A Little About a Gross

by Susie Hodgson

There is a park in Burbank that many of you have been to. Located at 2800 W. Empire Avenue sits Robert E. Gross Park, a popular spot for family fun. But how many of these families know who Robert E. Gross was? I have a hunch a lot of you readers do, but let’s take a look back anyway.

Robert Ellsworth Gross was born in an upscale suburb of Boston in 1887. Robert -- or “Bob” as he was generally known -- was educated at Harvard. Upon graduation, he went into investment banking.

Bob had a very close relationship with his younger brother Courtlandt Sherrington Gross. (Just his name sounds wealthy, doesn’t it?) “Cort,” as he was called, followed his brother to Harvard and they then went into business ventures together. Later in life they lived right down the street from each other, in another not-bad (!) community in Southern California called Bel-Air. (“Swimmin’ pools, movie stars…”)

But now I have to digress. There was once another pair of brothers who also worked together. Their names were Allan and Malcolm Loughead. The two were huge aviation buffs, along with their friend Jack Northrop. (Yes, that Northrop.) But then the Great Depression hit. By this time, the Loughead Brothers’ company had created the infamous Vega airplane, a favorite of such aviation luminaries as Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, Roscoe Turner and Wiley Post. Loughead even produced the speedy plane, the Orion. But, in the end, the Depression won and the Loughead Brothers went bankrupt.

Back to Bob Gross. In 1932, along with his brother Cort and a few others, Bob bought the bankrupt company, by then known as Lockheed which was actually how “Loughead” was supposed to be pronounced. The price? $40,000. The bankruptcy judge, who probably thought that Bob was nuts, said, “I hope, young man, you know what you’re doing!” Oh boy, did Bob ever! And he kept doing it for the rest of his life.

Bob Gross was a risk-taker and a smart one. He is credited for taking the broken, bankrupt Lockheed Company out of the red into the black during the worst of economic times. Early on, Gross bet on the potential of a very advanced, all-metal, retractable Model 10 named the “Electra.” The Electra dominated the market and set records. In 1937, Lockheed began mass-producing the P-38 Lightning Fighters, which even the Germans feared. We also can’t forget the famous Hudson Bombers, which along with the P-38s, changed the course of World War II. When Bob Gross bought Lockheed, it was in financial shambles. A decade later, Lockheed’s sales rose to nearly $150 million. Staffing also soared, particularly during the war where it hit an all-time high of nearly 94,000 employees working 24/7, many of whom were women, or “Rosie the Riveters.”

Robert Gross was consistently described as a visionary. His motto was, “The horizons are absolutely limitless” and he (and Cort) were equally well-known for their eye for talent. Lockheed hired Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, a true genius who went on to lead Skunk Works, Lockheed’s top-secret, top-status division. Only the best of the best got in, and none were allowed to speak of what they worked on – ever. Not even to your spouse.

The war certainly was profitable for Lockheed, yet Lockheed continued to do well in the 50’s, thanks to the advent of the Constellation (“Connie”) airliner and the work of the amazing Skunk Works team. In 1956, Robert Gross was named CEO & Chairman of the Board (no longer just a President!) and Cort was right behind him.

Not much is known of Robert Gross’s personal life. He was married to Mary. They entertained often – and always for business reasons. Every trip, every dinner or cocktail party was for Lockheed. Bob, and Cort, too, did have another passion: cars. Early on, Bob raced Corbins. Later on he took to owning exotic foreign cars including a Mercedes, a Voison, a/an Hispano Suiza, and an Aston Martin.

But in 1961, Bob started experiencing intense abdominal pains. He had stomach surgery in the spring and afterwards tried to plan an extravagant trip to the Hotel Du Cap D’ Antibes for himself, his wife, and a “family friend” named Blanche Yeager. (Blanche had been a beauty pageant winner, a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies – and, oh, she also posed for nude pictures..!) The doctors nixed the idea of a trip abroad; they knew Bob was very sick. It wasn’t long before Robert Gross knew they were right.

And so Bob took to writing some of his thoughts. Among them, he regretted that he’d consumed his life so entirely with business. He said he treated Mary “abominably” and would change if he pulled through. But he didn’t. Robert Gross died in September of 1961 of pancreatic cancer. He was only 64. He left the bulk of his estate to wife Mary, but, interestingly, he also left $250,000 (over $2 million in today’s dollars) to Blanche Yeager.

A couple of final notes: Allan and Malcolm Loughead (who changed their names to Lockheed) did okay in life. Although initially ticked that he wasn’t selected to join Robert Gross’s Lockheed, Allan went into real estate and made good money. He also consulted to the aviation industry, including to Lockheed! Malcolm started what became a very successful hydraulic brake system company, eventually selling it to Bendix.

And as for Cort – well, that’s where the drama is. He took over the CEO job when Bob died and retired in 1967. In 1982, Cort (then 79) and his wife Alexandra (age 68) were now living in the posh Main Line district of Philadelphia. After running errands one day, they came home to startle a violent man burglarizing their home. That man ended up shooting Cort, Alex, the maid, and the family dog to death. The murderer was a drifter and career criminal. But, oddly, his own father was successful businessman in -- what else? The aviation industry.

There is just a snippet about Lockheed. There’s SO MUCH more! Almost every Burbank resident who visits our museum has a connection to Lockheed. Do you? Come see our Lockheed room and reminisce!

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site: www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org
Email: ghowardmuseum@sbcglobal.net

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