Sunday, September 25, 2016

255. The Jefferson Market Library and the Guggenheim's Golden Throne

         In New York City every old building has its history.  My branch library, the Jefferson Market Library, an impressive Victorian Gothic structure on Sixth Avenue at West 10th Street, is no exception.  Climbing the circular stairs past stained-glass windows (not Chartres, I admit) to the second floor to return or get a book, I am well aware that the building was once visited, albeit separately, by a notorious trio: Madame Restell, the city’s most notorious abortionist; Harry Thaw, the murderer of the renowned  architect Stanford White; and the incomparable Mae West.  Since none of these three was much of a reader, they certainly didn’t come to get books.  And why is it called the Jefferson Market Library, when there’s no market in sight, and libraries primarily dispense books?  To explain these matters requires dipping into a bit of local history.

File:2013 Jefferson Market from southeast.jpg
Beyond My Ken

         Before the library, there was a courthouse, and before the courthouse, a market.  The produce market, named for our third president, opened on the site in 1833, alongside a wooden fire tower and a small jail, and continued for many years.  In 1845 the city divided the expanding city into three police districts, and the Second District police court opened at the site of the market.  Then, in the 1870s, the ever expanding city decided to tear down the market sheds and the fire tower (some sources say it had, alas, burned down) to build a new courthouse, the Victorian Gothic building of today, which opened in 1877. 

         Modeled in part on King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s fairy-tale castle Neuschwanstein, the asymmetrical structure’s red-brick walls with limestone trim rise impressively with pointed windows, steeply sloping roofs, gables, and pinnacles.  Dominating the structure is a 100-foot tower with clocks on all four sides and ringed by a balcony where fire watchers could oversee the area and ring alarms with a bell that still hangs in the tower today.  It is a strikingly picturesque monument and was recognized as such in its own time, though few passersby today bother to stop, gaze up, and admire it.
File:Jefferson Market Library, Interior, stained glass (NYPL b11524053-1252799).tiff

         Inside, the second floor that now houses an adult reading room was a civil court, while the ground floor had a police court where the children’s room now is, and the basement, now a reference room, served as a holding pen for prisoners on their way to jail or a trial.  Built at the same time was an adjacent prison on West 10th Street, needed to relieve crowding in the gloomy downtown prison known as the Tombs.

         And now for the notorious trio.  On February 11, 1878, bystanders on Sixth Avenue were astonished to see a fashionable carriage with a coachman in livery arrive at the courthouse.  From it emerged a well-dressed woman who turned out to be Ann Lohman, alias Madame Restell, the most notorious – and successful – abortionist in the city, who had pursued her calling for decades and shocked citizens by parading about in her carriage and expensive millinery, and building a palatial brownstone mansion on Fifth Avenue, symbols of her ill-gotten wealth.  Accompanying her was Anthony Comstock, secretary and agent of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who had just arrested her in her office in the basement of her Fifth Avenue residence.  Entering the building, she was arraigned before a justice in the ground-floor police court for having sold articles to produce abortion and prevent conception.  The courtroom was thronged with journalists, for Comstock had alerted them in advance, to make sure the arrest would be blazoned in the press on the following day.  When the presiding justice refused to accept Madame’s government bonds as bail, insisting on real estate instead, and no one could be found to provide it, the prisoner was remanded to the Tombs, and so began an ordeal that would end only with her suicide on the eve of her trial.  (The full story is told in my biography The Wickedest Woman in New York: Madame Restell the Abortionist, which, alas, is out of print, but occasionally available secondhand, usually at an exorbitant price.)

         As for the other two, according to information provided by the library, both Harry Thaw and Mae West were tried in the Jefferson Market Courthouse, but such was not the case.  Harry Thaw, a Pittsburgh millionaire and man about town, had long been obsessed with the fact that his wife, Evelyn Nesbit, had once been Stanford White’s mistress.  After he shot and killed White at the roof garden theater of Madison Square Garden on the evening of June 25, 1906, he was arrested, taken to a station house, and confined in the Tombs.  On the following day he appeared briefly before a magistrate at the Jefferson Market courthouse and was then returned to the Tombs.  He was tried the following year in the Supreme Court Criminal Division on Centre Street, but the jury deadlocked.  In a second trial in 1908 he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the State Asylum for the Criminally Insane at Mattawan, New York.  He escaped from there to Canada in 1913, was brought back, then obtained a new trial that found him not guilty and no longer insane, so that he went scot free.

