George Bruce Cortelyou was born 26 July 1862 to Rose (née Seery) and Peter Crolius Cortelyou, Jr. in New York City. He was educated at public schools in Brooklyn, the Nazareth Military Academy in Pennsylvania, and the Hempstead Institute on Long Island.
He entered the New England Conservatory of Music at Boston, intending to prepare for a career in music. After several years, he returned to New York to continue his musical studies under private tutors. Meanwhile, he pursued a course in stenography merely as an adjunct to his general education. He was so successful as a stenographer that he decided to follow that profession rather than music.
At the age of 20, he received a BA degree from Massachusetts State Normal School, a teacher's college in Westfield, Massachusetts. He then studied at and graduated from the law schools of Georgetown University and Columbian University (the latter now being George Washington University). George then began teaching, later taking a stenography course and mastering shorthand. He began his government career as a stenographer and typist for the U.S. Customs service.
On 15 September 1888, he married Lily Morris Hinds, with whom he had five children.
In 1891, he obtained a position as secretary to the chief postal inspector of New York. His mentor was Wilson Bissell, a New York Democrat and political kingpin who served as Postmaster General during President Grover Cleveland's second term (1893-1897). Bissell had graduated from Yale and practiced law out of Buffalo, NY where he was the law partner of then future President Cleveland. A promotion led to a job as the secretary to the Fourth Assistant Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. In 1895, Bissell recommended George to serve as President Cleveland's chief clerk.
George managed to prove himself invaluable to President Cleveland, who then recommended him as a personal secretary to his successor, William McKinley, stating that if he wanted "things to run smoothly around here, my advice is to keep Cortelyou." McKinley made George his assistant secretary in March 1897. He later became the main Cabinet Secretary to the President in 1900.
George was working on improvements in office efficiency in 1901 when President McKinley attended Buffalo's Pan-American Exposition. The President's planned two-day visit generated more excitement than the other attractions. He had entered his second term as one of the most popular Presidents in decades. On 5 September, a record crowd of 116,000 attended to watch McKinley give a speech. His final scheduled appearance was the following day at a theater called the Temple of Music. McKinley rarely missed an opportunity to meet the public, but this particular event worried his staff members, some of whom feared that an assassin might take advantage of the opportunity. George had even tried to cancel the reception on two separate occasions, but both times he was overruled by McKinley, insisting that it remain on the schedule.
A long line people waited outside until the reception began at 4 p.m. when eager visitors filed inside to meet the President and shake his hand. Near the front of the line was 28 year old Leon Czolgosz, a former steel worker and avowed anarchist. He had been born in Michigan, the son of Polish immigrants. Czolgosz, going by the name Fred C. Neiman, had arrived in Buffalo a few days earlier and purchased a .32 caliber revolver. He wrapped it in a white handkerchief and concealed it in his jacket pocket.
At around 4:07 p.m., his turn came and he walked up to President McKinley who extended his hand and smiled. Czolgosz offered his left hand for McKinley to shake. Slightly taken aback, he willingly took the proffered left hand. Czolgosz grabbed McKinley tightly with his left hand and raised the revolver, still covered by the handkerchief, and fired two shots at point blank range. "There was an instant of almost complete silence, like the hush that follows a clap of thunder," the New York Times later wrote. "The president stood stock still, a look of hesitancy, almost of bewilderment, on his face. Then he retreated a step while a pallor began to steal over his features. The multitude seemed only partially aware that something serious had happened."
The stillness was broken when James "Big Jim" Parker, a tall African-American man from Atlanta who had been waiting in line behind Czolgosz, struck the assassin in the neck with one hand and reached for the revolver with the other, preventing Czolgosz from firing a third shot. A host of soldiers and detectives also pounced on the assassin and began punching and beating him with rifle butts. It took an order from McKinley before they finally stopped and dragged Czolgosz from the room. By then, blood was pouring from the president’s stomach and darkening his white formal vest. As McKinley collapsed, he was caught and supported by his aides, among them George. As he was held in their arms McKinley whispered, "My wife... be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her. Oh, be careful."
McKinley was carried to the Expo's hospital. The best surgeon in the city was the Exposition’s medical director, Dr. Roswell Park, who was away in Niagara Falls performing a neck operation. When interrupted during the procedure and told he was needed in Buffalo, he responded that he could not leave, not even for the president of the United States.
The first physician to arrive at was Dr. Herman Mynter. With Park unavailable and with the fading afternoon light, the major source of illumination in the operating room, another surgeon, Dr. Matthew D. Mann, arrived to assist. Mann was a gynecologist with no experience in trauma surgery.
One of the bullets appeared to have ricocheted off one of McKinley’s suit buttons and hit his sternum, causing only minor damage. The other had struck his abdomen and passed clean through his stomach. The decision was made to operate at once to try to remove the remaining bullet. An incision was made and a small piece of cloth that was embedded in the flesh was found and removed. Mann probed with his finger and hand, finding damage to the digestive system; the stomach displayed both an entry and exit wound. He sewed up both holes in the organ and stopped the bleeding, but could not find the bullet itself. He concluded it had lodged somewhere in the president’s back muscles. Mann later wrote that "A bullet, once it ceases to move, does little harm." One of Thomas Edison's X-ray machines was on display at the Exposition, but Mann decided not to use it, later stating that it might have disturbed the patient and done little good.
