GARDEN CITY, N.Y. — At the height of the Great Depression, a middle-age man from Missouri who taught public speaking at a New York YMCA scoured the city's libraries and bookstores for a textbook to accompany his courses.
Finding none, he wrote his own. That done, he handed the manuscript over to a student, who had persuaded him to let his employer, Simon & Schuster, publish the book. The man from Missouri, skeptical about its chances in the marketplace, bought the entire first printing of 5,000 copies and tucked them away in his attic.
For the author, Dale Carnegie, who had already parlayed a tireless energy and unwavering optimism into a series of successful careers, it was a most uncharacteristic act.
It was also unnecessary. Soon after it was published, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," priced at $1.98, was selling 5,000 copies a day, thanks to a direct-mail campaign aimed at the nation's businessmen.
At last count, The Book, as those whose livelihoods revolve around it tend to call it, has sold more than 15 million hard-cover copies and has been translated into 40 languages. It remained a New York Times best seller for a decade. Last year, American Heritage magazine described it as one of 10 books that shaped the American character.
In sales, among nonfiction best sellers, it ranks close to the Bible. In influence, it ushered in a new era of self-help and human potential that continues to thrive. Its message, which threw a welcome spotlight into the dark recesses of American business and industry, was simple and upbeat: Nice guys, Carnegie believed, can indeed finish first.
"How to Win Friends" celebrates its 50th birthday in October. And although the man who wrote it has been dead for more than 30 years, Dale Carnegie & Associates, the organization that bears his name, continues to spread his gospel to a worldwide class in human relations. Students in 68 countries enroll in Dale Carnegie courses at a rate of more than 2,000 a week.
Those who have fallen under Carnegie's influence number among the world's most influential people.
Pope John Paul II is a disciple. Lee Iacocca quotes Carnegie. Walt Disney was a believer. So was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
J. Oliver Crom, Carnegie's son-in-law and president of the company, says 400 of the Fortune 500 companies are paying customers of Dale Carnegie courses. His biggest accounts: the Big Three auto makers, IBM and AT&T.
According to Crom, projections for the fiscal year that ends in August indicate new cause for celebration: Between 135,000 and 140,000 students will graduate from Carnegie courses, a new record for a single year.
"If you're going to sell success, you should be successful," says Crom, a genial man who greets each employee by name, in keeping with Carnegie principle No. 6: "Remember that a person's name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language."
Carnegie himself read The Book hundreds of times, Crom recalls. "He didn't profess to have invented the principles. But he came as close to perfecting them as anyone I've ever known. I never once saw him angry."
Crom believes the success of The Book lies in its use of relevant examples. Indeed, the 276-page paperback is peppered with them. Case histories run the gamut from the life of Abraham Lincoln, whom Carnegie studied extensively, to that of Al Capone, who contrary to public opinion saw himself as a kindhearted victim--as do most people. The message behind the examples, "Don't criticize, condemn or complain," is Principle No. 1, of which Crom says, "The only negative rule, and the hardest to follow."
The others--"Become genuinely interested in other people," "Smile," "Be a good listener," for instance--are equally timeless, which explains why, in its 50-year life span, The Book has been revised only once, in 1981.
Dale Carnegie, father of the modern self-help book, precursor of the human-potential movement and dean of American adult education, was clearly ahead of his time.
Grew Up Poor
His was the quintessential American success story.
Unlike his distant cousin Andrew ("of the rich Carnegies"), Dale Carnegie grew up poor on a farm in Maryville, Mo. As a kid, he picked strawberries for a nickel an hour. His mother, however, had plans for her son, and moved the family to Warrensburg, enabling Dale to attend the state teacher's college.
He couldn't afford to live on campus, so he commuted on horseback. That and his threadbare clothes, small stature and limited athletic ability contributed to an inferiority complex that he battled by making a name for himself as a college debater.