In the summer of 1911 the financier J. Pierpont Morgan was seventy-four years old and semi-retired. He had spent his professional career raising capital (largely in Europe at first) to build American railroads and industrial corporations. He also served as America’s unofficial central banker, trying to stabilize the chaotic US business cycle, keep the Treasury solvent, and stop Wall Street panics. And he had a second major career as a collector of art. Educated in Switzerland and Germany in the 1850s—his family had moved to London in 1854 when his father joined an Anglo-American merchant bank—he was familiar with Europe’s great museums by the age of twenty. After he started work in New York in 1857, he took off long periods every year to travel abroad, learning about the history, architecture, and art of Europe and Egypt.

By the 1890s, the center of world finance had shifted from London to New York, and economic necessity brought great European art collections onto the market as aristocrats long on ancestry but short of cash sought to trade with Americans who had exactly the opposite problem. Morgan, after funneling investment capital from Europe to the emerging US markets for four decades, played a comparable part in the transatlantic transfer of cultural wealth, both as president of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (from 1904 to 1913) and in the fine collections he amassed on his own. Though not a scholarly connoisseur, he had a “good eye,” a lifelong, sensuous taste for beautiful things, and excellent advice.

For years he kept most of his collections at his house in London, 14 Princes Gate, partly because of a US government revenue act that imposed a 20 percent tariff on imported works of art. Only after Congress removed the tariff in 1909 did Morgan begin to bring his collections to the United States.

He loved the company of women—a quality women always find attractive—and was quite good-looking as a young man. His first wife, Amelia Sturges, died of tuberculosis four months after their wedding. Three years later he married again, but this marriage, to Frances Louisa Tracy, did not turn out well. By the early 1890s he was spending most of his time with other female companions—he practiced a kind of serial monogamy outside his marriage—and his appeal to women did not diminish when, in his forties, an inherited skin disease called rhinophyma (excess growth of sebaceous tissue) turned his nose into a hideous purple bulb. Under the right circumstances, he had a sense of humor about it. Margot Tennant, who later married the future prime minister H.H. Asquith, met Morgan in the 1880s, and reported in her diary that he asked her: “What wd you do if you were me with all my riches yet having this terrible nose?” She replied, “I sd. not mind so much if I were you as you can never have been very good-looking”—and concluded: “This seems to have pleased him & he tucked me into a cosy corner of his heart & has seen me about a doz. times since.”

In London in July of 1911, Morgan embarked on an autumnal romance with Lady Victoria Sackville. He had visited Knole Park, her uncle’s estate in Kent, in 1876, but did not meet Victoria herself until 1900. After that, she had often come to see his collections at Princes Gate. The illegitimate daughter of the Honorable Lionel Sackville-West and a Spanish dancer named Pepita, Victoria had been educated in a French convent, served as her father’s hostess when he headed the British legation in Washington in the 1880s, and married her cousin, another Lionel Sackville-West, in 1890. For about ten years she and her husband “adored” each other, she later wrote. They had a daughter, Vita, and divided their time between London and Knole, the complex of gray stone buildings covering six acres that Lionel inherited from his father. Given to the Sackvilles by Queen Elizabeth I, it was the largest house in England still in private hands. It had seven courtyards, a hundred chimneys, crenelated turrets, four-hundred-year-old gardens, vast parklands, galleries hung with ancestral portraits, dozens of tapestries, a Poet’s Parlour (where Pope, Dryden, and Congreve had dined with Charles Sackville, sixth Earl of Dorset), a King’s Bedroom (James I), heraldic leopards everywhere, hothouses, a carpenter’s shop, and a forge. Vita, who once met up with a stag taking shelter from the cold in the Great Hall, called it a medieval town.

