He Tries God : Walter Hoving

The tall, spare, silver-haired executive was stranded, like thousands of others caught in the crippling power blackout in New York City in July 1977.

   He couldn't get into his apartment at River House, a fancy complex for the elite. The elevators weren't running. And he couldn't even use a stairway because the emergency exit doors had no knobs on the outside.

   So Walter Hoving, chairman of the board and chief executive of Tiffany & Co., spent the night curled on the Lawson sofa in his sixth-floor paneled office in the famed jewelry store at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. He rested his head on the blue pillow, embroidered in gold thread with the words TRY GOD, that his daughter had made.

   But he turned over the pillow so the words faced down.

   "I didn't think I should be sleeping on God," said Hoving, a soft-spoken man but one who nevertheless has strong convictions. He added, with a smile, during an

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interview in the Tiffany board room: "People without a sense of humor have difficulty finding God."

   The innovative merchandiser and devout Episcopalian not only found God in a personal way many years ago, he also is encouraging thousands of others to try Him, too, through Jesus Christ.


   Though he may have turned over the TRY GOD pillow that his daughter, Petie, made him, his TRY GOD pins and pendants — registered Tiffany trademarks and sold only by the prestigious firm — have turned over a sparkling profit for the Walter Hoving Home for troubled girls at Garrison, near West Point in New York. In the first two years after ads appeared in major newspapers, forty-seven thousand of the TRY GOD pins had sold at Tiffany's six stores. Proceeds of $367 thousand were turned over to the home.

   The sterling pins and pendants sell for ten dollars. The fourteen-karat version is twenty-five dollars, still a bargain at a store that displays the $7 million canary diamond and where "moderately priced" jewelry begins at two thousand to three thousand dollars, and inexpensive jewelry begins at one hundred dollars.

   The success of the TRY GOD campaign has been greatly boosted by evangelist Billy Graham, who purchased at cost and gave away nearly 600 thousand additional pins through his religious broadcasts.

   Hoving, who has passed the eighty-year mark, is firmly convinced that not only the Hoving Home, but Tiffany's itself — which did $60 million in business in 1977 — is "run by the Lord."

   To Hoving, the Sweden-born son of a Finnish cardiologist and a Danish opera singer, the Christian faith is simple, and he adds, "Jesus works in business life as in every other area."

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   None who knows Hoving or his works can doubt the sincerity of that belief nor its apparent success at the practical level.

   Hoving points with pride to what is claimed to be the 94 percent cure ratio for girls who stay at the Walter Hoving Home for the twelve months required to graduate.

   "We don't cure the heroin habit, we change the person, through God," Hoving explained, adding that nine out of ten of the girls who stay a year are still free of drugs three years or longer after they leave. A book, Try God by Laura Hobe and published by Doubleday, tells in detail the dramatic story of the home and about the lives of five young women who found release there from drugs, alcohol, and delinquency.

   The Reverend David Wilkerson, who founded Teen Challenge, the nationwide ministry to youth, was cofounder of Hoving Home. "This," he says of the home, "is the story of God's love reaching out to change lives, from the glitter of Tiffany's to the gutter of rebellion and addiction. Girls who have been given up by society become powerful missionaries and love-channels of God's mercy."

   The home, about an hour's drive from Manhattan, was opened in the summer of 1967 and is managed by John W. Benton. It now cares for fifty-four young women, ages eleven through thirty. The home was purchased when Hoving referred its managers to a foundation which bought the property, but it is always short of funds.

   The idea for the TRY GOD pin came from Eleanor McManus, a member of a small witness group that Hoving leads every Thursday evening at Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church.

   When people who complained of their troubles and problems asked her advice, she invariably would tell them, "Why don't you try God?" In a moment of excitement at one of the Thursday-night prayer meetings, Mrs.

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McManus asked Tiffany's chairman, "Could your store design a pin with just the words, 'Try God'?"

   Hoving returned to Tiffany's the next morning and the creation of the simply styled TRY GOD pin began. But Hoving knew it was impossible to make just one pin for her at reasonable cost. Soon he hit on the plan to produce thousands, turning over the profit to the financially ailing Hoving Home.

   Under a photograph of the pin, the first ad read: "This is a limited edition; that is, limited to people who believe in God." The response was a deluge of orders.


   Success has always seemed to come naturally to the gentlemanly and proper Hoving, though it took a span of years before he became aware of the power and influence of God in his business as well as his professional life.

   His terse biography, which he has confined to one single-spaced sheet, outlines the measure of a man who has reached the top of this world's achievement ladder.

   A graduate of Brown University in 1920, Walter Hoving was formerly a vice-president of R. H. Macy & Co., vice-president of Montgomery Ward, president of Lord & Taylor, and president of Bonwit Teller. While heading Lord & Taylor, he initiated the Lord & Taylor American Design Awards to encourage original design in the United States.

   The founder of the Salvation Army Association of New York and its president for twenty years, Hoving was awarded the Salvation Army Distinguished Service Cross. He also was a founder of the United Negro College Fund and a founder of the USO (United Services Organization) and its first president, as well as being chairman of the USO National Board during World War II.

