Feb. 15, 1892—James Forrestal, who earned riches on Wall Street and acclaim as one of the architects of the national security state before succumbing to despair brought on by his workaholic style, was born in the upstate community of Beacon, N.Y.
Given what I have just written, you might wonder why my headline, instead of using the phrase “military history” or even “business history,” referred to “Irish-American history.” But Forrestal, the son of an Irish immigrant father and American mother of Irish descent, spent much of his adult life in near-total rejection of his background—not just Roman Catholicism but even his ethnicity and family.
This all-stops-out attempt at assimilation represented one means by which Irish-Americans of his time could fit into America and attain success. But it exacted a terrible cost: a lack of a home life or roots, culminating in a suicide that haunted his lofty social-cultural set and powerful figures in Washington, D.C. for generations to come.
Forrestal grew up in a time when the Ivy League was a WASP bastion, when Jews were excluded by quota and Catholics—particularly those of the lower-middle-class—were often looked down upon. Initially rejected by Princeton, he was at last accepted, then shone so brightly, in academics and on the school paper, that the Class of 1915 voted him Most Likely to Succeed. Then, a few weeks before graduation, he dropped out, for reasons that remain unexplained.
The inability to get a degree, after the various sacrifices he and his parents had made to get him through school, appears to have led him to cut off contact with his family. (A tentative attempt to reconcile with his mother--who had originally wanted him to become a priest--by buying her a house a decade later went nowhere: she didn't move into the house.) Then, after a brief stint as a clerk/handyman—quite below what his classmates had been making—he took a job with William A. Read and Co., a New York investment banking firm that later became Dillon, Read and Co.
The resulting career there—interrupted only by service as a naval aviator in WWI—was astonishingly successful. He made partner at age 31, and by 1932, the heart of the Depression, he made $5 million—more than $82 million in today’s currency.
Although he wore the map of Ireland on his face, Forrestal continued to shed his heritage, becoming an Episcopalian, giving up on contact with his family, and refusing to refer to himself as Irish-American. That denial allowed him to “pass” in WASP society, contract an advantageous marriage to a Vogue columnist beautiful enough to be photographed by Cecil Beaton, and advance on Wall Street.
In 1940, Forrestal left Dillon, Read to become one of the “dollar-a-year” businessmen who, forgoing their normal much larger private-sector salaries, helped the Roosevelt administration fulfill his desire to make America “the arsenal of democracy.” He worked seven days a week as undersecretary of the navy, so he was the natural choice to became secretary of the department itself in 1944 when his boss Frank Knox died.
So successful was Forrestal—first for FDR, then for Harry Truman—that he was tapped to spearhead the reorganization of the armed services into a single Defense Department; so exhausted was he in that effort by the dawn of the Cold War and constant political infighting, and so forlorn about being trapped in an unhappy marriage to his now-alcoholic wife, that he suffered a nervous breakdown.
After leaving the Defense Department, a depressed Forrestal, confined to Bethesda Naval Hospital for exhaustion, asked to see a Roman Catholic priest so he could confess. His request was denied. Not long afterward, he threw himself out the window of the 16th floor at the hospital. His death haunted his literary friends Philip Barry and John O’Hara, inspiring, respectively, the play Second Threshold and the sprawling novel From the Terrace.