Why the Obituary Page Is My Favorite
Great reading on The Times‘s obit page today. Not just “Jack A. Weil, 107, the Cowboy’s Dresser” — a cowboy couturier and a centenarian?! — but two other gentlemen, Henry B.R. Brown and L. Rust Hills.
Hills was the longtime fiction editor at Esquire, a landmark job that he took very seriously.
Brown was a finance guy who helped invent an idea that we now take for granted: the money-market mutual fund. Here’s a bit from the obit:
Mr. Brown and [Bruce R.] Bent observed that it was possible for investors to get higher returns on certificates of deposit or commercial paper, but only if they could afford the six-figure sums it cost to buy into the higher-yielding instruments. Their solution was a mutual fund that essentially allowed many small investors to pool resources and share in the higher returns.
And then this section, which is also testament to the power of the press, especially when it concerns people who are trying to figure out what to do with their money:
Mr. Brown did the research, reviewing the banking laws of all 50 states. Over the next few years, trying to finance what they called the Reserve Fund, they reportedly fell $250,000 in debt. According to Time magazine, their fortunes turned after The New York Times published an article about the fund on Jan. 7, 1973. By the end of 1973 they had $100 million in deposits.
Brown was mentioned in a very good book from some time ago, A Piece of the Action, by Joe Nocera. Nocera adds an interesting caveat to Brown’s “invention” of the money-market fund:
The two men generally credited with inventing the money-market fund are Henry B.R. Brown and Bruce R. Bent. … What their story misses, though, is any larger sense that a money fund — or something quite like it — was inevitable right about then. If Brown and Bent hadn’t come up with the idea, somebody else would have; indeed, a handful of people were already moving in that direction.
This subject, that big original ideas — even far more esoteric than a money-market mutual fund — are often not so original, was the subject of this interesting New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.
A very small side note: two of the three men on today’s obit page had the middle name of “Rust.” Strange, no? I am guessing that Rust was a family name. Name Voyager shows that “Rusty” was a pretty popular name in the 1960’s, hitting No. 385 in popularity; but these guys were both born in the 1920’s.
When I read the fascinating obits of guys like these from their generation, I can’t help but thinking: are any of us living lives half as interesting as them?