By John Rousmaniere
Photo courtesy of Pierpont Morgan Library
J. Pierpont Morgan's advice about yachting, "If you have to ask how much it costs, you can't afford it," is so familiar that it's trite. But what did the commodore of the NYYC, from 1897-99, really mean? Morgan measured the values of objects and people not so much by their financial cost (although finance was his business) as by their aesthetic or moral worth.
Some activities are so important that their rewards far outpace their cost. This line may actually reflect a kind of homage.
When called upon in financial panics, he saved entire nations from ruin (a biographer has likened him to a one-man Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation), revived churches, helped found national museums, built the New York Yacht Club, paid for several America's Cup defenders, terrified tycoons, challenged presidents, unified railroads, created the first billion-dollar company and molded out of the debris of the Civil War a new American aristocracy founded on English traditions of religion, men's clubs, boarding schools and contradictory but heartfelt male personal demeanor.
A playful yet often intimidating man of gargantuan appearance and tastes, he wolfed down eight-course lunches, flirted with famous actresses and conquered anyone brave enough to negotiate with him with a stare that was likened to the headlight of a thundering steam locomotive. Yet he personally chose his daughter's wedding trousseau, and at the age of 60 climbed a rope ladder suspended down the topsides of a rolling Atlantic steamer to embrace his wife, returning from a European trip.
He came to New York at age 20. By 1864, he was earning about $50,000 annually. After the Civil War, Morgan began to enter into the myth that was later woven by his own extravagant accomplishments. Through the 1870s and 1880s, Morgan was a railroad builder, but not in the track-laying way. His creativity was as an organizer and consolidator of many conflicting interests into a common purpose -- defined, of course, by Commodore Morgan.
It wasn't until the 1870s, as he approached middle age, that Morgan began to use his money royally. He devoted perhaps half his wealth to the accumulation of manuscripts, paintings and sculpture. In 1881, Morgan placed an option to buy a 185' black-hulled steam yacht called Corsair. He was an intensely private man even before he became a celebrity, and as he aged, he found privacy more and more frequently on his yachts. He was once quoted as saying, "You can do business with anyone, but you can only sail with a gentleman."
By the end of the decade, he built a new 241' vessel to the design of J. Beavor-Webb. Morgan used the second Corsair well and hard. [It was on this Corsair that, as commodore, he led the NYYC fleet to Maine in 1897 -- the club's first Annual Cruise to Maine. The hundredth anniversary of this cruise was recently re-created and celebrated.] When in 1898, the government requested that he hand Corsair II over for naval duty in the war against Spain, Morgan impatiently ordered a new 304' Corsair.
Morgan's summer routine was to spend weekends with his family on his estate at Cragston on the Hudson River, and on Sunday nights to steam back to Manhattan on Corsair. He had learned to pace himself and enjoy a regular long annual vacation. "I can do twelve months work in nine months," he would say. "But not in twelve months."
He was the godfather of the modern New York Yacht Club and, therefore, of modern elite yachting. He joined in 1882, and 15 years later was elected commodore, having never served the club in any other capacity. His most lasting service was to buy the plots of land on which the present clubhouse was built. In Morgan fashion, he made two stipulations: It must be a big building whose design was selected by a committee of one, himself, and its increased cost of management must be covered by doubling the annual dues from $25 to $50. The Warren & Wetmore-designed building on West 44th Streetwas opened in 1901.
To this day, Morgan's personality is pervasive there. His official commodore's portrait glowers from a stairwell wall near the Model Room, which is dominated by huge models of the second Corsair -- as yacht and warship -- and of the models of the great Cup defenders he sponsored a century ago.