Wednesday, October 8, 2008

"dark genius of wall street: the misunderstood life of jay gould, king of the robber barons" book review

while i love reading entire books, having to read an unnecessarily long-winded subtitle to any book is exhausting work. in some cases the hyperbole will actually diminish the impact of the story itself. in this case, edward j. renehan, jr., dodged a bullet with the obscenely ornate (but ironically fitting for a story focused on the gilded age) title to his book, "dark genius of wall street: the misunderstood life of jay gould, king of the robber barons." without harping on this point, wouldn't "dark genius: jay gould, king of the robber barons," have worked just as well (with 7 fewer words)?

cavils about titles aside, this is a great book. i picked it up at the book fair last month, and it wasn't until i had brought it home that i realized renehen was also the author of one of my all-time favorite books on theodore roosevelt: "the lion's pride: theodore roosevelt and his family in peace and war." it too suffers from a somewhat wordy title, but in all other respects is a tremendous effort of research and writing in describing the devoted (and, sometimes awkward, as in the case of his daughter, alice) relationships roosevelt had with the members of his immediate family.

renehan brings that same level of enthusiasm (and has done the same tremendous research) to his newest subject, jay gould. i found it interesting that renehan's stated mission was to rehabilitate the bleak reputation of an unrepentant robber baron. he wants to shatter the myth of the singularly evil jay gould that he was portrayed as during his lifetime - and for decades afterwards by the apparently lazy biographers, whose sole research consisted of newspaper reports. he has a tough job because by his own research gould was guilty of all the wall street shenanigans he was accused of (and then some)!

renehan went to source documents - and actually pieced together, from the ground up, the multi-faceted roles that jay gould played in his various investments. what emerges from his research is more that the trader focused purely on financial gains at the expense of the underlying company - a modern day gordon gekko, if you will - but someone, at times, genuinely interested in the fortunes of the business (especially if it was a railroad). "at times," because he clearly "looted" the erie railroad - but was hands-on in building up the union pacific.

jay gould was never shy about employing any means necessary to accomplish an objective - and first major battle royale, against cornelius vanderbilt, no less, brought him to the attention of wall street. but his efforts to corner the gold market and the subsequent market crash that coined the term "black monday" led to his eternal vilification in the media - and hearts of the public. was he any more devious or ruthless than his fellow robber baron contemporaries? hardly! instead, gould was probably more intelligent, industrious and resourceful.

renehan wants to credit gould as the first master of his media image - when he described gould's thoughts about all the negative press his behavior generated. gould seemingly cultivated the dark, evil personae, as a means to further his investment opportunities. he even alluded to machiavelli's old chestnut that it's better for the prince be feared, rather than loved, if he desires accomplish great things. the flip-side was he (and his family) became social outcasts to polite society. it was a price gould was more than willing to pay.

renehan, lest anyone confuse the real jay gould with his media portrait, mentioned the significant charitable contributions made during his lifetime - and insisted be kept anonymous (to avoid softening his evil image). while true, it doesn't alter the tenor of his business practices and morales, which condemned him in the first place. he may have benefited, temporally, from that cultivated evil image. but failing to mitigate - even slightly - came at a very high price because now he is saddled with that image for eternity.

what emerged from "dark genius" is a truly complex, gilded age character, that seemed a few steps ahead of his times. but jay gould - regardless of renehan's efforts to clean up his image - cannot outrun the weight of bad karma of all his selfish (above and below board) financial manipulations that destroyed any semblence of a decent reputation.

still it's a great story and fascinating read!

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