My sister Angela Penrose has just published a book on the life of her mother-in-law, Edith Penrose née Tilton.[i]
The book is an excellent piece of work about an extraordinary woman who lived a very full life and whose work touched millions. Among other things, she and her second husband Ernest Francis Penrose, ‘Pen’, worked in London through most of the Second World War with John Winant, American ambassador to the United Kingdom, planning how to feed Europe on conclusion of the war; In the embryonic United Nations in New York after the War she assisted Eleanor Roosevelt in her historic role as the chair of the Human Rights Commission as it drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; teaching at John Hopkins University, Baltimore Edith and Pen vigorously defended their fellow academic Owen Lattimore who had been falsely accused by Senator Joe McCarthy of being a Soviet spy; disillusioned with the US they put themselves in a form of voluntary self-exile taking sabbatical leave first to the Australian National University in Canberra and then to Baghdad University; she published The Theory and Growth of the Firm
in 1959 which secured her reputation as an original thinker and one of the leading economists of her generation; while in Baghdad Edith studied the economics of the oil industry which led to the publication in 1968 of her book The Large International Firm in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry; a
fter the overthrow of the Hashemite monarchy the couple were expelled from Iraq and drove across the Syrian Desert through Turkey and onto the UK where they settled permanently; in 1994 the Academy of International Business elected her an Emeritus Distinguished Fellow of the Academy – an honour only bestowed once before.
Edith on her father’s side could trace her roots back to Tiltons who were part of the mass migration of Puritans who chose to escape from Charles I’s England to Massachusetts. Her father George Tilton Junior was a surveyor and construction engineer with the Californian Highway Commission. He played a large part in the location, surveying, and construction of California’s spectacular Highway One, particularly the most impressive section along the Monterey Coast between San Simeon and Carmel. Edith was born in 1914 and as a young girl would accompany her father and mother to the camps as the road was built. One of her earliest memories is of finding herself faced by a rattlesnake. He mother fired at the snake with her shotgun and killed it. It was not the only time Edith would face danger.
Edith excelled as a schoolgirl but was particularly prominent in debate as a member throughout her school career of the undefeated debating team. Competitive debate was formalized in American schools and universities in the late 19th
century as a form of citizenship training. She carried this on at Berkeley where she took a BA in economics. As a freshman she met the president of the debating society David Denhardt a handsome, athletic student in his final year of a law degree. Against college rules they ‘secretly’ married in 1934 - Edith was just 19. In her final year she started to attend the economics lectures of an Associate Professor, Ernest Francis Penrose – an Englishman and First World War veteran who had come to Berkeley in 1935. During her last semester, the summer of 1936, she also began working for him as an assistant, typing letters, organising courses, and helping with research.
She graduated with her first degree at the same time as her husband graduated with his LL.B. David went into public office and was appointed deputy district attorney in the small town of Colusa in the Sacramento Valley. In 1938 he decided to stand for district attorney in Colusa County as the next step in his legal career. Edith was by now three months pregnant and David would canvass all across the rural county, taking in some deer hunting on the way. He had arranged to meet some friends but did not show up at the rendez-vous. A search party was organised by the sheriff and on the following afternoon his body was found. He had been shot in the back and his body lay face down; a rifle bullet had passed between his shoulder blades and emerged at the front of his neck. Though all the circumstances were clearly suspicious no one was arrested. A coroner’s jury found that David had died from ‘a wound inflicted by a bullet from a rifle in the hands of an unknown person’. The District Attorney, who had been facing David’s challenge in the election, called a Grand Jury to hear the evidence. In the US Grand Jury system there is no judge and the DA conducts the process. Although ballistics evidence had identified the gun involved the grand jury completed its investigation without returning an indictment. A few days later the election was held; David’s name was still on the ballot and he won in eight out of nine wards.[ii]
Edith was a widow at 24. She went to live with her parents in Sacramento and the baby David Tilton Denhardt was born in February 1939. By now Pen was working with John Winant, the Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva. Edith clearly needed to work and Pen arranged for her to join him as a research assistant in the economic section. She left the US in June 1939, leaving her baby son with her parents. During the ‘phony war’ the ILO staff struggled on and lulled, like others, into believing Germany would advance no further, began to plan for the 1940 Annual Conference. Several of the staff had German passports but had opposed the Nazis before leaving Germany and were at great risk. The American consulate circulated notices requesting all Americans to leave Switzerland. Most routes were blocked. They left by bus across unoccupied France to Spain and then had to wait for a month in Lisbon.[iii]
The ILO relocated to Montreal. Winant had succeeded in enabling the ILO to remain a force for freedom, democracy and social justice. Delegates to the UN later were to agree that it was the one institution of the old League of Nations to be retained in the new structure. President Roosevelt was increasingly uncomfortable with Joseph Kennedy as his Ambassador in London. He replaced him with Winant who quickly asked Pen and Edith to join him to work on international, social and economic problems. Although the war was far from over there were significant preparations being made to deal with the aftermath. Pen and Edith found themselves dealing with John Maynard Keynes and other leading British politicians and economists on the post-war world. In particular they helped plan the distribution of food. This would save many lives as by the end of the war starvation was rife in countries like the Netherlands. In 1944 Edith and Pen got married.
