Ten years ago, Barry E. Supple, an economic historian then teaching at Harvard, published a scholarly article1 which demonstrated that in the 19th century a significant share of American investment banking was concentrated in Jewish hands. In reviewing the history of such banking houses as Kuhn, Loeb; J & W Seligman; Goldman, Sachs; and Lehman Brothers, Supple drew attention to the fact that it was not only common for the children and relatives of the partners of a given firm to marry each other, but that marital alliances frequently occurred among, as well as within, the different Jewish banking houses.
Indeed, Supple’s careful analysis showed that the role of marriage in business went even further than this. The scions of banking families would marry the offspring of the owners of large German-Jewish companies in a variety of fields, and these companies—some of them later to become the country’s leading department stores and mail-order firms—would then raise capital through the banking houses with whom they had formed family connections. There were banking families, of course, which had even closer ties to the retailing business, having themselves engaged in it at one time. In fact, several of the most important banking houses were established by one or another Bavarian villager who began his American business career by carrying a pack on his back, and later graduated to a horse and wagon. Not all the Jewish banking houses, to be sure, could point to such Horatio-Alger beginnings; some were originated by immigrants who had served their apprenticeship as bankers rather than as peddlers. A few of the founders had come to America with wealth or connections, and others were assisted by European Jewish financiers (and in some cases served as their American representatives).
Students of American economic history had been aware of the Jewish role in banking long before Supple wrote his article. This role was an influential one because many of the country’s great corporations were dependent, especially during their infancy, on the financial resources which only the investment bankers were able to muster. The Jewish firms had no monopoly over corporate financing, for Gentile houses—led by Drexel, Morgan—controlled a substantial share of the banking business. The Gentile houses, however, lacked the network of kinship ties which Supple uncovered in his patient genealogical probing. This is not to say that Supple—who had been a student of R. H: Tawney—was interested primarily in genealogy. Rather, it was his intention to show that the Jewish firms, and not their Gentile counterparts, constituted the “ideal type” of business combination prior to the rise of the mammoth corporation. He was particularly impressed by the tightly knit social network created by the Jewish firms around family, temple, city clubs, and philanthropic organizations; and he viewed their clannishness as “a valid and often necessary means of creating an identity of interests and attitude most conducive to business activity and development.”
Neither the business nor the social historians—whether popular or academic—followed up on Supple’s investigations. Nor did any stimulus for further research come from Jewish communal bodies, notwithstanding the fact that the Jewish role in investment banking may represent the single most important Jewish contribution to American life (the only possible rival being the Jewish role in leftist politics). It was understandable, however, that Jewish organizations should not seek to encourage scholarship of a kind whose results might easily be used against Jews.
It was thus left to a non-Jewish publishing firm, Harper & Row, to pursue the possibilities of further work in this area. Roger H. Klein, a Harper & Row editor, acting with the endorsement of Cass Can-field, the head of the house, suggested to Stephen Birmingham—a non-Jew previously known mainly as a novelist—that he write the story of the German-Jewish upper class of New York City, with special emphasis on the great Jewish investment bankers. “Our Crowd”: The Great Jewish Families of New York2 is the result of Birmingham’s labors.
The obvious reason for the interest of Harper & Row in so apparently special a topic is that for nearly two decades Jewish subject-matter has been very popular among American writers and readers. Much of this fascination has been manifested in the area of fiction, where it has been nourished by a ready supply of Jewish novelists. There was good cause to suppose, then, that the interest of the public in Jewish subject-matter could be extended to non-fiction as well.
Yet however important such commercial considerations may have been, they do not fully explain the appearance of this particular book at this particular time. What, we must ask, gave a responsible editor the idea that Jews were ready for the same treatment accorded to the WASP upper class by writers like Cleveland Amory? The answer, probably, is that in the 1960’s the status of Jews within American society has reached new and previously unimaginable heights. As the reviewer of “Our Crowd” in the New York Times put it: “The credentials, status, and repute of American Jews have long awaited the confirmation of this history.” For a minority, recognition takes longer. And, sadly enough, the “confirmation” comes too late to benefit some of those Jewish families who once sought it so eagerly—they are now Gentile.
