Article in Philadelphia magazine, 1952.
Mary Roebling's Trenton Trust Co., seen in a postcard. At 14 stories, it was one of the city's two tallest buildings.
|1937: She banked on Trenton|
|By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian|
|The young woman in high heels, business suit and pearls knew she was making history when she strode across the marble floor of the Trenton Trust Co., sat down behind the desk with the nameplate "President" and confidently smiled as flashbulbs exploded around her.
Banking was a male preserve in 1937, and bankers were, almost by definition, middle-aged men. No woman had ever been in charge of any metropolitan bank in the United States.
And here was Mary Roebling, 31, the newly elected president of the Trenton Trust, and looking tailor-made for the role.
To the reporters who crowded around her desk this Jan. 25, 1937, Mrs. Roebling read a statement: "So many women have deposits in banks, so many women are interested in retail and wholesale business ... it is only natural that women are being elevated to positions of an executive nature."
Poised, articulate, pioneering ... this was the image Roebling projected her first day on the job at 28 W. State St., and built into local legend over 50 years as a champion of women's equality and Trenton's No. 1 booster.
When she began her career, however, Mary Roebling was also a nervous, single, working mom, widowed twice before her 31st birthday.
The bank was an opportunity; it was also an institution plagued by debt and depression which passed into her hands because of her husband's death.
She doubted whether she was capable. Her father-in-law and father were the ones who insisted she was. "You have the rarest commodity in the world -- common sense," the in-law told her.
The common-sense schooling of Mary Roebling began at her hometown of Collingswood. She was born Mary Gindhart on July 29, 1905, to a father who was a telephone company executive and a mother who taught music.
The Gindharts lived comfortably in a Victorian mansion called Hemlock Hall, surrounded by pools, gardens and lily ponds. Still, young Mary was made to understand that wealth was earned. As a student in high school, she earned pocket change by selling strawberries for a penny a box.
She was 17 when she married Arthur Herbert, a banker and a World War I veteran. He suffered from blood poisoning from being gassed in the war, and died three years into their marriage. Mary, with a daughter, found a second husband, Hugh “Bud” Graham. After a few years, they split up.
Mary was encouraged by her parents to strike out for herself, and she did so by attending night business classes at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. In the day, she worked as a secretary in a brokerage and met the man who would become her third husband, Siegfried “Sig” Roebling.
Sig Roebling was grandson to Washington Roebling, the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, and heir to Trenton’s greatest fortune. He held interests in the family’s wire-rope plant and the family bank, Trenton Trust. Mary Graham became Mary Roebling in 1933 and appeared to be set for life.
She sparkled on the social rounds, a 5-foot-7 brunette with piercing blue eyes, finely sculpted features and designer gowns. She was on the heavy side, but no one thought of her as fat. “She was big-boned,” said one of her closest friends, Army Reserve Gen. Howard Louderback.
On Jan. 1, 1936, the Roeblings left behind their newborn son, Paul, and flew west to see the Rose Bowl. Sig Roebling felt sick throughout the trip and retired to a hotel bed in Los Angeles as soon as they landed. There, he died of a stroke. He was 45.
Widowed a second time, Mrs. Roebling now had two children to raise and a big responsibility foisted upon her: The trustees of Trenton Trust wanted her to take her husband’s seat on the board.
Mrs. Roebling got the invitation not just because of her magic last name. The trustees knew she had a good business mind, she was well-regarded in the upper echelons of Trenton society and she worked -- 18 hours a day if necessary.
“She always worked, always studied,” said her daughter, Bettie Hobin of Hopewell Township. “Even at night, she’d be at home reading books about finance.”
“My mother was one of the first to speak out on equal pay for equal work. It drove her crazy that women would earn less than men for doing the same job. But she didn’t just complain -- she did something about it.”
In 1937, Mary Roebling was unanimously elected president of Trenton Trust -- and instantly became one of the city’s most powerful people.
When Mary Roebling took it over, Trenton Trust had assets of $11 million and its 14-story office building was one of the city’s two tallest. But it was also in debt to the tune of $4 million and struggling to stay afloat during the Great Depression.
