In 1940, the year Charles Edward Merrill founded the firm we now know as Merrill Lynch & Co., he was 54 years old and had already lived an extraordinarily productive and visible life. A poor boy from the backwaters of Florida, Merrill was forced to leave college by lack of funds. But he schemed his way to Wall Street and made himself wealthy by the time he was 31.
He was the first investment banker to realize that chain stores would one day dominate retailing, and he got rich by underwriting (and often controlling) such future powerhouses as S.S. Kresge (now K Mart) and Safeway Stores. He set up one of America's first wire houses--brokerage firms with branch offices in different cities connected to the main office by Teletype.
He was also the first big-name Wall Streeter to predict the Great Crash of 1929. Indeed, in the months leading up to the Crash, Merrill pleaded (to no avail) with President Calvin Coolidge to speak out against speculation. By February 1929, Merrill was so sure the end was near that he liquidated his firm's stock portfolio, an act that made him famous in October, when the Crash finally came.
Merrill made the gossip pages as regularly as the financial pages. By 1940, he had been married three times, had had countless affairs ("recharging my batteries" was his euphemism for philandering) and had sired three children, the youngest of whom, James Merrill, became one of America's finest poets. A short, self-absorbed, prideful, flamboyant fellow--"Good Time Charlie Merrill," his friends called him--he had the unconscious expectation that Great Men always have: that he should be at the center of any orbit he entered. And so he was. As his son once wrote, "Whatever he decided to serve, the victim was meant to choke it down and be grateful."
Merrill can't be dismissed as a moneybags who made a lucky guess on the Crash. He truly deserves to be remembered for what he did during that second career of his, the one that began when he was deep into middle age. In founding Merrill Lynch--his partner and sidekick, Edmund C. ("Eddie") Lynch, was a soda-fountain-equipment salesman--Merrill created an important and enduring institution. But more than that, he started the country down an important and enduring path.
Merrill, you see, was the first person to openly advocate that the stock market should not just be a plaything for Wall Street insiders but should also be an avenue for the broad mass of Americans. Decades before founding Merrill Lynch, he coined the phrase "Bringing Wall Street to Main Street." For the last 17 years of his life, that's what he tried to achieve with his new firm, which became a laboratory for his grand experiment. Today when we conjure up the names of the great American financiers, we tend to think of people like J.P. Morgan and Warren Buffett and even Michael Milken. But none of them had the effect on American life that Charlie Merrill had. In fact, they're not even close.