INTERVIEW WITH DR. DAVID LEWIS
JULY 17, 1999
DL: We are in the Alabama Room at the Special Collections of the Auburn University Library with Dr. Martin Olliff and Mr. Brian Rickenbacker and myself and we are going to talk about his experiences with his grandfather and his father, David Rickenbacker, and we are going to begin by asking Brian to recount something he has already told us about what happened when Adelaide Rickenbacker received the news about Eddie’s rescue and how she relayed that information to Billy and David who were in school.
BR: Very formally. She didn’t directly communicate it with them. They were away at different prep schools. Bill was at Nashville and my dad was at Admiral Farragut Academy in New Jersey. She didn’t want to disturb their school work is the way she had put it or their school routine. I think that was very, very interesting that she just notified the school officials and asked them to notify when you know that they had been just o pins and needles the whole time. You know, it would have been hard to be thinking about very much else. I can’t imagine. It's not like you could just go through your usual routine and… “my father is somewhere in the Pacific, you know, we’ll work that out later." That's almost bizarre.
DL: That’s how formal and proper she was.
BR: Exactly. And that was very similar to the way it always was when we were growing up with them. We were sort of marched in and it was hello Grandmother, hello Grandfather that sort of thing. We didn’t have the normal sort of friendly names like [papaw, or gramps, or anything like that]. It was always very, you know, Grandmother Rickenbacker and Grandfather Rickenbacker is what we called them. And you shook hands and it was not an affectionate kind of a relationship. It was more of one of respect. Probably my most vivid memories of them were when we were living in Montclair, New Jersey. Where I grew up from the time I was five, we moved there when I was five from the ranch in Texas and then my father took a job with U.S. Trust in New York City as an investment advisor. Anyway we moved to Montclair which is about twenty miles west of New York City. I can remember them coming out on a Sunday afternoon in a chauffeured limousine because they didn’t have a regular car in New York City. They just, I guess, took limousines. It was a very formal kind of a thing and we always had sort of formal dinners when I was growing up. My mom didn’t work, she was a housekeeper and that was something that was always just part of our daily routine was at seven o’clock we were going to be at the dinner table for dinner and we would have candlelight, nice silver, china and stuff like that ____ _____ a fairly formal dinner every night. Not when I was real young but about the time I was maybe nine or ten years old we would do that. But anyway Sunday was even more formal when they would show up. They would come out and the kids would be there for maybe ten minutes or something like that kind of chit chatting and then we would go off and take our nice clothes off and get comfortable. My grandparents and my parents played canasta that was what they did.
DL: But you wouldn’t eat with them?
BR: Yeah and then we would come back and eat.
DL: Did you have to get all dressed up again?
DL: And you would sit there and stay quiet while the grownups discussed things would you ever speak?
BR: Yeah, you would speak I mean but it was less open form certainly than the normal. But the canasta games sometimes got quite heated too.
DL: Got heated?
BR: Sometimes, yes. They were competitive about it. I think my grandmother was really—I mean she was probably a pretty good card player and a good—she was always kind of doing kind of mind—she worked crossword puzzles…
DL: I knew she was a crossword puzzle doer.
BR: She always tried to keep her, you know keep sharp and I think she maybe played bridge with friends.
DL: When these arguments broke out do you think it was partly because of Eddie Rickenbacker’s competitive nature that he did not like to lose or what would cause the arguments? Or do you know?
BR: I don’t really know. I just know that there was always something of a tension between my grandmother and grandfather. There was always just that little tension.
DL: They competed with one another?
BR: I think so.
DL: You mentioned yesterday that your grandmother in her own way was just as strong as Eddie was in his.
BR: Oh, I think she certainly was.
DL: I asked Bill Rickenbacker once, I said, “Was there anybody in whom your father was ever afraid? And he said immediately, “Yes, my mother." And I said, “Why?" And he said, “She had his number." I said, “What do you mean by that?" And he just repeated himself. She had his number and it was if he was saying here a historian you can figure this out for yourself. But I have asked various people including your mother “What do you think Bill meant by that—that Adelaide had Eddie’s number? Would you care to speculate or not?