The estate yielded an income of about £13,000 a year, which was enough to maintain Knole but not to support the Sackvilles’ expensive tastes. Finding that Lionel had more interest in sporting expeditions than in managing his property, Victoria took over the family finances. She speculated on the Stock Exchange (probably on advice from male friends), modernized the running of Knole, and opened a shop on South Audley Street called Spealls, which sold candles, stationery, and sachets. When, after a decade of marriage, Lionel’s affections began to wander, she turned to a series of older men. According to her grandson, Nigel Nicolson, “she made a corner in millionaires and lonely elderly artists.” Her admirers were said to include Rudyard Kipling, Lord Kitchener, W.W. Astor, Auguste Rodin, Sir Edward Lutyens, Gordon Selfridge, Cecil Spring-Rice, Sir John Murray Scott, Henry Ford—and Morgan. Spring-Rice told her: “You are an accomplished mistress in love. You play with it and use it and manage it, like a seagull in the wind, on which he floats but is never carried away.”


Lady Sackville was forty-nine when she took up with Morgan in the summer of 1911, and still quite beautiful, with flawless skin, blue eyes, and masses of softly curling dark hair drawn up in a thick knot; loose, it fell almost to her knees. Speaking French-accented English, this “accomplished mistress in love” was also vain and self-dramatizing: she made up legends about Knole as if its legitimately grand heritage were not enough, wrote out her admirers’ compliments, endearments, and entire conversations, and was given to exclaiming in her diary, “Quel roman est ma vie!” Her daughter preferred Lionel, and later described Victoria as “ruthless and completely unanalytical”—also “adorable… tiresome…wayward…capricious, and thoroughly spoilt; but her charm and real inward gaiety enabled her to carry it all off.”

Victoria’s principal beau in the first decade of the twentieth century was Sir John Murray Scott, the wealthy bachelor-trustee of the Wallace Collection at Hertford House. Their intimate friendship had grown out of a shared appreciation of art, and her appreciation of his ample bank accounts. It probably did not include sex. Nigel Nicolson thought his grandmother “enjoyed adulation, but in her middle age was repelled by physical lust.”

Scott—whom Vita nicknamed “Seery” because his French servants called him “Seer John”—gave Victoria about $400,000 over the course of ten years, and made generous provision for her in his will. Her husband encouraged this profitable connection, handling the negotiations when Seery paid for a Sackville house in Mayfair. The “capricious” Victoria fought constantly with her patron, however, and in 1911 he was threatening to cut her out of the will: “It would be a terrible thing for you,” he warned, “if I were to die suddenly and you were to find all your hopes shattered.”

Her precarious economic balance had already been thrown off when Lloyd George, the new Liberal chancellor of the Exchequer, put through a budget in 1910 that sharply increased inheritance, land, and income taxes—in order, he said, to “wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.”1 Winston Churchill, president of the Board of Trade, supported what the Liberal press called “the People’s Budget.” Conservatives denounced it as revolutionary and socialist, and London bankers warned Prime Minister Asquith that it would cripple business, employment, and wages. It had an immediate effect on landed gentry such as the Sackvilles, who early in 1911 determined to evade the death duties and raise cash by selling off some of their heirlooms.

The first item to go was a Gainsborough portrait of Miss Linley and Her Brother, sold to a dealer in February for £36,000. “Alas! Miss Linley is gone!” mourned Victoria in her diary: “We suppose some American will buy it eventually—alas, alas!”2 The American who bought it in London that spring was Morgan. When Victoria saw him at a party in July, she avoided him “most carefully,” she noted, “as we have got tapestries to sell, and I did not want him to think I was running after him.” Fluent in the language of covert glances and studied disregard, she was all innocent surprise when he followed her to her car and said (according to her): “Why did you not tell me direct & not through dealers that you had some heirlooms to sell!? I must see you—Give your own time and come. You know that I have always taken great interest in you so you must come and tell me your troubles.”

Three days later Lady Sackville called on him at Princes Gate, and recorded the experience in her diary. She found it “rather a shock” to be ushered into the room where Miss Linley was hung, but thought the painting had been overcleaned and “lost its mellow look, so I did not feel as miserable as I might have.” Her host kept her waiting for over an hour while he met with the Crown Prince of Sweden—he came in at one point to ask her not to be impatient, and gave her a catalog of his Chinese porcelains to read. Finally free, he showed her into the room in which he kept his portrait miniatures, with a view of gardens, and settled her on a sofa. Now, he asked, why did she want to sell? The Lloyd George taxes, she explained.


Morgan: “Damn Lloyd George! What a shame to spoil a place like Knole and you who have taken so much trouble about it all. I want to help you. What have you got to get rid of?”

