Throughout my formal academic career, history classes bored me. The timelines, the outdated maps, the tiresome chronology that seemed always to begin with ancient earthen pottery and end with the Beatles making crowds of teenage women faint. Snore.
The stories from history, however, were a different thing altogether.
I would give just about anything to lay my hands on a copy of my first favorite book — a story about how Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia with only a few coins in his pocket and made his way to a bakery where he bought three puffy rolls of bread.
An illustration showed a young, red-cheeked Franklin eating what looked to me like three bolillos — the bread that tortas, a Mexican sandwich, are made with — as he walked down the streets of what was to become one of the capitals of the fledgling United States.
This memory of being able to almost taste a piece of history bubbled up from my consciousness as I finished “The House of Morgan: An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance” by Ron Chernow.
I’m certainly not a student of banking, but the idea of spanning 150 years in America through the story of one family was irresistible.
The book did not disappoint. Richly detailed and meticulously researched, Chernow gives us a sweeping view of business and wealth in the U.S. during several wars, economic booms and crises, and the construction of some of the nation’s most important infrastructure. He unwittingly traces the path of propriety among the wealthy classes to the overabundance of profit and stark greed that make Americans both worship and despise Wall Street.
There are vivid stories about J.P. Morgan’s diseased and torturous-to-look-at nose, his son Jack Morgan’s embarrassing encounter with a circus midget outside a Senate hearing, and digressions into the Morgan institutions’ first Hispanic, Jewish and female managing partners.