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Wednesday, 05 January 2011 20:49

A cautionary tale of the dangers of excess

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“The rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said to Ernest Hemingway, to which Hemingway supposedly replied: “Yes, Scott, they have more money.”

After getting through the final pages of Heidi Schnakenberg’s Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon (ISBN 978-1-59995-103-4, $23.99), a reader might agree with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and add a third observation that the rich also possess the capacity to lead lives as filled with ennui, dissolution and misery as the poorest of the poor.

R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. was the son of R.J. Reynolds, the founder of the Reynolds Tobacco Company — which remains the number-two producer of tobacco in the world today — and inventor of the once-ubiquitous Camel cigarette. After establishing his tobacco business in Winston-Salem in the years following the Civil War, Reynolds allied himself with the Moravians, whose ancestors had founded Salem and who were themselves astute businessmen and bankers, and so began his climb to financial success.

His business sense and hard work led to the establishment of Reynolds Tobacco as the chief enterprise in Winston-Salem — a benevolent company beloved by most of its employees, the major contributor to the city’s well-being, the chief force in the move of Wake Forest University from Wake Forest to Winston, and the primary philanthropist behind a dozen major charities in the Piedmont area.

R.J. Reynolds married late in life, however — he was 55 when he proposed to his 25-year-old cousin Katherine — and though he managed to impart some of his wisdom regarding his complex of enterprises to his first son, he died when Dick was only 13 years old. Dick Reynolds would always look back on these years when he was growing up in Winston-Salem, first in the big house on Fifth Avenue and then on the estate built by his mother, Reynolda, property which now serves as a public park and arts center for the city, as idyllic, quite possibly the best years of his life.

In the years following his father’s death, Reynolds flung himself into a dozen different undertakings. The new airplanes fascinated him, and he was one of the fathers of American aviation, having his pilot’s license signed by Orville Wright; later he helped develop both Delta and Eastern Airlines. He became an acclaimed sailor and yachtsman, participating in international races and escaping to the sea whenever he faced personal difficulties ashore. He served for a time as the Treasurer of the Democratic Party and as mayor of Winston-Salem. He helped fund and operate numerous charities, invested heavily, and made a fortune through those investments.

Yet Reynolds was also a secretive man who frequently disappeared from his friends and family for days on end, a playboy who loved the exotic and who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on personal whims, a father who rarely saw any of his children, a hypochondriac, and a drunkard.

This last flaw in particular cost him dearly throughout his life. While still a young man, he was driving drunk in England when he struck a man who later died at the hospital, a crime of manslaughter for which Reynolds spent some time in an English jail. Throughout his life — Kid Carolina could well be subtitled “The Biography of a Booze-Hound” — Reynolds was rarely without a drink, and it was his bibulous judgment that no doubt accounts for his failed marriages, his inability to involve himself with his children, his arguments with family and friends, and his failure to follow in his father‘s footsteps.

Though Schnakenberg does a fine job of showing us the boyhood and early life of Reynolds, and then later takes readers carefully through the famous trial that resulted from his mysterious death — some family members still hold that he was murdered by his fourth and last wife Annemarie, though Shnakenberg herself rejects this possibility — Kid Carolina is an uneven book. Schnakenberg several times tell us, for example, that the people of Winston-Salem regarded Dick Reynolds with great love, yet with the exception of her account of his run for mayor, she never really shows us how Reynolds managed to earn this admiration or gives us any solid evidence that such admiration existed. The middle part of the book poses a rather dull figure who seems on every page either to have passed out or to have caused some sort of drunken commotion. Often, too, the author takes great liberties with circumstances, creating conversations and engaging in unanswerable speculation about the motives of Reynolds, his wives, and his acquaintances.

In the epilogue of this biography, Schnakenberg writes in regard to the people who knew Reynolds or are related to him that “… in their hearts and minds, the unforgettable spirit of R.J. “Dick” Reynolds Jr. — aka Kid Carolina — lives on.” Given the evidence of the book itself, we might nonetheless hope that Reynolds’ story might be better served up to the present generation as a cautionary tale of a man with too much money and too little backbone.

 

Kid Carolina: R.J. Reynolds Jr., A Tobacco Fortune, and the Mysterious Death of a Southern Icon by Heidi Schnakenberg. Center Street, 2010. 352 pages.

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