November 26, 2020 Organ Notes

A Frozen Heart, an Icy Handshake, and the Final Wails of an Organ 

Murray M. Harris organ in mansion of William Andrews Clark, Sr.

“His heart is frozen and his instincts are those of the fox; there is craft in his stereotyped smiles and icicles in his handshake. He is about as magnetic as last year’s bird’s nest.”

William Andrews Clark, Sr. (1839-1925) had few, if any, friends. Warren Davenport, a Montana newspaper publisher, was certainly not a friend. Then, again, what he wrote about Clark was generally regarded as mild. Mark Twain wrote much worse.

Clark was born in a log cabin in Pennsylvania. His family became homesteaders in Iowa, where Clark began a brief career in law. In 1862 he deserted the Confederate army and joined the Montana gold rush to seek his fortune. He found at least four: one by operating mines; a second by selling goods at exorbitant prices at mining campstores; a third by selling timber and running a long-distance mail route; and a fourth in banking. He became one of the wealthiest persons in the United States.

To maintain control of his multifarious empire, Clark entered politics. In 1899 he bribed the Montana State Legislature to elect him as a United States senator. The U.S. Senate refused to seat Clark. Undaunted, he repeated his actions in 1901. This time it worked, and Clark was recognized as senator. As Clark said, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

Clark had spent approximately $5 million (or $150 million in today’s dollars) on his first bid to become senator. In the early 1900’s he spent the same amount to build a house in New York City. The six story mansion on Fifth Avenue had 120 rooms, 31 bathrooms, a 500 seat theater with stage, and an astrological tower. It required the acquisition of two quarries and a foundry to build; it required 17 tons of coal a day to heat. A New York writer called the mansion a “rusticated and encrusted folly spewing an anthology of over-blown detail taken from every county courthouse and Victorian city hall, plus a ridiculous steeple.”

The mansion contained four large art galleries lined with red velvet. Almost 200 French and Dutch paintings by Corot, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Van Dyck and Rembrandt lined the walls. The largest of the art galleries also housed a pipe organ. Built by Murray M. Harris, the pre-eminent Los Angeles organ builder, the organ had 4 manuals, 65 stops, and 4,000 pipes. Surrounded by his paintings, Clark would listen to the organ being played by his private organist, Arthur Scott Brook.

Clark died at home in 1923. Like everything else in his life, his funeral was a super spectacle. Held in his house, it enlisted 30 choir boys and the full capacity of the organ. Although Harris organs were universally admired for their beautiful tones, and Brook was a superb organist, Clark’s many enemies conceded nothing. The colossal organ, which had given Clark pride and pleasure, was described as “wailing and whining…bawling and braying…swelling and sobbing and twittering…” in a syrupy send-off to “the wild-haired, brazen Copper King.”

Clark had been born in a log cabin in rural Pennsylvania. He had built a house of marble, granite, and bronze. But, like his wooden birthplace, it proved impermanent. The house was razed a few years after his death. Offered no suitable home, the organ was buried under tons of debris used to fill a swamp in Queens.