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Guggenheims: A Family History

Guggenheims: A Family History

by Debi Unger, Irwin Unger
     
 

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A portrait of a great American dynasty and its legacy in business, technology, the arts, and philanthropy

Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant, founded a great American business dynasty. At their peak in the early twentieth century, the Guggenheims were reckoned among America's wealthiest, and the richest Jewish family in the world after the Rothschilds. They

Overview

A portrait of a great American dynasty and its legacy in business, technology, the arts, and philanthropy

Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss immigrant, founded a great American business dynasty. At their peak in the early twentieth century, the Guggenheims were reckoned among America's wealthiest, and the richest Jewish family in the world after the Rothschilds. They belonged to Our Crowd, that tight social circle of New York Jewish plutocrats, but unlike the others -- primarily merchants and financiers -- they made their money by extracting and refining copper, silver, lead, tin, and gold.

The secret of their success, the patriarch believed, was their unity, and in the early years Meyer's seven sons, under the leadership of Daniel, worked as one to expand their growing mining and smelting empire. Family solidarity eventually decayed (along with their Jewish faith), but even more damaging was the paucity of male heirs as Meyer and the original set of brothers passed from the scene.

In the third generation, Harry Guggenheim, Daniel's son, took over leadership and made the family a force in aviation, publishing, and horse-racing. He desperately sought a successor but tragically failed and was forced to watch as the great Guggenheim business enterprise crumbled.

Meanwhile, "Guggenheim" came to mean art more than industry. In the mid-twentieth century, led by Meyer's son Solomon and Solomon's niece Peggy, the Guggenheims became the agents of modernism in the visual arts. Peggy, in America during the war years, midwifed the school of abstract expressionism, which brought art leadership to New York City. Solomon's museum has been innovative in spreading the riches of Western art around the world. After the generation of Harry and Peggy, the family has continued to produce many accomplished members, such as publisher Roger Straus II and archaeologist Iris Love.

In The Guggenheims, through meticulous research and absorbing prose, Irwin Unger, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in history, and his wife, Debi Unger, convey a unique and remarkable story -- epic in its scope -- of one family's amazing rise to prominence.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A biography of an illustrious family can be like a cassoulet: lots of delicious bits that combine beautifully but no tastes that fully stand out. Such is the case with this remarkably researched history of the Guggenheims. Pulitzer Prize-winner Irwin Unger (The Greenback Era) and his wife, Debi (coauthor, with Irwin, of LBJ: A Life), assemble an extraordinary collection of letters, interviews, memos and contemporary documents to tell the story of the family's rapid rise and slow decline, a saga marked by a combination of "profound Americanism" and Jewish "old world heritage." The sheer size of the Guggenheim family-the Ungers note that the "legion" descendants of Meyer (1828-1905), the family patriarch, are "impossible" to follow through time-means that no one member of the clan stands out, though the feisty Harry, "fighting entropy" in the family for much of the 20th century, burns brighter than many of his relatives. The scintillating Peggy Guggenheim, known for her patronage of modern art and her robust sex life, gets ample play here, but her story is told more thoroughly in recent biographies by Anton Gill and Mary Dearborn. Readers looking for a broad, appetizing sweep of American life will find it here, but those hungry for sharp, burning flavors may skip to the next course. 16-page b&w photo insert not seen by PW. Agent, Alex Hoyt. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Sixth historical collaboration from the Ungers (LBJ, 1999, etc.): a scattershot group portrait of the Jewish-American dynasty that included major industrialists and patrons of the arts. The book's first and better half chronicles the Guggenheims' origins in Switzerland and their accumulation of substantial wealth from silver, copper, and other valuable ores after patriarch Meyer Guggenheim emigrated in 1848 to America. Meyer got the family into the mining and smelting business, insisting that all seven of his sons share equally in the responsibilities and rewards. Second son Daniel kept the fortune growing, and, by the standards of the time, the Guggenheims were humane employers, not only in the western US but also in Mexico and Chile. As Daniel's son Harry moved the family into aviation, publishing and philanthropy, the narrative loses its focus, attempting to cover too many relatives with widely divergent interests over several generations-a family tree is sorely missed. Daniel's younger brother Solomon and niece Peggy were pioneering advocates of modern art, and the Ungers capably sketch the pair's achievements without adding anything new to their biographies or to our understanding of their relationship with other Guggenheims. A plethora of further descendants with different last names (offspring of those neglected daughters) also get the thumbnail-sketch treatment, including Harold Loeb (model for the anti-Semitic caricature in The Sun Also Rises) and book publisher Roger Straus Jr. among those about whom we don't learn much new. The Ungers fail to give a sense of what the family dynamic was, other than being hard on girls, and it's particularly unsatisfying that they never addressthe question of why so many of the Guggenheims were married and divorced multiple times. Decent background on mining and other aspects of American society and industry early in the 20th century, but lacking a coherent thread to make sense of the Guggenheims' relationship to their nation or to each other.
BusinessWeek
“A richly developed portrait of the rise and decline of one of America’s best known social klans...a great tale.”
Booklist
“The best-informed account of the clan. . . . An engaging history of the famous family.”
Nicholas Fox Weber
“This fascinating family saga told with the brisk spirit of its subjects, evokes the strength necessary to create a dynasty.”
John C. Ensslin
“The stories [the Ungers] compile are a rich and fascinating tapestry.”
Leonard Dinnerstein
“I am enthralled. A page-turner. . . . What a palatable way to learn American history!”
Norman F. Cantor
“Indelible and intriguing . . . meticulously researched and very well written. An American saga.”
Robin Updike
“Fascinating...an engaging story recounted by the Ungers in fast-paced, well-documented style.”
Francis Morrone
“Excellent...pitch-perfect...their narrative moves more swiftly than any 550-page group biogrpahy has any right to.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060188078
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
01/18/2005
Pages:
560
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.43(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Guggenheims

