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Gazing at the Guggenheims

The Guggenheims: A Family History

By Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

HarperCollins, 530 pages, $29.95.


By the start of World War I, the Guggenheims had become so prominent that even their pets’ deaths were considered newsworthy. Ninety years later, they are chiefly remembered in the names of foundations and museums. In a heavily detailed researched account, “The Guggenheims: A Family History,” historian Irwin Unger (who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1965 for his first book) and his wife, Debi, chart the spectacular transit of the Guggenheims. For all the wealth of detail, though, the book is incomplete. While it emphasizes the Guggenheims’ clannishness and seems genuinely interested in locating the peculiarly religious aspects of their story, it does not really understand how this family acted out its social dramas and desires in a typically German Jewish — and thus Jewish American — way.

The Ungers’ decision to write a family chronicle of the Guggenheims follows the logic of the family’s real founder, Meyer, who emigrated from Switzerland with his parents in 1847. Meyer maintained a very strict family discipline over his seven sons. It is easy to misunderstand his obsession as an Old World mysticism of blood ties. But for 19th-century Jews (as for 20th-century Mafiosi), family ties made perfect business sense: Not only was it easier to borrow money from your relatives, but it was easier to count on their foresight and shared interest, as well. The Guggenheims were able to amass and control holdings in mines and smelters in North and South America, in no small part because their closeness allowed them to concentrate their capital and to use their own as onsite managers from Alaska to Chile. Meyer’s emphasis on family certainly paid off. By 1918, Forbes reckoned the Guggenheims the second-richest family in America. If other tallies are to be believed, they were soon to be the second-wealthiest Jewish family in the world.

The Ungers are most interesting when recounting epic tales of the Guggenheim ascendancy. This period began in the last decade of the 19th century and lasted until the Great Depression. Their biggest break came after Meyer and his son, Daniel, shifted the family’s investments to copper by the early 1890s. The electrification of the world depended on the availability of copper for wire. And the Guggenheims figured out ways to extract, smelt and ship the metal.

There is something oddly bracing in reading about the Guggenheims’ performance during the heroic phase of bare-fisted, robber-baron capitalism. They created trusts. They befriended tyrants and caudillos (dictators in Latin and South America). They busted unions. Although ostensibly progressive Republicans, they found themselves vilified by the muckrakers for their brilliant, if sometimes heavy-handed, exploitation of large chunks of Alaska. They were idealistic, paternalistic profiteers. Like many patriotic businessmen, they cleaned up in World War I.

However, the Ungers lose focus when the family’s fortunes begin to turn. They clearly see this turn as a decline. How to explain it? They provide hints in various places. When Daniel died in 1930, he left an estate of $20,000,000. This certainly was a tidy sum, but quite literally a fraction of the

$70,000,000 that Forbes attributed to him personally only 12 years earlier. A concentration on nitrates in the early 1930s also created problems for the family’s portfolio, but nitrates alone do not seem a sufficient excuse for the family’s slide. Later in the book, we find that by the 1950s the Guggenheims no longer were majority holders of the great smelting trust they had created. It seems that they had sold off a good deal of their stock while the Ungers’ attention was engaged elsewhere.

By World War II’s end, the damage already had been done. When Meyer’s grandson, Harry, tried to revive the glory days of Guggenheim mineral exploration, he was confronted by the recalcitrance of new realities. In the age of anti-colonial resistance, Third World governments were not reliably pliant anymore. What was worse, perhaps, was the realization that he could not command the capital of his larger rivals. On their own, the Guggenheims could compete no longer.

Truth be told, the Ungers seem relatively uninterested in the historical or economic causes of the Guggenheims’ descent. They are content to cast it as a natural decline. Despite their explicit claims to the contrary, they squeeze the Guggenheim saga into the narrative pattern described by Thomas Mann’s great novel, “Buddenbrooks.” Like the Buddenbrooks clan, the Guggenheims rise from rough beginnings to greatness, only to have their success undone by the “artists, intellectuals, and playboys who enjoy but squander and dissipate the family fortune.” The Ungers claim that the “energy and drive that had raised the Guggenheims to wealth and power could not be sustained.” They go on to write that it “inevitably dissipated with each succeeding generation” (emphasis added). We are told that this dissipation is an ineluctable law of nature, like entropy.

In this case, entropy takes a good long time to narrate. Whereas the rise of the Guggenheims is described in no more than 175 pages, the Ungers devote nearly twice that space to their decline. This dilation is unfortunate. The authors fall victim to their own desire for thoroughness. They want to account for all the offspring (even unto the third generation) of Meyer’s children. This slows the book’s pace. Some of the sections show all the spark of a biblical genealogy. In other places, the book seems to resemble nothing so much as overheard gossip.

Now, some of this gossip can be good fun. The Guggenheims, for all Meyer and Daniel’s probity, produced some good cads. There was Daniel’s profligate brother, Benjamin, whose young daughter was banished from the dinner table for noting that her father must have had a mistress because he spent so many evenings away from home. Benjamin came to an unexpectedly glorious end when he went down on the Titanic, dressed in white tie and tails. (His girlfriend, also on that ill-fated voyage, made it back to port in one piece.) And then there was Daniel’s son, Meyer Robert, the scapegrace ambassador to Portugal who was called home after he flipped a spoon into another guest’s cleavage at a state dinner. It seems he had the temerity to fish the errant silverware out of the shocked woman’s dress with his bare hands.