   Add these accomplishments: president of the Fifth Avenue Association, the National Institute of Social Sciences,

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the Commerce and Industry Association of New York, and a trustee of Brown University.

   He has been senior warden of Saint Bartholomew's Church in New York and is now an honorary warden there. And in 1974 the Religious Heritage of America honored him with its Churchman of the Year Award. The same year, the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business gave him the first annual Dow Jones Award after he sponsored the Tiffany Lecture Series on Corporate Design Management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. The award was given to recognize his outstanding contribution to the field of collegiate education for business and administration.

   Yet, it wasn't until 1946 — when Hoving, president at the time of Lord & Taylor, quit that $135,000-a-year job to buy Bonwit Teller — that he found true happiness. Although active in religious activities of many kinds, it took what he calls the first real shocker to convince him that Christianity isn't a religion but rather a personal relationship to Jesus Christ.

   Crossing his long legs as he sat in Tiffany's board room during an interview with me in late July 1977, Hoving, dressed impeccably in a conservatively tailored gray business suit, recalled the struggle to scrape together the cash to buy out Bonwit Teller. He had put up half a million of his own money. But another $2.5 million was needed for the down payment. Walter left his office about noon on a Saturday in June 1946. He walked up bustling Fifth Avenue intending to visit an art exhibit.


   "I distinctly heard an inner voice say, 'Go home and telephone,' " Hoving remembers. "I really felt it was the Lord speaking to me. I never had heard anything like it before."

   The executive did as the inner voice directed. He

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needed to obtain financing from a maximum of twenty-five people, according to Security and Exchange Commission regulations. He dialed and talked all the rest of Saturday and all day Sunday.

   The deal had to close by Tuesday afternoon at 2:00 P.M. By Monday morning Hoving still lacked $800 thousand of his $2.5 million goal for the Bonwit Teller down payment.

   Monday, however, brought a call to Hoving from an officer of the Massachusetts Investors Trust. He offered to buy the remaining $800 thousand in the forming corporation.

   "And we closed the deal on that Tuesday at 2:30 P.M.," Hoving recalls happily.

   The episode touched Hoving with more than money.

   "This made me very conscious that something was going on that I hadn't realized," he said. "Little things had been happening that Jesus was doing, but I hadn't known it at the time. You have to get yourself out of the way, open yourself up, and let Jesus in.

   "That's the absolute cardinal principle. Everything else is subordinate. He is very anxious to come in, more anxious to help than you are to ask His help. He stands at the door and knocks."

   Those little things that Walter Hoving said had been happening in his life — the same kind of proddings and guidance that all Christians may feel at times — actually dated back to 1929. But he says he didn't catch on at the time.

   Again, it was a financial transaction when he was a vice-president at R. H. Macy Company — that time involvement Macy's stock. Another man in the company was willing to lend him, interest free, the $98 thousand Hoving needed for broker's fees. But Hoving turned him down. In retrospect, he believes, "Jesus was telling me not to accept it. I know now the Lord did not want me to make money. He wanted me to hang on, to trust Him, but I didn't get the message at the time."

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   Of course, Hoving didn't know at the time, either, that the stock market was soon to crash. He was able to sell the stock which he had bought and come out exactly even. Stock he had bought at $195 a share eventually dropped to $3 a share in the Depression.

   Hoving also thinks God's hand was staying him from becoming in debt to the executive at Macy's. For when an offer came to Hoving to become vice-president of Montgomery Ward's at three times his Macy's salary, he took it. "But I don't think I would have if I still owed [Percy] Strauss ninety-eight thousand dollars," Hoving reflected. "I would have felt an obligation to stay at Macy's."

   He added that he had no way to foresee or accomplish what was done: "I could have gotten head over heels in debt, but I came out even. My life was completely changed by the Lord, though I didn't know it at the time. But then, in 1946, when I again felt God's nudges in the buying of Bonwit Teller, I could see what the Lord had done for me."


   In 1961 Hoving once again saw God's guidance in business life as in every other way. By then, however, he was, as he described himself, a practicing, praying Christian.

   This time Hoving was attempting to put together a deal for a controlling interest in Tiffany's. He thought a certain man was going to go in on $1 million in stock, but two days before the closing date, the man was nowhere to be found.

   "There I was, sitting at the Irving Bank, waiting for the noon closing, short a million dollars!" Hoving anguished as he relived the moments of anxiety. "I finally got the man on the phone and he agreed to go to Wall Street and borrow the million."

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   But at 11:45 A.M. the man called Walter and said, "I can't get the money!"

   "It got to be 12 o'clock — 12:05 — 12:10 — and then one of the bank vice-presidents came in and said, 'Walter, for goodness sakes, everybody's waiting for you, what's the matter?' "

   " 'Well, I'm short a million,' I said."

   Five minutes later another man appeared with a million dollars, without requiring collateral, to lend to Hoving.

   "That's how we closed that one," chuckled Hoving. "The Lord did that; there's no way I could have influenced any of those events."

   Walter Hoving is a complex man, with a shrewd business sense. He has the grace of a British peer coupled with firm ideas about what constitutes good design, manners, morals, and aesthetic elegance. But his faith is quintessentially simple. He says he doesn't have times of doubting or anxieties.

