By Jonathan Yardley
Monday, August 25, 2003
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and or neglected books from the past.
One would look long and hard to find two more remarkable people than Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Married in 1904, when he was 36 and she 26, they soon became partners in the management consulting firm Gilbreth Inc. Frank was the pioneer in motion study -- if you work in an office or on an assembly line you almost certainly are the beneficiary of, or slave to, his discoveries -- but his career was cut short by his sudden death in 1924, a month before his 56th birthday. Lillian, undaunted, picked up where he left off. In a man's world, she eventually became even more widely respected and known than her husband had been -- herself a pioneer, in motion study and workplace psychology but also in feminism.
To readers all over the world -- readers in English plus 53 other languages, to be precise -- the Gilbreths are known not for their prodigious professional accomplishments but for their even more prodigious parental ones. Between 1905 and 1922 the Gilbreths produced 12 children, a phenomenon that was immortalized by two of them, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, in "Cheaper by the Dozen." Published in 1948, the book went quickly onto the bestseller list; a stage version soon followed, and a movie version -- with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy playing Frank and Lillian to perfection -- came out in 1950.
"Cheaper by the Dozen" was one of the cherished books of my boyhood. I was not quite 9 years old when it came out, and probably read it for the first time soon thereafter. For some reason it was a time when books about lovably eccentric, curmudgeonly fathers poured out in profusion: Edward Streeter's "Father of the Bride," Eric Hodgins's "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" and the granddaddy of them all, Clarence Day's "Life With Father," which may just be the funniest book I have ever read. All were made into charming movies and all, somewhat miraculously, remain in print.
My memories of "Cheaper by the Dozen" remained happy over the years, but it was with a measure of apprehension that I opened the book recently. The books of one's childhood rarely age well into one's late adulthood, no matter how affectionate (and dim) one's memories may be. Yes, I love C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels as much now as I did when I was a boy, but those are the rare exceptions; mostly the literary pleasures of childhood and adolescence are best left undisturbed in later years.
So it is a joy to report that "Cheaper by the Dozen" still reads remarkably well. It is not a work of literature and no claims will be made for it as such. It is about American family life at a time (the 1910s and 1920s) now so impossibly distant that today's teenage reader may be unable to connect with it. Yet families are families, then as now, and I like to think that young readers would respond to the Gilbreth family's joys and sorrows just as I and millions of other, older readers have.
The prose in "Cheaper by the Dozen" is unadorned and matter of fact, and its organizational structure is a bit difficult to detect, but what matters most is that it is a touching family portrait that also happens to be very, very funny. Paterfamilias Gilbreth is, to paraphrase the Reader's Digest, one of the most unforgettable characters you'll ever meet. His wife was by any standards a remarkable woman, but in the book her role is mainly that of mother and helpmeet. Yes, at a time when a female college graduate was still something of a rarity, she accumulated a bunch of degrees -- when she and Frank married one newspaper wrote, "Although a graduate of the University of California, the bride is nonetheless an extremely attractive young woman" -- but in these pages the limelight only occasionally falls on her.
That's because Frank was a born limelight-hogger. In the galaxy of the Gilbreth family, he was sun, moon and stars. A "natural teacher" who "believed in utilizing every minute," he saw his family as a laboratory for the time-and-motion theories he was putting into practice at the offices and factories that retained him. From relatively modest beginnings in New England he had risen rapidly -- "By the time he was twenty-seven, he had offices in New York, Boston, and London. He had a yacht, smoked cigars, and had a reputation as a snappy dresser" -- and was able to provide a comfortable, though not lavish, life for his family. They had a 14-room house in the New Jersey bedroom community of Montclair and rode around in a "gray Pierce Arrow, equipped with two bulb horns and an electric Klaxon, which Dad would try to blow all at the same time when he wanted to pass anyone."
Pierce-Arrow was the Mercedes-Benz of its day, but Frank called the car Foolish Carriage "because, he said, it was foolish for any man with as many children as he to think he could afford a horseless carriage." He drove it like a madman and going along for a ride "was the sort of thing that you wouldn't have initiated yourself, but wouldn't have wanted to miss. It was standing up in a roller coaster. It was going up on the stage when the magician called for volunteers. It was a back somersault off the high diving board."
