From the Gothic towers of Lyndhurst to the grounds of Irvington Presbyterian and St. Barnabas churches, the shadow of financier and railroad mogul Jay Gould looms large in the rivertowns. But as author and former Wall Street Journal bureau chief Greg Steinmetz notes in his lively new biography, American Rascal: How Jay Gould Build Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune (Simon & Schuster), Gould is by far the least recognized and most poorly understood of the Gilded Age robber barons, despite the deep imprint he left on both the infrastructure and the laws of our nation.
On Sunday, January 22 at 2 p.m., Steinmetz will give a lecture and book signing sponsored by the Irvington Historical Society at Irvington Presbyterian Church, where Gould’s family were members and benefactors. Ahead of his talk, The Hudson Independent caught up with Steinmetz, now a partner at a money management firm in New York, to get the lowdown on the mysterious man Mark Twain declared the “the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country.”
The Hudson Independent: What made you want to write about Jay Gould?
Greg Steinmetz: My first book was about a German banker from the Renaissance, Jakob Fugger. He was one of the most important businesspeople who ever lived because of his role in making the Reformation happen and in making the Spanish Empire happen. After I wrote that book, I was looking around for another character that American readers don’t know about, and here’s this guy, Jay Gould. There’s been some stuff written about him, but I worked in finance, and my colleagues didn’t know anything about him. So, I thought here’s an opportunity to do something similar – take an under-appreciated, misunderstood character from the past.
THI: Why is Gould so under-appreciated and misunderstood, do you think?
GS: Well, the biggest reason is he died young. He died when he was 56, which was an age before the Carnegies, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts started endowing things with their names on them. Rockefeller was in his 90s when they broke ground on Rockefeller Center. Carnegie Hall was built when Carnegie was in his 70s. Vanderbilt University, same thing. Every day we are reminded of the names of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt just by walking down the street in New York. There’s nothing like that for Gould. He died at a time when New York University was talking to him about making a significant gift. Had he lived longer, who knows, maybe he would have made some big splashy gift with his name on it and everyone would know the name Gould. At the time he died, if he wasn’t already the richest man in the country, he was on his way. And despite that, people just don’t know who he is.
THI: Right now, at the Irvington Historical Society, there’s a Gilded Age exhibit that features several cartoons depicting Gould in various monstrous ways. He’s been compared to a bat, a spider, Mephistopheles. What do you make of his relationship with the press?
GS: He didn’t like the papers, but he did use the press. He would keep people guessing. If the press portrayed him as a shadowy monster, he could use that to his advantage in negotiations. People didn’t know what was really going on in his head. And they were afraid that if they didn’t do what he wanted, he would crush them. I don’t know if he cultivated that as much as he recognized that his image was established, for better or worse, so he made the most of it.
He not only used the press in that way, but he influenced it. He owned the Western Union. The Western Union gave him influence over the Associated Press. He was an investor in the New York Tribune, so the Tribune did his bidding, and then he owned the New York World.
With the Associated Press, there’s not a lot of documentation on this, but the facts imply that in the election of 1884, in which Grover Cleveland was running against a Republican named James Blaine, whom Gould wanted to win, Gould delayed the reporting of returns from some swing states because he wanted to give the Republicans more time to stuff the ballot boxes and turn the tide. He was ultimately unsuccessful in that, and about a week or even more after the election, not only did Blaine concede, but Gould conceded and wrote a telegram congratulating Cleveland.
THI: Your task as a biographer was especially hard because Gould instructed his papers be burned upon his death. Why do you think he did this?
GS: I think he just wanted to save his heirs from legal trouble. But he was also an intensely private person. His is the only mausoleum in Woodlawn with no nameplate.
THI: What impact do you think his move to Lyndhurst, and thus the Irvington-Tarrytown area, had on his life and career?
GS: Being in the fresh air and sunshine had to help him gain some perspective and become a more grounded person. He loved his flowers and had a greenhouse to walk around. And he had that long boat ride into the city every day. His mind couldn’t help but wander.
THI: How did Gould shape the way business is regulated in this country?
GS: Regulation developed because of Gould. There’s a chapter in the book about Charles Frances Adams, Jr. He made himself an expert on railroads, and he wanted Massachusetts to create a regulatory agency which would be the first in the country to look just at railroads. After Adams published his essay called “The Chapters of Erie,” which chronicled the whole story of Vanderbilt’s battle with Gould over the Erie Railroad – the bribery, the corruption and everything else – Massachusetts agreed.
I work in such a heavily regulated industry that I thought there was always some regulation around commercial and financial affairs, but there really wasn’t until Massachusetts created this thing. And then the Interstate Commerce Commission in was the first federal attempt, and that, too, is aimed at the railroads. Gould owned 15% of the nation’s railroads. Gould didn’t want regulation, but because of the things he was doing, the country woke up to the fact that we can’t let business just do whatever they want anymore.Read or leave a comment on this story...
The Hudson Independent welcomes comments. All comments are held for moderation and may take a day or two to publish.