The Dark Genius of Wall Street

Jay Gould was a “dark genius of Wall Street”but not the dark genius, contends Edward J. Renehan, Jr. Plenty of other menCornelius Vanderbilt and Nelson Rockefeller, for exampleengaged in cutthroat monopolistic practices. Gould was no inhuman engine of financial predation. He managed many of his businesses well and made good profits for his stockholders. He was well read, and he wrote well. He loved to garden, and flowers gave him a sense of exquisite joy. He was a family man, caring deeply for his children and devoted to his wife. He was charitableoften supporting good causes anonymously, andother biographers notwithstandingRenehan demonstrates that Gould was able to make and maintain many friendships. Even more impressive, he treated his workers well, although he had no tolerance for unions.

What accounts, then, for the legion of reporters and biographers who deemed Gould a fiend, the worst of the nineteenth century robber barons, the epitome of rapacious capitalism? Previous biographers, Renehan reveals, have not done their homework. Some of them, such as Edwin Hoyt, wrote nearly pure fiction, suggests Renehan, an avid researcher. His biography provides an eye-opening lesson in how a myth is fostered in order to further the biographer’s biases and desire to entertain readers. Even contemporary newspapers invented copy about Gould when they could not find evidence to support a real story. The New York Sun, in fact, predicted divine retribution for Gould, a kind of editorializing no longer in fashion that the nineteenth century public craved when reading stories about robber baronsa phrase popularized by Gould’s most famous, if not most accurate, biographer, Matthew Josephson.

Surely Gould deserved infamy, the average reader might object. He did try to corner the gold market and drove the United States into a financial panic. He invented the sort of financial chicanery that the Securities and Exchange Commission was created to police. Renehan would not disagree. As he points out, Gould was a genius at identifying precisely that point in financial transactions where the most money was to be made. Early on, he made a small fortune in the leather trade, recognizing, as he wrote his father, that it was not the tanners but the merchants who commanded the true power of the industry. If Gould stood out from most other capitalists, it is because he was consistently innovativesometimes acting in concert with his financial partners, sometimes cutting them out of the action when he saw an opportunity he must seize immediately.

Renehan does an excellent job of detailing Gould’s financial schemes, but his most significant contribution is his portrait of the man himself. How did Gould feel about his own reputation? The well-read Gould quoted Niccolò Machiavelli to a friend: Better to be feared than loved. It was good business, in other words, to be perceived as the evil genius of Wall Street. In fact, Gould was not always successful. He made bad investments, his biographer showsincluding those that resulted in tremendous losses when he attempted to corner the gold market.

Gould wanted the public to believe he was a Mephistopheles and that his businesses could not fail. Near the end of his life he did regret that he could not leave a better name for his progeny to bear. By then, however, he had become a captive of his myth. If he gave significant sums to charity anonymously, it was because on those occasions when his donations became public, Gould was ridiculed as attempting to salve his conscience (an odd accusation, actually, as the devil by...

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The American Spectator 38, no. 7 (September, 2005): 73-76.

Booklist 101, nos. 19, 20 (June 1, 2005): 1729.

Forbes 175 (June, 2005): 111.

Library Journal 130, no. 12 (July 1, 2005): 94-95.

The New York Times 154 (July 17, 2005): 3.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (July 31, 2005): 6.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 24 (June 13, 2005): 47-48.

The Spectator 299 (September 10, 2005): 43.

The Washington Post Book World, June 19, 2005, p. 9.