taught him to “learn the rules before you break them,” but also
told him that “nothing but fools and taxes are absolute.”
It’s very likely that George Ives first introduced his son to
musical dissonance. When Ives was 10, his father had him sing
Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” (familiarly known as
“Swanee River”) in E flat while he accompanied him in C major,
“to stretch our ears…be less dependent on customs and habits.”
In his role as the town bandleader, George Ives is reported to
have once marched two bands around a Danbury park in opposite directions playing in different keys. But there are competing
versions of this legendary moment. In one, Charles Ives heard
two bands at a Yale football game playing different marches and
described it as “frightful dissonance; delightful.” Another source
says it was at a baseball rally.
During his time at Yale, Charles Ives composed songs for
shows put on by his fraternity (Delta Kappa Epsilon), played
the organ at Center Church, was on the football team, and generally seems to have had a good time—as is reflected in his grades.
In all his courses except music—where he averaged a B—Ives
averaged a D+.
The young Ives composed his “First Symphony” in 1896
or 1897 while still at Yale. Ives was in constant conflict with
his composition professor, Horatio Parker, who wanted him
to adhere to traditional forms and at one point, according to
Schonberg, asked in exasperation, “Ives, must you hog all the
keys?” It was Parker who held Ives’ degree hostage until he
changed the symphony’s last movement.
Shortly after graduating from Yale in 1898, Ives joined the
Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York, where two of his cousins were officers. His salary is variously reported as being $5
or $15 a week. At any rate, it was enough to cover his share of
the rent for “Poverty Flat,” an apartment on 58th Street that he
shared with half a dozen Yale classmates, and to help pay for
the piano they had there. Ives started in the actuarial department at Mutual Life Insurance Co., but in 1899 moved to the
Charles H. Raymond agency of Washington Life. There he met
Julian Myrick, who would be his career partner for the rest of
his business life. In 1906, the Raymond agency dissolved and a
new agency, Ives and Myrick, was formed and became affiliated
with Mutual Life.
In 1908, Ives married the sister of a Yale classmate—a young
woman with the appropriate name of Harmony who became
a steadying hand in his life, particularly as he aged. He and
Harmony had no children of their own but adopted Edith,
the handicapped child of an impoverished tenant farmer near
Danbury. Ives and his wife helped support their daughter’s biological parents for the rest of their lives.
A Shy and Retiring Man
In some ways, Ives and Myrick could have been the original
“odd couple”: According to Ives’ first private secretary, Kathryn
Kerplanck, “Myrick was always looking like the most distin-
guished man in 18 counties. Ives didn’t give a hoot about such
Charles Buesing, an agent in the Ives and Myrick agency,
offered confirming information: “Mr. Ives was a very shy and
retiring man. His office was on the courtyard, way around the
corner, completely out of sight from everyone. Mr. Myrick, on
the other hand, was in a glass-enclosed office where he could
see and be seen by everyone, including those who stepped off
Access to Ives’ office was from a private elevator and through
an oaken door. The door to the outer offices was of smoked glass
so that he could not be seen by anyone who was not in his office.
Ives’ secretary said that even during the working day, music
was always on Ives’ mind. “He would be dictating a letter, stop,
jump up, and go write some music.” She felt he was “loved by
everybody and kind of feared too, because he was so superior to
everybody and because he was a very independent person. He
had his own opinion, and that was it.”
The duties of the insurance agency were split so that Myrick
handled the financial end and dealt with the home office, while
Ives dealt with the agents. In that capacity, he created formulas
for measuring a man’s economic value to his family and fitting
that value to a policy he could afford, introduced the concept of
estate planning, and developed specific insurance plans for chil-
dren and for the workingman. Ives also held teaching sessions
with his agents, recruited part-time agents in the actuarial depart-
ment at Mutual Life, and hired a brokerage supervisor, George
Hoffman, who added 306 broker agents to the 60 full-time agents.
These efforts all contributed to a profitable enterprise. In
1929, Ives’ last year at the agency, it wrote $48 million of face
amount, making it the largest agency in the country. Ives, however, was conservative in his own compensation. Ives told his
nephew Chester, “$100,000 is enough for any man to earn. Beyond that give it to some cause you believe in” ($100,000 in 1940
dollars translates to $1.7 million in today’s dollars). Ives didn’t
take tax deductions for his charity contributions until he acquired an accountant for a son-in-law who was able to point
out that with the deductions he would have more money to give
away to charity.
As a boss, Ives was notoriously generous. When his secretary’s
mother became ill, Ives wanted to pay her expenses. And in an
oral history account about the composer, Buesing spoke of an incident with an agent who hadn’t made a sale in several months
following the 1929 stock market crash. Explaining that in the early
days of the Depression, if you didn’t sell, you didn’t eat, Buesing
recounted that Ives walked up to the man’s desk and asked him
to open his wallet. Upon discovering that the wallet was empty,
Ives remarked, “I thought so. No one can ever make a sale of anything with an empty wallet.” He then put $50 in the man’s wallet.
“That’s the kind of man he was,” explained Buesing.