         On the night of February 9, 1927, the police raided Daley’s Theater on 63rd street, where, in spite of disastrous reviews, a risqué play entitled Sex was running; starring in it under the name Janet Mast was Mae West, who had written, produced, and directed it.  The entire cast of 22 were arrested on a morals charge and taken first to the local station house and then to the Men’s Night Court on East 57th Street, where the magistrate set Mae’s bail at $1,000.  Unable to raise the sum in the middle of the night, she spent that night in the Jefferson Market Prison.  Indicted by a grand jury for corrupting the morals of youth (the same charge leveled against Socrates in ancient Athens), she was tried in the Court of General Sessions on Centre Street, found guilty, and sentenced to ten days in a workhouse or a fine of $500.  Given a choice, she chose the workhouse for the publicity it would get, and was sent to Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island, where she arrived festooned with white roses, allegedly dined with the warden and his wife, and told reporters that she wore her silk undies while serving time, and not the scratchy “burlap” that other girls had to wear.  Getting two days off for good behavior (“the first time I ever got anything for good behavior”), she came away a celebrity, getting $1,000 from Liberty magazine for an exit interview.

         In 1928 her play The Pleasure Man was raided after a single performance, and she and the entire cast of 56 were arrested, but this trial ended in a hung jury and no retrial followed.  She then revived Sex and toured the Midwest – amazingly, without incident --  and in 1932 left for Hollywood and nationwide fame.

         To get back to the library building, it ceased to be used as a courthouse in 1945 and was occupied by various city agencies until 1958, when the last of them departed, leaving the Victorian Gothic masterpiece to the pigeons and rats.  Seen by many as an outdated Victorian eyesore – “that ugly old pile” – when sleek modernity devoid of ornament was “in,” it was tentatively slated for demolition, to be replaced by an apartment building, but community preservationists led by Margot Gayle launched a campaign to preserve it.  Volunteers on Village streets urged passersby to sign petitions to save the building, and my partner Bob recalls signing one.  The old courthouse building wasn’t ugly, they argued, it was picturesque and charming; far from being an outdated relic, it was a part of the city’s rich cultural history and, as such, to be treasured.  In 1961 Mayor Robert Wagner announced that the building would indeed be converted into a library.  Construction began in 1965, and the Jefferson Market Library opened in 1967.  One of the first visitors was poet Marianne Moore, a Village resident, who highly approved of the renovation, an opinion that I heartily share. 

         And in 1996, again with the help of preservationists, the tower fire bell, “Ol’ Jeff,” regained its voice after many years of silence.  At a subsequent community board meeting, some neighborhood residents complained that it droned like a death knell, but many thought it melodious.  So as not to disturb the neighbors’ sleep, it was then adjusted to strike the hours only from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.  As for the clocks on the tower, I have yet to check out whether or not they tell the right time.

         In 1929 the market and prison adjacent to the courthouse were torn down, to be replaced by the Women’s House of Detention, but that’s another story, and a grim one. 

           A golden throne at the Guggenheim:  The ultimate in participatory art has been achieved at the Guggenheim Museum.  After a long delay occasioned by the tricky molding and welding involved in its making in Florence, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s masterpiece, a fully functional solid 18-karat gold toilet has been installed on the 5th-floor ramp of the museum and is open for business indefinitely.  Mr. Cattelan hopes that his chef-d’oeuvre will not be seen as a joke, since it lets museumgoers experience a ravishingly beautiful objet d’art on the most intimate terms.  (The cost of the masterpiece, underwritten by private donors, has not been revealed.)  Invited by the artist to make use of it, a New York Times (male) journalist performed a number 1 and announced that it looks its best when in use, especially when flushed.  Though I don’t plan to rush to the Guggenheim for a golden adventure, I am firmly of the opinion that the real experience would be a #2, even if it meant foregoing the visual aspect of the interaction.  The masterpiece’s name?  “America.”  Go figure.