The reception which has been accorded “Our Crowd” shows that the subject was certainly ripe for exploitation. The book has been a best-seller for the past several months; indeed, it has been at the head of the non-fiction list for much of that time. What is more, no one has yet challenged the claim put forward by the book of an exalted social position for Jews. In fact, the opposite has been the case. Louis Auchincloss, who has devoted his talents to the delineation of the WASP upper class of the New York Metropolitan area, has even said that it is hard to understand why “Our Crowd” should only have been the first account of the Jewish upper class.
The public, too, has evidently been willing to accept Jews as legitimate members of the American upper class. But even this does not explain the widespread interest in “Our Crowd.” That interest, one imagines, is in large part a consequence of the fact that while Jews are now thought to be “legitimate,” they are not yet considered to be quite like everyone else; their being “different” makes their story that much more intriguing. The extravagances and eccentricities of millionaires are always fascinating, even to those who like to think of themselves as immune to the fantasies evoked by such sagas. But when the millionaires happen to be Jewish, a quality of mystery seems to attach to their lives which makes the resulting fantasy all the more elaborate and delightful.
Not only did the publishers choose the right subject for a best-seller; they also located the right author. Before writing “Our Crowd” Stephen Birmingham had produced five novels which, though not concerned with Jewish matters at all, had revealed an intense preoccupation with the problems of stratification in American society. He had shown himself especially intrigued by the established upper class—and by those who sought to join its ranks. Moreover, Birmingham is a clever and thoroughly professional writer; he knows how to tell a story and how to make good use of an anecdote.
His professionalism, however, has its dark side. Preoccupied with gaining and holding the reader’s interest, Birmingham evinces little concern for the serious implications of his material. And he never deigns to clutter his work with any scholarly apparatus; his footnotes supply additional anecdotes or information but never documentation for his text. At times, he even forgets that he is writing a book of non-fiction. Thus he quotes conversations between the Seligman brothers in the store they set up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1840; between Jacob Schiff and his son Mortimer in New York City a half-century later; and among dozens of other deceased members of “the crowd.”
Professional historians will smile at such procedures and at the publisher’s boast that Birmingham spent more than a year researching the book. Still, this racy account cannot be dismissed out of hand. It is more than a warmed-over version of what has previously appeared in print. Birmingham employed a researcher to dig out financial records and he himself interviewed both older and younger members of the families which comprised “the crowd.” He even succeeded in gaining access to hitherto unused family papers and unpublished autobiographies.
Members of some of the families described in “Our Crowd” charge that Birmingham did not make proper use of the material he gathered and that much of the book is inaccurate. According to them, the author gave undue weight to stories told him by unstable individuals with neurotic relationships to their families and ancestors. Such informants, it is claimed, had been waiting for a Birmingham to come along and give them the opportunity to settle old quarrels. Some members of “the crowd” therefore dispute many of the book’s tales about the chicaneries, indiscretions, and eccentricities of the various families, particularly their alleged desire to escape the mark of Jewishness. Even when the accuracy of an occasional story has been conceded, the admission has been coupled with an accusation that it nevertheless obscures the true character of the protagonist. There are descendants of “the crowd” who even suspect Birmingham of prejudice against Jews, and charge that his book has become a source of anti-Semitism.
Conferences between the families constituting “the crowd” and the publisher took place prior to publication of the book, and as a result Birmingham agreed to make a number of changes. Even so, feelings against him still run very strong. If the families finally decided to let the matter drop, it was certainly not because they were any less convinced that right was on their side, but because they were wary of the publicity that would result from a lawsuit. Then, too, they remembered the contretemps which surrounded the publication of another Harper & Row success, The Death of a President.
Anyone who writes about the rich has the opportunity to emphasize the foibles of the human species, and there can be no doubt that Birmingham availed himself of that opportunity to the fullest possible extent. For example, he recounts Washington Guggenheim’s theory of diet, which was based on the idea that charcoal and cracked ice had therapeutic value, and which led him to have his suit-jackets constructed with a zinc-lined pocket—so that he could always carry a supply of ice with him. But such a story proves nothing about “the crowd,” which always thought of the Guggenheims as queer and irresponsible anyway. More problematic—and more prone to give rise to resentment—are the stories Birmingham tells about Jacob Schiff. According to Birmingham, that most princely of philanthropists placed a record book next to the telephone in his home, requiring all members of his household to list their long-distance calls. Lest he be overcharged, Schiff periodically, and laboriously, checked the record book against his phone bill.
