Mark Twain wrote that “Jay Gould was the mightiest disaster which has ever befallen this country. The people had desired money before his day, but he taught them to fall down and worship it.” Gould’s fellow Gilded Age robber barons were more positive. Cornelius Vanderbilt called him “the smartest man in America,” and John D. Rockefeller said Gould had the “best head for business” of anyone. In American Rascal: How Jay Gould Built Wall Street’s Biggest Fortune, Greg Steinmetz briskly tells financier and railroad leader Gould’s rags-to-riches story and gives a nuanced view of this man of contradictions and why he matters.
Gould originally made his money through various ventures in New York. However, when the Civil War ended, railroads became the most important and powerful industry in the country, and thus the focus of Gould’s business dealings. By investing in various railroads, Gould did as much as anyone at the time to generate economic growth and steer the country toward becoming a world power. As the owner and manager of multiple railroads, Gould was one of the largest employers in the country and made rail travel faster, safer and more comfortable. At the same time, he bribed politicians and used deception to ruthlessly manipulate competitors.
The qualities Gould demonstrated in taking control of the Erie Railroad illustrate his strengths throughout his career: “his brilliance as a financial strategist, his deep understanding of law, a surprising grasp of human nature, and a mastery of political reality,” as Steinmetz writes. Above all, Gould was a pragmatist. He could be a visionary, but only when it didn’t clash with his primary objective, which was to make as much money as he could for himself.
Outside of work, Gould seemed to be less ruthless. Most evenings, he left his office to have dinner with his wife and six children and to read in his library. He did not drink alcohol. He loved flowers, owned the largest greenhouse in the country and cultivated a new breed of orchids. Despite their wealth, he and his family were not part of the city’s social aristocracy. “I have the disadvantage of not being sociable,” he once said.
Steinmetz’s fast-moving and eminently readable biography shows how Gould thrived within the context of his times but also that his greed led to necessary reforms for the health of the country’s economy.