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          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.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

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:  The Morgan Library, and how an American banker became a prince of the Renaissance.  (Yes, I’m back to old J.P., but bear with me; visiting his library unleashed a few new insights.)

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder



Sunday, September 18, 2016

254. The Katahdin National Monument: How Nonprofits Get Things Done

         This is a Maine story, but for me it began here in New York, and it offers a lesson for us all – a lesson in how to get things done.  On June 7 of this year I attended a small gathering of Wilderness Society supporters in an apartment on Central Park West with windows offering a fine view of Central Park just across the street.  After a few snacks and some chitchat, a Wilderness staff member unfolded a large map and briefed us on a longstanding campaign to create a national monument in northern Maine that would protect thousands of acres of land in Penobscot County, on the east side of Baxter State Park.  Back in 2001 Roxanne Quimby, the cofounder of Burt’s Bees, a maker of personal care products that is now a subsidiary of Clorox, began quietly buying up land in the area with the intention of donating it to the government for the creation of a new national park.  In 2011, having acquired thousands of acres, she announced her intention, and that’s when trouble began.

         This area of Maine has long been economically depressed.  Paper mills once flourished there, but with a steady decline in demand for paper, one by one they closed, leaving their workers jobless.  As people left the region for better opportunities elsewhere, the population of Millinocket and nearby East Millinocket went down dramatically.  You might think that this would make the local population eager for a national park, which would attract visitors and help local businesses, but the residents have long resented any interference in their affairs by the federal government, and nurse a deep suspicion of “outsiders,” which for them includes not only out-of-state do-gooders, but even people from other parts of Maine. 

         Obviously, Ms. Quimby’s proposal could not have found a less receptive audience, as was soon evidenced by the opposition of state and local politicians.  The solution that she finally accepted: instead of a national park, which would require Congressional action not likely to be forthcoming at this time, create a national monument.  For me, “national monument” suggests structures of historical and cultural significance like the presidential memorials in Washington, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the Statue of Liberty.  But no, a national monument can be a tract of land as well, and under the Antiquities Act of 1906, enacted during the Teddy Roosevelt’s administration, it can be created by presidential proclamation, without action by Congress.  There are many national monuments in the West, but relatively few in the East.  And this one would seem to resolve the situation in Maine.

         But it didn’t, because there was still vociferous opposition.  Leading the attack was newly elected Governor Paul LePage, a Republican and no friend of the environment, who, to judge by a recent series of articles in the New York Times, is Maine’s own homegrown Donald Trump, and just as controversial.  The monument, he declared, was “unilateral action against the will of the people, this time the citizens of rural Maine.”

         The Wilderness Society, along with other organizations, now became involved in the campaign to establish the proposed national monument.  It was doing this, the staff member at the gathering explained, by following three rules: (1) keep a low profile; (2) get local support; and (3) be patient.

         Keep a low profile.  Given the local suspicion of interfering outsiders, the worst thing you could do would be to go in banners flying, proclaiming yourself the Wilderness Society or some other alien entity.  Instead, be modest, be discreet.  Get to know the locals, blend in as much as you can, allay their suspicions, try to gain their trust.

         Get local support.  Even if the monument can be created by presidential fiat, this is crucial.  Explain patiently how the monument can benefit the community.  Yes, much land will be protected, but there will also be a large recreation area open to hunting and snowmobiling, and this will create jobs and help local businesses.  Hold public meetings to inform the public, get the local press behind you, enlist the support of local organizations, and get the backing – absolutely essential -- of at least one influential local politician.

         Be patient.  Yes, this will take time, and there will be setbacks.  But keep with it.  You have a good story to tell, and it will slowly win people over.

