In his acclaimed trilogy, author Stephen Birmingham paints an engrossing portrait of Jewish American life from the colonial era through the twentieth century with fascinating narrative and meticulous research.
The collection’s best-known book, “Our Crowd” follows nineteenth-century German immigrants with recognizable names like Loeb, Sachs, Lehman, Guggenheim, and Goldman. Turning small family businesses into institutions of finance, banking, and philanthropy, they elevated themselves from Lower East Side tenements to Park Avenue mansions. Barred from New York’s gentile elite because of their religion and humble backgrounds, they created their own exclusive group, as affluent and selective as the one that had refused them entry.
The Grandees travels farther back in history to 1654, when twenty-three Sephardic Jews arrived in New York. Members of this small and insulated group—considered the first Jewish community in America—soon established themselves as wealthy businessmen and financiers. With descendants including poet Emma Lazarus, Barnard College founder Annie Nathan Meyer, and Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, these families were—and still are—hugely influential in the nation’s culture, politics, and economics.
In “The Rest of Us,” Birmingham documents the third major wave of Jewish immigration: Eastern Europeans who swept through Ellis Island between 1880 and 1924. These refugees from czarist Russia and Polish shtetls were considered barbaric, uneducated, and too steeped in the traditions of the “old country” to be accepted by the well-established German American Jews. But the new arrivals were tough, passionate, and determined. Their incredible rags to riches stories include those of the lives of Hollywood tycoon Samuel Goldwyn, Broadway composer Irving Berlin, makeup mogul Helena Rubenstein, and mobster Meyer Lansky.
This unforgettable collection comprises a comprehensive account of the Jewish American upper class, their opulent world, and their lasting mark on American society.
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The Jews in America Trilogy
"Our Crowd," The Grandees, and "The Rest of Us"
By Stephen Birmingham
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Stephen Birmingham
All rights reserved.
"PEOPLE WE VISIT"
By the late 1930's the world of Mrs. Philip J. Goodhart had become one of clearly defined, fixed, and immutable values. There were two kinds of people. There were "people we visit" and "people we wouldn't visit." She was not interested in "people we wouldn't visit" When a new name came into the conversation, Mrs. Goodhart would want to know, "Is it someone we would visit? Would visit?" She had an odd little habit of repeating phrases. If one of her granddaughters brought a young suitor home, she would inquire, "There are some Cohens in Baltimore. We visit them. Are you one of them? One of them?"
Granny Goodhart's rules were simple and few. One's silver should be of the very heaviest, yet it should never "look heavy." One's clothes should be of the very best fabrics and make, but should never be highly styled, of bright colors, or new-looking. Mink coats were for women over forty. Good jewels should be worn sparingly. One hung good paintings on one's walls, of course. But that anyone outside the family and the "people we visit" should ever see them was unthinkable. (House and art tours for charity, where one's collection could be viewed by the general public, had not yet come into fashion in New York; if they had, Mrs. Goodhart would have considered it a dangerous trend.) She believed that little girls should wear round sailor hats and white gloves, and that boys should concentrate on Harvard or Columbia, not Princeton. Princeton had graduated too many people she did not visit.
She believed that good upholstery improved, like good pearls, with wearing. She did not care for Democrats because she had found most of them "not gentlemen." It was hard to reconcile this with the fact that her own brother, Herbert Lehman, was Democratic Governor of New York State and was associating with "people like Roosevelt." She had never visited the Roosevelts, and wouldn't if she had been asked. As a Lehman, she belonged to one of New York's most venerable Jewish families (her husband's family, the Goodharts, were not to be sneezed at either), and she was entitled to her views. And, since most of the people she visited, and who visited her, lived much as she did and felt as she did about most matters, she was able to move through her dowager years in an atmosphere of perpetual reassurance.
She was concerned with her friends' health in general and with her husband's in particular. She worried about his tendency to overweight. "Now I think, Philip, you will not have the fish soufflé the soufflé," she would say to him as the dish was passed to him. (But her maid, Frances, was on Mr. Goodhart's side; she always managed to slip a little on his plate.) Her husband often used the Wall Street Journal as a screen at the dinner table, and ate behind it.
