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A Must Read! Fascinating Book About a California Financier.,
This review is from: Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California (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. There are earthquakes, fires, droughts, assassination attempts, betrayals and love affairs. It has all the elements of a great modern movie.
The title refers to a time when Hellman single-handedly stopped a bank run in Los Angeles in 1893 by piling his own money into towers of gold on the counters of one of his banks. The sight of all that glistening gold calmed panicking depositors, who then return their money to the vault. If only we had someone like Hellman around today.