Whenever they went somewhere Frank lined them all up, oldest down to youngest, and did a quick head count; ditto when they got ready to return. These were the days when auto travel was still a novelty, and an open car crammed with kids was nothing less than a show-stopper. The family grew accustomed to whistles and jeers from bystanders, tollbooth attendants and others, but Frank had learned how to handle hecklers back when he was courting Lillian. "Say, Noah," one shouted to him, "what are you doing with that Ark?" In a flash Frank snapped back: "Collecting animals like the good Lord told me. . . . All I need now is a jackass. Hop in."
Usually Frank didn't pay much attention to what the good Lord told him, or at least the Lord's representatives here on Earth. He claimed that he believed in God, but he "couldn't stand clergymen." In high dudgeon he said: "They give me the creeps . . . Show me a man with a loud mouth, a roving eye, a fat rear, and an empty head, and I'll show you a preacher." Once he crossed the Atlantic on a ship packed with preachers en route to a convention in Europe. He remembered it bitterly:
"They monopolized most of the conversation at dinner . . . They crawled out of every argument by citing the Lord God Jehovah as their authority. I was asked on an average of eight times a day, for eight miserable and consecutive days, to come to Jesus, whatever that is. And a stewardess told me that her behind had been pinched surreptitiously so many times between Hoboken and Liverpool that she had to eat off a mantelpiece."
As the authors say, probably the ministers' greatest sin was that they, rather than Frank, did most of the talking. Monopolizing the conversation was his idea of fun. "Since Dad thought eating was a form of unavoidable delay, he utilized the dinner hour as an instruction period" in which only subjects "of general interest" could be discussed. The kids were bored speechless as Frank rambled on about, say, India. Even "the dullest facts about India would be deemed of exceptional general interest . . . Once India had been selected as the destination, Dad would head for it as relentlessly as if Garcia were waiting there, and we had the message." The kids were bored but, it should be added, they also learned a lot.
The parents regarded their immense brood through different lenses: "Mother saw her children as a dozen individuals, a dozen different personalities, who eventually would have to make their ways separately in the world. Dad saw them as an all-inclusive group, to be brought up under one master plan that would be best for everybody. What was good for Anne, he believed, would be good for Ernestine, for Bill, for Jack." The way things worked out, it seems that both were right -- or, perhaps more accurately, that the combination of both was right. One gets the impression that the kids grew up with a powerful sense of family identity but with overt or latent independent streaks that served them well as adults.
About one thing there can be no question: Their father's death was a shattering blow. He was seriously overweight, didn't exercise and "had had a bad heart for years." On the morning of June 14, 1924, he died in a telephone booth at the Lackawanna railway station in Montclair while talking to his wife. Two days later Lillian called together the Family Council, which for years had kept things organized in the best time-and-motion way. All the family's money was tied up in Gilbreth Inc., and "there wasn't much money" for the family itself. She told the children, "I can go ahead with your father's work." She did precisely that, with gratifying success and eventually with considerable financial reward. As the authors say in "Belles on Their Toes" (1950), the sequel to "Cheaper by the Dozen," within a few years "Mother became accepted as an industrial engineer, and motion study began to play an increasingly important part in the mass production of the Twenties." Given that her life was far longer than her husband's (she died in 1972), it may well be that in professional terms she was the more important of the two. But as the central character in a book, hardly anyone could beat Frank. "Belles on Their Toes" is charming, but it doesn't have Frank and thus has little of the pizzazz and singularity that he brought to "Cheaper by the Dozen."
Both books are still very much in print, and interest in the Gilbreths remains high. The flame is fanned on a couple of Web sites -- cheaperbelles.tripod.comand gilbrethnetwork.tripod.com -- that provide scads of information about the books, the movies ("Belles on Their Toes" was filmed, too, also with Myrna Loy) and the family. That so many people still care so much so many years after "Cheaper by the Dozen" first appeared is evidence enough that its appeal is timeless and that your teenage kid might just lap it up after all.
"Cheaper by the Dozen" is available in a Perennial paperback ($9.95)
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.