James D. Newton, Uncommon Friends. Life with Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Alexis Carrel & Charles Lindbergh. With a foreword by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.
Speaker and author Danny Cox, whom the author thanks in the preface, sent this book to me via Springhouse magazine for which I write. I was very pleased to receive and read it. Then I began noticing it in bookstores. Here is a book review I wrote for the February 1995 issue of Springhouse.
The five men recalled in this book are major twentieth-century figures, and many people will recall their respective accomplishments. Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) was the inventor and industrialist who invented the phonograph, electric lighting, and the moving picture camera. Henry Ford (1863-1947) was chief engineer of the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891 and resigned in 1899 to manufacture automobiles. He established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and his Model T Ford automobile (first sold in 1908 for $825) was resoundingly popular for its assembly-line production and affordably low price. Harvey Firestone (1868-1938) organized the Firestone Company in 1900 to manufacture sold and pneumatic tires, a company which expanded after Ford’s 1906 volume order. Alexis Carrel (1873-1944) won the Nobel Prize in 1912 for his revolutionary technique for suturing blood vessels. He and Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) collaborated in the 1903s to develop a perfusion pump by which organs removed from the body would be kept alive. Carrel also wrote scientific and philosophic books and articles. Lindbergh made the first successful trans-Atlantic solo fight in a heavier-than-air craft in 1927. Although an anti-war activist in 1939, Lindbergh worked with Ford to produce B-24 bombers and few civilian combat missions during World War II. Later he was a consultant for Pan Am Airlines and a conservationist. His wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh authored a number of popular reminiscences.
As for the author of Uncommon Friends, according to the jacket “James Newton born in 1905 has had a long career as a real estate developer, conservationist, cowboy, soldier, corporate executive, labor dispute negotiator, and friend par excellence. He and his wife Ellis live in Fort Myers, Florida.” [Newton died in 1999. In 1993 he established the Uncommon Friends Foundation, uncommonfriends.org.] As told in the book, Charles Lindberg was best man at his and Ellie’s wedding. Familiar accounts of these people (Edison’s early years when he was chided as “different,” the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberghs’ son, etc.) are not described. Nor are the people’s shortcomings and flaws help up for scrutiny. Newton’s purpose for this reminiscence is to record the stories of friendship, including the faith, values, humor, and deepest convictions of these men and their wives, as revealed to a close friend like him. In this warm and readable memoir, he is successful in his aim.
Newton did not ask to meet any of these people, nor took any money from them for he help he provided to them (except for his brief career with Firestone). He met them via business contacts or overlapping friendships, forming a long and interrelated story. He was a twenty-year-old head of a Flordia real estate company when he met the Edisons. First he met Mrs. Edison when, prudishly it seems, she protested the statue of a naked Greek maiden which was to adorn the entrance of Newton’s neighborhood development project, Edison park. The maiden was veiled with powdered marble, and Newton and the Edison’s became fast friends. Henry Ford lived next door to the Edisons, and Newton became friends with him when the Edison’s recommended Newton for a building project. Also through the Edisons, Newton met Harvey Firestone, who was impressed with Newton’s precocity, business acumen, and integrity. Firestone soon hired him to do management, sales, troubleshooting, and a variety of “right hand man” tasks around the country. He spent several intense years with the company until, collapsed from overwork he made the mature decision to take a leave of absence to let his soul catch up with his body, in his words (p. 91). During that time of reflection, and shortly before Firestone’s death, a fellow businessman introduced Newton to Carrel, who was creating a stir in the scientific community for writing words—books and also essays solicited by Reader’s Digest—on prayer, psychology, and spiritual matters. Carrel and LIndbergh were already friends; the death of Lindbergh’s sister from then-inoperable heart disease created his interest in Carrel’s research in cardiac and vascular surgery. Carrel arranged the first meeting of Newton and Lindbergh. “I want you to tell hi how God came into your life,” Carrel had said. “He respects my beliefs, but I don’t think he’s found a satisfying faith himself yet. Possibly you can help him” (p. 152). Newton shared with Lindbergh some of his beliefs and religious discoveries, and the friendship proceeded from that foundation. Because Lindbergh lived many years after the other four men, the second half of the book deals with that friendship as Newton marries Ellie and the two couples enjoy times together.
The story of the various overlapping friendships makes for enjoyable, inspiring reading, and so, too, are the examples of the convictions of these people. We see Edison refusing to become discouraged during years of experimentation, and we see him allowing a young man to carry a light bulb (which took many, many hours for Edison and his assistants to make) to another room—the same young man who had accidentally dropped and broken a bulb a few days before. Newton wonders what this act of trust meant to the young man, downhearted from his earlier carelessness. Carrel, honored for his scientific research, grappled with issues of God, faith, spirituality, the meaning of psychic power, and issues of character. He was interested in Zen and meditation three decades before these things became popular in Western countries. Having an intuition, Firestone sold $60 million of his own company stock in 1929 in order to have capital for other products, and he didn’t feel right, as the saying goes, having all his eggs in one basket. Five days later the stock market crashed. Although as concerned about products as any businessman, Ford one year doubled his employees’ wages to $5 a day, realizing the financial risk would improve productivity and product loyalty. In opposing America’s entry into World War II Lindbergh paid a price in public criticism, then was grieved but supportive when intervention became inevitable after Pearl Harbor. Altogether, these men gave examples of their character: Edison never let failed experiments prevent him from pressing on to success; Firestone refused to conduct his business according to mere expedience; Ford struggled with new ideas and sometimes took serious business risks (like perfecting the already failed V-8 engine) in order to advance the industry; Carrel was interested in the whole of human experience beyond the merely empirical; though pressured by fame, Lindbergh sought new challenges.
Newton sadly concludes that, in spite of the conveniences and dynamic tools which these men bequeathed to us, and perhaps because of these things, our modern life is in peril as never before. I think about the era which Newton describes, when notions like “company loyalty” could be deeply esteemed, more so than in our era of public cynicism, fallen heroes, and corporate downsizing. I think of people for whom character is a concern and are very individualistic in that concern; they neglect to see how character can be undermined in our present-day economic and corporate reality. Even our talk of “virtues” reflects our desire to regain something we’ve lost, and Newton’s book reminds us that not only virtue of faith, talent, risk-taking, creativity, common sense, and the willingness to swim against the stream for a greater principles—qualities he respected in his five friends—are values and principles that seem scare these days. Newton’s book made me think about such things again, and the benefit of such a memoir is its ability to elicit such thought.
I realized, too, how important is the simple gift of friendship. “To Jim, personal relationships come first,” said Lindbergh of Newton (p. xiii). Got a hold of this book if you’d like to be inspired to enrich your own friendships and values!