BR: I think it is like in any marriage you know, you know your partner, you know their weaknesses and their strength and at times you are going to exploit those weaknesses. I don’t think there’s any mystery to that. I don’t know of any skeletons in the closet if that’s what you are looking for. I don’t know of any if there are. I have no clue.
DL: I wasn’t implying that it was just that he was very cryptic about it. Actually when I said was there anybody of whom your father was afraid and he came back and he said, “Yes, my mother." And then he added he was terrified of her.
BR: She came from a much higher social standard than he did. And even though he was the hero, you know you have to think she was well educated, she had come from a gentile society, she knew all the ins and outs and I think that was really something that he really had to work at. He was comfortable in a mechanic’s shop, he was comfortable around guys but I have to think that there was always, you know it seemed like there was always an effort on his part to try to not be seen as a fool, not be seen as uneducated. And I think that was probably something.
DL: Do you feel that he was sensitive about it—very sensitive about that?
BR: Yes and probably some of that is like you were saying he always was very careful about when he wrote his name. He wanted it to look like something special not like a fifth grade drop out.
DL: When he spoke and I have only ever heard your grandfather’s voice once. Somebody sent me a tape with him speaking so I have no sense of what kind of a conversationalist he was. But in a conversation was he a person of relatively few words or when he spoke did he try to speak in such a manner as not to reveal what you are talking about the fact that he was not a well educated person?
BR: Not really. He could get comfortable.
DL: You didn’t hear him interact with adults then?
BR: Some but I don’t recall. It is hard to remember David on such a limited basis. You know some people when they are growing up they would go stay with their grandparents for a week during the summer or something like that, you know there would be things that you would do. I did stay with my grandmother one time down at Key Biscayne for I guess it was probably a week at the apartment down there—the villa down there. That was kind of a nice time. They had a little golf course there ____ ____ _____.I understood that by myself.
DL: Can you describe the villa?
BR: It wasn’t very big. I just don’t remember. I'm trying to even think of how old I was. I was probably thirteen or fourteen at the time.
DL: Was Nedra Swazy ______?
BR: Yes she was very much.
DL: She lived there with your grandmother?
DL: She sort of took care of her, as the saying would go?
BR: Yes, I don’t think she was a confidant.____ ___ she was a friend as much as anything that was always my _____.
DL: Did you have visitors while you were there during that week? Marcie said that Eddie [Yarnell] would frequently come over and they would do crossword puzzles together.
DL: His wife Jane? You knew him?
BR: Yes. He’s still living isn’t he?
DL: I believe he is and I mean to interview him.
BR: He was not terribly old. I remember he would probably be in his late sixties now or maybe early seventies.
DL: Well let’s switch the focus simply ____ to your father because although I have outlines of his life when he was born, where he was educated, his service record, his superintending the ranch in Texas. So I know the general outlines of his life but I don’t feel like I know David even to the extent that I knew Bill because I met Bill. I never met your father.
BR: They were totally different. I'm sure you surmised that.
DL: Yeah and they did not like each other. I know that. At least Bill didn’t like your father. I don’t know whether your father disliked Bill but Bill was very open about the rivalry that he felt existed between…
BR: Wonder why that was?
DL: Bill said that they had nothing in common.
BR: That’s true.
DL: He said they had…
BR: So why would there be a rivalry?
DL: They had utterly nothing in common.
BR: I agree with that. They were totally different and I guess that’s—he sort of had an age-old argument nature or nurture and that would seem to indicate that maybe nature plays a little more part than we’d like to think.____ ____ we’re looking at basically other than I know they went away to school at a fairly early age but to be that totally almost opposite. Bill was very outgoing and my father was much more like me I think in a lot of ways, kind of shy, soft spoken. He was more just a quiet [figure] and pretty sensitive. He was sensitive to other people’s needs. He did volunteer work.
DL: What sort of volunteer work?
BR: I’m trying to think of what organizations and the things that he did. I remember when we first moved to Montclair there was a tree planting—there weren’t very many trees in the neighborhood. He helped plant trees I remember.
DL: Would you call him a caring and loving person?
BR: Oh yeah.
DL: Very attentive to you as a son?