If accurate, such stories are unobjectionable and belong in a book of this type. They are, after all, the very stuff of life, and they can, in their own way, be quite instructive. Thus one can learn a good deal from the many anecdotes Birmingham retells about Felix Warburg’s difficulties with his father-in-law, Schiff. These difficulties sprang from Schiff’s extraordinarily intense attachment to his daughter Frieda. Adhering as he did to Jewish norms, Schiff could not deny marriage to his child, but he could, and did, resent the man who had won her hand. The conflict between the two men came to a head when Warburg decided, against his father-in-law’s will, to build his own home at 1109 Fifth Avenue (the building which now houses the Jewish Museum). Thereupon Schiff became so hostile that at one point Warburg was ready to resign his position at Kuhn, Loeb—the firm headed by Schiff.
Where more serious matters are concerned, however, the limits of Birmingham’s anecdotal method reveal themselves very clearly. One example is another story he tells about Felix Warburg. The latter considered it absolutely essential that his sons and nephews be educated at a proper New England prep school, in spite of the fact that most such schools—including Middlesex, the one he selected—demanded that their students attend compulsory chapel services. Since Warburg was an eminent leader of the Jewish community, his feelings about prep schools could provide spectacular evidence for the late Kurt Lewin’s notion that Jewish leadership tends to be “leadership from the periphery.” But Birmingham shows no interest whatever in this problem, nor does he provide the reader with adequate raw material for investigating it further. Instead there is a further anecdote: Warburg’s nephew, James Warburg, once expressed a desire to become a. rabbi, but by the time he graduated from Middlesex the ambition had left him. In what, if any, way was James Warburg’s education at Middlesex responsible for this change of mind? One is not told. And so it is with most of the important issues raised by some of the stories in the book.
At times, Birmingham’s anecdotal framework is worse than useless; it actually obscures the real story of the great Jewish families of New York. This can be seen from the contrast between the way Birmingham writes about Adolph Lewisohn and the treatment he accords Herbert Lehman. Birmingham dotes on Lewisohn, going into great detail about his fancy parties, his enormous tips to barbers, his tap-dancing lessons at the age of eighty, and his escapades as a playboy. About Herbert Lehman, however, one finds very little. The reason is obvious: Lehman lacks “color”; none of the parties he gave would hold a reader’s interest. Nevertheless, Lehman’s life is more representative than Lewisohn’s of the German-Jewish upper class, and far more appropriate as a case-study of the aspirations of that class.
One charge that has been made against “Our Crowd” is patently absurd. The book does not denigrate the German-Jewish upper class; its bias lies in quite the opposite direction. In fact, Birminham’s accuracy and motives are suspect precisely because he elevates the families to so lofty a plane. He states his guiding theme clearly at the beginning of the book:
These German Jewish families are more than a collective American success story. At the point in time when they were a cohesive, knit, and recognizably distinct part of New York society, they were the closest thing to Aristocracy—Aristocracy in the best sense—that the city, and perhaps the country, had seen.
For Birmingham, then, the German-Jewish families were the true aristocrats of their time because their way of life was morally superior to that of the Gentiles. Everywhere in this book he sees Jewish modesty in contrast to Gentile display, Jewish innocence in contrast to Gentile decadence, Jewish concern with community in contrast to Gentile concern with self. He approvingly quotes one of “the crowd” as follows:
Mrs. Astor’s sort of society was quite a different sort of thing from ours. You might say hers was the opposite. Hers was based on publicity, showiness, cruelty, and striving. Ours was based on family, and a quiet enjoyment of the people we loved.
(It may be a sign of the times that while expressions of ethnocentrism are increasingly difficult to evoke among Jews today, the notion of Jewish superiority should be so readily advanced by Gentiles.)
