Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) is a fascinating figure. My interest in him stems from his library of treasures, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. But the library, his legacy, is only the last phase in the life of a preposterous man, the king of his milieu.
He was born knowing that he would be ‘great’. His hero was Napoleon and his father was a wealthy industrialist, anticipating his own career.
In her 1999 biography, Morgan, Jean Strouse writes:
He began to keep diaries in 1850 – small “Line-a-day” books. Like most masculine journal writers of his time and social class, he was far more interested in registering what happened than in exploring subjective responses or ideas. “Sleighing, skating; beat father in backgammon,” he wrote in early January 1850. The next day, “wound 7 skeins of cotton for mother A man fell off one of the towers of the new depot & killed.” He rarely mentions his siblings. Over the following months he recorded: “Dancing school. Ladies to tea.” “Father did not come home.” “Mother ill.”… “Finished 3rd Book of Virgil. Picked some cherries.” Not even death evoked a comment: “Mr S.B. Paddock [with whom he was living] died at 10 o’clock aged 56. In evening staid home and read.”
What the diaries chiefly portray is a young mind intent on order and control. Next to the day and date printed on each page, Pierpont entered the number of days gone by and remaining for the year – on October first, for instance: ‘Days past, 274.” “To come, 91.” At the end of 1851 he tabulated “Places resided” between January and July – there were seventeen – and the diary pages convering each place. He kept lists of his income, expenses, the initials of girls he liked, and all the letters he sent and received, including postage paid. (38)
I am amazed by the detail of Morgan’s life that Strouse can give us. Most lives do not leave this many traces – childhood diaries, folders and folders of correspondence. There is barely a week of his life that Strouse cannot tell us something about. I compare it to my own family. I know almost nothing of Joseph Hobby, my great-grandfather born in the 1870s, let alone his father, a contemporary of Morgan’s. Not one letter, let alone the detail of a life, the happenings of the days, weeks and months which make it up.
Morgan was involved in some suspicious arms deals during the Civil War, financing the refurbishing of old guns bought cheaply off the army and selling them back at a large profit.
He built up an empire; he had so much money it attracted more money. He came to singlehandedly influence the stockmarket and control investment confidence.
Rhinophyma disfigured his face, a condition in which the nose spreads out red and bulbous. He didn’t want it fixed, superstitiously thinking it would lead to other conditions. He dared people not to stare at it; but he also avoided the public gaze and photographs.
He also lived in the shadow of his father, and it was only when his father died that he embarked with vigour acquiring valuable manuscripts from around the world. He treated with the spirit of competition and acquisitiveness with which he had amassed his empire and soon the basement of his mansion was overflowing with Gutenberg Bibles and rare manuscripts.
In 1906, a library was built next to his house to keep all his treasures. A tunnel connected it to his house. He hired a feisty young librarian who lied about her age and racial background, Belle Costa da Greene, who set about expanding his collection even further.
Hearings into his undue influence over the economy hastened his demise in 1913. He went travelling in Egypt afterwards and slipped into a delusional depression, convinced of conspiracies against him: ‘On the Nile in early February he slid into a delusional depression. He could not eat, had ‘horrid’ dreams, asked constantly about conspiracies, subpoenas, and citations for contempt of court, and felt, reported Louisa, that ‘the country was going to ruin, that his race was run, and his whole life work was for naught!’ (Strouse: 14) His death made headlines around the world. But who has heard of him today?
In his brilliant novel of this milleiu, Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow depicts a fascinating fictional J.P. Morgan. In Doctorow’s account, Pierpont believes himself to be the reincarnation of a special higher class of human, and tries to convince Henry Ford that he is one too. When Ford only partly joins this exclusive club of elites, Pierpont travels to Egypt alone to spend a night in a pyramid. In his absence, the finale of the novel occurs in his library.