Americans love lists.
We love ranking and listing the people and the things of this world, from Time magazine’s annual “100 Most Influential People of the Year” list to Rolling Stone’s greatest singers, songs, and albums lists, to Oscar nominee lists, sports stars lists, best seller lists, best places to live, shop, dine, or visit lists, even sexiest, funniest, and weirdest lists, not to mention lists of cars, baby names, CEO compensation, and political polls. Maybe it’s our fascination with celebrity that drives us to itemize the most influential, best dressed, and most famous. Or maybe it’s just our natural competitive streak that seems to go with being American.
The list in this book is definitely all-American. Everybody in it was or is an American citizen and every one of them has been a change agent in American culture. There are no kings and queens, Hitlers, or Freuds here. These are all home-grown Americans or, if transplanted, now well rooted in American soil. What is remarkable about the 100 people assembled here is how their single, solitary passions and achievements changed the United States and the world. Cranky geniuses like Steve Jobs and Henry Ford, charismatic personalities like Oprah Winfrey and Johnny Carson, practical, lone wolf types like L. L. Bean, off-the-wall creatives like Andy Warhol, plain-spoken millionaires like Warren Buffett, all have been major change agents of American life and culture in the 20th century, shaping the way things are today in the 21st.
These 100 people were chosen during some months of review and deliberation by an editorial board of academics well versed in American history, culture, and literature. We started with a list of 207 candidates culled from our reading, our research, and our colleagues. We found that everyone we knew had candidates to propose. Some of us dined out on this project, our dinner companions joining in enthusiastically with suggestions. The idea was to find the real change agents, the people who had effected big changes in attitudes or perspectives or methods of doing things during the American Century. The eventual criteria, clarified by one member of our board, Walter Cummins, were categorized this way:
There are dozens of other change agents who are included in the 100 here presented and other, more nuanced categories. For example, we included Bart Simpson whose antics and vocabulary in a long-running television show make him a change agent who has had an ongoing impact on American culture. Superman is here too, an icon if there ever was one, and a change agent who ushered in the comic book as the first cartoon superhero. Robert Pittman, the television CEO, who started MTV with music videos, set in motion a new superfast visual style that resonated powerfully with the under-30 generation and launched a decade’s worth of new pop stars, including Michael Jackson. Quieter but equally powerful change agents were Juliette Low who dreamed up the Girl Scouts and Martha Stewart who turned being a homemaker into a highly skilled profession.
Titans of American capitalism like J. P. Morgan and Warren Buffett changed the world of high finance, Morgan by saving the U.S. government itself, twice (he is widely considered the model for the top-hatted “Rich Uncle Pennybags” on the Monopoly game board), and Buffett, a math whiz and financial genius whose investing strategies have made him the second richest man in the United States (behind Bill Gates of Microsoft) and whose most casual remarks can turn the direction of the stock market on a dime. The moguls who made movies in Hollywood, like D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, had a lot to do with shaping American attitudes and lifestyles as well as with creating our thriving celebrity culture, as did people like director John Ford and gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Marlon Brando changed the standard male movie star image with his sullen masculinity and method acting performances. Needless to say, Alfred Kinsey’s mid-century report on the sex lives of Americans and Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy gave Americans some startling new perspectives. Martin Luther King Jr. exposed the glaring inequities of life for black Americans and mobilized the nation to change that. W.E.B. Du Bois had preceded him in the same quest, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black to be appointed to the Supreme Court, helped even out imbalances in the law.
Even though we may frown and call Barbie dolls sexist, Ruth Handler’s invention of this iconic doll at Mattel gave little girls in the United States a favorite toy for generations. And Estee Lauder answered many women’s prayers with the face cream she first cooked up in her kitchen and parlayed into a billion-dollar business with dozens of other beauty products to fight wrinkles and aging. Jack LaLanne, the “godfather of fitness,” offered 20th-century Americans a chance to shape up and left them a legacy of gym workouts and fitness routines. Richard Avedon’s photographs of the famous and his fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar made fashion more accessible and photography itself museum-worthy, as did the photography of Ansel Adams, whose images affected American ideas of beauty. His photographs of the American landscape helped preserve much of its wilderness.
The story of the United States is also a major story of electronic communications and media, from the man who invented the transistor, William Shockley, which paved the way for the electronic age of computers, to Edwin Armstrong’s wideband FM transmission, to Philo Farnsworth whose image scanner and video cathode tube made television possible. None of it would have happened without the work of Thomas Edison in electricity nor the explosion of print media published by William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce. Later came television executives David Sarnoff at RCA and NBC, and Roone Arledge at ABC whose Monday Night Football gave American sports teams the center-stage venue they have never relinquished. In fact, major American change agents have come from the sports world, including Jim Brown and Vince Lombardi in football, Michael Jordan in basketball, Jack Nicklaus in golf, Billie Jean King in tennis, and Muhammad Ali in boxing.
