Every journey has a beginning and an ending. This journey, although I was not aware of it at the time, began well over 50 years ago when my father, very casually, mentioned the name, Nelson Dean Jay. Dad, very proudly, said Jay was a banker who was born in Elmwood, Illinois, my hometown, but who spent most of his career in Paris. I was impressed. By chance, Jay and I had lived in the same town, gone to the same school building, worshiped in the same Presbyterian Church, and graduated from the same high school and college – Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. I knew his sister, a tiny little woman with an effusive personality who called everyone “honey.” I went to school with some of his nieces and nephews. Occasionally, over the years, I heard his name mentioned, generally with some sense of awe. Very few people had a clue, but several suspected that he ran with the rich and famous, that he lived the good life. But few realized that he, too, was rich, famous, and… important.
Years passed. His name popped up, now and then. When back from Europe, he visited his sister in my hometown at least once a year and made a point of having a glass of wine with Clifford Lott, an old Knox friend and the president of the Farmers State Bank in Elmwood. Once I heard Jay offered to pay for some new trees in Central Park and the Township Cemetery. And although he came once or twice a year to attend a trustees meeting at Knox College, I still had never seen or talked to him.
His name came up forty years ago, on June 6, 1960, when I opened the program for the 115th graduation exercises for Knox College. It listed the three individuals’ names who were to receive honorary degrees that hot Saturday on the east side of Old Main: Chesser Campbell, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; William Benton, chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica; and NELSON DEAN JAY, managing partner, Morgan & Cie. Not a shabby group. I can remember the Dean of the College explaining why Jay was receiving an award: “for achievements in international commerce, finance, and goodwill.”
Years passed. I went to graduate school to study English. Jay went back to Paris, ending his career in the late 1960s. I went into the Service, later into teaching. Jay died. I lost track of him. I continued grading papers; writing a couple of textbooks, while reading one biography after another. I decided, when I retired, when I had more time, I would write a biography. I wanted to dig deeply into someone’s life, to learn as much as I could about one person. I wanted to solve the puzzle, put all the pieces together. So several years ago, when I did have a bit more time, I read a very good biography of Edgar Lee Masters with some regret, because I considered him a potential subject – small town boy from Lewistown, attended Knox and became a relatively famous writer. Up to that time, no one had written his biography. Someone had beaten me to him. I carried Truman Capote’s big, thick biography around on a bus tour across much of Europe. I read biographies of Harry Truman, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway hoping that a subject would appear. Maybe the time wasn’t right. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood. I just kept reading, not writing.
The next step in the journey came with a telephone call, after dinner one-evening several years ago, from a member of the Elmwood Historical Society which was updating the history of my hometown. I guess I answered the caller’s question; I don’t remember; it doesn’t really matter. She was about to hang up. Out of nowhere, I asked: “Is there something in your history about Nelson Dean Jay?” There was a long pause. “I don’t know anything about him. Who was he?” All I could tell her was that he was a native of Elmwood who became a successful international banker. I have no idea why the Jay name came out of my mouth.
I didn’t know it, but the journey was under way. As soon as I hung up the phone, I picked it up again to call the caretaker for the Elmwood Township Cemetery to see if Jay was buried there. He was. “It is the largest tombstone in the cemetery, but you will have to look closely to find it.” I did. The next call was Owen Muelder in the alumni office at Knox College to see if they had any papers. They did. More important, though, was the Owen’s reaction to my question: “You can’t imagine the kind of house where the Jays lived in Fontainebleau. My family and I visited them in the 1960s and stayed in the guest house on the grounds. We were greeted by a butler and served by waiters and waitresses. If Jay’s house were in Galesburg, it would be the showpiece for the community.” Interesting.
The next step in the journey was a phone call to a friend who loves genealogy. “Can you help me find relatives of Dean Jay?” We located some 10,000 in the United States, a few on the west coast in Washington and many in the east, mainly New York and Massachusetts, even two in Central Illinois. We narrowed the list to those with some combination of Nelson Jay, Dean Jay II or III, or Nelson Dean Jay, and I began calling for “anyone related to Nelson Dean Jay who was a Paris banker.” The result, eventually, was an invitation to visit the family matriarch, Cynthia White Jay, Nelson Dean Jay’s daughter-in-law. (Her grandfather was Stanford White, the famous architect featured in an episode of “The American Experience” on PBS.)
