The state-of-the-art facility was the gift of the era’s most outsized characters, Diamond Jim Brady. It reflected not only his considerable fortune and generous spirit, but also the fact that his famous gluttony and high living had begun to get the best of him. The gift was in gratitude to the hospital for relieving the symptoms of his many eating-related ailments. Sadly, Brady was unable to rein in his appetite and died only three years later.
James Buchanan Brady was born on Cedar Street in lower Manhattan on August 12, 1856. His father was a saloonkeeper and he grew up in humble circumstances. Brady attended public schools but left at an early age to take a job as a bellhop.
Spotted by a railroad executive, he landed a job at the New York Central, working his way up from messenger, to baggage handler, to ticket agent. Bright and ambitious, Brady studied every aspect of the railroad business and waited for an opportunity. It came in the form of a job selling equipment for a railroad supply company. This was the golden age of railroad expansion with millions of dollars pouring into capital investment. Brady turned out to be a gifted and tireless salesman and by his early twenties he was raking in huge commissions.
Brady invested his money and his fortune multiplied beyond his wildest dreams. By the time he turned 25 in 1881, Jim Brady was a rich man. Like a lot of people who grew up poor and then suddenly acquire great wealth, Brady reveled in the show and spectacle of riches, wearing the finest suits and lots of gaudy jewelry.
He especially loved diamonds and wore them everywhere — tie-tacks, cufflinks, watches, and rings. On one occasion when he lost a $4,000 cufflink encrusted with diamonds, the story made all the papers.
“Them as has ’em,” he used to say, “wears ’em.”
The 1880s and 1890s were known as the Gilded Age and no one personified the glitz and conspicuous consumption of the era more than Diamond Jim. He became a celebrity, competing for space in gossip pages and society columns with the most famous bankers, socialites, athletes, and stage stars.
Brady loved the theater and always seemed to have opening night tickets for front row seats. When on the town after a show he always had a beautiful showgirl at his side. His favorite was Lillian Russell, the most famous actress of her day. He counted among his friends J. P. Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt, and Stanford White. His favorite expression when enjoying the nightlife was “ain’t it grand?”
Brady once said, “outside of diamonds, I have no vice,” but the truth was that his appetite for jewelry was only exceeded by his appetite for food — in gargantuan quantities.
His gastronomical exploits were legendary. At gala dinner parties or at New York’s most famous restaurants he would sit for hours, downing steaks, lobsters, ducks, and oysters — all downed with gallons of orange juice (he never drank alcohol or smoked).
It was said that he began such events seated with his stomach four inches from the table and stopped when they touched. One of Manhattan’s well-known restauranteurs once quipped that Brady was “the best twenty-five customers I ever had.”
But Diamond Jim’s high living eventually began to take its toll. By 1910, now in his fifties, he began to experience myriad health problems associated with overeating — diabetes, heart and kidney troubles, high blood pressure, and a swollen prostate. In April 1912 he was admitted to Johns Hopkins hospital where doctors put him on a restricted diet and used the latest techniques to shrink his prostate and improve the function of his kidneys.
In August, Brady held a grand dinner party at the Vanderbilt Hotel to celebrate his release from the hospital and the restoration of his health and appetite. The headwaiter told the New York Times that Brady “had done full justice to every course” of the meal put before him.
He capped the evening by announcing a gift of $200,000 to build the first urological institute in America. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would follow over the next few years.
“I am a bachelor,” he explained to the press, “and I was only too glad to do what I could with my money for the benefit of humanity.”
Brady’s full-tilt lifestyle brought him to an early death in 1917 at the age of 61. His will provided that nearly all of his estate, valued at more than $10 million, went to charities and institutions like Johns Hopkins and New York Hospital where a second urological institute was established in his name. Brady’s sister received $25,000, but his brother, for reasons never full explained, received only $700. Today the Brady Urological Institutes at Johns Hopkins and New York Hospital are considered the top facilities of their kind in the world.
Sources: H. Paul Jeffers, Diamond Jim Brady: Prince of the Gilded Age and the New York Times Historical. Learn more at www.edwardtodonnell.com/irish.htm
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