Lady S: “Tapestries.”

JPM: “I don’t want any tapestries; let me come down to Knole and look around.”

Lady S: “No, Mr. Morgan, we have nothing else to sell; it is a case of take it or leave it.”

He considered for a few moments, reported his guest, then said he would take the tapestries, “to help you, as I have always had the greatest admiration and esteem for you all at Knole.” How much did she want for them?

Negotiation being first cousin to flirtation, Lady Sackville was an expert. Though she had an offer of £40,000 for twenty-nine tapestries and £10,000 for two seventeenth-century carpets, she coolly informed Morgan that the figures were £45,000 and £20,000, and that she had the offer in her pocket: would he care to see it?

Morgan said, “No, I trust what you say and I’ll take your tapestries and your 2 carpets for £65,000.”

He had just agreed to pay $325,000 for objects he had not seen. He did not, however, take much risk with this purchase: the provenance of the Knole treasures was gilt-edged, and buying directly from the family avoided dealers’ prices and fees. Lady Sackville congratulated him on having made the best bargain of his life, claiming that dealers would have charged him £100,000.

When he rose to show her out, saying again how glad he was to be able to help, she asked him to put the agreement in writing. He obligingly wrote out £65,000 payable within a year (she happened to have brought stationery), but warned that he could not pay at once, as he was “quite dry.” Then he walked her to the door. There, she reported, “to my utter astonishment, he folded me in his arms and said I hope you don’t mind, but I feel such respect & affection for you. I hope you are happy now over this transaction and go home happy. I respect you so much; you have always behaved so well.”

She did not mind, and over the next few weeks this courtship blossomed. Morgan went to see the tapestries at Knole, and was delighted with a series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Victoria invited him to dinner with former prime minister Lord Rosebery, the art collector and critic Sir Hugh Lane, the banker Montagu Norman, Lord Northcliffe, owner of the London Times, the French ambassador, and Lady Paget (formerly Minnie Stevens of New York). Somehow Victoria managed to escape her other guests for “a long talk with P. Morgan in the garden,” she wrote later that night: “He told me many of the bothers of being very rich, that the great thing was to have personality which he has to an infinite degree; he is very sympathique to my nature; he said I had done wonders here.” She showed him through the house—he wanted to buy several silver dogs from the King’s Bedroom and the Great Hall, and so admired a doorstop figure of “Shakespeare” that she gave it to him. “I have never met any one as attractive,” she concluded: “One forgets his nose entirely after a few minutes, as his eyes are either twinkling or full of kindness and expression; he said he will be 75 next April! He is full of life and energy, a wonderful man.”

In early August Morgan took delivery of the tapestries and invited Lady Sackville to call on him twice more at Princes Gate. She wailed about Miss Linley in her diary but found her host “most friendly”: “I really hope I have secured a good friend in him. He does not like everybody & he seems to like me & is most kind & considerate & says charming little compliments which may come from the heart.” She resented people coming in with questions and papers for him to sign, and constantly told herself that she had no interest in his money.

Reading her diaries is a little like watching a woman make herself up in a mirror when she thinks she is alone: Lady Sackville constantly touches up unattractive spots and strikes poses to catch herself at the best angle. Yet unlike the woman in the mirror, who knows she is improving on reality, Victoria does not admit what she is up to. She lies to her own diary.

She was “really tempted” by Morgan’s amber Chinese vases, but “hardly pretended to look at them & hardly admired them, as I hate cadging & he is the last person in the world from whom I shd like to cadge, because he has been so nice & spontaneously generous about the tapestries.” Though disappointed that he had not produced the £65,000 check, she professed: “I hate talking about money with Mr. Morgan or the Stock Exchange, or anything that is not art or friendship, pure & simple.”

He was about to leave for New York. She sent him a note asking for her “Shakespeare” doorstop back (it had been a loan), and offering to buy some of his amber Chinese vases. She also asked for a photograph of him, “looking at me full face.” She wanted “no money no presents,” just “your friendship”—and promised never to become “une femme gênante [troublesome]. I know and understand your nature very well because I have so much sympathy for you and have always had it.”

