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The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Jamie Dimon, Wall Street’s Golden Boy

More than just a tawdry tale, Dimon’s demise is a critique of the American Dream.

They called him a hero. The most esteemed banker of his time. The captain who could steer the ship while others foundered. The handsome, charismatic CEO of JP Morgan Chase, he of the silver hair and golden tongue, beloved by presidents and praised by pundits.

Now the truth is out, and Wall Street’s golden boy, Jamie Dimon, has fallen to earth with a thud.

Why did it take so long? Why did the American media treat him with kid gloves? In a populist moment, how did he manage to escape the scorn heaped on his colleagues?

To understand this, you have to follow the yellow brick road all the way back to the beginning, back to when the gold-plated American Dream was forged in the smithy of the Puritan soul.

Thou Shalt Have Riches

Australians have an old joke about their country’s founding elements: Sure, we got the criminals, but America got the Puritans, which is much worse.

The folks who arrived on our shores from Europe four centuries ago brought with them some peculiar notions. The Puritans believed in the Calvinist “Doctrine of the Elect,” a depressing divine plan whereby God pre-selected those destined for heaven and damned everybody else to hell. You could never know who was on the A-list and who was in for a fiery eternity. At least that’s what old John Calvin had taught.

But mere mortals could never be content with so mysterious a system, so they became obsessed with finding out who was elect. Material possessions, they concluded, must be a sign. Didn’t people who worked hard and kept up their prayers often amass more stuff than others? Hard work was godly, and since it often resulted in riches, they must be godly, too. Wealthiness was next to godliness.

In an essay on The Great Gatsby, America’s great literary ode to our distinguishing love of wealth, John A. Pidgeon notes that the striving for money became a means of salvation. Take the Puritan reverence of riches, add in equal parts transcendentalism and rugged individualism, and you’ve got the American Dream in all its shining glory: If you work hard, if you believe fervently enough, you can make yourself a fortune. You, too, can join the ranks of the elect.

Man on the Make

Jamie Dimon saw his destiny as a little boy. His background, while not exactly humble, was relatively obscure. According to Duff McDonald, author of Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan Chase, Jamie’s grandfather, Panos Papademetriou, changed his name to “Dimon” when he arrived in America from Greece because he fancied it had a French ring to it.  America was the land of reinvention, and Grandpa Dimon was smart and plucky enough to pull it off: He started out as a busboy and ended as a stockbroker, the same job that gave Jamie’s father a comfortable income. Still, little Jamie was an outsider among Knickerbocker descendents who breathed the rarified air in the New York of his childhood.  

But Jamie was going to subdue that world and earn the money that would buy prestige. According to McDonald, even as a small tyke he felt a precocious need to “keep up appearances” and refused to appear in pajamas if his parents had guests. At the age of nine, he announced to his father that he was going to make a fortune when he grew up. A family photograph shows a 21-year-old Jamie poring over the pages of J. Paul Getty’s How to Be Rich, essays written for Playboy.