Alexander Ector Orr Munsell was an incredibly wealthy man during the Great Depression. He seemed to have it all, until he suddenly gave it all away to live among the poor in a flophouse. Find out why he chose to do so and what happened after that.
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: October 30, 2013
To tell this story, we must hop in our time machine and roll the clock back to November of 1934. Much of the world is bogged down in the Great Depression and unemployment is at an all-time high. People from all walks of life are financially ruined. But not all. And that includes the man that I am about to talk about.
His name was Alexander Ector Orr Munsell. Born on September 13th of 1895 to a prominent Brookline, Massachusetts family – his father was Albert Henry Munsell inventor of the Munsell Color System, which was one of the earliest attempts to describe colors numerically and is still in use today.
His maternal grandfather, Alexander Ector Orr, was a prominent banker and insurance executive. As chairman of the Rapid Transit Board, Orr arranged for the financing and construction of the New York City subway. When Orr died in 1914, he bequeathed $1,481,363.43 (or about $33-million today) to his grandson. In addition, Munsell received several hundred thousand more dollars from an aunt in 1919. Playing the stock market, he built up an even greater fortune, bragging that he had earned $100,000 in a single day before the big crash. Even after Black Tuesday of 1929, he still had over $1 million. Alexander Ector Orr Munsell was set for life. He was wealthy before the big stock market crash and still wealthy after it.
Munsell, whose nickname was Mr. Moneybags, was a 1918 Harvard graduate who had studied abroad. He was married on May 29, 1917 to Margaret Jean Dodd, social security number was 220-12-5161, who was a member of the class of 1916 at Wellesley. After his father’s death on June 28, 1918, he took over the Munsell Color Company, although he later stated that he operated it at a financial loss. When WWI broke out, Munsell joined up as a member of a Boston medical corps unit. After the war, he returned to his life in high society.
In a 1935 interview, he claimed that he underwent a transformation that began in March of 1931. “Suppose that you saw a girl and right off you felt you had something in common with her. Well, that’s what happened to me with regard to people less fortunate than I – I discovered that I had something in common with the poor man. And I just wanted to get rid of all my money.”
And that is exactly what he did. He gave away his entire fortune. He gifted close to $1-million (nearly $17-million adjusted for inflation) over a 15 month period. Half was set aside for his wife and three sons and the remainder was given away for the “benefit of mankind.”
When the press learned of his incredible giveaway, they found him knitting a sweater while sitting on a cot in a NYC flop house called Hartford House. It was later learned that he had given his last $800 to Hartford House to establish a revolving loan program to provide the jobless with small advances. Now broke, he had no choice but to take up residence there himself.
When questioned as to why he would give it all away to be poor, Munsell said, “The only joy I found in my million dollars was in giving it away.” “Now like millions of others, I am looking for a $25-a-week job. In seven weeks the last of my inheritance, which has dwindled to $27 a week, will be stopped and I’ll be standing on my own feet.”
His wife Margaret blamed it on “delayed adolescence.” She did her best to hide her husband’s charity, but her husband couldn’t keep his trap shut. This was an incredible embarrassment to the Munsell family at the time. She said, “I don’t want to appear critical. I don’t want to question the actions of my husband. But Alexander never seemed to share my ideas on certain phases of life. It is quite possible that my point of view is feminine and material, but I consider it normal. My husband thought more of humanity than he did his family.”
When interviewed a year later, Munsell still had no regrets, but did comment that he did make a few initial mistakes, which included giving $350,000 to the YMCA, YWCA, and the National Council for Prevention of War. Most of it was spent before he learned how to best give it away. At one point, he was spending $8,000/month to professionals who could render services to those that were less fortunate.
“Just as I got my organization going good, I ran out of money. You can see how handy it would have been to have another million to carry on the work.” He added, “You don’t know where I could get a job so I can start making a million, do you?”
While he may have been broke and living among the poor, he did have one thing that the rest did not. That was a very rich mother named Juliet Munsell, who was alive and kicking in San Francisco, California. She also had inherited a big chunk of her dad’s $10 million estate and her son was the first in line to receive it after she passed away.
When asked about what he would do with such a windfall, Munsell told the reporter “If I get it, I don’t think I’ll keep it. Now that I’m broke, I know the greatest peace I’ve ever experienced in my life. I don’t think having another fortune could make me happier. So I’d give it away.”
Like most sensational stories, this one faded from the headlines. Excluding a brief mention in the New York Times on February 1st of 1936 that his wife had gone to Reno, Nevada to file suit for divorce against her husband, there was not to be a mention of Munsell in the papers for many years.
Now fast forward to 1951 and Munsell, now 56-years-old, was once again front page news. And you can probably guess why. His mom died on August 24, 1948. She left $1.3 million to one daughter, $650,000 to another daughter, and $650,000 to her supposedly broke son. Mom left nothing to her third daughter, mainly because she had already inherited quite heavily from Mrs. Munsell’s sister back in 1919 and felt that she didn’t need the money. That caused the will to be contested, but it was ultimately ruled valid.
When the news broke of Mr. Munsell’s big inheritance, members of the press lined up outside his newly remodeled three-story brownstone located at 324 West 20th Street in NYC, but he refused to open the door to answer any questions.
So, you are probably wondering how a man who gave away everything could come to afford such a home. Let’s just say that his rich relatives, including his mother, were very generous. In the sixteen years after he gave away his fortune, he slowly changed his attitude toward being poor. He never had to find a real job and now spent his days reading books, caring for the home that he shared with his second wife and stepdaughter, and dabbling in an occasional act of charity.
So, did he turn down his inheritance? Or, if he accepted it, would he keep it or give it all away again? His sister, Mrs. Elizabeth Kanevski of Greenwich, Connecticut gave a clue at the time of the inheritance: “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he did keep it.” She added, “But he has his own mind. He’s good and charitable.”
The world would have to wait until Mr. Munsell’s death from a heart attack on March 26, 1983 to learn the answer. According to his daughter Barbara Coale Munsell, who was questioned at the time of his passing, her dad did just as he had promised. He gave the money away. Alexander Ector Orr Munsell had spent his remaining years working with organizations that helped out the poor and elderly in New York City, as well as those that promoted nuclear disarmament.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.