This entry is a repost from the Virginia Historical Society Blog. We are pleased to share this post by guest author Kurt Jensen. Kurt is working with VHS’s business history collections this summer. We would like to thank the University of Virginia for partnering with us to offer this internship to one of their recent graduates.
I find it hard to recommend the book by Maurice Duke and Daniel Jordan about Richmond’s Universal Leaf Tobacco Company, Tobacco Merchant, for a light beach read this summer. But it was a tremendously pleasant surprise to find a group of interviews in the Virginia Historical Society archives, conducted during the research for that book, that lend themselves excitingly to dramatization.
If the corporate world of creative advertising in the 1960s can command the attention of so many viewers through the TV show Mad Men, surely so can the story of Universal Leaf through the World Wars. Let’s call it Tobacco Boys.
It’s a story of young, largely uneducated men who make a great deal of money they don’t know how to spend; American businessmen at the forefront of international business, entertaining clients and buying from suppliers whose languages they hardly know how to speak; and of course their wives, many of whom worked for the company! (At least, before they were married.)
During this period, Universal Leaf ran a highly successful buying and selling operation in Shanghai, China, which helped the company avoid the worst effects of the Great Depression—an early example of successful international diversification.
It wasn’t a simple task, however. Executives like A. I. McOwan, a Scotsman known as “Mac,” had to traverse mainland China, fording dangerous rivers, with armed guards to avoid bandit attacks. Not to mention the fact that this period saw near constant political turmoil in China, from the Nanking Incident in 1927 to the Japanese invasion of the mainland in 1937.
Here’s just one exciting narrative of love and danger in 1941—best-selling novel material—as told by Mac’s wife, Lou:
I met him in May, I think it was, we were engaged in June, and he left in July. . . . In those days it took seventeen days to get to China. He got to the west coast and kept calling me from out there, and so I flew out to San Francisco and we were married out there. . . . I said about three weeks before I met him, “Now listen, I am going on record now, standing here in the Richmond Trust Building, if I ever had to get in an airplane, I will never get in one for anything or anybody.” So you don’t ever know what you are going to do.
Mac planned to take Lou to Hawaii as part of their whirlwind, fairytale wedding and honeymoon, but they were stopped at the British consulate.
It was going from the sublime to nothing. . . . I had a British passport and the man in the British Consulate said, “Don’t take your wife anywhere.” Mac then said, “I thought I would take her to Honolulu,” and they replied, “Don’t you do that.” [T]hey might have known more than we knew.
Like in any good war drama, the British consulate charged Mac with delivering a cache of secret documents, weighted to sink if his boat was attacked. He managed to do so, but shortly after he returned to work, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese Marine Guard took over international business interests in Shanghai and placed the employees in internment camps. The British consulate neglected to put Mac on their books as an official messenger of the British government, so he wasn’t exchanged with Japanese officers during the war. Lou recalled:
I didn’t hear from him for a long time, but once in a while I would get a message from the Red Cross that would be dated last August, and I wouldn’t get it until this August. I didn’t know for five years whether I would ever see him again. However, when I finally saw him down at Main Street Station, I felt like I had never been away from him.
When he finally was released in 1946, he went straight to Universal Leaf of China, which had been taken over by Japanese business men, burst into an executive meeting in his tattered clothes, and gave them a dramatic ultimatum to turn over the company in three days.
How would that be for a season finale?
Mac is just one of the colorful cast of characters at Universal Leaf. Everyone has different stories to tell about Pinkney Harrison, a ranking executive at the time, who was the type to go fishing with a client and accidentally catch the client on the end of his line. Or founder J. P. Taylor, who formed a company named Universal with international ambitions, yet hated to travel.
There’s also Sara Maynard Warwick, who accompanied her husband Pierre on exploratory business trips to South America at the expense of the company and who took the stand in legal proceedings when the issue came up with the IRS. When asked whether she enjoyed the trips, despite being told to say yes or no, she answered, “Well, yes and no,” which I’m sure the judge enjoyed.
The exotic settings, period fashion, high stakes business and war, and the outstanding cast of characters ought to make for excellent TV drama.
Periodically the Virginia Historical Society will post content created by guest writers. The opinions expressed are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Virginia Historical Society, its members, or its staff.