John Jacob Astor: America's First Multimillionaire
Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." That's the word from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, America's most eloquent chronicler of the elegance and anguish of extreme wealth. Indeed, wealth is one of the deepest obsessions in the cultural imagination, and those who obtain it are major characters in the drama of U.S. history.
Axel Madsen's new biography of John Jacob Astor, "America's first multimillionaire," is clearly designed to exploit this perennial national obsession, but instead it tempted me to read Fitzgerald's claim against the grain. What if the rich are different not so much in the glamorous romance of their hedonistic pleasure but in the pedestrian banality of their crass profiteering? What if men actually build fortunes out of a lack of personality? What if the rich are, in the end, boring?
It's hard to avoid this conclusion after reading Madsen's biography. Though he tries hard to make Astor shine as an American personality--going so far as to address him intermittently as "J.J."--this pioneer figure of America's homespun aristocracy tends to disappear into the landscape of his economic empire. Cold and characterless, Astor comes across as little more than a machine for making money, a poor subject for biography.
As history, the book is more interesting. We learn of the extent to which the conquest and settlement of the U.S. Northwest was motivated by the growing global desire for frivolous fashions and trivial tastes. Astor made his wealth in fur trapping and trading with the Chinese, plying the Native Americans with liquor and the Chinese with opium in order to gain outrageous profits in the exploding Western market for beaver hats and exotic tea. He also was a principal economic architect of New York; by the time Astor died, he owned a considerable proportion of lower Manhattan (though he built little, preferring to lease the land and let others take the risk).
Money is really the protagonist of Madsen's book; the man in the middle seems merely a vacant space where wealth accumulates. Being rich is easy; it takes personality to be poor.