An influential financier living quietly in the City of Brotherly Love during the era of famed titans of commerce and flamboyant robber barons is finally treated to his own book, courtesy of Philadelphia-based journalist Rottenberg (Middletown Jews, 1997).
Son of a vagabond painter from Austria who traded currencies issued by regional banks—the business of a “money shaver”—Anthony J. Drexel (1826–93) assumed control of his peripatetic father’s business at an early age. Unobtrusively, he sold bonds issued by the government and railroads. He constructed a new headquarters and purchased an influential daily. At the behest of Junius Morgan, he became mentor to Morgan’s son, J. Pierpont. Destined one day to be held in awe and fear, the protégé, it appears, ever honored Tony—though popular historians seem to take little note of their personal relationship. For Drexel, Morgan & Co. in New York, Tony assembled the landmark property at Broad and Wall, for years the epicenter of the country’s financial operations, known on The Street simply as “The Corner.” A man of philanthropic bent, Drexel established the institute, later to become the university, that bears his name. He maintained fast friendships and dealt on close terms with such colorful characters as Jay Cooke and Ulysses S. Grant. (He himself had no foibles except for a pronounced dislike of Wagner’s music.) Shy and retiring, he seems to have been rather colorless, a man of comparative rectitude in the Gilded Age. His business quickly languished after his unexpected death, and finally its name, lingering in Drexel Burnham, was killed by Michael Milken.
Rottenberg, in selecting a subject much in need of a full-dress biography, has done undeniably creditable work. But he has found no muck to rake in the history of a rather tranquil tycoon—which may explain why his hero has been neglected heretofore. (26 b&w illustrations)