There were few ripples in the pattern of her life. Once her cook broke her leg, and Granny Goodhart took to nursing the poor woman, who was well on in years herself and had been in the family "forever." Each night, at table, Mrs. Goodhart would deliver a report on the broken leg's progress. One night her husband said sharply, "Damn it, Hattie! You mustn't sympathize with her or she'll never learn!" Hattie Goodhart went right on sympathizing, of course, but stopped talking about it.
There were occasional other unsettling experiences. She and her friends did not believe in "making a point" of being Jewish, or of being anything, and sometimes this led to confusion. One of her Lehman sisters-in-law, a prominent Jewess like herself, was turned away from a hotel in the Adirondacks because, of all things, the hotel politely said it had a policy and did not accept gentiles! Then there was the visit from the young California psychologist. He was connected with the Institute of Behavioral Sciences, and had been conducting Rorschach tests with college students to determine their reactions to Adolf Hitler's anti-Jewish policies in Europe. Granny Goodhart met the young man in New York at the home of her daughter, Mrs. Frank Altschul. Everyone there was talking about what the young man was doing, and, after dinner, he offered to perform a few of his tests on the group. Granny took the Rorschach test, and — to the astonishment of everybody — it turned out that Granny was an anti-Semite!
Still, as one of the grandes dames of German Jewish society, Granny was admired and much loved by her friends. To her grandchildren she was a round little person smelling of wool and Evening in Paris who greeted them at the door with outstretched arms and peppermint candies clutched in both hands, and gathered them in. She may have had her ways, but at least she was true to them.
And, watching this doughty little lady walking slowly through the rooms of her house, it was possible — almost possible — to believe that Granny Goodhart's ways were eternal ways, and that hers was a world that had always been and would always be.
Most of the people Granny Goodhart visited lived within a clearly defined area — those blocks of prime Manhattan real estate between East Sixtieth and East Eightieth streets, bordered by Fifth Avenue, known in pre-Zip Code days as New York 21, N.Y. — in houses served, in the days before all-digit dialing, by Manhattan's "great" telephone exchanges: TEmpleton 8, REgent 2, RHinelander 4. It was a world of quietly ticking clocks, of the throb of private elevators, of slippered servants' feet, of fires laid behind paper fans, of sofas covered in silver satin. It was a world of probity and duty to such institutions as Temple Emanu-El (a bit more duty than devotion, some might say), that stronghold of Reform Judaism, and its rabbi, Dr. Gustav Gottheil, and duty to such causes as Montefiore and Mount Sinai hospitals, the Henry Street Settlement, and the New York Association for the Blind, whose annual ball is one of the great fixtures in the life of the Jewish upper class. For the children, it was a world of discipline and ritual — social as much as religious — of little boys in dark blue suits and fresh white gloves, little girls in dresses of fuchsia satin, learning to bow from the waist and curtsy at Mrs. Viola Wolff's dancing classes, the Jewish answer to Willie De Rham's. It was a world of heavily encrusted calling cards and invitations — to teas, coming-out parties, weddings — but all within the group, among the people Granny Goodhart visited, a city within a city.
It was a world of curious contradictions. It held its share of decidedly middleclass notions (dry-cleaning did not really clean a dress, no matter what the advertisements said — every young girl was taught this), and yet it was also a world of imposing wealth. Granny Goodhart's lifetime spanned an era, from the Civil War days into the 1940's, when wealth was the single, most important product of New York City. It was an era when Fifth Avenue was still a street of private houses, and the great mansions to which everyone was periodically invited included Otto Kahn's sprawling palace, Jacob Schiff's castle, the Felix Warburgs' fairy-tale house of Gothic spires. It was a world where sixty for dinner was commonplace (it was Otto Kahn's favorite number), and where six hundred could gather in a private ballroom without crowding. It was a world that moved seasonally — to the vast "camps" in the Adirondacks (not the Catskills), to the Jersey Shore (not Newport), and to Palm Beach (not Miami) — in private railway cars. A total of five such cars was needed to carry Jacob Schiff and his party to California. Chefs, stewards, butlers, valets, and maids traveled with their masters and mistresses, and a nurse for each child was considered essential. Every two years there was a ritual steamer-crossing to Europe and a ritual tour of spas.
