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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:


Love him or hate him--and in his day people did both--but J. Pierpont  Morgan cannot be ignored.  Morgan: American Financier is the definitive biography of  the man and his times. 

A disturbing family novel, Blood Ties, pits generations against one another. The posthumous work by Jennifer Lash, the mother of actors Rafe and Joseph Fiennes, it has harrowing scenes and characters that stay with you long after reading. 


The 1997 album Buena Vista Social Club re-discovered a group of Cuban maestros and has spawned a mini-industry of recordings and a fine documentary; those pesky baby boomers will put their imprint on the next century, for good or ill, and Age Power presents some of the possibilities. 


Bank On This

Morgan: American Financier by Jean Strouse
(Random House; 796 pages) 

     Conversations and debates are already heating up about who should be acclaimed the Man of the Century--our century that is--and there's an impressive crowd of political leaders, scientists, business gurus and evil-doers to select from.  If 19th century Americans had been able to cast their  ballot for the person who most influenced the past 100 years, they could have chosen between Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, among other luminaries,  They probably would not have anointed J. Pierpont Morgan,  but as much as anyone else he shaped his century and helped to mold the next. The America in which he was born in 1837 was a sprawling collection of states and territories, raw and vigorous, and with no central direction. That same year it fell into one of the worst depressions in U.S. history. When Morgan died, in 1913, the Civil War had been fought, the country of farmers had become a nation of urban workers, swelling industries had created millionaires and forever altered the landscape, and the United States had seized the dominant place on the international stage that it still occupies.  Admired and reviled, respected and feared, Morgan was the world's most powerful banker, a major player in the nation's fortunes of that era. Yet amazingly enough, he has not had a major, deeply researched biography devoted to him. Now he has one, and it is worthy of its ferociously intelligent and gifted subject. Drawing on a myriad of sources, from revealing letters to dry financial reports, author Jean Strouse has brilliantly re-constructed the life of the powerful financier and art collector. 
     To understand Morgan is to understand his times.  The grandson of a Boston preacher and an up-and-coming Connecticut entrepreneur, young Morgan was schooled by his business father, Junius Morgan, in the Yankee virtues. He carried over into his adult life those notions of thrift, responsibility, prudence and truthfulness. Character, Junius told his son, was of primary importance. Junius intended his son for the banking business, and while duty prevailed, it was apparent from the beginning that young Pierpont had a gift for finance that exceeded his father's. Junius oversaw his son's apprenticeship, matching him with older, more experienced partners, and while Pierpont learned from them he was quick to see that America was headed in new directions. He soon stepped into the void created in a growing economy with no central bank and a chaotic monetary system. Time and again, he was called on to bail out a floundering government and stave off  national economic panic. He invested in Thomas Edison's newest marvel, the electric light, and saw the need to consolidate firms, presiding over mergers that had a healthy long life: Standard Oil, General Electric and U.S. Steel. 
