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Morgan: American Financier (1999)

by Jean Strouse

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444546,314 (3.98)7
A century ago, J. Pierpont Morgan bestrode the financial world like a colossus. The organizing force behind General Electric, U.S. Steel, and vast railroad empires, he served for decades as America's unofficial central banker: a few months after he died in 1913, the Federal Reserve replaced the private system he had devised. An early supporter of Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie, the confidant (and rival) of Theodore Roosevelt, England's Edward VII, and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, and the companion of several fascinating women, Morgan shaped his world and ours in countless ways. Yet since his death he has remained a mysterious figure, celebrated as a hero of industrial progress and vilified as a rapacious robber baron. Here for the first time is the biography Morgan has long deserved--a magisterial, full-scale portrait of the man without whose dominating will American finance and culture would be very different from what they are today. In this beautifully crafted account, drawn from more than a decade's work in newly available archives, the award-winning biographer Jean Strouse animates Morgan's life and times to reveal the entirely human character behind the often terrifying visage.          Morganbrings eye-opening perspectives to the role the banker played in the emerging U.S. economy as he raised capital in Europe, reorganized bankrupt railroads, stabilized markets in times of crisis, and set up many of the corporate and financial structures we take for granted. And surprising new stories introduce us in vivid detail to Morgan's childhood in Hartford and Boston, his schooling in Switzerland and Germany, the start of his career in New York--as well as to his relations with his esteemed and exacting father, with his adored first and difficult second wives, with his children, partners, business associates, female consorts, and friends. Morgan had a second major career as a collector of art, stocking America with visual and literary treasures of the past. Called by one contemporary expert "the greatest collector of our time," he spent much of his energy and more than half of his fortune on art.                 Strouse's extraordinary biography gives dramatic new dimension not only to Morgan but to the culture, political struggles, and social conflicts of America's momentous Gilded Age.… (more)
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Pierpont Morgan was a fascinating person. Born in 1837 he lived through the period when the US exploded into a manufacturing giant, and more than living through it, he was an important part of it.

This book focuses on three aspects of Pierpont's life: His business life, his relations to women and his art collecting.

Sadly, the sources seems to be thin in all areas so those few sources that exist get a lot of focus in the book. This includes the diary of his second life and the letters of his gossipy library manager.

It could have been different. His closest confidant was his father and the father, Junius, saved all letters in several leather bound volumes. When Pierpont saw them, he burned them. He seems to have been reluctant to having anyone judge him all through his life.

But still, there is enough to say quite a bit as this 1000 page book shows.

Born as son to the banker Junius Morgan, Pierpont is a rare example of a very successful person being followed by an even more successful child.

From early years Pierpont was groomed for a life in international banking. His father sent him abroad to learn other languages and build connections but abroad he also picked up a love of anything cultural or old.

In all his life he combined working in New York or London, the financial centers of the world, with travels to Egypt, Italy, France or other cultural locations.

As so many other successful people, Pierpont combined an intense self-doubt, with a strong belief in his own ability. It is a combination that seems to make some people work really hard. In the case of Pierpont Morgan he also seems to have been able to get other to work hard. The stress caused a lot of people around him to have breakdowns. Personally he solved the stress problem for most of his life by being abroad for 4 months per year.

In his personal life, he seems to have been, since he was a young kid, strongly attracted to women. In surviving letters, he kept complimenting women around him. Unfortunately his love life hit a major disaster early on when his first wife, Memie, died in TBC just a couple of months after the wedding.

Three years later Pierpont married Fanny, a marriage that seems to have been an unqualified disaster. Pierpont being extremely social while Fanny "preferred a quieter, more domestic life". The logistical solution was that they were rarely at the same continent. While Pierpont worked in New York, Fanny was at spas in Europe or in the London house. As Fanny made her way back over the Atlantic, Pierpont went to Europe.

The book instead talks about his female travel companions, implying strongly that two or three of them were his mistresses for decades at a time. That was clearly true at an intellectual level though whether it was also carnal, the book leaves to the reader's imagination.

Despite Pierpont and Fanny rarely being near each other they had 4 children. The first, Lousia, Pierpont's favourite, became his travel companion for a long time, most of the time keeping quiet about Pierpont's other women. The second, Jack, was groomed as Pierponts successor as Pierpont himself had been groomed by his father Junius, but not nerely as successful. Pierpont was a better pupil than teacher.

But the big question is, what made Pierpont so special that people read about him 150 years later? Beyond accumulating massive amounts of money (though less than people thought), he was also a powerful personality that could unite the country's wealthy elite in times of trouble. Several times through his life, the US economy, lacking a central bank, lacking macroeconomic understanding, faced imminent collapse when Pierpont using his own fortune and connections stabilized the economy. Most of the time he came out richer than he started which added to his power as well as others respect, envy and fear.

