For some, he was “the financial Moses of the New World” or “the Napoleon of Wall Street”; in conferring an honorary degree on him, a Yale professor had likened him to Alexander the Great, though one might just as well throw in Julius Caesar and Louis XIV. But for others he was “a beefy, red-faced, thick-necked financial bully, drunk with wealth and power,” or “the boss croupier of Wall Street … a bullnecked irascible man with small black magpie eyes,” or an “imperiously proud, rude and lonely, intensely undemocratic” robber baron. Obviously, in his own lifetime and since, a divisive figure, inspiring diametrically opposite reactions.
His name comes to my mind daily, since my bank is J.P. Morgan Chase, the modern descendant of the J.P. Morgan & Company of his own time. As I grew up, I was only vaguely aware of him as a historical figure, until I saw a performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness, whose idealistic young protagonist, Richard Miller, wants to see old J.P. carted off to the guillotine for his crimes. A somewhat biased introduction to the nation’s greatest banker of the early 1900s, and an impression somewhat modified when, years later, I read about how, singlehanded, he stopped the Panic of 1907.
No one would deny that, back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, John Pierpont Morgan was a power to reckon with. A heavyset man dressed in a black silk topper and dark coat, well mustached, and carrying a silver-topped mahogany walking stick, he looked the very image of the plutocrat. But there was more to him than that. A woman who knew him said that, when he entered a room, you felt “something electric,” and a woman employee who greatly respected him called him the most exhausting person she had ever known. Similarly, his friend William Lawrence, the Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, said that a visit from Morgan left him feeling as if a gale had blown through the house.
And his accomplishments matched his image. He had “Morganized” (reorganized) the nation’s railroads, put together the world’s first billion-dollar corporation, U.S. Steel, and helped create such industrial behemoths as International Harvester and General Electric. He sat on the boards of the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art; gave substantial gifts to schools, hospitals, museums, and the Episcopal Church; and loved yachting, built a series of luxurious custom-made yachts, and was elected commodore of the New York Yacht Club. Yet in spite of all these activities, he found time – lots of it – for collecting rare books and illuminated manuscripts, paintings, sculpture, jewelry, portrait miniatures, tapestries, ivories, coins, armor, medieval reliquaries, Chinese porcelains, and Roman frescoes. Indeed, what didn’t he collect?
How does one become a financial Alexander the Great? It helps to have a moneyed father already well established in business. One thinks of John Pierpont Morgan as the financial Titan of later years, a man who could never have been young, but of course he had a youth, an apprenticeship to what he became. Born in 1837 in Hartford, Connecticut, he was the son of Junius Spencer Morgan, a successful American dry goods merchant who later became a banker based in London. Since his mother, Juliet Pierpont, of an old New England family, was self-absorbed, demanding, and often depressed, it was his father who monitored his childhood. From an early age Junius Morgan supervised his son’s every activity and groomed him for a career in international banking. He helped the boy with his homework, supervised his reading, and sent him to a boarding school in Switzerland so he could learn French, and then to a university in Germany to learn German.
Returning to this country, young Pierpont did a two-year apprenticeship arranged by his father with a Wall Street firm, and then became the New York agent for his father’s London-based bank. In this capacity he made a trip to the South in 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, to give his father a report on the railroads, banks, and cotton merchants with whom Junius Morgan was doing business. He talked with his father’s business connections in various cities and sent back the desired reports; surprisingly, he seems not to have said much about the looming threat of secession, and how Southerners viewed this young interloper from the North.
War soon came, but young Pierpont didn’t rush to enlist; instead, he exercised his patriotism by buying substandard carbines from the Army in the East for $3.50 each, and then selling them to the Army in the West for $22.00, thus realizing a tidy profit at the cost of involvement in a deal that, when later investigated, became highly controversial. Right from the start he had a keen nose for moneymaking opportunities, and if the affair did him little credit, it was no worse than what many canny merchants in the North were doing to satisfy the nation’s sudden need for arms and supplies.
At the same time young Morgan was seeing to his father’s affairs in this country, but also courting the delicate young woman who in October 1861 became his wife. The newlyweds honeymooned in Europe, but the trip was anything but idyllic, since the bride was diagnosed with tuberculosis and died in France in 1862, leaving Morgan stricken with grief. Returning to this country, he paid $300 to a substitute to avoid the draft, and succumbed to the fever of the time by speculating in gold, the price of which was fluctuating wildly, reaping censure from his conservative father while netting $66,000 in profits. Soon after the war ended, in May 1865 he married his second wife, Frances Louisa Tracy, by whom he would have a son and three daughters.
