Speculator, financier, presidential adviser. Baruch was born in Camden on August 19, 1870, the second son of Dr. Simon Baruch and Isabella Wolfe. Both his parents were Jews, and Baruch’s father had immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1855. The Civil War and Reconstruction left Baruch sensitive both to the physical destruction and political chaos of warfare and to the limited opportunities of the New South. The state loomed large in Baruch’s identity, however, shaping his politics and outlook and leading him to comment in later years that he was a South Carolinian “at heart.”
Seeking greater research opportunities for himself and a better education system for his sons, Simon Baruch relocated his family in 1881 to New York City. There, in autumn 1884, Bernard Baruch entered City College, where he excelled in languages and political economy. Although he entertained the notion of enrolling at West Point, a childhood injury had left him deaf in his left ear and ultimately ruled out a military career. Baruch graduated fifteenth in his class at City College in June 1889.
Baruch began an illustrious career on Wall Street in 1891 as a clerk for the broker Arthur Housman. An astute observer of the market, Baruch made a name for himself with his encyclopedic knowledge of a vast array of topics from railway routes to business law. By 1895 he had become a junior partner with A. A. Housman and Company. After shrewd trading in sugar stocks during the spring and summer of 1897, Baruch had made enough money to purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and to marry Annie Griffen on October 20, 1897. The marriage produced three children by 1905. Business was fruitful too. Establishing his own brokerage in 1903, Baruch possessed a trading acumen that earned him a fortune, a reputation for risky but successful speculating, and a nickname: “The Lone Wolf of Wall Street.” In 1905 he purchased Hobcaw Barony, a 17,000-acre plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. In the ensuing years, Hobcaw would play host to prominent political, business, and literary figures, including Winston Churchill, George C. Marshall, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Baruch entered public life in 1916. His interest in preparing America for entry into World War I led President Woodrow Wilson to appoint Baruch to the Business Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense. Other appointments followed before Baruch joined the War Industries Board (WIB) at its formation on August 1, 1917. A close adviser to Wilson on mobilization, Baruch urged greater centralization, gradually accepting that a successful war effort might demand federal intervention in private industry. When mobilization faltered during the winter of 1917–1918, Baruch’s advice was heeded. After bureaucratic reorganization, the WIB became the focus of mobilization, with Wilson appointing Baruch its chairman in March 1918.
After World War I, Baruch resigned his position but remained an influential figure in the national Democratic Party. In December 1918 Baruch joined Wilson’s peace delegation in Paris as an economic adviser, stridently supporting Wilsonian principled internationalism at home and abroad. With the decline of Wilson as the head of the Democratic Party, Baruch’s star also faded. Riven with infighting during the 1920s, the party required Baruch’s money more than his wisdom, although the stockbroker occasionally acted as power broker for favored political hopefuls.
Nevertheless, Baruch became an elder statesman of the party. Although he had advised Republican presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, Democrats still knew the value of his support. Franklin Roosevelt relied on him for advice on policy during the Depression—despite Baruch’s occasional criticism of the New Deal—and turned to him to help guide both economic mobilization and demobilization for World War II. Baruch hoped to participate in framing the postwar international order. Although President Harry Truman appointed Baruch in 1946 to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, the new president had few attachments to the Wall Street financier, and a rift soon developed between the two men. Baruch spent the 1950s crusading against the inflationary economy, and concerns about the growth of government led him to support Republican candidate Dwight Eisenhower in the 1952 presidential election. During the 1950s and 1960s he remained an American icon but grew increasingly detached from politics.
Reflecting in 1960 on changes he had witnessed in policy making, this Wilsonian reared in the southern tradition of limited government and the Wall Street tradition of laissez-faire could observe: “Today, the old kind of ‘do-nothing government’ is dead. Government intervention has been made necessary by the growing complexity of society.” Baruch died on June 20, 1965, in New York City.
Baruch, Bernard M. Baruch: My Own Story. New York: Henry Holt, 1957. ———. Baruch: The Public Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston,
1960. Grant, James. Bernard M. Baruch: The Adventures of a Wall Street Legend. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 1983. Schwarz, Jordan A. The Speculator: Bernard M. Baruch in Washington,
1917–1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.