John Brooks (1920-1993) was the best writer about business and finance I’ve ever encountered. He was a gentleman, a marvelous storyteller and a superb prose stylist who wrote long, thoughtful essays for The New Yorker (his masterpiece was “The Fate of the Edsel”) and a handful of books. The best of these, an indispensable classic of Wall Street literature, is Once in Golconda: A True Drama of Wall Street 1920-1938.
The book opens on September 16, 1920, when the first great act of catastrophic terrorism on American soil – a noontime bombing at the intersection of Broad and Wall Streets – killed 30 people outright and wounded some 300 more, of whom 10 later died. (The scars of the blast, which J. P. Morgan & Company ever afterward declined to have repaired, may still be seen on the north side of its building at 23 Wall Street.)
It ends on April 12, 1938, when Richard Whitney – a pillar of the New York Stock Exchange who became a public hero in the 1929 Crash – entered Sing Sing Prison to begin serving a 5- to 10-year sentence for embezzling from his clients’ trust accounts.
Between those two events, Brooks traces the great, soaring arc and spectacular fall of Wall Street in the years following its emergence from World War I as the financial capital of the world.
The main character in the drama is Dick Whitney, scion of Groton, Harvard and WASP wealth who could trace his ancestry to the arrival of Winthrop's fleet in Plymouth in 1630. Brooks, himself a scion of Kent and Princeton, writes about Whitney and his tragic flaw as humanely as anyone has before or since.
He sees his protagonist’s great sin for what it really was: not that he embezzled a few dollars to support his margined stock speculations, but that at a moment when the whole country turned savagely on Wall Street in the 1930s, Dick Whitney emerged as a traitor to his class. (Like Kim Philby in England a generation later, his crime would continue to vex his peers. Indeed, almost three decades after Whitney’s fall, the uberWASP novelist Louis Auchincloss would write The Embezzler, modeled loosely on him.)
Brooks’ greatest accomplishment in Once in Golconda was to paint the most human portrait of Wall Street in the 1920s that we’ll ever have. I walked from my E. F. Hutton & Company office at 60th Street and Madison Avenue around to the Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue – both institutions now sadly defunct – to buy the book the day it was published in 1969, and have read it a dozen and more times since. You should, too.
© 2014 Nick Murray. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. Nick highlights new books, articles, research findings and academic papers in the “Resources” feature of his newsletter, Nick Murray Interactive. To download a sample issue, visit www.nickmurray.com, and click on “Newsletter.”