The Sugar Men

T. Anthony Howell

My pencil lead snapped when I pushed down to make the period. I looked up at my Dad as he plated our loosely scrambled eggs.

“Dad?”

“Yes.”

“Why do we have a girl’s name?”

He put his cigarette back in the Stork Club ashtray so he could drain the bacon fat from the pan into the empty Maxwell House coffee can on the electric stove. “We don’t have a girl’s name.”

“Yes we do.” I looked down at the Cub Scouts application. “See.” I held it up and pointed to where I had answered the question FULL NAME: Thomas Tiffany Anthony Howell Jr. “Tiffany’s a girl’s name.”
He came over to the table, sat down and over eggs, bacon, and the pervasive scent of Marlboro Lights told me a vague story about being named after the “Tiffany & Co.” family—something about continuing the legacy.

I never bothered to look into it again until the mid 1990s when I reached my 20s and saw an unopened parcel on the shelf in my parent’s basement in Morristown, New Jersey. In that box was an urn containing half the ashes of my grandfather John Akin Howell, who I knew as Poppa. One morning, I cradled the box in my hands while my dad was working on his model trains. I knew the other half of his ashes were in Dallas, with his now deceased widow and second wife Flo, but I thought this half had been buried. When Poppa died in 1991 and the ashes first split, that was the last time I saw the Texas side of my family. I think my Poppa enjoyed that Dallas side, which seemed so different from his life with us in New Jersey.

“So why did Poppa name you after the Tiffany & Co. family. Did he like their jewelry or something?”
“If I recall correctly, your grandfather was acquainted with Charles Tiffany.”

“Who’s that?”

“He was the last in his lineage with the Tiffany surname and he had no offspring. Your Grandfather offered in a gesture of friendship to name me with the ‘Tiffany’ name to carry on the legacy of Charles Tiffany.”

“Really?”

“Yes. So I was told.”

“What else were you told?”

He looked up at the ceiling over his reading glasses again. “Well, Charles Tiffany was a roommate at Yale with your great grandfather, Thomas Andrews Howell, Poppa’s Father. After Thomas died in about 1930 or so, good ole’ Charles married his widow - we called her Little Beth - about a year later. Poppa must have been about in his mid-20s about that time, finishing up Yale himself.”

He picked up his brush and continued painting the HO scale steam engine. “I think your grandfather was rather enamored with the high society set of that age and after his father lost his fortune, well, I don’t think ole’ Poppa dealt with that very well. I think he was just trying to curry favor with that set.”

“Poppa’s father Thomas Andrews was wealthy?”

“Oh yes, very wealthy. He was in the sugar business.”

***

Workers haul sugar caneThey called him “Gentleman John.” Though my grandfather didn’t enter into the lucrative sugar business of the Howell’s before him, instead earning a respectable living working in insurance, his lifestyle afforded the nickname. But he personally could not. Poppa, with his wealthy second wife Flo Crespi, spent the 70s and 80s constantly traveling the globe, visiting friends, and making new ones, primarily at exclusive well manicured clubs such as Brook Hollow and Rolling Rock—all requiring steep membership dues and well-heeled reference letters, but mostly her checkbook. He moved from New Jersey, making his home with Flo in her 29,000 square foot French chateau-style mega mansion in Dallas, left over from Flo’s first marriage to Italian expatriate Count Pio Crespi. It is a grand architectural achievement, designed by the famed Maurice Fatio. Through the years it has hosted the likes of Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart, currently settling at a market value of $35 million and in the possession of billionaire and former owner of the Texas Rangers, Thomas O. Hicks.

I remember Poppa the most though not for their big house in Dallas or the 1971 Mercedes 280 SEL with the aftermarket 8 track player. I mostly remember him taking the time to walk me around and teach me about trees, animals, and nature. We didn’t spend much time together, maybe a week or two a year when they passed through on their way somewhere else, but I loved seeing them both. I did get a couple of weeks with him as a teenager, when he decided it was time for me to learn the fine arts of trap shooting and fly fishing.

He and Flo took me to Manchester, Vermont and I spent a week or so at the Orvis Fly Fishing and Skeet/Trap Shooting Schools. I found my time with him scarce and precious and remember wanting him to stay at school with me rather than leaving me with the instructors.

