The Book Club

Where’s Rosebud?

Jim –

I was so relieved when I read your latest posting. Two reasons. One, you have admitted what I thought was the un-admittable: You don’t much care for biographies. Here I was, guilt-stricken in a minor key, trying to do my damnedest to assess a book that, I have to be honest, I never would have picked up off the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I’ll go you one further: Ron Chernow’s books put me to sleep. There, I’ve said it. I’ll never be invited on Newshour again.

I have at least six stacks of books in the corner of my office, almost all sent to me by one publisher or another. The ones that remain on the floor, I now see, are all written by politicians (seven or eight at least), lesbian poets, Latin American apologists, CEOs–and biographers. I’m ashamed to admit (I think) that since Labor Day, the only biographies I can remember reading are of Wyatt Earp (good), Custer (not so good), Ernest Shackleton (very good), and Sam Tanenhaus’ book on Whittaker Chambers, which may be the best thing I’ve read in the last year.

I’m sure scholars have written lengthy studies on a topic you and I are now fobbing off in six paragraphs, but why is it biographies seem to me the intellectual equivalent of muesli? For me the answer is simple. Few memorable people have lived memorably their entire lives. I wanted to read about Wyatt Earp’s life as a gunfighter; I couldn’t care less about his years as a cattle drover. Same with Morgan. I was interested in his major achievements, which came mostly post-1890. Details of his involvement in United Guano Corp.’s 1877 debenture filings just didn’t interest me. Frankly, I could have read Strouse’s best 200 pages and come away just as enlightened as I did poring through 750.

Yet it’s not the form itself that’s off-putting. I couldn’t put down the Chambers biography, for reasons that are now clear to me. Chambers’ life formed a natural narrative arc, a viable three-act play of rising action, climax, and falling action. Quite simply, I wanted to see what happened. As much as I liked Morgan: American Financier, I can’t say the same for it. Whittaker Chambers was a courtesan who beguiled me and drew me in for more; Morgan is a dowdy old aunt I’m forced to sit by at a bar mitzvah. All of which begs the question: Is a readable, entertaining biography the product of a readable, entertaining life or a readable, entertaining biographer?

But I digress. The second reason your latest installment comforted me was that it crystallized something that had been nagging at me about Strouse’s book. You ask, “What about Morgan’s achievements was all that special?” I think that’s probably clear, although I can see your argument that he left behind no singular innovation à la Edison for posterity. I would rather ask, “What about Morgan was so special it led to his achievements?” Honestly, after 750 pages, I’m still not sure I know the answer. Maybe I’m being too hard on what is otherwise a wonderful book. Maybe I’m looking for a Rosebud that doesn’t exist in real life. But somehow, somewhere, I expected a light bulb to go on over my head explaining why it was Morgan and no one else that did what he did. Is it heresy to suggest that what Strouse has given us is nothing more than a bright, conservative, hard-working man who was handed a very large investment bank at a crucial time in history and, surrounded by other bright, conservative hard-working men, did the reasonable thing? Am I missing something, Jim? Was there a spark of genius slipped into those lists of Raphaelesque paintings we skimmed over?

Try this. We started off asking whether Morgan has a counterpart who exists today. I think we agreed: Probably not (outside Thailand, that is). Let’s turn that hypothetical inside out, like baseball fanatics do. What could J.P. Morgan expect to achieve if he were alive today? Granted, as you pointed out, the far-flung structure of corporations and governments today all but rules out one man achieving the level of power Morgan did in his day. So much of Morgan’s power rose from the tightly knit bundle of relationships (What’d you call it? Crony capitalism?) at the apex of American commerce at the time. Leaving all that aside for argument’s sake, who would Morgan be today, if raised under similar circumstances and handed a large family-controlled investment bank?

Would he be a faceless commercial banker like Citigroup’s John Reed? Probably not. That nose, not to mention all those mistresses, would practically guarantee he would be fodder for the tabloids. Would he be Jim Wolfensohn? Felix Rohatyn? Bruce Wasserstein? No on all counts, I think. Did he have the innate talents to be a major CEO today? I think so. Even though he never had more than a dozen or so partners to directly supervise, I think he could easily handle a Fortune 500 company today. I’m just not sure he would have the stomach for it. Best guess? I think he’d be at best a minor-league Warren Buffett, a private investor good for maybe a billion or two in net worth. You know–in an era when every Internet IPO creates a newly microwaved billionaire or two–nothing special.