He sent her a wire from the SS Olympic at Queenstown. “Ces petites choses là font plaisir” she reflected, “venant d’un homme aussi occupé [These little things give pleasure, coming from such a busy man].”

Morgan paid for the Knole tapestries at the end of the year. Before leaving London that summer, he had ordered himself a claret-colored Rolls-Royce with a six-cylinder, fifty-horsepower engine, an electric cigar lighter, silver flower vases, mother-of-pearl trays, brass fittings, a Frodsham clock, hat racks, velvet carpets, leather hassocks, silk curtains, a long trumpet horn, and “JPM” on the doors. The cost came to £1,455 ($7,275). He liked it so much when it was delivered to him in England the following spring that he ordered an exact duplicate sent to New York, and gave a third to his friend and attorney, Lewis Cass Ledyard, for Christmas.

The combination of Lloyd George’s death duties, the 1909 act of Congress eliminating the American import duty on works of art more than a hundred years old, and Morgan’s sense of mortality prompted him finally to begin transferring his collections to the United States. They would be stored at the Metropolitan Museum until space could be found for their display (Morgan hoped the prospect of exhibiting his collections would induce New York City officials to fund the building of a new wing at the Met). He commissioned the French art dealer Jacques Seligmann to supervise the crating and shipping, and hired a US customs inspector to come live in London for a year to examine the cases as they were packed, so they would not have to be reopened and possibly damaged once they reached New York. Items he had lent to various museums in England went first, by his orders, to delay the dismantling of his house at Princes Gate. In January 1912, as objects began to disappear from British exhibitions, the London press blamed the “disastrous” removal of Morgan’s “magnificent” collections on “official shortsightedness.”

The US customs officer who conducted the inspections in London, an art specialist named Michael Nathan, told The New York Times that no amount of money could now buy Mr. Morgan’s collections. The first shipment crossed the Atlantic safely in February 1912. Morgan insisted on using only ships of the White Star line. (He had included White Star in a giant consolidation of shipping companies that he organized in 1902. The “shipping trust” had not been a financial success, but its great new passenger liner, the Titanic, was about to make her maiden voyage to New York.) Everything was proceeding according to plan when Mr. Nathan unexpectedly returned to the US at the end of March. Morgan ordered all his art shipments stopped until another agent could come to London.

He was taking his annual spa cure at Aix-les-Bains in southeastern France on Monday, April 15, when he got a shocking piece of news. He wired his son, Jack: “Have just heard fearful rumor about Titanic with iceberg without any particulars. Hope for God sake not true.” His partners kept him posted by cable. The reports were wildly contradictory at first. Everyone was saved. Everyone had drowned. The Titanic was unsinkable. The Titanic had sunk. The vice president of the White Star line announced in New York Monday night that the ship had gone down at 2:20 AM, with a “horrible loss of life.”

On Wednesday, April 17, Morgan’s partners and family sent subdued greetings for his seventy-fifth birthday. He wired his thanks, “but greatly upset by loss Titanic”—“my heart… very heavy.” He had no comment for the press, saying that at a moment of such public excitement he preferred to wait for an accurate report of the full story. A week later his librarian reported that “JP has been keeping all wires hot, & I have gotten out of bed & dressed several nights in order to send him answers.”

Morgan stayed at Aix longer than usual that spring. He went to Venice at the end of April for the dedication of a new Campanile di San Marco, which he had helped pay for (the old one had collapsed in 1902), then returned to the spa for an additional fortnight. Late that spring the Treasury Department sent another customs agent to England, and the packing and shipping of the Morgan art collections resumed. By the end of the year, 351 cases were stored, unopened, in the Metropolitan basement.

In mid-May of 1912, after his second sojourn at Aix, Morgan went to London and phoned Lady Sackville as soon as he arrived—she was thrilled. He asked her to call on him the following day.

Sir John Murray Scott had died in January without, in the end, cutting Victoria out of his will. He left her £150,000 in cash, various valuable objects, and the contents of his house on the rue Laffitte in Paris, estimated to be worth £350,000 (roughly $1,750,000). His family was contesting the will, charging the Sackvilles (whom they called “the Locusts”) with having used undue influence to alienate his affections. The case would not come to trial until 1913. If she won the lawsuit, Lady Sackville would have Seery’s Paris collection to sell, but in the summer of 1912 she was still in financial straits.

