Monday, April 6, 2009

Review: Towers of Gold

It beggars the imagination to think of the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles as a frontier town of 4,400.  But when Isaias Hellman arrived from Bavaria in 1859, Los Angles was a tiny pueblo, slow to transition from Mexican to American sovereignty. The gold rush – and later silver rush – that enticed thousands of people to Northern California and transformed San Francisco into a glittering modern city had almost no effect on tiny, isolated Los Angeles. Landing in the mudflats of San Pedro, 20 miles from Los Angeles proper, a 16-year-old Hellman set out to make his fortune, free from the religious restrictions that had limited his opportunities back in Germany.

In Towers of Gold, Frances Dinkelspiel explores the history of California, using Hellman – her great-great-grandfather – as a compass.  As the subtitle explains, this is the story of “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California.”  Hellman soon outgrew his modest storefront, and eventually Los Angeles, going on to become a San Francisco-based banker and financier with his hand in the industries that shaped California.  Dinkelspiel’s summation also provides her outline:
From humble beginnings, Isaias had grown to be a banker with international statute, a man noted for his fiscal sobriety and his canny instincts for a good business deal. By bringing capital to the frontier, Isaias had come to symbolize the opportunities available in the West. He not only had grown enormously wealthy, but had helped create a state that was an economic powerhouse, an engine that drove the national economy. He played a major role in the creation of two cities, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the development of eight industries – banking, transportation, oil, water, wine, land evelopment, electricity, and education.
The book moves along at a good clip, written in a clear, journalistic style that reflects Dinkelspiel’s decades in the newspaper business.  Although Dinkelspiel is related to Hellman, Towers of Gold is no mere family memoir, of interest only to Hellman’s scattered descendants.  She keeps her eye on the bigger picture, looking first at economically significant events such as bringing the railroad to Los Angeles, starting the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and the University of California in Berkeley, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the discovery of oil in Southern California, and then explaining Hellman’s significant role in each of these events.

Dinkelspiel knew little of her forefather, other than that he had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank, before she started poking around in the California Historical Society looking for genealogical material on her family.  Over forty cartons of archived materials later, Dinkelspiel understood the scope of Hellman’s involvement in setting the foundations of California’s economy.  She ultimately reviewed more than 50,000 pages of primary source material held in archives and by distant relatives – and even traveled to Hellman’s hometown of Reckendorf, Bavaria – working for almost ten years to distill an enormous amount of information into a cohesive, hugely entertaining story of California’s history. 

Despite the mountains of source material, the book has a few thin spots, mostly concerning Hellman’s family and religious life.  It could be that Dinkelspiel, in her effort to give the book broader appeal, omitted purely personal details; or that the surviving records have more to do with Hellman’s business dealings than his personal life.  But seeing what Dinkelspiel was able to do with dry economic data – making even municipal bond offerings and the standardization of trolley track gauges interesting – it is a shame to miss out on any details, no matter why.

What personal anecdotes Dinkelspiel includes are highlights of the book, such as the story of how Hellman’s family left San Francisco immediately after the earthquake.  Piling grandchildren and a pregnant daughter-in-law into one new-fangled automobile, servants following in a horse drawn carriage, and Isaias and his wife chauffeured in their new Peerless, the family traveled most of a day down the peninsula, across the southern end of San Francisco Bay, and up the shore to their summer house in Oakland.  Details such as these bring new life to the familiar earthquake story.  Which is why a lack of personal details in other areas is noticeable.

Most conspicuous in its absence – although more when pondering the book afterwards than during the reading – is a more definitive explanation of whether and how Hellman’s religion limited his role in California’s development or as a national financier.  Dinkelspiel’s premise is that frontier California was more welcoming and more religiously tolerant than Europe, or even America’s East Coast.  Hellman and other Jews were accepted at the highest levels of Los Angeles and San Francisco business and government.  At least at first. In her Introduction, Dinkelspiel hints at changes in this welcoming attitude:
[F]rom the start, these Jews were accepted an integrated into society. They were elected to public office, built their homes alongside their Christian neighbors, and became the established mercantile elite. In both San Francisco and Los Angeles, Jews were community leaders. It was not until the 1890s that intransigent anti-Semitism gripped California. And while barriers were erected after then, the Jews had already indelibly shaped the state.
Throughout the book, Dinkelspiel provides several examples of anti-Jewish prejudice, including derisive name calling in the press, verbal attacks, and exclusion from private clubs.  But other than a couple of paragraphs suggesting that an influx of white, Protestant Midwesterners “diluted the multicultural population” and that orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe refused to assimilate like earlier German Jews, Dinkelspiel does not examine the “intransigent anti-Semitism” she proclaimed in the opening pages. A thorough discussion of anti-Semitism in early 20th Century California may be beyond the scope of her book; but by raising the specter early on, Dinkelspiel leaves her readers hanging when she fails to bring resolution to the issue.

 But such criticism is merely picking at loose threads. Dinkelspiel’s book is as enjoyable and lively a history of America’s largest state as one can hope to find.  Towers of Gold deserves a top spot on any To Be Read list.  


Internet Review of Books (first posting of my review)

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This was my "gold" pick for the Colorful Reading Challenge.

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