Jay Gould is known as the most despised businessman in 19th-century America. One contemporary described him as "the worst man on earth since the beginning of the Christian era. He is treacherous, false, cowardly and a despicable worm incapable of a generous nature." Newspapers were no kinder: The New York Herald dubbed Gould "the Skunk of Wall Street." Even as late as 1966, The Washington Post referred to Kingdon Gould Jr. as the great-grandson of "the Mephistopheles of Wall Street."
Historian Maury Klein, author of "The Life and Legend of Jay Gould," believes his subject got a bum rap from his contemporaries and subsequent analysts because he danced to a different business beat. John D. Rockefeller employed a public relations man and Henry Ford was as accessible as an old shoe, but Gould was a bah-humbug figure. He said little to reporters, and his speech in other instances was conspicuously lean. Secretive and brilliant in keeping ahead of his business rivals, Gould became the object of rumor, innuendo and outright lies disseminated in the popular press and relied upon by later historians eager to spice up lectures and books.
The economic good that Gould did is interred in source materials that took Klein from Colorado, Nebraska and Iowa to New England, Pennsylvania, New York and the Library of Congress. It is presented in literary pastels rather than bright strokes of preachiness typical of so much revisionist history.
Born in 1836, Gould was nurtured in an unsmiling environment, what with the death in quick succession of his mother, a sister and two stepmothers. Too frail for work on his father's modest farm, he became the serious student who often worked to the point of exhaustion.
Gould applied intellectuality to the business world. He "cultivated the art of controlling huge enterprises with minimum holdings . . . Where others were content to rely on native genius or instinct, Jay did his homework."
By 1879 Gould was the Union Pacific Railway's largest stockholder. He bought more rails at rock-bottom prices, improved them, saw their stock value rise, merged some with the Union Pacific, and then looked for new acquisitions. Western Union came under his financial umbrella, as did several newspapers, the Associated Press, and overseas cables.
But what went up in price in this volatile era also went down, and by 1884 Gould's empire was being strained. A wave of railroad strikes also complicated his situation. Gould concentrated on what he knew best: economies, reorganization and symbiotic industries. Had he looked and acted the benevolent part of a Horatio Alger hero, these business achievements would have attracted some praise. But Gould worked only for himself and his family.
Poor health and a blitzkrieg from a press fearful of his expanding communication net helped to do Gould in. He endured (and kept secret) tuberculosis while attempting to keep a business-as-usual outlook. Then his wife Helen, not yet 50 years old, passed away in 1889, leaving him without his only friend. Adversity made Gould work that much harder, but death finally overcame him in December 1892.
The titan was gone, but not the emotions surrounding him. He "was a negative quantity," read The New York Times obituary, "in the development of the country where he was not an absolutely retarding and destructive quantity."
Klein may not convince all his readers that The Times was wrong about Gould, for legends have a hard time dying. But his story is clearly organized, meticulously researched and skillfully written.
The reviewer's "Made in the USA: The Story of Business" will be published next year.