New York Times Magazine 9/ 9/1979
Every city has its “prominent families” whose male progeny are called scions and whose “good name” ranks among its civic landmarks. In Omaha, Nebraska, the first among those families has always been the Swansons. The name Swanson commanded as much influence and respect in Omaha as Chandler in Los Angeles or Dupont in Wilmington. Most notably, the family gave America the TV Dinner; the Swansons were as much a factor of Nebraska life as Cornhusker football or horizons that run westward in a seemingly infinite flat line.
Omaha has no first family anymore, and this is the story about how that came to pass. Omaha has no first family anymore, and this is the story about how that came to pass.
Carl A. Swanson established the family in Omaha, arriving in 1896 at age 17, with a tag around his neck reading: “Carl Swanson, Swedish. Send me to Omaha. I speak no English.” Three years later, Carl Swanson owned a wholesale food company handling eggs, milk and poultry. The business had assets of $456 in working capital, plus one wagon and one horse.
He showed a natural gift for the food business. In the late 1920’s, he steered his company into the fledgling food-processing industry; he became the first Middle Western dealer in chickens to recognize the importance of newly patented quick-freezing methods, the first to automate plucking and gutting, the first to mass produce separated and powdered eggs. By the time of his death in 1949, he had parlayed his original investment into ownership of C.A. Swanson and Sons, grossing $60 million a year. He was hailed as the biggest butter-and-eggs man in the country.
Carl Swanson was simple, loyal, honest, hardworking, with an abiding faith in progress through enterprise and ingenuity. In that coincidence, the underpinnings of the family legend were laid. Eventually, Swanson would become a symbol of the American Dream as well as a synonym for the virtues of Omaha. The family name would grace, among other structures, an Omaha public library, an elementary school and a Creighton University dormitory.
Carl Swanson raised his sons, Gilbert C. and W. Clarke, in accordance with the demands of his own stature. According to “The Swanson Story,” the official family history published in 1977 by the Carl and Caroline Swanson Foundation, Gilbert and Clarke served “arduous” and “bruising” apprenticeships.
Gilbert C. Swanson was the eldest and the first to advance through the workings of the family business. Along the way, he married Roberta Fulbright, sister of former United States Senator J. William Fulbright, and had two sons, Gilbert Jr. and Jay F., and two daughters, Patricia Caroline and Helen Carla. Three of those siblings would much later face each other in Federal court.
The brothers Gilbert and Clarke were a well-matched team who seemed to have inherited their father’s talent for anticipating major changes in their industry. Their introduction of frozen Chicken Pot Pie in 1951 proved their aptitude. Success followed success in 1953 when the company brought out a heat-and-serve frozen turkey dinner, complete with mashed potatoes and gravy, all packed in an aluminum tray. Swanson and sons obtained a trademark for the name “TV Dinner,” and C.A. Swanson was on its way to becoming a household name.
With these successes, the second-generation brothers reconfirmed the family’s legend and its hold on Omaha. They also seemed to satisfy their own needs to follow the high-pressure path carved out by their father. In 1955, the brothers sold C.A. Swanson and Sons to the Campbell Soup Company for a large block of Campbell’s stock. They retained no further connection to TV Dinners, though the Swanson name remained on the label. The family business was renamed Swanson Enterprises, a holding company for stock, real estate, foundations, family trusts and smaller companies worth millions.
They held positions of leadership in local charitable organizations, and they entertained lavishly. The Omaha World-Herald told of one gala given by Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert C. Swanson: Some 300 guests attended the “Hawaiian Evening” at the Omaha Country Club; 70 tons of sand transformed the patio into a beach, complete with live palm trees brought in from the West Coast.
Throughout their lives, Gilbert and Clarke were accorded a special deference in Omaha. Flights were held up for them at local airports, and institutions from Creighton University to the Strategic Air Command honored them with awards for civic service.
