Friday, June 14, 2013

Obituary: Isabel H. Benham, 103

Written by  Luther S. Miller, Senior Consulting Editor

Isabel Hamilton Benham, who died May 18, 2013, at the age of 103, was a formidable and influential presence in railroad affairs on Wall Street for much of the 20th Century. She made history by becoming the first female partner in a major Wall Street firm, R. W. Pressprich & Co., Inc.

A graduate (and, later, benefactress) of Bryn Mawr College in the namesake Pennsylvania municipality, she went to work on Wall Street in 1932. A well known appraiser of railroad properties, she was an advisor to the British government prior to reorganization of the British railways.

Her most controversial proposal involving the industry was a U.S. government takeover of railroad infrastructure, and for open access. As it turned out, it was partial deregulation of the railways in 1980 that saved the railroads from complete government ownership.

Benham was born on Aug. 4, 1909, in Buffalo, N.Y., to Wesley Hamilton Benham, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, the former Eva Thorp.

“The Museum of American Finance in Manhattan, which included Benham in a 2009 ‘Women of Wall Street’ exhibition, said [she was] the first female partner at any Wall Street bond house,” wrote Bloomberg’s Laurence Arnold in a June 11 obituary. “Benham made clear she saw herself chiefly as a railroad-finance expert rather than a pioneer for women, making her mark when trains still dominated intercity transportation.

“‘I am a practical railroader, dealing only in finance,’ she told the alumni publication of Bryn Mawr College. ‘What is romantic to me is putting two railroads together where they can become a more profitable system.’

Isabel Benham Young“Still, the woman who at one time signed correspondence as ‘I. Hamilton Benham’ to pre-empt discrimination recognized her place in history. ‘A lot of firms hired women because I was a success,’ she said. She studied economics at Bryn Mawr, graduating in 1931. According to her profile in the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, she recalled that a dean who learned of her interest in working on Wall Street urged her to enroll in typing school, while others told her to ‘go home to Mother, join the Junior League, get married, and live happily ever after. Benham chose a route of her own.

“After attending a six-month course on selling bonds, run by a unit of Guaranty Trust Co., Benham earned $20 a week selling subscriptions to The New Yorker magazine while hunting for jobs on Wall Street. In 1932, she landed a job at the new federal Reconstruction Finance Corp., created by Congress and President Herbert Hoover to lend money to banks and railroads in distress during the Great Depression. She became a statistician and then an analyst with Pressprich, focusing on the railroad industry, rising to lead the transportation research department in 1940. In 1948 the New York Times reported her election as president of the Women’s Bond Club of New York.

“She inspected railroads, studied rail manuals and annual reports, kept in close contact with institutional investors in rail securities, and kept miniature diesel locomotives and boxcars on her desk, the New York Times reported in a 1964 profile. ‘The biggest thrill I get is when a railroad president calls up and says, “Isabel, I want to raise a million dollars,”’ she said. She worked closely with the firm’s managing partner, Charles L. Bergmann, another rail expert. They moved together in 1968 to Shearson Hammill & Co., where they became first vice presidents and established a railroad department. She left Shearson (then known as Shearson Hayden Stone Inc.) in 1978 to join Printon, Kane Research Inc., becoming president before leaving in 1991. For a 1985 Forbes article about women on Wall Street, Benham was asked whether they had to be ‘one of the boys’ to succeed.

“‘In my day, we wore white gloves and hats,’ she was quoted as saying. ‘Some women seem to think they can get ahead, aside from being smart, by being able to swear, drink, and tell dirty stories with the boys. You didn’t play around with the boys in 1934. And it’s not necessary today, in my opinion. I have worked with a lot of men and never once have they sworn in front of me at meetings.’ She was asked whether success on Wall Street required women to forgo family life. ‘We want all the rights and privileges of being a woman and all the opportunities of being a man,’ she said. ‘We want the whole ball of wax.’ Benham, then 75, added: ‘For myself, I haven’t decided whether to get married yet.’”

Isabel Benham aged gracefully, and on her 90th birthday invited friends to a tea dance at the Plaza Hotel not far from where she lived on Sutton Place on Manhattan’s East Side.