The repulsive thought of Poppa remaining in a box in our basement spurred me to fulfill his wish to be interred next to his father and brothers, all resting in Greens Farms, Connecticut. One fall Saturday I took a walk around a couple of cemeteries and at Greens Farms Congregational Church I found Howell relatives. Among them are my great grandfather Thomas A. Howell and his second wife, Emelia d’Apeztiguia who we called Little Beth, along with Poppa’s older brothers, Tommy Jr. and Hunt. I contacted the church Sexton who explained it was a “private cemetery” for the Howells, Burrs, Banks, and Hulls. He agreed to arrange it, and in the Fall of 2003 Poppa was laid to rest next to Tommy Jr. and behind his father.

I have visited the little cemetery often and realized that the Sexton hadn’t only dug up the earth to make room for Poppa’s ashes. That hole made me think more and more about my Dad and the mythology of the past—a myth created by my great grandfather and adopted by future generations. Most of it was vague lamentations about squandered wealth, missed opportunities, and a long list of “what could have beens.” There was a fair amount of bitterness toward my great grandfather, and ample pressure to regain the “past glory.” My Mom and Dad did their best to encourage me to follow my dreams, but tempered that message with the caveat, “make money while you do it.” It was a legacy I did not want to give to my daughter. And to smash it, I had to understand its true origins.

***

Thomas Andrews Howell, born in 1877, was the 9th generation American of Welsh immigrants who landed in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1642 and shortly thereafter migrated south to settle Southampton & Quogue, Long Island. His father, Henry Banks Howell was a successful sugar and molasses merchant in New York City, whose wife Mary Ann Blackwell was part of the family who owned Blackwell Island, known today at Roosevelt Island.

After graduating Yale in 1900 Thomas Andrews Howell joined the family sugar mercantile firm, originally dubbed B. H. Howell & Son, buying and selling refined sugar in bulk to food markets and factories. Sugar, once used sparingly as a spice, became a staple in America’s food system as cheap, high-calorie diets fueled the Industrial Revolution. In the years prior to Thomas’s graduation, his father and grandfather had both died, leaving gaping holes in the leadership of the firm. Over the next 14 years leading up to the start of WWI, Thomas Andrews built up the firm and renamed it B. H. Howell & Son & Company. The “Company” stood for new partners brought on such as their cousin James Howell Post, an international sugar magnate who was well connected to bankers, senators, and President Woodrow Wilson. As the company continued to expand, Thomas Andrews called up some of his banker friends from Yale to invest. Among them was James A. Stillman, president of the National City Bank of New York, known today as CitiBank. His father was the previous president of the bank and at the time of his death had a net worth of $77 billion.

Thomas grew the firm by expanding into the wholesale sugar brokerage business and eventually milling, growing and refining. He and his partners were responsible for significant advancements in the organization of trusts, vertical integration, and other corporate organizational concepts still in use today to the extent the SEC hasn’t outlawed them. Having foreseen the eventual rise in demand on sugar that the War would create, they formed alliances and partnerships with other refiners and plantation owners to create massive conglomerates to compete against Californian cane sugar growers. Henry O. Havemeyer and Claus Spreckels were their primary competition, the team that would eventually become Domino.

Thomas Andrews needed vast amounts of capital, land, and labor to grow and cut the cane he would eventually turn into refined sugar, after building the necessary refineries. Havemeyer owned the west for sugar production, and the only other favorable climate in the southern US was monopolized by beet sugar growers. Thomas Andrews turned to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. While there were many companies and interlocking directorships, the primary sugar companies Thomas Andrews formed were the National Refining Sugar Company (NRSC) for Cuban interests and Cuban Dominican Sugar Company (CDSC) for Dominican Republic interests. With his cousin James Howell Post manning brokerage, finance, and lobbying in New York and Washington, Thomas Andrews spent most of the year negotiating, acquiring, and building in the Caribbean. Yet, he never learned to speak Spanish.

***

“Do you recall that house on Park Avenue in New York City that your mother took you too a few years ago for that Kips Bay designer showcase thing?” asked my Dad.

