A Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Most Hated Man in the United States

Geoffrey C. Ward, Author
Geoffrey C. Ward. Knopf, $28.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-679-44530-2
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Like a great 19th-century novel, this is a mordantly entertaining account of the author’s great-grandfather Ferdinand Ward, whose stock brokerage collapsed spectacularly in 1885 after swindling Ulysses S. Grant and other luminaries out of millions. Ward, a historian and Ken Burns collaborator, weaves character defects and family conflicts into a social panorama, probing Ferdinand’s loathsome, beguiling personality: the youthful charm that mesmerized Wall Street graybeards; the feelings of self-righteousness, entitlement, and whiny victimhood inherited from his missionary parents (but without their restraining moralism); the omnivorous greed that turned his post–Sing Sing Prison life into an endless scheme to wheedle, con, and sue money out of everyone he knew. (He even kidnapped his own son to get his wife’s inheritance.) Ward, winner of an NBCC award and the Francis Parkman Prize for A First-Class Temperament, narrates a rollicking financial picaresque, but infuses it with psychological depth; Ferdinand’s frauds are a tangle of personal betrayals that implicate his family as they agonize over how much of his untrustworthiness they should reveal to outsiders. The result is a fascinating study of the Victorian moral economy veering toward bankruptcy. Photos. Agent: Carl Brandt, Brandt and Hochman. (May)
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