The Gould Standard

The Life and Legend of Jay Gould

by Maury Klein
Johns Hopkins University Press, 595 pp., $27.50

Jay Gould
Jay Gould; drawing by David Levine

I remember a daughter of Winthrop Chanler, prominent sportsman and socialite of the early years of this century, telling me of a family breakfast in New York in 1910 when she was describing to her father a debutante dinner she had attended the night before. “Who’d you sit next to?” he growled from behind his newspaper. “Young Jay Gould.” The paper fell. “You didn’t speak to him, I hope?”

Such was the reputation in New York social circles of that young man’s late grandfather. Since one is always pleased to have the opinions—or prejudices—of an earlier and stuffier generation overturned, I approached with interest Maury Klein’s purported vindication of the man who managed to seize control of both Union Pacific and Western Union and who died one of the richest and most hated men in the country. I recalled that the distinction used to be made between him and the other robber barons that whereas some of these helped to build America, he simply preyed on weak businesses, slipping slyly into control, watering their stock and passing the inflated carcasses on to a gullible public while he crept away through the small print with his money bags.

Maury Klein has certainly done his homework. Ninety-five percent of his book is made up of close factual analyses of the detailed financial dealings of Gould, from his early days as a surveyor and farmer in Connecticut, through his debut on the stock market, his battle with Commodore Vanderbilt over control of the Erie railroad, his attempted corner of gold in 1869 and his fusing together the railroads, to his death in 1896 at the age of fifty-six, the “master spirit of Wall Street.” If this may prove a bit dry to the general reader, it should certainly interest the student of business history. And it will do none of us any harm to read so convincing an account of the appalling hit or miss way in which our forebears allowed our nation to be developed. But very little picture of either Jay Gould or his adversaries emerges. They seem lost on the blackboards of their wheeling and dealing and become mere instruments of greed and manipulation.

I learn from Klein that Gould was not Jewish, but I had never thought he was. I learn that he loved his wife, though her dowry came at a most convenient time, and his children, though he let them be spoiled rotten. I learn that in his later years he became an enthusiast of French academic painting and a serious gardener. No one ever seems to have understood what drove him so hard—he was always plotting something—but the few who cared for him suspected that he was more interested in success than in money. (Was there a difference?) Here is one of the rare glimpses that Klein affords us of the man:

At forty-three Gould had…

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