The second son of an Austrian emigre, Anthony Drexel (1826-1893) soon established himself as the preeminent financial mind in the Philadelphia currency brokerage his father began in 1838. Shunning publicity, self-promotion, and high-profile public accolades (he declined President Ulysses S. Grant's invitation to become secretary of the Treasury), Drexel initiated a partnership with J. P. Morgan and his father, Junius, that became the most powerful financial combination of its age.
Dan Rottenberg has succeeded in writing the first biography of this exceptionally influential and elusive man.
The book is published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
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LIke its subject, quietly shines
As the book opened, its wanderings through the story of Anthony Drexel's father had me worried. Here we were with a vain young vagabond painter walking aimlessly around the mountain hamlets of Napoleonic Europe. But the point of the story, and the broad canvas across which it happened, quickly enough came into focus. (That gullible young man, Francis Drexel, in grand American fashion, would end his life a venerable Philadelphia banker.) His son, Anthony Drexel, was a man of extraordinary business sense wrapped in an outward plainness and modesty that modern sensibilities might gloss over. But the story unfolding all around him, in which he was time and again a major player, was at the heart of American business and financial history and politics in his times. Here, right down the street, is Jay Cooke, emerging marketing wizard of mass bond issues for the Civil War, later to crash and burn spectacularly in an insanely ambitious cross-continent railroad adventure; General (then President) Grant; all the banking firms and families of the times here and in Europe, and of course, Anthony's associates, Junius and John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan. In Drexel's virtuoso conception and building of his business relations with the Morgans, the confused younger Pierpont's life was changed at a critical point and redirected into its historical, planet-affecting path, still affecting us today. The personalities, conversations and steps in all this are lucidly told, easy to follow, and the narrator is ideal: clear and not flashy. Here we see not the march of business history (from the old family structures into more modern entities, ideally explained through actual decisions and deals, as when A. Drexel must favor partner J.P. Morgan's visionary business decision over his own partner-brother's wishes, on the eve of the crash of 1873). And on another level, for the business organization afficionado, we get a great sketch of such inspiring things as the ideal expression of private partnership based on character, in its most dynamic workings (between Drexel and the Morgans, especially J.P.), with scarcely a partnership agreement document in sight. (One can see by comparison how the sprawling structures of capital and control nowadays, as Adam Smith suspected, can undercut accountability and integrity.) We experience these things through the intimacy of personal correspondence, and then, time and again, the viewpoint seamlessly pulls back and shows a wider tableau. Through it all, as the biggest backdrop, we get a very economical and listenable explanation of major events and innovations of the later-mid 1800s in finance, fit perfectly with the details of the story, and the larger context of business history. (This is the most coherent explanation of these broader events among the dozens of related books I have read). This book is first-rate. Bravo!
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He tamed the bulls and bears
This book is about the second son of an Austrian émigré, Anthony Drexel (1826-1893) who became a pre-eminent financial mind in the Philadelphia currency brokerage his father began in 1838. Drexel initiated partnership with J. P. Morgan and his father, Junius that became the most powerful financial combination of the Gilded Age.
The first part of the book is about Francis Drexel and how he came to leave Austria. Then the author tells about Tony Drexel’s early life. The remainder of the book is about his life working with J. P. Morgan.
Drexel declined President Ulysses S. Grant’s invitation to become Secretary of the Treasury. Drexel shunned all publicity and rigidly controlled all his documents and wrote no diary. At the time the United States did not have a Central Bank. It was Drexel that steered American business through the longest period of economic growth of a Nation in world history, as well as through four devastating depressions. Drexel and his firm quietly pioneered many of the financial and business strategies we now take for granted.
Dan Rottenberg did decades of research resulting in this most interesting book on Drexel. Drexel founded a University that bears his name; his niece Mother Katharine Drexel was recently canonized by the Catholic Church.
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of the Gilded Age. J. M. Ross narrated the book.
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