Excerpt from Pages 116-118

Published May 2, 2017

Singer recognized that physical threats would not permanently quiet Howe, and his combative nature as much as his shortage of money would not allow him to submit. There was only one other alternative. “It was absolutely necessary,” he later explained, “for us to have in the firm some person of recognized legal ability who could attend to. . . the suits with which we were threatened.” According to his later statement, this person was also to deal with “financial matters,” but since Singer’s freedom to manipulate the firm’s finances for his own ends had thus far been very convenient to him, it is unlikely that this was a consideration at the time. Because the firm still had no money, it could offer only the one-third partnership ominously vacated after short tenure by both Phelps and Ransom.

In May 1851, typically without mentioning the move to Zieber or anyone else, Singer brought Edward Clark into the firm to fill the position. At the time, the move appeared to give more obvious advantages to Singer than to Clark. Clark’s job was to destroy Howe’s patent claims in court, and as the junior partner in one of New York’s best law firms, he was eminently qualified to do just that, if it could be done. Beyond this, the choice of Clark was a gross miscalculation on Singer’s part. Later on, it was Clark, more than anyone else–including Singer–who was responsible for the success of I.M.Singer & Co. But the genius for business that Clark was soon to reveal was visible to nobody at the time he was taken in, least of all to Singer, who would not have welcomed such interests in his new partner. After jealously excluding Zieber, Phelps, and Ransom from important decisions–even from routine information about the firm’s affairs that would have allowed them to make such decisions–it is hardly likely that he would hire Clark with the intention of handing over executive control to him.

In 1851, the advantages to Clark were much less clear. By then he had reached the point in life where his professional, social, and financial success was assured. The firm of Jordan, Clark, & Co. at 103 Broadway was well regarded, and. Ambrose L. Jordan, his senior partner and father-in-law, had recently been made attorney general for New York State. Why would he leave this to work with Singer? The business of sewing machines was still a dubious undertaking, and a cursory examination showed the affairs of I.M. Singer & Co. to be chaotic. An obvious reason for the chaos was the unpleasant personality of Singer himself, whose crude manner gave credibility to ugly rumors about his personal life. Unlike Ransom, Clark would have known all about Singer’s dark side. He had done work for Singer before, perhaps for the sewing machine patent, for which he was given three-eighths interest in the carving machine.

Clark may have been attracted to the venture partly because his life was a little too secure. The Clarks of Cooperstown, New York, sent young Edward as a matter of course to private schools and Williams College, and he was comfortably conveyed to his position at Jordan & Clark’s by forces that scarcely required his active assistance. But the real motivation was something more tangible. The extraordinary prescience he later showed in business matters suggests that even at this early date he saw the lucrative potential of the sewing machine market, and he was undoubtedly motivated by the chance to become fabulously rich. Never mind that his law practice had already made him rich by the ordinary standard; this was not enough, as the single-minded passion for money that dominated his later life clearly showed. However vast his personal fortune became, he was always on the watch for opportunities to make it still larger. For such rewards he was ready to endure some unpleasantness, notably a partnership with a man whose manner, morals, and background he found extremely disagreeable. For Clark, however, money was the universal balm which soothed all discomforts.

Singer characteristically chose partners that he could successfully bully–the gentle Phelps, the obsequious Zieber, the mild and dignified Ransom. On the surface Clark seemed like just such another. Dry and pallid in appearance, correct and somewhat prim in manner, with neatly brushed limp hair and small spectacles that gave him a schoolmasterish air, he looked like a man who would quietly retire once Singer decided his usefulness was past. Clark’s sheltered life and obvious uneasiness with Singer’s foul language and rough manner further supported this view. He had even been a Sunday school teacher. Singer was not a sensitive judge of people, but others also seem to have seen Clark as rather colorless. A favorable interpretation of this quality was given by a younger associate who later became head of the firm: “Mr. Clark was of a very modest and retiring disposition, and never permitted himself to be brought prominently before the public.”

Singer may have attempted to terrify Clark into submission the way he had done with his other partners. Probably he did, since he did with everyone. This time, however, the result was unexpected. When the brash inventor and the dry lawyer emerged from their first private interviews it was Singer, not Clark, who appeared pale and submissive. The ferocity that lurked under Clark’s passionless exterior can be measured only by its effects–but its effects were extraordinary. Nothing visible to an outsider could explain why the violent and lawless Singer became meek and obedient in Clark’s presence, but it was so. Never was there any open sign of struggle, but it gradually became clear that the affairs of I.M. Singer & Co. would henceforth be mainly under the direction of Clark, not Singer. This change in management, however beneficial it was to the company, was certainly not voluntary on Singer’s part. No recognition of Clark’s business acumen inspired Singer to yield power to him. And certainly it was not prompted by a warm personal relationship. “The one as heartily hated his partner as the other, in his turn, despised his fellow,” explained Zieber.