Although I saw him once from a distance, I never knew Nelson Dean Jay.
Forty years after it appeared in the New York Times, I read his obituary, called the caretaker to verify that he was buried in the cemetery in Elmwood, Illinois, and went to see the grave site.
I never knew Anne Augustine Jay and have only seen pictures of her.
Another call to Galesburg, Illinois, made me aware that Knox College had useful material: letters between college presidents and Jay, large professional photographs taken of him in a New York studio, and alumni news releases, going back to 1905, the year when Jay graduated from college.
A week later I dialed “Nelson Dean Jay” in Seattle, Washington, who responded, “I’m a great grandson. You need to talk to my great aunt who knows the whole story.” Thus I began a lengthy e-mail relationship with Cynthia who was in her 80s and shared wonderful stories about the Jays’ years in Paris.
Six months later, Cynthia invited me to Huntington, New York, on the north shore of Long Island to meet her and several of her children who had flown in from across the country. When asked if I were going to write a biography of their grandfather, I didn’t know how to respond.
After dinner, Cynthia invited me into her library, where we sat in wing-back chairs beside the fireplace. While she was reading aloud from a letter sent from Paris in 1920, she urged me to sort through a cardboard box filled with material from her attic… I looked down at a large engraved invitation from General Charles De Gaulle, inviting the Jays to a luncheon for the new President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. In the upper right hand corner someone had scribbled “accepted.”
Several months later, my wife and I flew to Bow, Washington, along the Pacific coast where another grandson, George Jay, stacked forty pounds of memorabilia on his dining room table and spent two days telling us stories about his grandparents. By now, I was thinking seriously about writing a biography.
As I began visiting and corresponding with libraries, I found more and more to convince me there was a story to be told. At the National Archives in St. Louis I saw Jay’s war records beside those of his friend Charles Lindbergh. I was awed with what I found at the McCormick Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; reports typed on yellowed onion skin paper from General Charles Dawes to General John Pershing, concerning the weekly activities of Lt. Colonel Dean Jay.
I flew to New York City, spending several days at the J. Pierpont Morgan Library not far from Fifth Avenue, reading letters written between J.P. Morgan and Dean Jay during the Great Depression, some addressed to “Dear Dean,” and signed “Jack.” At the Harvard University Library I read letters from other Morgan partners who were impressed by NDJ’s work. I reviewed correspondence from additional academic libraries – the Dwight Morrow letters at Amherst College, and the Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh correspondence at Yale University. The aviator and his wife were invited to stay in the Jay home in Fontainebleau to avoid the hordes of admirers. I was convinced.
Along the way, I read some books on the time period, but the strength of this biography rests, however, on the primary sources, which have allowed me to describe, in some detail, the lives of two Americans whose acquaintances included the rich and famous, the important and the noteworthy, by virtue of his position as an international banker. The family documents included hundreds of personal letters between Anne and Dean when they were apart, and their children while attending school or serving in World War II. Anne’s cryptic notes and Dean’s journal were also helpful. According to the family, Anne transferred notes from her calendar to four small spiral rimmed notebooks, indicating when, where, and with whom they had lunch or dinner from the early 1920s to her death in the 1970s. After he retired, Dean compiled his thoughts in a journal, probably from memory, on his work at Morgan & Cie.
With this material, readers are able to glimpse inside the relationship between NDJ and important people as well as to visualize the details of family life. Readers will enjoy Dean’s letter to Anne describing the celebrations in Paris when World War I ended, or when NDJ, like any ordinary father, reminded his teenage son to wear warm clothing when crossing the Atlantic. Other readers will be amused to hear Anne’s newsy comments to her family describing fashion or the lack of it in Paris in 1945, or her feelings about one of Ruth Draper’s dramatic performances or about a Berlin Philharmonic concert. In short, while Dean is talking about the problem of the German debt or rate of inflation, Anne is musing on the problems of running their household, raising their children, and planning their next dinner party. There is something here for those readers who are interested in his story as well as for those who are attracted to hers.
To help the reader grasp his position in time, I have inserted brief time-lines at the beginning of some chapters, putting the Jays in the foreground and projecting them against the historical background. At the end of the book, I have highlighted several special relationships, describing some people who were important to the Jays, but whose tales, however interesting, would detract from the narrative, including stories about Edward Stettinius, Sr., Ruth Draper, Betty Draper, and the Lindberghs. Like other modern biographers, I have used a bit of non-fiction narrative to give Nelson and Anne the opportunity to speak for themselves. Those moments are rare, and I make clear in the context when I am dealing with fact or using my imagination.
But why did I write this biography? Dean Jay and I came from Elmwood, Illinois; graduated from the same high school; and from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois: Dean in 1905 and I in 1960. I had heard about him from people in Elmwood over the years, and I went to school with several of his nieces and nephews. His name was always mentioned with some degree of awe and respect – the hometown boy who had gone on to bigger and better things across the Atlantic, but few people knew much about him. After my retirement I decided to research his life, beginning with reading his obituary in the New York Times.
An obituary is not a biography; however, an obituary is about the most we can expect when we are gone. After examining the Jays’ lives, I had to decide whether an obituary was sufficient or not for the time they spent on this earth. It was not.
Karl K. Taylor Copyright 2012