Legend has it that in 1923, a meeting of America’s most powerful men took place at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago. Attending the meeting were the following nine financiers and power brokers:
the president of America’s largest steel company,
the president of America’s largest utility company,
the president of America’s largest gas company,
the president of the New York Stock Exchange,
the president of the Bank of International Settlements,
the nation’s greatest wheat speculator,
the nation’s greatest bear and speculator on Wall Street,
the head of the world’s greatest monopoly
a member of President Harding’s cabinet.
It was said to have been both a celebration of their success as well as an opportunity to plan their future exploits and dominance. These were the captains of their respective industries and some of the most successful businessmen of the era.
But how did things turn out for these distinguished gentlemen? Within 25 years, all of these great men had met a horrific end to their careers or their lives:
The president of the largest steel company, Charles Schwab, died a bankrupt man; the president of the largest utility company, Samuel Insull, died penniless; the president of the largest gas company, Howard Hobson, suffered a mental breakdown, ending up in an insane asylum; the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, had just been released from prison; the bank president, Leon Fraser, had taken his own life; the wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died penniless; the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Krueger the “match king”, also had taken his life; and the member of President Harding’s cabinet, Albert Fall, had just been given a pardon from prison so that he could die at home.
And as for the Wall Street Bear, Jesse Lauriston Livermore, famous speculator in the stock and commodities markets, his end is perhaps the most tragic of all. A week after Thanksgiving in 1940, Jesse walked into the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York, had two drinks at the bar while scribbling something in his notebook, then proceeded to the cloak room where he sat on a stool and shot himself in the head. He was 62 and left behind $5 million, down from the $100 million fortune he had amassed just ten years earlier.
And the note he had scribbled?
“My dear Nina: Can’t help it. Things have been bad with me. I am tired of fighting. Can’t carry on any longer. This is the only way out. I am unworthy of your love. I am a failure. I am truly sorry, but this is the only way out for me. Love Laurie”
There are three major lessons we can take from this parable:
1. Those who are on top now are not certain to finish in that position and are not guaranteed everlasting success or happiness.
2. Be careful whom you choose to idolize.
3. The life of a professional speculator can be an unpleasant one, filled with highs and lows but ultimately unsatisfying and often mentally ruinous. Look no further than the example of history’s greatest speculator for proof of this.