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'Morgan' by Jean Strouse

J. Pierpont Morgan biography is right on the money

Sunday, September 19, 1999

By Donald Miller, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

 
 

Morgan

By Jean Strouse

Random House
$34.95

   
 

J. Pierpont Morgan was America’s most powerful financier at a time when the influence of industrial and banking barons eclipsed the federal government.

Although he was the ultimate plutocrat, he also cared about society and gave his wealth to causes that pleased him. He helped to found the American Museum of Natural History and chaired the board of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to which he donated a fortune in art.

Jean Strouse’s biography is a magisterial, classically written book that brings the reader close at last to the man who was probably most responsible for how the United States developed economically after the Civil War and into the early 1900s.

Morgan, who was born in 1837, was interested in everyone and everything at the highest financial level. He trusted men of great capacity, like Thomas Edison, regardless of social status, but it wasn’t all business. He also possessed a sensitive aesthetic awareness helped by good judgment.

Although magnates like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew W. Mellon collected art, no one had better judgment than Morgan on art and literature with a precious history. He cultivated this taste early, honing it on foreign travel and direct experience of high culture.

Morgan’s foremost talent, though, was making large sums of money, usually through mergers and buyouts, on the premise that large amalgamations make more profits. Imagine how he must have felt when, in 1901, he said to Carnegie, whom he and collaborators had just bought out for $480 million, “How does it feel to be the richest man in the world?” -- and to be the person who made that possible.

As America’s unofficial central banker, Morgan orchestrated key industrial mergers, creating United States Steel Corp., General Electric, rail empires and much more.

Strouse, who won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy for her biography “Alice James,” details many of the business arrangements Morgan masterminded. Although facile writers pictured him as the monster of Wall Street, Strouse, who first shared that opinion, changed her view.

With his financial power, Morgan not only deflected at least three national panics, saving Americans from stock-market losses, but also virtually single-handedly steadied the course of the country’s financial development before government agencies grew up to that task.

Strouse says, “Even some of Morgan’s critics said he was a builder and conservator, not a wrecker, liar or cheat.”

She credits him with working successfully “in cycles of expansion and contraction, through panics, depressions, competitive price wars, speculative gambles and government defaults. When a Morganization succeeded, stock prices rose; when a combination [merger] failed, all his financial and political efforts could not keep share prices from falling.”

Morgan thought that necessity “had drafted him to do what he could to police the markets and keep the U.S. economy on track, but in the end no one could control money.”

That is, even though the federal government though he was capable of that. He became the target of a congressional investigation in December 1912. At the hearing, Morgan confirmed information prepared by his partners that 78 corporations in 1912 had nearly $82 million on deposit at his bank, J.P. Morgan & Co., and that their total assets came to nearly $10 billion.

Shaken by the effects of the hearing and what Strouse calls the public’s cynical reaction to him, Morgan died in Rome the following March at 75. Morgan’s total estate was only $80 million ($1.2 billion now), not nearly as much as people had imagined.

He estimated he had spent $50 million to $60 million on art, although later calculations put the value at between $60 million and $80 million. John D. Rockefeller, worth nearly $1 billion in 1913, reportedly said on reading of Morgan’s death, “And to think he wasn’t even a rich man.”

What manner of man was Morgan? “As his partners and close friends knew,” Strouse writes, “his intelligence was not verbal or analytic but perceptual and concrete. It dealt in numbers, objects, action.”

Morgan was a big man, tortured by periodic depression and lifelong hypochondria. Handsome as a young man, he developed a deforming skin disease (rhynophyma) “that turned his nose into a purple bulb.” He appeared fierce with penetrating eyes but liked to be quiet even in company. He spoke French and German but, oddly for a man with a library, didn’t like to read.

His librarian and book agent, Belle da Costa Greene, was one of the most vivid people he knew; what he didn’t know was that she was black.

Morgan the collector was voracious. The Metropolitan assembled his artworks, called by experts the finest private collection in existence, for their only assembly together in 1914. Then, most of his collections were sold.

Morgan had four children. His first wife died, and he would keep his second wife at bay on trips abroad; when she returned home, he would sally off with his many friends and mistresses to Europe and yearly trekked to Egypt, where he backed the Met’s excavations.

Strouse’s superb accomplishment finally defines Morgan as a human being beset by many problems amid the turmoil of his huge business activities. This is the side of him that has eluded historians. Readers interested in business and art on the grandest of scales, and at great length, will enjoy “Morgan.”

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