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Hard Times, Crummy Job: Working for Albert Barnes in the 1940s


Albert Barnes.Hard times are the friend of jerk bosses. Who would put up with the likes of Albert C. Barnes otherwise? Philosopher Bertrand Russell learned this the hard way. In 1941, he went to work for the Barnes Foundation’s poorly socialized founder in a moment of financial desperation.

Russell—an English earl, president of the Aristotelian Society and one of the world’s leading mathematicians—spent two years trying to work amicably with Barnes. In the end, Barnes fired him anyway. “He demanded constant flattery and had a passion for quarrelling,” Russell later wrote of Barnes. “I was warned before accepting his offer that he always tired of people before long, so I exacted a five-year contract from him.”

Born to an influential family that came to prominence during the Tudor dynasty, Russell and a brother were raised by a Presbyterian grandmother after their parents died. The environment was formal, and prayer constant. Russell later wrote that he might’ve committed suicide if he hadn’t discovered Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, or the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whose attitudes toward marriage and morals foreshadowed Russell’s own. (Shelley had two wives and several lovers; Russell doubled that record.) “I spent all my spare time reading [Shelley] and learning him by heart, knowing no one to whom I could speak of what I thought or felt,” wrote Russell.

Russell won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in mathematics and philosophy. His 1903 work, Principles of Mathematics, is still a classic reference.

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Barnes' former employee, Bertrand Russell.Russell also gained a lifelong interest in liberal politics. During World War I, he was an outspoken pacifist who campaigned against the British draft. Convicted of antiwar activities, he spent six months in prison and was dismissed from Trinity College.

In World War II, however, Russell concluded that Hitler was such a threat that fighting him was the lesser evil. In the postwar years, he became a sort of intellectual celebrity. He was particularly critical of U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, and his last public statement, issued after his death, condemned Israeli policies in Palestine. “Justice,” he wrote, “requires that the first step towards a settlement must be an Israeli withdrawal from all the territories occupied in June 1967.”

In 1894, Russell married Alys Pearsall Smith, a Philadelphia Quaker and Bryn Mawr College graduate whose high ideals and disinterest in sex at first seemed angelic, but later only tiresome and prudish. In 1901, Russell later wrote, “I went out bicycling one afternoon and, suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realized that I no longer loved Alys.”

He would marry three more times.

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In Russell’s most controversial book, 1929’s Marriage and Morals, the philosopher argued that families were most important to children. Therefore, men and women should only be considered bound after pregnancy. Until then, contraception made obsolete traditional notions of faithfulness. “The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral was based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is regrettable,” wrote Russell. “The fact that [this view] is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life.”

Between 1938 and ’44, Russell—then on his third marriage and needing a regular income—lived in the United States, teaching philosophy at the University of Chicago and at UCLA. He was disappointed by the latter, where, he wrote, the president’s conduct of faculty meetings resembled “a meeting of the Reichstag under Hitler.”

So he jumped on an offer from City College of New York—too soon, it turned out. CCNY was run by New York’s board of education, which had to approve Russell’s appointment. It did approve, but the appointment drew the attention of the conservative New York Sun newspaper, the Catholic Church and the Episcopal bishop of New York. Under intense pressure, the school board reaffirmed the appointment. But it wasn’t over.

Identifying herself only as a taxpayer, a Brooklyn woman sued to overturn the appointment on the grounds that Russell would teach immorality to her daughter. The woman’s daughter was not a college student, but an Irish Catholic judge agreed anyway, declaring that the school board had established “a chair of indecency.”

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Many protested on Russell’s behalf. Rallies were held. Petitions were signed. But it was to no avail. Russell had resigned his positions in Chicago and at UCLA, and now the CCNY appointment was void.

“I became taboo throughout the whole of the United States,” he later wrote. “Owners of halls refused to let them if I was to lecture. No newspaper or magazine would publish anything I wrote, and I was suddenly deprived of all means of earning a living.”

Among Russell’s defenders was Melvil Dewey, the educational reformer and inventor of the Dewey Decimal System. Dewey, in turn, was close to Barnes.

