Tycoons, and their long history, are not just rich. The word comes from the Japanese and in the 1850s was used to show ignorant, newly arriving Americans the source of real power in Japan – the Shogun – as opposed to that of the emperor who was merely a figurehead. Thus the first tycoons in the English language were powerful Americans whose power was not immediately obvious – the dealers, the financiers, the owners of politicians as much as the politicians and generals themselves.
My contribution to the literature of the tycoon comes from the age of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great when it might have seemed clear to everyone where the greatest power lay in Rome. But these two military titans had a partner, often their senior partner, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a master of financing other politicians, of banking and bribing, of disrupting established systems, a user of money to wield and balance power in very modern ways. Crassus was secretive, restless, ruthlessly focused on detail, somewhat insecure, more personally modest than one might expect, setting many of the standards for his successors in later centuries up until our own.
This First Tycoon, as I call him, is best known today as the ruthless suppressor of the Spartacus slave rebellion and crucifier of its survivors. But he would have been disappointed to be remembered as Laurence Olivier in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. Swatting a band of escaped slaves was no big deal for any Roman. Secret financing was fine but where was the legacy in it? Crassus wanted real military conquest. In 53 BCE, he invaded the territories beyond the Euphrates called Parthia. A man so good at judging the financial future failed to predict the fate of his own decapitated head, stuffed with molten gold and used as a stage prop in a production of Greek tragedy, The Bacchae near Baghdad. He set the stage for all these books, each one based in different ways on power seekers who want it all.
1. The First Tycoon, the Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by TJ Stiles
Cornelius Vanderbilt was the manipulator who pioneered American steamships and railways, playing politicians against each other, disrupting monopolies, amassing vast wealth and promoting his own Central American foreign policy. Stiles’s biography from 2009, built like a grand TV saga, begins with a courtroom battle between his children after his death.
2. The Last Tycoon by F Scott Fitzgerald
This unfinished classic novel, published posthumously in 1941, shows a movie man’s deep personal impetus for seeing, concentrating and expanding power, the rare mark of the tycoon. “These lights, this brightness, these clusters of human hope, of wild desire – I shall take these lights in my fingers. I shall make them bright, and whether they shine or not, it is in these fingers that they shall succeed or fail.”
3. We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
Between Crassus and Vanderbilt came King Lear. In her spectacular debut novel from 2017, Taneja takes on Shakespeare to show an Indian hotel tycoon and political fixer playing three daughters against one another. A tragic take on the godlike status of the Indian rich.
4. Abraham Lincoln by Godfrey Benson
After Commander Perry and his gunboats had opened up Japan to American trade in 1853, the word tycoon meant a manager of power as much as an amasser of wealth. Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, a major source for the literary Liberal MP, Godfrey Benson in 1916, liked to use it of his chief. “The Tycoon is in fine whack,” he wrote in 1861, “managing this war, the draft, foreign relations and planning a reconstruction”. Benson, not much read today, had a lighter touch than his more ponderous successors.
5. Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward
Since Watergate Bob Woodward has made himself the master of White House drama and detail. The Bushes, one of the more successful tycoon dynasties, were long his subject, both when they were succeeding at home and failing in Iraq. George W Bush, like Marcus Crassus, came a cropper in a country he did not even try to understand.
6. Tycoon by Harold Robbins
In his trailblazing career as a novelist of the rich and powerful, Robbins improved with age. The hero of his 23rd bestseller, reputedly based on William Paley, founder of CBS, is as much concerned with sexual positions as those of the media markets where he makes his money.
7. The King of Content by Keach Hagey
Paley’s CBS is now part of the media empire founded by Sumner Redstone who died in 2020. Not every tycoon finds the right biographer but Hagey, a reporter on the Wall Street Journal, gives a vivid and nuanced account of how a “mad genius” came to dominate so much while staying much less known than his rivals. Hagey explores deeply the father-daughter relationship, so central to tycoon-watchers. Shari Redstone is on the way to needing her own biographer as a tycoon herself.
8. The Chief by Andrew Roberts
Britain’s greatest biographer of great men leaves his usual home on the battlefields for Fleet Street, once the home of the British press which his latest subject, Lord Northcliffe did so much to create. The print media was for a century the theatre where tycoons took the stage before the digital age.
9. A Rebel Tycoon by Tom Bower
This is a memorable investigative biography of a man not much remembered now – Tiny Rowland – not the greatest of the media and mining tycoons but one who displayed many of their prime characteristics. Rowland once owned and used the Observer and was a ruthless fighter, not least against writers who crossed him. Bower made his name by looking forensically into the financial and political ties of others from the same mould – Robert Maxwell, Mohamed Al-Fayed, Bernie Ecclestone and Conrad Black.
10. Hugo by Arnold Bennett
Rowland and Al-Fayed, two of Bower’s most controversial tycoons, spent the 1980s and 90s battling over the ownership of Harrods department store. In a fictional account from 50 years before, the novelist, Arnold Bennett gave an uncanny description of skulduggery between the rivals, Hugo and Mr Ravengar, for a shop that operates as a banker, an insurer, a property developer, an arms supplier, provider of everything from furs to canes and cream fondants to a fiendish safe-deposit box, the totality of a tycoon’s dreams.
• Crassus: The First Tycoon by Peter Stothard is published by Yale University Press. To help the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.