The man no one knows who changed Boston

Driving the gold-plated rivet into steel, Charles Hayden, Class of 1890, marked a new phase for New York City’s storied Waldorf Astoria hotel.

It was the morning of Monday, March 24, 1930, just five months after the stock market crash of October 1929. The previous Waldorf had been razed to make room for the Empire State Building. A new company had bought the name for a dollar, and Hayden, one of New York’s wealthiest bankers, had been elected chairman of the new board to help secure funding.

“In driving this rivet, I feel that I am driving home the fact that the tangible realization of a wonderful dream is underway,” Hayden said in the New York Times. 

Hayden was no stranger to newspaper readers. A single man with no children, he was celebrated for his extreme wealth and generosity, starting with his gift of $1,000 to the New York Times’ “Neediest” charity in December 1916. As the US entered World War I, Hayden gave $100,000 to the National Red Cross ($2.1 million today, adjusting for inflation). He gave another $100,000 the following year.  An article appearing in a 1919 edition of The Sun casually mentioned that those who had obtained boxes for an upcoming ball at the opera included “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Elbert H. Gary [wife of the founder of US Steel], Mrs. George W. Vanderbilt, Charles Hayden, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney,” and others. Hayden was one of the few New Yorkers invited to every high-society occasion.

While he is barely remembered today, his munificent generosity left a permanent mark on MIT and Boston. During his life, Hayden was a president of the MIT Alumni Association and a “life member” of the MIT Corporation. His name is one of six gracing the entrance of the East Campus dorm, the result of a $100,000 gift that he made supporting the dorm’s construction. He also paid for the construction of MIT classrooms and laboratories in the new Cambridge campus. Before his death, his gift of $150,000 to purchase and house the Zeiss projector made possible the first Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. 

When Hayden died, in 1937, he left nearly all his vast fortune—$50 million (about $1 billion in today’s dollars)—to the Charles Hayden Foundation, which went on to fund the MIT Hayden Library, the Hayden Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science, and the Charles Hayden Memorial Building at Boston University. Still in existence, the foundation is limited to making grants that serve children and young people aged five to 21 in the metropolitan areas of New York and Boston. It made more than $16 million in grants in 2021.

“Time is money to a businessman, but they don’t seem to know that,” Hayden was quoted as saying. “They pinch pennies and throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of time.”

Hayden’s largesse most benefited his hometown. Born in 1870 to a successful Boston shoe manufacturer, he grew up in the Back Bay and graduated from English High, at the time known for educating boys destined for careers in business and engineering. He was the 24th initiate at MIT’s Theta Xi fraternity and was “active in arranging the move” to Boylston Place in March 1888, according to Qiong Zhou Huang, the scholarship chair and secretary of today’s chapter. 

After graduating with a degree in MIT’s “General Course,” Hayden took a “grand tour” of Europe (not unusual at the time) and then spent a year apprenticing at a brokerage firm. He and his 31-year-old partner, Galen Stone, each borrowed $20,000 from their fathers and opened the private banking firm Hayden, Stone & Co. in 1892. 

Hayden had learned about the growing importance of electricity and the critical role of copper from his coursework at MIT, so he and Stone spent $25 and bought a list of individual investors in the US who owned copper stocks. To each they sent an investment letter. The firm soon had a growing list of private clients—clients who did very well with its expert advice and analysis. Hayden, Stone opened its New York office in 1906 and expanded into other areas. Although most of its records were destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it’s known that Joseph Kennedy (the future ambassador and father of John F. Kennedy) worked there in 1919, and that the firm hired several bond saleswomen at a time when the profession was largely closed to women. It was Stone who contributed the funds that Wellesley College used to build Green Hall and the iconic Galen Stone Tower. When Stone died, in 1926, Hayden assumed full control of the firm.

Not content with being a passive investor, Hayden joined the boards of the companies that he funded and was active in their management. He invested in all sorts of technology. In 1929, he helped organize the Aviation Corporation of the Americas, which became Pan Am in 1931. He helped lay the groundwork for the unification of New York City’s subway lines. He was eventually on the board of more than 80 companies. He managed this in part by scheduling meetings back to back in his office and making rapid decisions. “Time is money to a businessman, but they don’t seem to know that,” he was quoted as saying. “They pinch pennies and throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of time.” 

From the record, it’s clear that Hayden also enjoyed having a good time. In 1914, he joined a syndicate to construct a yacht to compete for the America’s Cup. For a 1923 celebration marking the 70th anniversary of the Rock Island railroad system, a special train left Chicago “piloted” by Hayden, chairman of the railroad’s board of directors. “Pretty girls in dresses of mid-nineteenth century design waved good-by from the observation car, as the gala train left the La Salle street station,” reads an account in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. He enjoyed fine art, paying $52,000 in 1928 for Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s fetching self-portrait. He was a director of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, which officially disbanded on December 5, 1933, at a party at the Waldorf after passage of the 21st Amendment, which legalized (again) the consumption of alcohol in the United States.

Hayden’s wealth and influence were so immense that in 1930 James W. Gerard, a former ambassador and a major player in Democratic Party politics, named him as one of the 64 rulers of the United States, “who are too busy to hold political office, but determine who shall.” It was not a compliment: Hayden was a staunch supporter of President Herbert Hoover, who returned the favor by opening the Waldorf Astoria in 1931 and then moving there in 1932 after his loss to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Nevertheless, Hayden clearly believed deeply in the importance of service to others. In 1932 he was the featured evening speaker at his high school’s 110th-anniversary dinner and presented a bronze statue that showed a warrior supporting another who had been stripped of his armor in battle. On the base is inscribed, “Service to mankind is honor and achievement.”

Hayden died in 1937, victim of an infection he acquired during a minor operation at a New York hospital. His brother, J. Willard Hayden, became head of the newly created Charles Hayden Foundation and was named to the MIT Corporation, taking his brother’s seat. “Notable among other institutions aided in large part by the Hayden benefactions are MIT (Charles Hayden Memorial Library); Northeastern, Brandeis, Columbia, New York, and Boston Universities; and the Museum of Science (Hayden Planetarium),” wrote MIT president James Killian on Willard’s death in 1955. Both Willard and Charles are buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery. 

As for the firm, Hayden, Stone continued with its private clients until 1974, when it merged with Shearson, Hammill & Co. as part of a wave of industry consolidations. Today that company is part of Shearson/American Express.

In many ways, Charles Hayden continues to drive gold-plated rivets to this very day—except rather than strengthening steel, they enrich the lives of the young men and women touched by his enduring generosity.

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