W. Starling Burgess: A man of prodigious talents and controversies

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How many times this past week did you use the term polymath? Me? Less than once. It’s a word that is rarely used because people who know a lot about a lot are not en vogue. We are a society of experts who seem to know much about little and learn more about less until we know all about nothing. That, perhaps, is the pinnacle of expertise.

A complex man, William Starling Burgess was a gifted yacht designer and innovator with otherworldly mathematical and mechanical skills.

It’s no different in yacht design. What once was the job of one guy now is done by an army of specialists: naval archtects, computational fluid dynamicists, performance prediction specialists, composite chiefs, electronic and software engineers, meteorologists, sailmakers. Back in the day, you had Nathanael Herreshoff, who knew everything about everything. And one of the very best at the design game but not named Herreshoff was William Starling Burgess. His life, his work and his impact on the sport is the topic of Llewellyn Howland III’s lucid and rigorous biography No Ordinary Being: W. Starling Burgess (published by David R. Godine), which I consider required reading, and not just for sailors or yachting history buffs. It is a convincing account that puts Starling, as he’s known, into a league of his own, not just because he wrote poetry on the side and might have had a hand in the design of a typeface that evolved into the famous Times New Roman (although this remains speculative).

Like no other innovator of his time, Burgess was unafraid to take daring fliers, quite literally so, regardless of commercial prospects. In 1930 he helped R. Buckminster Fuller design the Dymaxion Car, which looked like a self-propelled Airstream travel trailer. Bold, brilliant but bonkers, and quite typical of Starling’s scrupulous approach. The vehicle had three wheels, a streamlined body, room for a soccer mom (had she been invented) and her brood, plus fuel economy that would put to shame today’s gas guzzling SUVs.

Burgess had also immersed himself in the aviation business two decades earlier, after he seeing Orville Wright soar. He took flying lessons from the Wright Brothers, licensed their parts and engines, and built his own planes. At the outset of World War I, Burgess developed the batwing-shaped Burgess-Dunne hydro-aeroplane, which was so stable and easy to fly (by his own account) that it could practically land itself. But it found no takers.

The Air Force introduced a plane of related design in the 1990s: the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, aka the Stealth Bomber. Burgess received the prestigious Collier Award for innovation in 1915 but never made it big as a plane manufacturer. However, his insight about lightweight construction and aluminum paid handsome dividends later, when he designed towering aluminum rigs for his J Class yachts that successfully defended the America’s Cup three times. He was not afraid to cast far and wide if it promised an advantage. He commissioned the German yard Abeking & Rasmussen for the build of his boats in the late 1920s because its labor was cheap and its quality was good.

But Burgess also had a knack for finding wealthy patrons, such as Harold S. Vanderbilt, who was bent on winning and had the means to make it happen. For the Cup defense of 1937 he paired Burgess with brothers Olin and Rod Stephens. Starling, who’d been reluctant to go with maximum waterline length and heavy displacement in the moderate conditions off Newport, Rhode Island, looked at the model tank tests that Olin conducted and changed his mind. “The tank does not design the boat,” Burgess later remarked. “It merely answers the question as to which of several designs is better.” Ranger had compiled a fabulous race record in her first and only racing season that included a 4-0 thrashing of the British challenger Endeavour II. She’s considered the crown jewel of a long and distinguished career that was not short on glitter.

Battling demons

For all his intellectual luminosity, and the mathematical and mechanical brilliance that allowed him to befriend Albert Einstein (who happened to be a sailor), Burgess also was haunted by a gang of ghosts. He took morphine to combat the pain of ulcers but became addicted to the opiate. He did not care much for continuity, opening and closing a dazzling number of firms over the years. Smartly, he capitalized on his network of wealthy and famous friends for business, not just for boat commissions but also as underwriting partners in his various ventures. And he hired a notable apprentice, L. Francis Herreshoff, the youngest son of Capt. Nat, who once built a sailing dinghy for young Starling but later considered him a rival. Then there were five marriages, which mirror his propensity to seek the new when the old began to dull. “For Starling Burgess, the falling away of passion in marriage was insupportable,” Howland observed.