         And win people over they did.  In 2013, economics studies were released, showing that the proposed park and recreation area would create between 450 and a thousand jobs.  Supporters of the proposal held hundreds of one-on-one meetings with local residents to explain the benefits that would result.  In January 2015 Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation endorsed the proposal, which was subsequently also endorsed by the Katahdin Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, the Maine Innkeepers Association, and the Bangor Daily News.  In April 2015 a poll showed that 67% of residents of Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes all of Maine except a small coastal area in the south, were in favor of the proposal.  At a public meeting in May 2016 at the University of Maine in Orono, out of 1400 attending, 1200 people from every part of Maine supported the monument proposal.

         Support continued to gather momentum.  In June 2016, at a Congressional Field Hearing in East Millinocket sponsored by Representative Bruce Poliquin, a Republican representing the 2nd Congressional District, Katahdin residents voiced support 4 to 1.  In July, 52 elected Maine officials sent a letter to President Obama urging him to create the monument.  By now, Roxanne Quimby was out of the picture, letting her foundation, Elliotsville Plantation, act for her in transferring 87,000 acres of land to the nation on August 12, 2016.  And on August 24, the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service, President Obama proclaimed this land the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, which would in fact be managed by the National Park Service.  After a long struggle in which the Wilderness Society and other “outsiders” were rarely in evidence, the war was won.

         Katahdin: Though I know only coastal Maine and have never visited the interior, this name has always fascinated me, for Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine, is where the Appalachian Trail ends, and I have a dream of hiking the entire length of it – all 2,160 miles -- from Springer Mountain in Georgia to its terminal on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine, a trip that would begin in the spring, trudge on through the summer, and end in chilly autumn.  A dream to be realized not in this life, to be sure, but in my next one.  (On second thought, I may only hike a stretch of it, since otherwise you have to live on dehydrated portable food most of the way, let your hair grow wild, and do without a bath.  Veteran hikers advise you not to look in a mirror while on the trail.) 

         And what is in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument?  One of the largest tracts of undeveloped land in the eastern United States, with surging rivers and streams, thick woods, high mountains, and rutted roads where only high-clearance vehicles can safely drive.  There are wide-ranging species such as the black bear, moose, Canada lynx, white-tailed deer, American marten, bobcat, and snowshoe hare, as well as the Atlantic salmon in the rivers, and rare bird species like the boreal chickadee, gray jay, ruffed grouse, and American three-toed woodpecker – all species that I,  a longtime birdwatcher, have never seen.  It’s rugged backcountry with minimal facilities, but if you want unspoiled nature, here it is on the grand scale, with opportunities for hiking, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling on designated trails, and hunting on lands east of the east branch of the Penobscot River.

         And Governor LePage’s reaction to the creation of this protected wonderland?  “This once again demonstrates that rich, out-of-state liberals can force their unpopular agenda on the Maine people against their will.”  He also insists that this is one way to avoid paying taxes to the state of Maine, and calls it an “ego play” both for Roxanne Quimby, who has distanced herself from the campaign for the monument, and for Senator Angus King, the junior senator from Maine and a political independent, who has supported the campaign.  The governor has also boasted, “I was Donald Trump before Donald Trump became popular.”  No doubt he was.

         Teddy Roosevelt created 18 national monuments; Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Papa Bush, none; Baby Bush 6; and Obama an impressive 23, including the Stonewall Inn in the West Village, where the gay rights movement began.  The fight to protected our endangered wildernesses and cultural sites has had some victories, but the campaign goes on … and on and on.  How could it not?

