Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, February 18, 2011

AIG Building: Just the place to fall from grace

See this Opinionator piece that appeared in the NYTimes on Wednesday with fascinating details drawn from the investigating commission's financial crash report on how a cut in the valuation of mortgage-backed securities by Goldman Sachs in 2007 set off a chain disaster that led to the collapse of American International Group (AIG), among other shocks. Taxpayers put up more than $180 billion to save AIG and its investors and insureds.

The 79-year-old building that served as ground zero for that particular disaster wasn't always called the AIG Building, but rather Cities Service Building or Sixty Wall Tower. Though the Sixty Wall skyscraper is a full block from Wall Street (on Pearl, Cedar, and Pine Streets), a skyway joined it to a building that had a genuine Wall Street address, and that was enough for developer Henry L. Doherty to put a Wall into the name of a building whose postal address was 70 Pine Street. For the full history, see the book Skyscraper Rivals.

Like all buildings until the advent of air conditioning, Sixty Wall Tower had windows that slid open for ventilation, and unauthorized exits. In June 1933 it would contribute to the tally of window-leaping suicides of the Great Depression.

Perhaps coincidentally, the case happened one day after Time Magazine published yet another article on the national suicide problem. The Time article described the difficulties that life insurance companies were having when faced with fatal falls of ambiguous origin. Just 15 years before, suicidal individuals had favored gas or guns, but after the 1929 Crash, falls were on the rise.
Time had waggishly suggested a year before that reporters employ a new word, flump, meaning 'to fall or jump,' when circumstances were unclear and family members insisted the fall had been unintentional, perhaps when the decedent had been reaching for a butterfly. This ambiguity would have served well when reporting the death-by-window of Samuel Feiber, an official from the Hoover Administration, who had flumped from the seventeenth floor of the Savoy-Plaza in February 1933 without witnesses in attendance.

There was little doubt, however, about the bona fides of the case that happened four months later, high up on Sixty Wall Tower.

On the evening of June 20, 1933, a luggage porter named Herman Marquardt walked into the 40th-floor offices of Batchelder & Co., Stockbrokers. He found George L. of the family firm standing on the window sill in his office. Heedless of his low status among the elite, Marquardt ordered the broker to step down. Instead Batchelder called for him to leave and shut the door. 

The porter summoned the building's security force. Marquardt and three house detectives attempted to cajole Batchelder from his perch. But Batchelder toppled out and came to rest on a tenth-floor setback roof.

This case matched national suicide patterns fairly well. According to Dr. Harry Marsh Warren of the Save-A-Life League, who had been studying patterns emerging from thousands of American post-Crash suicides, the most common day of the week for suicides was Tuesday. The most common month was June. Batchelder's case did diverge from the most common time of day, which was 11 a.m.

Tragedies like Batchelder's received much publicity. Mental health professionals asked for a halt, saying that it was inspiring copycats. 

Heedless of all that, many writers and cartoonists embraced the idea of despair at high altitude. Will Rogers suggested that Wall Street brokers were having to take their place in line at windows. Cole Porter's Depression-era musical Anything Goes included a scene in which magnate Elisha Whitney tries to console the widow of a suicider by telling her that while leaving the Stock Exchange he looked up to see her husband jump off the ledge; Whitney assures her that his dive showed all the style "of a Yale man."

New Yorkers could draw a small measure of solace from a detailed study of Depression-era suicides assembled by the remarkable Frederick L. Hoffman, then a statistician for Prudential Life Insurance. Surprisingly, Hoffman found that Davenport, Iowa, had a far worse suicide problem during that era than did any borough of New York. At a rate of over 50 suicides per 100,000 people, that bucolic city on the Mississippi led the entire nation in sudden-self-death during 1932 and 1933. Davenport was even up there with the world's most suicidal city, Vienna. (Hoffman, who died in 1946, also achieved a measure of fame among actuaries and public health experts for his early deduction from statistical correlations that smoking and workplace dust were hazardous to health.)

Despite all the publicity about the plungers of Manhattan, New York City's suicide rate for 1933 continued a steady decline first identified in 1930, and finished the year lower even than the national average.

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