Hawley’s Heroes and the Romance of Business

Imagine a novel whose mysterious main character you do not meet until page 236. He is reviled by some for his greed and destructiveness, revered by others for his generosity and remarkable creativity. The plot revolves around discovering who he is and what he stands for. Toward the end of the story, he makes a speech about the meaning and glory of business.

No, this isn’t Atlas Shrugged. It’s Cash McCall, published in 1955—two years before Atlas. Post Tags

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Its remarkable author, Cameron Hawley, was a business executive for many years before he published his first novel. Born in 1905 to a frontier family in South Dakota—his grandfather was an Indian scout who wore buffalo skins—Hawley began writing state-wide syndicated columns in high school. He worked his way through the South Dakota State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a sports and magazine writer, as well as working in carnivals and tent shows.

After graduation, Hawley was an advertising executive in Minneapolis for a few years before a twenty-four-year stint with the Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He lived there on a family farm, “Buttonwood,” known for its Aberdeen-Angus breeding herd. According to an old Cash McCall jacket cover, his wide-ranging interests included “good food, field dogs, saltwater cruising, and duck shooting on Chesapeake Bay.”

At Armstrong, Hawley gained an intensive knowledge of business and industry by working in diverse areas of the company, from product development and testing to marketing. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he penned numerous short stories and nonfiction pieces in his spare time for top publications, such as the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, and McCall’s.

After retiring from Armstrong and business in 1951, he published his most famous business novel, Executive Suite, the following year. Over the course of two decades, Hawley published three more: Cash McCall (1955), The Lincoln Lords (1960), and The Hurricane Years (1969, the year he died)—all of them about the drama of business.

Cameron Hawley’s books are realistic page-turners about the romance and drama of business, and were favorite business school texts as recently as 1986. His stories vitally intertwine sharp-eyed detail about executive life with a remarkably vivid descriptive style, whether he’s sculpting the form of a restored seventeenth-century plantation or detailing the social and emotional interplay between characters. His beautifully, intricately drawn characters give his tales depth. He cleverly divides his stories into subplots about their lives, passions, and ambitions, then weaves them back together for the climax. Love and romance are seamlessly blended with business as essential elements in each story.

Executive Suite opens with a gut-wrenching, theme-setting scene that propels the plot into motion. During a trip to New York City in search of a second-in-command, Tredway Corporation’s president, Avery Bullard, dies unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage, leaving five vice presidents and no one in charge. Thereafter, the engaging, suspenseful story depicts the conflicts, the collaborations, and the jostling for power among the vice presidents over two days while exploring the question: What type of person should be president of the company?

Intrigue, blackmail, and plot twists galore keep the reader riveted until the climax in the Tredway Corporation boardroom, where the characters argue over the meaning and purpose of business. Don Walling, the hotheaded young vice president for design and development, enlightens all with his recollections of Avery Bullard, a man who

    was never much concerned about money for its own sake. I remember his saying once that dollars were just a way of keeping score. I don’t think he was too much concerned about personal power, either—just power for power’s sake. I know that’s the easy way to explain the drive that any great man has—the lust for power—but…the thing that kept him going was his terrific pride in himself—the driving urge to do things that no other man on earth could do. He saved the company when everyone else had given up. He built a big corporation in an industry where everyone said that only small companies could succeed. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible…. [H]e never asked for applause and appreciation—or even understanding. He was a lonely man but I don’t think his loneliness ever bothered him very much. He was the man at the top of the tower…that’s what it took to satisfy his pride. . . .  The force behind a great company has to be more than the pride of one man; it has to be the pride of thousands. You can’t make men work for money alone—you starve their souls when you try it, and you can starve a company to death the same way.

Hawley’s second novel, Cash McCall, stirred great public interest when it was published in 1955. Featured in a special presentation of Life magazine, it was also a Literary Guild Selection. In the story, a mysterious figure roams the land, buying up failing enterprises and turning them around to make a fat profit. “[I]s he really the sharp-dealing vulture that rumor makes him? Or is he only exercising the right of free enterprise that we all say is the very foundation of our American way of life?” asks the dust jacket on my 1955 copy. Although it does not have Executive Suite’s breathtaking opening, it’s just as spellbinding a story, with the suspense of its mysterious hero to boot.

