THE MOST HATED MAN IN AMERICA A century ago it was Jay Gould, the Robber Baron. He now turns out to have a few redeeming qualities.
By ROBERT LUBAR ROBERT LUBAR, former managing editor of FORTUNE, recently edited The World of Time Inc.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Just a century ago the U.S. was struck by a mighty wave of industrialization that was to make it the world's supreme economic power. Hundreds of giant corporations came into being, and with them an avalanche of factories, railroads, mines, and shipyards. As far as I can tell, the anniversaries of these happenings are going uncelebrated. America's industrial revolution is not an event in which Americans have taken pride. The Life and Legend of Jay Gould, by Maury Klein (Johns Hopkins, $27.50), offers a new perspective on the era and one of its prototypical figures, and may change some readers' minds about both. Jay Gould has been remembered, if at all, as the most notorious of the Robber Barons who supposedly plundered the country and piled up fabulous fortunes in the decades after the Civil War. Radical historian Matthew Josephson used the term as the title of an influential book published in 1934 -- one of many muckraking indictments of businessmen like Gould. Maury Klein, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island, believes that Gould got a bum rap from the muckrakers. Klein's volume is by no means a whitewash, and Gould does not come across as a paragon. But we learn from Life and Legend that he was a far more complex and interesting figure than the one-dimensional scoundrel described in so many histories. ''In business,'' Klein observes, ''he was ruthless and devious, clever and unpredictable, secretive and evasive.'' He was also ''imaginative . . . brilliant . . . thoroughly original.'' Contrary to a central theme in the Gould legend, he was far more than a speculator and played a large role in building several major enterprises. In his lifetime Gould probably aroused more antipathy than any other public figure. Klein says he was the most hated man in America; contemporaries labeled him ''a despicable worm'' and ''the worst man on earth since the beginning of the Christian era.'' Why was he so detested? His critics answer by citing instances, admittedly not hard to find, of treachery and deceit in his business dealings. But Klein has a subtler explanation: The man was condemned for his candor. ''Gould knew what he wanted, went after it, and did not mouth pieties to justify his course.'' In a society that expected a certain amount of hypocrisy from its business leaders, candor was simply unacceptable. Gould had a powerful streak of nonconformism, evidently reinforced by his unsociable nature. He ''snubbed convention at every turn,'' Klein tells us. For one thing, he refused to spend his wealth as a rich man was supposed to. Gould once discussed this failing. ''Wall Street men are fond of company and sport,'' he wrote. ''A man makes one hundred thousand dollars there and immediately buys a yacht, begins to drive fast horses, and becomes a sport generally. My tastes lie in a different direction. When business hours are over, I go home and spend the remainder of the day with my wife, my children, and my books.'' When he died, his will also turned out to be not what was expected from men of great wealth. All of the $72-million estate was left to his six children, Klein notes. ''Not a dime went to anyone outside the family, nothing for servants or charities or public institutions.'' The face he turned to the world did not help his reputation. He had a high, cerebral forehead, piercing eyes, and a totally unemotional manner. Thomas A. Edison judged him unrelentingly dour after a visit to Gould's New York brownstone. As the great inventor later recalled, ''I tried several times to get off what seemed to me a funny story, but he failed to see any humor in them.'' Unfortunately for students of business history, we have no record of the jokes Edison tried. JAY GOULD left his rural home in New York's Catskill Mountains in 1852, when he was not quite 16, with $5 in his pocket. By 1860 he was settled in New York City, and in 1867 he was listed as a director of the Erie Railway. Nobody knows much about his life during those seven years, but he was obviously learning the ways of the stock exchange. Wall Street was then a remarkably democratic world: You didn't have to be rich, or have a rich father, to find work. Soon after he burst on the scene in 1867, Gould came to be viewed as a brilliant strategist in the wars endlessly raging on exchange floors, typically over control of corporations. In those days, long before the $ Securities and Exchange Commission was invented, Wall Street warriors came equipped with platoons of brokers to manipulate stock prices and suitcases full of greenbacks to buy judges and legislators. His most memorable stock exchange wars took place fairly early in his career. One was over control of the Erie, then a small, rundown New York railroad that Cornelius Vanderbilt -- the famous Commodore -- was trying to take over. A small group of directors and investors, including Gould, challenged the Commodore on the board, in the stock market, in the courts, and