Drowning in Toys

Sotheby's catalog cover for the Forbes toy collection auction.

Sotheby’s, in New York, auctioned off Malcolm Forbes’ toy collection today. I heard about it through a Margot Adler story on NPR, which filled me in on the history of this giant conglomeration of nineteenth and early twentieth-c playthings. Forbes was the kind of man people call “eccentric”—he was good friends with Elizabeth Taylor, had a motorcycle club called “The Capitalist Tools” (named after the Forbes Magazine tagline), and collected toys most of his adult life. Apparently, Forbes became a toy collector after he, as a child passenger on an ocean liner, dangled a toy boat in the liner’s wake, hoping to see it “go.” The boat was lost forever, and Forbes became a collector of boats. (NPR made not one, but two “Rosebud” jokes during and after this segment.)

This story reminded me of two pieces about super-wealthy children that I saw in Playthings magazine while doing research on the history of chemistry and science sets. Although they had nothing to do with my topic, I snapped them with my trusty digital camera anyway, because they reminded me of “Little Orphan Annie” and the fantasies that movie used to inspire about being a rich kid and getting every toy I wanted. The first was about John Jacob Astor V—the son of the John Jacob Astor who died on the Titanic in 1912. JJAV was born a few months after his father died, and according to this article was willed a 3 million dollar trust fund. Playthings justified covering JJAV’s consumption habits thusly: “As an ultimate consumer of playthings he deserves special mention.” Here is a list of the expenditures that Playthings reported were made for JJAV’s Christmas in 1912:

Playthings, January, 1917, p 173

It’s unclear what “gift pie” was (though I certainly want some). This piece seems to accuse Mrs. William Dick, JJAV’s mom, who remarried, of overspending on the child, though it never comes out and says so (and as a magazine interested in the promotion of spending on children, Playthings’ editors might not have wanted to put a damper on that kind of activity).

The second piece, from 1919, marks the death of Vinson Walsh McLean, who Playthings called the “million dollar baby.” McLean’s mother, the former Evalyn Walsh, was the daughter of a wealthy Irish ex-prospector who owned the Camp Bird gold mine in Colorado; his father’s family owned the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sadly, McLean was hit and killed by an automobile when he was only ten years old. (Some said this happened because his mother owned the famously cursed Hope Diamond.) Playthings commemorated his death by reminding the reader of the stunning toys Vinson played with when alive: “In his nursery at Washington there was installed a complete model of the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal and an equally complete miniature railway system, which the ‘Million Dollar Baby’ could operate or wreck at will…One of the trappings with which Vinson was surrounded by a $40,000 gold crib, a gift to him from King Leopold of Belgium.” (Having quasi-recently read Adam Hochschild’s horrific King Leopold’s Ghost, I shudder at the thought of a child sleeping in a crib bought with the profits from this man’s beyond-evil activities in the Congo.) It seems that Vinson, much like other boys of that era, particularly favored toys that replicated the superstar machines of the industrializing world; when he was four years old, Playthings reported, his parents gave him a Christmas party that cost nearly $50,000, and the star of that party was “a model of the steamship Lusitania, equipped in miniature to the minutest detail…there was also a miniature airdome containing two airplanes.” (With the mention of the Lusitania I became all the more convinced that this boy may have been cursed not by his mother’s diamond, but by his own toys, all of them endowed with terrible karma.)

A present-day model Lusitania, available fully assembled at www.handcraftedmodelships.com.

Despite all of his advantages, Playthings reported, “Vinson was a real unspoiled American boy. He had a negro as constant playmate and he was the most democratic youngster one could imagine.” Here’s the interesting thing about these stories about rich kids drowning in toys: we like them on two different levels. On the one hand, we get outraged about the expenditure involved; on the other, we kind of like to imagine being the kind of kid who could get whatever s/he wanted. These Playthings stories add another dimension to this dichotomy: as businessmen, the people who printed and read Playthings wanted to up consumption for every child, while retaining their public image as good people who wanted the best for the young they “served.” That’s why it’s important to note that Vinson was still “democratic,” despite being surrounded by toys. What’s the present-day equivalent of these stories? Pieces in US Weekly about the children of stars and their consumption habits?