Once again, Hawley’s soul-searching characters ride a wave of personal development through exciting action set in the world of business and love. He skillfully blends the business and the personal, the abstract and the particular. For example, here he examines the relation between law and morality:

    “Yes, the practice of law would be much more pleasant these days if there were a few more gentlemen of the Cash McCall stripe—and I use the word gentleman in its true meaning. They’re becoming rare, you know, men who recognize the difference between a thing being morally right and legally right.… [I]t does seem to me that more and more we find the viewpoint that legality is synonymous with morality. You don’t agree?”“No, I do agree. I’m just surprised to hear you make the distinction… I didn’t suppose a member of the legal profession would acknowledge it.”

Although Cash McCall was published before Atlas Shrugged, the parallels are eerie. In addition to its mysterious hero—the force behind important changes in the world and the book’s deeply informed pro-business stance—the novel also has a remarkably similar panoply of good and bad characters.

Hawley’s last two books are not quite as Romantic in the stature of their characters, but are excellent reads, nonetheless.

Published in 1960, The Lincoln Lords follows an out-of-work older executive and his wife who are struggling to maintain the appearance of money and status while desperately searching for a new opportunity. Here Hawley examines the psychology of leadership and its effect on organizations.

He starts by artfully delving into universals about the distressed mentality of a man out of work. Lincoln Lord is a man at loose ends; he hardly knows what to do with himself or how to keep his sense of self together without his job. Lord isn’t a creative dynamo as is the hero in Executive Suite. In fact, some would find him distastefully pandering to social convention. However, during the course of the story, the reader discovers Lord’s special abilities as an organizer and manager, which redeem him when the opportunity arises:

    But there was no need for concern. He had something to say to everyone. And his simplest words seemed a magical incantation. Even those who had already been introduced still stood closely bunched around him, magnetically held, their eyes so firmly fixed upon him that she could stare directly at them without being noticed. This was no new phenomenon, she had seen it happen before; yet it was still difficult to understand why so many people would instantly pledge their loyalty and support to a man about whom they knew nothing except that he had recognized their names and offered some scrap of information about them. Their faces were charged with hope, with expectancy, with the promise of good fortune that everyone always seemed to find in Lincoln Lord’s very presence.

Yet Lord is a realistic man: he knows he’s no creative genius, and even doubts his own value. His talents lie elsewhere:

    As Lincoln Lord practiced it, corporate management had been far more a matter of selection than of creation. He had never been, nor tried to be, a source of imaginative thinking. He could, perhaps, have trained his mind to work more naturally in that direction had he not noticed, as early as his student days at Chesapeake College, that the man of ideas usually had difficulty getting along with his associates. Later he had been warned by observation that a general management executive was rarely capable of fairly judging the work of another man’s idea when it had to be weighed against a brain child of his own. Thus he had come to accept the presidential function as that of a judge and arbiter who solved any given problem by selecting from all of the ideas that flowed up to his desk the one that promised to be the most practical and surely productive. It was a workable system and, applied with the skill that he had developed, a highly effective one. Its employment was, however, dependent upon one prime requirement—there had to be that flow of ideas. Without it, he was a craftsman with nothing to work upon, an arbiter with nothing to decide, a judge with no case before the court.

Hawley shows Lord’s genius at recognizing value in other men and ideas, and integrating them to creative, productive purposes. Knowing how to put great ideas to work is one of the supreme values of the executive, as celebrated by the proclamation of Lord’s African-American cook: “You know what Lizzie Pearl does when that call comes ’bout Big Charley [going back to work]?…‘Glory be to the God Jehovah!’ And what I says to ’em is that they better be singing ‘Glory be to Mr. Lord!’”

The Lincoln Lords also contains the most autobiographical character in Hawley’s corpus, down to his red hair: Brick Mitchell. Mitchell is the idea man, the creative writer who observes the actions and interplay of those around him in exquisite detail, but who needs a Lincoln Lord to rein in and direct his wild imagination.

The Hurricane Years, Hawley’s final novel, opens with a gripping description of a heart attack—from the executive-victim’s point of view. It explores the physical and emotional effects of executive Judd Wilder’s dedication to his high-stress job. Laid flat on his back for weeks by the illness, Wilder is forced to look at who he is and reconsider what is important in his life. Meanwhile, having run away to Paris from her discontent, loneliness, and alienation, Wilder’s wife, Kay, takes an emotional journey to a new life on her way back to the States to care for Judd.