W. Clarke Swanson died in 1961, and gradually his heirs left the area for successful careers elsewhere. The reins of the Omaha-based family business then passed to Gilbert and the male half of his line. Gilbert died of cancer seven years later. He had kept the legend green. The family’s known stock holdings in Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola and Yellow Freight Systems Inc. alone would have brought more than $100 million on today’s market.
After Gilbert’s funeral, The Omaha World-Herald acknowledged the city’s debt to the first two generations of the Swanson family and “their remarkable legacy.” It also assured its readers that the death of Gilbert “does not mean the name is fading from Omaha. There are sons and daughters … who can be part of the rising generation of Omaha leadership.”
That was not to be. The reasons lead back to the large stone mansion, flanked by servants quarters, at 412 North Elmwood Road in Omaha, where Gilbert Sr. and his family lived.
According to a source close to the family, Gilbert Sr. and his wife, Roberta, had engaged in long, hysterical battles that the children witnessed and, on occasion, participated in. Mrs. Swanson is said to have had what was called an alcohol “problem.” She developed cirrhosis of the liver and spent increasing amounts of time at hospitals in Omaha and New York.
The antagonism spread, developing between Gilbert Jr. and his sister Patricia. Ten years her senior, Gibby, as he was called, tended to lord it over her and the other siblings. She has told friends that sometimes he struck her and once chased her with a butcher knife. (Gilbert Swanson Jr. has declined to speak to The Times about this or any other aspect of his family’s history.)
Gilbert Swanson Sr. responded to the turmoil in his household by withdrawing. When he came home from work, he would often lock himself in his study, setting off elaborate shouting scenes as his wife sought to gain entrance. This came to an abrupt end in the fall of 1959. On Oct. 21, her daughter Patricia’s 14th birthday, Roberta Fulbright Swanson was found unconscious in New York and rushed to a hospital emergency room. Within five minutes of her arrival, two uniformed New York City policemen had been sent to fetch the chief neurosurgeon with a message from Mayor Robert Wagner that Senator Fulbright’s sister was in the hospital and everything possible should be done for her. Nevertheless, the doctors’ efforts failed. Mrs. Swanson, 48, died that day of the effects of a 107-degree fever stemming from unspecified “natural” causes.
After being widowed, Gilbert Sr. continued to run the business much as before. And he continued to run the family as well. He was regarded as a loving but distant and demanding father, communicating with his children by memo carried by messenger from the Swanson Building. He used preprinted forms with each of the children’s names on a check list. His daughters were expected to be attractive and quiet and to ignore those parts of life they weren’t “smart enough” to understand, like money and business; his sons were expected to be strong, successful and at the same time submissive to his wishes. The Swansons were a patriarchy and Gilbert Sr. attempted to train his sons to fill his shoes.
After graduation from a private high school in Minnesota, Gibby, the eldest, enlisted in the United States Navy and rose to the rank of Quartermaster Third Class before being honorably discharged in 1959. Back in Omaha, Gibby married and began working at Samardick Enterprises, an armored car and security firm in which his father held a large interest. Gibby manned an armored car, rode patrol and eventually became a trained polygraph operator – before his promotion to president shortly before his father’s death. In later years, Gibby would look back upon his time on patrol with Samardick as some of the happiest days of his life.
Jay Fulbright Swanson, the younger brother, began his business career as a director of sales with a Swanson-owned coffee company in Houston, Tex. Jay was the most physically impressive of the children. Well over six feet tall, he was heavily muscled, the result of years of weight-lifting since adolescence. According to one of his childhood friends, Jay took up the regimen to stop his older brother from pushing him around. Even so, Jay would forever remain an intimidated person.
In the late 50’s, when Gilbert Sr. sold the coffee company where his younger son was working, Jay returned to Omaha. He lived with his wife within walking distance of North Elmwood Road, and he became a stockbroker – but not a very competent one. He had few clients, and on several occasions, when he caused them to lose money, he had to be persuaded not to replace the loss from his own personal funds. Jay Swanson was a disappointment to his father and felt the disappointment strongly.
