The Guggenheims

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

In The Guggenheims: An American Epic, John H. Davis, an honors Princeton graduate, Fulbright scholar, and author of Venice and The Bouviers, tells much that is engrossing about the Guggenheims of Philadelphia, New York, and California—the richest Jewish family in America. A study of this length (608 pages) is needed, if only to remind Americans that the Guggenheims, while not as famous as the Astors, DuPonts, and Mellons, contributed vastly to their country.

An “all-American” story in the Horatio Alger vein, The Guggenheims portrays Jews who, though fearfully downtrodden in Switzerland, come to Philadelphia in 1848 and, in record time, put together a colossal fortune. Although luck entered into their success, it was the ability of the father and five of seven sons to work together that made the Guggenheims so rich so quickly. No other American success story revolves around so many cooperating family members, most of whom add their own brand of expertise to the running of Guggenheim Brothers. In fact, almost any other great American fortune of the nineteenth century was largely the result of one individual, whether that person be a Frick, an Astor, a Vanderbilt, or a Morgan.

Davis offers a good account of the Swiss Guggenheims, who lived under appalling restrictions (virtually the same as those established in the Middle Ages) placed upon them by their Christian neighbors. Jews of the village of Lengnau, in the valley of the river Surd, were not allowed to enter most occupations (the usual exceptions were usury and peddling), to enter a Christian threshold, to speak to Christians, or to have tiled roofs like Christians. Routinely swindled, burned out of their homes and beaten, the Jews of Lengnau were also forever being taxed by the local Landvogt, a type of robber baron having life and death powers over “his” Jews. It is small wonder, then, that Simon Guggenheim, son of the ghetto leader Isaac (the “Icicle”) Guggenheim, left Lengnau for America.

Of the Jews’ frustration at not having sufficient outlets for their talents in Switzerland, Davis notes: “So tightly did the centuries of restriction, repression, and persecution . . . wind the spring of Guggenheim ambition that it would take many a generation before the spring would wind down, the momentum give out.” And Davis gives readers a fine sense of exactly how tightly wound that spring was in his portrait of Meyer Guggenheim, the son of Simon, who wasted little time before marrying and using his Philadelphia home base to painstakingly build an empire based upon stove polish, then lace, and, most importantly, mining. Barbara Guggenheim assisted in this empire building, giving Meyer eight sons, five of whom (Daniel, Murry, Solomon, Simon, and Isaac) would fashion the mining and smelting network of Guggenheim Brothers and American Mining and Smelting.

To Davis, Meyer remains the most astonishing member of an astonishing family—a man “never to be surpassed in . . . imagination, daring, cleverness, perseverance, industry, courage, energy, [and] faith.” Unfortunately, he also emerges as that stereotypical Jew of racist tracts: tightfisted, at times mean-spirited, cunning, avaricious, unsociable, and money-hungry. (Whether such a Shylock-like portrait does justice to Meyer is difficult to say, but one does want to know more than Davis provides about this fascinating man.)

Meyer blazed the financial trail for his sons, first investing wisely in skyrocketing ventures (the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, for one), then buying the right real estate: the “A. Y.” and “Minnie” silver mines of Leadville, Colorado. The latter paid off so fabulously that the...

(The entire section is 1522 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Business Horizons. XXI, October, 1978, p. 81.

Commentary. LXVI, July, 1978, p. 72.