Michael D’Antonio on The Great Lipton
If he hadn’t been so successful, so rich, and so damn charming, Thomas Lipton would have been truly annoying. No one had a better knack for popping up in the middle of big events and getting his name and picture in the press. The Queen’s Jubilee? Lipton puts on a banquet for 40,000 and earns a knighthood. Admiral Dewey’s return from Manila? There’s Lipton at his side for the daylong parade in New York. War breaks out in the Balkans, and yes, it’s Lipton who recruits doctors and nurses, and steams into the fray at the helm of a hospital ship. The guy was everywhere for half a century, and yet no one tired of seeing him. Indeed, for a time when he wasn’t around, people flocked to the theater to see a look-alike actor play him onstage.
Long before anyone heard of Richard Branson or Larry Ellison or, for that matter, Bill Gates, Thomas Lipton created the persona of the happy captain of industry who used self-promotion, or philanthropy, or sport (he used all three), to become a household name. Before him, no self-made rich man had had so much fun becoming famous. After him, everyone borrowed from the Lipton method. He succeeded because he knew, firsthand, the lives and feelings of the poor and working people who were his customers, and they knew that as improbable as it was, the story he told about himself was almost entirely true.
Born in Scotland to parents who had fled the Irish famine, Lipton spent his early childhood in abject poverty. On a journey to America he learned the tricks of modern retailing and the value of an entertaining stunt. Having returned home to open a chain of groceries, he used pig parades and elephants to draw crowds to his stores. He also dropped leaflets from hot-air balloons, scattered authentic-looking Lipton banknotes in the streets, and commissioned the world’s largest cheeses for his shop windows. After groceries he went into tea, and on the strength of outlandish advertising became the world’s largest supplier. But his greatest stunt was a challenge for the America’s Cup, which became a thirty-year quest that captivated millions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Having parlayed his fame into a profitable friendship with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, Lipton volunteered when Britain needed a rich man to try for the coveted cup. He spent a fortune on his boat and crew and on parties in New York for the social set. He was thoroughly trounced on the racecourse but spectacularly successful with the press and the public. He would mount four more challenges, losing every time and yet winning more hearts. By the last challenge, he had most of America pulling for him and the great Will Rogers begging his fellow Yanks to just let the old fellow win.
What was it, in the end, that made Lipton so popular? First, he was the antithesis of the robber barons and monopolists who were so hated in his time. Second, with his adventures and philanthropy he used his money the way others imagined they would. Finally, he constructed himself with inspiring and loving attention to detail. Lipton loved being Lipton, and his enthusiasm—he called himself The Great Lipton—was infectious. His few critics said he eventually became the caricature he played for so many years. This was, in fact, true, and it made the man happy for nearly all of his days.