Gertrude Hickman, the wife of William Boyce Thompson, was so upset with the way her husband was portrayed in his official biography that she told relatives she wanted to buy up all the remaining copies. Ironically, the family paid Yale Poet Hermann Hagedorn to write the biography.
The buy-back plan, not unlike one William Boyce Thompson might have used to prop up the stock price of an acquired company, never came to fruition, as far as this blogger can tell. Hagedorn’s The Magnate remains widely circulated today, 85 years after the Colonel’s death. The Boyce Thompson Arboretum now owns the copyright to the book, which it sells in its Superior, Arizona gift store.
Hagedorn didn’t pull many punches when depicting the Colonel. He portrayed the financier as an “insatiable gambler” who wasn’t particularly bright in school. His parents were “dubious” of his intelligence, particularly because it took him so long to develop as an independent business person, depending on stipends from his father until he was 40.
Gertrude also may have objected to passages that make it clear she wasn’t Thompson’s first choice for a wife. The book relates that as a young man man Thompson was first engaged to the daughter of a steam boat captain named Bixby. The couple took a voyage down the Mississippi on Bixby’s boat. When he returned, the marriage was off. We’ll probably never know why.
Gertrude may have had a bone to pick with the author’s blunt depiction of the Colonel’s corpulence. Noting that the Colonel pushed 300 pounds at one time, Thompson’s voracious appetite once led him to consume two welsh rarebits before taking an overnight train from New York to Boston.
On the other hand, Hickman probably wasn’t upset that Hagedorn left some other details out of the book. The biographer, who left behind his notes at the Library of Congress, discovered that the couple had a son who died before he was one — in addition to their daughter, the famed Margaret Biddle. There’s also evidence in the file — courtesy of Thompson’s personal secretary — that Thompson loved to party. One night in Miami, when his wife wouldn’t go out to a cabaret, he went anyway and stayed out well past midnight. It’s not clear whether this was an isolated incident.
Gertrude probably didn’t mind that the biography makes it sound as though the cause of the Colonel’s demise was pneumonia, which came on after he was weakened by a stroke that occurred while he was laying out the grounds for Picket Post, his home in Superior, Arizona. But family members say the real cause of death were complications brought on by fat-reduction surgery. In either case, Thompson was an invalid for the last four years of his life.
So who was this matronly figure who wanted so dearly to protect her husband’s reputation? Gertrude was born in Virginia City, Montana in 1877, within blocks of the house where her husband-to-be lived. Her Father, Richard Owen Hickman owned a clothing store there and served as State Treasurer.
Gertrude and William Boyce married in 1895. He was eight years her senior.
Gertrude outlasted her husband by 20 years. Upon her husband’s death in 1930, she was named director of Newmont Mining Corporation and chair of the board of the Magma Arizona Railroad. She established the Mrs. William Boyce Thompson Foundation.