Henry Steinway is the great-grandson of the Steinway & Sons founder and the last family member to lead the firm. Although he’s 92 and retired, Steinway still spends most mornings at the Steinway piano showroom on W. 57th Street in Manhattan.
What was it like growing up in the Steinway family?
I was one of six children. My mother was a Yankee. We were raised in the American Yankee manner. When I got out of college, 1937, it was the Depression. Then I said, “Should I try the piano business?” My old man said, “Sure.” So, I tried it.
I’m the inheritor, I can continue the tradition I guess. I have five children — some tried the business and didn’t like it. Now they are all over the country. So we sold it to CBS.
Can you talk about your family’s immigrant experience?
I don’t see myself as an immigrant. I was raised by a Yankee mother in an upper class New York way. I went to private schools, went to Harvard. I never thought of myself as â€œGerman-American, which I suppose I am.
In 1937, when I started, there were still many workers of German origin. Then the Italians came in. Roman Catholic Germans and Italians married so we had many issues at that time, then of course the Greeks moved into Astoria and now it’s the League of Nations out there.
Has Steinway employed a lot of immigrants over the years?
Lots of South Americans recently, but I can’t tell you from where. They work their way up gradually. Some are foreman and supervisors. Now it’s a pretty general group representing New York and Queens. I think I heard Queens is one of the most diverse areas — various types, Thai and Korean. So it’s a very international community.
Do you think Steinway provides immigrants with opportunity to live the American Dream?
They do and they always have. I remember years ago when someone would die and there was a local funeral home that was used by a lot of the workers. I would attend some of these wakes. You’d see this guy who was a worker in the plant and his two sons who were lawyers. I mean the upward mobility.
We do have a few father-to-son relationships still. The family name Drasche has three generations there. The most recent one started his own business fixing up pianos somewhere out in Queens. So it has always been a very interesting community.
How has it changed?
The employees naturally move off the island. That’s why we have that big parking lot. I remember we built that years ago. We’d study the license plates to see who lives where and by then about half of them had moved off the island. About 20 years ago.
In the old days, the Steinway Street trolley — which [was] one of the last in New York —
went across the Queensboro Bridge. I used to take it…. There was a track and I could get on there and go across the bridge to Steinway Street where the factory is. So that was the great means of transit for all the local people.
We were raised in Manhattan. My trips were to the Steinway mansion mostly. It was a lovely estate. About the early 20s, I couldn’t have been more than six, seven years old, they decided to sell it and my father was designated to clean out the stuff that was there so we’d sometimes go out and I remember playing around on the then-expansive grounds. Now it’s all wire fence and all that stuff. We didn’t have any close connection to Astoria other than that. I’m the last guy that’s intimately connected with the business.
Does that make you sad?
No. It’s the normal American story. And a very good story. The guy comes over here with an idea. The family runs it. Then I sold it to CBS in ’72 and I haven’t regretted it for a minute even though CBS was going through all kinds of changes. So it’s a rather unique thing and I think it’s an American thing to be proud of because it’s gone through this typical American history of a family that was able to carry it on for a period of time, and then they put it in the hands, ultimately, of professional investors. And that’s the way to go. I’m happy with it.