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New book profiles the ‘greatest central Illinois native you never heard of’

Dorrance Publishing

William Engelbrecht says that Elmwood native Nelson Dean Jay may be the best-kept secret in central Illinois.

“In my opinion, you simply can’t name anyone from central Illinois who had this much influence on America and the world, and (yet) no one knows about him,” he said.

Engelbrecht is the co-author of “The American Banker in Paris,” a book on Jay’s life along with Karl K. Taylor, the Elmwood native whose stories about growing up in that town can be found on the storiesfromsmalltownillinois.com website.

“This isn’t a book about a bank or finance but about an interesting human being who came out of central Illinois,” said Engelbrecht, noting that Jay grew up in Elmwood, graduating from Knox College in 1905. “After that, he got into finance. Then came World War I,” he said.

Jay entered the U.S. Army and served Gen. Charles G. Dawes as general purchasing agent for the American Expeditionary Force where he later received a Distinguished Service Medal. Jay was decorated by no fewer than four countries for service during the war, said Engelbrecht.

Following the war, Jay headed the Paris affiliate of the J.P. Morgan & Co. bank in Paris from 1920 to 1941 and then again after WWII.

During the Roaring Twenties in Paris, Jay was a friend of Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, and Gertrude Stein. During that era, Jay was described in the New York Times as “one of the most civilized and authentic Americans in Paris.”

Jay was a member of the welcoming party for Charles Lindbergh when he made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927. “The J.P. Morgan Co. was one of the sponsors of the Lindbergh flight. The name on the business card that Lindbergh carried in his pocket during the flight was Nelson Dean Jay,” said Engelbrecht, adding that Jay later criticized Lindbergh to his face, suggesting that he consider his pro-German views carefully.

Jay met his wife, Anne, on a blind date. He told her of his plan to marry her that night. And he did. The marriage lasted 60 years.

Engelbrecht added that Jay also helped finance the work of his friend, (two-time) Nobel Prize winner Madame Marie Curie, the woman who laid the foundation for modern oncology.

Steve Tarter retired from the Peoria Journal Star in 2019 after spending 20 years at the paper as both reporter and business editor.