BELGIUM: Money, madness and matricide.

BELGIUM: Money, madness and matricide. - The saga of the Baekeland family had all the elements of a classic rags-to-riches fairy tale. It was, however, to be a success story with a bitter sting in the tail.

by Rhymer Rigby.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The saga of the Baekeland family had all the elements of a classic rags-to-riches fairy tale. It was, however, to be a success story with a bitter sting in the tail.

Like so many of the super-rich, the Baekelands had trouble with their offspring. The grandchildren were fine, but the greatgrandchildren were real trouble. Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the great paterfamilias, was born in Ghent in Flemish Belgium in 1863 to poor parents. He spent some time as an apprentice in a shoe shop with his illiterate father, but his mother fostered the young Leo's formidable intellect. Her efforts paid off - he entered the University of Ghent as its youngest student, graduating at 19 with pretty much every honour they could give him. Having excelled academically, he became assistant professor of chemistry.

Belgium couldn't hold Baekeland's interest for long and, after marrying Celine Swarts, he emigrated to America in 1889. With his chemical background, he found employment working for a photographic supplier and - after several years of obscurity and financial (and marital) strife - he set up a consultancy.

It was here that he came up with his first great invention, a fast, superior photographic paper called Velox. So impressed was George Eastman of Eastman Kodak that in 1897 he bought Baekeland's company for the then astounding $1 million.

Thus, aged 35, Baekeland could have cheerfully retired and wanted for nothing. But it was not in his nature. Instead, he converted the stables in his back garden into a lab and got busy experimenting with a witches' brew of promising chemicals. The outcome of his experiments was the plastics age. Up to this point, 'plastic' had only really existed in the form of cellulose nitrate (cotton treated with nitric acid) which, as many snooker players discovered to their cost, had a tendency to explode when struck violently. Baekeland produced, through careful experimentation, an inert solid - oxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydryde - which was much easier to manufacture than it was to say. Fortunately, he decided that 'Bakelite' was a rather catchier name.

Having identified 43 industries where his invention might be useful, Baekeland formed the General Bakelite Corporation to exploit his invention.

As millions of art deco radios, cigarette cases and assorted knick-knacks will testify, Baekeland's material was rather more useful than he could possibly have known. Naturally, Baekeland, though no materialist or social climber, became fabulously rich and was feted by New York society. The obligatory Time cover photo-shoot followed and, even through the Great Depression Baekeland prospered, and indeed, was able to help those less fortunate than himself to survive.

But he had already sown the seeds of his business' destruction in the form of his son, George, who was now working for the company. George Baekeland had little time for family succession in the business and was, to put it mildly, neither particularly interested in - or good at - business.

By the end of the 1930s, Leo's once great mind had fallen prey to senile dementia and, with his father more or less incapable of rational thought, George - in a fit of self-centred short-termism - sold the company lock, stock, and barrel to the Union Carbide Company. That, in effect, was the end of the firm, but only the beginning of a tragic story for the Baekeland family.

George, with his newly acquired fortune, took up the life of a country squire, hob-nobbing with minor aristos and generally frittering his fortune away. His wife meanwhile, had borne him a son, Brooks, later described as 'an intellectual Errol Flynn' and far closer in character to Leo than George. Upon George's death in 1966, Brooks discovered that his father had (albeit indirectly) disinherited him - leaving his entire fortune to his wife (an unusual move for the time, particularly given the sums involved, and Leo's stated wish that riches should always be left in trust and never to women directly).

Nonetheless, Brooks was well connected and his grandparents' largesse ensured that he had enough to enjoy a foppish playboy lifestyle. This, combined with his dashing good looks, ensured that when Brooks married, he married well, walking up the aisle with the beautiful society hostess Barbara Daly. They had a son, Anthony, who, initially at least, showed every sign of becoming as attractive and intelligent as his parents. Anthony's family values were not exactly helped when Brooks, separated from Barbara (who was said to be 'in tragic decline'), was apparently living with Anthony's girlfriend in France.

It is with Anthony that the story of the Baekelands ends. His early promise waned and he began receiving psychiatric care. In 1972, Anthony stabbed his mother to death in her London flat and was committed to Broadmoor.

As for Bakelite itself, it was gradually edged out by other plastics towards the end of the '60s, though it is still used for certain specialist applications today.

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