ABDU’L-BAHA’S AUTOMOBILE stopped in front of 33 East 36th Street in the afternoon on Monday, November 18, 1912. He stepped out onto the damp sidewalk in the chilly winter air, climbed five shallow steps, strolled through the green copper gates, and swept up a second flight past two Assyrian lionesses named Prudence and Felicity, who stood guard in pink Tennessee marble on either side of the carved portico of this Beaux-Arts villa in midtown Manhattan.
The architect of the place, Charles McKim of the firm McKim, Mead & White, had suffered a nervous breakdown over this building — or, at least, over having to accommodate the exacting standards and frequent changes demanded by his client. On other projects McKim might have done as he pleased, but one simply didn’t say no to J. Pierpont Morgan.
Volcanic. Imperious. Dominant. The qualities of the man blaze from the famous portrait that Edward Steichen took of him in 1903. Morgan’s ferocious eyes burn from behind his massive nose, which had been deformed and turned purple by a chronic skin disease. His left hand grasps a dagger — or so it seems from the way the light glints fittingly off the arm of his chair.
Morgan’s powerful physical presence reflected his ubiquitous command over the national economy. Like millions of other Americans, Abdu’l-Baha had never been far from Morgan’s mighty reach. He had sailed to New York on a Morgan ship; walked the evening streets under the glow of Morgan light bulbs; slept in Morgan-owned Pullman cars speeding along Morgan-operated railroads and across bridges made from Morgan steel; had stories printed about him in the Morgan-financed New York Times; sent telegram messages from Western Union stations manned by Morgan employees, over telegraph wires fashioned from Morgan copper; and he had joined New Yorkers as they watched the new Woolworth Building rise on Broadway in 1912 to become the tallest building in the world, constructed by a Morgan civil engineering firm.
The titan of Wall Street had invited Abdu’l-Baha to visit him this Monday afternoon, here, at his private library. Abdu’l-Baha walked through the main doors into the marble rotunda with an inlaid marble floor. Its domed ceiling featured an oculus, around which Henry Siddons Mowbray had painted mural portraits of Homer, Petrarch, and Dante. To the left the bright red damask walls of Morgan’s plush study beckoned, where Morgan usually received, and intimidated, his guests. But today some urgent business matter had arisen unexpectedly, and Morgan, Abdu’l-Baha found out, wouldn’t be able to come.
Instead, he turned right into the library, a three-storey room with floor-to-ceiling bookcases made from walnut, accessed from rows of balconies. A large Persian rug stretched across the floor and, above the fireplace, an old Renaissance tapestry hung, dominating the wide western wall. Its title: “The Triumph of Avarice.”
Seven years later Alfred Lunt, a New England lawyer, wrote to ask Abdu’l-Baha to explain his outlook on modern economic life. “The essence of the Bahai economic teachings is this,” Abdu’l-Baha wrote back, “that immense riches far beyond what is necessary should not be accumulated.”
Then Abdu’l-Baha discussed Morgan. “For instance, the well-known Morgan who owned a sum of 300 million and was day and night restless and agitated did not partake of the Divine bestowals save a little broth. . . . He invited me to his library and to his home that I may visit the former and have a dinner at his house. I went to the library in order to look at the oriental books but did not go to his house and did not accept his [dinner] invitation. In short, he eagerly desired that I should visit him in the library but meanwhile important financial problems arose which prevented him from being present. . . . Now had he not such an excessive amount of wealth, he might have been able to present himself.”
“This wealth was for him a vicissitude,” Abdu’l-Baha wrote, “and not the cause of comfort.”
The staff laid out the books for Abdu’l-Baha on the viewing tables. Then he wrote and signed a short note in Morgan’s guestbook, a prayer asking for blessings upon the tycoon, and left. In addition to Abdu’l-Baha, his translator, and the Persian Consul of New York who had accompanied them that afternoon, a reporter from the Associated Press had also been present. He found it worthy of a catchy headline, and drafted a wire dispatch, which AP sent out over those same Morgan copper wires the next morning.
“Persian Highbrow Dubs Morgan ‘Some Philanthropist,’” the headline went. “J. P. Morgan,” the reporter wrote, “was written down yesterday as one who had done ‘considerable philanthropy’ when his library in East 36th street was visited by Abdul Baha.”
Read the next article in the 239 Days in America series: Abdu’l-Baha and Andrew Carnegie’s “Gospel of Wealth”
Read the previous article in the 239 Days in America series: An Ethos for a New Age
This article was originally published on November 19, 2012 at 239Days.com, a social media documentary following Abdu’l-Baha’s 1912 journey through North America. © Jonathan Menon, 2012. This article may not be republished without prior written permission. Contact info@239Days.com.