In the long run, Black Thursday was just another day.

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How to Make It on Wall Street and Live (Almost) Forever

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter at @smihm.
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We learned this week that the legendary money manager Irving Kahn, who not only survived the Crash of 1929 but even made a profit, had died at 109. His career may be proof that working on Wall Street and living to a ripe old age don't have to be mutually exclusive.  Kahn belongs with a pantheon of illustrious predecessors who managed to thrive in finance well past the average retirement age.

For much of its history, Wall Street has been seen as a place where only the young can thrive.  But there’s a converse fascination with the other extreme: the veterans who have seen it all -- and keep working past the century mark, a feat that is notable not just because of their advanced age but because they have been able to stay in the game through innumerable ups and downs in the markets.

For example, in 1921, the Financial World made the somewhat provocative claim that “people do grow old in Wall Street despite the impression that it is a place not desirable for a person with frail nerves.”  Kahn, who was 16 at the time, could have read the article.  But even if he didn't, he would almost certainly have heard of the man it showcased: the legendary financier John Aikman Stewart.

Though many bankers and speculators on Wall Street remained active well into their 80s and even 90s, Stewart stands out. He was born in 1822, when, as the New York Times put it, “the present Wall Street had real lambs on the meadows that dotted the financial district.” 

Raised and educated in New York, Stewart attended Columbia, served in city government, and then went on to help found the huge U.S. Trust Company in 1853, the nation’s first institution dedicated to managing the wealth of others.  Stewart immediately became secretary, and three years later became the president.  Aside from a brief tour of duty as assistant secretary of the Treasury during the Civil War, he would serve as president -- or as chairman of the board of U.S. Trust -- for 70 years, until his death at age 104.

Stewart, like Kahn, got to take the really long view when it came to the markets. He saw his first financial panic in 1837, and he survived many others, often in the eye of the storm. In the crash that followed the panic of 1893, Stewart supervised a huge bond-purchasing syndicate that bought up Treasuries, replenishing the nation’s gold reserves.

The Trust Company flourished as Stewart entered his 70s, an age that was considered positively ancient at the time (life expectancy was significantly lower). He kept going into his 80s, capably weathering the brutal panic of 1907, which swept away many lesser companies. 

In his 90s, he still worked on Wall Street on the day in 1920 when anarchists detonated a bomb, killing 30 people. Stewart, seated at his desk 100 feet from the explosion, was showered with shattered glass and debris. As the rest of his office staff fled screaming, Stewart alone “remained calm,” the Times later reported. He had seen worse.

By this time, Stewart’s fame for longevity began to rival his very real, substantial accomplishments as a financier and public servant. Visitors marveled at the sight of a 99-year-old going to his office at 45 Wall Street every day. He was constantly pressed for the secret of his endurance.  He usually replied “moderation.” An article published in 1921, though, made the point that “Mr. Stewart does not attribute his long life to any occult science or profound philosophic recipe.  Rather, the best explanation is to be found in observing him at his desk or when presiding at the meetings of the board of trustees of the United States Trust Company.”

Or as the Washington Post put it more bluntly after Stewart died in 1926, “he had outwitted both middle and old age; partly because he did not retire.” It’s a sentiment that Kahn shared, and anyone contemplating retirement from Wall Street might wish to contemplate if they, too, want to join the elite ranks of centenarian financiers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen Mihm at smihm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net