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The Millionaire & The Midget

July 2024
3min read

Almost everyone remembers the picture of a midget sitting on J. P. Morgan’s knee, but few recall, or ever knew, the end of that story. It is nearly unbearably sad. The thing happened in the Senate Caucus Room on the morning of June I, 1933, while Morgan, surrounded by a cortege of partners and lawyers and assistants, was sitting in a leather-upholstered chair waiting to testify before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. Reporters, photographers, and spectators were milling around. Suddenly, in the confusion, too quickly for official intervention, a press agent for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, apparently with the connivance of a Scripps-Howard reporter named Ray Tucker, popped the midget, a member of the circus troupe, into Morgan’s lap. Instantly the photographers were climbing onto chairs and pushing people aside to get into position for pictures.

Morgan at the time was a dignified, avuncular-looking man in his middle sixties. The circus lady, whose name was Lya Graf and who was twenty-seven inches tall, was a plump, well-proportioned brunette with sparkling dark eyes and a fresh peasant prettiness, and she was decked out in a flounced blue satin dress and a red straw hat of fishnet weave. Morgan’s cortege stiffened as if frozen; but Morgan himself did not. His face, previously set into hard lines by a week of hostile questioning by the committee, relaxed, became disturbed, then turned kindly, and a small, warm smile crossed it under the bushy black eyebrows and the neat white mustache.

“I have a grandson bigger than you,” he said.

“But I’m older,” Miss Graf replied.

“How old are you?”

The press agent said she was thirty-two, but Miss Graf corrected him:

“I am not—only twenty.”

“Well, you certainly don’t look it,” Morgan said.

The photographers clamored for one more shot, and the press agent told Miss Graf to take off her hat. “Don’t take it off, it’s pretty,” Morgan said; then he lifted her from his lap and set her carefully on the floor. The partners, who had been looking on in rigid dismay, exhaled and collapsed in their chairs; one of them brusquely shooed the press agent and Miss Graf away; and Morgan went on smiling, more feebly now. Next day the picture was famous everywhere in the world where newspapers are published.

Morgan, and even Wall Street as a whole, profited adventitiously from the encounter. From that day forward until his death a decade later, he was in the public mind no longer a grasping devil whose greed and ruthlessness had helped bring the nation to near ruin, but rather a benign old dodderer. The change in attitude was instantaneous, and Morgan took advantage of it, seizing, whether by calculation or instinct, on further chances to “humanize” himself. The following day, asked to comment on the incident by reporters possessed of a new interest in his personality, he replied unaffectedly that it had been “very unusual and somewhat unpleasant,” but that he didn’t blame the photographers, who had merely been doing their job. Asked about a bloodstone set in a gold crescent that he was wearing as a watch charm, he became positively garrulous: “Oh, that. Well, now, I’ll tell you about it. My father’s mother was J. Pierpont’s daughter. She had that made. It has the Pierpont coat of arms on one side. She gave it to her father. He wore it day in and day out. I don’t think I would have known him without it. My father gave it to me. Does that tell the story?”

“Your father’s father gave it to your mother’s brother …” a reporter began in a puzzled tone.

“No, no.” Morgan said with a chuckle, and launched into another round of ancestral rigamarole. “I still don’t …” the reporter began again, but Morgan had waved and swept grandly out. Could anyone hate such a man?

But Lya Graf did not benefit from the encounter. She was shy and sensitive, and where the role of ordinary circus freak, a kind of craft requiring skill, had been supportable to her, the role of celebrity freak was not. Two years later, hounded by fame, she left the United States and returned to her native Germany. She was half Jewish. In 1937 she was arrested as a “useless person” and in 1941 was shipped to Auschwitz, never to be heard of again. There had been no place for her anywhere; the New World had exploited her, the Old had obliterated her. Her gift to a rich and famous old man had cost her first her peace of mind and then her life.

The story might be a cozy and manageable fable except for the picture, in which Miss Graf is smiling proudly and has a plump hand splayed out on Morgan’s coat sleeve to steady herself. They both look happy and at ease; that is the unbearable part.

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