Although the lion’s share of the story transpires while Judd is in the hospital, the action eventually snakes back to where it started, with the drama of business—but with a twist. Kay becomes intimately tied to Judd Wilder’s business world, thereby gaining entrance to his deepest personal self. Once again, Hawley provides an engrossing read, with plenty of drama and character detail.

In all his books, Cameron Hawley frames business as a vital, creative activity that by its nature demands—but does not always get—the best.

In the first pages of Executive Suite, Hawley diagnoses a problem creeping into business in the 1940s and ’50s: the rise of materialism. The reader is allowed to share Avery Bullard’s inner thoughts about Pilcher, a candidate from a competing company whom he’s considering for the recently vacant position of executive vice president:

    Yes, Pilcher was a money-man. They were a type. It was easy to spot them. You could always tell one by that cold fire in his eyes. It was not the hot fire of the man who would never interrupt a dream to calculate the risk, but the cold fire of the man whose mind was geared to the rules of the money game. It was a game that was played with numbers on pieces of paper…. Nothing else mattered. A factory wasn’t a living, breathing organism. It was only a dollar sign…. Their guts didn’t tighten when they heard a big Number Nine bandsaw sink its whining teeth into hard maple…. When they saw a production line they looked with blind eyes, not feeling the counterpoint beat of their hearts or the pulsing flow of hot blood or the trigger-set tenseness of lungs that were poised to miss a breath with every lost beat on the line.

Although materialistic, status-driven characters show up from Hawley’s first novel, they reach new prominence in the last two. Perhaps this was a natural evolution in the themes he explored, but I have to wonder whether something else was at play. Had Hawley noticed a change in the culture, away from the more idealistic view of businesses as engines of greatness, and toward one casting them as mere money machines? Did the New Left’s drumbeat during the sixties wear down businessmen’s self-image so that, by the decade’s end, they too had swallowed the idea that business was nothing but materialistic greed?

Surely, Hawley’s hawk-like eye for social and cultural detail would have noticed such a trend, and a 1952 Time article reveals Hawley’s thoughts about it: “Some of his reviewers, he says, were baffled by Executive Suite: they were so accustomed to caricatured businessmen that they kept looking for the tongue in Hawley’s cheek. Hawley is not discouraged; he is now working on another business novel, and thinks that ‘it will take four novels to break down the feeling that any book about business must necessarily be satire.’” But even theTime article acknowledges the conflict between the “money men” and the entrepreneurial type, ever looking for new frontiers to conquer.

In contrast to the materialists, Hawley emphasizes the importance of the creative individual, spotlighted in the following exchange from Executive Suite. Pilcher, the “money man,” considers taking over Tredway with his boss, Steigel, a septuagenarian who built their company from nothing.

    [Says Pilcher:] “A lot could be done…excellent production facilities but inadequate management. The real trouble, of course, is that Bullard’s running a completely one-man show.”[Replies Steigel:] “My boy, you are a good lawyer—you know the law. Also you are a good financial man—you know stocks and bonds. I know something, too. I know companies. All my life I watch companies. I want to know why they are a success. Always it is the same answer. You hear, always the same answer—always one man. You remember that, Mr. Pilcher. Always when you find a good company it is what you call a one-man show.”

Hawley’s individualism runs deep, typified by Lincoln Lord’s comment, “It’s always the man that counts, not the label you put on him.” And dollars, as Avery Bullard used to say, “were just a way of keeping score.” The thing that kept him going was “his terrific pride in himself…. He was only happy when he was doing the impossible—and he did that only to satisfy his own pride….”

Or consider the passage in The Lincoln Lords where Brick Mitchell discusses entrepreneur Adam Quincy with financier Anderson Phelps:

    “It was 1936…there was the AAA. That was a setup where the government collected processing taxes from food manufacturers and used the money for agricultural relief.”“Yes, I recall that.”

    “Well, all of those Washington schemes were red flags to Mr. Quincy—he hated Roosevelt as if he were the devil himself—and so he fought anything and everything that came along.”

    “A rugged individualist, I take it.”

    “As rugged as they came.”

At one time, I was convinced that Hawley must have been influenced by Rand, perhaps through The Fountainhead. On the hunt for clues, I called his widow, Elaine Hawley, who still lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I asked whether she knew if Mr. Hawley had been a fan of The Fountainhead, and I found out: Not as far as she knew, and she didn’t even remember seeing the book around!

