The note was simple and straight to the point: “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
That was the last communication from George Eastman, a billionaire in today’s dollars who spent most of his 77 years giving away his fortune. After penning this farewell, an ailing Eastman put a bullet through his heart.
We are looking at this note, written on March 14, 1932, and resting under glass, and recalling what our docent had told us a bit earlier.
“We like to think that (ending his life) was George Eastman’s last gift to us,” she said.
She didn’t elaborate, so I had to think about this.
We learned that Eastman suffered greatly from several maladies, including severe spinal problems. He endured unrelenting pain, the last two years of his life and perhaps he wanted to spare his friends seeing him suffer.
You may not recognize Eastman’s name – partly because he was an intensely private man who made his enormous donations on the condition of anonymity — but you know the name Kodak, the company and empire that he founded. Eastman was the Steve Jobs of his day.
Until he came along and made cameras relatively cheap and easy to use, cameras were bulky, complex and outrageously expensive.
Eastman also devised a way to provide relatively easy access to film and developing, which those of a certain age will remember required money and patience; you had to pay for every print (even the bad ones) and wait at least a week to see them.
(Side note: You might be surprised to learn that it was a Kodak employee who invented the first digital camera, which, for obvious reasons, never saw the light of day, but that’s another story.)
Eastman also was the Bill Gates of his day, giving away large chunks of money to worthy causes — charitable, cultural and educational. At the time of his suicide, he was worth more than $1.5 billion in 2017 dollars.
Though Eastman died long before I was born (let’s just say that it was sometime in the last millennium), he and his legacy loomed large in my life while growing up in Rochester, New York.
My father didn’t work at Kodak, but the fathers of many friends did, and it was a great place to work. Kodak was a generous employer when it came to benefits, bonuses and stock.
We had a brief look into Eastman’s life as we toured the George Eastman Museum in Rochester.
The centerpiece is his Georgian Revival style mansion, 35,000 square feet of opulence that includes a sweeping grand stairway, works of art, book collections, hunting trophies and expansive grounds with fountains, lush floral gardens and century-old trees.
The estate, built in 1905, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
Eastman also had a passion for music and discovered that acoustics are better in a rectangular room as compared to a square one, as was his.
To correct the problem, Eastman had his entire mansion sawed in half to add a few feet to his music room.
The museum also is a leader in film preservation and photo conservation, and stages both permanent and changing exhibits on the art and history of photography.
Visitors of a certain age will recognize trade names, camera models and equipment on display in one of the galleries.
They include such trademarks as Brownie, Carousel, Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Instamatic, Hawk-Eye, Super 8 and others. For more, visit https://www.eastman.org/.