Titan Of The Gilded Age

Even in the introduction to Jean Strouse's monumental Morgan (796 pages. Random House. $34.95), we know we're in good hands. Strouse admits that she, too, once saw Gilded Age capitalists as "robber barons" and old J. Pierpont himself as--in John Dos Passos's phrase--the "boss croupier of Wall Street." In a first draft of this biography, she says, she still clung to the old image despite the evidence she'd found of a richly complex man. Literary types have always given Morgan an entertainingly bum rap: in "Ragtime," E. L. Doctorow describes his "fierce intolerant eyes set just close enough to suggest the psychopathology of his will." Strouse, a former NEWSWEEK book critic, entertains us, too: her Morgan is a wizardly investment banker, an obsessive if undiscriminating art collector, an ardent churchgoer, a philanderer of elephantine rakishness. Yet she avoids caricature--and reflexive writerly condescension toward a mere moneyman.

Morgan ignored the wretched of the earth. In 1863, he spent $300 on cigars--just what he paid a substitute to fight for him in the Civil War. Still, in his sphere he was a man of principle. The "boss croupier" hated Wall Street gamblers; in 1907, when mining speculators bankrupted two brokerage houses and a bank, his arm-twisting stopped a panic that nearly sank the nation's economy. He acted not out of altruism--a scarce commodity with him--but because it was sound business. Morgan's inner life (he seems unaware he had one) eludes even Strouse. But she's given us a smart, scrupulous, definitive account of what he did and what it was like to be in his presence.