A mild-mannered professional man, Ferdinand Ward was trusted by late 19th century bankers and businessmen, small and large investors, and even an ex-President, Ulyssess S. Grant. Called "the Young Napoleon of Wall Street," Ward ran a successful brokerage firm, which returned handsome dividends to its investors (who included Grant and railroad financier William Henry Vanderbilt). Charming and trustworthy, Ward's unfailing politesse and social skills-- as well as his confidence in his firm's investments-- helped build his firm, to the point where he owned estates, townhouses and other signifiers of wealth.
What no one knew-- until it was too late-- was that Ward kept two sets of books: the one he showed irate or curious investors (who wondered what had happened to the thousands of dollars they'd entrusted), full of promising figures and large projected profits (supposedly near $15 million, in 19th century terms); and the other one, the real one, which revealed that Ward's investment firm was actually $14 million in debt. No investments were ever made, except in Ward's extravagent lifestyle. Years before the term was coined, Ward had invented a Ponzi scheme, one that would ruin Grant, Mark Twain, and many other, lesser-known investors. It was the great financial scandal of the day, and Ward would be tried and imprisoned at Sing Sing, but that was only the start of his strange adventures.
Imagine being an historian, working on this tale that weaves poltiics, finance, urbanity, and skullduggery. Now, imagine if Ferdinand Ward was your great-grandfather.
That was the story Geoffrey S. Ward presented in his talk this evening at the Oberlin Science Center, entitled, "A Swindler in the Family: Trying to Understand a Nefarious Ancestor." Ward is an Oberlin graduate (class of '62), the former editor of American Heritage magazine, and the author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning A First-Class Temperment, a biography of FDR. But he is most famous as the screenwriter and collaborator of documentarian Ken Burns, with whom he worked on The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball, and The War, among many other films. This, quite aside from his family connections, makes him the right historian for this project (which was an excerpt from a larger, forthcoming book project): I don't want to say too much more about the specifics of the talk, as I don't want to scoop what will no doubt be a fascinating read, but I realized in its larger outlines, it is really a tale of modernity. With Citizen Kane still fresh in my head (as he talked about Ferdinand's prison time, I could hear Orson Welles in my head yelling, "I'll send you to Sing Sing, Gettys! Sing Sing!"), I kept thinking about how, for all its 19th Century trappings, this was really a tale of the 20th and 21st centuries: the skillful juggling of rhetorics both oral (wooing clients with sweet lies) and written (cooking the books and using the "scientific" quality of numbers to fabulate); the dislocations of the city of which Robert Ray writes in The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy, where the vast urban space can hide thieves and swindlers, and enable quick disappearances; the performative nature of Ferdinand's swindle, the simulacrum of the financier he presented, rather than the reality (Geoffrey Ward noted that his great-grandfather may have had multiple personality disorders); the fluidity and ephemerality of modern capital, a wealth that's virtual rather than material; and the central role of technology in various aspects of Ferdinand's story, especially a very funny anecdote about telephones. It's finance as magic trick, as fabulism, or, to use a cinematic term, as projection, so it seems appropriate that the man's great-grandson is so fluid in his movement across written, cinematic and oral communications (Ward's a very good speaker, but I also kept wondering what this might have looked like as a film, who might have "played" Ferdinand in the voiceover). In its anecdotal weave of history, memoir, and the strange detail that flashes up out of nowhere, Ward's striking lecture mimicked the "family charm" and charismatic weave that he claimed Ferdinand possessed, but deployed these gifts as a form of illumination, rather than obfuscation.
Geoffrey Ward was also kind enough to speak with my Intro to Cinema class this morning, where he was funny, insightful and extremely gracious. It was fascinating to hear about his collaborations with Ken Burns, and the differences between writing books and writing screenplays, and he also surprised me with some of his responses to questions (he's a big fan of Grizzly Man, for instance). The Burns/Ward projects always return to the questions and contradictions of America, the difficulty of forming communities, but also the necessity of that effort (whether it's in war, sports or music). It is not surprising, then-- but very gratifying-- to discover that Ward himself embodies those same values, and so graciously passes them on.