WealthSpike: Thurston Howell III and the family fortune

When WealthSpike was growing up in 1970s Australia he was a regular viewer of the American TV comedy Gilligan's Island. One of the characters portrayed among the individuals marooned on a desert island was Thurston Howell III, a blue-blood American from Newport, Rhode Island, who had a “window seat” at the exclusive Union League Club in New York City.

Anyway, apart from the brilliant comedic character of Thurston Howell III, it was the “III” bit, particularly from the perspective of a fiercely egalitarian country like Australia at the time, that always seemed to be the most absurd part of Thurston’s character - might there be two other Thurston Howells and did such characters really exist in real life?

Well, as we all know, there are many such characters in real life - and they seem to be alive and well more than 50 years after the making of Gilligan’s Island. A quick look through the Forbes billionaire list reveals some obvious “Thurston Howell III” types. The extremely rich and successful Edward Johnson III is perhaps one of the more obvious fits in terms of name and blue-blood connections.

A quick look through the Forbes billionaire list reveals some obvious “Thurston Howell III” types

He, along with his daughter, Abigail, own Fidelity Investments, one of the biggest fund managers in the world. Like Thurston, Edward went to Harvard and is a member of one of the country’s most prestigious clubs, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps he may even have a “window seat” at the Academy.

Another American tradition in the same vein is the use of Senior or Junior, often abbreviated as Snr or Jr at the end of ones name,  when the same first name is used from one generation to another. “Snr”, “Jr” and “III’s” are sometimes used in one family. Some good examples of this are Samuel Newhouse Jr, whose son is called Samuel Irving Newhouse III, and Thomas F. Frist Jr, whose son, Thomas F. Frist III, even has the same middle name as his father.

Interestingly, the same salutation tradition doesn’t apply to women when it comes to “Jr” or “Snr”, so WealthSpike has been told, although it does apply in the use of “II” and “III”, the difference being is that it is spelt out, so “II” becomes “second” and so on. But, despite a comprehensive search, WealthSpike found no obvious examples of such salutations in women's names in the US. Women might just have more common sense when it comes to this tradition.

The use of such salutations in the US has often been explained by American society’s desire to imitate Europe's use of peerage. Of course, in the US honorifics like Jr and Snr carry no formal privileges beyond what they may within the immediate family. Although greatly eroded in recent years, European honorifics like Lord, Baron and Sir often carry some official privileges, or at least they do in the UK - in most of continental Europe those privileges are far gone.

But such titles in Europe are rarely to do with family business dynasties, unlike American honorifics. There is one notable exception to this - Count Anton-Wolfgang von Faber-Castell, the eighth generation head of the pencil and pen maker Faber-Castell.

All this suggests that Thurston Howell III, if he was still alive, would be in very good company. He would no doubt be watching a steady stream of “IIIs”, “Juniors” and “Seniors”, and maybe even the occasional "Count" entering the Union League Club from his window seat.

But only if he was rescued from the desert island.