A Family History
By Unger, Debi

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 0060188073

Chapter One

Beginnings

By origin the Guggenheims were Jews, and their Jewishness was an irreducible reality of successive family generations. In our own tolerant and apathetic era it is easy to underrate this fact. But for the many thousands of Jewish inhabitants of Christian Europe before our own time, it was almost as fundamental, as life-defining, as gender.

Nowhere in Europe, from Portugal to the Ural Mountains, from Scandinavia to the Italian boot, were Jews treated as equals of other men and women in medieval and early modern times. Everywhere they were "the other," the despised outsider. In an age when the afterlife was more important than the present one, the Jews were irremediably cursed because they were damned for denying Jesus. Why they were allowed to live at all requires an explanation. And, of course, at times they were slaughtered. In the 1090s, as the champions of Christ passed through the Rhineland to wrest the Holy Land from the infidel Muslims, they murdered Jews as a dress rehearsal. Jews were massacred during the Black Death, the mysterious pandemic that swept Europe in the midfourteenth century killing millions. Although they were equal victims, they were often held responsible for the calamity. In 1348 Swiss Jews were burned at the stake for infecting the wells with plague. Jews, in a word, were theclassic scapegoats who were punished when Christian society knew no other way to relieve fear, anger, and frustration.

Yet they were not exterminated. Christians were, of course, enjoined from taking innocent life, and at times Christian mercy triumphed over Christian execration. Moreover, the Jews, in the view of some theologians, must be preserved as witnesses to the truth of the Christian faith, and their final conversion was an essential precursor of the Second Coming and the End of Days. But besides, the Jews were useful. Like the pariah castes of India, they could perform services that others would not or could not. Jews were excluded from a wide array of customary occupations. They could not own land and so were kept from farming, preindustrial Europe's chief fount of income and wealth. Forbidden to take interest on loans, for centuries Christians relied on Jews to lend money. Jews were also permitted to engage in various despised trades. They could be itinerant peddlers of cheap wares; they could run taverns and distilleries. They were employed by the landed gentry in rural Europe to collect tenants' rents. They were tax farmers who collected official levies for a share of the amount collected. Many of these occupations seem exquisitely tailored to offend and provoke Christians. The Jews could be blamed for either corrupting or exploiting their clients and customers. These restrictions on Jewish occupations and enterprise confined them to the economic margins and ensured that all but a very privileged few would remain poor.

