The Man Behind the Nose: Morgan Masterfully Rendered

Morgan: American Financier , by Jean Strouse. Random House, 796 pages, $34.95.

As Information Age speculation remakes American wealth on a scale not seen since J. Pierpont Morgan strutted onto the world banking stage, the lives of our founding financiers are undergoing necessary rehabilitation. Last year’s Titan , Ron Chernow’s life of John D. Rockefeller, demonstrated that a monumental saga of a homespun outsider–”mega-billionaire nerd” would be today’s Gatesian analog–is still one of our meritocracy’s favorite bedtime stories. The life of Pierpont Morgan is an even more fabulous tale. Once upon a time, it might have been dreamed up by the F. Scott Fitzgerald of “The Rich Boy,” the worldly storyteller who always wrote best through the eyes of a Midwesterner drawn East as to the realm of Midas.

Morgan literally turned America to gold, saving the gold standard in 1895, and regulating the flow of gold in and out of the United States. He commanded a banking empire that was global in scope; the depth and magnitude of its resources remain unparalleled in modern times. At home, Morgan acted as a one-man central bank, more than once saving the United States from bankruptcy and panic. Consolidating competing companies into vast “combines” in a process that came to be known as “Morganization,” he helped to build the foundation on which the American industrial pyramid was raised. Even his nose, ruptured by a chronic skin disorder, was declared by Morgan to be “part of the American business structure.”

For all his wealth, he would have looked down that nose at a diamond as big as the Ritz. He typified an age when character was everything. Trusted by kings and nations all over the world, he ruled by force of character. His word was the gold standard, and he knew the power of silence. Morgan rarely gave interviews or speeches. His last will expressed his doctrinal belief in atonement through Christ’s sacrifice, yet elicited disbelieving headlines: “Morgan Gives Soul to Maker, Money to Son.” For years after his death, no collection of letters surfaced. He left no published works. He hid from history. A consummate New Yorker, however, he continued to make eye contact.

All through the 20th century, novelists have looked into Morgan’s “small black magpie’s eyes”–the phrase is from John Dos Passos’ 1919 . In Ragtime , E.L. Doctorow depicted Morgan with “eyes set just close enough to suggest the psychopathology of his will.” At century’s end, the J.P. Morgan that we still picture–the glowering trust king, his blighted nose airbrushed, the hard black eyes pricked by light, an aquiline claw choking the polished arm of his chair–comes to us from an image captured in 1903. The 24-year-old Edward Steichen, given two minutes to make a photograph for Morgan’s official portrait painter, took several exposures that duplicated the official pose, then suggested that Morgan “swing” his head into a casual pose. Morgan refused. Defiant, he squared off with Steichen, stared down his opponent, and voilà –there sat the real “Napoleon of Wall Street,” a sinister icon of the Gilded Age.

Several other J.P. Morgans remain visible around town. A saintly Morgan surfaces in his rare book and manuscript collections, art collections, institutional philanthropy, and high church Episcopal faith–all still on view in the white marble Pierpont Morgan Library on East 36th Street, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (where Morgan was president) and the ivy-covered St. George’s Church on Stuyvesant Square (where he was senior warden). As the marquee player in Ron Chernow’s award-winning history, House of Morgan , Morgan reappeared in 1990 as a restless, conflicted giant: straitlaced yet sybaritic; theatrical but schooled in concealment; tenderhearted in his love for his doomed first wife, cruel to the long-lived second Mrs. Morgan; puritanical in his standards, fatally attracted to sassy showgirls. In short, a sacred monster.

The Morgan that Jean Strouse has brought to life in her masterful, long-awaited biography is deeply human, the most intricate and integrated portrait we have yet had. This Morgan is stripped of varnish but remains grandly scaled and exquisitely rendered. Ms. Strouse, a gutsy, sympathetic writer, whose first biography, Alice James , turned the neglected diarist and remarkable younger sister of William and Henry James into an unexpectedly complex figure, has produced an equally brilliant work with a vastly more intimidating subject.

Morgan has frustrated no fewer than 11 biographers. In Ms. Strouse he has met his match. By measuring her commitment to Morgan in decades, she has made herself into much more than a mere expert on a mythic American financier or a talking head on international finance. As with Alice James, she has created a living relationship with her subject.

