Key’s Cupboard : Insurance Company Men

Key's Cupboard

“Oh is he an angel or the great god Pan, my insurance company man?”

Orchestre Murphy, “Insurance Co. Man” from the album Up Murphy Street


If you had set your sights on becoming a titan of Modernism, there was a time, early in the last century, where a career in the insurance industry must have seemed de rigueuer. Forget all that twaddle about the starving artist in the garret – the insurance office was clearly the place to be. Consider : the man who began his career with Charles H Raymond & Co., and in 1907 formed Ives & Myrick, with offices in New York City; the man who, after a series of insurance jobs in New York, joined the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Company in Connecticut in 1916; and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the man whose career began at a large Italian insurance company but who in 1908 took up a post at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. The three were Charles Ives (1874-1954), Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), and Franz Kafka (1883-1924).

In their daily lives, it was the insurance business that consumed their time and energies. Recognition as artists came late to both Ives and Stevens, and was of course for Kafka posthumous. What would have happened if the three had met? If, say, in 1920, each had been a delegate at some kind of joint United States-Kingdom of Bohemia insurance convention. Would their talk have been of actuarial tables and acts of God? Sitting down together at the convention dinner, might they have passed the time without once divulging that one was a composer, one a poet, one a writer? (The dinner may have been something of a trial, for Kafka was an enthusiastic Fletcherist, chewing each mouthful thirty-two times, and his table manners were disgusting.) Stevens may have got into an argument about something and broken his fist on Ives’ jaw, just as he once did when he punched Ernest Hemingway at a party. Ives, in his turn, may have risen from his seat and shouted “Sit down, pin back your ears, and listen like a man!”, as he once did at a (rare) public performance of one of his compositions. Or might any altercation have been calmed by Kafka, suggesting to his fellows that after dinner they walk down to the river, clamber into rowing-boats, and engage in his favourite form of strenuous exercise?

I like to think of the three of them, heads buzzing with insurance matters, rowing down the river after dinner, and then, perhaps, like the protagonists of Ives’ second string quartet, climbing up a mountain to view the boundless firmament.

NOTE : Those of you who listen to music on Spotify can hear the Orchestre Murphy album (highly recommended) here, and Charles Ives’ second string quartet (a thing of transcendent genius) here.

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

4 thoughts on “Key’s Cupboard : Insurance Company Men

    September 17, 2010 at 09:33

    The industry has indeed supplied some juicy spin off, as the post highlights also some spin off from the spin offs, Bennetts excellent Kafka’s Dick, it must be said however that the industry did nothing to improve Schmidt’s sunny disposition. Winnebago anyone?

    September 17, 2010 at 11:12

    Three wonderful artists and extraordinary characters. Ives would probably have kept quiet about his music at an insurance gathering. Most of his work colleagues knew little about his life as a composer – they saw him as an inspirational leader and teacher of insurance agents. But he would certainly have had plenty to say to Kafka and Stevens about literature. And his interest in words is shown in his wonderful songs.

  3. Worm
    September 17, 2010 at 11:16

    Up until now the only celebrity that I know who works in the insurance industry is Iggy Pop

    September 17, 2010 at 12:50

    We had a man from the Pru come around every Friday night and collect our money for the funeral funds. He was a very tall man who wore a trilby and chain-smoked. He had been a pilot in the Battle of Britain although we could never work out how he could possibly have fitted inside a Spitfire.

    He retired and his life fell to pieces.

    His wife left him for a man who owned one of the last spindle factories in the North West and his daughters married two brothers from Utah and were never seen again.

    I expect he’s dead now. I hope he had a funeral fund. It’s the least you’d expect for a man from the Pru.

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