"Who dares tell millionaires how to spend their money?" That's how historian David Nasaw characterizes the late-19th century reaction to Andrew Carnegie's gospel of philanthropy. Mr. Nasaw, a history professor at the City University of New York, received the $50,000 2006 New-York Historical Society American History Book Prize for his biography "Andrew Carnegie." This weekend at the Society's Weekend with History, a series of intimate programming for the Society's most generous supporters, Mr. Nasaw will get to talk with some of today's more historically-minded philanthropists.
Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the society, said that Carnegie "moved to New York, and he loved living in New York, just like the rest of us." But Carnegie did not mix much with New York Society. "He wouldn't have been very well accepted in Edith Wharton's circle," Mr. Nasaw said. "He was an ironmonger."
Carnegie came to New York to be a writer. He corresponded with the like-minded Herbert Spencer, the English Social Darwinist. He was not a part of the incipient charity ball circuit. "If you look at his house on 91st Street," Mr. Nasaw said, "it's a grand house, but it doesn't have a huge dining room or a ball room.
"For 125 years," Mr. Nasaw said, "his shrill comments that the man who dies rich dies disgraced were pretty much ignored." But today, Warren Buffet quotes Carnegie. Mr. Nasaw sees a trend. "When Bloomberg, who, I will bet you, is going to be the next to give his [money] away, he will affect Carnegie's language."
When asked whether Mr. Carnegie can be considered a role model, Mr. Nasaw was cautious. Many believe that once Carnegie became a philanthropist, he became a nice guy. Mr. Nasaw wants to revise this assumption. "The more money he could squeeze out of his workers the more money he had for his philanthropies," he said. "Philanthropy was not a democratic enterprise."