BR: Yes. I remember and this is when I was older he was never a good golfer. He broke a hundred I think once in his life or something like that and he was terrible, another way he was different from Bill. He had arranged for us to play at Sleepy Hollow Country Club and it was in the fall and it was a miserable day. It was raining and it was just not a nice day to play and he still took me over there to play because he knew that I really wanted to play this golf course. He had arranged for the pro to play and the pro played nine holes and quit and we played the whole eighteen holes.
DL: You and your dad?
BR: Yes. And those are some of the best memories I have.
DL: I bet.
BR: I guess he enjoyed playing golf but he…
DL: He did it for you?
BR: Right. It was more for me.
DL: What other activities? Did he hunt? Did he fish?
BR: No. Probably the thing he took the most pride in other than the family and work was just making improvements around the house and working with his hands. He probably was much like my grandfather as far as being able to work with his hands. He was very good. He had a little workroom in the basement with a whole lot of tools. They built shelves, and wine racks sort of rudimentary stuff but he seemed like he always had some kind of a project that he was working on and he was always kind of slow and meticulous and that kind of drove my mom crazy that he would just take him forever to get anything done. He wasn’t one to just get in to do it and be done with it. It just had to be done so so and it just—again my mother, drive her absolutely crazy.
DL: He must have been a patient person?
BR: Yes, and he took a lot of pride in doing those kinds of things around the house. And I picked up a lot of that. That's really where I kind of got my start of working with wood and doing different things.
DL: Did you work with him?
BR: Some, yes.
DL: He’d teach you how to build things?
BR: Yes and I’d sort of watch and help him some.
DL: Did he read much?
DL: What did he read?
BR: He would always read the newspaper all the way through. We got a couple of newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Newark paper. I can’t remember what it was called. He'd read two or three newspapers just about every day. I'm not sure what else he read actually. I'd see books but it didn’t really register.
DL: The force of my question is I would imagine whatever he read it was considerably different from what Bill would read. Bill was a very “bookish” person. Did your dad have any musical interest like Bill did?
BR: He was not a musician that I know of. I don’t think he ever played any instruments or anything but he enjoyed music. He enjoyed listening to symphony or the opera and that was one of the things that I always remember growing up on Sunday afternoons after church. He was an usher at church. He and my mom would basically spend Sunday, the entire day, particularly in the wintertime in the afternoons they would read the newspaper and listen to whatever symphony of the afternoon. They had a pretty extensive classical music—you know, Beethoven…
DL: Record library?
BR: Right. And then he also had some big band stuff. They enjoyed that. He had some New Orleans jazz that my mom always hated that he would play every once in a while.
DL: Did he ever talk about his armed services [activities]?
BR: No. He didn’t like to talk about that. I don’t think that was a period that he enjoyed very much. That would have been a very difficult, again a very difficult…I get it some and it’s really—you know if someone ask you if your are related to Eddie Rickenbacker. It took me a long time to sort of come to grips with how to answer. You know you want to show some pride but you don’t want to act like you are bragging and you’re not Eddie Rickenbacker. I’m not a different person I don’t think particularly because I happen to be related to him. So it had to be even much more difficult for him because of the notoriety when he was growing up and to live in that shadow and that may have been part of his shyness. He was really thin. I don’t know if you looked at the earlier pictures of him. I think he weighed 125 pounds or something like that until he married my mom and then she put about 60 pounds on him in no time at all. She's a very, very good cook. She's an exceptional cook.
DL: Tell us whatever you remember about the ranch, your experiences there?
BR: I remember they got me a horse and I was scared to death of. I wouldn’t ride it. They put me on it about once and that was about it. They could never get me to ride it. I remember riding around on my father’s lap on the tractor some. I remember there were some, I guess it was gypsum—an area where they had a bunch of gypsum and I remember digging in the gypsum and having my plastic cowboy and Indian figures that I would set up. I remember we had a couple of—there was a family that were servants there and I don’t remember their—let’s see, [Hans] and [Axle] were the kids. They had two kids; they were German. I'm trying to remember what their names were. Herschel and…they were recent immigrants because they didn’t speak very good English. I remember that.
DL: But they were your playmates?
BR: Yeah. They were a little older than I was. They were probably…it seems like Hans was the younger one and he was probably two or three years older than I was and Axle was probably five or six years older than I was.
DL: Now you were born in Utica and this was before your parents went to the ranch?
BR: No, this was at the ranch.