Why this emphasis on Jewish virtue? Birmingham, a firm believer in the aristocratic principle, is apparently troubled by the dry rot in the WASP establishment, and sees the Jews as a reformist influence. He believes that the Jewish example justifies the aristocratic principle by demonstrating that an aristocracy can deserve the privileges it arrogates to itself. Thus he views the Jew as a moral guide for a corrupt America. It is from the Jew that the Gentile can learn virtue; it is from the Jew, with his love of family, that the Gentile can learn to appreciate the pleasures of the simple life. Birmingham’s mission, as he sees it, is to bring the lives of some eminent Jews to public attention, so that they may serve as an example:
It was my feeling, when I considered this book, that such names as Lehman, Lewisohn, Schiff, Loeb, Warburg, Guggenheim, Seligman, Kahn, Straus, Goldman, and Sachs are nationally and in most cases, internationally known. They stand for banking and industrial efficiency, government service, philanthropy, and vast patronage of the arts, science, and education. And yet, due to a persistent reticence and unwillingness to boast—which in themselves are noble attributes—the men and women who made these names celebrated are little understood as human beings.
Yet even if one assumes that Birmingham’s high assessment of Jews is justified, one might still deny that Jewish superiority can serve as a relevant model for Gentile emulation. It would be possible, for instance, to argue that the virtue of the Jews stems not from their culture but from their minority position. Those who hold that Jewish political liberalism is a result of Jewish marginality rather than Jewish magnanimity might analyze the other desirable qualities of Jews—modesty, innocence, inconspicuousness, devotion to duty, concern with family and community—from the same perspective. Thus it might be maintained that Jewish insecurity imposes such binding psychological constraints as to produce a strong superego. (Some Jews, of course, have been able to “emancipate” themselves—including, for example, certain members of “the crowd”—and their families produced individuals whose decadence and irresponsibility were in no way inferior to anything the Gentiles had to offer.) If one can trace Jewish virtue to Jewish marginality, then Gentiles have nothing to learn from Jews.
It is not, however, necessary to confront Birmingham with the above position (admittedly a debatable one), for he does not ever offer any hard evidence to show that Jews are in fact superior to Gentiles. His reliance on anecdotes simply does not allow him to accumulate the necessary data for proving his case. We do know from other sources that Jewish philanthropy, and the communal organizations which the German-Jewish families helped to establish, were unique in the range and depth of their social services. But this is not enough to justify Birmingham’s claim that the German Jew is the true aristocrat. Indeed, such evidence as can be found in “Our Crowd “seems to contradict his assumptions on this score, for it appears that the German Jew, far from harboring proclivities to aloof aristocracy, had a tendency to integrate himself ever more closely into the general society—a tendency involving behavior the very opposite of what is expected of an aristocracy. For example, Birmingham mentions that one family instructed its chauffeur to avoid weaving in and out of Manhattan traffic. The family was not in this instance concerned about courtesy or safety, but merely wanted to avoid the charge that Jews are pushy. Birmingham also relates that:
James Speyer married a Gentile girl named Ellin Prince whose ancestry traced back to colonial days. He was so proud of his wife’s antecedents that, in his listing in Who’s Who, he included her parents’ names (including her mother’s maiden name). Yet his own parents’ names he omitted.
This is the deportment of a parvenu, not of an aristocrat. It is, of course, true that Speyer’s action is indicative of a psychological state so extreme that it must be classified as pathological. But it is also true that even well-meaning and balanced men among the German Jews felt a strong attraction to the world of the Four Hundred—an attraction that could not easily be squared with aristocratic demeanor.
The story I have cited of Felix Warburg’s desire to enroll members of his family in a fashionable prep school provides further evidence against Birmingham’s case. As long as the horizon of the German-Jewish upper class was limited to the Jewish community, that class was content with its own private schools (pre-eminently Dr. Sachs’s Collegiate Institute, established in 1871 by Julius Sachs, the scholarly son of the co-founder of Goldman, Sachs). Aristocratic behavior could be preserved in such a setting: the curriculum could reflect the group’s culture and aspirations, and the parents of the students were essentially equals. However, when the shift to Middlesex and similar schools took place, the Jew was transformed into an unequal. He had to knock on the door for admission; he had to repress the desire to protest against anything which displeased him; he had to make himself agreeable. In short, the Jew could no longer afford to practice the aristocratic virtues.