Well schooled and well traveled, with smooth manners, European clothes, and a command of two foreign languages, Pierpont Morgan showed no trace of Commodore Vanderbilt’s unlettered roughness or the flamboyance of Jim Fisk, and was accepted at once by New York society. They knew a gentleman when they saw one, and young Morgan was fast becoming a gentleman banker, a species that he believed should rule the world of finance.
Over the next two decades he and his firm, Drexel, Morgan & Company at 23 Wall Street, loomed ever larger in that world, as he and his junior partner Anthony Drexel, a Philadelphia banker, sold bonds, negotiated deals, and raked in a fortune. Working at the same time with his London-based father, Pierpont Morgan channeled British money into American enterprises, and by the 1890s had helped transform his nation and its agricultural economy into the greatest industrial power in the world. The twentieth century, he was sure, would be an American century, and he was doing all he could to bring it about.
The Atlantic cable made communications between New York and London much easier, but the Morgans sent their messages in code, Pierpont being variously designated “Vienna,” “Charcoal,” “Flintlock,” or “Flitch.” One of his messages to his father read in part, “amber despise maliciously fawn whisper shank plainness,” which meant that he hoped to open negotiations with the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company. In his public as in his private life, he practiced discretion to the point of secrecy.
This was the Gilded Age, and the wealthy dressed it and lived it. In 1872 Morgan bought Cragston, a 386-acre farm in Highlands Fall, New York, overlooking the Hudson, and turned it into an English country estate, filling the house with paintings, Chippendale furniture, potted palms, and Persian rugs, and creating tennis courts, stables, gardens, greenhouses, and a carriage house. And in 1880 he bought a brownstone at 219 Madison Avenue on the northeast corner of 36th Street and renovated the interior, installing Oriental rugs, ceramics, paintings, stained glass, and bric-a-brac. His library had wainscoting of Santo Domingo mahogany, and featured allegorical figures representing History and Poetry in octagonal panels on the ceiling, though his interest in those subjects was slight. In those days ornamental clutter prevailed, yet both house and country estate were modest by comparison with the grandiose residences of many of Morgan’s contemporaries, since he opted for patrician restraint.
But restraint was not his way when it came to the latest in technology. His Manhattan home had an elevator, a two-story burglar-proof safe, and a private telegraph connecting it to his office at 23 Wall Street. And it became the first private residence in the city entirely illuminated by Thomas Edison’s newfangled invention, the light bulb, whose development Morgan encouraged, making his firm the young inventor’s banker on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was in the 1890s that Pierpont Morgan became, completely and definitively, the J.P. Morgan of legend. When his father died of a carriage accident in 1890, he mourned the man who had dominated his life for decades, an exacting monitor who had viewed his son at first with reproach and finally with pride. His estate was worth $23 million, and most of it went to Pierpont. The son now took his father’s place as head of J.S. Morgan & Company in London. And following the death of his longtime partner Anthony Drexel, in 1895 he renamed his Wall Street firm J.P. Morgan & Company, and became the head of a Drexel bank in Philadelphia as well, and another bank in Paris. He would soon be rivaling the Rothschilds in financial eminence.
His subsequent accomplishments were impressive: he headed the corporation that would build the vast new Madison Square Garden in 1890; saved the Union Pacific Railroad from bankruptcy in 1891; in 1895 sold gold to the U.S. Treasury, which was almost out of it, thus preventing a government default; and in 1901 astonished Wall Street by organizing U.S. Steel, the biggest corporation in the world. U.S. presidents routinely consulted him, and when his friend the Prince of Wales became Edward VII of Great Britain, Morgan was an invited guest at the coronation. He also dined with King Leopold of Belgium and, to the dismay of his English friends, hobnobbed cordially with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. John Pierpont Morgan had more royal connections than the president of the United States.
Another accomplishment was the building of the Morgan Library on East 36th Street to house his growing collections and a study where he could meet with business colleagues, art dealers, and friends. For an architect he chose Charles Follen McKim, an eminent partner of Stanford White who today is less remembered than White because, unlike White, he was not so lucky as to be murdered in fashionable Madison Square Garden in front of hundreds of witnesses. Closely supervised by Morgan, whom the architect referred to as Lorenzo the Magnificent, McKim created a sober classical structure in Italian Renaissance style that expressed its owner’s sense of grandeur and patrician taste. Completed in 1906 with a private tunnel connecting it to Morgan’s nearby residence, the library’s vaulted rotunda, marble floors, and frescoed ceilings soon housed his vast collection of rare books and manuscripts, not to mention a sixteenth-century Brussels tapestry, The Triumph of Avarice, whose inclusion might imply a touch of irony, since its owner viewed himself as generous, not greedy. Morgan’s favorite spot in the library was his private study, where he spent part of each day at his custom-made desk, surrounded by stained-glass windows and, flanking the desk on either side on the red damask walls, two panels of a Hans Memling altarpiece of the fifteenth century. In such a setting he might well have thought himself, not a twentieth-century American banker, but a prince of the Renaissance.