DL: Yes but you were…
BR: I was born in Utica before they went to the ranch, yes.
DL: How old were you when they went to the ranch?
BR: I was born in September and I believe we moved that spring when my father finished in school.
DL: You are the oldest child?
DL: And then was Marcia next?
DL: And then you had one more sibling?
BR: Yes, Nancy. She was born—she’s seven years my junior.
DL: Okay so she never knew the ranch. And Marcia as I understand it was born in Texas while you were at the ranch.
BR: She would have been born there since she was born in ’52 about a year and a half after _____--about a year after we moved to the ranch.
DL: You were less than a year old when you moved there?
DL: So the first memories you have of anything were on that ranch?
BR: Yes. I remember we had a fire…
BR: At our house. A cabin burned.
DL: Boy! That must have been traumatic.
BR: I was in the house by myself. No, Marcie and I were in the house and my parents had gone over to—they were over with my grandfather and grandmother at the big house.
DL: So you were there all alone?
BR: Yes and I ran over—I was probably four or five. It's not that far.It wasn’t a long distance or anything. I ran over and said “Fire, fire, fire!" I don’t remember that but I was told that.
DL: The cabin burned to the ground?
BR: No, it just did a lot of damage. They were able to put it out thanks to my warning and saved my sister.
MO: Never let her forget it either.
BR: Oh, let’s see what else do I remember about the ranch. I remember the sheep shearing. We had sheep on the ranch. That was an interesting process watching them shear the sheep. That’s where I first got a taste for Mexican food, Tex-Mex.
DL: Do you still like that?
BR: Oh yes.
DL: Did you stay pretty much on the ranch or did you ever go to San Antonio?
BR: I went to San Antonio a few times. I remember seeing on one trip we went into San Antonio and saw Fantasia. That was I guess the first movie I ever saw on the big screen and I was scared to death. I still have vivid memories of that movie.
DL: There were scary parts in that movie, the night on Bear Mountain.
BR: Yeah, the dinosaurs.
DL: Yeah, the Rites of Spring. I can understand that very well. Did they take Marcia on that or was she too young?
BR: I don’t know.
DL: Do you remember Sheppie coming there?
BR: I’m sure she did.
DL: Oh yeah, she apparently kept the books according to your mother. She would come down and make sure the financial operations were going…
BR: …newly wed you know moving a hundred yards away from your in-laws, especially those in-laws and my mom, she’s a strong person too.
DL: I know that.
BR: And she doesn’t back down to anybody for anything. She's a lot like Adelaide. That's why they didn’t always…My mom clashed with all them at one time or another.
DL: Well I got the impression from her though that Eddie and Adelaide were not all that frequently over there in the big house, that it was sort of a refuge but that they came down only intermittently from what I understand. And that they would often send Sheppie as their intermediary you might say. Although your mother did talk about how Eddie would always choose Sunday morning to call them when they wanted to sleep in and he’d wake them up early Sunday morning wanting to know what was going on. I guess your mother has told you about that.
BR: They liked it down there though. They actually when they moved up to New Jersey they talked about once they retired they were going to go back there. That didn’t exactly happen. They actually went up to Vermont for a vacation and there was (this must have been about ’75 maybe or ’76, some place around there and they were just vacationing up there in the summer), there was a house that was going to go up for auction so they just decided they were going to go over there and see it just for the heck of it. They ended up buying it.
DL: Was this at White River Junction?
BR: Yeah.A very nice home house.
DL: A very nice area.
BR: Yeah, a super nice house. I loved that house. It was vintage maybe 1770s and just a real comfortable…
DL: Were you grown by that time?
BR: Yeah and then they ended up, you know they got back and they just…they were in New Jersey and you’re thinking about Vermont it’s not a hard choice. So my father spoke to, from what I can gather he spoke to, he was working for Edward [Hanly] then I believe, and they ____ ____ go up there and open up a branch and they just moved up I guess within a year.
DL: When was that?
BR: It was in about—my mom could tell you better than I but I’m thinking it was about ’77, ’76 something like that.
DL: And your father died in 198--…?
BR: I’m thinking ’84 maybe.
DL: That’s okay. So they lived up there for six or seven years.
BR: Yeah. They loved it. That was their happiest and they were just so happy up there.That was great.
