The delicious combination of greed and gambling does not always work, and as recently as Oct. 29, 1929, the stock market collapsed in New York.
Suicides barely exceeded the usual rate, I learned from "The Day the Bubble Burst," and while we are all very glad of that, still a lot of guys got their comeuppance all the same.
Richard Whitney went to jail. Everybody loved that. The book says one of his favorite lectures was "Business Honesty" which he ran about delivering, so when he finally admitted to 10 years of cheese-paring crookedness and got 5 to 10 years in Sing Sing, people were enchanted, especially the many who had endured his lordly airs for so long.
Now Jack Morgan lost a lot of money too.
He was a fine thin-lipped fellow of the best class. As the bread lines were forming, he acquired a new yacht for $2.5 million. He abhorred publicity so it was awkward when he had to testify before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee. Somebody ran up and plopped a genuine live midget lady, Lya Graf, in his lap. She was 27 inches high. Morgan made the best of it, as flash bulbs popped off, and said Graf's hat was pretty. The young woman returned to Germany, where she was a celebrity, but was later shipped to Auschwitz as a "useless person." s
It was hard to dislike Jack Morgan entirely. Some people treasured the insult he delivered to Joseph Kennedy, who dropped in to see Morgan at his office one day. The porter told Kennedy that Mr. Morgan was too busy to see him. Kennedy is said to have taken it hard, which is why some people think well of Morgan.
Kennedy's fortunes emerged intact. He did well picking up the pieces. He was in great shape before World War II when as ambassador of London he kept warning the cause of England was lost. Big help to all.
"Bubble" was written by Gordon Thomas, who lives in Ireland, and Max Morgan-Witts, who lives in London and Cap d'Antibes. Their book is alive with characters -- Helena Rubinstein, the cosmetics lady, was in the Atlantic on the Berengaria (ships had tickers) and when Westinghouse dropped from $190 to $173 in one hour, she sold at market. Lost a cool million and that was that. She was a tough one and saw no point moaning around or being hopeful. Others who did not know how to take a loss, held on till the stock was far more ruinous.
One fellow I learned to love was A. P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America. His investments were in California, a vast state, and it was hard to get around out there.
The distances are awful.
He had a Rolls-Royce car, and got it declared a fire truck, so he could travel way past the speed limit, and that was fine. The requirement was that he had to put a red light on top of the car. His driver (drivers always took status seriously) hated it. The red light made the Rolls look just crummy, he thought. But Giannini didn't give a damn, so the red light went on top and the tycoon sped madly all over the state chomping his cigar and urging his driver to greater efforts.
(How did he get the Rolls declared a fire truck? Very simple. You find the guy who defines fire truck for the state and talk him into it.)
Well. It is all very entertaining. And if it were just a question of a fellow losing his fire truck or Sister Rubinstein losing a million, it would have been a national diversion.
But when people lost houses, lost jobs, lost faith in each other and in the government, then it wasn't so amusing.
In our town we had a Mayor's Relief -- a soup kitchen. My mother used to work down there ladling it out. It had an effect on her. She did not hate Roosevelt nearly as much as my father did.
I asked Morgan-Witts if he thought the nation was fundamentally sound now. He grinned.(As the nation collapsed, it was accompanied by a brisk chorus of experts who kept explaining the economy was fundamentally sound).
He thinks nothing like the crash of '29 will happen, and that the downward slope will be more gradual and therefore less traumatic. His best advice, he said, to us po' folks is not to get over-extended in credit.
Watch out for credit cards.
"How can credit cards make any difference?" I asked.
"If you have a lot of them and borrow to the hilt, and then don't have the cash to pay those bills, the interest can eat you up," he said.
He said his partner, Thomas, has a dog who applied for a credit card under the name of Kenneth P. Watchman or something of the sort, and got it with no trouble at all. Wears it on his collar.
He did not know what the dog buys. Riotous living, most likely.
"Do you let your dog have a credit card?" I thought I should ask.
"I don't have a dog," he said, looking unsufferably smug, "just a cat. And no, he doesn't."