A passion for learning drives him to write…
BY MARCY SHORTUSE- When having a conversation with Eliot Vestner, one of the first things you notice is the quiet assertiveness in his voice and a gentle demeanor. Within minutes you realize this is a man who is much more comfortable talking about anything but himself. For the impressive career that he has had, he much prefers his post-retirement passion – writing – as a topic of conversation.
There are many things that Eliot is good at, but one he is most proud of is his ability to avidly research what he loves. It’s to our benefit that he does, because he has written not one, but two books that took an extensive amount of time and a startling knowledge of detail to complete.
Eliot was born in 1935 in Bronxville, N.Y. to Lt. Col. Eliot Vestner and his wife, Priscilla Fuller Vestner, amidst the trappings of the Great Depression and war. His father was career military, and his mother was a secretary and housewife. He was an only child, whose parents raised him well in a time of extreme economic uncertainty.
After spending more than decade in New York, the family moved to Heidelberg, Germany (where his father was stationed), and Eliot Jr. attended school there. After the family returned to the States he eventually went to Andover, Mass., and graduated from Amherst College. He continued his schooling by receiving his master’s degree in English from the University of Michigan, and it was there that he realized he might be better suited for something else.
“I became interested in the law while working on my Ph.D. in English,” he said. “For all the effort, it didn’t seem to be a whole lot of payout. So I decided to go to law school and do better.”
Eliot graduated from Columbia Law School and began working in the corporate finance and banking field. He started with a law firm, then went into the New York Banking Department and eventually became the banking commissioner – also known as the Superintendent of Banks – for the state of New York in 1974. He played a major part in the Financial Institutions Act of 1973 while working in that role.
Upon leaving the NYBD, Eliot was hired as general counsel for Irving Trust Company and later as counsel and senior executive for the Bank of Boston, where he remained until his retirement in 2000.
He seems to shrug that part of his life off, as it is his current role as a writer that makes him proud at the moment. As well he should be, too, after finishing one of the most edifying books ever published on a man who served as this country’s president but is little spoken of: William McKinley.
It is easy to understand the concept behind his first book, titled “Meet Me Under the Clock at Grand Central: A Family History and Memoir: Fullers and Vestners, Merceins, Dwights and Webbs,” Eliot knew that there was more to his family than the barest of information that he was given, so he started to delve into the diaries of his mother, Priscilla Alden Fuller, written over the years between 1911 and 1968. Though some of the information was lost, much remained. It was enough to get him started on his quest for genealogical knowledge. His family history was something he wanted to learn more about, but he was quite a ways through his research before he realized he had the makings of a book.
“I did not intend to write a genealogy book,” he said. “I just wanted the story, the background. The stories of the pilgrims and the Mayflower and their relationships with the Indians. I wanted to fill in the story, not just give the names of the people. I wanted to know how they did things, and what they did, and why.”
Eliot’s first book focused on his parents and their childhood, their marriage and survival in the trying times in which they lived. Readers have admitted to Eliot that while they had known about their own ancestors and the time periods they lived in, this book helped them understand the daily trials, tribulations and joys that people experienced in those times.
Writing and researching the book took 10 years, but as soon as he was done, Eliot was ready to start another. He realized he was tired of talking about himself and his family, and he wanted to focus on someone else. But who? He eventually chose this country’s 25th president.
Was it because Eliot’s great-uncle, William Redfield, served as Secretary of Commerce to President Woodrow Wilson? Was it because Eliot’s wife, Louisa, is a descendant of John Quincy Adams?
No, Eliot said, it was more about finding the underdog and shining the spotlight on him.
“I like to find someone who is underestimated and unfairly treated, and I thought McKinley was both of those things,” Eliot said. “This was a period in our history that even people who are history majors don’t pay attention to, the time between Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. McKinley was an underdog, not in terms of real life but in terms of history. In real life, when he was assassinated, he was at the top of his game. He had won two terms, he was a major, dominant figure in the world, and I particularly liked the way in which he did it.” And that is how “Ragtime in the White House” came into being.
Eliot went on to describe the kindly, generous, tolerant way in which McKinley conducted business. When he died in 1901, Eliot said, he was regarded as one of the greats. Of course, a lot of that was forgotten after Teddy Roosevelt came into the picture. While Eliot admits that Roosevelt had more flash and star quality, there’s more to the presidency than that.
“In terms of sheer ability to conduct the presidency, there was no question he was better than Teddy Roosevelt,” Eliot said.
Eliot said there were many things he didn’t know when he started the research on the book. He spent countless hours in libraries, sorting through personal papers, periodicals, newspapers and more. Because McKinley served as president during the Spanish-American war, one of his main sources of reference was Army historical records. “I looked through a lot of old, moldy volumes,” Eliot said.
The thing that amazed and inspired him the most, he admitted, was the loyalty that McKinley felt toward the black community, and how it played a huge part in his presidency. “He was a friend of the black community,” Eliot said. “He hired a lot of black men in the government, and he had many key principal black advisors. No other president reached out the way he did to the black community.”
When he finished the book, he said, it was a great relief. “I was hoping I would have a chance to finish it, but my cancer left me a very short time, and I wasn’t sure I could do it. I did it … I finished it up.”
With a second 10-year project under his belt, he will now be enjoying time with Louisa, his children and his grandchildren. They have four children – Alice-Lee, Charlie, Chip and Shaw. They live all across the country but are following in Eliot’s footsteps, as they are all successful in their own right.
Though Eliot retired in 2000, he had been coming to Boca Grande since the 1980s. A friend described the island to him, and he decided it would be his next vacation spot. “Our first real experience here, I think, was 1989,” he said. “That’s when we started to spend a lot of time here, and we have watched it evolve.”
After renting for a few years, the couple decided to buy a home. It was serendipitous, both Eliot and Louisa acknowledged, and they love their island home very much. In 2002 they became permanent residents.
Louisa has played a vital role in the creation of this book as well. She is now well versed in the life of McKinley and has her own favorite parts.
“It was not a book written for the academic community, but more for a general reader’s consumption,” she said. “Those who have read it have declared it a ‘great read.’ If you look on the cover, you’ll see that McKinley is standing on a porch … his front porch. People would come from miles around to hear him speak. His wife, Ida McKinley, brought ragtime to the White House (hence the name of the book).”
Eliot explained that Ida McKinley hosted a starchy diplomatic assembly one time, and she cleared the dance floor to bring out several scores of young people to dance to what some during that time called “dubious” music, now known as ragtime. There were several “firsts” during McKinley’s presidency, some that have not been repeated since.
“He was a commanding presence in the presidency, an extraordinary individual,” Eliot said. “We can look to him as a role model for the position. I have enjoyed writing this book, as I have enjoyed everything I have done in my life. These books were a labor of love.”