In which a proto-yuppie out of a Tarkington novel gets his comeuppance—sort of.
James Hazen Hyde, writes journalist Beard (Good Daughters, 1999, etc.), had it all: charm, good looks, and lots and lots of money. By his late 20s, bottom-feeding in a Wall Street run by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Alfred Vanderbilt, and E.H. Harriman, he had become a senior officer in the Equitable Life Assurance Society and a director of no fewer than 46 companies, all of which netted him an income so vast that he was able, in the early 1900s, to pay an annual upkeep on a mansion in the neighborhood of $100,000, complete with a huge collection of carriages and other toys. Just as perp-walked executives of today insist that they came by their fortunes honestly and poor accounting was to blame for company woes, Hyde protested his own straight-upness when, in the wake of a lavish party he threw in 1905, his comfortable world dissolved in a vast scandal; when the books were finally balanced, it was revealed that millions had gone missing, including $7 million alone in the mysterious category “for other disbursements.” Hyde high-tailed it to Europe, marrying well and producing a son who became a leading figure in the Cold War intelligence community. In his later years, clad in a cape and spats, the statute of limitations presumably up, he could be seen wandering the streets of New York; he made for good gossip, “and if he was an odd duck,” Beard writes, “he was also a sophisticated, entertaining, fascinating dinner partner.” Was he the Ken Lay of his time? The evidence is spotty, but Beard depcits well the Gilded Age and its spectacular excesses—and in an age of corporate scandal, it’s comforting somehow to know that legions of the crooked have gone before us.
Solid storytelling brought to bear on a dusty corner of financial history.