April 16, 2009
Immigrant’s Magic Touch Brought ‘Gold’ to Southland
Through Frances Dinkelspiel’s literary blog, Ghost Word (francesdinkelspiel.blogspot.com), I kept up with the progress of her biography of Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant who arrived in California in 1859 from Bavaria. As with many immigrants, Hellman had very little money; however, by the end of his life, he had transformed Los Angeles into a modern city and helped California become an economic power.
Hellman had a hand in almost everything from oil to banking, from the Los Angeles Times to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, from USC to the UC system. His reach was startling, his ingenuity and energy awe-inspiring. But in many ways, he exemplifies the classic rags-to-riches narrative that immigrants to this day strive to emulate as they seek to achieve the American Dream.
As the great-great-granddaughter of this extraordinary man, Dinkelspiel has a special connection to Hellman’s life and legacy. Her years of research and hard work have resulted in the newly released biography, “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95). Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society, Dinkelspiel will speak in Los Angeles on Sunday, April 26 at Hellman’s historic Farmers & Merchants Bank downtown. In advance, she kindly took time from her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about the book.
Daniel Olivas: What do Isaias Hellman’s life and contributions tell you about the immigrant experience, in general, and the Jewish immigrant experience, in particular?
Frances Dinkelspiel: Isaias Hellman was able to pair his particular financial genius with a time of spectacular opportunity. Clearly, not every immigrant was as successful as Hellman, but my research reinforced my sense that the United States, for all its problems, really has a fluid society that does reward those who work hard and persevere.
DO: Hellman’s impact on California’s economy and culture was (and is) truly remarkable. As your research progressed, were you ever shocked that this one man did so much?
FD: I went through more than 50,000 pages of Hellman’s private letters, personal correspondence, diary entries, business receipts and telegrams to research “Towers of Gold.” I was continually astounded that he was involved in so many different businesses. I remember combing through those documents and being surprised to learn that he dominated banking and transportation in Los Angeles, served as a UC regent and loaned money to kick-start the oil industry. But he kept on doing things! It seemed as if he never stopped. In 1901, Hellman seized control of California’s wine business. Then he became a huge bond dealer. Hellman truly had a broad reach and a magic touch.
DO: What was the most interesting thing you learned about Hellman during your research?
FD: Probably the close connection he had with his brother-in-law, Mayer Lehman, one of the founders of Lehman Brothers. The two men married sisters (Hellman married Esther Newgass and Lehman married Babette Newgass). They wrote to each other frequently about business deals and family matters. It was fascinating to see how this personal relationship extended into the world of finance. When Hellman’s bank shut its doors because of a bank run in 1875, Lehman loaned Hellman $20,000 to reopen. When Hellman purchased the Nevada Bank in 1890, Lehman Brothers invested $150,000. Their relationship is an excellent example of the networks that Jews set up to succeed in the United States.
DO: Hellman founded Farmers & Merchants Bank in downtown Los Angeles, just one block from my office. I see it almost every day when I go out to eat lunch or grab a cup of coffee. How do you feel when you see a building that Hellman helped build?
FD: Every time I drive around Los Angeles or San Francisco, I look at the streets and see them through a 19th-century prism. I keep exclaiming to myself, “That’s where Hellman’s house was!” or “This is where some of his rancho land was!” I still get a thrill making those connections that cross centuries.
Frances Dinkelspiel will speak at Isaias Hellman’s landmark 1905 Farmers & Merchants Bank, Fourth and Main streets, on Sunday, April 26, at 3 p.m. For more information, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.
For more information, visit http://www.jewishhistoricalsociety.org, or call (323) 761-8950.
Daniel A. Olivas is the author of four books and editor of “Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature” (Bilingual Press/Arizona State University, 2008). His poetry is featured in “A Poet’s Haggadah: Passover Through the Eyes of Poets” (AGNP, 2008) edited by Rick Lupert. He is an attorney with the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles.