Michael D'Antonio's new biography, Hershey: Milton S. Hershey's Extraordinary Life of Wealth, Empire, and Utopian Dreams, is more than a rags-to-riches American success tale. D'Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for his Newsday work, does an excellent job of using the story of the 19th-century chocolate magnate's life to illustrate how business can be combined with visionary altruism, a welcome chronicle in today's age of corporate scandal and greed. The book goes beyond the dry facts of Hershey's life to sketch the larger social, political and economic forces that played into his success.
Despite a great deal of luck and hard work, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Hershey. His first job at an ice-cream parlor sowed seeds for a life in sweets, but he soon endured a series of failures, including bankruptcy with two different candy companies, and a botched attempt at making cough drops, before he opened the Lancaster Caramel Company in Pennsylvania in the 1880s. Eventually, his highly successful strategy would be to offer Americans a nickel chocolate bar, a sweet alternative to the expensive European versions on the market.
What sets Hershey's story apart from other top businessmen is what he chose to do with his wealth. With visions of a utopian community, he founded the town of Hershey in the cornfields of Pennsylvania as well as a residential school for needy children. Today, more than 13,000 residents live in this bucolic small town, where the downtown streetlights are shaped like giant Hershey's Kisses, and golf course fairways stretch out from the lawn of the chocolate factory. The hook of Hershey is the recent battle over how to manage the town and school 60 years after Hershey's death. A proposed sale of Hershey to gum giant Wrigley in 2002 was squashed by concerned residents, who feared what would happen to Mr. Hershey's town if an outsider took charge. Today, questions remain about how to move Hershey company and town forward, without the vision and personal leadership of the great man himself. Lisa Waddle is a writer and pastry baker in Nashville.