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."