can even be lethal.

That said, the Leamer book  is not a polemic; instead, reflective new journalism with more than its share of empathy toward his subjects. He and his wife, Vesna, still live in Palm Beach much or most of the time. Among other things, Larry volunteers for the Lord’s Place homeless shelter in nearby West Palm Beach, a project championed and financially aided over the years by a Palm Beach socialite, Cathleen McFarlane-Ross.

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