“Yeah, kind of, lots of rooms with fancy furniture and curtains?” I replied, as he had further piqued my interest.

“Well, your great grandfather built that house in the 1920s with a great fortune he made in the sugar business.”

“Really?”

“Yes. He was filthy rich. He owned Ram Island out near the Hamptons next to Shinnecock and National Golf courses and a ton of land in northern Connecticut and Massachusetts.”

“No way. Do we own any of that stuff ?”

“Nope. Dear old grandfather Thomas lost it all betting on sugar futures contracts.”

“Wow. So who owns it all now?”

“Don’t know, he lost it all. He bet the wrong way on the futures market. Had he made the other choice, we would have been Rockefeller Rich.”

I sat there in our basement, fully intrigued by the past wealth of our family and the strokes of luck or fate that had taken it away.

“Or maybe he lost it all in the Great Depression. I’m not sure. He had a lot of land and a sugar mill in Cuba too, the lore is Castro took it from him.” As a twenty-something looking for my place in the world, this only spurred me further into the past.

***

My great-grandfather housed his operations at 129 Front Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was officially called the B. H. Howell Building, but it was commonly referred to in the industry as the building of the “Sugar Men.” It is still standing today, as the Hotel Eurostars Wall Street, having survived a block wide demolition for a downtown skyscraper. From the B. H. Howell Building, my great grandfather controlled a massive industry. At the height of ownership, the companies controlled dozens of mills and refineries throughout the Caribbean, owning hundreds of thousands of acres. With much of it fronting the water (although the actual beachfront acreage could not support cane growth, so the property managers gave it to the local workers for their homes, which eventually became resorts). The Caribbean Sugar Kingdom had been established, and he planned on passing it on to his progeny.

After Yale, Thomas Andrews married Helen Akin, who bore him three sons, Thomas Andrews Jr., William Huntting and John Akin (my grandfather) and one daughter, Elena. The family spent their time in various homes in Manhattan. Their brownstone on 135 East 61st Street is now the famed David Burke Townhouse, a top flight restaurant whose centerpiece is a bar wall made of pink Himalayan salt. Eventually they moved into the Kip’s Bay Designer House, a massive four story mansion that still stands at 603 Park Avenue at 64th Street. The home’s elegance allowed it to host design exhibitions raising over $17 million for the Kips Bay Boys and Girl Club. In 2008 it sold for $35 million and is now one of only two private homes fronting Park Avenue.

When they weren’t in New York, the family resided in their homes in Quogue and Ram Island or up in Hartland, Connecticut, passionately enjoying the outdoors as Howell’s have always done. The spring would bring fly fishing along the rivers and streams, while the summer would be filled with sailing the Long Island Sound on their yacht named “Kittywake.” Fall brought upland bird and game hunting on over 6,000 acres in northern Connecticut and southern Massachusetts. They had planned on turning the entire area into a game preserve replete with hunting lodges. Most of it is now known as Tunxis State Park and Granville State Forest. There’s a pond called Howells Pond. I went there and imagined the boys cooling off with a swim in its serene waters – probably without their father. During their youths, sons Tommy Jr., Hunt and John were all taught the art of hunting and fishing while their father was in the Caribbean amassing land.

The Howells’ were living large during World War I. Thomas Andrews held memberships at The University Club, The NY Racquet and Tennis Club, Downtown, Piping Rock, the National Golf and New York Yacht clubs. They were doing it on hard work, tenacity, risk, courage, and the rocketing price of sugar. Records indicate the price of sugar increased from about 3 cents per pound in about 1913 to over 20 cents per pound toward the end of WWI in 1920. This period is referred to among historians as the “Dance of the Millions.”

But there was also great pain during this time of largess. Business required Thomas to be in the Caribbean a great deal which I can only assume put a strain on his first wife Helen, who became pregnant with another man’s child. Thomas and Helen divorced. She would go on to marry the father of her fifth and sixth children. A great tragedy befell the first four children as they were each asked by the divorce judge which parent they would want to remain living with - something that certainly would not occur today. Decades later, when the oldest child, Tommy Jr. was interviewed by his own son, he refused to talk about that decision except for saying it was one of the worst moments of his entire life. His son then ended the interview, his 80 year old father in tears.

