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Faces From The Past—ix

July 2024
3min read

The great man could spare exactly two minutes. Like a huge, baleful dragon he sat, not posing but confronting the camera, defying it to do its worst, gripping the polished arm I of the chair so that it looked like a gleaming pigsticker aimed at the vitals. The photographer, Edward Stcichcn, had time for two exposures; then his visitor rose, clapped a square-topped derby on his head, reached for the big black cigar he had laid aside, and departed.

Afterward Steichen described the impact of that formidable personality: meeting the man’s eyes was something like confronting the headlights of an onrushing express train—if you could get out of the way it was only an awe-inspiring experience; otherwise it was calamitous. That was the effect John Pierpont Morgan nearly always had on people. What they saw first was the bulbous, flaming nose that was his affliction and his shame; to avoid staring at it they looked him in the eye and were struck dumb. Lincoln Steffens, who as a young financial reporter had interviewed him, recalled how “his eyes glared, his great red nose seemed to me to flash and darken, flash and darken.” That was back in the nineties, a decade before Steichen’s great photograph was made, when Morgan was at his office at 23 Wall Street every day. He sat alone, Steffens wrote, in a back room with glass sides; fhe door was open, as if anyone might walk in and ask a question. But no one dared; not even his partners went near him unless they were summoned, “and then they looked alarmed and darted in like officeboys.”

Everything about Morgan bespoke solidity and permanence—his inevitable wing collar, Ascot tie, severe dark suit; the enormous bloodstone that hung from a heavy gold watch chain, the very stone and chain he had worn when he entered the business world in 1857. Everything he did was on a magnificent scale—his yacht, the Corsair , was the biggest, the collies he bred won the best blue ribbons, the works of art he brought back from Europe staggered the imagination. Truly, he was a man above men. As Mr. Dooley put it in an impersonation of Morgan, “call up the Czar an’ th’ Pope an’ th’ Sultan an’ th’ Impror Willuni, an’ tell thim we won’t need their sarvices afther nex’ week.”

J. P. Morgan was easily the most powerful personal force in American life. In the depression of 1895 he had rescued the United States government (at a price) when it ran short of gold; in 1901 he had put together U.S. Steel, the world’s first “billion-dollar” corporation; six years later only his enormous courage, audacity, and prestige saved the country from financial disaster. When he went abroad in 1901 the King of England asked that Morgan be seated at his right at a banquet; in Germany he dined alone with the Kaiser (when Wilhelm II mentioned the subject of socialism, Morgan glared at him momentarily and then announced: “I pay no attention to such theories”). The public image of him was evident in a song of the period, which told of a weary pilgrim seeking a place to rest, only to be turned away again and again with the words: “It’s Morgan’s, it’s Morgan’s…” Then, at last,

“Iwent to the only place left for me, So I boarded a boat for the brimstone sea; Maybe I’ll be allowed to sit On the griddled floor of the bottomless pit; But a jeering imp with horns on his face Cried out as he forked me out of the place: Chorus: It’s Morgan’s, it’s Morgan’s; the great financial gorgon’s; Get off that spot, we’re keeping it hot; That seat is reserved for Morgan.”

Inevitably the zealous young President, Theodore Roosevelt, and the crusty old financier ran afoul of one another. In 1902, only five months after Roosevelt took office, Wall Street shuddered with the news that the government planned to demand dissolution of the Northern Securities Company, the giant holding company created by Morgan and James J. Hill to control the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroads. At 23 Wall the air was sulphurous; Morgan left immediately for Washington. In a dramatic meeting he criticized the brash young man in the White House for what was clearly a violation of vested rights, took him to task for not warning him of his plans, and concluded with the famous words: “If we have done anything wrong, send your man [meaning the Attorney General of the United States] to my man [a Morgan attorney] and they can fix it up.” As the President was quick to see, Morgan regarded him as “a big rival operator”; privately, the banker considered him wildly irresponsible. “The man’s a lunatic,” he said. “He is worse than a Socialist.” Nor was Morgan one to let bygones be bygones. When Roosevelt left the White House and announced his plans to go hunting in Africa, the financier growled, “I hope the first lion he meets does his duty.”

Ironically, Morgan’s last public appearance was in the nature of an accounting for the power he had wielded. In 1912, a year before he died, he was called to Washington to testify before the so-called Pujo Committee—a House subcommittee determined to prove that Morgan and a small group of New York bankers held the nation’s economy in an iron grip. During the course of his testimony, J. P. Morgan revealed the credo which had governed his long career. The attorney conducting the examination asked whether commercial credit was not based primarily upon money or property. No, Morgan replied firmly, “the first thing is character.”

“Before money or property?”

“Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.… Because a man I do not trust could not get money from me on all the bonds in Christendom.”

Richard M. Ketchum

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