A Magnificent and Audacious Swindle

Geoffrey C. Ward
Engraving of Ferdinand Ward, early 1880s; photograph of his wife, Ella Green, by Napoleon Sarony


Did the notoriously lavish displays of the Gilded Age, which showed off the advantages of wealth on a hitherto unimaginable scale, inspire criminal behavior on the part of some of those unlucky enough to have to work for an honest living? Willa Cather seems to have thought so. Her classic short story “Paul’s Case,” first published in 1905, plays on at least two meanings of the word “case.” Subtitled “A Study in Temperament,” it is a psychological case study of a high school misfit in modest circumstances who longs to indulge in what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption.” Standing outside one of the grand hotels in Pittsburgh, to the doors of which he has secretly stalked an opera star, Paul imagines himself entering “an exotic, a tropical world of shiny, glistening surfaces and basking ease,” with “mysterious dishes…brought into the dining-room, the green bottles in buckets of ice, as he had seen them in the supper-party pictures of the Sunday supplement.”

But “Paul’s Case” is also an account of a criminal case. Whistling melodies from Gounod’s Faust, Paul steals money from the bank where he works in order to spend a few wild nights at the Waldorf, passing for one of the high-society blades he has envied his whole short life. After his debauch, he dreads the inevitable return to his bedroom in Pittsburgh with its pictures of John Calvin and George Washington on the wall, the recriminations of his remote and joyless father, and the drab lives of his well-behaved contemporaries. “It was a losing game in the end,” he concludes, “this revolt against the homilies by which the world is run.”

What if Paul had decided not to throw himself in front of a train, like that other Romantic rebel Anna Karenina, but instead had returned to Pittsburgh to pursue his revolt against the homilies? Certain features of Cather’s imaginary character—his Calvinist childhood, his extreme thinness, his habitual lying (“indispensible for overcoming friction”), his theatrical flair for costumes and grand gestures, his longing for money and glamour—uncannily resemble the unsettling figure at the center of Geoffrey C. Ward’s by turns amusing and appalling narrative A Disposition to Be Rich, with its believe-it-or-not subtitle that itself recalls the aggressive marketing of the Gilded Age. That Ferdinand Ward Jr., the conman who “ruined an American President” and “brought on a Wall Street crash,” happened to be the author’s great-grandfather renders the story all the more piquant.

It is well known, of course, that the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant was marred by incompetence and corruption. “Under Grant’s two administrations,” as Edmund Wilson colorfully observes, “there flapped through the national capital a whole phantasmagoria of insolent fraud,” including the Crédit Mobilier affair, the Whisky Ring, and the conspiracy of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.