In his later life he used almost all the money he had to build massive collections of art and old items, and to build beautiful buildings. Everything the European aristocracy had collected over centuries, he was willing to buy and there were plenty of sellers.

Some of what he bought ended up in his personal collections, some he donated to museums or the original owner. Sadly his massive collection disbursed after he died, but parts of it can be found at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

During his last couple of years he was the target of a lot of public attacks on him and his business dealings. People in general were fed up with how certain people became ludicrously rich, especially if done through monopolies and trusts. Rockefeller, Carnegie, the Vanderbilts were the main drivers of that, but for all their empire building they needed money, and Pierpont Morgan was one of the few that could provide the necessary amounts when huge companies were created. This gave Pierpont Morgan power through direct ownership (the bank always takes a share when it funnels resources) but also by having bank representatives installed as directors in every important bank.

At the same time, people that knew him seems to have trusted him. American presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt, took his advice and relied on Pierpont when there was a crisis, while they at the same time attacked other "robber barons".

The summary in the book is that it was lucky Pierpont was a good man because that power would have been bad in anyone else's hands. And that no individual should ever have that much power again.

I find it a bit hard to grade books like this since it takes reading multiple biographies about the same person to understand what the book omits or emphasises. I will not do that, So instead I have to look at it as a literary work, and then this book is mostly easy to read but also includes chapters that could be removed, and lists so many names that it takes a notebook by the side to keep track of everyone. I am happy I read it and I learned a lot so I'm giving it four stars but I also feel like there are many pieces of the puzzle missing. ( )
  bratell | Dec 25, 2020 |
I found this well written and engaging. I am looking forward to the Chernow book, after looking at what the other reviewers had to say. Pierpont was a fascinating individual and seems pretty unique in his age. ( )
1 vote Whiskey3pa | Oct 4, 2013 |
3294. Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse (read Feb 23, 2000) I am not sure it was necessary to read this, since in June of 1994 I read Ron Chernow's superlative The House of Morgan. This book concentrates on the by far most colorful Morgan, J. Peirpont Morgan, Sr., who died in 1913. Most of the book was good, except I could not get very excited about the detailed accounts of his purchases of art and such. The other parts of the book were interest-holding. ( )
2 vote Schmerguls | Nov 30, 2007 |
It must have taken me 6 months to get through this. There were parts I enjoyed and parts I didn't. I never knew so much about JP Morgan. It was very interesting to see the things one man could accomplish (with a lot of help from those that respected him). He saved the country from finincail disaster twice and was still ridiculded as a robber baron. I think I'll wait awhile for my next biography though.
1 vote jcopenha | Jan 19, 2007 |
Not as engaging as The House of Morgan
Strouse's work is truly a tour de force. The book's subject deserves such a royal treatment. Some myths have been broken (for instance, the anecdote about a partner's wife commenting on Morgan's nose, which was mentioned in Chernow's 1990 book). Still, one gets the impression that Chernow's book was more engaging than Strouse's work.

(Posted in Amazon.com, August 19, 1999) ( )
1 vote melvinsico | Oct 29, 2006 |
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A century ago, J. Pierpont Morgan bestrode the financial world like a colossus. The organizing force behind General Electric, U.S. Steel, and vast railroad empires, he served for decades as America's unofficial central banker: a few months after he died in 1913, the Federal Reserve replaced the private system he had devised. An early supporter of Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie, the confidant (and rival) of Theodore Roosevelt, England's Edward VII, and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, and the companion of several fascinating women, Morgan shaped his world and ours in countless ways. Yet since his death he has remained a mysterious figure, celebrated as a hero of industrial progress and vilified as a rapacious robber baron. Here for the first time is the biography Morgan has long deserved--a magisterial, full-scale portrait of the man without whose dominating will American finance and culture would be very different from what they are today. In this beautifully crafted account, drawn from more than a decade's work in newly available archives, the award-winning biographer Jean Strouse animates Morgan's life and times to reveal the entirely human character behind the often terrifying visage.          Morganbrings eye-opening perspectives to the role the banker played in the emerging U.S. economy as he raised capital in Europe, reorganized bankrupt railroads, stabilized markets in times of crisis, and set up many of the corporate and financial structures we take for granted. And surprising new stories introduce us in vivid detail to Morgan's childhood in Hartford and Boston, his schooling in Switzerland and Germany, the start of his career in New York--as well as to his relations with his esteemed and exacting father, with his adored first and difficult second wives, with his children, partners, business associates, female consorts, and friends. Morgan had a second major career as a collector of art, stocking America with visual and literary treasures of the past. Called by one contemporary expert "the greatest collector of our time," he spent much of his energy and more than half of his fortune on art.                 Strouse's extraordinary biography gives dramatic new dimension not only to Morgan but to the culture, political struggles, and social conflicts of America's momentous Gilded Age.

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