The first UN General assembly was not held in San Francisco as everyone thinks but in London in January 1946. Winant was the US representative and Edith worked with him on the refugee crisis. Winant had hoped to be the first Secretary General but once it was decided to headquarter in New York an American could not have that role. So President Truman confirmed Winant as UN Representative and he again asked Pen and Edith to join him. Edith had by now given birth to a little boy, Trevan. A new organization was formed the International Refugee Organization but the negotiations were tortuous as the Iron Curtain had already come down. Pen and Edith proved invaluable in behind the scenes negotiations with Russians and Arab nations as testimony from Eleanor Roosevelt describes. But the great John Winant was not a well man and soon after he shot himself.
Edith and Pen established themselves in academia, now with three boys. Edith took a Masters with a view to then taking a doctorate. But in 1947 Trevan aged just two died from hepatitis after a routine vaccination. Two of Edith’s brothers died in the war as US Air Force pilots so this was a difficult time. Edith coped with great energy in her multi-tasking way, looking after her husband, her sons and researching the world of patents. She became well established within the Department of Political Economy at John Hopkins University and was appointed a lecturer in 1951.
One of their friends there was Owen Lattimore who had spent many years in China and was appointed by Roosevelt as political adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, head of the Nationalist Government, trying subtly to advise him on defeating the communists, but he later came to think this was a lost cause and the Communists would win. He therefore advocated a more nuanced approach to dealing with the communist countries and not to see them all as simply extensions of the Russian Revolution. He was then identified by Senator Joseph McCarthy as the top Russian espionage agent in the US. His initial reaction was one of delight as if McCarthy’s whole case rested on Lattimore then he would fall flat on his face. But he had underestimated the lengths to which McCarthy would go in his appalling witch hunt and suffered a huge ordeal of baseless slander.
The Tydings committee dismissed McCarthy’s charges as a ‘fraud and a hoax’ but McCarthy turned his attention to Tydings who lost his seat at the ensuing election, just weeks after Chinese forces appeared in Korea. The Lattimore affair went on for five years with numerous hearings and court cases pursued by the US government. Edith acted as secretary to the ‘Lattimore Defense Fund’ and as such came under investigation by the FBI. Pen deeply resented the fact that he was asked by a prospective university employer to complete a questionnaire in which the last of 700-800 questions was: ’Are there any unfavourable incidents in your life not mentioned above which may be discovered in subsequent investigation, whether you are directly involved or not, which might require explanation? If so describe. If not answer No’. Thanks to a steadfast judge the case against Lattimore was finally dropped but Pen and Edith had had enough and decided to leave the US.
They first took a sabbatical in Australia and Edith continued her work on The Theory of the Growth
of the Firm.
In Australia she had many meetings with firms based there as well as offshoots of US based multi-nationals and this experience was invaluable in developing her ideas for what would become her magnum opus, and one of the most influential books of its kind. It was published in 1959 by which time Pen and Edith were in Baghdad, with boys safely, if not entirely happily, parked in English boarding schools.
In Iraq Edith developed an understanding of how the whole oil industry operates, and the uneasy tension between the companies that produced and distributed oil and its derivatives, and the countries whence it was sourced. This led to another great work, Large international Firms in Developing Countries: The International Petroleum Industry.
But the revolution in Iraq threatened the position of many academics and Pen was on a list to be ‘purged’ and so they fled.
Edith took up teaching roles at the LSE and SOAS where she founded the Department of Economic and Political Studies in 1962. But she also took on many public service roles including serving on the Committee of Inquiry into the Pharmaceutical Industry under the Chairmanship of Lord Sainsbury, and later the Monopolies Commission. Her reputation grew and she became adviser to both major multi-national companies and to governments, particularly after the OPEC crisis in 1973. Edith had addressed previous OPEC conferences but had also been warning the West about the illogical nature of its foreign policies and its dependence on oil, much of which came from a few Arab and African countries.
In 1977 when she might have been contemplating retirement from SOAS Edith got a chance to reinvent herself again at INSEAD business school in Fontainebleau. Today INSEAD is consistently ranked among the leading business schools in the world. Its MBA programme was ranked first in the world by the Financial Times
in 2016 but in the late 1970s it was still building its reputation, having only been founded in 1957. The appointment of Edith was perhaps the school’s first “world class” hiring.
Pen died at the age of 88 in 1984. At the funeral his son Perran said “To the day he died he was intellectually and emotionally obsessed by the state of the world.” Edith moved back to England and built a house adjoining that of Angela and Perran near Cambridge. She spent the rest of her life there except for numerous visits abroad to see her family and friends now scattered all over the world. She was a marvellous if unorthodox grandmother and she still remained active in writing and lecturing on her speciality subjects. She died in 1996 aged 82.
In her long eventful life Edith Penrose had lived through, and witnessed at first hand , many of the major events of the 20th
century – the Great Depression in the US; the rise of Nazism in Europe; the Second World War in London; the foundation of the United Nations; the McCarthy era; and the oil crisis of the 1970s. Her first husband was murdered; her brothers killed in the war; one of her sons died as a two year old. Yet she never lost her love of people if not nations; of ideas and research; of debate and argument; of being both feminine and a feminist; of cigarettes and a gin and tonic; yes, and of life itself. She hated the idea that it had to come to an end.