A Cosmic Fairy Tale (and True Story)

Kirby Urner
5 min readMar 25, 2022

Once upon a time, a once full-of-himself, hard-drinking naval officer, twice expelled from Harvard, was feeling down on his luck. Civilian life had been cruel.

His ability to think globally, acquired through his training at the Annapolis Naval Academy, did not seem to be doing him much good at the Armour meat packing company in Chicago.

A few years later, when his father-in-law’s construction company went under (they were business partners), and his daughter had died from spinal meningitis, when gangster Al Capone carried his wife’s groceries upstairs to their dingy apartment, he become suicidal.

What was on Richard’s mind at the time?

“I had dined with several of J.P. Morgan’s partners, and I knew Al Capone. I was convinced that people on either side of the track in many situations didn’t know or understand one another and yet somehow or other I did seem to know them both, and did seem to understand them both — and they seemed to understand me.”

He was an empath, soon to become a polymath, a diplomat, a go-between.

But to be a strong player, he would have to be his own man and not parrot one side or the other’s talking points in any sort of debate or altercation.

“The next thing I concluded was that one reason I was in a great deal of trouble was that I had been extremely accommodating in my willingness to believe what the other fellow asked me to believe. I was over and over again in enormous conflict between what had seemed to be good rules given by one fellow who seemed powerful in his area and another fellow powerful in his area.” [1]

He was experiencing the fate of many a go-between: he’d get caught in the middle with no way to stand up for himself.

Richard decided, after abandoning suicide as an alternative, that he would dedicate the rest of his life to being his own man and serving all of humanity as best he could, as a kind of experiment in “what one individual might do”.

He would be a self-made inventor, mediator and diplomat, without becoming overly identified with one camp or another — even at the height of the Cold War.

By the peak of his career, he was able to represent the values and ideals of the post WW2 USA to the world, through architecture, as the man behind the USA pavilion for the Montreal 1967 Expo.

Kirby Urner