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'My grandfather killed himself in the '29 crash'

View of Wall St from 1929
The crash did not spark a wave of suicides
The Wall St Crash of 1929 is popularly remembered for stories of bankrupt investors throwing themselves to their deaths. The grandfather of criminologist and film-maker Roger Graef was one of them.

Here he describes the tragic event's effects on his father and himself, as well as the lessons he feels can be drawn from the crashes current and past.

I know that 1929 was very chaotic. My grandfather was in insurance. He had investments that all went south and he committed suicide by jumping off a roof.

It's extraordinary how silent my family has been on that matter. I thought how is it possible I have been so incurious about something as important as that in my family history. I am rather ashamed of that now.

My grandfather was not a captain of industry. He was selling insurance, he was I suppose more like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman if anything. He was a sad man who was trying to make his way, support his family, had invested in Wall Street with the hope and belief that that was going to do what he wanted to do which was create a safe and better future for his children.

Roger Graef
My grandfather was apparently a gentle, warm, nice, man - my father regarded gentleness as weakness

That is an absolute common man's objective, not a "masters of the universe" objective and the people who like him who would jump off the roof now are people running businesses on credit that has just dried up. It won't be any of those bankers. Don't hold your breath, that's not going to happen.

My father always regarded his father in a way that was so contemptuous of him. My father was a young doctor making his way. My family had had bumpy experiences - some were rich and did very well, others were not and my father was one who wasn't from the rich side of the family and therefore becoming a doctor was a brave journey into proper middle-class establishment.

So suddenly when his father committed suicide he was left having to look after his mother and his brother and sister were not doing well enough to share the burden. That was part of what he resented about the suicide.

Coldness legacy

My grandfather was apparently a gentle warm nice man. My father regarded gentleness as weakness. That he made very clear when I was trying to get closer to him.

THE SUICIDE MYTH
View of Wall St from 1929
A 1980s study suggested stories of widespread suicides of bankers in 1929 was myth
Suicides in New York in month following crash lower than normal
Only eight people jumped off buildings in the city between the crash and the end of 1929
Just two were on Wall Street

There is a legacy from this suicide, because of my father's coldness about a certain kind of intimacy and because the suicide created an anxiety about money.

My father was always on the lookout for bargains which slightly was passed down to me.

My father, as it were, mediating my grandfather's suicide has allowed me to see his character traits as things that I've tried very hard to avoid. He was a very successful doctor, highly respected, but he had a very bad temper.

I had a feeling that the temper was about his situation. It wasn't just about whatever was going on. I felt that he was ultimately angry because his father had left him holding not the baby, but his mother.

That was a root of the real dissatisfaction that permeated his attitude to life and fortunately with a lot of work I've got rid of that notion that somehow you have the right to be angry because I have nothing to be angry about. I'm very lucky and I feel that now. I know that the failures were part of that.

Line of unemployed men
The crash caused serious privation for millions

My own view about life and opportunities was that we take our chances. For example, failure is not a disaster. I've learned more from failure really than from success.

I hope that something in this current crash, something good that could come out of it is that people who have had telephone number salaries just for the sake of proving how virile they are have actually been forced, maybe, by failure to rethink not only their situation and what they do with their lives and how it affects other people, which would be very nice to hear from them, but also what the money's for.

And, perhaps, it is possible to realise that having all that money becomes meaningless.

When every man jumps out of a window there is no satisfaction at all. All you can say is poor bastard he actually believed the myth that it was all going to be alright and someone else was going to protect him. And didn't.

A version of this interview was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House.


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