Sunday, March 1, 2009

St. Martin’s Press, $29.95, 376 pages, illus.

In tough economic times like the present, that truly “try men’s souls,”… it is customary to look to the past for some sort of balm. Too often, this takes the form of finding other periods when unwise actions and rampant speculation led to disaster. But it is a cold sort of comfort to deal with today’s turmoil only by pointing to past suffering. How much more salutary to seize upon the odd counterexample hidden in the interstices of history: A story of how the always sound principles of prudence, honesty and general probity can lead to the creation of real wealth and prosperity, not only for the possessor of these virtues, but for society as a whole.

By telling the now largely forgotten story of her great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, California journalist Frances Dinkelspiel, has managed not only to illuminate a prime example of this phenomenon, but also to do so at just the time when the values he personified need urgently to be emulated. This author has an understandable familial pride in the ancestor of whom she knew relatively little before she started researching “Towers of Gold.” But her research has indeed been prodigious and her text is thoroughly convincing to the reader; indeed by the time one has finished reading her account, bolstered by a wealth of footnotes, even her book’s subtitle, with its seemingly hyperbolic claim that one Jewish immigrant “created California,” seems astonishingly justified and surely apt.

In fact, the most surprising thing that emerges about Hellman from this book’s account of all he achieved is that someone who really did play such a substantive, nay gargantuan, role in so central an arena of American history could have remained so hidden from view. After all, there has been book after book about all the robber barons… whom history has dubbed the… founding fathers of California’s economic might. It is only just that some attention be paid to the man whose banking skills lay behind many of the actual achievements of these terrible titans. One example is Hellman’s involvement in financing Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric network of trolley cars crisscrossing greater Los Angeles. Huntington based his scheme on “the hopes [for] the rapid development of property and corresponding increase in value [that] are very high.” Sound familiar? But Hellman was a tough-minded skeptic. Not for him ever increasing velocity without due care: He sold off his investments in the ultimately doomed network, citing his estimable lifelong credo:

“I am not a speculator. I am strictly an investor, and I have all my life paid for things as I go along. I never borrow money. It is against my principles, and that is the reason that I could not stay with all those rich fellows that are building railroads all over Southern California.”…

He may not have made as much money as “all those rich fellows,” but in the end he probably contributed at least as much as… they did to the development of Southern California, and indeed of the state as a whole.

The list of what Hellman did achieve is breathtaking. He founded Los Angeles’ first real financial institution, the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and later developed Wells Fargo into one of California’s — and the nation’s — major banks, still standing tall today when so many have perished. He was instrumental in bringing the Southern Pacific railroad to Los Angeles and then invested in the beginnings of large scale agribusiness whose produce could now be transported to the huge markets expanding throughout the United States and beyond.

He financed the successful exploration for oil in California and the giant company that became Unocal. He developed the Californian wine industry and dominated it for many years. And as for Los Angeles institutions, he had a hand in founding everything from the University of Southern California to the Wilshire Boulevard Reform Jewish Temple, to say nothing of establishing The Los Angeles Times. And not just in the private sector either: He served as an early regent of the groundbreaking University of California. Indeed, perhaps the greatest tribute to his success is that in having put Los Angeles and its environs front and center on the state and national scene, he had himself become such an important figure that the region was simply too small for him. He had to relocate to the Bay Area in Northern California, where he continued to make his mark in the state’s vital financial center.

Impressive as are Hellman’s commercial and financial achievements, they might not in themselves have made for a very colorful book. Although a man of great virtue and probity, his personal life was fairly sedate — entirely admirable but not exactly exciting. But never fear, Ms. Dinkelspiel has produced a book full of incident and never dull. Her description of the Los Angeles to which Hellman came as a young immigrant just before the Civil War is in itself worth the price of the book: A desert pueblo with a population of little more 4,000 subject to plagues and natural disasters of truly biblical proportions. She is good, too, at bringing to light little remembered chapters in Californian history like the fact that although there was little sympathy with slavery, states’ rights divided the newly admitted entity along the same geographical lines as the union itself on the question of whether to secede.… And even with more well-worn topics,… her account of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake is as thrilling as it is fascinating, not least for what she reveals of Hellman’s role in getting the city back on track financially and in other ways.

In the end, “Towers of Gold” is most valuable for the financial virtues it extols and for reminding us of a man who really did know how to create wealth honestly. What better counterpoint could one find to someone in today’s headlines like Jack Madoff?… When Hellman died in 1920, he left behind a world truly enriched, not only by what he had done but also by what he had been.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide