The Surprisingly Monkish Life of 1950s Executives

Counterparties put up a link yesterday to a recent reprint of a 1955 Fortune article that profiled the lifestyles of Eisenhower-era top executives. There’s all sorts of great stuff there, most prominently the surprisingly low incomes (by current standards) of the very top of the top back then. Adjusted for inflation, they figure the top 30,000 execs earned $400,000 and up in 1955 — a sadly reduced income compared to past glory days, which meant they had to buy much smaller yachts and make do with only two servants. (I’m not making that up. Read the story!) Today, the same slice of top execs probably earns more like $3-4 million and up. (Way up.)

But that’s old news. This was my favorite paragraph:

[The successful American executive] spends almost no time on politics. He entertains often because he must (i.e., for business reasons or on account of his wife) and, under much the same compulsion, he attends cultural events. He does little reading outside of newspapers, newsmagazines, reports, and trade papers….He drinks, if he drinks at all, moderately and on a schedule. Alcoholism, it is clear, does not go with success and is to be found only among some executives’ bored wives. Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.

Got that? American executives of the 50s were apolitical, hardly drank at all, and never fooled around. Thus spake Fortune magazine. Methinks they didn’t have their fingers on the pulse of the executive suite quite as closely as they thought they did.

Also, be sure to check out the casual sexism that marinates the entire piece. There’s nothing surprising in it, but it’s still a sight to behold.