Yet it was not particularly a world of fashion. One would find The Economist, Barron's, and the Atlantic Monthly on the coffee table more often than Vogue or Town and Country. One would expect to find a collection of Impressionist paintings, or of fine books, rather than elaborate furs or jewels. One worried about being "showy," and spared no expense to be inconspicuous. Granny Goodhart's sister-in-law was the daughter of Adolph Lewisohn, a man who spent $300 a month for shaves alone. To keep his Westchester estate from being an eyesore to his neighbors, he employed thirty fulltime gardeners to manicure his acreage and nurse his fourteen hothouses. He was so determined that his parties be in the best of taste — for years his New Year's Eve ball in his Fifth Avenue house was one of the largest in the city — that, to keep his cellars supplied with the best wine and spirits, he ran up an average bill of $10,000 a month. And yet, at the same time, he had become interested in prison reform. When not giving dinner parties for his friends, he could be found at Sing Sing, dining with this or that condemned man in Death Row. He gave the stadium that bears his name to City College because, as he put it, "They asked me to."
Mr. Lewisohn's friend and neighbor, Felix Warburg, had a squash court in his city house, another in his country house — which also had a polo field — a yacht, a full Stradivarius string quartet, and a set of black harness horses identically marked with white stars on their foreheads. When Mr. Warburg was depressed, he had a gardener build him a platform high in a tree; from there, Warburg would consider the possibility of clearing another of his famous "vistas" from the surrounding woods. Yet he was so inordinately domestic that, upon checking into a hotel room in a foreign city, the first thing he did was to rearrange the furniture into the coziest possible "conversational groupings." He liked to give away a million dollars at a clip to a list of some fifty-seven different charities, and yet when his children asked their father how much money he had, he would make a zero with his thumb and forefinger. It was a world, in other words, that gave equal weight to modesty and dignity as to pomp, comfort, and splendor. Jacob Schiff, for whom one private Pullman was seldom ample, could therefore send his son home from a party because the boy's suit was too "flashy."
Mr. Willie Walter, whose daughter was married to Granny Goodhart's son, owned a custom-built Pierce-Arrow which he kept constantly replenished with new Packard engines. An astonishing piece of machinery, it was tall enough for a man to stand in. Mr. Walter suffered from glaucoma, and believed that it was the result of striking his head on the ceiling of a low car. There was, therefore, a practical reason for the automobile's imposing proportions. The tallest car in New York was always driven with its window shades down, and, both inside and out, its decor was restrained; every bit of chrome was oxidized so that it would have no glare, out of consideration for Mr. Walter's sensitive eyes. Though the Pierce-Arrow could be seen coming from blocks away, its head high above the heads of others, Mr. Walter also believed that toning down the car's trimmings made it less "conspicuous." (After Willie Walter's death, his heirs sold the Pierce-Arrow to James Melton, a classic-car enthusiast; Melton painted it, polished it, added all sorts of shiny gadgetry, and sold it to Winthrop Rockefeller, who added even more. You should see it now.)
To the city outside, this world seemed exotic and remote. It was envied misunderstood, resented, but more often than not it was simply ignored, which was exactly what members of the Jewish upper class preferred. Overlooked, the group flourished and grew. It developed an outer shell that was opaque and impervious to prying. Within, a territory existed as intricately designed and convoluted as a chambered nautilus, a particular principality cloistered inside the world of the very rich. To those who lived there, it was all there was. It was New York's other Society — a citadel of privilege, power, philanthropy, and family pride. What was not so apparent was that it was also a citadel of uncertainty and fear. Under the seemliness there was bitterness, jealousy, warfare — no more and no less than in any society. One had to be brought up in the castle to realize that. For even murder, when it occurred, was politely kept "within the family."