DL: Did Eddie come up there very frequently?
BR: That was more like ’83.
DL: Oh that’s right. Eddie was dead by that time. Actually your [great] grandmother, Adelaide, was—she died in ’77 so that must have been about the time they moved to Vermont.
BR: But anyway he just set up his office right there at the house and he made a lot good friends up there.
DL: As I understand he was very active in local affairs.
BR: That was a good move for him. I'm glad they did that. I'm sorry he didn’t live a little bit longer.
DL: Yeah I am too. I'd like to have known him.
MO: He died awfully young didn’t he?
BR: Yeah, he was 57.
MO: What did he die from?
BR: A brain tumor.
MO: Oh, I see.
BR: I remember when we were all up there on vacation when he had his first seizure. We were at Lake [Cennapie?] I believe over in New Hampshire. They rented a big house over there. My family in which I think consisted of three of my kids at that point and my sisters’ families all stayed there. We went up and played golf at the Woodstock Country Club that afternoon and then we got back and he just…this was late afternoon and he just had this seizure and fell down. A scary thing.
DL: I was going to ask you earlier today how did the Kentucky connection develop? How did you wind up going to college in Kentucky or living in Kentucky?
BR: I’m kind of quiet but I’m also a little bit adventurous. I like to travel and go places and see different things and I like places that are warmer.
DL: So you never wanted to settle down in Vermont?
BR: No. So when it came time to apply for college I was just looking small liberal arts colleges in the south and decided I wanted a smaller school so I applied to two schools in Florida, Stetson and Rollins ____ _____.I actually had gone down to visit Stetson and Rollins and they were nice but I also got in the center ____ ______ my parents the Pughs, Neal and her first name—anyway she was from Elizabethtown, Becky Pugh. They were good friends of my parents from Montclair and they had gone to school there. So I just had been talking to them and it sounded like a nice place to go.
DL: What was your major?
DL: Economics, okay.
BR: Academically it was better than the other schools I wanted to attend.
DL: And did you go directly from there to Lexington?
BR: No actually I kind of—we lived in Danville which is where [Center] was and my wife was teaching. She finished about a year before I did. So she was teaching at a small Catholic school in the area, an elementary school. I decided that I was going to get my MBA and so I enrolled at the University of Kentucky for that. And I did that for a while but kind of lost interest and we had a child that next year so and I decided I better _____ income from the school from her teaching wasn’t very much and she wanted to stay home with her child. Actually what I did a friend of mine was working at a local mental hospital so I just went to work out there as a social worker. The job was available and I did that for a couple of years. I placed patients, you know, after they were ready to be took to leave the hospital like in personal care homes or that kind of thing or whatever level of family care or they could go with their family. I did that for a couple of years. And then we moved to Lexington and I had this notion to open up a toyshop so we did that in a local mall there.___ ____ that I do that for about seven years.
BR: And the rent kept going up every year.
DL: Did you sell stuffed animals?
DL: My wife and I are avid stuffed animal collectors so we would have been among your best customers.
BR: I had a big collection of stuffed animals.
DL: We just love teddy bears and have a house full, literally hundreds of stuffed animals.
BR: Most of our toys were for younger kids more educational toys, wooden toys. When we did that they gave us constructional allowance. Actually before that I had done some stuff at our houses. You know I bought a house down in Danville and I put up the kitchen cabinets made from scratch and did a bunch of things down there and just kind of learned…
DL: So this was your dad’s influence ________?
BR: Yeah I just kind of learned from experience. I didn’t have any formal training. I took a shop class in junior high but other than that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. It was totally self taught. But anyway the toy shop we just had the shelves we didn’t have any fixtures or anything like that so we decided we could make our own fixtures and do our own front, you know, and do the walls and all that kind of stuff so we just did that all ourselves. As I say I did that for about seven years and then I went out on my own as a carpenter. I did that for about six months and then somebody who was working a _____ ______ on a renovation was looking for a carpenter and so through somebody he knew they got my name and I went out there and _____ _____ for I guess eighteen years.
DL: Did you ever have any relations at all with your Uncle Bill?
DL: Did he ever visit your father?
DL: He did? Can you say anything?
BR: They would fly.____ ____ pilot. I remember one time he flew over from Briarcliff Manor, he flew over from there to the airport that was near us.
