Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Review: Towers of Gold

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California

By Frances Dinkelspiel
376 pages (paperback)
St. Martin’s Griffin, New York
Published January 2010

Reviewed by Linda Singer

With sumptuous description and meticulous detail, Frances Dinkelspiel traces the exciting history of California through the biography of her great-great grandfather, Isaias Hellman. Born in Reckendorf, Bavaria in 1842, Isaias’s multi-layered life allows us a close view of the pioneers whose skilled determination and personal risk-taking were critical to the early development and formative years of the State of California.

Because they are Jews, Isaias and his younger brother Herman leave Reckendorf seeking refuge from European persecution, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco, where they find comfort and safety in places where no attention is given to religion. Both brothers become large benefactors to synagogues in northern and southern California and continue throughout their lives to be socially, economically, and politically involved organizing and acting as leaders of these newly founded Jewish communities.

Between the years 1859 when a penniless Isaias Hellman arrives in Los Angeles and 1910 when he becomes, as Dinkelspiel puts it, “a major investor and promoter of at least eight industries... banking, transportation, education, land development, water, electricity, oil, and wine...,” Isaias amasses a fortune worth approximately $38 billion in today’s currency. The intricacies of his numerous business dealings and the diversity of his friends and financial partners leaves one’s head reeling.

Personal as well as public image was very important to Isaias Hellman. More importantly, he was a family man with high principles and enormous integrity. Numerous times, and often at serious personal risk, he stood up to his foes as well as his friends to stabilize a vulnerable infant economy. Repeatedly he contributed huge sums of his own fortune to bolster, improve, protect, and grow California’s economy while mobilizing his peers to do likewise.

How monumental the task undertaken by Dinkelspiel to assemble overwhelming amounts of data accumulated from stacks of letters, diaries, and cartons to reconstruct this larger than life man.

At times it is a bit difficult to keep all the “players” straight. Their vast fortunes, complex business transactions, frequently changing personal interactions, and alliances are nearly impossible to grasp and hold onto as one weaves through the very fabric of early California politics and economics. Nonetheless, this is an exceptionally well-documented and eloquently written biography of a key figure in the history of the state; a superb read, especially if California is near and dear to your heart.

Find the book here.

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