American artists, writers, and musicians have played a central role in the formation of new aesthetic styles, reflecting a national spirit of innovation. Abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock helped make the United States the center of the art world for the first time ever, wrenching it away from Europe with his enormous Jack-the-dripper canvases. Meanwhile, Andy Warhol was mining the media territory to create the next big thing, pop art. George Gershwin, who lived only 38 years, managed to leave behind an American music genre that changed everything in its eclecticism, as Leonard Bernstein refined its sound on Broadway and added its classical strain. Ernest Hemingway’s spare literary style, rejecting 19th-century embellishment, continues to haunt American writers all the way into a new century. Isaac Asimov, envisioning an alternative future, gave the United States a science fiction all its own, offering a new way of looking at the world with a cosmic sweep. The confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, another break from convention, remains a dominant strain in American verse, as does Allen Ginsburg’s brand of street-inflected poetry. Eugene O’Neill, the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote the plays still considered quintessential American tragedies. Larry Kramer, a gay rights activist who wrote plays to promote the cause, represents the forefront of major sociological change.
Then there are the clever retailers and advertisers, like Ray Kroc of McDonald’s whose golden arches now spread over much of the globe, Leo Burnett, the “sultan of sell” advertising executive who created icons like the Jolly Green Giant and the Pillsbury doughboy, and Sam Walton whose retail colossus, Walmart, operates nearly 10,000 stores around the world. Economists Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson have advised presidents and both have won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their innovative analyses of the United States’ financial cycles. The great achievement of Frances Perkins, secretary of labor and the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, was to propose the Social Security system and get it passed into law. And Margaret Sanger fought many battles to make contraception and the birth control pill available to women. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, upheld the Roe v. Wade ruling that allowed women reproductive choices.
Scientists like astronomer Edwin Hubble made crucial discoveries that changed our understanding of the universe, showing that it was expanding, not standing still. Even Einstein, who had assumed the universe was static, took notice and had to make a few revisions in his own theories. Chemist Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in showing the structure of molecules and crystals and the nature of the chemical bond. Physicist Robert Oppenheimer, in New Mexico watching the test explosion of the atom bomb that he helped develop, said that he knew the world would never be the same. Other scientists made enormous breakthroughs in human health, including Dr. Jonas Salk, who introduced the first effective vaccine against polio, and Dr. Denton Cooley, a pioneer in heart surgery.
Religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, who advocated a hard-boiled Christian realism, and evangelist Billy Graham, who “preached in person to more people than any human being who has ever lived,” according to Time magazine, offered views of Christianity that made spiritual sense to many in an increasingly uncertain world. Psychologist Abraham Maslow charted the wellsprings of human motivation, and Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, offered a program to help the addicted. Perhaps Al Capone, labeled “Public Enemy No.1” by the FBI during the 1930s, doesn’t deserve a place in a list like this, but he was a major change agent during Prohibition, not only fostering the unfortunate growth of gangs but also spurring needed improvements in law enforcement and the regulation of organized crime.
Then there was always Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney’s enduring creation, to lighten things up, as did comedians like Milton Berle, cartoon satirist R. Crumb, and late night television host Johnny Carson. Public Television’s Joan Ganz Cooney gave kids and the rest of us the Muppets. Musicians and performers like Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley and dancer Martha Graham changed American music and dance. They created new styles and genres that upended the categories, responding to new directions in American culture. Berry Gordy’s Detroit Motown production company successfully brought African American music front and center into the mainstream (it had already been there, under the radar, for years).
Maybe after all the real game changers of the 20th century and the next have been the thinkers and engineers of the digital age who have changed the way we get information and communicate with each other. The biographer of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, says the late founder of Apple “is the one most certain to be remembered a century from now”:
History will place him in the pantheon right next to Edison and Ford. More than anyone else of his time, he made products that were completely innovative, combining the power of poetry and processors.
But in the end, perhaps there is no better symbol of homegrown American change agents than the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville, whose obsession with flight started with bird-watching and ended up on a hill at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina in 1903 with a homemade airplane built in a bike shop. The fact that it went airborne was a transformative event of the 20th century: “First in flight.” Thanks to individualists like the Wright brothers, America has been first with the changes that have changed the world.