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Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California Hardcover – November 11, 2008

4.6 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Hellman was California’s premier financier in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a man whose financial acumen catapulted the state into the modern era and laid the groundwork for one of the world’s most dynamic economies. Bankers such as Hellman were the men who smoothed the rough edges of the economy. They offered credit and invested in companies. Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great-granddaughter, posits that during financial panics—which happened about every 10 years in the nineteenth century—bankers provided stability. Hellman was both a builder and financier, a major investor and promoter of eight industries that shaped California—banking, transportation, education, land development, water, electricity, oil, and wine. At the height of his power, at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, he controlled more than $100 million in capital, equivalent to $38 billion in 2006. --George Cohen


"Visionary financier Isaias Hellman was the Warren Buffett and Alan Greenspan of early California rolled into one. He arrived in L.A. as a practically penniless, 16-year-old German Jew when there were only 300 other Europeans in town. Three decades later, he controlled much of the booming city’s capital, land, and public works—then he acquired Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco through a merger, earning headlines as the West’s richest man. Hellman starred in so many aspects of the state’s phoenixlike rise between the Civil War and the Depression that he became our Zelig, only with a really thick portfolio. The banker’s bonds with the financial elite—fellow Jews like Meyer Lehman (his brotherin- law), gentiles like Collis Huntington—made skittish pioneer depositors in both cities less prone to panic. Still, this giant figure had been lost to history until local journalist Frances Dinkelspiel, Hellman’s great-great-granddaughter (and the sister of this magazine’s president), stumbled onto his papers at the California Historical Society. Eureka! Many underappreciated developments in California’s astonishing adolescence—the emergence of SoCal, the UC system, post-1906 San Francisco, Hiram Johnson, Lake Tahoe, Southern Pacific Railroad, Hetch Hetchy, U.S. Zionism, you name it—are recovered here in elegantly restrained prose. A-"--San Francisco Magazine

"Impressively researched and engagingly told...Dinkelspiel does an excellent job of tracing Hellman's career as a financier, and sketches in a crisp portrait into the glittering San Francisco Jewish community into which he and his family ultimately settled. [A] compelling account of Hellman the giant of finance."--The Los Angeles Times

"Carefully researched and superbly written memoir...Dinkelspiel's biography not only brings to life the transformation of California into the state with the strongest economy in the nation, and the outside personalities that forged it, but rescues from the proverbial dustbin of history the remarkable life and achievements of a man whose energy, creativity, resourcefulness and love for his adopted country had been all but forgotten. A marvelous resource, a dramatic slice of Western history and a splendid read."--The San Francisco Chronicle

"Journalist Dinkelspiel has filled a notable gap in California's history by writing a much-needed biography of her remarkable great-great grandfather Isaias Wolf Hellman (1842-1920). As one of California's pioneer financiers and an advocate of modern banking methods, Hellman became founder, president, or director of 17 banks, including Wells Fargo Bank, Nevada Bank of San Francisco, and the Farmers and Merchants Bank. He is attributed with stabilizing the financial panic of 1893 in Los Angeles by stacking $500,000 worth of gold coins on the counter of the Farmers and Merchants Bank in plain public view, hence the title of this book. The author personalizes Hellman's life by recounting his emigration from Bavaria to California in 1859 and comparing the vastly different social acceptance of Jews in those places. Many details of his family history are provided, along with insights into his relations with a broad swath of other early legendary California business families. Recommended for public and academic libraries with interests in early California financial and Judaic history."--Library Journal

"Towers of Gold" is a vivid portrait of the financier who changed California forever. Attempted stagecoach robberies, an assassination attempt, bank runs, the 1906 earthquake -- it's all here in Frances Dinkelspiel's meticulously researched and masterly crafted biography. After reading "Towers of Gold," you'll never see downtown Los Angeles of San Francisco's financial district in quite the same way again.” - Julia Flynn Siler, author of the New York Times bestseller, The House of Mondavi

