Full Name Charles Culp Burlingham
Born 31 August 1858 in Plainfield, New Jersey
Died 6 June 1959 in New York (Manhattan), New York
Buried Kensico Cemetery, Valhalla, New York
Elected 2 December 1893 at age thirty-five
Archivist’s Note: Designated an honorary member in 1955. Father of Charles Burlingham; he was the first member to attain the age of 100 years.
“C. C. B.” was a Centurion in two senses. He was an honorary member of our Association. And, in years, he passed the century mark. To the end, in spite of physical handicaps, his mind was as vigorous and as luminous as in the days of his prime. The Century awarded him the highest honor it could give and the City of New York called him its First Citizen.
The arresting thing about his powerful influence upon the city’s government was that it was exerted without title or office. His work for reform was all behind the scenes. To what extent his efforts determined the defeat of Tammany by the election of John Purroy Mitchel in 1913 and again, by the triumph of La Guardia in 1933, cannot be reckoned; nor can there be any accurate estimate of his immense influence on revisions of charter or the raising of judicial standards or the smashing of rackets, for he never sought personal credit. Yet there was no city official good or bad but felt either the guidance or the pressure of his hand; none was ever quite unaware of the intervention of his wit and wisdom.
Charles Culp Burlingham was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, the 31st of August, 1858. His father, Dr. Aaron Burlingham, was a Baptist minister who in the boy’s ninth year was called to St. Louis. C. C. B. went for two years to Washington University there and then entered Harvard College, from which he was graduated in 1879. Two years later he received his LL.B. degree from the Columbia Law School in New York. In the same year, 1881, he was admitted to the New York bar and began law practice in the city.
A little known phase of his life began at this point. His father, in the old Baptist tradition, had so emphatically disapproved of the theater that the boy had grown up knowing nothing of it. On his father’s death, however, the young man went suddenly into reverse from the parental training and conceived a passion for the stage. He was introduced to it by two friends: Julia Marlowe’s first husband, Robert Mather, and an artist friend through whom he met Ellen Terry. In time he came to know the important actors and actresses in England and America, and after his election to the Century he brought the English producer Granville Barker to it for a long evening of talk about the international theater.
C. C. B.’s professional specialty became admiralty law, and he was long considered the leader in this field, although his interests ranged far and wide. Education was a particular concern. The overseers and faculty of Harvard felt his influence; three Harvard presidents knew of his devotion to the highest intellectual standards. For a while he headed New York City’s Board of Education. Though he often expressed his contempt for “sentimental Christianity,” he was deeply religious and took an intense interest in the vestry of St. George’s Protestant Episcopal Church in New York of which he was senior warden. In politics he was a Democrat but not in city elections when Tammany held the party whip. In 1956 when he was ninety-eight, he told someone his major interests were Harvard University, his church, and the election of Adlai Stevenson.
C. C. B. was often on the unpopular side of a cause. He was a pioneer in the advocacy of woman suffrage. He believed in the innocence of Sacco and Vanzetti. He favored the admission of Red China to the United Nations. In a letter to the New York Times, he bitterly attacked the State Department for its denial of a visa to the so-called “red” Dean of Canterbury. The action was, he wrote, a “flagrant and foolish violation by our Government of the constitutional right of freedom of speech.”
In the sixty-six years of his membership he became greatly attached to the Century. In his later years he was especially anxious to meet and talk to the younger members. In the spring of 1959, in his hundred and first year, he came to a dinner at the Century for Learned Hand. As a special honor he was seated between Judge Hand and Justice Frankfurter. But later in a taxi he was asked if this had pleased him. “It was all right,” he replied, “but I would have preferred meeting some new people.”
Once, when he was well over ninety, he wrote a note to a Centurion whom he did not know but whose name had puzzled him because it was so nearly like his own [almost certainly Roger Burlingame]. “I am sure we must be cousins,” he wrote. “Come and have tea with me and we’ll talk about what bad spellers our ancestors were.” The Centurion at once called him on the telephone. “No,” he was told by the housekeeper, “Mr. Burlingham is downtown at his office. But I know he wants to see you. Can you come up at five today?” The Centurion arrived on time but C. C. B. had not come home. “Well,” said the Centurion, “the traffic is bad—his car would naturally be delayed.” “Car?” he was asked. “Why didn’t you know, Mr. Burlingham always rides on the subway?” Presently he came. He was nearly blind and quite deaf. In an hour of talk his visitor was so fascinated that he lost all reckoning of time. Looking, at last, at his watch he was shocked. “But I have tired you!” he said. “Nonsense,” said C. C. B., using his favorite expression, and he then insisted that the “cousin” stay another half hour.
Almost to the end of his life, he welcomed visitors. When he was at last confined by his disabilities, men and women came from everywhere to his home—not out of kindness to an old man but to be heartened by his courage and stimulated by his wise, humorous, and sometimes ironic words.
C. C. B. believed in an immortality beyond that of men’s memories. The rector of his church remembers his saying: “Do you know the most interesting half hour I am looking forward to? It’s the first half hour after death.”
So we cannot mourn this friend; only rejoice that he stayed with us so long and gave us so much.
1960 Century Association Yearbook