    Jean Strouse won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for Alice James, the biography of  the sister of William and Henry James. (It has recently been re-issued in paperback) This latest book should gain her more awards. With a masterful hand, she guides the reader through the complexities of railroad quarrels and consolidations and the so-called 'Morganization' of the roads that brought some sense to the runaway competition and bankruptcies. Class tensions ran high, and there were  violent strikes and demonstrations by workers and farmers. His peers in America and Europe trusted and needed Morgan's expertise and willingness to put his bank behind them when financial rescue was needed, but to the workers he was the agent of the devil. An article in a workingman's journal asked of the church-going Episcopalian Morgan: "When with a gilt-edged prayer-book in his hand he wiggles himself into a more comfortable position in his satin-lined pew...does he think of the starving miners who are suffering through his efforts? ...When he reads the lessons of charity and good will toward men, does he think of the tyrannous system that reduces wages to the subsistence point?" Whether Morgan ever thought about that--or the people who barely made a living wage--is not known. Probably he didn't. His duty, he felt, was to his country, and with that mind, he carried out many of his major transactions. To his mind, he was doing his duty to America. He would bear the risk of performing that duty, and if there was a commission to be had, why then, he deserved it. 
    The Gilded Age in which Morgan was so amply content  was much like our own. Wealth beyond expectation enabled the newly rich to have a lavish and self-consciously opulent life. Morgan was no exception. He commissioned elaborate homes, filling them with expensive furniture and costly art, had yachts built, and arranged extensive and exotic travels for himself, his favorite daughter Louisa and various friends. Morgan's marital situation paralleled that of his parents, who lived apart for many years, though never divorced. He had a brief youthful marriage to an ebullient and bright woman who died tragically of  tuberculosis within a year after their wedding. His second marriage lasted, but he and his wife Fanny occupied different spheres. His place was in Wall Street, hers was in the home. She gained weight, suffered from headaches and depressions, and grew uneasy about being the hostess of the great man.  Morgan openly spent time with a succession of lovelies, traveled with them, lavished them with gifts, and society accepted it. Wealth and position protected him. While Fanny was packed off for extensive visits to Europe, Morgan would stay in America. They would almost pass each other on the ocean, as she sailed back to the United States and Morgan, with his entourage would steam to Europe. Despite an inherited disease of rhinophyma, which left his nose swollen and hideously purple, he was supremely attractive to women. Power, as Henry Kissinger famously said, is a great aphrodisiac.  People who met Morgan were fascinated by his piercing gaze and fierce intelligence.  At dinner in his London residence, a woman once remarked, "What a mass of interesting things are in this house.'' Commented a fellow guest,  "The most interesting thing in this house is the host.'' 
     Inspired by his father, who was fascinated by Europe's art, Morgan grew to be an avid collector. He spent a great deal of time in Europe and made frequent trips to Egypt. On his own, or through dealers, he purchased paintings, books, sculpture, manuscripts and objets d'art of all kinds. Unlike some of his contemporaries,  who made sure their names were stamped on institutions they backed--Carnegie Hall and Rockefeller Center, come to mind--Morgan was more circumspect. The list of his philanthropies is long. He gave generously to New York City's Metropolitan Museum, where much of his acquisitions are on view, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Opera, the original Madison Square Garden, the American Academy and Harvard and Columbia universities.  He never insisted that his name be branded on any of them. In later life, he had a private library designed for him near his Manhattan home on East 36th Street, and, as the Morgan Library and open to the public, it is the only cultural institution that bears his name. Like Strouse's superior biography, it illuminates for us today the unique connection between money and art, between the appreciation of power and the love of the beautiful that J.P. Morgan represents. 

