Hoover and Paderewski

By Thomas F. Schwartz, PhD

Herbert Hoover during his years at Stanford.

A story often cited claims that when Hoover was a student at Stanford, he invited the famed Polish pianist, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, to perform at Stanford for a promised fee of $2,000.  Much to Hoover’s chagrin, the ticket sales fell short of the goal, realizing only $1,600.  After the performance, Hoover presented Paderewski with the $1,600 and a promissory note for the remaining $400.  Paderewski allegedly refused the payment, gave the money to Hoover and instructed him to deduct the funds needed to cover his costs, give himself ten percent of the proceeds, and Paderewski would be content with whatever remained.  Another version of the story has Paderewski taking the money and tearing up the promissory note, indicating to Hoover that they were even.  The story is often provided a coda with Paderewski as the newly named Polish premier traveling to Paris to thank Hoover for feeding Poland in time of great distress following World War I.  Some accounts have Hoover responding: “That’s all right, Mr. Paderewski, I knew the need was great.  Besides, you don’t remember it, but you helped me once, when I was a student at college and I was in a hole.”

What makes this story difficult to document is that both Hoover and Paderewski fail to corroborate it in their respective memoirs.  Hoover cryptically claims: ”When a college boy I had conducted with partners a sort of lecture bureau to relieve our deficient finances.  We scheduled Paderewski for an appearance, but it did not come off for some reason or other.”  Paderewski is also vague in his memoirs about the first meeting with Hoover.  Most Hoover biographers fail to mention the story, including the pre-eminent biographer George H. Nash begging the question: “Is it true?”

Paderewski had three concert tours in the United States in the 1890s.  Only the 1896 tour took him west of the Mississippi River.  Hoover graduated from Stanford in 1895 but he was working in San Francisco.  With Lou as a student at Stanford in 1896, it is possible he made visits to the campus to see her.  Newspaper accounts describe the concert taking place February 29, 1896 in San Jose to a packed house suggesting a financial success.  This would place the event not at Stanford but in a neighboring location a year after Hoover graduated.  It is possible he attended the concert or in some way met Paderewski during this time frame but that is speculation.

We have mixed messages from Hoover’s representatives about the incident.  When a Hoover supporter in September 1928 wrote to verify the story, George Akerson, Hoover’s assistant, replied: “The account of Mr. Hoover’s first meeting with Mr. Paderewski as outlined in your letter is substantially correct.”  This would lead one to believe that the $2,000 performance fee and the shortfall are accurate.  But a letter by Edith Harcourt, secretary to Mrs. Hoover, in February 1938 provides a different answer to a similar query. Harcourt, responding to Dr. Rheim wrote:

“Your letter to Mr. Hoover arrived after he had left Palo Alto for the East and Europe.  It was brought to the attention of Mrs. Hoover.

She said that while the main import of the story is more or less accurate, nearly all of the details are not.  She remembers very well the incident herself and has often heard it referred to, –and even reminiscently discussed with much amusement by M. Paderewski and Mr. Hoover.  She has given me an account of the incident once published by a friend, which she says is accurate in most details and I have corrected the following points of your manuscript….

There was no faculty or student body organization yet effected for bringing outside lectures or musicians to the campus and the college town as now, so he, with two or three of his friends, frequently arranged for such outside attractions and usually made a very tidy sum at each.

In the customary way they approached the advance agent of M. Paderewski when it was known that he was to be in San Francisco, and booked an engagement in the usual way for his coming to the campus on his tour some months later.   Unfortunately this article does not state, nor does Mrs. Hoover remember exactly, what the agent’s fee was for M. Paderewski’s appearance, but it certainly was very much less than $1,600, because the largest room in which such concerts could be held at that time seated only 400 people, not ‘a great auditorium,’ and the tickets certainly could not have been over $2.50, probably only $2.00.

But the crux of the whole matter with M. Paderewski was that they had made the engagement for him many months before his appearance and they had failed to note on the calendar that they had scheduled him for the middle of the Easter vacation!  When he arrived there were practically no students or faculty on the campus and the new college town was so small that only a few score of music lovers would turn out to such a concert.  Of course, when the students and faculty returned at the end of the vacation they did hear that ‘the great music thrilled’ the few who had been able to attend.

That evening, before the concert, the two or three young men asked to see M. Paderewski himself.  They explained their dilemma and had the cash they had received in hand to turn over to him, assuring him that they would forward him the balance within a few weeks if he would give them his forwarding address.  With much interest, he asked the details of their arrangements, then took out of the cash they held the small amount,–only a few dollars,–that it had cost him for the travelling expenses of himself, accompanist and one or two others of this party, from San Francisco to the Campus and back.  Then he took a hundred dollar bill, and smiling said something to the effect that he would take that for his ‘fee’ and they were to keep the remainder as recompense for all their hard work, and a reminder that henceforth they would always look at the college calendar before scheduling any event.

Also, it would seem, there are a number of details not quite correct regarding the meeting afterward.  Of course M. Paderewski had quite forgotten the names of the young men to whom he had been so generous.  And it was scarcely only ‘a shipload of wheat’ arriving unannounced in Poland that first acquainted him with America’s generosity to his people.  As soon as the enemy armies were driven out of that country, Mr. Hoover’s Commission undertook to take charge of the feeding of the almost starved Polish population, just as they had kept from starving the population of Belgium for four years.  And very, very many shiploads of food over many months were necessary for that, and the officials in Poland had taken part in making the plans.

Then, of course, it was natural that M. Paderewski and Mr. Hoover should meet again, and that after one of their early conferences Mr. Hoover should remind the other of their encounter of years before.  Their first meeting after the war may, of course, have been in Paris during the Armistice,–as many later ones were.  In any case, in that strenuous time, M. Paderewski would not have journeyed to Paris for the express purpose of thanking a man for a shipload of wheat which would have been but a handful to the millions hungry in Poland.”

It was Harcourt’s corrected version that appeared in some newspapers the following April, 1939 when Paderewski visited Hoover in his Palo Alto home.  But if this corrected version is true, why didn’t Hoover use it in the first volume of his memoirs appearing in 1951?  Hoover’s first lengthy description of the incident was not written until 1961-63, when he began work on the section on Poland for his “Magnum Opus.”  Never published in Hoover’s lifetime, George H. Nash painstakingly edited the various drafts and released it in 2011 as Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath.   In an extended footnote, Hoover recalls the performance fee of $1,500 but he and his friends had only $150 to offer Paderewski.  According to Hoover: “Paderewski laughed and proposed that we suspend the engagement until some future occasion when he was in the West.  One of our members suggested we might not be able to do that as we might then have dissolved, and again offered our $150.  Paderewski laughed again and said we would postpone that also.  I recalled this episode to him when as Prime Minister I met him at the Peace Conference.  He chuckled again.”

One wonders if this late recollection is an actual memory of an incident or accepting a widely published account repeated over many decades?  There seems to be enough doubt by both Hoover and Paderewski to lend credence to the story in their respective memoirs other than to acknowledge that their first meeting may have been in 1896.  What they later did with Polish food relief in the aftermath of World War I and beyond is the story worth remembering and repeating.

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