Chasing Moneychangers from the Temple
IN A STATE that was largely brown desert, the wide lawns of the University of Nevada stood out like a green oasis. On a bluff overlooking Reno, tree-shaded red-brick buildings were laced with vines and dotted with cupolas and windows in white frames. Spread around a small lake, the school had an Ivy League look that would make it a favorite location for Hollywood films set on campuses.
Six feet two and a half inches tall, sandy-haired, rangy, and handsome, Robert Merriman was working his way through college. He held jobs at a local funeral home, as a fraternity house manager, and as a salesman at J. C. Penney, where he used his employee discount to buy his clothes. Growing up in California, he had already spent several years in a paper mill and as a lumberjack—his father’s trade—between high school and college. Along the way, he had also worked in a cement plant and on a cattle ranch. Once enrolled at Nevada, he discovered he could earn an extra $8.50 a month by signing up for the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, or ROTC, whose cadets wore cavalry-era dress uniforms including riding boots and jodhpurs. He also found time to play end on the campus football team, and then, when an injury forced him to stop, to become a cheerleader. Indeed, for the rest of his life there would remain something of the clean-cut cheerleader about him.
Bob Merriman met Marion Stone at a dance just before their freshman year. On the first day of school he spotted her as he was driving by in a small Dodge convertible, braked, and called out, “Climb in! We’re going places.” Slender, attractive, and half a head shorter than he, Marion was the daughter of an alcoholic restaurant chef. She, too, had worked for two years after high school and, like millions of other people, had then lost her savings in a bank failure. She was supporting herself as a secretary and by cooking and cleaning for the family who owned the mortuary where Bob worked.
Marion lived most of her college years in a sorority house. By her account, campus courting was a chaste affair: dancing, kissing, and perhaps an occasional daring visit to a Prohibition-era speakeasy. She was chosen “Honorary Major” of the University Military Ball that Bob staged with his ROTC friends, and he splurged some of his hard-earned money to buy her slippers and a taffeta gown. On the morning of graduation day in May 1932, they received their degrees and Bob his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserve. They were married that afternoon. Afterward they drove through the Sierra Nevada to a borrowed cottage on the shore of Lake Tahoe and went to bed together at last. It was, she says, the first time for each of them.
That fall, encouraged by one of his Nevada professors who had spotted his talent, Bob Merriman enrolled as a graduate student in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. In a country gripped by the worst depression in its history, with nearly a quarter of the population out of work, no subject seemed more vital. Berkeley leaned to the left, but with millions of homeless Americans living in “Hooverville” shacks of corrugated iron, tarpaper, cinderblocks, or old packing cases—in New York, one Hooverville sprouted close to Wall Street and another in Central Park—you didn’t have to be a leftist to wonder: was there a better way?
Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the Oval Office during Merriman’s first year at Berkeley, voicing in his inaugural address a near-biblical radicalism seldom heard from an American president before or since: “Practices of the unscrupulous moneychangers stand indicted. . . . The moneychangers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Some of the moneychangers seemed uneasy. The financier J. P. Morgan Jr., heir to a vast banking fortune, put his yacht in mothballs, writing a friend, “There are so many suffering from lack of work, and even from actual hunger, that it is both wiser and kinder not to flaunt such luxuriant amusement.”
Funds were tight for the newlyweds. For several months, Marion could not afford to leave a new job she had in Nevada. A stream of letters and an occasional love poem from Bob to his “Dearest girl of all” assured her of how much he missed her: “Love and please hurry. I’m tired of living alone and need you and you alone.” At the same time, he kept a wary eye on their finances: “I am very much in favor of your coming down over the holidays if you can make it. However, if there is any possibility of spending much money doing it we had better not try.”
He shared with her his excitement at being on a far more sophisticated campus: “One room in the library is like a handsome club room of some sort. Soft armchairs and all.” It was thrilling for him to become an instructor of undergraduates and to get to know fellow graduate students who had come long distances to study in his department, including a young Canadian named John Kenneth Galbraith. “The most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley” was how Galbraith would remember Merriman. “Later he was to show himself the bravest.”
Bob took a bed in a rooming house while searching for an affordable place for the couple to live. “Since my arrival here,” he wrote to Marion, “I have looked at, at least, fifty apartments. . . . Last nite I left the library early . . . and searched some more. I found one that I consider we can’t beat. . . . So I put down $5 deposit and shall move in tomorrow afternoon. . . . They charge $20 a month so it is no palace neither is it a shack. . . . I have been a trifle skimpy on rations but I’m eating more now all of the books are paid for. I am feeling like a million and just dying to have my sweetheart join me soon.”
Before long she did, in the one-room studio Bob had found five minutes’ walk north of the campus, equipped with a Murphy bed that unfolded from the wall. Despite the Great Depression, Marion seemed to have a knack for landing on her feet and finding work. She first took a job as a bank secretary, then clerked at a housewares store in San Francisco, to which she commuted by trolley car and ferry. Even with little money, married life was a delight. “Bob invented a mischievous game in which we would sneak into the luxurious Nob Hill hotel, the Mark Hopkins, by pretending to be meeting someone at the bar. Once inside we danced for hours, never spending more than the price of the first drink. We got so good at it that we sometimes didn’t even order a drink.” Among their favorite tunes were “Stardust” and “Tea for Two.”
Soon three more people were crowded into the tiny apartment: on a cot in the kitchen was a graduate student without a place to live whom Bob had taken pity on; sleeping on another cot and the living room couch were Marion’s eight- and eleven-year-old sisters. Their mother had died and their hard-drinking father was incapable of caring for them. “You walked in the door and you had to crawl over a bed to get anywhere,” Marion remembered. “Bob was unflappable. He simply figured my sisters, the graduate student, and, God knows, maybe even someone else eventually, were in need; he had room, we ought to share it.” His infectious good spirits made her feel “as though I were a child running and laughing in a wild game of Follow the Leader.”