Thursday, July 23, 1987

KBOO 23 July 1987

Friendship is a great blessing in life. Some people have few friends, some many. And, as Aristotle wrote, ‘Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.’

True friendship is a quality of giving without the demand of anything in return. Friends naturally want the best for each other. But I have a feeling that it must require special qualities to be able to befriend people in the public eye and for people in that exposed position to know who their real friends are. So many wrong motives can come into play. Kipling once wrote that a test of whether you were ‘a man’, by which he meant really mature, was whether you could walk with kings and still not lose the common touch.

I was thinking of this when I read a remarkable book by a friend of mine who has indeed walked with American ‘Kings’ if one may call them that, and yet never lost that common touch, who was a close friend to some of the most famous men and women in America. He is James Newton from Fort Myers Beach, Florida, who is 82 and has just written a most entertaining book ‘Uncommon Friends.’ (BBJ)

To have walked just with Thomas Edison would have been a remarkable experience. To have walked with Henry Ford a revelation. To have walked with Charles Lindbergh unforgettable. Yet Jim walked with all three, and more. He was like an adopted grandson to the inventor of the electric light and a vital companion to the end of his days. He was close to the car manufacturer when he was at the height of his powers. And Alexis Carrel, the Nobel laureate who paved the way for modern surgery, at one time the most written about figure in the world, was best man at his wedding.

I remember being much impressed as a teenager when I was introduced by Jim to Lindbergh. Jim had met him through another towering personality Jim also knew well, Harvey Firestone and, indeed, and for a time not only worked for him but was being groomed as the tire manufacturer’s successor. One of my first memories of Jim is of him telling me how he used to fly for Firestone over traffic intersections and when he saw which the busiest one was he would drop down and buy the site.

Now, using diaries, recollections and extensive correspondence Jim has put together, without betraying confidences, a fascinating picture of these shapers of the twentieth century and their families. ‘Uncommon Friends’ has a foreword by Anne Morrow Lindbergh who describes the book as ‘a paean to friendship itself.’

It is interesting to learn, and this is perhaps one of his strengths, that James Newton never asked to meet any of the five men. On his relationship with Edison, Firestone and Ford, Jim writes, ‘Perhaps my common link with all three was that I had a good pair of listening ears and a sympathetic spirit. And no axe to grind.’

The extraordinary story begins when he was twenty years old and already head of development of Edison Park in Fort Myers where the Edisons lived. Edison introduced him to Ford who in turn introduced him to Firestone. Another business man introduced him to Carrel which led to the friendship with the Lindberghs. Carrel and Lindbergh were featured together on the front cover of ‘Time’ magazine in June 1938 on the day their co-authored book ‘Culture of Organs’ was published.

In ‘Uncommon Friends’ Jim takes you into the lives and homes and hopes and fears and ambitions and beliefs of these men and women as he lived and worked and vacationed with them.

The book is crammed with telling glimpses of their lives. For instance, Jim writes at one point, ‘Edison’s deafness must often have been a burden, but he never spoke of it as anything but an asset. He could read and study and work quietly no matter how much conversation surrounded him. He said his deafness had given him an excuse to sit much closer to his future wife during their courtship. He taught her the Morse code when she was a teenager before they married, and they tapped out messages on the backs of each other’s hands. Indeed, that was how he proposed and she accepted. He wrote in his diary, ‘The word "yes" is an easy one to send by telegraph signal, and she sent it.’ Jim learned from Mrs. Edison how to talk to Edison by cupping his hand against the inventor’s cheekbone and talking through the palm so that the vibrations permitted him to hear.

To the young Americans who do not know what these men represented in the life of this country the book is a joyful and painless education. To the older American for whom these figures have an almost legendary quality it is a personal glimpse of the private side of their natures.

‘They not only challenged my life,’ writes Jim, ‘but they changed the life of everyone living in this century. It has been said of Thomas Edison that he ‘invented the twentieth century’ – imagine what the world would be like without electric light or recorded sound. In most countries Henry Ford’s ‘automobile for the millions’, with Firestone’s tires, has set the pattern for our dwellings, our communities, and our jobs. Without Alexis Carrel, how many decades would it have taken to develop modern surgery? And how much slower, without Lindbergh, would have been the shrinking of time and distance between continents or the awareness of man’s need to protect our planet? These men put into our hands dynamic tools with which to shape our civilization. What have we done with them?’

Jim was certainly lucky to have such friends. But I can’t help feeling that they, too, were lucky to have him, and then later his wife, Ellie. As Lindbergh wrote to Jimmy, ‘You are one of the most extraordinary people I have met in life. Wherever you go, you have the ability of adding to the quality of life, whether with a group or an individual. Everyone I know who has met you feels this. This is really an extraordinary gift, and I doubt you, yourself, can realize the extent of it.’

I think this latter sentence is probably true. For if there is one weakness to ‘Uncommon Friends,’ it is that we don’t learn more about Jimmy. Perhaps he is saving that for another book.