“Everybody was busted, and the bank was busted, too,” she would say in an interview 50 years later.
Mary Roebling decided she would devote her whole life, not just banker’s hours, to the job. Days she spent poring over paperwork, schmoozing the city’s business elite and promoting the banks. Nights were spent commuting to New York for classes in business law.
She did not invent public relations for banking, but gave it a colorful, woman’s touch. For depositors, she sponsored art shows and “financial teas.” Social clubs were invited to luncheons at the bank, where Roebling used plain language to explain the importance of investments.
Customers would get free toy banks when they established accounts, shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day. After World War II, when the credit card was still a novelty, Mary Roebling personally went to businesses all over the city to sell them on accepting it. But perhaps the most famous Roebling innovation was the walk-up window, which she introduced in the ’40s.
In her office on the 12th floor — softly decorated in pastel colors and Louis XVI furniture — she earned respect from her male subordinates by being calm, reasonable, almost motherly.
“She believed in equal rights for men and women, but at the same time recognized women are, in some circumstances, more understanding, more patient, more willing to listen,” said Louderback, who served as Trenton Trust vice president from 1964-72.
“I, for one, couldn’t keep up with her. People used to laugh at me, and say: ‘You’re a retired general. How do you like having a lady boss?’ I would just say, ‘I have no problem taking orders from someone who’s smarter than me.’ And she was.”
By 1951, Mary Roebling had increased her bank’s assets nearly fourfold, to $70 million. And that year, she landed Trenton Trust its biggest financial plum ever — the accounts of U.S. Steel, which was building a new plant in Fairless Hills, Pa.
The ’50s were a time for Mary Roebling to broaden her horizons. Now she would market not simply Trenton Trust, but Trenton itself. At Chamber of Commerce dinners, she was prized as the city’s best advocate for expansion. Her homes, meanwhile, became embassies of culture and civility in the heart of the city.
The Roebling townhouses were at 180 and 40 W. State St. The latter address was a small palace with Roman sculptures, an indoor pool and gold fixtures in the bathroom. It was here that she entertained Hollywood stars like Agnes Moorehead and Van Johnson; politicians like Richard Nixon; and journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who did a live TV interview with her in 1955.
No one could promote the Mary Roebling legend like Mary Roebling.
“She truly invented herself,” said Eunice Levie of Trenton, the woman in charge of her public relations. “She knew how to play the game and she projected an aura of power and confidence. Even if you were close to her, as I felt I was, you still felt that aura.”
Since taking over Trenton Trust, Roebling had decided she would never get married again, not even date. Her whole life would be her business.
She spoke little about her pre-banking life. When ex-husband “Bud” Graham died and his obituary listed Mrs. Roebling as a survivor, even her closest friends at the bank were surprised.
Her official biography was all business, listing her many “firsts”: first woman governor on the American Stock Exchange; founder of the first female-owned bank, the Woman’s Bank of Denver in 1978; first woman member of the exclusive Union League Club in Philadelphia.
Like a generous banker, Roebling loaned her prestige, speaking out for women’s rights and lambasting sexism in the boardroom. She was equally forceful telling women themselves to become more active.
“I would be the first to agree that the American woman has almost unbelievable economic power,” she said in a 1965 speech, “but American women ... do not use the influence their economic power gives them.”
In 1972, Mary Roebling accepted a merger that turned Trenton Trust into an arm of National State Bank of Elizabeth. She remained chairman of the consolidated bank and retired at age 78 — but to keep her sanity she still walked from home to what was now a branch ofice at 28 West State.
“Hello, honey,” she would say as a greeting for the tellers and loan officers.
By this time, she had given up the Roebling townhouses, as well as the flamboyant Rolls-Royces that carried her to luncheons and balls around the capital city.
She never, however, abandoned the city itself and retired to a modest suite at Lafayette Apartments with an estate of perhaps $250 million. In 1994, she died at age 89.
For two years after the funeral, Bettie Hobin said, she couldn’t talk about her mother without bursting into tears. Now, she likes to recite — with a smile — one of her millionaire mother’s favorite sayings.
“Have your own power,” went Mary Roebling’s bit of advice. “Don’t give it to a man.”