An exemplar in American biography, Ms. Strouse sees deeply into the forest by chopping down every tree. She mills the lumber by hand and searches the grain in the wood for the hidden history it reveals. She writes from the inside out, seeing her character’s choices and alternatives as they saw them. In the process, her judgment is honed razor-sharp: She alone can reject legends and spurious anecdotes that other Morgan biographers have fallen for, because she alone knows every leaf in the forest.

Working archives on both sides of the Atlantic, Ms. Strouse uncovered significant new evidence about Morgan’s public and private lives. In the inner sanctum of the Morgan Library, she dusted off Morgan’s childhood diaries and adult letters and business correspondence–a trove that had been seen and used selectively only by Morgan’s authorized biographer, a son-in-law. But the Morgan that Ms. Strouse had at first thought she was looking for–”a modified, human-scale version” of the villain in Steichen’s portrait–failed to appear. To make matters worse, as she sifted through the testimony of those who had known Morgan, she found his critics more persuasive, better speakers and writers, than his advocates, who seemed “defensive and fawning.”

At that point, five years into the work, a more commercial biographer might have gone ahead and fit the evidence to a pre-emptively conceived characterization. Ms. Strouse, however, dumped her first draft and hunkered down to re-examine the Morgan she had encountered in the archives, a Morgan who was “sociable and shy, deliberate and impulsive, ingenuous and shrewd, domineering and flexible, exuberant and depressive, extravagant and frugal, worldly and religious, inscrutably reserved and deeply sentimental.” In short, a man.

The complex process of Ms. Strouse’s off-page responses is important to note because, although unseen, it gives her storytelling the richness and penetration of a novel. Ms. Strouse was ideally prepared to understand the hypochondria of the “most powerful man of the late 19th century”–her previous experience, after all, was with a “powerless female invalid in a family of intellectuals.” Surprisingly, Morgan fell apart almost as frequently as Alice James did; and Ms. Strouse is expert at detecting the real reasons behind Victorian breakdowns for which no organic cause has been found. She traces the internal logic of Morgan’s lifelong battles with depression, anxiety, abandonment and “astringent perfectionism,” and her efforts make this a groundbreaking interpretation.

But the most remarkable feat in Morgan is the way Alice James’ biographer has successfully recast herself as an economic historian. After the Civil War, when the American economy exploded, J.P. Morgan was both supplying the dynamite and steadying the ground. No one did more to transform the rural agrarian republic into a modern industrial empire. As she tells this story, at each crucial step in the national metamorphosis, Ms. Strouse salts her narrative with brisk, clear analysis of the economic principles that were shaping Morgan’s public actions. Her chapter on the panic of 1907 could serve as a model of suspenseful storytelling or an introduction to modern economics.

Her mastery of detail allows her to use previously overlooked nuggets to help us understand what money meant to a man of unlimited wealth. We know, for example, that Morgan paid $300 to send a substitute to the Civil War. But what exactly did $300 signify to him in 1863? Poring over the account books from J. Pierpont Morgan & Company, Ms. Strouse noticed what Morgan spent on cigars for himself and his father in 1863: $300.

Morgan was scoured by doubts all his life, yet he ignored his critics, starting with his parents and teachers and ending with the American public. That hubris, Ms. Strouse reveals, lies closer to the root of his real isolation than the unreality of his wealth. During the acute nervous collapse that followed Morgan’s testimony before the Pujo Committee in 1912, which led, ultimately, to his decline the following year, the great emperor of money found himself reduced to a state of “childlike dependence.” Rumors of Morgan’s breakdown in Egypt and subsequent “nerve storms” in Rome caused jitters on Wall Street.

When death finally came, it was caused most likely by a series of small strokes he had already suffered on the Nile, followed by the coup de grâce in Rome. True to form, however, Ms. Strouse has dug up a certificate filed by Italian authorities, stating that Morgan died of “psychic dyspepsia,” a nicely Jamesian ending to the story of the Ozymandian banker whose death closed out the 19th century and whose life reopens our eyes to the creation of modern America.