Beyond the usual kinds of sexual scandal, the Guggenheim clan produced some interesting, if minor, characters, such as Harold Loeb. He was a member of “The Lost Generation” who served as the model for Hemingway’s mean-spirited and antisemitic depiction of Robert Cohn in “The Sun Also Rises.”

These lesser tales (and there is a whole raft of them) get in the way of the Ungers’ attempt to impose coherence on the hefty latter part of the book. By setting up contrasting accounts of Harry and Peggy Guggenheim, the Ungers aim in these later chapters to show that the third generation was fatally weak. On the surface, Harry was a man of vision and energy. A pilot in World War I, he championed the rise of civil aviation in the United States, he became a friend of Charles Lindbergh and a patron of Robert Goddard, the pioneer of rocketry. Harry valued education and was something of a public intellectual. With his last wife, a scion of a great Chicago newspaper family, he founded Newsday. One of his most telling achievements lies in the fact that despite his own limitations and biases, Harry did not hinder that paper from achieving lasting excellence.

To judge by the Ungers’ portrait, Harry must have been interesting, because he was a contradictory fellow. Something of a prig and a prude, his final marriage seems to have been quite open and he found himself in the provocative, if awkward, position for a Republican, of sharing his wife with Adlai Stevenson during that Democrat’s two presidential campaigns. What makes Harry’s tale particularly poignant, though, is that he maintained an impossibly idealized version of the Guggenheim faith in male inheritance. He spent the last two decades of his life ranging around for a suitable son. He never found one.

According to the Ungers, Harry’s cousin, Peggy, cut an equally tragic figure, because she, too, engaged in an unfulfilled quest. She searched not for a son, but for a redeeming love. Daughter of the negligent, promiscuous Benjamin Guggenheim (he of the Titanic) and of a psychologically unbalanced mother, Peggy was apparently cursed with a truly hideous nose. (It actually does not look so bad in pictures, but one assumes she took pains to be photographed from the most flattering angles.) She hung around bohemian circles from the early 1920s and threw herself promiscuously at any art and artists of the avant-garde.

It is hard to shake the feeling that the Ungers seem more fascinated with Peggy’s libidinal and emotional exploits than with her aesthetic interests and inclinations. They want to reduce her complicated life in art to the complications of sex. Such an approach shortchanges Peggy, because it misses her mark.

Peggy Guggenheim was an important impresario of high modernism, and the gallery she opened in New York during the Second World War served as a vital conduit into America for surrealism and abstraction. She supported Jackson Pollock at a critical time and gave him a commission that became a turning point in his career. Her collection in Venice remains a very important testimony to the vitality of mid-20th-century art. But the Ungers end their short biography of her by claiming that her “quest for love had, as Freud supposed, been sublimated into art after all.” This is a very odd statement, if only because they already have argued quite strenuously that Peggy never sublimated her search for love in the slightest. Perhaps, and the Ungers cannot really entertain this notion, her career in art had a source or purpose other than her erotic appetites or her search for love.

The Ungers’ final decision to reduce the Guggenheims to the Buddenbrooks diminishes the insights of their book. It leads them to argue that Harry and Peggy’s patronage of innovation and entrepreneurship are signs of decline rather than signs of creativity. It leads them to express the odd and surely outdated belief that an interest in art is the benchmark of decadence. Even old Meyer did not show such disdain for the arts. The Ungers tell the amusing story of his attempt to interest his four older boys in classical music by organizing them into a small but nonetheless loud and dissonant ensemble. What’s more, one of those sons, Solomon, went on to become a major collector of modern art. It is his name, after all, that graces the complex of museums he founded.

Foundations, museums and funds are not just convenient tax breaks; they also describe a particularly Jewish notion of civic immortality. Although the Ungers begin their book with what seems an unnecessary retelling of the lachrymose history of Christian antisemitism, they cannot find a particularly Jewish edge in the Guggenheim story beyond a few incidents of prejudice, none of which seems to have been all that destructive or that lasting. But the Ungers might be looking in the wrong place. True, the Guggenheims never were particularly religious and had little trouble with eventual intermarriage or with eventual apostasy. In that way, they were not very different from the other denizens of “Our Crowd” High Yekkerie. Although they were Swiss and made their money in mining, the Guggenheims resembled the established German Jewish families into which they originally married. They make particularly Jewish sense in that context. Like the others, they were strongly propelled to overcome, once and for all, the legal and social obstacles of the Old World. They were equally afraid of the ostentation of the arriviste and of the embarrassing pieties of tradition. They wanted to belong, and yet never quite got it right. Their museums and foundations, with their not-particularly American- or Christian- sounding names (John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum), serve in so many ways as the perfect memorials of their great and ambivalent achievements. This book, because it is less sensitive to the contradictory nature of their ambitions, cannot give the Guggenheims their due in the end.


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