Six months later, I was driving slowly down the pea gravel driveway in early April to her home overlooking the Long Island Sound, not far from the cottage where Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote one of her books and next door to the home where Allen Dulles lived when he was head of the CIA. Across the street was an empty lot, the original site of the Marshall Field estate. It was cold, crisp, but the trees and flowers were blooming. Almost the first words out of Cynthia’s mouth, after opening the screen door, were: “Are you going to write a biography of Dean Jay?” I was tempted to say that I was, but the reality was I didn’t know if I had a subject of interest to anyone besides myself. “I’m researching his life,” I said.
As the day progressed more people began ringing the doorbell; members of the family came great distances to meet me and to ask: “Are you going to write a biography of Dean Jay?” These guests included Dean’s niece from Ohio, the youngest granddaughter from St. Louis, the realtor niece from Las Vegas who spent one school-year with the Jays in Paris, the musician grandson from New York City, the grandson who is a landscape architect in Boston, and Daniel, an architect in St. Louis. A splendid conversation. A wonderful dinner. An unforgettable evening.
Afterwards, I joined Cynthia in her library, by the fireplace, where she read letters, long forgotten, from Dean Jay’s wife to her family in St. Louis, describing the 1920 dinner party in Paris held by J.P. Morgan for the new partner: Nelson Dean Jay. Sixty people were in attendance, all seated at one large table, each with his or her own waiter or waitress for the entire evening. As Cynthia was reading, she invited me to explore a cardboard box beside my chair filled with stuff — letters, invitations, cards, programs – a bit yellowed, a little dusty, just pulled out of a closet, stored for almost forty years. The very first one was an engraved invitation on heavy card stock from President and Madame Charles de Gaulle, inviting the Jays to a reception for the new President of the United States and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy. In the upper corner of the invitation, Mrs. Jay had written in pencil: “Accepted.” I was stunned. The second invitation came from the British Embassy in Paris, inviting the Jays to tea for the Queen’s birthday. Again, “Accepted.” There were more. Questions popped into my mind. Who was Nelson Dean Jay?
As my wife said when I first mentioned his name to her, the ultimate question is, then, “Who cares about an international banker from Elmwood, Illinois? He’s been dead for over forty years and no one knows anything about him.” Is an obituary in the New York Times, written over thirty-five years ago, enough to say about a man who
— came from an ordinary family in Elmwood, Illinois, twenty miles west of Peoria; who worked his way through a small college, forty miles west of Peoria?
— became vice president of the First National Bank of Milwaukee, the largest in the state, in his twenties?
— married a young woman from a prominent St. Louis family who bore him three children and who played a significant role in the development of his career?
— worked on General Pershing’s staff in World War I and was honored by four governments for his services to the Allies?
— hired by J.P. Morgan in his mid-thirties to head the Paris branch of the most important bank in the world in his day?
— dined with Charles and Anne Lindbergh, as well as hundreds of other famous people from the pages of history?
— escaped from the Nazis as they marched into Paris, riding with his chauffeur down winding roads filled with refugees in southern France to a ship waiting in Portugal to take him to America?
— served as the acting president of the American Red Cross for a short time, after his predecessor died suddenly?
–headed the Board of the American Hospital in Paris for a number of years, helping downed and wounded allied pilots escape in a kind of underground railroad?
— returned in 1945 to see the city of Paris and his apartment as well as his home at Fontainebleau after their occupation by German troops, as told in beautiful letters written by Mrs. Jay to relatives in the U.S.?
— may have been the first, or one of the first, American international businessmen, working quietly with leaders like Jean Monnet, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and others to stabilize Europe in the interwar period?
— invited by Prince Bernard of the Netherlands to attend the first Bilderberg Conference in Holland, one of sixty people (including David Rockefeller) from throughout the world to discuss the plight of Europe in the 1950s? He was one of many men of his generation who sought to make good on the hopes that economically and politically a safer world could be created.
— was described in the 1960s by a famous dramatist and poet in the New York Times as “One of the two most civilized and authentic Americans living in Paris?”
— was recognized in the 1990s by Ron Chernow in the definitive story of the House of Morgan: “American businessmen in France seldom made a major move without consulting him?”