Pierpont the Magnificent had clerical connections as well. He was active in the affairs of the Episcopal Church, even attending church conventions that most laymen would have found excruciatingly boring. He was generous with funds as well, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars for a new Episcopal cathedral to be located far north of the settled sections of the city in Morningside Heights, a cathedral to be named St. John the Divine.
Just how cozy Morgan and the Church could be is evidenced by his friend William Lawrence, Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, whose 1901 article “The Relation of Wealth to Morals” made these interesting observations:
· In the long run, it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes.
· Godliness is in league with riches.
· The search for material wealth is as natural and necessary to man as is the pushing out of its roots for more moisture and food to the oak.
· Material prosperity is helping to make the national character sweeter, more joyous, more unselfish, more Christlike.
Having been Morgan’s guest in his palatial residence and on his yacht, and having sailed with him up the Nile, the good bishop surely knew whereof he spoke, and with all these statements his host would have heartily agreed.
Who exactly was this Titan of finance who advised presidents, socialized with monarchs, traveled widely, collected ravenously, and gave an abundance of time and money to his church? Photographs show a burly gentleman of many years (he weighed 200 pounds by age 30), inevitably topped by a black silk hat and walking with a tapered walking stick, white-haired, with a prominent nose over a drooping, grayish mustache, and dark eyebrows over eyes whose piercing gaze is rendered well in portraits – a gaze that, if angry, could cut you to the quick. No question, this man had the appearance not just of wealth and prosperity, but of willfulness and domination.
And behind all that? A man of great reserve, opinionated, often intemperate, but capable of charm. A victim of periodic bouts of depression that he fought off with hard work, ocean voyages, spa cures, and frenzied socializing. No scholar and, in spite of his vast collection of rare books and manuscripts, no reader; a doer who had little time for reflection or contemplation. A man who never doubted his own convictions, who was sure that what benefited him would benefit the nation as well. A man who, surrounded on all sides by flattery and adulation, was not used to being challenged or contradicted. Seated in his glass-walled office with an open door at 23 Wall Street, he was quite capable of letting someone who wished to speak with him stand there quietly, unnoticed, for ten minutes or more, while he studied a sheet with a list of figures; should the intruder address him and jolt him out of his trance, a verbal explosion would follow. Decidedly, a man used to having things on his own terms, on routinely getting his way.
And a man with a nose. In his later years a nose that was bulbous and flagrantly purple, because of a skin condition called rhinophyma. Self-conscious about it, he hated being photographed, was known to lunge in fury, walking stick upraised, at any photographer who dared to point a camera at him in public. The story is told how the wife of a partner of his, wanting her daughter to meet the great man, invited Morgan for tea. For weeks she coached the daughter how to behave on the occasion: the daughter would enter the room, greet him courteously, not look at his nose or mention it, then tactfully depart. When the day came, the hostess and her guest were sitting on a sofa by the tea tray, when the daughter entered, greeted Mr. Morgan respectfully, did not look at or mention his nose, and after a few minutes left. The mother was vastly relieved: it had all gone so well. Turning to her guest, she asked, “Mr. Morgan, do you take one lump or two in your nose?”
Yet women found him attractive, nose and all. The force of his personality overwhelmed them, and overwhelmed his male friends and colleagues as well, rendering his unsightly nose all but irrelevant. He may even have gloried in its grotesqueness, being delighted to impose it on others and get them to accept him regardless. His millions helped, but it was the force of character behind those savage eyes that overpowered others, subjecting them to his will.
How this man with an imperious will and a purple nose stopped a panic singlehanded and was hailed as either a savior of the nation or a villainous plutocrat will be told in the next post.
Source note: For information in this post I am indebted to Jean Strouse’s exhaustive and exhausting biography, Morgan: American Financier (Random House, 1999), a book that for most readers is too long by half, but that is based on thorough research, leaves very little out, and richly conveys the man and his times.
My poems: For five acceptable poems, click here and scroll down. To avoid five terrible poems, don't click here. For my poem "The Other," inspired by the Orlando massacre, click here.
My books: No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016. For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here. As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), my historical novel about a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client, is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Coming soon: J.P. Morgan: Villainous Plutocrat or Savior of the Nation?
© 2016 Clifford Browder