Among the people Granny Goodhart visited were the Loebs, Sachses, Guggenheims, Schiffs, Seligmans, Speyers, Strauses, Warburgs, Lewisohns, and of course other Lehmans and Goodharts. There were also the Baches, the Altschuls, the Bernheimers, Hallgartens, Heidelbachs, Ickelheimers, Kahns, Kuhns, Thalmanns, Ladenburgs, Wertheims, Cahns, Bernhards, Sheftels, Mainzers, Stralems, Neustadts, Buttenwiesers, Josephthals, Hellmans, Hammersloughs, Lilienthals, Morgenthaus, Rosenwalds, Walters, and Wolffs. With the exception of the Guggenheims — who came from Germanspeaking Switzerland — all these families trace their origins to Germany (a surprising number to Bavaria). They have referred to themselves as "the One Hundred," as opposed to "the Four Hundred." They have been called the "Jewish Grand Dukes." But most often they have simply called themselves "our crowd."
The men of our crowd made their fortunes as merchants or bankers or — in the now somewhat antique phrase — as "merchant bankers." Their business monuments include R. H. Macy & Company (Strauses), Abraham & Straus (Abrahams, Strauses, and Rothschilds —"the Brooklyn branch" of the European Rothschilds), and a number of celebrated investment and banking houses in Wall Street, including Lehman Brothers; Hallgarten & Company; Speyer & Company; Kuhn, Loeb & Company; Goldman, Sachs & Company; J. & W. Seligman & Company; J. S. Bache & Company; and Carl M. Loeb, Rhoades & Company. Families such as the Lewisohns and Guggenheims, whose fortunes are usually associated with mining and smelting, also maintained banking houses downtown. Some families, such as the Wertheims, moved from manufacturing (cigars) into banking (Wertheim & Company).
For a long time you either belonged to "our crowd" or you didn't. For several generations the crowd was strikingly intramural when it came to marriage, making the crowd — to the larger crowd outside it — seem so cohesive and tight-knit as to be impenetrable. The "people we visit" became also the people we married. In the first American generation, a number of founding fathers married their own close relatives. Joseph Seligman and his wife were first cousins, and in the next generation Joseph's brother's daughter married Joseph's sister's son. Meyer Guggenheim married his stepsister, and a Lewisohn married his own niece — and had to go to Europe to do it since such a union was, at that time, against the law in the United States — and as a result of this match he became a great-uncle to his children and his brother's son-in-law. Three Seligman brothers married three sisters named Levi; several other Seligmans married Walters, and several married Beers. The Seligmans also followed the Jewish practice of offering widows in the family to the next unmarried son, by which process several women became double Seligmans. Double cousinships abound. Seligmans have also married Hellmans, Loebs, Lewisohns, Lilienthals, Guggenheims and Lehmans; Lehmans, who have married first-cousin Lehmans, have in addition married Lewisohns, Buttenwiesers, and Ickelheimers; Ickelheimers have married Stralems; Stralems have married Neustadts; Neustadts have married Schiffs; Schiffs have married Loebs and Warburgs; Warburgs have married Loebs, who, of course, have married Seligmans.
Today the intermarriage within the crowd presents a design of mind-reeling complexity. But envision a dewy cobweb in the early morning on a patch of grass. Each drop of dew represents a great private banking house; the radii that fan out are sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, and the lacy filaments that tie the whole together are marriages. Kuhn, Loeb & Company was originally composed of a particularly tight network of love — with Kuhn and Loeb (who were brothers-in-law) both related to Abraham Wolff, another K-L partner whose daughter married yet another partner, Otto Kahn. A Loeb son married a Kuhn daughter, and another Loeb daughter married another partner, Paul Warburg, while Jacob Schiff's daughter Frieda married Paul Warburg's brother Felix (a partner too). This turned an aunt and her niece into sisters-in-law, and made Paul his brother's uncle.
At Goldman, Sachs, two Sachs boys married Goldman girls, and another Goldman girl married Ludwig Dreyfus (a G-S partner), who was related by marriage to the above-mentioned Loebs, and a Sachs daughter married a Macy's Straus, while another Sachs daughter married a Hammerslough whose sister was married to a Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Company. (Not surprisingly, when Sears puts a new stock issue on the market this is done by Goldman, Sachs & Company.)