The first open break between Gilbert Sr. and his children was precipitated by his eldest daughter, Patricia, when she was secretly married at 18 in 1964 to a man named Howard Feldman. Upon learning of the marriage, her father had family lawyer Cecil A. Johnson, a Department of Agriculture official in the New Deal, draw a financial agreement, called the 1964 Patricia Trust. In this trust agreement, the eldest Swanson daughter, intimidated as always by her father, signed over her potential inherited claim to control over a full quarter of her parents’ assets to the officers of the trust: lawyer Cecil A. Johnson and accountant Gerald E. Sawall. Her younger sister Carla, a prep school student at the time of Patricia’s marriage, would later sign similar papers. In this fashion, control of the Swanson money was given to the male line and a small group of family retainers, an arrangement that would end up being challenged during the family’s final fall from grace.
Patricia’s marriage ended in divorce in 1965, and she apparently worked out her differences with her father. According to sources close to the family, she returned regularly to Omaha from her home in California to help care for him.
The day after Gilbert Sr.’s death. the children were informed in general terms about their father’s estate by Cecil Johnson. The inheritance was reportedly called “a lot of money,” and they were assured that they would have no financial worries.
After the ordeal of the funeral was over, Gibby, a baldish 31-year-old, prepared to take over the reins as the eldest Swanson male. But Jay, 28, sank into depression, finally checking into Omaha’s St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he sought to pull himself together and shake a habit of barbiturate abuse.
Within a week of her father’s funeral, Patricia, 22, married her second husband in a ceremony in the living room at 412 North Elmwood Road. Three months later, Carla married John Baker, a former professional football player, and moved to Houston, Tex., where Baker became a successful investor.
Over the rest of that year, each of Gilbert Swanson’s heirs signed a mountain of legal papers and estate documents prepared by the family lawyers. Ten years later in Federal court, Carla and Patricia would claim that they had done so with misleading or incomplete information. Patricia’s allegedly blind endorsements included an addendum to her trust making Gibby a trustee and allowing Gibby and Jay to draw cash from her portion of one of the family’s trusts.
Round-faced family lawyer Cecil Johnson presided over the transfer of power to the third generation. Gilbert Sr.’s estate generated total legal fees in excess of $800,000. Some $325,000 of that sum went to Johnson himself for “office expenses.”
For Johnson, as it was for the rest of the family members and retainers, that office was in the Swanson Building at 8401 West Dodge Road, a wide two-story rectangle that looks somewhat like an automotive air cleaner. The structure had been built as the second generation’s monument to their success. The largest office had been Gilbert Sr.’s and Gilbert Jr. lost little time in occupying it. Shortly thereafter, the new president of Swanson Enterprises created the instrument with which he planned to make his personal perch in the Pantheon of the family legend. It was incorporated in late 1968 as Johnny’s American Inn, Inc.
Johnny’s American Inn was originally planned as the parent corporation for a chain of franchise restaurants designed to capitalize on the name of television star and Nebraska native..Johnny Carson. During the initial discussions on the subject in the boardroom at 8401 West Dodge, the chain was envisioned as a kind of “gourmet hamburger sit-down restaurant.” Before the end of 1968, Gilbert and brother Jay had put up $1 million of Swanson money to capitalize the idea. Gilbert was named president; Jay, vice president; Cecil Johnson, secretary, and Gerald Sawall, treasurer. Chairman of the board was to be Johnny Carson.
Carson had known of the Swanson family since he first broke into television at WOW- 1V in Omaha. When a friend approached him with the news that the Swansons had a business proposition, he agreed to talk and, eventually, to serve as chairman. His duties were to appear at no fewer than five restaurant grand openings a year, in exchange for $37,500 a year and a block of stock later estimated by corporate officials to be a 15-percent interest.
The first of the “Here’s Johnny’s” restaurants was scheduled to open in Omaha in June 1969. At the time, Carson explained that he had gone in with the Swansons “because of their impressive family background in the food field.” The Here’s Johnny’s sales brochure for potential franchise purchasers took much the same tack. According to it, the restaurants were being put forward by “a group of experienced food innovators under the direction of Gilbert C. Swanson Jr. and Jay Fulbright Swanson. Several of these experienced innovators took part in the launching of the famous Swanson TV Dinner …. ” Gibby’s business background was “vast” and Jay’s “extensive.” Actually, neither Gibby nor Jay had any appreciable experience in the food or franchise businesses.
