Wealthy, Well-Known Families Learn Much from Sticking Together Over Many Generations

Franklin Delano Roosevelt III, who prefers Frank, says his grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, is a lasting influence. (Credit: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times)

As in Christmases past, Redge Hanes had a meal with his relatives gathered at the family seat in Winston-Salem, N.C.

They number about 90 these days and are all descendants from the Hanes who started the hosiery company. The knitting company of T-shirt renown was started by a great-uncle.

“All of the Hanes family was from North Carolina from the early 1700s,” Mr. Hanes said. “Some have moved to live and work in other places. But this is their touchstone.”

Like many well-known families that have stayed wealthy over the generations, the Haneses have stories — the kind that bind but also ones that illuminate their highs and lows.

“In the best families, the family is more important than anything else,” said Donna Trammell, director of family wealth stewardship at Bessemer Trust, a firm founded in 1907 by Henry Phipps to manage his wealth from Carnegie Steel. It has grown to manage other people’s money but is still controlled by his descendants.

“This idea of getting together and sharing really galvanizes the family,” Ms. Trammell said. “Understanding the family history is so incredibly important in rooting the family.”

As the holidays approached, I asked members of a few of the most famous families in America what lessons they had learned from their own gatherings.

These are not the stories of the less fortunate that we often hear at this time. These people are the most fortunate. Unlike many families, which lose touch as time and distance separate them, the families have used their histories to stay together or at the very least, guide them as they make their own way.

Divergent Influences

Franklin Delano Roosevelt III prefers to be called Frank. That’s how his colleagues and students referred to him in his decades teaching economics at Sarah Lawrence College in Westchester County.

But Mr. Roosevelt, slight and bearded, is a combination of two great American families: the Roosevelts, which produced two presidents, including his namesake and grandfather, the 32nd president of the United States; and the DuPonts, manufacturers of gunpowder in the 19th century and chemicals today, on his mother’s side. (His wife is a descendant of Charles Goodyear, who invented the process of vulcanizing rubber in the 19th century.)

When he thinks of influences on his life, he points to his grandmotherEleanor Roosevelt, whom he came to know in the last years of her life. He was a student at Yale, and she was a well-known international figure, having been a United Nations delegate and proponent of women’s rights.

“I was halfway through college before I realized that my grandmother was not just your ordinary grandmother,” he said. “She would send me a small check for $10 or $15 every summer for my birthday with a personal note saying, ‘Frankie, here’s something for you; I’d like to see more of you.’ In the summer of 1959, I wrote her back saying I’d like to see more of you.”

They met up regularly the last three years of her life.

“She was a global force for good,” Mr. Roosevelt said. “I don’t want to attribute my whole attitude in the world just to her. But she had a big influence. I did become interested in issues of justice and fairness and poverty because of her.”

The influence of his own parents was more cautionary. After they divorced, he was sent off to boarding school at age 10. He saw his father, who was married four more times, during the summers. His mother, he said, was distant and unhappy. She committed suicide in her late 40s. “I remember the chef better than I remember my mother,” he said.

His own family took priority in his life. He has been married more than 50 years and has three children and eight grandchildren. “All three kids, in our view, have pretty good values, although none of them is into politics at all,” he said.

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The New York Times

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