DL: At Montclair?
BR: Yeah. It wasn’t even a very long drive. It was about an hour’s drive or less—well its probably an hour. He flew in there one time I remember. But he was very charming I remember. I always got along with him well. I think I remember he gave me my first classical album, a well tempered clavier.
DL: Yeah that would fit.
BR: Glenn [Ghoul] and that was my first classical album I ever had. I remember playing chess with him one time and I beat him. I don’t have any idea how I won but he immediately played a rematch and he absolutely annihilated me. He just knew I was paying attention but the fact that I had beaten him was just…
DL: Oh I bet that was hard for him to take. I have never heard before that he played chess.
BR: He was a good chess player.
DL: That doesn’t surprise me a bit.
BR: He didn’t like to lose.
DL: I wouldn’t think so.
BR: I remember playing golf with him. My father and I played golf with him a couple of times anyway. He played golf and then he gave it up for a long time. He gave it up for maybe ten or fifteen years or something like that. He didn’t pick up a stick and then he took it back up sometime when I was maybe in my teens. I remember playing over in—I don’t remember the name of the course over in West Chester County. I remember he came and played at our course one time.
DL: And he picked it right up again?
BR: _____. I remember one time when he was in Francesville. We went to visit and he played. I took a couple of my kids and they had their violins and he played music ____ ____.He accompanied them while they played and it was a real nice thing.
DL: I’m interested in other words there was visiting back and forth between Bill and David?
BR: Yeah. They were close. It wasn’t real frequent but it was regular enough that I remembered it. I remember their house in Briarcliff Manor, I belief that’s where it was. It made kind of a neat place in the woods, a very wooded lot, I enjoyed going out there.____ ______ _____. Maybe there weren’t that many times that we did it. It was memorable when we did go. I guess memorable enough that I remembered it.
DL: Now did you ever go visit your grandmother and grandfather in their…?
BR: In New York?
DL: In New York.
DL: You did?
DL: Where were they living at the time?
BR: I guess I just remember visiting them some at the inn. That would have been at the Regency Hotel. Well not the very _____.I don’t know if I ever went to the place that they moved after the Regency or not I don’t recall going there.
DL: I was surprised when I had always assumed that Eddie moved to Florida with Adelaide and our mother said no, Adelaide went to Florida and Eddie would go down to Florida to visit Adelaide but he loved New York much too much to leave New York City. So apparently from what your mother said he stayed behind in a small apartment in New York City which means that I really made an error in the article I published about Eddie Rickenbacker in the Dictionary of American Biography because I thought he moved to Florida. I took it for granted that he and Adelaide would have moved there together and she said no.
BR: They didn’t even [live] in the same bedroom.
DR: They had different bedrooms in their apartment.
DL: I didn’t know that. In other words are you implying that…of course they were both relatively old.
DL: So there’s no implication there. Bill did say that they fought a lot. I mean I don’t know but he volunteered that information. He said that they really had bitter knockdown drag out fights. But this didn’t mean that they didn’t love each other. It was just the way they were two exceptionally strong-willed people. But nobody had ever told me that they slept in two different bedrooms.
MO: I have a couple of questions and they are mostly about inter-family relationships and things like that. Looking through some of the photographs that we have in Archives particularly of photographs with both of the boys in them, I think we’ve noticed, by we I mean two or three others have seen the same thing we think, that in some of the photographs of Eddie with both Bill and David when they were in their teens then David has always physically removed from the rest of the family. There is a definite difference in spatial relationships in almost every picture. Does that signify anything or assuming that we are seeing what we think we are seeing, does that signify anything to you or did David have a different physical space need or…?
BR: This is pretty much pure speculation on my part. Bill was a smart guy. He was clearly intellectually. He was smart enough to pretty much do whatever he wanted to do probably other than his main drawback was his temperament and he was _____ _____. I don’t think he always worked with people very well but he was smart enough to recognize things and to learn things quickly. It was sort of my sense that my father was never interested in the airline business. He was more interested in just going his own way and I think Bill was probably more groomed toward that. Why it never worked out I’m not…but I think there was certainly a feeling that Bill, you know, Bill was a pilot. He was outgoing enough to deal with people, he was smart enough to deal with situations, and so there may have been some feelings—I mean anytime you have kids you try not to play favorites maybe but then there’s always some of that that comes out. I don’t know that that’s…
DL: Was your father a pilot?