Although Gilbert claimed that within six months of the opening of the first restaurant, a total of 302 Here’s Johnny’s franchises had been sold in 19 states and Canada, only 13 outlets ever opened their doors. All of them were plagued with problems, including the malfunctioning of a system of ordering food from tables by telephone. According to later court bankruptcy documents, none of the franchises made money. The least unsuccessful were those In Omaha and in Gretna, Louisiana.
There was, in short, never any proof of the basic premise: a public need for a sitdown gourmet hamburger. Moreover, the project was launched just in time for an economic tailspin that raised havoc with the franchise industry all over the country.
By early 1970, an “austerity” program had been adopted by the corporate headquarters at 8401 West Dodge, and Carson had resigned as chairman. To keep the corporation going, more than $2 million more Swanson family money was thrown in, but it proved to be good money after bad. By 1974, Johnny’s American Inn Inc. had undergone several reorganizations and finally filed a Chapter XI bankruptcy.
Here’s Johnny’s last act was played out in the Federal District Court for Louisiana in 1975 when “Gilbert Swanson Jr., Jay F. Swanson, Johnny’s American Inn et al” were sued by the Family Restaurant Corporation, Here’s Johnny’s Louisiana franchise holder. Family Restaurant alleged 18 violations of the franchise agreement and active misrepresentation on the part of the Swansons and J .A.I. Inc. The court found the defendants in breach of contract and ordered payment of the entire $218,000 in damages sought by Family Restaurant, plus court costs for all concerned.
Back before the Here’s Johnny’s fiasco, Gibby had sold Samardick Enterprises, the security guard company he once headed, but he never lost his pleasant remembrances of his early days as a rent-a-cop. While serving as president of Swanson Enterprises, he regularly wore a .38 Special under his coat, and looked for ways to express his proclivities for law enforcement. In 1973, Gibby tried to donate funds for new uniforms for the Omaha Police Department Traffic Division, but public criticism of the offer led to its eventual withdrawal by joint agreement between Swanson and then-Mayor (now United States Senator) Edward Zorinsky.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s office, however, proved more amenable to Swanson charity. Between 1972 and 1977, Gibby saw to the donation of more than $60,000 to the Sheriff’s Reserve, paying for items ranging from lie-detector equipment to motorcycles to two-way radios. The donations were made through the Gilbert C. Swanson Foundation, created in his father’s will for the express purpose of promoting “charitable, religious, educational and research objectives.” Gibby was also known to have given University of Nebraska football tickets to his law-enforcement friends and to have entertained several officers at a home he owned in Scottsdale, Ariz. Not surprisingly, Gibby was allowed to carry a badge identifying him as a Special Deputy for Douglas County.
In 1974, the year Johnny’s American Inn went into bankruptcy, and the year after the uniform controversy, Gilbert Swanson’s Special Deputy status came into unexpected view again. The occasion was a dinner at the Ramada Inn in Bellevue, in Sarpy County, a JO-minute drive from Omaha. According to police reports, Gilbert was dining there with three lawyer friends and several unidentified female companions. The party got into a discussion of blacks in which the words “nigger” and “spearchucker” were used repeatedly and at high volume. When told by the restaurant’s black manager to desist or leave, Swanson continued to be “abusive” and refused. At that point, the manager called the Bellevue Police Department.
Soon after four officers arrived, Gibby emerged from the dining room doorway holding his Douglas County Special Deputy’s badge in front of him, demanding to talk to the officer in charge. After several minutes of conversation with a lieutenant, during which Gibby reportedly continued his racist comments, the officer said it would be best if he left.
