Saturday, January 2, 2016

Bruce E. Baker and Barbara Hahn's "The Cotton Kings"

Bruce E. Baker is Lecturer in American History at the University of Newcastle, and Barbara Hahn is Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University.

Here they dreamcast an adaptation of their new book, The Cotton Kings: Capitalism and Corruption in Turn-of-the-Century New York and New Orleans:
While we were working on this book, or maybe in the early days when we still thought it would only be a journal article, Barbara described it to someone as a “zinger” of a story. And it is. The journalist Edwin Lefèvre wrote at the time our story was unfolding, “The history of the bull speculation in cotton of 1903 will never be fully written, because, though the men who influenced it are very interesting, their operations are interwoven with bloodless statistics and tiresome technicalities.” Bloodless statistics there are, but they are more than balanced by interesting characters, none more so that William P. Brown. Born along the Buttahatchie River in Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil War, Brown was an orphan by his teens and a small-town businessman by his mid-twenties. He was also known “through the Mississippi delta as one of the best poker players that ever handled a card" and “owned the finest lot of fighting chickens in the state.” By the time he was in his mid-thirties, Brown had become a cotton broker, mixing with the great and the good in New Orleans, and married into a prominent family. He never quite fit in among the silk-stocking brigade on the trading floor. He was ruddy faced with dark red hair and moustache, and reporters described him as “a big, strongly-built man, with heavy shoulders, big arms, weather-beaten face and shrewd dark eyes” who “looked just a bit out of place among the metropolitan brokers” on the New York Cotton Exchange. The other brokers learned the hard way not to underestimate this self-described “hillbilly” from Mississippi when he cornered the world’s cotton supply in 1903 and made himself very rich (on money that had been theirs).

At some point, we thought that this could make an exciting movie, a bit like Margin Call or The Big Short. There was an obvious choice for the actor to play Brown: Philip Seymour Hoffman. The red hair, the burly build, the moustache (as seen in Charlie Wilson’s War), not to mention the phenomenal talent – it all made such good sense. Sadly, Hoffman will never get the chance to bring The Cotton Kings to life.

Frank Hayne was Brown’s business partner for about ten years, and he couldn’t have been more different than Brown in background. Hayne’s ancestors were aristocrats from Charleston. If Brown was the brains of the operation, Hayne brought connections, to people and to financing. He was urbane but more high-tempered than Brown. That much was obvious when he got into a fistfight with another cotton broker in the middle of Delmonico’s restaurant in Manhattan. He also was big and broad-shouldered like Brown, which is why he lost that fight. A younger Joe Pesci might be about to play Hayne, if – and it’s a big “if” – he could do a convincing Charleston accent.

The movie of The Cotton Kings would be filled with economic drama, but it would also provide important political lessons about the role of regulation in making markets work fairly for all participants.
Learn more about The Cotton Kings at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: The Cotton Kings.

--Marshal Zeringue