The Book Club

Epicurean Yuppie


Funny, but what struck you as so unfamiliar about Morgan’s relative emotional immaturity is one of the things that drew a smile of recognition from me. Yes, he did get tend to get a little silly every time a new “dame”–gotta love that term–crossed the threshold at 219 Madison. Yes, his relationship to his son was, as they say these days, dysfunctional. Yes, I suppose you could make the case that he was somehow stuck in perpetual adolescence. Maybe.

But one of the reasons I found the book’s first half such slow going was how utterly conventional Morgan seemed as a man. That budding banker you meet in the first 250 pages of this book is the same damn banker who has bored me through 200 lunches. Sentimental and florid? I guess so, but especially as a young man he struck me as just another overworked, emotionally constipated investment banker, someone who would always be more comfortable with numbers than with people. Do I expect a man of great acts to rise to similar heights in his emotional life? Not a chance. Especially on Wall Street.

For me, the challenge was to identify that spark of genius in the young Morgan, that one quality that made Morgan special, and I’m not sure I ever found it. Dictatorial and demanding, yes. Good with numbers, OK. But that describes roughly half the young strivers on Wall Street. I think Strouse generally makes good points about Morgan’s positive attributes. He wasn’t afraid to “think outside the box,” he recruited men on merit rather than on family ties (with a notable exception or two), and he allowed these men to do their jobs. Nothing earthshaking there.

The theme I found most fascinating about the early Morgan–and I think Strouse hits her stride here–was of Morgan as “reluctant king.” As a young man, he really did not seem to be all that enthused about following in his father Junius’ footsteps. These recurrent “depressions” and “blue moods” he suffered, a legacy of his Pierpont forefathers, did more to round Morgan out as a character, as a man, than anything else Strouse comes up with. His restless sense, especially as a younger man, that he wanted to be doing something else–he was never sure what–struck a chord with me. I can’t tell you how many investment bankers and lawyers of all ages I’ve met on Wall Street over the years who long to be something else: Screenwriters, actors, sailors, you name it. I know one banker who left the Street to pursue a country-music career.

That Morgan fit this profile surprised me, especially after all that discussion during his boyhood of the importance of character, duty, loyalty, etc. I would have thought that young J.P. would “stiff-upper-lip” it and plod on into the business, and I suppose that’s what he ultimately did. But when Strouse allows us to look inside Morgan’s mind to see these doubts, I thought I glimpsed a man deeply secure in who he was–i.e., he didn’t have to be his father to be the man his father wanted. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.

By the way, you’ve got to love that Morgan work ethic. Oh, I know he worked himself to death when he was in the office, and I know more than a few Morgan partners nearly or actually died trying to keep up with his pace. (Have you ever seen so many men suffering nervous breakdowns in a single book before? Good grief.) What I mean are the vacations. I’ve never seen such a schedule. Europe twice a year, four and five months at a time. Laying around this or that spa. Sipping wine in Provence, touring galleries in Paris. By my rough calculation, he spent nearly a quarter of his time between his 20th and 40th birthdays vacationing, a period in which most men in his day (and this one), one supposes, are building a base from which to launch their careers. Pierpont has a blue mood? Take the summer of 1868 off in Europe! How long did his first honeymoon drag on? Six months? Try to get away with that today.

Jim, before I run–jet lag is quickly taking its toll–I was wondering if we could get back to that point you raised initially about biographers. Jean Strouse, it’s been widely reported, spent 15 years writing this book. I understood Scott Berg spent eight on Lindbergh. I’m not a biographer, and I don’t want to be one, but something about this jarred me. I’m still sorting through my thoughts. One part of me thinks it’s just incredibly sad to spend that much time living in someone else’s clothes. I mean–and this is the writers’ age-old lament–couldn’t our time be put to better use? I couldn’t help thinking that in the time Jean Strouse wrote this book she could have founded and sold six Internet companies.

Yes, you have to admire her dedication, but another side of me wonders why it should take so darned long. In my first year as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, I worked in a small bureau (Houston) with another reporter who worked around the clock, seven days a week, yet turned out less copy than I, who left most evenings by 7. The boss just loved his guy, even though many afternoons I spied him playing Nerf basketball. As I read Strouse’s book I found myself wondering, occasionally, what portion of a pie chart analyzing her use of time over those 15 years would be devoted to the mental equivalent of Nerf basketball? Then again, if a stringent regimen of Nerf basketball can produce a book this good, maybe I ought to start tacking up a new hoop.