Avenue Foch is situated in one of the most elegant neighborhoods in Paris. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the street is filled with large stone apartment buildings, home for many of the leaders of the city, as well as the nation. In the good times between the wars, the mayor of Paris and the head of the American Hospital lived close by; during World War II, the Avenue housed ranking members of the Gestapo. For years, chauffeured limousines parked in front of 58 Avenue Foch, on the “sunny side” of the street, depositing their passengers on the sidewalk – men often dressed in Brooks Brothers’ suits and highly polished black wing-tipped shoes, their wives in the latest fashion of a French couturier. They had been invited to lunch.
Having left their cars, the guests walked past a high wrought iron fence leading to a glass entrance, where the concierge, a lady in a black dress and white apron, would peer through lace curtains before pressing a button, allowing the guests to enter through the impressive walnut doors. The guests walked down a wide, red-carpeted stairway to a hydraulic lift which rose, ever so slowly, to a single apartment covering the entire fourth floor. There the guests would ring for the butler, Maurice, who would unlock three more elaborate locks and escort them to a vast front hall, where they joined others for drinks and for the chance to meet their hosts: Nelson Dean Jay and his wife, Anne Augustine Jay.
Over fifty years ago, an invitation for lunch at this address was considered by Parisian society to be an honor, perhaps even an event, not just because Jay headed J.P. Morgan for Europe, but also because he and his wife attracted such interesting guests. They might have included a Russian pianist, a French banker, an American diplomat, the CEO of an international company, a British actress, an Italian painter, perhaps even someone from the OSS (forerunner of the CIA) or the CIA. Number 58 Avenue Foch was “the place to be.”
On the surface, Nelson Dean Jay (NDJ) is a peculiar subject for a biography. First, he is nearly forgotten. Second, he was a banker, a profession not known for attracting interesting people.
Jay has been dead for more than 40 years, and no biography has surfaced, just his Times obituary. His employer has forgotten his role in international banking. Although his name is attached to a classroom at his alma mater – “The Jay Recital Hall” – the college president didn’t recognize the significance of his name. A staff member at the school wanted to write his biography decades ago, but the book never materialized probably because Jay was not the sort of person to seek recognition. Even in his hometown, members of the American Legion, who decorate the graves of veterans with small flags on Memorial Day, have ignored his for nearly a half century, never realizing that he was the highest-ranking veteran of World War I buried in the cemetery and the only one honored by four nations for his service to the Allies. Except for very few people, the mention of his name – Nelson Dean Jay – brings a puzzled look.
Even when he was alive, his importance was often overlooked because he was an American who was better known in Europe than in the United States. In spite of spending his 35-year career in Europe, his name appeared in more than 200 articles in the New York papers, sometimes in the headlines. Nelson Dean Jay was not a man who sought public attention, but played such an important role in American and European affairs over his long life that he was frequently mentioned in the press. He was not a political leader or the head of the House of Morgan, but to study his life is to understand the twentieth century in a way that is not possible by considering the life of a head of state or a corporate head.
Never a leading man, figuratively speaking, Jay played a role in many of the most critical events in the last century – World War I, Paris in the Twenties, the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War. Many Americans served in World War I, but Jay served on the Commander-in-Chief’s staff. He was not just employed by a bank, but was a partner in one of the most influential banks in the world. Some Americans spent a few weeks or a month in Paris during the Twenties, yet Jay spent the entire decade there, often mingling with members of the avant-garde: an acquaintance of Ernest Hemingway, one of America’s most famous authors of the twentieth century; a banker for Igor Stravinsky, the well-known composer of The Firebird; and a friend of Nadia Boulanger, the celebrated pianist and music teacher. Toward the end of his career, Jays’ expertise was sought by such people as Allan and John Foster Dulles (the head of the CIA and the Secretary of State, respectively), Jean Monnet (Father of the European Union), and David Rockefeller (an international banker).
Like her husband, Anne Jay was never a leading actress, but she was on the stage, figuratively speaking, playing a part in the drama. Unlike many women of her day, she didn’t fill a mere cameo role. She was a wife and mother, who directed a staff of servants, took her children to school, etc., but she was a participant in her husband’s success. She knew how to “work the crowd,” to follow her husband’s lead while entertaining their guests. Mrs. Jay was an active participant in conversations involving wives as well as their husbands. After three-hour luncheons at Avenue Foch, the Jays and their guests took coffee and brandy in the salon, trying to keep the men and women together, rather than separating them by sex. Anne was always disappointed when the men closed the library doors behind themselves to smoke cigars and discuss “important matters,” leaving her to discuss trivia with those who were perhaps not her intellectual equals. She was a modern woman, fifty or more years ahead of her time, wanting to know what was going on in a wider world beyond her home and her family.
Lunch with Friends is more than a modern version of a Horatio Alger story. A young man from a small town in Illinois graduated from a little known college in the Midwest, left for the big city to seek his fortune, and fell in love with a young woman from a socially prominent family from St. Louis. According to a member of the Jays, he “married up.” His career began by going door-to-door peddling pots and pans on the streets of Galesburg, Illinois, to selling bonds, first in Milwaukee and later in New York, to those with fortunes to invest. Helped by friends, Jay served his country at the highest level, bringing him to the attention of the House of Morgan, where he spent the rest of his career.
By modern standards, Dean and Anne would probably be called old-fashioned: they treated each other with love and respect, worked hard, told the truth, spoke softly, liked classical music, were totally without pretense, drove nothing more conspicuous than a Buick, and even went to church. Although Anne came from a large city and Dean from a small town, they shared similar 19th century Midwestern values: the closely-knit family, a respect for education, a love for gardening and animals, and the recognition that hard work was necessary for a happy, successful life. One is reminded of others who came from the Midwest and espoused those same values: Sam Walton and Dwight Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson and Henry Ford, Warren Buffett and Harry Truman.
As far as I have been able to determine, the Jays never took advantage of others, but Nelson, who wanted his sons to succeed so desperately, may have pushed them too hard, guiding them into careers which drove one away from the family and the other to a career in banking which he found boring. Nelson and Anne were obviously children of the 19th century, but they spent the bulk of their adult lives in the 20th. It was probably a simpler time for those who lived more provincial lives than the Jays, but it would probably not be accurate to say that Nelson and Anne lived in a slow, quiet time in Paris. After reading Lunch with Friends, the reader might consider whether the Jays could find as much success and happiness in the 21st century as they did in the last one – with their values, and society’s rules for playing the game. Their experiences, their relationship with friends, their roles in the heady atmosphere of the times, rendered their experiences meaningful and their story of uncommon value. This book traces their lives.