But then it must be realized that Birmingham, for all his advocacy of the aristocratic principle, at bottom wants Jews to be Gentile aristocrats; he does not approve of the Jew who wishes to be a Jewish aristocrat. Since he is not alone in this preference, his position is of more than casual interest. A few years ago, E. Digby Baltzell, in The Protestant Establishment, displayed the same orientation. Baltzell shares Birmingham’s admiration for Jews and he too ascribes great virtue to them, but as Richard L. Rubenstein has argued,3 he focuses his criticism on the rejection by the WASP establishment of the assimilating Jew, rather than on the treatment accorded to the Jew who wishes to preserve his separate identity. Both Baltzell and Birmingham view assimilation as the price the minority should be willing to pay for its acceptance by the majority. Thus, in their very criticism of the shortcomings of the WASP establishment, they reveal how deeply they share its assumptions.
Though Birmingham never confronts the question of assimilation directly, his feelings become apparent at crucial points in the book, especially when he discusses Jacob Schiff and Otto Kahn. These Kuhn, Loeb partners, inseparable in business, were radically different in personality and ideology. Schiff was ever the loyal Jew; his piety was the standard by which others in “the crowd” measured themselves. Kahn, by contrast, was the prototype of the marginal and assimilating Jew. He kept his children ignorant of their Jewish background, and if it had not been for the advent of Nazism he would have ended his life as a convert to Catholicism.
Birmingham portrays Kahn in a most favorable light. For example, Kahn’s handling of his relationship with the Metropolitan Opera strikes Birmingham as altogether correct and manly. Kahn had bought up such quantities of opera stock that he became the virtual owner of the organization, but he did not become so in order to make a profit. In fact, he gave the Opera a substantial contribution each year to help it meet its inevitable deficit. Working unceasingly for the welfare of the company, he made it the very center of his life. The energy which Schiff invested in Jewish philanthropic and communal endeavor, Kahn invested in the Metropolitan. But in spite of his utter and unrivaled devotion to the welfare of the organization. Kahn was denied a box in the Diamond Horseshoe—because he was Jewish. Birmingham approves of Kahn’s silence in the face of this flagrant act of discrimination, even as he approves of Kahn’s reaction to the offer of a box when it was finally tendered. Instead of rejecting that offer as too little and too late, Kahn accepted graciously. But he did not actually occupy the box; he explained that he would hold it for the use of foreign dignitaries visiting the city. According to Birmingham, this was probably the grandest gesture he could have made. “It contained tolerance, wit, and just the right touch of derision.”
While Birmingham always interprets Kahn’s behavior in the most favorable possible terms, he shows no such partiality to Jacob Schiff. He does, of course, pay tribute to Schiff’s exemplary record of philanthropy, and he marvels at Schiff’s courage in defending the Jewish cause. That courage was especially in evidence during World War I, when Schiff supported measures to provide Britain and France with financial aid but would not, even at the risk of being labeled pro-German, participate in the floating of Allied loans from which Tsarist Russia might benefit. Schiff simply refused to support a government which persecuted Jews. Kahn, on the other hand, had no such scruples—a fact which Birmingham overlooks. When Schiff offered to resign from Kuhn, Loeb rather than change his position on this issue, Kahn agreed that the firm should reject the resignation, but he immediately took charge of a public-relations campaign which was designed to repair the damage that had been caused by Schiff’s forthright position.
Schiff was the closest thing to an aristocrat that American Jewry has ever had, but Birmingham cannot accept him as such. This can be seen from his comments on a story he tells about Schiff. The latter’s son Mortimer had graduated from Dr. Sachs’s Collegiate Institute when he was barely sixteen. Schiff, who felt that the boy should not enter college immediately, was attracted—as his son-in-law was later to be—by the idea of sending him to prep school. He thought of enrolling “Morti” in Groton for a year and proceeded to communicate with the school’s headmaster, Endicott Peabody. In his letter, Schiff
. . . pointed out that Morti had been brought up “a conscious Jew,” and therefore would have to be excused from all religious and chapel activities. There followed what the family described as “an exchange of dignified and amiable letters” which ended up with “mutual agreement” that Groton was not the school for Morti.