Thomas Andrews tenaciously continued building his empire–competing against the unprecedented sugar cane expansion and US investment in the Caribbean. In 1916, the year of his divorce from Helen, he acquired land in the western Dominican Republic around a small fishing village called Barahona. He was ruthless, using land grabbing techniques reminiscent of the English settlers against Native Americans, displacing over 10,000 Dominicans from their villages. He built a refinery at the water’s edge, irrigation systems, and laid miles of narrow gauge railroad track to haul in the cane from the fields. At nearly 50,000 acres, it became the second largest plantation in the DR.

He received more financing and ploughed more capital into land and refineries. Heaping piles of bank money were easily obtainable over dinner and cigars at The University Club from past school chums now holding purse strings. Even in the face of construction delays in building Barahona and budget busting overruns of more than $2 million, he steadfastly believed his investment would be handsomely rewarded as the price of sugar would continue to soar past 20 cents per pound. He continued expanding the NRSC empire across the DR, buying refineries and land, including the waterfront village of Boca Chica.

***

Thomas Andrews’ sugar empire collapsed even faster than it was created, beginning at height of the Dance of Millions and as the First World War came to a close. Cuba’s third President and sugar plantation owner Mario G. Menocal became worried European beet sugar supply would flood the market, and depress prices. Consequently, he sent an envoy to Europe hoping to confirm that the fields were decimated and sugar production would not recommence for years. Such news would ensure the continued domination of Caribbean sugar and high prices.

The Menocal Report read exactly as he hoped, however it was more an act of appeasement than investigation. Evidence suggests that the men tasked with performing the report never made it to Europe, preferring to enjoy their stopover in the roaring 20’s nightclubs of New York City. They falsified the report, writing exactly what El Presidente wanted to read. To the surprise of many, especially in the Caribbean, sugar prices slid back to prewar levels in a matter of months, causing massive revenue shortfalls and bank defaults.

Similar to the recent US economic crisis, Thomas’ banking buddies called his loans and took everything back after the Dance of the Millions enjoyed its final danzón. They did offer him a job because of his expertise with the Caribbean players. He worked for the banks for a few years in the early 1920s helping his well-bred buddies deal with the hundreds of thousands of acres of Caribbean sugar land, the refineries and angry entrenched local families now subjected to Wall Street power. He was also doing his best not to go bankrupt. He sold the beautiful Park Avenue home only 2 years after its completion and moved the family out to the stone mansion on Ram Island full time. My Poppa was a 12 year old boy then, witnessing the financial and social downfall of his father.

As his estate crumbled around him, Thomas Andrews, spurred by resolve and desperation, turned his focus to the small refining operation in Boca Chica outside of Santo Domingo. It was operable, but couldn’t handle the sugar output from its surrounding 46,000 acre plantation. He planned on re-building Ingenio de Boca Chica by partnering with John J. Naugle, who had recently landed a $200,000 contract with Westvaco for a new refining technology using activated carbon called the “Suchar Process.” Their optimism was based upon its sister process, Acqua Nuchar, which was a huge success filtering water across North America. “Suchar” hoped to capture that same place in the sugar industry and Boca Chica would be the initial experiment. He didn’t know it at the time, but it would be his last stand to rebuild the family fortune. He created the Compania Azucarera Boca Chica Corporation and sent telegrams to his two oldest sons. In 1926, the bookish Hunt was asked to leave Yale Law School and work on building the sugar brokerage side in New York. Tommy Jr., also a Yale graduate, left New York and joined his father in Boca Chica.

