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.
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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
A Family History
By orgin 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 the classic 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 ...The Guggenheims
A Family History. Copyright © by Debi Unger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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