The police later recounted the following. A crowd gathered as Gibby and his friends headed for the parking lot – one of the friends carrying open bottles of wine. The party continued to make abusive comments about blacks and began bad-mouthing the police as well. Then when the lieutenant pointed out that removing such open beverages was against the law, the scion of the Swanson family cursed the lieutenant, walked away mumbling obscenities, and was grabbed by two officers, handcuffed and placed in a cruiser. He is said to have then snapped at the officers that they “would pay for this” If they ever came into Omaha County.
No formal charges were ever filed, and the Sarpy County attorney said later that he received calls from several members of the Omaha Bar Association urging him to drop the matter.
Unlike Gilbert Sr. and his brother Clarke, Gibby and Jay had never been a good working team. Now, in the aftermath of the franchising debacle, they drifted further apart. Jay, who moved back to Houston, felt despondent about and personally responsible for the losses suffered both by the family and by the franchisees. According to a source close to the Swansons, he, again, had to be talked out of trying to cover those losses out of his own significantly depleted pocket. Gradually, Jay’s depression deepened.
On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 1975, 34-year-old Jay Fulbright Swanson made his way to the attic of his Houston home, lay down on a piece of carpet, carefully folded his coat under his head and ingested a fatal dose of barbiturates. “I’m doing more harm than good being in this world. . . . , ” he wrote in a note left beside his body. He added a few lines about the details of the estate. “I want the best tax handling done” were his last words.
Gibby did not attend Jay’s funeral.
By then, Gibby had tapped more of the family capital and was well on his way into his next scheme. Early in 1974, he paid $9 million for a 95-percent interest in the First National Bank of Sioux City, Iowa. His intention, according to the legal papers filed by his sisters, was to hold the bank for a short time, sell it again at a profit, and recoup all the Johnny’s American Inn losses.
The first step went smoothly enough. Gibby arranged loans of $6.5 million from Continental Illinois Bank and Trust and $2.5 million from the First National Bank of Omaha after obtaining permission from his sisters, Patricia and Carla, to pledge some of the remaining assets in their trust funds to his new venture. They were a bit leery by then, but both were still susceptible to his arguments and somewhat afraid to refuse him. In their subsequent suit, they said that Gibby had promised them that the assets they were pledging were free of any actual risk and that he would personally secure them, but, they said, no such security was ever forthcoming and the whereabouts of a number of holdings became the subject of mystery or dispute.
What is known is that Gibby and the Swansons lost money heavily while they owned First National and they owned it for more than two years. When Gibby was finally able to sell the Sioux City bank in 1976, the sale price was more than a half-million dollars less than the Swansons had paid for it in the first place.
According to a source close to the family, Patricia became upset about the venture when she received no progress reports, and she began sending letters from her home outside San Diego, California, to Cecil Johnson at the family’s Omaha headquarters. The family tradition that women are incapable of handling business matters held fast, and she was told, in effect, to be grateful for the allowance sent her and not to meddle. She acquiesced for the moment, but in 1977, after a second divorce, Patricia Swanson finally hired a lawyer.
The details were still not forthcoming from Cecil Johnson or Gibby, but she did discover enough to lead her to file suit on June 1, 1978, in Federal District Court for Nebraska. She asked that Gilbert C. Swanson Jr., Cecil Johnson and Gerald Sawall be removed as trustees of the 1964 Patricia Trust. Her sister, Carla, soon filed a similar motion in reference to her own trust. Both women would allege that their money was being squandered, and that failure to grant their requests would place them in severe financial jeopardy.
In the meantime, the alleged architect of that jeopardy, Gilbert C. Swanson Jr., had announced to the Omaha press that he was giving up his business career for full-time employment as the Douglas County Sheriff Department’s special deputy and chief polygraph examiner. “I feel I’m a policeman,” he explained. “When I talk to policemen and they look at me, hopefully, they see me as a policemen.” Gibby added that he wished he had made the switch years before.
His sisters may well have wished the same thing. After their suit was filed, Gibby offered to resign from the family trusts, according to a lawyer’s memorandum, if his family would forgive his debts to them, allow him to keep more than $1 million of his assets, pay off all his outside debts and supply him with an additional $250,000.
