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Hershey's legend, without the sugarcoating

January 10, 2006|Michael D'Antonio | MICHAEL D'ANTONIO is the author of "Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams," published this month by Simon & Schuster.

THE LEGEND of chocolate baron Milton S. Hershey has always depended on the idea that he was as pure of spirit and heart as the milk that went into his chocolate bars.

To this day, although he is not quite as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse in Disney World, Hershey still looms large in the culture of the village and the companies he created. Stories of his life, some quite treacly, have been repeated so often that, even 60 years after his death, he exerts more influence than most living beings.

But keeping Hershey's reputation pristine is about more than mere sentimentality. In fact, his reputation is a valuable asset to the company that bears his name. More than 100 years after he began making chocolate, M.S., as he was called, remains the driving personality behind one company that sells $5 billion worth of sweets a year and another that draws 4 million tourists annually to the theme park and resorts that dominate the pleasing little town of Hershey, Pa., which he created in 1903.

Of course, many of the traits and accomplishments attributed to him are real. It's true that he was such a determined entrepreneur that three big business failures didn't discourage him. And he was so gutsy that he built a giant milk chocolate factory -- the first in the United States -- before he had devised a recipe that worked. As a capital "P" Progressive, he was so convinced of humanity's inherent goodness that he devoted his entire fortune to the creation of a utopian town and a model residential school for orphans. (The Milton Hershey School is now the richest private charity for children in the country, with an endowment of $8.5 billion.)

At a time when other great industrialists were viewed as robber barons by those who worked in their desolate factory towns, M.S. was known for his charitable works and for the profit-sharing plan at his company.

Milton Hershey did so much good that one can almost believe the myth that has grown up around him. But no human being is flawless, and thanks to an archive established by one of his charities, it's now possible to see the man more clearly. It turns out that M.S. was a mostly benevolent dictator who carefully cultivated his public image, rewarding fawning reporters and punishing dissenters. He spied on his workers, hyped his accomplishments, blew huge sums in casinos and apparently fathered two children he never acknowledged as his own. The archives also show that his lovely wife, Catherine, died of syphilis.

So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised last month when the Hershey Co. sued to stop publication of my biography of Hershey and to collect damages. It said nothing in its complaint about the contents of the book. Instead, the company complained to a federal judge about my publisher's use of its advertising icons -- particularly the distinctive picture of a Hershey's chocolate bar that appeared on the cover.

It was clear to me, however, that the company was bothered by more than the cover. In fact, 10 days before the suit was filed, the head of the trust that controls Hershey's empire had requested (through another employee) that I make changes in how M.S. was depicted. Clearly, the lawsuit was nothing more than a backhanded attempt to censor a book that didn't portray the company the way it wanted to be shown.

At the start of the dustcover dust-up, my editor warned that the threats could delay my book's publication and ruin its chances of finding readers. But Simon & Schuster did not cave in, and instead invested more than $20,000 to answer the complaint with a long defense based on well-established 1st Amendment and "fair use of trademark" precedents. Press accounts began to appear worldwide. Many poked fun at the idea that a book might be mistaken for a chocolate bar. Soon Hershey lawyers, who had at first refused to negotiate, called seeking a settlement. When my book finally appeared, it arrived wearing a sticker that warns readers that it's neither endorsed nor supported by the Hershey Co. OK, fair enough.

In the end, my fear that the book would be sunk has been replaced by a newfound confidence in the capitalist system. In this case, one big corporation, which failed to see the vital difference between a book and other industrial products, was thwarted by another whose executives saw they could do good, and do well, by standing on principle.

I'm now beginning to hear from loyalists who don't like what they are finding out about Milton S. Hershey. We'll get to exchange our views at a series of upcoming forums in central Pennsylvania. No matter how the discussion goes, I'll be grateful that they're judging the book, and not the cover.

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