Upgrading the refinery was the first order of business—expanding the warehouses and extending the docks for barges to come take away bags of sugar across the globe. As building continued, the refinery commenced work and crops came in, but mishaps occurred as cane fires and hurricanes inflicted damage. Unearthing ancient Taino artifacts during the excavation set off an archeological dig by the Smithsonian Institute. They barely stayed afloat. Even the tugboat they built was grounded due to lack of business. Hunt struggled to compete with more powerful sugar brokers in New York—facing off against former colleague James Howell Post, President of the NRSC. Thomas Andrews attempted to attract US investment dollars by touting the Suchar Process while downplaying its ineffectiveness. In late 1929, just after Wall Street experienced Black Friday, Thomas Andrews didn’t jump from a skyscraper, but he did contract tuberculosis. Doctors ordered him to recuperate in the bucolic surroundings of Saranac Lake, NY. He and Beth left Boca Chica, never to return. Tommy Jr. and Hunt, left to their relative youth and inexperience, simply could not make a success of the refinery, particularly in the wake of the start of the Great Depression. With the incoming tide rapidly eroding this Boca Chica sandcastle, a drastic change to the Dominican’s political landscape would prove to be the death knell for the sugar men. Ironically, thirteen years earlier the Howell men themselves unknowingly played a part in the rise of a dictator that would mean their permanent exit from the sugar business.

***

At the turn of the 20th century Caribbean countries were ripe for the taking by European creditors, due to a massive amount of state debt accumulated by dictators and revolving presidencies for the prior 40 years. To thwart any takeover, Theodore Roosevelt, citing the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, made it US policy to ensure Caribbean countries would meet their debts. He “persuaded” Wall Street to buy up all the Dominican debt held by the Europeans and made it a US protectorate in 1916. A national police force, Guardia Nacional, was established by the US Marines to train local Dominican men who would restore order and protect the valuable customs duties, which would be repatriated to the US to repay Wall Street and fund WWI.

As a boy born 1891 in the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo grew up hearing about the nearby Spanish-American War in Cuba and America’s support of Jose Martí. Trujillo was fascinated by all things military and was nicknamed “Chapita” for the bottle caps he collected as medals. In 1916, after spending much of his youth in the street gang “The 44” he got a job as a “guardacampestre” at Boca Chica, my great-grandfather’s sugar refinery, where Trujillo was put in charge of the Haitian field cane-cutters. Two years later Trujillo sought and received a letter of reference from the manager of Boca Chica, which aided in his acceptance to the recently established Guardia Nacional. Trujillo flourished under the tutelage and training of the US Marines, garnering glowing reviews of his leadership qualities. By 1927 he had ascended to Brigadier General in the Dominican National Army and in 1930 used his military power to gain the presidency. What followed was a ruthless 30-year dictatorship, ended only by his assassination in 1961. During the 1937 Parsley Massacre, a step in his quest to “whiten” the Dominican population, Trujillo ordered the killing of Haitians living in the borderlands— gunning them down if they could not properly pronounce the Spanish word “perejil” for parsley, revealing their Haitian Creole descent. Estimates for this atrocity pronounce up to 30,000 men, women, and children murdered.

Trujillo terrorized wealthy plantation owners, imprisoning many and confiscating their lands for his private benefit. The Boca Chica plant, being next door to the capital, was certainly on Trujillo’s acquisition list. Tommy Jr. recalled two dozen of Trujillo’s personal guards streaming out of personnel trucks to inspect the property. They went through the small single story stone house and searched for rebels, even sending one guard down to the bottom of the pool to insure there were no assassins hiding in the deep black water. Trujillo himself arrived a few hours later to be served dinner and discuss plantation business. The Howell family and the plantation manager, Mr. Fox, trepidatiously ate and listened to Trujillo and his translator extol the virtue of his new regime. “My best friends are workingmen” and “There is no danger in following me,” were oft-repeated political campaign phrases meant to engender loyalty and trust. Tommy Jr. remembers hearing these words, while guards armed with machine guns stood smiling behind each member of his family.

Just a few years earlier “Little Beth”-Emelia d’Apeztiguia-had hosted dinner at that table. Then, the elected president came to enjoy an outdoor party. She wrote of how pleasant he was and that she had to translate his Spanish for Thomas Andrews. Hunt often wrote to Beth for motherly advice on his love interests. Beth in beautiful cursive would lovingly respond with her thoughts for Hunt living in NYC alone, his troubles with women, promises of good fortune - all to maintain family connection from the distant Caribbean island. Tommy Jr. loved his stepmother very much, particularly after witnessing her love of his father during their years together at Boca Chica. She once wrote Hunt about her marriage to Thomas Andrews:

The physical side of married life is not sufficient, if that is all that exists in the way of congeniality but let me tell you that just good pals is a pretty dry diet, so why not wait and get the perfect combination? Thank heavens we never yet have taken each other for granted, that I think is the most hopeless thing that can happen, and outside of my love for him, he himself as a person, interests me so that there is always something
new in our attitude toward each other.

