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The Magnitude of J. P. Morgan
It cannot be measured in dollars alone. It involved a kind of personal power no man of affairs will ever have again.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
One of Morgan’s greatest assets in this process was his formidable physical presence and personality. He obtained agreement among diverse interests often because those interests were simply afraid not to agree. He looked and acted like a man of supreme authority and wisdom, and most people took this at face value. At six feet tall he was well above average height for his generation. His hearty appetite and lack of regular exercise soon gave him above-average bulk as well. But his most remarkable feature was his flashing, hazel-colored eyes. Edward Steichen, the photographer, said that meeting Morgan’s gaze was like confronting the headlights of an express train. As Frederick Lewis Alien paraphrased Steichen, “If one could step off the track, they were merely awe inspiring; if one could not, they were terrifying.”
Morgan spoke in a deep, booming voice and often appeared abrupt. He had early learned that most people will not challenge a show of aggression. But when he was challenged, he often backed down quickly. Lincoln Steffens as a young reporter had to ask Morgan to explain the meaning of a statement the firm had issued. He remembered the incident in his autobiography.
“‘Mean!’ [Morgan] exclaimed. His eyes glared, his great red nose seemed to me to flash and darken, flash and darken. Then he roared. ‘Mean! It means what it says. I wrote it myself and it says what I mean.’ …
“He sat back there, flashing and rumbling; then he clutched the arms of his chair, and I thought he was going to leap at me. I was so scared that I defied him.
”‘Oh, come now, Mr. Morgan,’ I said, ‘you may know a lot about figures and finance, but I’m a reporter, and I know as much as you do about English. And that statement isn’t English.’
“That was the way to treat him, I was told afterward. And it was in that case. He glared at me a moment more, the fire went out of his face, and he leaned forward over the bit of paper and said very meekly, ‘What’s the matter with it?’”
Unlike so many men who make a great fortune, Morgan was no slave to business and early developed the habit of taking frequent and often extended vacations, almost always in England or Europe. “I can do a year’s work in nine months,” he once said, “but not in twelve.”
After his father’s death in 1890 he began to collect art on a serious scale on these vacations, and it soon turned into what can only be described as an inspired mania. It was not just paintings that interested him but drawings, ceramics, books, manuscripts, jewelry, and sculpture. The lobbies of the hotels he stayed in were soon habitually jammed with art dealers and down-at-the-heel aristocrats hoping to turn family legacies into ready money. Morgan would look at these offerings and decide instantly whether to pay the asking price or refuse it. He never haggled.
So vast were Morgan’s art purchases that he is credited with raising the price of old masters generally. The day after he died, The New York Times headlined one of the pages of stories it carried ART DEALERS ALARMED.
His was the first private house to be completely wired for electricity.
Morgan was not an expert in art, and he bought so much so quickly that he occasionally got stung and often got overcharged. But he could tap the services of the greatest experts in the world, and he had a fine eye of his own. Certainly he knew what he liked. To J. P. Morgan, art was a gift from the past. He was not the least interested in modern art and indeed collected little done after the 1700s.
Also after his father’s death, Morgan reorganized his business connections. J. S. Morgan and Company in London became J. P. Morgan and Company, as did the firm in New York. The Drexel name was used only in Philadelphia. By the mid-1890s Morgan’s name was as famous as any in the world. On both sides of the Atlantic, Morgan walked as an equal with kings and presidents. On Wall Street merely to be seen walking with him down the steps of the Morgan bank was said to make a man’s career.
In addition to his houses on the Hudson and on Thirty-sixth Street, he maintained elaborate country and city households in England. He had a camp in the Adirondacks, a fishing box in Newport, and Corsair, the equal of any yacht in the world in size and luxury. With his great banking house, his imposing presence, and his swelling, almost imperial art collection, Morgan became the very symbol of Wall Street and its rising power, as it reached equality with London as a money center in the last years of the century.
His name was famous; he walked as an equal with kings and presidents.
Not only railroads but industrial concerns as well were being created and restructured by Morgan and others on Wall Street at the turn of the century, as the country entered the modern economic era characterized by corporations of national scope. When Morgan had first come to Wall Street, not a single industrial concern was listed on the New York Stock Exchange. But in the ensuing fifty years they came to dominate both Wall Street and the American economy. The shape of corporate America today is still largely the invention of the investment bankers of turn-of-the-century Wall Street.