   "Before time was, God was," he says. "God's first decision was to create the human race. Then He had to create everything for the human race to be. He created time and electromagnetism, out of which He created matter." The function of the planets and stars, he believes, is to keep the earth 93 million miles from the sun — the exact distance to keep us from either burning up or freezing.

   And the seasons? "Scientists don't know how the seasons were created. The Lord tipped the earth. Nobody but God could have thought up such a simple thing."

   "The moon is 235 thousand miles from the earth, just the right distance to cause the right tides in the oceans. "God banged the moon with meteors to drive it just that far away."

   To Hoving, it is ridiculous and stupid not to think of God as the Creator and Sustainer: "It is so clear to me that the Lord runs everything."

   It is also crystal clear to him that Christian faith is a personal relationship with God. "The whole thing is

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when you feel you have a personal relationship and He leads you in things you couldn't have believed possible," he explains. "When the Lord does things for you, the ego becomes tinged with a great deal of humility."

   But the problem, as he sees it, is the confusion that has been made between religion as an organization or system of belief and a faith relationship.


   "Christianity is not a religion, it's a faith," he said to me during the first moments of our Tiffany's interview. He was to repeat that thought from different perspectives throughout our visit.

   "The worse mistake was when Constantine the Great declared Christianity a state religion in A.D. 325. It acquired the trappings and the hierarchy of a religion; Christianity is therefore classed along with all the other religions."

   The big fallacy, Hoving firmly believes, is that Adam's sin was that he tried to play God. "That's original sin. All this stuff about being the captain of one's soul means playing God. People hate to give that up. This is a very difficult thing."

   "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20 KJV). Quoting this verse, he observed: "This has kind of been lost. You have to open yourself to Him."

   Walter Hoving tries to open himself up to God every day. I asked him what spiritual resources he uses in moments of decision and crisis, as well as for everyday strength to cope.

   Prayer, he replied without a moment's hesitation, is the sine qua non of the spiritual life.

   "I say, 'Thank You, God, for little things.' " He spoke about the influence of the prayers of his second wife, the

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former Pauline van der Voort Rogers. In 1958, when David Wilkerson first went to Brooklyn to begin Teen Challenge, she was immediately involved in supporting the work. It was natural, then, that Wilkerson and John Benton, now director of the Walter Hoving Home, came to Hoving for financial help. Hoving was able to refer them to a foundation which granted funds to Teen Challenge.

   Mrs. Hoving died in 1976. In the fall of 1977 Hoving married Jane Pickens Langley in New York City. He and his first wife, Mary Osgood Field, were divorced in 1936. In addition to their daughter Petie, they had a son Thomas who was the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


   Besides prayer, Hoving turns to the Bible as a source of spiritual insight and strength. He reads the New Testament every evening, he says, and has gone through it dozens of times. Other reading materials that Hoving has found especially helpful include Guideposts, the monthly inspirational magazine, and books by the best-selling author Hal Lindsey, who writes about prophecy and the soon return of Jesus Christ.

   Hoving also believes a Christian's relationship to a church is very necessary. But, he added quickly, "More churches should talk about a personal relationship to Jesus. People are hungry to be told the simple truth."

   When asked one of the concluding questions I used in most of the interviews for this book, "Should a Christian expect to be sitting on top of the world all the time?" Hoving almost snorted.

    "A person who thinks that isn't very smart," he declared. He went on to tell how some adversities in his life were used by God: "He makes life difficult for us, for that's how we grow. It's like exercise for a baby."

   Walter's first job, when he was fresh out of Brown University

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in 1920, was in the filing department of a large insurance company.

   "It was a block square, with files all over," Hoving recalled. "I made a map of the place and had a plan to put the file clerks on roller skates. Then it could have been run with half the staff."

   But instead of taking kindly to his suggestion, Hoving's bosses fired him for the idea.

   Hoving early earned a reputation for having a mind of his own, even a stubborn streak, though such episodes as his firing tested him and helped him grow, he says.

   His second job was payroll clerk in an auto repair shop. Pay was a miserable four to five dollars a week for the staff. It wasn't long before he latched onto a higher-paying job. But just before he quit, without authority he raised the salaries of everyone in the shop.

   Hoving also remembers two bosses, one at Montgomery Ward's and the other an official of Genesco, who were very difficult to work under.

   "But this was good for me," he conceded. "The Lord wanted me to have a little suffering — I needed it."

   Summing up his philosophy of hard work as making the best use of God-given abilities and being open to a personal relationship with God, Hoving eased back in his chair and looked out across one of the sales floors where he daily mingles with customers and his sales force of 750 persons:

   He continued, "I think the Lord can use you where you can best be used if you really let Him in and if you are where your own proclivities, abilities, and aptitudes fit in. That's certainly true in my case.

   "A Christian shouldn't expect to sit on top of the world all the time. But you can do very constructive work if you depend on the Lord. It's all very simple to me: God thinks in very simple terms."

   As simple as a plainly styled but beautifully crafted pin with only two words: TRY GOD.

Chapter Ten  ||  Table of Contents