Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Exceptional American of the day: Alexander M. Lewyt

Alexander M. Lewyt grew up in his father's shop near Gramercy Park in Manhattan. His father, an emigre from Austria, made a variety of gadgets. When his son was 16, he learned that funeral directors had a tough time fixing ties on men for burial. Lewyt invented a clip-on bowtie, quickly selling 50,000.

The young man had his first patent. He would go on to make a variety of items, including radar antennas, popcorn poppers, and that bane of the existence of every household pet, the vacuum cleaner. Oddly enough, profits from that vacuum cleaner would save the lives of thousands of pets.

Born in 1908, Lewyt (pronounced as two syllables) grew up fast. His father died when Lewyt was 18, and he had to take over the family business. He rechristened it the Lewyt Corporation, as he dreamed big. The company prospered as he diversified its offerings. It survived the Depression and by the time the war broke out, he had 500 employees. His inventions included a metal holder which allowed people to play the harmonica without using their hands. Bob Dylan owes his career to this man.

At the start of World War II, he quadrupled his staff, as he beefed up to 2,000 employees. Lewyt Corporation made bomb sights, radar, and other electronic equipment, including a night vision device that remained classified until 1955. Lewyt invented to clean naval gun barrels at sea. He even made popcorn poppers for the war.

But it was a remark by a woman on his assembly line that made him rich beyond his dreams. She said the gun-cleaning device would make a nice vacuum cleaner.

And it did. The bagless Lewyt vacuum cleaner debuted in December 1944. Within eight years, he had sold 2 million of them. His slogan included a pronunciation lesson: "Do It With Lewyt."

After 8 years of phenomenal success, he began to enjoy life. He split his time between France and New York City. Along the way he meet the love of his life, Elisabeth Roulleau, whom he called Babette. She was born in Chartes, France, in 1913, but became a U.S. citizen in 1936. They shared a love of great art and married on December 31, 1953.

Shortly afterward, he sold his company and retired at 50, but their work had just begin.

They moved to Sands Point, New York, and collected oil paintings by Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Bonnard and Renoir. He indulged in philanthropy and sat on the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which received his collection upon his wife's death.

But their greatest work was with the North Shore Animal League. Babette championed a no-kill policy for pets, an expensive undertaking their money could underwrite.

“My wife adored animals, and I adored my wife,” Lewyt said.

In 1969, she took over the league. He recruited neighbor Perry Como to help in a membership drive. They took out paid ads. The league adopted out 129 animals in 1968. In 1972, under Babette Lewyt, the league adopted out 3,000 pets. And that was just the beginning. Within a few years, annual adoptions topped 30,000. She made headlines by paying $10 a dog to other animal shelters to adopt out at her shelter. This was a remarkable turnaround, funded by those vacuum cleaners -- which began as war matériel, invented by a man who as a boy came up with a clip-on bowtie.

Alexander Lewyt died at 79 on March 21, 1988, at their home in Sands Point. Nearly a quarter-century later, Babbette died at 99 in the same home on December 9, 2012,

He was an example of why capitalism rocks. As a businessman, he gave the public products they needed. As a philanthropist, he gave society what it needed. Keeping stray dogs and cats alive seems like a small thing, but only if you have never had a dog or a cat for a pet.


I have published two collections of the best in this series and I am working on a third. Readers may purchase them online: "Exceptional Americans 1" and "Exceptional Americans 2."


  1. Not such a great guy. He was my father. I ended up on welfare, literally hungry, and in orphanages. Much pain and unhappiness because he refused to help. All the while he was living in Sands Point and on 52nd Street in Manhattan. My grandfather didn't die when Alex was 18. Babette was previously married to a French playwright and had a checkered reputation. He didn't invent a lot of those things --- he used other people's work. The NSAL has a bad reputation. When he died, Babette didn't bother putting a gravestone on his grave until I wrote the NSAL and threatened to go public with it. He was no American hero. Supposedly, he got the French Legion of Honor because he sold
    military secrets to the French after WWII.


  2. Alex stole vacuum cleaner design and lost lawsuit to Health-mor---- had to pay judgment and went out of business. See below:

    During World War II, the engineers at Royal began to look at Black and Decker (soon to be Lamb Electric) as a source for a universal motor (the world famous "Lamb" 2 stage motor) which would make the Filter Queen far less complex to service, easier to sell (lighter weight and more powerful) and less expensive to manufacture. The engineers approached Royal's management, who were not interested in redesigning the model 200. They approached Alex Lewyt in Brooklyn, who manufactured for other companies. Alex turned them down, then copied the 'new' model Filter Queen with Lamb Motor as soon as the war was over, going so far as to use a Filter Cone and the patented cyclonic action. The court batt le raged five years over patent infringement – but ultimately Health-Mor won – and Lewyt vacuums would ultimately be done, out of business, in a decade. History always proves that while a copy is certainly flattering to the originator, a copy is ultimately never as good as the original.