in the state legislature. At one point Gould and other members of his faction escaped jail only by fleeing Manhattan in the dead of night, their pockets stuffed with securities and miscellaneous documents supporting their case. But later Gould went to Albany with a suitcase full of cash; he ended up in charge of the Erie and, for a while, actually running it. He was all of 32. Not long afterward Gould was on stage in an even greater adventure: his astonishing effort to corner the U.S. gold supply. He originally got into gold in the hope of realizing a speculative profit, but increasingly came to believe that a higher price for gold would be a blessing for the American economy. For example, it would help the farmers. Buyers of their wheat and corn paid them in greenbacks, of course, but when the commodities were exported, the prices were denominated in gold. So farmers would benefit if a given amount of gold produced more greenbacks: Their profits would be higher and their prices could be lower, meaning that the physical volume of exports should rise. American railroads, including the Erie, shipped a lot of farm produce, and so they too would benefit from any increase in the volume of exports. Gould seems to have convinced himself that if his corner was successful and gold prices soared, he would be viewed as a public benefactor. New York then had a Gold Exchange on which a certain number of businessmen were always short the metal, either as hedgers or outright speculators. Cornering the market meant, in effect, buying so heavily that the short sellers would be squeezed: They would have to cover their positions when prices rose, but they would increasingly have trouble doing so, and their desperate bidding for available gold supplies would drive prices higher still. The scheme had a potential flaw, however: It could be wrecked by open market sales of the federal government's gold hoard. To forestall such sales, Gould tried to bribe President Grant's private secretary. The bribe was not accepted, the government did sell gold, and the corner failed. Gould was nationally famous -- or, rather, infamous. Far from being a national benefactor, he now found himself cast as a villain, a man who would be hated and feared for the rest of his life. At first his reaction was to seek anonymity. He got out of the brokerage business and dispersed his Wall Street operations among a number of firms. These operations are not easily categorized. Gould was certainly a hyperactive trader -- Klein says he reputedly paid $100,000 of brokerage commissions in a single month -- looking for speculative profits. But he was also something akin to a modern investment banker, seeking out enterprises to invest in for the long term. In the 1870s his interest was swinging westward. In Klein's words, ''Jay saw himself as a builder, a pioneer of western development, blazing the trail of progress . . . with rails, mines, commerce.'' He gravitated especially to Western railroads. By 1880, when he was 44, Gould had emerged as possibly the country's largest railroad operator. By one calculation, indeed, he controlled more railroad mileage than any individual or corporation in the world. In any event his pronouncements now began to sound less like those of a Wall Street operator and more like those of an industry statesman. He warned publicly against overexpansion -- an orgy of track building had more than doubled the country's mileage in a 12-year period -- and worried that price competition could threaten dividend payments.

Gould in these years was insistent on proving that he could be a manager as well as a speculator. ''What galled him most,'' says Klein, ''was his inability to convince anyone that he was first and foremost a businessman, not a trader. Like a fallen woman, he was doomed never to escape the shadow of his past.'' His detractors contended that he neglected operating details and that his railroads had shoddy equipment and offered poor service. Klein demonstrates that the contentions are false. He says that Gould always mastered the details of running a railroad and furthermore knew how to delegate authority. ''With his operations chiefs, he was demanding but never imperious. He told them what he wanted, gave them the power to accomplish it, took care not to intrude upon their authority, always backed them up, and scrutinized their performance closely.'' All in all, he sounds like a model C.E.O. AND YET HIS CRITICS never subsided. When he succeeded in nurturing the Western Union Co. to viability, and making it the leading company in the infant telegraph industry, all he got for his pains were more accusations of power madness. Leading the howling pack was the penny press in New York, which now had him targeted as a man everyone loved to hate and did much to establish the thought that Jay Gould was evil incarnate. The distortions of the press hurt Gould while he was alive -- he died in 1892 -- and Klein theorizes that over the years they also distorted the historical record. Too many historians, he believes, accepted the accounts in those yellowing newspapers as legitimate source material. Klein's own portrait, for all the warts, makes Gould much more likable, and infinitely more believable.