Writing a biography or producing a television documentary about Nelson Dean Jay, forty years after his death, is not easy because his contemporaries are gone and cannot speak for him and because very few people have ever heard of him. Trying to assess his importance for people in Central Illinois is especially difficult because he found success in New York and Paris, not Peoria or Chicago. His name is totally out of context in Central Illinois. My journey for the facts has led me across the country to Galesburg for fifty years of correspondence between Jay and Knox officials; to Long Island where his daughter-in-law lives; to Bow, Washington where his great grandson handed over forty pounds of papers and NDJ’s embossed travel trunk; to St. Louis to browse through moldy military records at the National Archives; to the McCormick Library at Northwestern University to review the onion skin copies of General Charles Dawes’ reports to General John J. Pershing, with references to Jay; to the Morgan Library in New York City to study the correspondence beautifully describing the unfolding of the Great Depression in the U.S. and Europe (the Morgan partners were scared to death); and to the Thomas Lamont Library at Harvard for a letter from Jay to Thomas Lamont, thanking him for his offer to help him buy his home in France. There are many clues. Nelson Dean Jay may not have been President of the United States or president of General Motors, but he and Mrs. Jay were invited by Vice President Charles Dawes to have lunch in the White House with Calvin Coolidge and Jay introduced Alfred Sloan and Walter Chrysler to Andre Citroen.
Perhaps the two most significant events occurred in the last two years – a letter from David Rockefeller and lunch on a patio overlooking the Long Island Sound. I had seen and examined David Rockefeller’s autobiography several times before deciding to buy it. I knew virtually nothing about international banking, very little about David Rockefeller. I soon realized that a young Rockefeller, starting his career, could very well have known the senior banker, as he was finishing his career. I wrote Rockefeller, telling him about my research, asking whether he ever knew Jay, whether the research was worth the effort. Rockefeller did. He sent me a list of the occasions when they had lunch, or cocktails, or dinner. As to the value of the search, Rockefeller said, “Dean Jay is important, if for no other reason, because he was one of the ten Americans to be invited to the first Bilderburg (sic) Conference.”
The second event occurred last fall when Cynthia Jay invited my wife and me to a luncheon on her veranda on Long Island and to meet special guests: the grandchildren or great grandchildren and their wives of two famous Morgan partners, Thomas W. Lamont and Russell Leffingwell. We shared stories. I wanted to hear their memories of NDJ; they wanted to hear about his upbringing, his life before becoming a Morgan partner, before he worked with their grandfathers and great grandfathers. Then they shared scrapbooks filled with professional photographs of their families skiing in the Alps, living the good life of being a J.P. Morgan partner. They remembered Nelson Dean Jay, the enthusiastic, the effusive banker who was loved by all. As Edward Lamont said, “Bankers are a dull lot; Dean Jay stuck out from all the others because of his personality.” As his daughter-in-law said, “NDJ was very, very hard to dislike.”
We all have a part to play in history, a minor or a major one, locally, nationally, or internationally. A select few individuals will play a major role in Central Illinois, people like Jim Maloof or Jim Owens or Richard Carver. Unfortunately, they will be forgotten shortly. A smaller number of individuals from Central Illinois have made names for themselves at the national level, people like Robert Michel or Everett Dirksen or Betty Friedan or even Richard Pryor. They will be remembered for a while for their accomplishments and for the bridges and streets and buildings named for them. Very few people will reach the international level where their names will appear in newspapers in Paris, on television in Tokyo, or on the radio in the Congo, names familiar to people across the globe. Their names will be remembered for generations. Ronald Reagan reached that level.
Nelson Dean Jay played on the international stage. He knew the president of US Steel and Proctor and Gamble, he socialized with European royalty, he opened up international lending for Morgan, he dined alone with John D. Rockefeller, he was on the welcoming committee for Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, he oversaw many Memorial Day services in France for those who lost their lives in World War I. Nelson Dean Jay had a part to play, not the lead by any means, but a very important role for a young man born in Elmwood, Illinois and educated at Knox College. Unlike many Morgan partners, Jay, whose main career was in Paris, far from America, maintained a relatively low profile, but his life is a prism through which we can see much of the history of Europe and America over the years from Wilson to Kennedy. Unless he is known, however, NDJ can never be remembered. Central Illinois deserves to know his story.
Karl K. Taylor