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; First Edition edition (November 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312355262
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312355265
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #965,130 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Epel on November 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I was hooked from the introduction when the writer describes discovering boxes of her great-great grandfather's letters and papers and realizing she had a story to tell. From that great beginning, this book continued to hold me in its vivid, dramatic rendering of California history and of this man, a true tycoon. Until this book, I had not heard of Hellman , but now I see his influence regularly in my life in California, starting with Wells Fargo banks. Hellman not only started this bank, but the author tells an amazing--and chillingly timely--account of how Hellman stopped an 1893 bank panic singlehandedly. If you're interested in California history (imagine a time when the streets of LA were dirt, as were the floors in many homes), immigrant history, Jewish history, and a juicy story of wheeling-dealing tycoons, you couldn't find a better scribe than this writer and her elegant, exciting, and well-told history.
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Format: Hardcover
Frances Dinkelspiel has written a fascinating account of the life of Isaias Hellman, her great-great grandfather and a man whose banking skills seemingly transformed California. The Hellman name is well-known in the Bay Area - Warren Hellman, a billionaire merchant banker - puts on the free, three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert every year in Golden Gate Park - but I didn't know anything about this Hellman.
Isaias Hellman came to Los Angeles from Germany in 1859 and started the region's first successful bank, the Farmers and Merchants Bank. Los Angeles was just a small settlement back then. The streets were unpaved, the only way to get there from San Francisco was by steamer, and a murder a day was common. By starting a bank, Hellman brought much-needed credit to the region and helped start its transformation into one of American's biggest cities.
He goes on to do many important things, like donating the land to start the University of California, lending funds to Harrison Gray Otis to gain complete control of the Los Angeles Times, and spinning deals with the railroad tycoons Collis Huntington, Henry Huntington, and Edward Harriman. In fact, his friends read like a "Who's Who" of the 19th century and include Levi Strauss, Mayer Lehman, and Jacob Schiff.
In 1905, Hellman took over the Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco. That was just one of the banks he controlled. According to Dinkelspiel, he headed up or served on the board of dozens of other institutions, including the Nevada Bank, and controlled more than $100 million in capital. This guy clearly had a brain for business.
Dinkelspiel does a wonderful job of bringing history to life. There are lots of great scenes in Towers of Gold.
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Format: Hardcover
"Towers of Gold" by Frances Dinkelspiel is about her great-great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman. If you have never heard of him, you might know one of the banks he built, Wells Fargo Bank. Wells Fargo was in the news several months back by buying Wachovia, one of those failed banks. Speaking of failed banks, this book also shows the start and rise of Lehman Brothers Bank, which declared bankruptcy this year.

This is not about banking, it's about a German-Jewish immigrant that ended up in Los Angeles who worked, saved, and started businesses, of which banking was his specialty. Isaias Hellman's struggles and triumphs in business shows how far someone with intelligence and determination, in the right circumstances, can achieve.

"Towers of Gold" also chronicles the rise of Los Angeles from a town on a marshland to a major city and a bit of business history through two depressions, one before 1900 and the one after.

Dinkelspiel also writes fascinating glimpses of the founding and founding figures of Stanford University, University of California, Levi and Strauss, Southern Pacific Rail, Nob Hill, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, San Francisco cable cars, Los Angeles, and Mount Zion Hospital.

I enjoyed reading the Towers. It is fast-paced and detailed. Events and people are shown in their background, which allows the reader to see there are very few black and white issues. The "Towers of Gold" puts the current banking crises in perspective. Frances Dinkelspiel's saga about her great-great-grandfather shows his place in California history.
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Format: Hardcover
To read Towers of Gold is to step back into a fascinating and unpredictable period in California's history. Thoroughly researched and meticulously told, the story of Isaias Hellman is more than an archetypal rags-to-riches American tale--it's a story of how a Jewish immigrant, unhampered by Old World prejudices, helped shape the state. Anyone interested in the history of our country's ailing financial system will find interesting parallels.
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Towers of Gold rediscovers Isaias Hellman, once justly celebrated as one of the most important businessmen in California's development, both in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There is hardly a major California economic development in a 50-year span with which Hellman was not involved. Dinkelspiel has created a fascinating history of the state's growth through the lens of one man's history.
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