A Family History
By Irwin Unger and Debi Unger
HarperCollins; 550pp; $29.95
The Good A rich portrait of one of America's best-known clans.
The Bad Little social context, some characters are of little interest.
The Bottom Line A worthwhile account for buffs of the rich and famous.
He started out like hundreds of other mid-1800s immigrants to the U.S., hawking wares from a wagon in Philadelphia and in nearby towns. A big seller was stove black, used to cover up scrapes and rust on cast-iron furnaces. Before long he devised his own, less messy formula -- composed of black lead mixed with soap -- and he and his father began producing the stuff in quantity, using a converted sausage machine to extrude it into paper packets. The experience provided Meyer Guggenheim with the principles that informed the remainder of his life: better to produce than merely sell, better to keep everything in the family.
Paterfamilias Meyer is a towering figure in Irwin and Debi Unger's The Guggenheims: A Family History, an exhaustive, richly developed portrait of the rise and decline of one of America's best-known clans. While the book is light on social context, it offers insight into the mores and lifestyle of the Gilded Age. To the Ungers, Meyer was the lone genius behind the family's colossal success. A "driving, acquisitive man," short, with muttonchop whiskers, he was determined to "position his sons as rich men for life." He did that so well that five generations have lived largely off his wealth. By the mid-1920s, his heirs could claim to be the second-richest Jewish family in the world, after the Rothschilds.
Meyer spent his life doing deals. In 1880, using stock-market gains and earnings from an embroidery business, he bought two flooded mines in Leadville, Colo., which ultimately yielded 50 tons of silver and lead a day -- worth nearly $1 million a day in current dollars. His Midas touch established, Meyer turned his attention to what became the family's core property, ASARCO, a copper-mining and smelting syndicate with holdings across the Western U.S., Chile, Bolivia, and Canada. But he didn't lunge for the deal. He waited until 1900, when ASARCO's cash-strapped investors begged him to take a majority interest. In the decades that followed, his seven sons built on the business, expanding into tin and nitrates for fertilizer. When electrification spread throughout America, the price of copper soared, and the Guggenheims were major beneficiaries.
The family became charter members of New York's elite Our Crowd society and were much at ease in European salons. A high-profile way of life made them social headliners even as their ancestry and great wealth made them targets for the yellow press, where Meyer was depicted as an "unscrupulous Jewish businessman" and his sons were called war profiteers. Despite such anti-Semitic slanders, the Guggenheims weren't particularly identifiable as Jews: Religion was not a major focus of their attention. They lavished money on the arts and education but gave little to Jewish causes. One daughter was shocked to learn from her nanny that she was a Jew.
While the Guggenheims were tremendously successful, the name is hardly ubiquitous, partly because of the paucity of male heirs. Not that there was a shortage of romance: There were often multiple mates and multiple liaisons. Grandson Harold Loeb Jr. had five wives. Granddaughter Peggy, whose passions were "art and lovers," encouraged her teenage daughter Pegeen to "engage in sexual escapades." Pegeen bunked on Errol Flynn's yacht and moved in with an Acapulco cliff diver. It was a far cry from Meyer's vision of a cohesive family managing and expanding the fortune through successive generations.
There is a Guggenheim heritage -- it's just more diffuse than that of many other wealthy families. The Guggenheims had a wide range of interests. Meyer's son Simon, for example, used his wealth to buy a Senate seat from Colorado but soon became bored with Washington and returned to business. Harold became the publisher of a 1920s Paris literary magazine, Broom -- and the model for the social-climbing Robert Cohn in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Another grandson, Harry, spent freely to promote civilian aviation. Iris Cornelia Love, a fourth-generation family member, became a noted archaeologist. The Guggenheims supported the arts, and their patronage lives on in New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and its affiliates in Venice, Berlin, Las Vegas, and Bilbao, Spain. The family made a mark in publishing, too, owning Newsday and several magazines, and founding book publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Lacking a broader framework, The Guggenheims tends to flounder in the last third, where readers meet dozens of semi-idle Guggenheims whom they're unlikely to care about. And unlike previous works by the Ungers -- such as Irwin's The Greenback Era, which delivered a social critique of late-19th century America -- issues of immigrant struggle, class warfare, and even the preservation of great wealth through an era of confiscatory estate taxes aren't addressed. Perhaps the authors became exhausted by the scope of their project. Then again, maybe they were satisfied simply to tell a great tale.
By Bob Dowling