         The Hudson Yards “Vessel”:  Renderings have been officially unveiled for a 15-story “Vessel” to adorn a five-acre plaza and public garden that are a part of the Hudson Yards, a large-scale redevelopment project on the Far West Side of Manhattan where sky-stabbing high rises are going to  sprout like mushrooms.  “You can’t be small in New York,” one commentator has commented, and the “Vessel,” though no sky-stabber, ain’t small.  “Big, bold, and basket-shaped,” as the New York Times describes it, it will rise 15 stories high, weigh 600 tons, and contain 2500 climbable steps.  (Yes, that’s right: 2500.)  To my eye, the rendering suggests a stack of giant red pretzels looming up above a quiet tree-filled plaza.  2500 steps leading to what?  Nothing, so far as I can tell, but that’s not right, since there will be a fine view of the area and, for the less hardy, elevators to the top.  This monument – if monument it is – is the creation of the controversial British designer Thomas Heatherwick, and is financed, to the tune of over $150 million, by the American billionaire Stephen M. Ross, whose Related Companies is developing the Hudson Yards.  A gift to the city, the “Vessel” was commissioned and approved by a committee of one: Mr. Ross.
         The bronzed-steel and concrete pieces of the “Vessel” won’t, alas, be made in the U.S.A., since they are currently under construction in Italy, scheduled for assembly here next year.  The design was presented to the public on Wednesday, September 14, in a spectacle featuring an athletic  performance by the Alvin Ailey dance troupe, watched by a crowd of hundreds that included Mayor Bill de Blasio.  Hizzoner predicts that the “Vessel” will be hotly debated by New Yorkers, with a hundred opinions from a hundred citizens.
         “New Yorkers have a fitness thing,” the designer Mr. Heatherwick has observed, anticipating that his climbable creation will give us a good workout.  And his patron, Mr. Ross, wants the “Vessel” to attract multitudes to the Hudson Yards and make them, in spite of their hard-to-reach location, the center of New York.  “I’m just itching to see a thousand people on it,” says Mr. Heatherwick, who assures us that his stack of steel and concrete pretzels, rising from a base only 50 feet in diameter, can withstand another  Hurricane Sandy.  Maybe so, but I for one don’t plan to be on board when the next big wind occurs.  As for an aesthetic appreciation, I’ll wait until I see the thing in the steel and concrete flesh.  But, appropriately for the Empire City, Messrs. Heatherwick and Ross do think big.

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          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.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

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:  The Jefferson Market Library, my beloved branch library, where a notorious abortionist, a murderer of ill repute, and Mae West all once set foot, but they weren’t there for books.

         ©   2016   Clifford Browder



Sunday, September 11, 2016

253. J.P. Morgan: Scheming Monopolist or Savior of the Nation?

         When not rescuing corporations and governments or making the national character more Christlike (see the previous post), J.P. Morgan was traveling abroad and adding to his collections.  Having little interest in art, his wife said he would buy anything from a pyramid to Mary Magdalene’s tooth.  By now they had drifted apart, she preferring a quiet life and plain living, whereas he wanted an exciting life in the company of a host of friends.  Nor did it help that both were subject to periodic depression.  In his frequent travels he enjoyed the company of handsome, self-possessed younger women who shared his love of society and self-indulged pleasures – women, in other words, very unlike his wife, whom he usually lodged on the other side of the ocean, or in a spa in France while he hobnobbed with affluent friends on his yacht in the Mediterranean. 


         In another age divorce might have been an option, but not in this late Victorian era.  There were those among the rich who did divorce, but disgrace and ostracism followed.  For Morgan, a pillar of the Anglican Church and an esteemed member of countless boards and clubs, it was out of the question, but how far his friendships with other women went can be debated.  Morgan’s attitude in such matters is well expressed by a story recounted by one of his biographers.  A young partner of his having been caught in an adulterous affair, Morgan summoned him into his office and upbraided him.  “But sir,” the young man protested, “you and the other partners do the same thing yourselves behind closed doors.”  “Young man,” said Morgan, eyes ablaze, “that is what doors are for!”  So Morgan endorsed the eleventh and supreme commandment: Thou shalt not be found out. 
         But found out he may have been, for the gossip sheet Town Topics of July 1895 asked, “Why does the wife of a certain wealthy man always go to Europe about the same time he returns home, and vice versa?”  Mentioned  on the preceding page were Mr. and Mrs. Pierpont Morgan and, in a separate article, Edith Randolph, a widow whom Pierpont Morgan had been seeing a lot of at the time.  The editor of Town Topics, Colonel William D’Alton Mann, was in the habit of reporting illicit behavior by an unnamed individual, while naming the transgressor in a paragraph nearby; alarmed, the offender was usually forthcoming with cash to buy Dalton’s silence.  When Dalton was sued for libel in 1906, the names of his victims and the amounts they paid came out, including Pierpont Morgan, $2500.  The defendant insisted that this and other such sums were simply unrepaid loans, but admitted approaching numerous men of wealth to ask them to “accommodate” him so as to avoid future criticism on his part.  Still, $2500 was a modest bit of accommodation, compared to the $25,000 forked over by William K. Vanderbilt, a grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, for who knows what transgressions.  As for the lady in question, Mrs. Randolph, in 1896 she remarried, thus removing herself from the purview of Pierpont Morgan, who found solace in the company of another younger woman encumbered with a husband and two children, but not with too strict a concept of propriety.  As for Colonel Mann, he himself escaped prison, but his agent was convicted of extortion, and Dalton’s extortion business was thoroughly exposed.