The son of a disabled Civil War veteran, Albert Barnes was born in Kensington. Overall, it was a working-class childhood—not rich, but not impoverished, either. Still, the Barnes family did spend about three years living in the “Neck,” a rough shantytown now occupied by the South Philadelphia sports complex. After young Barnes was robbed and beaten by other boys, he learned how to fight and never forgot.

Barnes was bright, however. He was accepted at Philadelphia’s Central High School, where he nurtured an early interest in art and discovered laboratory research. The laboratory led him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a medical degree in 1892. Rather than practice medicine, however, Barnes became a chemist. In 1902, he and a partner (whom he later pushed out of the business) introduced Argyrol, a solution that proved very effective for treating gonorrhea. He sold the company in 1928 for $4 million.

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Now a rich man, Barnes could indulge his earlier interest in art. He bought French impressionist paintings by the boatload. And when the collection outgrew his home and office, Barnes built a marble temple in Merion, which he filled with the works of Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Georgia O’Keeffe and Ben Shahn, among others. Impressionism wasn’t yet accepted by the public or the art establishment, so Barnes’ interest was ridiculed—and experience fueled his fundamental conviction that all experts are idiots. He came to disdain formal education. True understanding, he believed, came only through personal experience.

Though married, Barnes also seems to have had issues with women. He enjoyed bullying female employees. When the female reporter of the Philadelphia Public Ledger made some mild criticism of his collection, Barnes told the woman that she would never be a real art expert until she had slept with him. He often denounced marriage as a form of prostitution.

When Dewey, who’d once taught at the Barnes Foundation, recommended hiring Russell, the collector didn’t require much persuasion. Barnes relished controversy, and an opportunity to thumb his nose at public opinion and the educational establishment was too delicious to pass up.

“I’ve had many doses of the same bitter medicine you’ve been forced to swallow recently,” Barnes ingratiatingly wrote to Russell. The offer was $6,000 annually for five years. In return, Russell was only to give “occasional” lectures on Western philosophy, which would serve as background for other programs on the history of painting. At Dewey’s suggestion, Russell got the offer in writing. “Bertrand can put us on the intellectual-educational map in a manner I have long wished for,” the enthusiastic Barnes gushed in a letter to Russell’s wife.

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Barnes’ management style alternated between paternal and dictatorial. When he tried to choose where the Russells would live, Patricia Russell politely suggested he mind his own business. Instead, the family chose the 200-year-old Little Datchet Farm in West Pikeland, a location convenient to the Malvern train station.

Response to Russell’s lectures was huge. Hundreds applied for admission, though audiences were limited to 65. Barnes relished his new role as Russell’s patron. And lest memory of the CCNY case fade, he subsidized a book, The Bertrand Russell Case, in which liberal writers repeated their arguments.

But things soon soured. Barnes and Russell got along, but Patricia Russell annoyed the collector. There had been the issue of the house, of course. Then, the woman, who was half Barnes’ age, insisted on being addressed as “Lady Russell.” That infuriated the blue-collar sensibilities of Barnes, who was more accustomed to dominating women, not kowtowing to them.

Patricia also dared to knit while her husband lectured. She was participating in a relief program for British sailors. Barnes called it a disruption and had her banned from the premises. Coming to his wife’s defense, Russell wrote Barnes that “the letter written on your behalf to my wife is astonishing by its incivility.”

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Similar incidents followed, but Russell continued to lecture, and his wife stayed away. Russell’s popularity also annoyed Barnes, who was used to being the center of attention. He accused Russell of breaking their contract by making appearances at Temple University and elsewhere, though the contract didn’t forbid it. And Russell lived in terror of arriving late, as Barnes was a stickler for punctuality.

“One day, the Paoli local having been late, Russell arrived also late by perhaps 10 minutes,” recalled Barrows Dunham, a foundation regular. “He was red in the face, out of breath and showing anxiety, having run or walked fast from the Merion station. I was pained to see the leading British philosopher in such a plight.”

Russell was almost 70 at the time.

On Dec. 28, 1942, Russell received a thin envelope from Barnes. His contract, the letter informed him, would be terminated at the end of the year—three days later.

Russell sued for the remainder of the money he was guaranteed through 1945. He eventually collected $20,000, after the U.S. Supreme Courtrefused to hear Barnes’ appeal. Even better, his Barnes lectures—later published as A History of Western Philosophy—supported Russell for the rest of his long life.

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