The offer was refused in short order so Gibby tried another maneuver. According to family sources, he sent a message to the sisters in which he claimed to possess documents that could have a disastrous financial impact on them and that he was prepared to show the documents to the Internal Revenue Service unless an agreement was reached that would stop the court case and guarantee him $50,000 a year for life. Carla and Patricia ignored the threat as the case went to court.
Aside from the repetition of charges alleging incompetence and double-dealing, the most enlightening information revealed during the Swanson’s days in court last fall concerned Gilbert’s current finances. Under oath, he listed $1.52 million in assets and $2.9 million in outstanding liabilities, including a $224,000 cumulative tax deficiency. Each month he was going more deeply into the red by close to $19,000. As of Sept. 1, 1978, Gilbert Swanson Jr., the principal heir to one of the largest fortunes of the Middle West, was, according to papers prepared by his accountants, insolvent.
Ironically, however, his police career was flourishing. On Dec. 10, the day before court was scheduled to resume for a third time, the Douglas County Sheriff-elect, Richard Roth, revealed that Gibby was one of his “top choices” for the job of chief deputy, number two man in the 97-member department. Speculation about that possibility had developed following reports of a lunch Roth had attended with high-ranking officers from more than a dozen local law-enforcement jurisdictions at the exclusive Omaha Club. The meal was in honor of visiting United States Secret Service Director H. Stuart Knight, and Roth was the only one of the group to bring an assistant. That assistant was Gilbert Swanson Jr. Roth explained that Gibby had been invited because he was the only one who was an actual member of the Omaha Club and could therefore secure a table for lunch. “Swanson has received some bum raps,” Roth told The World-Herald. “Gib is a very intelligent guy. … He’s matured tremendously.”
On Dec. 14, 1978, a settlement of the Swanson family dispute was reported. The terms of the agreement have never officially been made public, but The Omaha-World Herald reported that its key elements were the resignation of Gibby, Cecil Johnson and Gerald Sawall from the sisters’ trusts and the dissolution of the joint family holdings. Shortly after the settlement was made, it became clear that the Swansons were cashing in their chips. Before the tum of the year, the Swanson Indian Hills Theater, the Swanson Professional Building, some assorted plots of land, the Swanson Towers apartment complex and the family’s Beebe and Runyon wholesale furniture business had all been sold. By New Year’s day, Gilbert Swanson Jr. was hereditary president of an empire upon which the Middle Western sun had finally set.
Five days later, he began a new career. On Jan. 5, 1979, freshly installed Sheriff Richard Roth announced Gibby’s appointment as his chief deputy. In an article in The World Herald on Jan. 8, Sheriff Roth claimed to have thoroughly investigated his new deputy’s background, including the 1974 incident at the Bellevue, Neb., Ramada Inn. A subsequent check by The Omaha Sun on Roth’s claims revealed that the sheriff had failed to contact six of the eyewitnesses listed in the police reports.
In the same article, Gibby said that some people had misunderstood the issues in the recent lawsuit with his sisters. There had never been any allegation that he misused assets, he insisted.
Shortly after Gibby’s appointment was made public, an Omaha radio station devoted an hour of talk-show time to phone calls from listeners about Douglas County’s new chief deputy. Without exception, every reaction was negative. While the immigrant Carl and the brothers Gilbert Sr. and Clarke were still remembered as “honest,” “decent” and “gifted,” Gibby was viewed as being “pretty dumb,” “sick,” “gun happy.” Said one listener, Gibby couldn’t “run a peanut stand.”
On March 6, 1979, 8401 the Swanson Building at Dodge Road, monument to the TV Dinner legend and former headquarters of Swanson Enterprises, Johnny’s American Inn and the 1964 Patricia Trust, was sold by the Gilbert C. Swanson Family Partnership to a group of Omaha professionals for $1,350,000. Chief Deputy Swanson had no financial interest in the transaction, having relinquished it as part of his settlement with his sisters. At the time of sale, the Swansons owed Omaha $134,000 in back taxes on the building.