         As long as business-friendly William McKinley was president, Morgan and the business community breathed easy, for they knew what to expect.  But when McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist in 1901, he was succeeded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, a rough-riding cowboy with novel and alarmingly progressive ideas.  Roosevelt had become a national hero by charging up San Juan Hill in the recent war with Spain, and now he had charged right into the White House, and for the business community this meant trouble.

File:T Roosevelt.jpg
Another moustached powerhouse, but this one was in the White House.

         Sure enough, in 1902, making use of the rarely enforced Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the president filed suit against the Northern Securities Company, a railroad holding company organized a year earlier by Morgan and the presidents of three railroads so as to limit ruinous competition.  The company was accused of illegal restraint of trade. 
          Morgan was stunned.  Why hadn’t the president consulted him?  He hurried to Washington to have a talk with Roosevelt.  “If we have done anything wrong,” he told the president, “send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”  Replied Roosevelt, “That can’t be done.”  Morgan was stunned again.  This wasn’t how gentlemen did business.  You didn’t make your differences public, you worked them out in private.  But this Rough Rider in the White House, though from an old New York family, had different ideas on the matter – wild ideas, and dangerous.  He wanted to subject businessmen – the very men who were making the country prosperous and a leader among nations – to the rule of government!  
         The case against Northern Securities went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1904 ruled that the company was an illegal combination and would have to be dissolved, which it promptly was.  Morgan had lost, Roosevelt had won.  But this didn’t make them irreconcilable foes, for each found the other useful – yet another example of how power respects power.  Roosevelt began distinguishing between “good” and “bad” trusts, put Morgan’s in the “good” category, and consulted the banker on matters of finance – the kind of behind-the-scenes conferring that old J.P. infinitely preferred.