When Dr. Park finally arrived from Niagara Falls, the operation had already been underway for 20 minutes. Dr. Mann explained what he had determined and done thus far, but Park was unwilling to interfere. At the close of the operation, Dr. Park said, "Gentlemen before we depart I want to say one thing – let nothing that has been seen or heard in this room be repeated."
Fears that McKinley would not survive the day of his shooting were allayed by reassuring bulletins issued by George based on information from the doctors. During the operation, he was in and out of the room, observing the progress as he received numerous telegrams from all parts of the world and answering urgent calls. One eyewitness said of him: "Throughout he was as cool and collected as if in the ordinary transaction of business in his office at Washington. His coolness under the terrible strain of the situation was the admiration of all."
Instead of taking McKinley to a proper hospital, he was taken to the nearby home of the Exposition's president, John Milburn, a prominent attorney and friend of Grover Cleveland. Both Mynter and Mann continued to attend to McKinley. Even with the bullet still in him, the President seemed to be recovering. Newspapers reported that he was awake and alert. His wife was allowed to see him, as was George. The President asked him "How did they like my speech?"
Meanwhile, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been in Vermont, and much of the Cabinet rushed to Buffalo. George continued to issue encouraging updates. Based upon the positive reports of McKinley's progress, Theodore Roosevelt told reporters, "You may say that I am absolutely sure the president will recover" and took off on a camping trip in the Adirondack Mountains.
Secretary of State John Hay arrived on 10 September. He had been closely associated with the two presidents to be assassinated; he had been President Lincoln's secretary and a close friend of President James Garfield. Upon hearing the account of the President's recovery, Hay responded that the President would die.
The main concern was the failure to track the bullet path and find the round.
In the early morning of 13 September, after a week of neglect, McKinley's condition had taken a turn for the worse and he collapsed. By 2:15 a.m. on the 14th, he was dead. As the autopsy would reveal, gangrene was growing on the walls of his stomach and toxins were passing into his blood. The same curious crew of Mynter and Mann also handled the autopsy and they still were unable to locate the bullet. After four hours, McKinley's wife, Ida, ordered an end to the autopsy. He was the third president to die by assassination in less than forty years.
George asked Congress for additional funds to increase the security for his next boss. By 1902, the Secret Service (a unit of the Treasury department) was protecting President Roosevelt full-time. It was not until 1906 when Congress passed legislation that officially designated the Secret Service in charge of presidential security. At the time, Roosevelt remarked that "the Secret Service men are a very small but very necessary thorn in the flesh."
After Theodore Roosevelt took office, George was more than just a secretary to the President; he became Roosevelt's most trusted and intimate advisor. He he tasked George with transforming the White House into a more professional organization. George developed procedures and rules that guided White House protocol and established processes where there had been only personal prerogative. He established an improved line of communication between the President's office and the press by providing reporters with their own workspace, briefing journalists on notable news and handing out press releases. George is credited with instituting the first systematic gathering of press commentary for a sitting president's perusal. These "current clippings" were the first attempt by a President to gauge public opinion through the media. He selected items objectively, a practice that would not be consistently followed by his successors.
On 17 October 1901, at Roosevelt's direction, George sent a letter to Secretary of State John Hay, asking that Secretary Hay and his staff change "the headings, or date lines, of all official papers and documents requiring his [Roosevelt’s] signature, from 'Executive Mansion' to 'White House.'" Roosevelt changed the presidential stationery shortly thereafter as well.
After Congress created the Department of Commerce and Labor as a ninth cabinet position,
Theodore Roosevelt appointed him the first secretary of that department in 1903. He left that position in June 1904 to become the chairman of the Republican National Committee and manage Roosevelt's re-election campaign.
At the start of his new term, Roosevelt appointed George as the Postmaster General in March 1905. During his time in that position, George perfected the free rural mail delivery system and reduced the postal deficit to the lowest point in years. He stepped down from that position in March 1907 when Theodore Roosevelt appointed him the 44th United States Secretary of the Treasury. During the panic of 1907, George realized that the Treasury did not have the power to maintain economic stability, while affirming the Treasury's role in protecting the banking system. He eased the crisis by depositing large amounts of government funds in national banks and buying government bonds. To prevent further crises, he advocated a more elastic currency and recommended the creation of a central banking system. His ideas contributed to the passage of the Aldrich-Vreeland Act in 1908, which eventually led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.
George remained in that position until the end of Roosevelt's administration. After that, he returned to private enterprise as the president of the Consolidated Gas Company, later known as the Consolidated Edison.
He was also one of the chairmen of the Con Edison Energy Museum (now closed). He retired in 1935 and lived at his 10-acre estate, "Harbor Lights", in Halesite, Long Island.
He died in his sleep on 23 October 1940, five days after suffering a heart attack. During his funeral, Archibald Roosevelt, a son of the former president, served as an usher. In his telegram to the widow, Charles G. Dawes, the vice president during the Calvin Coolidge administration said:
"Your husband typified all that is best in American leadership and life. In all his many responsibilities during a great and successful public career he set an example to his countrymen of fidelity to the public interest and to our constitutional government. He will always be remembered in the history of this country. To his friends and all his social relationships he personified and inspired loyalty and devotion."