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Fifteen years later Eastman had reason to recall those words. In France he picked up a London newspaper and read that the new tennis champion of the world was a 19-year-old wonder named Sidney B. Wood Jr. His old friend's son had belied the grim promise of his cradle. Young Sidney, in the intervening years, had grown up in the healthful climate of Arizona, where, by the time he was 14 years old, he was not only the state tennis champion but the champion checkers player as well.
Wood is a man of cool clarity of judgment, on or off the courts, and he realized, at the height of his tennis career, that the game would not give him a living. In 1932, aged 20, he abandoned tennis and went to work in a Wall Street job. Two years later he had made a small fortune, which he lost in the 1934 recession. Two years after that, having gone out west to take up gold mining?a business he had learned something about in his Arizona youth?he was well on his way to success in this field, and by 1938 he was president of a syndicate controlling gold and sulphur mines. Then the impending war cut mining to the vanishing point, and Wood came east again.
A SUITABLE BUSINESS
He looked around for a business which would suit his assets, which were primarily a lot of friends and an astonishing ability to make more. He thought of the laundry business, partly because no one in his Stork Club and El Morocco set was in it. He learned that a laundry could earn as much as 25 percent profit, which suited him. He made an arrangement with a laundry to share in the increased business?if any?which Wood could provide. Then he beguiled his friends into sending him their washing.
By late 1940 he had enough capital to open his own plant. His first partner was Frank Shields, also a champion tennis player. Wood approached his own laundry business with the same icy dispassion with which he might have approached a game of checkers. He knew that unless he offered something different, he would be just another laundryman. Being just another laundryman didn't appeal to him.
So he began selling service, better service than most other laundries offered. He surmised that most customers didn't like the collars of their shirts or the hems of their handkerchiefs profaned with the hieroglyphic mysteries of the laundry mark, so he began putting his markings on in a special ink which is invisible in ordinary light and only appears under the special illumination in his plant. He began putting his shirts in cellophane bags, which cost him one cent each but which so dressed up the shirt that he soon charged five cents more per shirt. He noticed that most laundries mash down embroidered initials, so he employed a special girl to raise them. And he continued to improve his service.
He put most of his profits back into the business and saved money by living in the laundry. An amateur carpenter, he built a small studio apartment and there he stayed. He was still playing around with his cafe society friends and they took his assertion that he lived "over the laundry" to be merely one of Sid's more flamboyant jokes.
One day his checker reported that he had found a check for $10,000 in the pocket of a jacket belonging to a customer Wood probably wisely refuses to identify. This opportunity for a gag was too good to be missed, so Wood wrote the customer a very short note. "We have found a check for $10,000 in a pocket of a jacket you sent to us for cleaning," it said. "Shall we return it or credit your account?"
Traces of his childhood illness still hung on, so he was classified 4F and was able to devote most of the war years, when he wasn't playing bond-raising tennis, to a scientific study of the laundry business. He may be the only laundryman (or the only man, for that matter) who knows that a man's shirt can take about 30 washings, at which time it is through. Budge-Wood launderings, that is. Other laundries can make confetti out of it in 20. He also realized that there was a good deal more to washing than just laundry, so he decided to branch out.
He made up his mind to wash anything washable. He went from washing sheets to waxing floors and from providing clean maids' uniforms to providing them with maids inside them. Now the actual laundry is only a part of his business, but it is the part which he regards with the most affection.