         But more trouble was coming.  Seemingly out of nowhere, October 1907 brought a rude shock to Morgan and the nation, when a speculator’s misguided attempt to corner the stock of the United Copper Company failed, sending the company’s stock plunging.  Then the speculator’s brokerage house failed, and runs began on banks associated with him and his confederates.  Other banks tightened up on loans, interest rates on loans to brokers soared, stock prices plummeted, and more banks failed.  Suddenly  the whole financial system looked shaky, and the Panic of 1907 was well under way.
         All eyes turned to J.P. Morgan, the city’s most prestigious and most well-connected financier, who had squelched financial crises before.  Out of the city attending an Episcopal convention in Richmond, Virginia, he received wires and messengers from his partners, who warned him not to rush back immediately, since that would only heighten the sense of panic.  As soon as the convention ended, Morgan hurried back to the city and summoned a host of bank and trust company presidents to his library on 36th Street, where he and his associates scanned the books of endangered corporations and decided which ones could be saved.  Secretary of the Treasury Cortelyou came from Washington to help, and John D. Rockefeller put up $10 million.  From then on the Morgan Library, a high-ceilinged treasure house of Gutenberg Bibles and Renaissance bronzes, would be the scene of one emergency meeting after another.
         On October 24, when stock prices continued to plunge, and the Stock Exchange threatened to close early, Morgan, puffing on a cigar, sleep-deprived and fighting off a cold, summoned the presidents of the city’s banks to his office, and told them that as many as 50 brokerage houses would fail unless they raised $25 million in ten minutes.  The money was raised, disaster was averted.  When the panic resumed on the following day, Morgan got the banks to pledge more money to keep the exchange open, and brokers on the exchange floor cheered. 
         This calmed the panic on Wall Street, but on October 28 the mayor of New York came to Morgan and informed him in confidence that the city was verging on bankruptcy, whereupon Morgan and two allies quietly agreed to buy $30 million of city bonds.  And when yet another major brokerage house verged on failure, Morgan summoned a group of executives to yet another emergency meeting at his library and averted yet another collapse. 
         But the crisis was far from over, for the financial  system still looked shaky.  When runs threatened two more trust companies whose failure could not be risked, Morgan summoned some 50 bank and trust company presidents to his library on Friday, November 2, locked them in his sumptuous study, pocketed the key, and in what turned out to be an all-night session, demanded that they pool their resources to make a loan of $25 million to save the companies.  The financiers at first held back, but who could withstand Morgan’s imperious will and his piercing eyes, meeting whose gaze was said to be like looking into the lights of an oncoming express train?  Glaring fiercely, he held out a pen, gestured toward the relevant document, and said to one of them, “There’s the place, and here’s a pen.  Sign!”  The banker did, and so did all the others, one by one.  Only when he had obtained the last signature, did Morgan unlock the door at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday and let them wearily depart. 
         But that was not the end of it.  The approval of President Roosevelt was necessary, since part of the proposed solution involved U.S. Steel’s acquiring a troubled steel producer, so two bankers had rushed to Washington to see him.  But would the trust-busting president approve a deal allowing the biggest corporation in the world to get even bigger – a transaction that would arouse public criticism and invite antitrust proceedings?  Roosevelt heard them out, grasped the situation, and gave his assent.  Minutes before the Stock Exchange opened on Monday morning, November 4, a phone call from Washington reported the president’s decision -- news that, when relayed to the exchange, immediately restored confidence.  After two weeks of panic the crisis was finally resolved, and for the first time in days the exhausted old man got a good night’s sleep.

         The panic had affected the whole nation.  Throughout the country bankruptcies multiplied, production fell, unemployment rose, and immigration plunged.  When my maternal grandfather, a respected judge in Indianapolis, Indiana, suffered financial reverses, he had his eldest child, my mother, become a schoolteacher so as to bring in more money.  Barely eighteen, she taught in a little one-room rural schoolhouse for two years, a maturing experience made necessary by mysterious happenings on Wall Street in distant New York.  But not all families coped as well; many were ruined.

         In the wake of the panic J.P. Morgan was seen as a hero by many, but not by all, and suspicions arose at once.  Had the panic been engineered by the banks so they could profit from it?  Had Morgan (who in fact had lost $21 million in the panic) taken advantage of it?  And should the safety of the entire financial system depend on one man, however well-intentioned, and what would happen when this aging benefactor – if benefactor he was – departed this earth for celestial climes?  Debate raged.
         Finally, in 1912, a special House of Representatives subcommittee, chaired by Representative Pujo of Louisiana, set out to investigate the “money trust,” the alleged monopoly whereby Morgan and other city bankers controlled major corporations, railroads, insurance companies, securities markets, and banks.  Morgan of course was subpoenaed, and his testimony would be the climax of the investigation.  Politicians, lawyers, clerks, journalists, and visitors awaited his arrival with the keenest interest. It would be the kind of public event that the Napoleon of Wall Street loathed, and an abrupt change from quietly professing his love at age 75 to Lady Victoria Sackville earlier that year in England, and sailing with Kaiser Wilhelm in a five-hour race at the Kiel regatta – a race that they won by twenty seconds, filling the emperor with joy.  Back home from these diversions, Morgan went to Washington with misgivings.
         On December 18, 1912, he showed up at the hearing in a dark velvet-collared topcoat and the inevitable silk hat, accompanied by his daughter Louisa and his son Jack, plus partners and lawyers.  On that day and the next, in a room crammed with journalists, photographers, and spectators, the committee’s counsel, Samuel Untermyer, questioned him at length, establishing that officers of Morgan’s and four other banks held 341 directorships in 112 U.S. corporations, with the Morgan partners alone sitting on 72 boards.  Some questions Morgan said he couldn’t answer, and  some of his answers seemed enigmatic, for he and Untermyer were in different worlds, operating under different assumptions.  Asked if he wanted to control everything, Morgan said clearly enough that he wanted to control nothing.  And when asked if he was not a large shareholder in another major bank, he replied, “Oh no, only about a million dollars’ worth,” and was surprised when the spectators laughed.
         Finally, in an exchange that would become famous, Untermyer asked, “Is not commercial credit based primarily upon money or property?”
         “No sir,” said Morgan.  “The first thing is character.”
         “Before money or property?”
         “Before money or property or anything else.  Money cannot buy it.”
         Saying this, Morgan was quite sincere.  In the world of gentlemen bankers, one did business with people one knew and trusted; character – perceived character – did indeed count.

