CORSAIR: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan by Andrew Sinclair

CORSAIR: The Life of J. Pierpont Morgan

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Just another biography of J. P. Morgan, the elder (1837-1913)--written almost entirely from secondary sources (mostly old ones, at that), and without any particular acumen or verve. Even the point of view is difficult to discern. From the opening vignette and an occasional remark, it would seem that Sinclair--a novelist and generalist-biographer (John Huston, Jack London, Warren Harding)--wants to demonstrate that, as Morgan believed, ""a little credibility might make a rich man able to hand his gains on to his heirs through the institutions he had made."" And that credo is relevant to Morgan's displacement of his unscrupulous rivals Fisk and Gould in the early railroad wars. But so were Morgan's ties to international finance, through his father's London firm--as noted by Sinclair and everyone else. Then, too, Sinclair offers a spotty psychological profile--a bout of rheumatic fever, at 15, left Pierpont with ""a secret strength and taciturnity""; the acne rosacea that inflamed and enlarged his nose made him feel, for years, ""unnecessary and inferior""; only on his father's death, when he was 53, did he ""inherit the confidence to assert himself""--via art collecting and yachts. The sum, though, is a conventional picture of a ""powerful,"" ""masterful"" man plagued by ""secret self-doubts."" On the public side also, Sinclair substitutes a crude, unsteady balance for a genuine perspective. ""Early his mind was formed to separate business from the irrelevant lives of those who toiled in his factories."" But: he was unjustly maligned by Bryan and the Populist westerners--who only wanted to enable small businessmen ""to become Morgans."" Still: ""he deserved the role of symbolic scapegoat""--because he behaved as if he were powerful, and ""believed he was."" (That, of course, is just what Morgan ultimately denied.) The financial coups are duly set forth, from the Hall Carbine scandal, during the Civil War, through the consolidation of the railroads and the formation of US Steel, to Morgan's vital, controversial role in the Panic of 1907. (Little is said, however, of the fate of the New Haven.) One new personal item is incorporated--from a 1978 book--about the aging Morgan's last, boyishly ardent liaison (the only one about which, so far, anything specific is known). Sinclair closes with a touching glimpse of Morgan dying ""of a broken image"" after his ""final persecution"" by the House Pujo Committee. It's as partial a truth, at best, as virtually everything else here. For a vigorously informed, sympathetic but unsentimental portrait, see Frederick Lewis Allen's near-classic The Great Pierpont Morgan.

Pub Date: April 6th, 1981
Publisher: Little, Brown