On March 19,1905, a funeral service took place for Meyer Guggenheim, 79 years old, at Temple Emanu-El, the great Reform Jewish synagogue on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street. German Jews had established Temple Emanu-El, among whose congregants were some of the most important names in American business and finance. Present at Meyer's funeral, for example, were Seligmans, Lehmans, and Schiffs. Not so many years before, Irwin and Debi Unger tell us in their excellent new book "The Guggenheims: A Family History," (HarperCollins, 560 pages, $29.95) these German Jewish titans of finance had looked down upon Meyer.
Meyer, though a native speaker of German, was Swiss-German, not Prussian or Bavarian or Rhenish. He was an industrialist, which was not as decorous as being a banker or financier. He was, perhaps, not as cultured as the Seligmans or the Schiffs. But by the time of his death Meyer had built his business empire into something the others could not afford to look down upon. Indeed, a Seligman served as a pallbearer.
Meyer and Barbara Guggenheim had come to America in 1847, fleeing what was for Jews an oppressive climate. They settled in Philadelphia, where the hard-working Meyer prospered in a series of businesses, leading up to the mining and smelting that he became involved with beginning in 1879 and that was the source of the dynastic fortune.
Why do we love to read stories of family dynasties? The flip answer is that they are our pseudo-royal families, and we know how smitten Americans are with royalty. Then again, we like the inevitable intrigues, the way we liked "Dallas" or "Dynasty." But for the historian, there is something else. The dynastic saga shows us two things: the getting and the spending. Put less crassly, we get to observe how the family founder or founders built the fortune (always a fascinating thing). And we see how the heirs disposed of the fortune, whether in frivolous ways or, more compellingly, through collecting and philanthropy.
Many of our American dynasties came from humble origins - again, always a good story. Commodore Vanderbilt began as a rough farm boy from Staten Island. Meyer Guggenheim began just as humbly, and with an added burden: He was Jewish. The dynastic sagas of New York's Jewish families have proven uniquely compelling. Remember "Our Crowd" by Stephen Birmingham? It was the seventh-bestselling nonfiction title of 1967. There and elsewhere many people learned of how the elite Jewish families, excluded from the right clubs and the right schools, created their own parallel high society - and became New York's great patrons of the arts. That last, rather than smelting, is what most of us think of when we think of Guggenheims.
Meyer's son Daniel was born in Philadelphia in 1856. For 11 years he oversaw his father's lace manufactory in Switzerland, then switched gears by getting involved with the mining and smelting parts of the family businesses. M. Guggenheim's Sons built the world's largest smelter, in Pueblo, Colo., and, under Daniel's leadership, began smelting in Mexico. (Outsourcing internationally to avoid high labor costs is nothing new in American business.) The late 19th century was the age of consolidation. Trusts and conglomerates were the order of the day - Standard Oil, the Sugar Trust, U.S. Steel. Smelting was no different. The American Smelting and Refining Company was established in 1899 - at first without the all-important participation of the Guggenheims. As the trust faltered, the Guggenheims, again led by Daniel, were able to dictate their terms. After 1901, the trust, called ASARCO, became basically a Guggenheim family concern, with Daniel at the helm and four of his brothers on the board.
The Guggenheims, using ASARCO and the Guggenheim Exploration Company (Guggenex), went global, mining and smelting in North America (including Alaska),South America, and Africa. The Guggenheims were the great technological innovators in the field and worked closely with the leading investment banks of New York, including Kuhn, Loeb, and J.P. Morgan & Company. One of the Guggenheims' South American mines, in Chile, was the largest open-pit mine in the world. The Guggenheims were also notable for their innovations in the field of labor relations, as they experimented with using carrots rather than sticks to avoid labor unrest. Nonetheless, Daniel's ill-advised, large-scale foray into Chilean nitrates foundered on the rock of the Great Depression. Soon, the Guggenheim name was no longer synonymous with global mining.
Meyer's son Solomon was five years Daniel's junior. He worked in the lace business in Switzerland, then was the man on the scene in Mexico when M. Guggenheim's Sons decided to establish smelting operations there. Solomon endured harsh material privation as he explored and trekked through Mexico and struck bargains with politicians. He was also active in the Chilean and Alaskan ventures. His wife, Irene Rothschild (no, not those Rothschilds) got Solomon interested in art.
At first, from around the turn of the century, he collected along conventional lines - Renaissance and Barbizon paintings and such. This all changed in 1926, when he met the Baroness Hildegard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen. She convinced him of the value of abstract art - or what she, and he, called non-objective art. In a few years, Solomon sold off his Old Masters and bought non-objective (and other Modern) art. Into his collections poured Kandinskys, Mondrians, Picassos.
He and Rebay established the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Under Rebay's tutelage, Solomon hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new building for the museum. It gestated so long, however, that when finally it opened, in 1959, Solomon had been dead for 10 years.
The other Guggenheim known to all art lovers was Solomon's niece Peggy. (Her father Benjamin, a bit of an international playboy, perished on the Titanic: Those who saw James Cameron's movie remember Ben Guggenheim well.) Peggy was an iconoclast who took up with a succession of men (including Max Ernst) and lived a bohemian lifestyle. A rich bohemian, she bought paintings by artists she knew socially. For a time her Hilla Rebay, so to speak, was Marcel Duchamp.
In 1942, during the war years when New York became for the first time the artistic capital of the world, Peggy opened her pace-setting gallery, Art of Our Century, in a dramatic space designed by Frederick Kiesler on 57th Street. A few years later she installed her collection, rich in Surrealist and Cubist works, in a palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice, where it can be visited to this day.
But Peggy may be only the second most-interesting of the third generation of Guggenheims. Daniel's son Harry, born in 1890, attended Yale and Cambridge, and worked at the Aguascalientes smelter in Mexico. He strongly urged his father against the ill-advised nitrates adventure; unheeded, Harry left the family businesses to indulge his passion for aviation and aeronautics. Having come to this interest as a pilot in World War I, Harry became the patron of Charles Lindbergh and Robert Goddard as well as of the budding field of aeronautical studies in America, endowing departments at M.I.T. and Cal Tech - he helped to put Roswell, N.M., on the map. Later, Harry married Alicia Patterson, from the newspaper family. Harry and Alicia started their own daily, Newsday, and Harry also supervised the construction of Uncle Solomon's museum on Fifth Avenue.
There's much more to the Guggenheim story, and Irwin and Debi Unger are old hands at writing about history for a general readership. This, indeed, is a very difficult craft. Many historical and biographical works bury the reader in minutiae. Sometimes, we want and need this. I would not wish Leon Edel's biography of Henry James to be a word shorter. More often, however, writers can't bear not to use all the fruits of their research. The Ungers have a pitch-perfect sense of how much detail is too much detail, and their narrative moves more swiftly than any 550-page group biography has any right to. I came to this book with little knowledge of the family, and was duly stimulated in learning more to want to learn even more - the best function a book like this can fulfill.