Birmingham is amazed and chagrined by Schiff’s audacity:
Now, why Jacob Schiff would even for a moment have suspected that Groton might have been the school for Morti is, at first glance, unfathomable. The year was 1893, and Groton was only ten years old. It had been founded by Peabody on the theory that the traditions and tenets of the Episcopal Church, combined with those of the English public school, would be most likely to produce ideal “Christian gentlemen” in the United States. The words “Christian,” “Protestant Episcopal,” and “Church of England” reappeared dozens of times throughout the school’s prospectus; its first board of trustees included two bishops of the state of Massachusetts and a distinguished assortment of other Gentile Easterners, including J. Pierpont Morgan. Schiff must have known these things.
Schiff did indeed know these things and it is an indication of the contradictory pulls experienced by even the most intensely Jewish member of “the crowd” that he was at all interested in Groton. But surely Schiff’s action reveals nothing so much as that he felt himself to be—and was—an aristocrat. He had a long and notable family tree; he even looked upon the Rothschilds as well as the War-burgs as arrivistes. In his view, Groton should have been happy to enroll a Schiff, and to make the necessary accommodations for him.
Since Birmingham is not prepared to accept behavior that is both genuinely aristocratic and genuinely Jewish, he must ascribe a variety of low motives to Schiff. He therefore speculates that by writing to Peabody as he did, Schiff may have been trying to provoke an anti-Semitic incident which would not only allow him to emerge as a hero who fought prejudice, but would also strike a blow at J. P. Morgan, who was connected with Groton: “. . . Wall Street rivalries may also have been involved. . . . Schiff may have thought that Kuhn, Loeb could gain if its Gentile rival—Morgan—could be discredited.” Since Birmingham does not adduce a shred of evidence to support this line of reasoning, his speculations prove only one thing: that he cannot understand a Jew who has the temerity to make demands on the WASP establishment.
The era in which, according to Supple, the German-Jewish families created a network of relationships highly conducive to business activity has passed into history. The Jewish investment houses that have survived and prospered are no longer family firms; nor, indeed, are they run exclusively by Jews. And, due to the changing character of the American economy, even the most important of these firms wield nothing like their former power. Some members of the German-Jewish upper class still occupy prominent positions in these houses, but their authority—both in the world at large and in the Jewish community—is not to be compared with that of men like Schiff. Even in the area of philanthropy the role of “the crowd” has declined. For several decades now, no significant charitable project in the Jewish community has been able to base itself solely on the “network of relationships” of the old German-Jewish upper class.
It was inevitable that the position of that class should decline, for its dominance was based on social and economic conditions which no longer obtain. But what of its Jewish character? Some descendants of “the crowd” are no longer Jewish at all, their parents having assimilated completely or converted to Christianity, but those who are still Jewish have the awesome responsibility of determining what the nature of their group identity should be and what heritage they should pass on to the next generation.
In the past, much of the cohesiveness of “the crowd” was connected with Familiengefühl, but today “family feeling” constitutes a very shaky basis for preserving the identity of a group. Other factors also compound the difficulty confronting the upper-class German Jew in America when he attempts to resist assimilation. While long on family loyalty, the German Jew has always been short on religious enthusiasm. Moreover, his adherence to German culture has been dealt a severe blow by this century, and even his interest in philanthropy has created identity problems. With Jewish neediness on the wane, it becomes ever more difficult to justify the primacy of specifically Jewish charitable activities on purely humanitarian grounds. Gentile philanthropic organizations now vie for the participation of generous Jews, and the Jew’s reputation as a culture lover has led a growing number of orchestras, theater groups, and museums to invite Jewish collaboration. Needless to say, such collaboration is no longer purchased at the price Otto Kahn once had to pay.
Birmingham would probably claim that all this is for the best, so certain does he seem to be that everything is turning out well in this nation of immigrants; but those of us who have a different view of the proper place of minority groups in American society are not so optimistic. Birmingham quotes one of his informants as saying that the pattern of “the crowd” consisted of being “just a little bit Jewish.” For some decades such an improbable pattern was a viable one, but everything we know points to the fact that the era in which it was possible to be “just a little bit Jewish” is rapidly drawing to a close. Thus the most trying days for “the crowd”—and for all of American Jewry—may still lie ahead.
1 “A Business Elite: German-Jewish Financiers in Nineteenth Century New York” in Business History Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 2 (Summer 1957).
2 Harper & Row, 404 pp., $8.85.
3 “The Protestant Establishment and the Jews,” Judaism, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Spring. 1965), pp. 131-145.