Breakfast with George Eastman

If you had unlimited money, how would you eat breakfast?


What George Eastman did: built a conservatory with jungle plants, Persian carpet, elephant head from Safari trip, and house organ.  Hired famous American organist Harold Gleason to play the organ each morning at 7.30am while he ate his breakfast.  And then went on with his day.

Eastman joined flocks of rich white men that enlisted “Great White Hunters” to take them on safari, a fad made vogue by Roosevelt’s famous 1909 excursion.  Eastman’s most prized trophies were a white rhino and this elephant head, shot on his 1928 Nile safari.

Eastman became quite obsessed with his house organ, and attempted to make it into a replica of a real orchestra.  When he learned that the acoustics in the square conservatory were not ideal, he had the house split in half and dragged the south end back 10 feet, creating a rectangular, resonant conservatory.   Behind north and south walls and ceiling of the conservatory are hidden rooms containing thousands of pipes.  This created an early surround sound effect.

Eastman developed a long and sometimes contentious relationship with the Aeolian Company, which specialized in building house organs for millionaires.  In a 1917 contract for revisions and additions to the organ, Eastman withheld $7,300, “to be deferred until I am satisfied that you have made a noiseless installation.  I have been so much annoyed by the creaking and rattling of the present installation that I wish to be very sure about this.”

After years of breakfasts in his lush paradise and movies in his home theatre, Eastman excused himself from a meeting with friends to shoot himself in the heart with a pistol.  His violent death was not so different from the beautiful elephant whose head provided Eastman with breakfast ambiance.

Eastman left one of the most concise and thoughtful suicide notes I’ve ever heard of.  “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”  Gounoud’s “Marche Romaine” was played on the house organ as the body left the Eastman mansion.

Today, Eastman experts with titles like “Legacy-Curator” have zealously restored the house organ, displayed photos, and put up cardboard cutouts of Eastman.  With further funding, they would restore the third floor movie theatre so that visitors could picture the happy days when Eastman would invite friends and family over, drag all the wicker conservatory furniture up to the third floor, serve popcorn, and watch home movies.

While his painful spinal illness probably affected his decision to shoot himself through the heart, wouldn’t it be satisfying to feel your major life work has been completed?  Or would life feel so empty that you just give up?


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