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–by Joanna Hallac

Upon first glance of the title of this post, you might think I was about to tell some kind of joke, but alas no, this is a true story. If you have been keeping up with our Twitter feed and fact-a-day Facebook page, then you know on Friday we tweeted about a bizarre moment prior to a hearing held by the Senate Banking Committee on J.P. Morgan’s banking activities in 1933, in what became known as the Pecora hearings. Given the fact that this episode was just about one of the strangest I’ve ever heard of, I thought I would dig into this and get more of the whole story for all of you.

So before we can get to strange meeting that occurred on June 1, 1933, I think it’s important to understand what Morgan was even doing there. The Senate Banking and Currency Committee had summoned J.P. Morgan to appear before them to testify about what they viewed as very suspect banking practices. The committee counsel, Ferdinand Pecora, was determined to show that Morgan was selling stock below market price to some of his friends, including some important government officials. Additionally, Morgan had 167 of his own men in directorates within the nation’s largest corporations, and had not paid a single cent in income taxes for the previous two years (any of this sound somewhat familiar?). Senator Carter Glass had remarked during the hearings that things had turned rather circus-like. I’m sure at the time Senator Glass had no idea how prescient that notion would be–the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus were in fact in D.C. that week. This is where things get truly strange.

Apparently, the newspapers that were there to cover the testimony of Morgan before the committee were beginning to get nervous that the hearing wouldn’t start in time and that they wouldn’t make their deadlines for the evening papers. One of those reporters, Ray Tucker, had an idea to get some sort of headline, regardless if it was about Morgan’s testimony or not. It was at this point that he remembered seeing a peculiar pair in the hallway earlier. Determined, Tucker headed out of the caucus room where he found a female circus dwarf, Lya Graf, and a circus press agent, Charles Leef. Tucker told them that he was going to introduce her to J.P. Morgan and so into the caucus room they went.

J.P. Morgan with Lya Graf, a Barnum & Bailey circus dwarf, on his lap on June 1, 1933. Morgan was waiting to testify before the Senate Banking Committee (NY Magazine)

Although he was initially startled, Morgan was genial and rose and shook her hand. Naturally, the photographers were stepping all over each other to get a picture of the exchange. Just as Tucker was about to lead them out, content that he had his newspaper headline, Leef, seeing a perfect press opportunity for himself and the circus, waited for Morgan to sit down and then scooped up Graf and placed her in J.P. Morgan’s lap. Morgan apparently laughed and had a brief exchange with the demure lady, in which he told her he had a grandchild bigger than her. It has since gone down as one of the outrageous and bizarre meetings to ever take place in any Senate meeting room…well, that we know about at least.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into the absurd. It isn’t often here that we delve into such material, but when we get the chance, how could we possibly resist?

Source consulted:

Smith, Sherwin D. “Thirty Years Ago: A midget sat on J.P. Morgan’s lap and showed that the great banker was only human.” New York Times. May 26, 1963.