Yet the parallels are intriguing: the speeches lauding businesses as great creative endeavors; the lionizing of the “great man” of business by the good characters; the envy and sniping toward him by the evil ones; the ideological and psychological content of specific scenes. Hawley even has a character named “Kira” in The Lincoln Lords. Is it the logic of Hawley’s and Rand’s shared ideas, or is it something more?

Hawley was a master at exquisite description, whether of a physical setting, or a character’s inner state, or the way one character observes another. “Maggie Lord noticed that the blue sky of the morning had lost its pristine polish, scummed to grayness by a cirrus film,” he writes in a typical passage. Likewise, his great ear for stylized dialogue with a realistic tone conveyed so much about the first half of the twentieth century. Watch him capture the starry-eyed admiration people had in that day and age for remarkable businessmen: “Sure, honey, that’s old Bullard himself up there right now. They say he never goes home. Some nights he works right through. You know what? The other day I saw him getting out of his car. I swear to God I was so close to him I coulda reached out and touched him!”

What a difference from today!

Moreover, Hawley peoples his stories with an array of interesting characters. In Executive Suite, they range from Bullard himself to his “best friend,” the Italian immigrant who operates the executive elevator at Tredway. Luigi bursts with pride at his job and, the consummate Latin, cries at Bullard’s funeral. Erica Martin, Bullard’s executive secretary, illustrates the curious position of the highly intelligent woman of the time, embodying the changing views of women and work.

His main characters are remarkably purposeful, honest, and responsible, carefully considering the right thing to do, and often commenting on inappropriate behavior—like Steigel, who rebukes Pilcher for considering a shady stock scheme with the words, “There are some ways it don’t seem right to make money.” And women like Maggie Lord and Mary Walling stand not behind but beside the executives, sharing in their struggles and their triumphs; they are major forces in every story.

Hawley deeply grasped and conveyed the special abilities of the great, creative entrepreneur. Consider a passage in which a college dean, expert in seventeenth-century history, speaks of a food baron who decided to restore his property to the plantation it once was:

    What had so impressed him about Adam Quincy was that in two short years the old man had made himself, by driving application and an extraordinarily intense concentration of interest, a first class authority on seventeenth century life, so well informed that he could rarely if ever be bested in an argument.

He draws portraits of great businessmen as more than mere money-grubbers—from his pen they emerge as remarkable, many-sided, capable geniuses whom no one completely understands, but many love:

    “Don’t worry about it, my dear,” Julia said. “You’ll never understand him completely. Don’t try. You’ll be happier if you don’t. He’ll be happier, too. Not understanding will make you very lonely sometimes, Mary—when he shuts you away behind a closed door—when you think he’s forgotten you—but then the door will open and he’ll come back and you’ll know how fortunate you were to have been his wife.”

Hawley’s novels so speak to the reality as well as the romance of business that they often have been used in business school courses, even as they have appealed to a wide public.

And they still can make an impact. A few years ago, I gave Cash McCall as a gift to a couple hosting me on a trip to Atlanta. Little did I know what its effect could be. The book so vividly reinforced the value and effectiveness of character in business, it inspired my hosts to seek out good businesses ruined by unethical practices that they could buy and turn around.

Since publication, Executive Suite has been translated into fourteen languages. My 1986 copy was published as part of the Dell Publishing “Delta-Diamond Library Gems of American Fiction with Enduring Appeal.” Executive Suite was made into a 1954 movie as well, with a huge cast of notables: William Holden, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Nina Foch, and Dean Jagger star; Robert Wise directed and John Houseman produced this MGM classic, which recently aired on American Movie Classics. It is also available on video. Holden is great as the firebrand Don Walling, and the script sticks closely to the story and to Hawley’s actual words. Warner Brothers made Cash McCall into a movie in 1960, also now available on video. Produced by Henry Blanke and directed by Joseph Pevney, it stars James Garner and Natalie Wood, and among its other stars includes Dean Jagger once again and Edward G. Marshall.

Unfortunately, all of Hawley’s books are currently out of print, although available inexpensively through used-book sources. Perhaps republishing them is an opportunity waiting to happen?

Cameron Hawley made the life-and-death drama of business palpable. Sharing the fears, frustrations, and achievements of executives and factory workers alike, readers come away from his works experiencing the importance and romance of business. Having reread many selections from his books for this article, I am bitten anew by the Hawley bug and plan to immerse myself in his novels again.

Copyright © 2006 by Marsha Familaro Enright. Permission to reprint is granted with attribution to the author and inclusion of her byline.