She once wrote that when away from Thomas Andrews, she considered herself “dead seafruit.” Beth left the Dominican Republic with Thomas Andrews and cared for him until he died in April 1930, months after Black Friday and weeks before Trujillo ascended to the Presidency.

After the death of their father and under the weight of the Depression and dictatorship, it became impossible for Tommy Jr. and Hunt to run the business. Further complicating their finances, transfer of all outstanding shares back to International Suchar Corporation was ordered to make good on Thomas Andrews’ bankrupt estate. The Suchar process hadn’t proven itself; no additional investment would be made by John Naugle. Tycoon Norman B. Woolworth Jr., a lifelong friend, was brought in to prop up the company. But he and Tommy Jr. spent too much time on “Woolie’s” yachts, fishing and hunting around the world. No longer interested in his father’s dream of re-domination of the sugar industry, Tommy Jr. and Woolie steamed to Cuba, then up the Hudson River to Lake Michigan for the 1933 World’s Fair. After the fair, the men went hunting in Montana, Yellowstone, and Alaska, far away from the cane fields of the Caribbean. They continued to seek adventure, traveling on Woolworth’s 272 foot yacht named Noparo. Eventually, Hunt booked passage on a steamship to Paris and, toward the late 1930’s, both sons left the Caribbean sugar business. I like to believe the time Hunt and Tommy Jr. spent traveling provided them with reflection on their purpose in life beyond being called into service by their father.

***

My Poppa waited the tables of his wealthy friends before he graduated, it was all he could do to pay for that final year at Yale. No longer a “big man on campus” with his motorcycle and wealthy family, he quietly went into the insurance business. While my Poppa no longer had the money, he traded on his father’s past and Yale relationships to stay in the wealthy circles. After being married to my grandmother Agnes in 1936, Poppa approached his stepmother Beth and her new husband Charles Tiffany and in an act of kindness, or perhaps simply to curry favor, offered to name his first son with the Tiffany surname. My Dad was born Christmas Eve 1937, and was stamped Thomas Tiffany Anthony Howell. When I was born in 1967, I got it too. Poppa lived a half a mile down a dirt road from us until 1971 when his first wife Agnes died from cancer - they whispered it back then. Poppa then met the wealthy Flo and took off for Dallas life soon after, vicariously attaining the life his father once had, but lost.

Our family motto is “Tenax Propositi” - or Tenacity of Purpose. I am proud to believe this maxim, but tenacity is a word simultaneously defined by strength and stubbornness. Between those two ends is where the Howell men have found themselves through the generations, with each being challenged to strike their own personal balance in pursuit of an authentic purpose. Some have realized this, some have not, but that is a story for each of them to tell. We have all questioned our place, sometimes spending generations handing down the tattered roadmaps to unfulfilling but safe lives. While my Poppa toiled in insurance, he resorted to employing another family’s name in an effort to preserve ties to high society. Later in life, Flo offered reentry into that world and he left us for Dallas. My Dad chose a lifelong career in commercial banking in New York—a path he will tell you was unfulfilling. I followed suit to some extent, choosing law when I truly enjoyed writing. For my Dad and me, carrying the Tiffany name was more of a reminder of the mortgaging of our personal identity in exchange for an antiquated reality. My father and I are by all accounts successful men, but “what could have been” is a question both of us were never able to shake completely. I think Beth described it well in her letters, for if we love one another as a person, rather than for what they have achieved, we will never be hopeless and take each other for granted.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
T. Anthony Howell, ex-attorney and publisher of The Medical Roundtable, is the father to 8 year old Brooke Howell and wrote this vignette for her as a reminder to have the courage to follow her own dreams. Special thanks to Kim Tyler and Emilia Hope Cooper for providing the photographs.