When you’re a mystery writer, you’re always trying to figure out why people do what they do. Sometimes you can draw on your own experience, but other times it’s helpful to examine lives completely different than your own. That’s why I love reading biographies. They expand my base of knowledge. They give me all sorts of intriguing tidbits of information. Recently I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s wonderful book, The House of Morgan.
I became interested in the Morgan family because I enjoy going to the Morgan Library. At Christmas time they display a handwritten page from Charles Dickens’s own version of A Christmas Carol, which I find fascinating. How did such an essentially British book come to be in a library in New York? Seemed like there was a story in that. Also, I like writing about families and thinking about family dynamics, and the Morgans lived family life on an epic scale.
The Morgan who got the whole thing going was Junius Morgan, a solemn and businesslike man. The sort of person who was born middle-aged. He never betrayed emotion. He spent a good portion of his life lecturing his son, Pierpont, and trying to keep him in line. Chernow describes him as a “punishing father, who built character by stinting on praise and setting exacting standards.” The relationship between the two men was the most important in their lives.
Pierpont turned into a brilliant man. He was also rapacious, restless, daring, ruthless. A genius. He was a faithful member of his church, and yet relentlessly unfaithful to his wife, who was, as they say in romance novels, “a poor creature.” He worked in an office with glass walls, so that he could be seen by everyone, and yet, writes Chernow, “his imperious stare could reduce interlopers to jelly.” His aura was so fearsome that crowds parted before him on the pavement. He once flagged down a train so that a visitor could get a ride back to his home.
Pierpont’s son, Jack, had a tough time of it. A gentler sort of man, devoted to his mother, and his wife, he had difficulty standing up to his father (to put it mildly). How’s this for controlling? When Jack was a young, married man, he lived in a luxurious house in London. Even when his father wasn’t there, the housekeeper would put periodicals and warm milk beside Pierpont’s bed and adjust his reading lamp. On the walls were all sorts of masterpieces, and Jack had four children. Can you imagine trying to keep your children from banging into a Rembrandt?
Fortunately, I’ve experienced none of this in my own life. My father was a very accepting person, and there was no vast wealth to fight over. But reading this book has filled my mind with motives and mysteries. How about you? Have you read any good biographies?
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Susan Breen is the author of the Maggie Dove mystery series. Her stories have been published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. She teaches novel-writing at Gotham Writers and is on the staff of the New York Write to Pitch Conference. www.susanjbreen.com
I studied up on Andrew Carnegie for the historical I wrote a few years ago. Came away not liking that man at all which was great for the character I based on him.
Yes, he is definitely another character!
I tend to go down rabbit holes once I become interested in a person. Several years ago I disappeared into a hole reading everything I could find on Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty fame), including his own day by day diary of the mutiny’s aftermath. I read biographies of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, and fictionalized accounts. It’s a fascinating story. And, of course, I go down similar rabbit holes with artists. Lately, Salvador Dali.