She told her diary when Morgan phoned in May that she hated “to appear nice and friendly to get things out of him, as I don’t really want to. He respects me & I like being a friend of his & to know well such a great & clever man.”

When she arrived at Princes Gate on May 20, he was in the midst of meetings about a China loan, but set aside half an hour for her. “He came in like a whirlwind & crushed me,” she reported breathlessly, “saying he had longed for this moment to see me again…he had told nobody of his return but wanted to see me at once. Nothing could be more affectionate than the welcome he gave me, and I went away with mixed feelings of friendship & apprehension of what may follow from this great friendship, as I am so straight.”

At home, she told her husband she was thinking of putting a stop to the whole thing, but “L. made me change my mind,” saying it would be unkind to a man who had asked her “to become the friend of his old age.” Since Morgan was seventy-five, both Sackvilles apparently thought him “safe,” and Victoria had deftly secured Lionel’s permission for another lucrative dalliance. “So now le sort en est jeté! [the die is cast],” she sighed: “I can think of nothing else; that man has such marvellous personality & attraction for me.”

Two days later Morgan called on her in Mayfair punctually at five, “beaming with joy to be quietly alone with me.” He told her several times (she reported) that he had cared for her “for ever so long” but had not dared tell her. He remembered all the occasions on which they had met and, referring back to their talk in her garden the previous July, said “how much he was in love that day & that I must have seen it or guessed it (but I really did not!).” He promised to care for her even if she got “ill, ugly, or an invalid”—and he talked of his first wife, Amelia. As he recalled that he had only been married to her for sixty days (actually four months), “two great tears came in his kind eyes.”

Then without missing a beat—although it is not clear whether the elision is an artifact of Morgan’s narrative or Victoria’s—“He said there was nothing in the world like the sort of affection he had for me & he felt I cared for him not for his money or things and he had watched that for a long time in me. (How true it is, as it is the man himself who attracts me so….)” Intimacy established, he made himself at home, smoking (with her permission) a big cigar, and taking “a little snooze.” He told her he was “very very shy with strangers (on acct of his poor nose, which I do not mind a bit),” asked her about Lionel and Vita and Seery and made a date to bring his friend, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, to see Knole. After he left, Victoria reflected on how “touchingly loving” he had been: “I can’t get over his rough gentleness & his affectionate little ways…. Rue Laffitte subject [i.e., the lawsuit over Seery’s estate] hardly discussed today.”

Each party to this elaborate folie à deux played out the flirtation while calmly pursuing more practical ends: ready cash on one side, authentic works of art on the other. They were well matched—Victoria in her silly narcissism, feigned innocence, and spurious claims of financial disinterest, and Morgan in his (hardly unique) professions of undying love, crocodile tears over Amelia, and eagerness to believe that Victoria was not after his money.

Morgan was “most amusing” the day he brought Senator Aldrich to Knole, reported Lady Sackville—“Vita says she liked him immensely; he…talked such a lot & sat down on all the best chairs! & ordered us about & went where he liked…. As he did not want Senator A. to notice anything” about their secret, he spent little time with her alone. He did want two paintings by Hoppner, the best Persian carpet in her Reynolds Room, some tapestries from the Venetian Room, and the silver dogs—“but he won’t get them.” When he hurried off to finish up a £35 million bond deal (“What a wonderful personality!”), Aldrich stayed behind to see the gardens.

Morgan returned the next day at four, alone. “I made him send away his big Rolls-Royce which he ordered back at 5:30. People must not notice his visits.” Bringing up Seery’s will, Victoria asked whether, if she became rich, she could buy Miss Linley back, since she missed the picture terribly.

Her seasoned admirer was not about to be hornswoggled by a pair of pretty eyes: “I don’t think, dear, I shld like to part with it now.”

Lady S: “Then do you like Miss Linley better than you like me?”

JPM: “No, dear, I don’t; and I shall think about your proposal; but I hate parting with her.”

