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John George Alexander Leishman

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Title: John George Alexander Leishman  
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Subject: South Fork Dam, Henry Baldwin Hyde, South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, List of people from the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, House of Croÿ, Leishman, Madonnina (painting)
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John George Alexander Leishman

John George Alexander Leishman (1857–1924) was an American businessman and diplomat. He worked in various executive positions at Carnegie Steel Company and later served as an ambassador for the United States.


John George Alexander Leishman was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on March 28, 1857, the only son of Scots-Irish immigrants John B. Leishman (1827–1857) and Amelia Henderson (1832–1905).[1][2]

His father drowned in the Allegheny River the same year in which he was born. Leishman began a lifetime of work at age ten, as an assistant for a Pittsburgh physician. Over the next seventeen years, Leishman would rise to become a trusted confidant of both Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Carnegie.[1]


Prior to his entry into the Carnegie service, John Leishman had been in the service of Shoenberger Steel Company, as what was termed a "mud clerk". Mud clerks were the steel industry’s representatives on the river wharf, responsible for tracking the shipping of goods: the arrival of raw materials and the departure of finished products. To guarantee efficiency and success, mud clerks lived 24 hours a day in small sheds on the riverbank. This work led first to an unsuccessful venture as an independent steel broker and then a successful partnership with his friend and colleague from Shoenberger Steel, William Penn Snyder.[1][2]

As senior partner in Leishman and Snyder, Leishman caught the attention of Andrew Carnegie, who convinced Leishman to enter Carnegie's service on October 1, 1884, as Special Sales Agent. Carnegie saw more than a little of himself in the younger man; throughout his life, Carnegie continued to think of Leishman as one of his “boys” and included Leishman in the official “History of the Carnegie Veterans Association”. Leishman occupied the following positions: Vice Chairman, Carnegie Brothers & Company, Ltd.; Vice President and Treasurer, Carnegie Steel Company and President, Carnegie Steel Company.[1][3]

The Leishmans' social and business connections provided entrée into an extraordinarily exclusive circle of sixty-odd families, called the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. It was conceived as an idyllic summer colony, bought and developed by Henry Clay Frick in Cambria County, Pennsylvania, a short, convenient train ride away from the smoke and soot of Pittsburgh’s industry. To create the summer colony, an abandoned Pennsylvania Railroad earthen dam was rebuilt and increased in size to create a mountaintop reservoir for pleasure boating, which was named Lake Conemaugh. Among the Club’s members were Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon. The Club’s earthen dam failed on May 31, 1889, contributing to the Johnstown Flood disaster.

Many of the Pittsburgh members of the Club were hastily assembled in an ad hoc meeting and formed “The Pittsburgh Relief Committee.” Two decisions were made at that meeting. One was to make immediate, generous and tangible gifts to help the flood relief efforts. The other was a pledge never to speak of the Club or the Flood in public or in private. All litigation was handled by attorneys Philander Knox and his partner James Hay Reed, of the firm Knox and Reed (now Reed Smith LLP), both of whom were themselves South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club members.[4][5]

On July 23, 1892, Alexander Berkman, a self-proclaimed anarchist, sought to destroy Henry Clay Frick, the man Berkman blamed for the carnage of the Homestead steel strike in the preceding weeks. Armed with a pistol and a sharpened rat-tailed file, Berkman gained easy access to the headquarters of Carnegie Steel and found his way into the second floor private office of the chairman, 43-year-old Henry Clay Frick. Berkman forced his way into Frick's private office on the heels of a porter who had taken in his card. He opened fire, and Frick fell to the ground with three bullets in his body. Berkman was fended off by Leishman, Frick’s second in command, who was in Frick’s office at the time.[6]

Amid the growing rancor between Frick and Carnegie, Leishman attempted to steer a middle course. This was thwarted when Frick engaged a stratagem to orchestrate the ouster of the man who has saved his life from the presidency of Carnegie Steel, and his removal from the Western Pennsylvanian business scene. Frick alerted Carnegie to Leishman's speculation in the stock market, a practice that Carnegie engaged in freely, but abhorred in his subordinates. Frick worked behind the scenes, with Philander Knox to see that Leishman would be offered the post as ambassador to Switzerland.

