Brown Brothers had more than a century on Harriman's firm. It was a titan of Wall Street, but in reputation and standing rather than size. It was not particularly large in assets, but its influence and reach were as extensive as the flashier J.P. Morgan & Co. or the much larger Chase National Bank, which was infused with Rockefeller money. Because Brown Brothers was a partnership without one figurehead, it attracted neither notoriety nor much public attention, and it did not have the benefit of one man's fortune ever at the ready. The partners of Brown Brothers shunned the public spotlight and cultivated a sterling reputation within the close-knit world of finance and banking. To become a partner, each man had to be invited and then was required to contribute his share to the firm's working capital. Like all partnerships, Brown Brothers lent and invested the partners' money. Each deal had to be assessed in terms of how much of their own personal fortune they were willing to risk. In sharp contrast to the investment banks and venture firms and private equity groups of today, the partners at Brown Brothers were not agents acting on behalf of anonymous shareholders or mammoth institutions. Every Brown Brothers partner was personally exposed. They could gain immensely or lose painfully from each deal.
But by the end of 1930, as the economic collapse accelerated not just in the United States but around the world, transactions and deals that had looked sound and wise a year earlier turned sour. Even after each of the Brown Brothers partners had ponied up more money to cover losses, they were skirting peril. The firm had been in business for more than 120 years, since Alexander Brown set up shop, aided by his four sons, in Baltimore. It was unclear whether it could last into 1931. Thatcher Brown, great-grandson of Alexander and managing partner of his firm, saw that drastic action was necessary. Though nearly a generation separated him from those young bucks on the train, Thatcher, a product of the same schools and the same upbringing, was essentially an older version of them. The cohort of younger Yale grads saw the opportunity, but it was Thatcher and his older cousin James who understood the need. So did Averell Harriman, who was flush with the millions provided by his father's fortune. He had money, but his business was struggling as well. Brown Brothers had the history and the standing. And so, following that genial conversation over cards and drinks in a first-class railcar, it was agreed that the two firms would merge to save both, with the fortune of Harriman attached to the reputation of Brown Brothers.
For Wall Street, that innocuous December New York Times headline wasn't so innocuous. It signaled to the financial world that two of the major players of Wall Street would, at least for the moment, be fine. In a time of rampant bank closures and widespread panic, the announcement of the formation of Brown Brothers Harriman was a respite, a message that said, "It will be all right; there is shelter in the storm."
The Great Depression would get considerably worse before it got better, but Brown Brothers Harriman remained standing and became a pillar of what would soon be called the American Establishment. Its partners would play a central role in the creation of what Time's founding editor and fellow Yale alum Henry Luce dubbed "the American century," a mid-twentieth-century imperium that saw a marriage of American money and American power that spanned the globe. It didn't last a century, but at its apex, the American century was staffed by Brown Brothers. Prescott Bush served as a U.S. senator for Connecticut and progenitor of two presidents. Lovett became assistant secretary of war, assistant secretary of state, and finally secretary of defense during the height of the Korean War. Averell Harriman would have a long career as a diplomat and statesman, serving as Franklin Roosevelt's envoy to Stalin, secretary of commerce under Truman and then governor of New York and finally as the most senior diplomat in the Kennedy and Johnson State Department, though not, to his unspoken chagrin, as secretary of state. These men were, as Dean Acheson (who to his everlasting pride 'was' secretary of state) would later remark, present at the creation. They defined the Cold War political and economic system that governed the world after World War II, a system that remains largely, if shakily, in place. Directly or indirectly, this cohort created every major institution that shapes the international system today, from the World Trade Organization to NATO to the United Nations to the World Bank. They established the primacy of the almighty dollar. And they built the apparatus of the American national security state, including the Defense Department, the National Security Council and the CIA.
The influence of the firm, however, is even deeper than that, spanning nearly the entire history of the United States. The firm started, as most ventures do, innocuously enough, founded at the turn of the nineteenth century by an immigrant with modest dreams, an Irish refugee fleeing the sectarian violence of his homeland. He set up a linen importing business in Baltimore, which morphed into a merchant bank, and as it grew and evolved under his sons, Brown Brothers helped turn the United States into a country where money had an outsized role. The American economic system was messy, chaotic and often hugely destructive even as it unlocked unprecedented potential. The House of Brown, straddling the Atlantic with branches in Liverpool, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, was at the center of the alchemy, managed by a family of upright, God-loving bankers, fathers and sons and then grandsons, steeped in rectitude and service, at times dull, always—more or less—honorable. In a world where money was plentiful, and promiscuously so, it helped to have stolid bankers at the choke point, regulating the flow, steering through crises, keeping the excesses of greed and panic at bay.