Blinkhorn: NH and the IMF

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(HOST) Recent headlines about The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have reminded commentator Tom Blinkhorn of their New Hampshire roots. They were founded sixty-five years ago this July at a conference of 700 delegates from 44 countries at the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods.

(BLINKHORN) One of the conference’s intellectual leaders, the British economist John Maynard Keynes, had a bad heart and suffered from asthma. He wanted to meet outside of sweltering Washington, DC in cool mountains or at the seaside. New Hampshire Senator Charles Tobey, the ranking Republican on the banking and currency committee, lobbied hard for the Mount Washington location.

He argued that the hotel had sufficient space. It was in mountains surrounded by national forest. It didn’t have the kind of racial restrictions so common in those times in posh Eastern vacation spas. It had reasonably good access for delegates, most of whom would arrive by ship at Boston or New York. And from there they would be transported to Bretton Woods on special trains arranged by the Boston and Maine railway. President Roosevelt agreed and the invitations went out, including to China, Russia and Cuba. The government also put up about one million dollars to help spiff up the hotel.

But there were problems. Keynes’ wife, the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, complained that many of the hotel taps leaked continuously, the windows did not open or close, the pipes rattled endlessly. She was not placated by the free Coco Cola dispensers on the veranda.

Keynes and Lopokova had rooms above those of Henry Morgenthau, United States Treasury Secretary, who had to contend with the ballerina’s early morning dancing exercises.

Delegates worked round the clock, pausing occasionally in the evenings to watch an imported belly dancer perform in the hotel bar. Boy Scouts from Littleton, New Hampshire whisked microphones from speaker to speaker. At one late evening session, an unfamiliar face appeared, listened intently, said little and, when asked to what delegation he belonged, replied, "None. I am the Arthur Murray dance instructor."

Jack Colby, editor of the Littleton, New Hampshire Courier at the time, was one of 92 journalists accredited to the conference. Colby is now 94, retired and living in Lexington, Kentucky.

He once wrote me that except for a brief page-one mention of the meeting, he, a one-man editorial operation, "was devoted to publishing the news that local readers wanted, not what was going on at Bretton Woods."

Keynes collapsed on a hotel stairway towards the end of the conference. Word spread that he’d had a heart attack. Several German newspapers printed long obituaries. But he recovered and at the final meeting received a standing ovation. He then praised the group, saying, "We have had to perform the tasks appropriate to the economist, to the financier, to the politician, to the journalist, lawyer and statesman, even, I think, the prophet and soothsayer."

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