Book Review: The Business Novels of Cameron Hawley

I saw a reference to an author named Cameron Hawley, who wrote novels centered on business during the 1950s thru 1960s…sounded interesting, so I read one of them and went on to read two more. Here they are, in the order that I read them.

The Lincoln Lords. Mr Lincoln Lord has been a successful executive at several companies, but he seems to make a practice of changing jobs when the going gets tough.  He has amazing social skills and is viewed as a first-class speechmaker…however, he has often relied on his friend (sometimes his employee), Brick, to write those speeches.  Lincoln’s son has a closer relationship with Brick than with his dad…and Linc’s wife, Maggie, has begun to wonder if her husband’s skills are limited to being a good front man.  Brick has long had a thing for Maggie, and she has sometimes found herself very attracted to him.

When Linc loses his job just shy of age 50, the couple has to move out of their suite in Manhattan’s Waldorf Tower and are having difficulty paying their son’s private school tuition.  The executive recruiter that Linc is working with is not very positive about his chances, given his age and his record of job-switching. But Linc does receive a lifeline in the form of an offer to run a small canning business–‘a little Jewish cannery’, as some refer to it. He takes the offer, and the book portrays the problems of a big-company man running a not-so-big company.  The cannery, Coastal, is beset by many problems, the most serious of which is that their largest customer, Gellman Stores–which represented over half of their business–has dropped them as a customer.  Linc reflects that he has always been very effective at analyzing the alternatives presented to him and choosing the best one, but now things are different–he doesn’t just need to analyze the alternatives and select from among them, rather, he needs to develop these possibilities himself.  Can he succeed without the resources, name, and momentum of a large company behind him?

Here’s a recent review in a pwc publication.

Cash McCall.  The title character is a mysterious individual who has rented an entire floor of a prominent Philadelphia hotel (which he may or may not own) and flies himself around in a WWII B-26 which he has converted into an executive transport.  He describes himself as  ‘a dealer in secondhand companies’…he acquires them, fixes them, and then sells them.

Grant Austen has spent three decades building his modestly-successful plastics company. But, like the Coastal cannery in the first book discussed, he has allowed his business to become overly-dependent on a single customer–and that customer is demanding that he invest in a very expensive specialized press, with no guarantees at all about the volume they will purchase.  This problem, combined with his other frustrations (many of which have to do with the tax code and government controls), leads him toward a decision to sell his company.

Grant’s daughter, Lory, is an artist, specifically, an illustrator of children’s books. She had previously met Cash while on vacation, without knowing anything about who he was, and the two were very attracted to one another. The budding romance broke off in some confusion, partly because Cash felt he was too old for her and partly because Lori was afraid of the intensity of her own sexual desire–but the mutual attraction remains.  She is surprised and conflicted when she meets Cash again in the role of potential acquirer of her father’s company–in which she owns a 10% share.

In addition to being a significant shareholder, Lori often serves as her father’s confidant in discussing business issues. Which makes her mother unhappy, because she sees it as one more thing demonstrating the absence of closeness in her relationship with her husband.

Another complexity involves Andscott, the company which is Grant Austen’s company’s main customer (they’re buying cabinets for the television sets they manufacture).  Andscott is being run by a former USAF general; he was an excellent wartime leader but not so impressive as a civilian executive. The success or failure of Andscott is even more important than the success or failure of a typical company, because a very large block of stock is owned by a medical research foundation which is supporting vital research–and is entirely dependent on its Andscott dividends.

The book was made into a 1960 movie with James Garner as Cash McCall, Natalie Wood as Lory Austen, and Dean Jagger as her father Grant. I thought both the book and the movie were very good: the movie has a lighter tone than does the book and is almost–not quite–a comedy.


Executive Suite.  The Tredway Corporation, a furniture manufacturer that has been run by Avery Bullard for decades, urgently needs a new CEO.  There are five candidates: comptroller Loren Shaw, treasurer Frederick Alderson, design and development director Don Walling, manufacturing chief Jesse Grimm, and head of sales Walter Dudley. There is also at least one external candidate.  A key shareholder is Julia Tredway, daughter of former company leader Orrin Tredway (son of the company founder) who committed suicide as the company faced financial disaster. Avery Bullard then took over, saving the company and building it to a substantial player in the furniture industry. Bullard also had an affair with Julia Tredway–which ended because of Bullard’s total commitment of his time to the business and Julia’s serious mental problems. She now has bad feelings about the company and finds it painful to even think about Tredway, but her support will be essential for the winning candidate.

One nice piece of writing in this book is the passage excerpted below, representing Don Walling’s thoughts while wondering if he could lead the company successfully–and if he will get the opportunity to do so. He sees not only the map of company facilities on the wall and the buildings out the window, but with his mind’s eye he sees the equipment in the factories, the workers running that equipment, and “a salesman stopping a Tredway automobile to drink a Coke at a filling station beside an Arkansas road…an old woman dusting furniture in the air-conditioned Chicago display room…a sweating man scaling lumber at the edge of a steaming Honduras jungle”…and his vision encompasses all of those families which are dependent on Tredway.  The passage reminds me of something in Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, reflecting Willie Keith’s thoughts when, after the court-martial and the end of the war, he becomes the last captain of the Caine:

Even at anchor, on an idle, forgotten old ship, Willie experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship. He was less free than before. He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened on in his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before. He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined. The reward for these disturbing sensations came when he walked the decks. Power seemed to flow out of the plates into his body.

But Don Walling, despite his over-arching vision of the business–which seems broader than that of any of the other candidates–is not the Captain of Tredway, at least not yet.  Will he get the job?

A detailed review, which does contain some spoilers, can be found here.

The book was the basis for a 1954 movie, with actors including William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederick March, and Shelley Winters.

Hawley’s books portray a far more positive view of American business than was common in novels of the time, or indeed at almost any time in the 20th century. He himself had considerable business experience, with 24 years as an executive at Armstrong Cork in Pennsylvania.

The books and movies are all highly recommended.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Business Novels of Cameron Hawley”

  1. (Somehow my comment disappeared. Let’s see if I can recover it from memory.)

    If one could become rich persuading people to buy books one book at a time, you, sir, would be wealthy. I have decided to buy the book (although who knows who gets the money these days).

    As with your other book reviews, well done.

    TCM has of late being showing “Executive Suite,” though I don’t think it is currently on their schedule.

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