After the stock market crash of 1929, he had to file for personal bankruptcy, overleveraged with too many obligations, including alimonies and child support. For a period he had to rely on the charity of friends and supporters to make ends meet. Perhaps most troubling, he’d maintained a sexual relationship with his youngest daughter Diana, which she brought to light many years after her father’s death in 1947.

“Burgess’ persona was extremely complicated, both exceptionally talented and interesting but with dark sides, too,” stated Steven Taylor, one of Diana’s four children, a former executive at the Boston Globe who sailed dinghies in international regattas in the 1970s.

(From left) Olin and Rod Stephens, Harold S. Vanderbilt and Starling Burgess aboard the legendary J Class yacht Ranger.

Personal proclivities aside, fate violently shaped the life of William Starling Burgess, who was born into a prominent Boston family on Christmas Day of 1878 as the first of two sons. He was 9 when his father was feted by the city with cash and a gifted house on Beacon Street for having designed Puritan, Mayflower and Volunteer, three giant sloops that repelled three America’s Cup challenges by the British during the 1880s. It deeply impressed the young man and set the bar against which he later measured himself.

But the untimely deaths of Ned Burgess in July 1892 of typhoid and his beautiful but sickly wife, Caroline, who shortly thereafter succumbed to pneumonia, left Burgess and his younger brother Charles orphaned. Later, just as his design career took off, his first wife, Helene, suffering from a spinal disease, committed suicide. Burgess channeled his grief by writing poems that were published in 1903 in the collection The Eternal Laughter. But there was more tragedy: Edward, the first-born son in his marriage with Rosamond Tudor, the granddaughter of the ice baron Frederic Tudor, drowned when he was 8 years old. Starling always managed to soldier on.

After his parents deaths he was looked after by his Uncle Sidney and boarded at Milton Academy, which became home. He showed his engineering talent as he dabbled with glider planes and designed a machine gun, which later earned him a patent that he considered a “passport to fame.” He enrolled in engineering courses at Harvard but dropped out after a tour with the Navy in the Spanish-American War. Instead, he followed his father’s path, establishing in 1901 the W. Starling Burgess Co., a yacht design practice and brokerage.

Sailing boomed, and demand for private yachts was strong. So was the competition. In addition to Herreshoff, the top dog, there were other talented designers chasing commissions: Charles Mower, B.B. Crowninshield, William Hand Jr. and William Gardner, to name but a few. But Burgess was blessed with wit, charm and otherworldly mathematical abilities that quickly helped him secure commissions such as the 53-foot scow Outlook, which was stiffened by a steel girder down the centerline. That outrageous yacht was an early hint at his take-no-prisoners approach and won the Quincy Yacht Club Challenge in 1902, much to the delight of her owner, A. Henry Higginson, one of Burgess’ childhood friends.

After Helene’s death, however, Starling took to Higgins’ wife, the aforementioned Rosamond Tudor. She reciprocated, which brought on a messy divorce from Higginson before she and Burgess could wed.

Redeemed by the record

“Burgess was a charming egotist and intuitive engineer,” observed Lt. Cmdr. Jerome Hunsacker, who commanded the Navy’s aircraft division of the Bureau of Construction and Repair, where Burgess worked during WWI. “When he came up with a design, it had to be done his way. He would not tolerate changes and never had any associates who could rank as partners.”

It paints a picture of a control freak who was reluctant to share credit. And a pinch of delusion might have been in the mix too, according to Frederic Tudor, the surviving son of his marriage to Rosamond. “He … will not face hard facts but will hide from them and will love the person who shields him from them,” he wrote about his father, who was obsessed with creation and innovation but also craved success and approval beyond measure. Starling traveled a rocky road, paved with a mix of triumph and tragedy, but stuck to his guns.

In the end he became a hall-of-fame designer, exceeding his old man in many respects while repeating his remarkable feat of designing three yachts for three consecutive Cup defenses. This may be why the name Burgess stands behind a greater number of different winning America’s Cup yachts than the names Nat Herreshoff or Olin Stephens. A difficult character, indeed, but I think our world is a lesser place with the likes of Starling Burgess gone out of style. n

No Ordinary Being: W. Starling Burgess is available through Mystic Seaport and the New Bedford Whaling Museum ($65, plus shipping). store.mysticseaport.org, whalingmuseum.org

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.