Broken Bonds

Blood Ties by Jennifer Lash
(Bloomsbury; 375 pages)

     The writer Jennifer Lash did not live long enough to enjoy  the fame of her two sons, actors Rafe and Joseph Fiennes. She died of cancer in 1993, and her last novel, Blood Ties, was still unpublished. Since completing the manuscript in 1989, she had tried, without success, to convince a publisher to take it on.  Rafe Fiennes, through his connections, helped get the book into print two years ago, and with their sister Sophie, a documentary film maker, the two brothers have been actively promoting this new paperback edition. It is a fine family tribute to an unusual woman and mother. Lash, who endured a lonely and abusive childhood, suffered through breakdowns as a young art student and after marrying photographer Mark Fiennes struggled to carry on with her painting and writing  and at the same time to imbue her six children with her love of nature and all God's creatures, and instill in them a devotion to the magic spell that words can cast. 
    Lash's  interests, and her own difficulties, thread through this sometimes troubling and ultimately rewarding book.  The novel is circular, beginning with a portrayal of an old woman named Violet Farr reflecting on a lost past and clutching in her hand a crumpled piece of paper from a child's notebook and the dry bones of a bird. Near the book's end, we see Violet again with the note and the bird's sad remains, and by then we have come to understand their significance and the bitter and horrifying story behind them. Violet, an impulsive and independent girl, had made all the wrong choices in her life. She married a weak man, and took charge of running their substantial farm in Ireland. Only from the mountains and fields around her and from her beloved dog does she find strength and completeness. 
      By and by, she and her husband have a child, a boy named Lumsden. Neglected by both parents,  he grows to be a mean-spirited, selfish young man, and when he is forced to leave Ireland because of a nasty incident with two children, Violet is glad to see the back of him. The despised Lumsden carelessly fathers a baby by a barmaid, and the hapless little boy, named Spencer, eventually ends up in his unloving grandmother's home. The child's strange and silent nature offends her and, after a gruesome death of an animal, she brutally sends him away.  In London, he descends from institutional care to living on the streets until he is taken in by the family of a kind young woman. Through her, Spencer is awakened to love, but at the moment when he experiences the fullness of freedom and hope, there is a fatal accident. Receiving the news, Violet, as Lash writes, "felt simply the great weight of flesh and age. Stagnant days stretching ahead into the gray struggle of winter months.''  Her pride and sense of her own rightness have finally been assaulted, and the memory of what has happened is past enduring. 
    The author turns a last, bright light on that darkness, closing her book with a short and remarkable passage of redemption.  Throughout, Lash looks with scorn on the British class system with all its snobbery and petty humiliations, and in a Dickensian vein,   contrasts the goodness of nature and simple folk with the heartlessness of the city and its unfeeling strivers.  While Blood Ties often seems overheated and hallucinatory, like a waking vision by someone restless with fever,  Lash writes truthfully and with compelling urgency about the pain inflicted from generation to generation

And Consider This:

Film and Music:

Buena Vista Social Club  Directed by Wim Wenders

Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer 

     First produced as an album by Ry Cooder in 1997, Buena Vista Social Club awakened the world to the imaginative creations of an almost forgotten group of musicians. The Cuban virtuosos of that first outing can now be seen in a loving and delightful documentary of the same name. With so much popular music today churned out for commercial purposes, it is heartening to see and listen to these musicians--stars all of them--who play for the love of it. The footage shot in Havana has the mostly elderly men--there's only one women--speak simply about their lives in music. On the streets along the sea, in shabby apartments and in once glorious buildings of pre-Castro Cuba, they tell modestly of wanting to learn to play the bass, the piano, or just to make up songs. There's plenty of irresistible music to hear, and the movie audience can't help but share in the joy of these veteran players, who are going strong in their 70s and 80s. The film culminates with a visit to New York City and we discover the wonders of the place through their eyes. They are there for an appearance at Carnegie Hall, and when they play the last set, you want to stand up and cheer. 

   Outstanding among the group of musicians in the first album, and in the documentary, is the singer Ibrahim Ferrer. He has such a gentle presence and perfect rhythmic knowledge that he can slip a song's  words under and above a big orchestral sound. Everything he sings is done with meaning, and even if you don't understand Spanish, the emotion is universal. 


Age Power by Ken Dychtwald
(Putnam; 320 pages)

     Just try to get away from those baby boomers. They are everywhere, and they're not going away, they are just getting older. The new book by Ken Dychtwald, subtitled "How the 21st Century Will Be Ruled By the New Old,'' spells out how the boomers are once more going to make their mark. They did it when they were youngsters, with pop culture and pop tastes, and they'll do it again when they pass into -ha! ­-geezerhood. But watch out, because there's danger ahead, and Dychtwald alerts us to some of the coming dilemmas. Life will be longer, but will it be healthier? Will the health-care system ever catch up to the need to pay for preventive measures? These about-to-pass-the-Big-Five-Oh-mark weren't big savers. What will that mean to the economy?  Dychtwald's wake-up call should arouse readers to the pleasures and pitfalls of the coming "gerontocracy.'' He has found role models in some currently older folk, like Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, whom he dubs heroes of aging, writing that "maturity has never had so many high-spirited, motivated men and women who, with their deeds and actions, are clearing a new and more hopeful path to our future.'' He's speaking about us, so let's take a bow and then get back to the business of thriving after the age of 50.


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