Thursday, May 15, 2008
Isaias Hellman in Technicolor
I am giving a talk tonight (May 15) on Isaias Hellman. It's a benefit for the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, a gem of an institution. More than 170 people have paid to hear me speak -- and only half are relatives! I am going to provide a snapshot of Hellman's life and talk about why I consider him important.
When you have been researching someone for 8 years and have written 460 pages about his life, it is really tough to condense everything into a 20 minute talk. I plan to focus on three reasons why I think Hellman is important:
1)Hellman's life reflects a bigger story, that of the Jewish contribution to the development of the West. When gold was discovered in 1848, California was sparsely settled. Thousands of people from around the world came to the state, including about 5,000 Jews. They found a wide open society and were quickly accepted. They flourished and soon became merchants and political leaders.
2)When we think about the wild west we think of the clashes between cowboys and Indians or the image of John Wayne cleaning up a frontier town. But there was another wild part of the west -- its financial system. As one of the Pacific Coast's leading bankers, Hellman stpped bank runs, offered affordable credit, and encouraged business development. He tamed the financial system
3) He was a brilliant businessman and had great instincts about which businesses would flourish in California. When he believed in a person, he would lend him money, even if the investment didn't look good on paper. That led him to make loans that permitted Harrison Gray Otis to buy the Los Angeles Times. In 1887, he also gave $10,000 to oilmen Lyman Stewart and Wallace Hardison at a time when they were 183,000 in debt. The men went on to find oil. Their company is known today as Unocal. as a result Hellman played a major role in the development of 8 major industries in California -- banking, transportation, water, gas, electricity, wine, oil, and education.
My book doesn't come out until November, but this talk is really its launch.
I am particularly delighted by the fabulous invitation designed by Polly Lockman. It makes Hellman look almost modern!