DL: He never flew? You’ve probably read from Father to Son the book of letters that Bill published. Eddie was trying to groom him to become president of Eastern and Bill decided he didn’t want any part of that but he did go into aviation securities for a while and as he say, he did fly. I think it was Bill’s choice that he just did not want to be president of Eastern Airlines. Eddie would have loved that.
BR: It was kind of a curious choice. Maybe he was just wanting again to prove that he could be his own person, make it on his own or whatever, I don’t know. He certainly was successful in a lot of the things that he did. I mean he was one of the editors of National Review. He was a very ______ writer.
DL: You can say that again, yeah.
BR: He was probably hubris _____ his downfall.
MO: I wanted to ask you about that also. With your father, David, what little I know about him from looking at the material in the Archives he seems to be less of a prodigy than Bill, lot more even tempered, probably a lot more hard working. I just got those…
BR: I think things didn’t come to him as easily and he had to work to get them.
MO: But he was willing to work to get them. Would you have considered him to have been financially successful?
BR: Actually I think he did okay.
MO: Is the family, your family a close family?
BR: Certainly better off than Bill’s family.
DL: Emotionally they were a lot better off.
BR: That’s for sure. Were we a close family? Probably for that era we were but if you looked at it by maybe today’s standards. I don’t know. I was always pretty close to my siblings. I was closer to my mom than my dad.
DL: Did you go to private school?
BR: I went one year.
DL: But the rest of the time to public school?
BR: Yes. I didn’t do well. I don’t know if I wasn’t ready. I went to school called the [Gunnery] ____ Washington in the ninth grade and it was one of these things where my parents asked me if I wanted them to do it and I thought it probably would have been a good thing to do. I think you can get a better education at a private school than a public school in general.
DL: So you came back home?
BR: I [flunked out] after one year.
DL: So you came back home and went to public school and graduated from…
BR: Montclair High School.
DL: Montclair High School, okay.
BR: The year that I went to the prep school I don’t think it did me any harm. I certainly learned a lot. I read a lot and I guess I just really wasn’t emotionally ready to…
DL: They didn’t force you to go though?
BR: Oh no.
DL: Because I’ve gathered that Eddie and Adelaide just decided flat out Billy and David are going to private school.
BR: One after the other. My dad went to Wooster, he went to Farragut, he went to Asheville, and he I think there was one in Arizona. That's a lot of schools.
DC: Did he talk about that? Did he complain about it?
BR: He never complained about anything. I never heard him complain about anything.
DL: Sounds like a very even-tempered individual.
BR: Yeah he pretty much let my mom run the house, not really to make all the decisions but just the day to day kinds of things.____ ____ _____.
DL: That wouldn’t be in _____ house.
MO: Not hardly.
BR: It’s kind of interesting I don’t think he ever had any really close friends. He had a lot of people that he knew and did stuff or play golf with or play poker or what have you.
DL: So he did play poker?
BR: Yeah. And my mom and he would play bridge every Friday night. They had a standing bridge game that they played with some neighbors. They’d argue about that too.
DL: What church did you go to?
BR: St. James.
DL: So your dad was an Episcopalian?
DL: So you were confirmed in the Episcopal Church, maybe an _____?
DL: And you say he was an usher?
BR: I made some good friends. I still have a friend that I went to church with that I see occasionally.
DL: Are you still an Episcopalian?
BR: Yeah.I don’t practice as much as I ought to. I'm an occasional churchgoer.
DL: Price Church?
BR: No.We’ve actually been going to an Episcopal Church near Winchester _____.It’s where [Betsy’s] parents went to church.
DL: So your wife is an Episcopalian?
DL: Marty do you have any other questions?
MO: I don’t believe I do.
DL: I don’t. Do you have anything else that you would like to talk about? I wanted to assure you that I won’t quote from this interview without your permission or anything like that.
BR: I appreciate that. I don’t think I’ve said anything that’s…
DL: You never know what’s useful.
BR: Eddie and Adelaide were separated. I know you didn’t go into that…you could make it sound as bad as you wanted it to sound.
