Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,186

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,186


This is the grave of William Crocker.

Born in 1861 in Sacramento, California, Crocker grew up the son of Charles Crocker, one of the “Big Four” railroad kings of California. This meant that there was no one richer. He was truly the elite of the state and he had everything laid out perfect for him. Of course he wasn’t going to go to school in California. New Money knew it had to copy Old Money for acceptance. So Crocker was sent east to attend Phillips, Andover, and then Yale.

Crocker came back to California and just lived the life of a very, very rich man. That Central Pacific money stayed in the family and Crocker Jr went into banking. He headed the Crocker First National Bank in San Francisco for most of his life. He became perhaps the richest man in San Francisco after he inherited most of dad’s properties after that death in 1888. After the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, Crocker donated a lot of relief to the city. You needed someone to build the San Francisco Opera House, you turned to Crocker to lead the donations, which he did.

Again, he was just a rich guy. That meant being on the University of California Board of Trustees. It meant, though his wife Ethel, becoming an early collector of French impressionism in the U.S. In so, he brought the work of people such as Monet, Manet, and Pissarro to California, allowing the yokels to see what was up in Paris. It meant, also through his wife, he funded the expansion of classical music through the U.S. and especially in California. Incidentally, his wife was like him, the daughter of an early California grain capitalist based out of Stockton, who was raised with Culture and Propriety. I mean, if you think this was new money rising fast, Crocker’s sister married a Polish prince. Later, Crocker funded the building of the million-volt x-ray tub built by the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in California, an early success in the study of nuclear physics.

It goes without saying that Crocker was a Republican and was a major promoter of that party’s candidates. In 1916, he particularly worked hard for the candidacy of Charles Evans Hughes against Wilson, but that didn’t work out. At the same time, Crocker was deeply involved in the Republican civil wars of the 1910s. He was a staunch old school Gilded Age conservative while Progressives such as Hiram Johnson aligned with people such as Theodore Roosevelt and wanted to bring the Republican Party into the twentieth century and give it at least some sort of social values. But social values were losers unlike winners such as Crocker, of course earned every penny by being born into the right family. So Crocker worked hard to defeat Johnson and other Progressives. Johnson and Crocker battled for the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1916. But with the Seventeenth Amendment now in effect, voters could actually choose and they voted for Johnson. Otherwise, Crocker mostly played golf and did other rich guy things. Both he and Ethel were given a French Legion of Honor Medal for their relief work during World War I, when Ethel especially worked with Herbert Hoover on this.

Crocker died in 1937, at the age of 76. He had been in failing health for some time and couldn’t lead the home in the months at least leading up to his death.

William Henry Crocker is buried in Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Colma, California. Incidentally, his nephew Henry, who was long Charlie Chaplin’s personal assistant, is also buried here.

This Crocker visit proved a bit less interesting than I had anticipated, but not ever grave post can be gold. However, I think there’s one notable thing here–the ways in which money works within one generation. The crowd such as Charles Crocker who became the Gilded Age capitalists were, uh, not known their fancy ways. Some of them were barely literate. They were most hustlers who got lucky and they acted like it. The lack of subtlety among Gilded Age capitalists–think Jay Gould, William Clark, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Henry Clay Frick, etc. ad infinitum–was widely made fun of at the time by old money. But of course old money needs new money because the old money usually isn’t so much money anymore. So it’s not like they really turned these people away so long as they acted with at least some level of decorum. William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham is great on this, though the Brahmins were not going to accept a Lapham. But they totally would have had he moved to California, where almost everyone was new money. And yet within one generation, the children of these people are bringing modern art to the U.S. and building huge opera houses and other cultural institutions. That doesn’t make them better people than their fathers–they mostly were not–but it does mean that new money took on the trappings of old money pretty fast, especially once the kids hit the right prep schools and learned to integrate themselves with said old money.

Also, since this post is kind of lame, it’s worth noting the new frontier of the grave series–where we have crossovers with the college publicity information complex!

Does this mean the few children that LGM writers have get free tuition at Hamilton? Or can I at least get some university funding to visit the graves of their dead alums?

In any case, if you would like this series to visit other Americans who have received the French Legion of Honor, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alvin York is in Pall Mall, Tennessee and Henry Louis Larsen is in Arlington. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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