Victoria crossed the room to pick up a book. When she returned, Morgan took her hand and promised not to take the painting to America. It would not go to his son, he said, or to the Metropolitan; it would never leave his hands except to come into hers. She silently held out the book—it was a biography of him—opened to a passage that said Mr. Morgan never breaks his word.3

On the subject of his art, he asked her whether she thought it better than the Wallace Collection, which had been managed until recently by Seery: “Of course it is better,” she agreeably replied. When he told her he had been religious all his life, and firmly “believed,” she was surprised. Then “the big cigar came out and he tells me little phrases now & then, so brusquely and so nicely, too, and holds my hand with so much affection and said he wd never care for me in any way I shld not approve of, that he was very sorry to be so old (and yet he is so vigorous) but I was the one woman he loved & wld never change.” She urged herself not to “talk about Miss Linley or money with him. I hate it. Our friendship must be free from any sordid motive.”

At a dinner given by the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Whitelaw Reid, a few days later, Morgan sat with Lady Sackville all evening, and surreptitiously held her hand. The whole party seemed to revolve around him, she reported. When the conversation turned to love, one of the guests announced that no one ever stayed in love with the same person for more than two years—at which Morgan shot Lady Sackville a look, and said: “On the contrary, when it is sincere, love increases all the time, especially if much sentiment is mixed up with it.”

She noted that night, “He deplores all the time being so old, but I don’t mind.”

When he asked her a few days later what people thought of him, and whether she considered his manner rough and brusque, she replied: “Yes, very, but corrected by great kindness; and that made him smile.” He often alluded to his death, especially in connection with shipping his art to New York, a subject that made Victoria “tremble for Miss Linley. I must screw up my courage & speak to him about her returning to Knole some day! But how horrid for me to ask for any favour from him. But I must.”

Once she was sure of Morgan’s affection, she concentrated on getting Miss Linley back. Her septuagenarian lover put her off by saying that returning the painting would give them away: “He wants to protect me against gossip and scandal of which he has a morbid fear; he says, [‘]I am so much discussed that we must take every precaution.[‘]” Lady Sackville offered to buy the Gainsborough when she got her legacy from Seery’s estate. That, Morgan said, would not be for a long time. Perhaps he might give it to her anyway, she calculated in private: “I see how utterly devoted he is to me and he knows that I never make up to him for any presents etc. I have certainly become very dear to him”—then reminded herself, “after all, his friendship is much more precious than Miss L.”

In late June Morgan went off to the Continent. While he traveled, Lady Sackville took friends to see his silver at Princes Gate. She found most of the art being packed up, and learned from the butler that even Miss Linley was under “marching orders” for America: “I could have fainted,” she told her diary. Instead of fainting, she refused to see Morgan when he returned to London. Running into him at a Court ball—he said he had come hoping to find her there—“I asked him not to call again, which seemed to distress him; but I know in my heart of hearts that…goodbye in public is much better.” She promised to write. “I could see he was extremely gêné [upset]…but we parted the very best of friends. I wore green dress & emeralds.”

In mid-July Morgan sailed for New York on the Titanic’s sister, the Olympic. Just before he left he sent Victoria a book about his life (no doubt the Hovey volume, which she already had), inscribed “To Lady Sackville from J. Pierpont Morgan with his affectionate regards.” She wrote in her diary: “So this judgment is closed and we remain the very best of friends, bless him.”

She never saw him again. He died at the end of March 1913.

Morgan left Miss Linley, with all his other collections, to his son in his will. The painting was eventually sold, and is now in the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Lady Sackville won the lawsuit brought by the Scotts in June 1913, partly by virtue of her star performance in the witness box. At one point she scolded a cross-examining lawyer, “You don’t seem to realize, Mr. Smith, that Knole is bigger than Hampton Court.” The judge told the members of the jury that if the “influence” Victoria had exercised over Sir John was that of friendship, “the influence arising out of a community of tastes, out of the affinity of natures…it was perfectly legitimate, and you ought to say so in your verdict.” They did. The judgment made Lady Sackville rich. She got £150,000 outright, and sold off the contents of the Paris house for £270,000. “This,” observed Nigel Nicolson, “was perhaps the only shameful part of the affair, for Seery (as she well knew) had hoped she would use his ‘fine things’ to enrich the Knole collection, not sell them to provide her with pocket money.”

This Issue

April 22, 1999