Albright: The Life and Times of John J. Albright
By Mark Goldman
Buffalo Heritage Press
132 pages, $45.95 hardcover, $35.95 softcover.
It's February 1929, and John J. Albright is being lavishly praised by the University of Buffalo in bestowing upon him its prestigious Chancellor's Medal.
"The name of the recipient is well known to every citizen of Buffalo," the citation reads. "For more than 40 years, he has been a leader in unostentatious good works. The number and magnitude of these are unguessed even by his friends."
"How and what John Joseph Albright felt about this tribute is not known," author Mark Goldman writes in the Epilogue. "He was not there."
But of course.
By then, it's long been clear Goldman's quest to find John J. Albright – one of Buffalo's most influential citizens ever – will end with him hidden in plain sight.
That would be enough to sink most biographical projects. That it doesn't is a tribute to the local historian's infectious enthusiasm for his subject. The well-written story he weaves in the handsomely packaged and beautifully illustrated "Albright: The Life and Times of John J. Albright" (Buffalo Heritage Press) makes the pursuit at least half the fun.
Even so, the sounds of the Zombies' classic "She's Not There," with the lyrics "Please don't bother trying to find her/She's not there," danced around this reviewer's head as Goldman repeatedly raised questions about Albright's life that he couldn't answer.
Goldman had surprisingly little to work with for one of Buffalo's most influential citizens ever, and whose life spanned 83 years, from 1848 to 1931. Goldman came up with just three documents written in Albright's own hand, and a single interview with the Buffalo Evening News that this captain of industry was none too keen on giving.
No personal anecdotes about Albright are included, or views expressed by contemporaries that could have shed light on Albright's character.
The absence of primary source material wasn't for a lack of trying. Goldman rummaged through the archives at the Buffalo History Museum, Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Central Library's Grosvenor Room, in Buffalo; the Niagara Falls Ont. Public Library, Ontario, Canada; the Collections Department at the George Eastman House in Rochester; the Chemung Valley History Museum in Elmira; the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland; the Albright Memorial Library in Scranton, Pa.; and the Countway Library at Harvard University.
How is it possible so little is known about the wealthy benefactor singularly responsible for the creation of the Albright Art Gallery, now the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and who helped bring the 1901 world's fair to Buffalo? The same person who helped bring the steel company later bought by Bethlehem Steel to Lackawanna, founded Nichols School and whose Ontario Power Corp. was the largest to harness the power of Niagara Falls?
Goldman can only conjecture.
One possibility was a fire in 1901 that burned the family's Gothic home to the ground. Goldman wonders aloud whether the loss could have included "the treasure trove of letter and diaries and photographs and records that I have sought so diligently to find."
But if that were the case, Albright still lived another 30 years. Why weren't historic documents left behind from those later decades?
Goldman has written about Buffalo's history in "City on the Lake" and "City on the Edge," and he brings an historian's eye to the job of conjuring up Buffalo's early days and the people like Albright whose industry and ingenuity helped the city grow by leaps and bounds. Old maps and photographs aid in bringing that time period into view.
Albright's formulative early years are recounted, including attending one of the country's two engineering colleges, his lifelong business contacts and friendships and becoming wealthy as a coal broker. By 1888 – five years after moving to Buffalo – Albright's sale of his coal business will bring him $550,000, the equivalent of $10 million today.
Goldman tells of Albright's dizzying accomplishments in Buffalo industry, energy production and banking, and in cultural philanthropy.
We learn about Albright's two families – three children with first wife Harriet, who died in 1895, and and five with second wife Susan, whom he hired to help with the children after Harriet's death and married two years later.
We're also wowed by Albright's fabulous wealth.
The Albrights lived in an enormous estate at 730 W. Ferry St., bordered by Delaware Avenue to the east, Elmwood Avenue to the west, West Ferry to the south and Cleveland Avenue to the north. They summered in the Adirondacks and on exclusive Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia among the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Morgans. The Albrights' 26-room estate, purchased from publisher Joseph Pulitzer in 1914, was the island's largest.
Grandson Birge Albright proved invaluable to Goldman. He published a three-part biography of his grandfather in a local paper in the early 1960s. Now in his mid-80s and living in Cambridge, Mass., Birge Albright steered Goldman with tantalizing tips that just might lead to the holy grail.
"Dante had found his Virgil," Goldman exclaims early on.
Here's one of the clues: "There were letters, Birge said, hundreds of them, housed in thirty-six boxes on sixty-six linear feet of shelf space at the Countway Library of Medicine at Harvard, letters that Susan Fuller Albright had written to her son, Birge's father, Fuller Albright," Goldman writes.
" 'Go there,' he counseled, 'ask for boxes 17 and 18. Let me know what you discover.' "
Goldman found the letters, but here, too, nothing of substance is revealed.
Goldman's biggest find are hundreds of photographs never before seen by the public. Nine photo albums taken by Susan Fuller Albright documents life with her husband and children. Hundreds more taken by 13-year-old Raymond Albright, from John's first marriage, using a camera given by George Eastman, left a record of the family's 14-month vacation across the Atlantic.
The family photographs suggest the impeccably dressed John J. Albright was a devoted family man, but little more is conveyed because – wouldn't you know? – he's always expressionless.
Goldman's curiosity about Albright frequently runs rampant, such as wondering about the "unreconstructed traditionalist" Albright's relationship with art. "What motivated him to commission the Albright Art Gallery? And how did he respond to its increasingly modernist direction?" Goldman asks.
He wonders about Albright's personal habits, and family life. "Did he keep a diary? What about his family: Who were they and what was the nature of their relationship with the great man?"
And, just as much, Goldman wants to know how and why Albright suffered financial calamity over the last 10 years of his life, and how he dealt with it. "What about those seemingly tragic days when house, home and all its contents were unceremoniously liquidated?," Goldman asks. "What had happened? How had this powerful man, whose vision and ideas shaped twentieth-century Buffalo, fallen on such hard times?"
Time and again, without answers, Goldman is left to speculate.
Goldman's exuberance is on full display in passages like this one, when he describes both the opening of the Lackawanna Steel Company and the mounting of the Pan-American Exposition:
"It is staggering to consider that at the same time, in the same city, in places separated by only a few miles, two whole new and different realities existed, one a mammoth Piranesi-like hulking industrial complex, the other a spectacular, fantasy-filled world's fair. One would vanish after one year, the other after eighty."
It's writing like this, and the author's imagination that fuels it, that makes the book worth reading.
As for Albright, readers are still left to wonder what kind of person he was, while feeling appreciative of what he left behind.
Mark Sommer is a veteran News reporter on the arts.