DL: Oh I’m not interested in making it sound bad.
BR: I have enough confidence in Jay. I wouldn’t have come down here David if I had felt some confidence in your…
MO: We’ll also send you a copy of the transcript.
DL: Yeah, we’ll send you a copy of the interview. I did this with Marcie. I will even edit it and if there’s anything in the interview that you think you shouldn’t have said just cross it out and we will redo it. So I just want you to feel that…I don’t have an ax to grind. I'm trying to tell the most objective story I can about a person who frankly I think is a lot more important than historians have given him credit for. I think it is a scandal that this will be the first scholarly biography ever written of Eddie Rickenbacker. I’m very conscious of an obligation in that sense. I've often said that if Eddie had not come back from the raft episode in 1942 I think he would…And the fact that he came back and that the final years of his life in effect his career peaked from a business and financial and career standpoint in the 1930s and early 1940s.In other words after the raft episode he came back to Eastern and for a few years Eastern was profiting and doing very well but then it went down hill. It was still making profits by the time he retired but he was forced to retire. I have every feeling that that was a bitter humiliating experience for him to go through. In many ways he would have come out as a far more glamorous figure shall we say for historians to approach had he died, had he disappeared into oblivion in 1942?But I think he is an utterly fascinating subject and I have come to admire him a great deal. The better I feel that I understand him and one of the reasons why I feel that I can understand him to a certain degree is because I see so much of my dad in Eddie Rickenbacker think they would have understood each other immediately. They both had gone through ICS for that matter, you know, my dad was a machinist at one time. I just have this superficial feeling, you know, my dad never graduated from high school and yet…
BR: It’s the rags to riches. It's basically the American story.
DL: It is.
BR: You start out with nothing and through ingenuity and hard work you make something happen and you have failures along the way and you pick yourself up off ____ _____ and you know you have glory, and it is the American dream, a personification of the American dream. To me the tragic thing now is who are looked up at as heroes. He certainly had his faults and it certainly, you know, who knows what they would have done with the story or the press would have done with his life now. You think about John Kennedy and what they would have done with him if he had been president today. There were certain things that the press kind of overlooked and said well people don’t really need to know all of this stuff. But that being said it’s just the people who are abused heroes are heroic today have largely done very little to deserve it.
BR: It’s more fame than…
BR: It’s too bad.
DL: Daniel _____ attempts to draw this distinction between a celebrity and a hero. And by his definition a hero has done something to deserve being a hero. A celebrity is well known for being well known. A hero is a hero for having done something. He says that in the image. I think that’s a very astute generalization. I feel like I’ve lived with Eddie Rickenbacker since 1992 every day of life and I…
BR: He probably had a so much simplistic view of the world. It mean it was more of a black and white ____ _____.
DL: Yes sir.
BR: I remember we were talking a little bit earlier about coming out Sunday afternoons and one of the things he always said to make sure he got back in time for Bonanza which I guess came on at 8:00 on Sunday night.
DL: Yes. He liked westerns.
BR: And he particularly liked that one. He was a big fan of Lorne Greene. They had to get back for Bonanza.
DL: I saw Lorne Greene.
MO: I have, too.
DL: Have you really?
MO: Yeah. I carved meat for him.
DL: I saw him in the bar of the Hotel _____ _____ in West Palm Beach. I was there for a conference and he gave me his autograph in which I gave to Pat. I thought Pat would love to have Lorne Greene’s autograph. He was very nice.
MO: I was going to say my interaction with him twice was he was very nice also, a very pleasant guy.
DL: I’m glad you added that though that he had to get back in time to see Bonanza.
BR: We always had to eat a little bit earlier. Normally we ate at 7:00 on Sunday. Sunday, you know, you had breakfast and then you had a light lunch ____ _____.
MO: I have one more question real quick, actually two now. Did they come over almost every Sunday?
BR: No, no, no. Just about once a month.
MO: Okay. And we know what Eddie’s politics were and we know what Bill’s politics were. What was your dad’s politics or did he play that?
DL: That’s a good question.
BR: He was Republican. My mom was more of a Democrat. They sort of disagreed politically. My mom has gotten more conservative now.
DL: So he pretty much followed his dad’s political views.
Go to the AU Special Collections & Archives Department Homepage