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Rags to Riches, Saws to Diamonds 

Almost to the day, April 16, it's been 90 years since America laid in the ground one of its greatest icons ever.

Someone once noted that undersized England's gift was that of understatement. It was different for sprawling, limitless America; our gift was for overstatement, for exaggeration. Our tales were tall ones -- of Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Mike Fink.

Into this world came a man destined to command it -- or at least to command its imagination. We remember him as "Diamond" Jim Brady, and we will conjure up that memory so long as we mark America's Gilded Age.

A rags-to-riches story has to start someplace, and Jim's started in the rooms above Dan Brady's saloon on the West Side of New York in the summer of 1856. Ever the loyal Democrat, Dan named his second son James Buchanan Brady after the sitting president and died young.

While a young teen, Jim left school and saloon to become a bellhop at the St. James Hotel. There he met a railroad official, who got him a job as baggage-handler. Under the banner of self-improvement, Jim enrolled in night school and began a lifelong love of theater by seeing Edwin Booth in Othello. Much later, a reporter asked if he'd liked the play. "That's not a fashionable question to ask about Shakespeare. One always says, 'The acting was fine.' And so it was."

Jim's climb up the ladder began as a salesman of saws for slicing railroad steel. For $90, he bought his first ring, a 1-carat diamond to complement his new Prince Albert coat and stove-pipe hat. "If you're going to make money, you've got to look like money," quipped Jim, as close to a credo as a man ever uttered.

Travels and commissions piled up, as did high-stakes card games and pawn-shop diamonds. For Doubting Thomases, Brady would stroll to the nearest window and scratch his full name on the glass with the diamond in question.

The wealth contined to pyramid, thanks to a franchise on pressed-steel railroad cars and shrewd investments. So too did the diamonds and lesser precious stones. Eventually, there would be 30 "sets," led by the "Transportation Set." This little ensemble featured machines and animals which transported men and included 2,548 diamonds, 19 rubies and four olivines.

He bought a mansion on Eighty-sixth Street, one that featured a pool table with lapis lazuli legs, a dining room with a tub in it and a bedroom with a barber's chair.

Such ostentacioiusly bad taste guaranteed that the saloon keeper's son would never be welcome in the mansions of the upper crust, much to his sadness. Yet, he had a clerk whose sole job was to keep track of some 1,200 names of the "Brady Beneficent Society," and dispatch gifts. "What the hell? I make more than a million a year. ... If it gives me pleasure to send you little presents, I'm gonna keep sending 'em whether you like it or not."

It's inconceivable that a man of such color could fail to turn up on New Orleans' canvas, and Brady did on several occasions. On Jan. 17, 1906, as the guest of Col. A.P. Renaud, Jim escorted a party of directors of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to the Fair Grounds.

A local reporter was chiefly interested in his famous visitor's ownership of a popular horse named Oiseau. In the previous season, Oiseau had vainly chased the champion Sysonby, and the chase had been expensive. However, Brady added, much of his turf losses had been offset by a tip from his friend Jesse Lewisohn in the copper market. He'd bought 7,000 shares at 91, and now they were 114.

Diamond Jim's other loss was of weight, which he attributed to an "anti-obesity treatment." But his companions claimed he lost most of it watching Oiseau follow Sysonby last year, and if Oiseau improved, so would Jim's appetite.

Not often did Diamond Jim Brady's friends fret over his appetite. From his boyhood days of copious amounts of saloon food to 14-course meals at the best hotels, Jim seemed to want to match the homeliness of his walrus face with the heft of his body. Surprisingly, he seldom touched alcohol, but he always drank a gallon or two of fresh orange juice to wash down meals that would feature four dozen oysters, a dozen hard-shell crabs and two lobsters before entrees were served. If dinner was followed by theater, Jim always brought along a pound or two of sweets; he claimed that Shaw was better enjoyed with bonbons and Ibsen with glace fruits.

A horrified hostess once asked him how he knew he was full. "When I sit down, I make it a point to leave just 4 inches between my stomach and the edge of the table. When I can feel 'em rubbin' together pretty hard, I know I've had enough."

It's not often that such gluttony can co-exist with lust, but Jim had an eye for the ladies -- and a wallet to match. He refused to have any women work for him, but he regularly fell for any sad story from young women. When pals suggested he was being duped, he winked and replied, "Did you ever stop to think that it's fun to be a sucker, if you can afford it?"

He had one great love, who jilted him for a friend. He squired the Paris Hiltons of his day -- Lillian Russell, Lotta Crabtree, Lily Lantry -- but he did well by the working girl too. Once, when hospitalized at Johns Hopkins, he bought 50 2-carat diamonds and handed them out to attending nurses. It was said that nurses got into hair-pulling fights over who would answer the buzzer to his room.

He died in his sleep.

How to sum up? On a personal level, a man gross and gauche who refused to let anything shake his self-esteem. On an historical level, James Buchanan Brady was a poster boy for that American democratic icon: the self-made man who, with pluck and luck, scraps to the top of the capitalistic heap.

And more ... a man honest in a time and place of dishonest business and generous at any time and place. Rare indeed is hedonism better displayed. Nouveau riche plus and minus.

Diamond Jim Brady's will left everything to friends, hospitals and charitites like the Newsboys' Lodging House, the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum and the Actor's Fund of America.

Those jewel-studded pieces of the Brady collection not mentioned specifically in his will were sold cut-rate to a manufacturing jeweler who cut them into smaller sizes for resale. Twenty years later, Diamond Jim's diamonds were being worn on the throats and breasts of thousands of unsuspecting women.

Can anyone doubt how much he would have loved that?

click to enlarge MARK KARCHER
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