And the economic straitjacket was not the only affliction imposed on this accursed people. They were only marginally part of civil society. Virtually nowhere in Christian Europe were Jews held to be part of the body politic. They could not be enfranchised burghers in the cities; they could not hold public office; they could not bear arms; they often could not testify in court against Christians. They could not live where they wished. Many communities excluded them totally. Jews were expelled from England in 1290; from France in 1306. At the end of the fifteenth century a reunited Spain forced its Jewish population either to convert to Christianity or to depart the realm. Many of those who converted were deemed insincere and as crypto-Jews were condemned by the Inquisition and burned at the stake. Where Jews were not exiled they were confined to specified bounds. In the cities and towns, where most lived, they were forced into ghettos, often surrounded by walls, that they could leave only at restricted times. The authorities sought to limit the growth of the Jewish population by such intrusive means as limiting Jewish marriages and constraining house construction in the Jewish enclaves. But somehow the Jewish population grew and ghetto life became ever more congested, squalid, noisome, and toxic. As late as the early nineteenth century, Switzerland was among the less tolerant of the Christian communities. By 1490 Jews had been expelled from the original Swiss cantons. But several hundred lived in Baden, an earldom loosely attached to the Swiss Confederation. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Switzerland had been a crucible of the Protestant Reformation when, for the first time, the unity of West European Christendom was disrupted beyond repair. The Swiss eventually learned how to avoid costly conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but the Reformation did little to improve the lot of the country's few remaining Jews. The Jewish remnant lived in two communities, Lengnau and Endigen, German-speaking and predominantly Catholic small towns in northwest Switzerland in what became in 1803 the canton of Aargau. They were treated with barely disguised contempt and ruthlessly exploited. They were not citizens but belonged to a category of "Tolerated Persons Not to Be Expelled." In truth they were under constant threat of expulsion and were expected to pay for their residence right every sixteen years by purchasing a "Safe Conduct and Patronage Letter" at an exorbitant price. And they were milked in other ways. Limited in the occupations they could follow, many were peddlers who traveled through the region selling "notions," trinkets, and spices. For a permit to move from place to place they had to pay a "Jew Toll" and other fees to engage in their petty trade.

The Swiss did not practice genocide; extermination as public policy remained for our own more enlightened age. But the Swiss authorities, as others, sought to prevent any increase in the Jewish population. Poor Jews were not allowed to marry, and Jewish brides were required to have a dowry of at least 500 guldens. The housing shortage was another check on population growth of the detested aliens ... Continues...


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What People are saying about this

Leonard Dinnerstein
“I am enthralled. A page-turner. . . . What a palatable way to learn American history!”
John C. Ensslin
“The stories [the Ungers] compile are a rich and fascinating tapestry.”
Nicholas Fox Weber
“This fascinating family saga told with the brisk spirit of its subjects, evokes the strength necessary to create a dynasty.”
Robin Updike
“Fascinating...an engaging story recounted by the Ungers in fast-paced, well-documented style.”
Francis Morrone
“Excellent...pitch-perfect...their narrative moves more swiftly than any 550-page group biogrpahy has any right to.”
Norman F. Cantor
“Indelible and intriguing . . . meticulously researched and very well written. An American saga.”

Meet the Author

Together Irwin and Debi Unger have authored LBJ: A Life and several other books. They live in New York City.

Irwin Unger has won the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Greenback Era as well as two Guggenheim fellowships. Together Irwin and Debi Unger have authored LBJ: A Life and several other books.

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