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Nonfiction in Brief

THE GILDED LEAF by Patrick Reynolds and Tom Shachtman (Little, Brown: $19.95; 353 pp.)

August 27, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

A history of the R. J. Reynolds tobacco clan, "The Gilded Leaf" chronicles the family enterprise that began with the Prince Albert products and Camel cigarettes and became RJR Nabisco. Born in 1850, R. J. Reynolds was a Southern tycoon when tobacco was king. His brother Abram established the Reynolds metal empire.

At his death at age 68, R. J. left an enormous inheritance to his children, the oldest of whom was only 12. Too young to have acquired instruction in the ways of business from their father, they became typically dissolute wealthy gadabouts. Smith, a great playboy of the roaring '20s, married torch singer Libby Holman; she was indicted for his murder when he met a mysterious and violent death at age 20.

Dick began the tradition of trying to match R. J. in establishing companies. Like many who begin with fortunes, however, he had difficulty distinguishing between serious business interests and pure fun. One of his enterprises was the Plane Speaker Co., which used loudspeaker equipment mounted on an airplane to "inform, entertain and amaze from a thousand feet in the air." Dick thought the Army would want plane speakers to broadcast above battlefields, but he also used the company flagship to circle above his hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C., announcing: "Warning . . . a swarm of killer bees is on the way. Take cover! Warning. . . ."

Dick Reynolds, a heavy cigarette smoker, suffered from severe emphysema in his last years. Co-author Patrick Reynolds is his son, and has become an outspoken anti-smoking advocate. He embraces this role--as well as that of clan biographer--with the passion of a man who feels that much family evil needs to be redeemed. He reports that "for many years before 1911, R. J. had believed that cigarettes were harmful to health; in particular, that the paper wrapper caused problems when it burned. Others in the company thought this was nonsense and cited the public's obvious appetite for cigarettes as reason enough to manufacture them."

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