Excerpted from The Jews in America Trilogy by Stephen Birmingham. Copyright © 1984 Stephen Birmingham. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- “Our Crowd”
- Title Page
- Part I A Particular Principality
- 1 “People We Visit”
- Part II Out of the Wilderness (1837–1865)
- 2 “Mount Seligman”
- 3 “Mount Beautiful”
- 4 On the Road
- 5 Mrs. Rankin’s Galoshes
- 6 On to the City
- 7 Matters of Status
- 8 Matters of Style
- 9 To the Gold Fields
- 10 “This Unholy Rebellion”
- Part III Into the Mainstream (1866–1899)
- 11 Peddlers in Top Hats
- 12 The “Our Dear Babette” Syndrome
- 13 “Getting Our Feet Wet”
- 14 “The D—d Railroads!”
- 15 “My Bank”
- 16 The Assimilationists
- 17 “The Haughty and Purse-Proud Rothschilds”
- 18 The Seligman-Hilton Affair
- Part IV The Age of Schiff
- 19 “A Complex Oriental Nature”
- 20 “Your Loving Kuhn, Loeb & Company”
- 21 The Emerging Giants
- 22 Mr. Schiff vs. Mr. Loeb
- 23 Portrait of a Father
- 24 The Mittelweg Warburgs
- 25 Marriage, Schiff Style
- 26 “The Battle of the Giants”
- 27 “Der Reiche Lewisohn”
- 28 The Poor Man’s Metal
- 29 Further Adventures Underground
- 30 Twilight of a Banker
- 31 The Ladies
- 32 Sons, Doubters, Rebels
- 33 Elberon, and Points North and South
- 34 The Guggenheim-Lewisohn Battle
- 35 Monsieur Journet’s Nightgown
- 36 The Great Battle of 1109 Fifth Avenue
- 37 “Witty and Interesting Personalities”
- 38 The Equitable Life Affair
- 39 “I Enclose My Check for $2,000,000 …”
- 40 The “Sinister Transmutation”
- 41 Calamities and Solutions
- 42 The Rise of a House of Issue
- 43 “Pflicht und Arbeit”
- Part V New York 21, N.Y.
- 44 The End of a Line
- 45 The Fall, and After
- 46 The End of a Dream
- 47 Where Are They Now?
- 48 “Familiengefühl” … and No Bare Feet at Dinner
- The Grandees
- Title Page
- Author’s Note
- 1 The Book
- 2 Who Are They?
- 3 “Not Jewels, But Jews …”
- 4 The Twenty-Three
- 5 “These Godless Rascals”
- 6 Little Victories
- 7 “Gomez, the Onions Begin to Smell!”
- 8 “Make Your Way to the Windward Coast of Africa”
- 9 Allarums and Ravages
- 10 Misalliances and Misunderstandings
- 11 First Ladies
- 12 Legends and Legacies
- 13 The Firebrand
- 14 The New Jews Versus the Old
- 15 The U.S. Navy Surrenders at Last!
- 16 The Jewish Episcopalians
- 17 “Nathans Don’t Cheat”—But Do They Kill!
- 18 “Cardozos Don’t Cry”
- 19 The Embattled Sisters
- 20 “Foul Deeds”
- 21 “An Altogether Different Sort”
- 22 Small Gestures … and a Hush at Chatham Square
- Image Gallery
- “The Rest of Us”
- Title Page
- Part One: Beginnings: 1880–1919
- 1. Uptown Firebrand
- 2. Why they Came
- 3. A Jewish Cinderella
- 4. An Occupation for Gentlemen
- 5. Heroes and Heroines
- Part Two: Getting out: 1920–1950
- 6. The Jewish Lake and Other Creations
- 7. Fitting In
- 8. Minstrels and Minstrelsy
- 9. High Rollers
- 10. Little Caesars
- 11. Deals
- 12. War
- 13. At Last, a Homeland
- 14. Touches of Class
- 15. All That Money Can Buy
- Part Three: Here we are: 1951–
- 16. Crown Princes
- 17. Witch-Hunting
- 18. “People who are Solid”
- 19. From Poland to Polo
- Image Gallery
- Source Notes
- Selected Bibliography
- About the Author