         Morgan, his family, and friends all thought that he done quite well before the committee, and much of the press agreed.  Two weeks later he left for Egypt with his daughter Louisa and several friends.  He seemed fine while crossing the Atlantic, but then became agitated and depressed.  On the Nile he fell into a delusional depression, had bad dreams, spoke of conspiracies and subpoenas and contempt of court, and told Louisa that the country was going to ruin, that his whole life work was going for naught.  As the party retreated to Cairo and then to the Grand Hotel in Rome, word of his condition got out, and messages of concern came from the pope, the king of Italy, and the Kaiser.  Flocking also to the hotel were art dealers and amateurs with bundles of items to sell to the great collector.  Morgan rallied, made some jaunts into the city, but then declined, became delirious, and died in his sleep on March 31, 1913, just shy of his 76th birthday, the cause of death never ascertained.
         Flags on Wall Street immediately flew at half mast, and on April 14 the Stock Exchange closed for two hours while his body passed through New York City on its way to burial in Hartford.  The funeral at St. George’s Church in Manhattan displayed flowers from the Kaiser, the government of France, and the king of Italy; 1500 attended, with thousands more outside.  There were memorial services in London and Paris as well.
         The total value of his estate was about $80 million (well over $230 million in 2016 dollars); most of it went to his son, with generous bequests to family and friends.  His son put most of his art collection on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and subsequently sold some of it to various collectors, but donated many works to the Met.

         Was John Pierpont Morgan’s death hastened by the Pujo committee’s treatment of him, and public skepticism about the values he held dear?  Probably.  The world was changing, and Morgan was too old and too fixed in his ways to change.  The era of the gentleman banker had passed.  In 2013 Congress created the Federal Reserve System to provide central control of the monetary system, issue currency, and create a stable financial system, which, with its powers expanded, it does to this day.  It took a complex system of twelve regional banks, each with branches and a board of directors, and a seven-member governing board appointed by the president, to fill the void left by the death of J.P. Morgan. 
          I confess I'm rather taken with old J.P. and his naiveté -- yes, naiveté! -- in thinking that gentlemen bankers of good character could still handle the affairs of the nation, and that in creating monopolies he had America's best interests at heart.  Both eulogists and critics of the man were correct.  John Pierpont Morgan was both a monopolist and a savior of the nation, an autocrat and a benefactor.  He truly believed that the wealth he had accumulated should be used for the good of the nation 
-- richesse oblige -- and acted accordingly.  Luckily, he died before the outbreak of World War I.  Having been a friend of both the king of England and the emperor of Germany, he could never have adjusted to a war-ravaged Europe and the catastrophic end of the world he had known.  He believed in order; war brought chaos.

         Source note: For information in this post, as in the preceding one, I am indebted to Jean Strouse’s magisterial biography, Morgan: American Financier (Random House, 1999). 

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          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.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

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:  Katahdin: How, even with a governor against it, a nonprofit gets things done.

     ©   2016   Clifford Browder