Under pressure from both men, Leishman withdrew from Carnegie service in June 1897, to accept the appointment by President William McKinley as United States Ambassador to Switzerland. Thereafter, Leishman became United States Ambassador to Turkey in 1900, United States Ambassador to Italy in 1909 and United States Ambassador to Germany in 1911.[7]

Years later, as a board member of the Equitable Life Insurance Company, Frick used a similar scheme to wheedle the removal of James Hazen Hyde (the founder's only son and heir) from the United States to France by seeking an appointment for him to become United States Ambassador to France. Unlike Leishman a decade before, Hyde, rebuffed Frick's plan. However, Hyde did go to live in France, where he met and eventually married Leishman's eldest daughter, Marthe.

While serving in Turkey, Leishman was instrumental in effecting the safe release of missionary Miss Ellen Stone[8] as well as bringing about the purchase of the first overseas property to serve as a United States embassy, the Palazzo Corpi.[9] He also distinguished himself for diplomatic tact and dexterity in his negotiations with Turkey for full rights for American citizens and schools in that country, and in his pressing with equal success his insistence that the American minister should have access to the Sultan. His office was elevated to the rank of Extraordinary Ambassador and Plenipotentiary in 1906.[7] While serving in Italy, Leishman purchased the much beloved and often reproduced painting called the Madonna of the Streets. The painting's current whereabouts is not known.

Marriage and children

On September 9, 1880, at Homewood Chapel, Leishman married Julia Crawford (1862–1918), the daughter of Edward Crawford of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Nancy Harriet Ferguson. To them were born three children, Martha (1882–1944), Nancy Louise (1894–1983) and John, Jr. (1887–1942).

Leishman's daughters made European marriages that were much talked of at the time. The American press considered these notably brilliant matches even among the many monied American young ladies (those "lovely trans-Atlantic invaders" as Edith Wharton called them) who found suitable titled European husbands in the pre-World War I marriage market. However, some titled Europeans felt that the Leishman girls had wed above their social station.

Martha (who later styled herself Marthe) married first Count Louis de Gontaut-Biron, and secondly the heir to the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company (formerly The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States) fortune, James Hazen Hyde who was the only son and heir of Henry Baldwin Hyde.[10] Their son was Henry Hyde of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in World War II.[11] In Switzerland in 1898 she was painted by the Swiss-born American portrait painter Adolfo Müller-Ury (1862–1947). As the Countess de Gontaut-Biron, Marthe was a society hostess[12] and couturier Coco Chanel's first aristocratic client.[13] Marthe was a favorite of George V and a close personal friend of Mr. and Mrs. Cole Porter[14] and Francis Poulenc.[15]

Nancy married first Karl, 13th Prince von Croy, of the House of Croy, amid extensive newspaper coverage in Europe and the United States of a notoriety not to be surpassed until the romance between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, because Kaiser Wilhelm II refused to give his official permission for their marriage; Nancy, being a commoner and an American, was not considered a good match for the prince who ranked among the highest nobility of titled Europeans. Karl's aunt, the formidable Princess Isabella of Croÿ, wife of Archduke Friedrich, Duke of Teschen, was chief among the European nobility who vehemently protested the match.[16] They were wed, nonetheless; today their grandson is the present Duke of Croy. Nancy married secondly Andreas d'Oldenberg, Danish ambassador to France.

John Jr. was for a time married to New York socialite Elizabeth Helene Demarest, whose daughter by her subsequent marriage to Lord Alastair Sutherland-Leveson-Gower is Elizabeth Millicent Leveson-Gower, 24th Countess of Sutherland.[17][18]

While serving abroad, the Leishmans were often in Paris, at Deauville, Monte Carlo, or in the Swiss or Italian lakes, always a part of a gittering circle of celebrated American and European friends. Julia Leishman was instrumental in forming and serving as the first president of the Paris Skating Club; among her intimate friends who shared in this Paris innovation was the Baroness Henri de Rothschild.[19]

Later life

As a result of the impasse between himself and Kaiser Wilhelm II which was created by his daughter Nancy's marriage to Karl von Croy, Leishman left Berlin and retired to private life in 1914. His wife Julia died in 1918; Leishman, on March 27, 1924—both in Monte Carlo. They are buried in the Cemeterie de Monaco.[1][2][20]


Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John L. Peak
United States Ambassador to Switzerland
Jun 9, 1897 – Aug 9, 1897
Succeeded by
Arthur S. Hardy
Preceded by
Oscar S. Straus
United States Ambassador to Turkey
1899 – 1909
Succeeded by
Oscar S. Straus
Preceded by
Lloyd C. Griscom
United States Ambassador to Italy
July 4, 1909 – October 7, 1911
Succeeded by
Thomas J. O'Brien
Preceded by
David Jayne Hill
United States Ambassador to Germany
October 24, 1911 – October 4, 1913
Succeeded by
James W. Gerard
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