Diamond Jim Brady

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James Buchanan ("Diamond Jim") Brady (August 12, 1856–April 13, 1917), was an American salesman of railroad equipment who became wealthy during the Golden Age of railroad expansion at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century but who is remembered today only as America's (and perhaps history's) greatest trencherman. His legendary appetite and reputed feats of gargantuan eating were widely celebrated during his lifetime and, as the years have passed, have only grown in the telling. Never married, although he was known for consorting with another famous personage of the Gilded Age, the singer Lillian Russell, a voluptuous beauty nearly as large as Brady himself, he endowed various institutions with millions of dollars, including Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute still bears his name.

American tall tales

Americans of the 19th century, particularly those in the frontier areas, had a reputation for, and enjoyment of, notable exaggeration in both their humor and their descriptions. It may be that this affection for the tall tale, such as those about Paul Bunyon, Davy Crockett, and Mike Fink, also lent a certain tolerance to the purported accounts of the quantities of food that Diamond Jim was reputed to consume on a daily basis. Certainly no one, until at least 2009, has ever tried to seriously examine Diamond Jim's supposed daily consumption of calories.

His daily diet?

In 1964, for example, in the first volume of the well-known American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating & Drinking, the notable television critic, social commentator, and animal rights' activist Cleveland Amory contributed a chapter about Diamond Jim in which, over several paragraphs, he outlined a typical day's menu for Brady: [1]

  • A gallon of orange juice for breakfast, then "hominy, eggs, corn bread, muffins, flapjacks, chops, fried potatoes, and a beefsteak."
  • At midmorning, according to Amory, would be a snack of "two or perhaps three dozen oysters."
  • Lunch would follow: "More oysters and clams, then two or three deviled crabs, next a brace of broiled lobsters, followed by a joint of beef, a salad, and several kinds of pie"
  • An afternoon snack for the life-long teetotaller would be a heaping seafood platter and several bottles of lemon soda.
  • Dinner, according to the restaurateur George Rector, who said that "Diamond Jim was the twenty-five best customers we ever had," might consist of two or three dozen Lynnhaven oysters, each of them at least six inches long, then half a dozen crabs, two portions of green turtle soup, six or seven "giant" lobsters, followed by two portions of terrapin, two entire canvasback ducks, and, for the main course, a steak and vegetables. Dessert would be an entire platter of cakes and pastries, followed by a two-pound box of candy. All of this was generally washed down, as were most of his meals, with large beakers of orange juice. [2]
  • Finally, after an evening at the theatre, which Brady adored, would be a supper of several birds and several bottles, possibly of root beer. [3]

A dissenting view

Most of the accounts of Brady's enormous meals, however, appear derived from one or two sources and have been repeated over and over during the course of nearly a century now with no attempt to verify the accuracy of the earliest statements. One footnote and one reference after another have now lent a spurious air of authenticity to these accounts. One little-known assessment of Brady's eating habits, however, is from a person who was almost certainly in a position to have frequently served Brady in a professional capacity, the maître d'hôtel of the Waldorf-Astoria, Oscar Tschirky, the legendary "Oscar of the Waldorf". "If he was a great eater," said Tschirky, "he must have done his stuffing elsewhere."[4] Before moving on to the Waldorf, Tschirky had often served Brady at Delmonico's, the most celebrated American restaurant of the 19th century.

"Every time I waited on him, his order was pretty much the same.... He would start off with a dozen raw oysters. Then he would usually have a filet mignon with one green vegetable. For dessert there would be a slice of apple pie or a portion of watermelon if it were in season. His only beverage was orange juice.... That was what he ordered the first night I served him at Delmonico's." [5]

Size

In spite of the almost unbelievable amounts of food that he was reputed to consume on a daily basis, photographs of the Gilded Age glutton (or gourmand) do not show a man of unusual obesity but rather a stocky, very robust, affable-looking gentleman of broad Irish features, of no great height and, apparently, of no greater girth than that of a typical National Football League lineman, many of whom are little more than six feet tall but weigh well in excess of 300 pounds. The restaurateur George Rector, at whose restaurant named after himself Brady consumed some of his largest meals, however, wrote in his memoirs that "Diamond Jim's stomach started at his neck and swelled out in majestic proportions, gaining power and curve as it proceeded southward."

Historical context

Throughout the 19th century and for the opening decades of the 20th, Americans of wealth generally had far more corpulent bodies than their descendants of the early 21st century. People of wealthy, it was assumed, had no need to indulge in physical labor, and they also could purchase all the food they wanted to consume. It was working-class Americans, indulging in long, back-breaking labor and making do often with impoverished diets, who were slim, or even skinny. It was, therefore, during all of Brady's lifetime, not only socially acceptable to be of his size, but even admirable.

Health

Whatever Brady's actual size, and some accounts have given his weigh as being as much as 400 pounds, by 1912, when the celebrated trencherman was 56 years old, he suffered from both a prostrate inflammation and an assortment of ailments either brought or exacerbated by his unstinting gluttony: diabetes, cardiac disease, high blood pressure. Dr. Hugh Hampton Young, the chief of urology at Johns Hopkins University and Hospital devised a method of treating his inflammation, for which Brady was so grateful that he quickly bestowed $220,000 to found the urological institute that bears his name.[6]

Biography

Born in modest circumstances in New York City, Brady was the son of a saloon and free-lunch-counter operator, and, most likely, named after the Democratic presidential candidate of that year, James Buchanan. [7] He first worked as a hotel bellboy, then for a few years as a young man for the New York Central Railroad, and finally became the star salesman for the railroad supply company that made him rich, Manning, Maxwell & Moore. According to Time magazine, writing 21 years after his death, Charles A. Moore "sent Diamond Jim out on the road with instructions to spend all the money necessary to make customers like him. Diamond Jim stuck to this tenet through the panic of the middle nineties with such success that spending money to make money has been the Manning, Maxwell & Moore system to lick depressions ever since." [8]

Footnotes

  1. The American Heritage Cookbook and Illustrated History of American Eating and Drinking, Volume I, "Diamond Jim Brady", by Cleveland Amory, page 338, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1964
  2. Ibid., pages 338-339
  3. Ibid., pages 339
  4. Oscar of the Waldorf, Karl Schriftgiesser, E.P. Dutton, New York, 1945, pages 37-38
  5. Delmonico's: A Century of Splendor, Lately Thomas, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1967, page 233
  6. All information here from a New York Times, "Dining" section article, Wednesday, December 31, 2008, "Whether True Or False, A Real Stretch", by David Kamp, at [1]
  7. Buchanan was elected president three months after Brady's birth and is universally considered by historians to be one of the two or three worst presidents in American history.
  8. Time magazine, January 24, 1938