The Rich and How They Got That Way; by Cynthia Crossen; Crown, $25.95; 286 pages.
Appearing at a time when Americans seem peculiarly obsessed with ways they could earn a million dollars, this timely, well-written book is an extremely interesting look into the making of money. What's more, the reader need not be a financial expert to enjoy it.
The author, a senior editor of The Wall Street Journal, profiles 10 of the wealthiest people of all time — from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates. Unfortunately, only one of the subjects is a woman, illustrating a long-standing gender prejudice.
After a lively introduction, in which Crossen analyzes the historical interest in making money, she tells the individual stories of some of the great characters of the past 1,000 years, including Machmud of Ghazni, an Afghanistan ruler who killed tens of thousands of Indians for their gold; Mansa Musa, an African king who executed anyone who sneezed in his presence; and Pope Alexander VI, the corrupt pope who proved that the power to tax is the power to destroy.
Then there was Jacob Fugger, a 15th century German banker, who managed the pope's money and whose aggressive tactics of debt collection helped inspire Martin Luther to launch the Protestant reformation; John Law, a 17th century Scottish financier who was determined to make gold out of paper; Richard Arkwright, an 18th century industrialist who made a fortune even before most people understood that there was an industrial revolution; Howqua, a 19th century Chinese trader who made millions on opium; Hetty Green, the so-called "Witch of Wall Street," whose stock-market genius made her a millionaire; and the current richest man in the world, Bill Gates, the nerd-like CEO and founder of Microsoft.
According to the author, these people, separated by a thousand years, have shared such things in common as courage, fortitude, creativity, wit and confidence. On the other hand, some had much less desirable traits, such as ruthlessness, egotism, elitism and crassness.
On the whole, the very rich are often sadly lacking in social skills or personality traits that endear them to the masses. Some of those described by Crossen were dysfunctional in human relationships. Machmud of Ghazni, for example, who dabbled in wine, women and song, tortured people to death. Richard Arkwright was "hard, dull, and misunderstood by those around him."
The author characterizes Hetty Green as "a one-woman freak show," who took her 14-year-old son, who had dislocated his knee while sledding, to a charity hospital to avoid paying for his treatment. The delay in his treatment resulted in gangrene and the amputation of his leg.
While the author notes that Bill Gates has enjoyed a certain amount of popularity in our time, he has been accused of plundering his competitors in the computer industry and of being relatively uncharitable as compared to millionaires in other eras.
Ironically, it is impossible to compare the wealth of someone from the 11th century with someone of the 21st.
Furthermore, the author suggests the gap between Gates and the average citizen is wider than at any time in history. If Gates bought a $250,000 Lamborghini in 1997, "it would be the same as the average American American buying something for 63 cents."