Jews with Money
To the Editor:
I want to thank you for Marshall Sklare’s long, thoughtful, and most interesting review of my book [“The Trouble with ‘Our Crowd,’” January]. I’m fascinated that Mr. Sklare, as a critic, was able to get at so much of the behind-the-scenes stuff that went on, prior to and after publication of the book, among the “crowd”—stuff I thought no one knew but a few of the people at Harper and myself.
On a less frivolous note . . . I find nearly every point in the review to be both valid and enlightening. I would dispute Mr. Sklare on only two matters. I don’t agree, first, with his interpretation of Jacob Schiff’s behavior when it came to trying to get his son into Groton—that Schiff felt “Groton should have been happy to enroll a Schiff.” No, I see his behavior here as merely another example of one of his outstanding traits of personality; he would never do anything for anyone without demanding a concession in return; there was always a proviso attached to everything he did. This was the way he did business and the way he ran his life and family. He would buy his son a bicycle, provided the boy would accept a second-hand bicycle; he would buy the boys in the Amherst fraternity house a pool table, provided they would promise never to play pool for money (so they never got their table); he would give $50,000 to the YMHA building fund, provided Louis Marshall gave another $50,000. (It was, incidentally, Schiff who invented the “matching gift system,” so common today.) Morti could go to Groton, provided the school would not require him to go to chapel. So it went—always. If his conditions were not met, that was the end of it; he never retreated from them. So I do not agree that his behavior in the Groton episode displays an aristocratic attitude—autocratic, perhaps. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so, and I think most people who knew Mr. Schiff when he was alive will agree with me.
Another point, less important, but a bit surprising: Mr. Sklare’s review, I think, leaves the impression that a certain amount of publishing cupidity was involved in the decision to do the book—that Harper & Row cannily decided to cash in on a ready market. Mr. Sklare doesn’t say this, I know, but I think he implies it. I assure you that no one has been more surprised by the book’s success than Harper & Row. When I submitted the script, the reaction was of such guarded enthusiasm that one might have mistaken it for gloom. I was told that the book was pretty “special,” that it “might do well in New York,” but that I was not to expect it to do well anywhere else. All the book clubs turned it down for the same reasons, and all the magazines it was submitted to did likewise. The book’s first printing was of a very modest size and, indeed, when the book started selling Harper was caught short and was out of stock for two weeks. So if the publisher had “commercial considerations” in connection with doing my book, he certainly didn’t consider very well.
Again, Mr. Sklare takes me to task for quoting dialogue from people long dead. He forgets, perhaps, that there are people alive today who remember their immigrant ancestors quite well, and who have firsthand recollections of what this or that person said. Carola Warburg Rothschild, for example, remembers not only (obviously) her father, Felix Warburg, but her grandfather, Jacob Schiff, and her great-grandfather, Solomon Loeb, the immigrant founder of Kuhn, Loeb who came here from Germany in 1849. From a historian’s point of view, is there anything wrong with directly quoting deceased people from what those who are living remember was said at the time?
And a final point: . . . it was Washington Seligman, not Washington Guggenheim, who ate charcoal and ice cubes. His sister was a Mrs. Guggenheim (Peggy’s mother).
But all the foregoing aside, I think Mr. Sklare’s review is splendidly sensible, enormously perceptive, and I’m awfully proud to have it. . . .
Rye, New York
To the Editor:
In his informative critique of Stephen Birmingham’s book, “Our Crowd” [January], Marshall Sklare . . . takes German Jews to task as follows: “While long on family loyalty, the German Jew has always been short on religious enthusiasm.” . . .
First of all, 1 would question the wisdom of so sweeping a generalization about any group. . . . But secondly, I wonder what Mr. Sklare means by “religious enthusiasm.”
. . . It is difficult indeed to picture German Jewish “aristocrats” . . . such as Felix M. Warburg, Henry Morgenthau, and Herbert H. Lehman . . . dancing around in the synagogue, their arms linked, a Torah scroll in their arms. . . . Mr. Sklare could hardly expect that kind of enthusiasm from any Jew except a Hasid. What, then, are the “aristocrats” to do? Are they to follow Orthodox Jewish practices? If that were a requirement for “religious enthusiasm,” Mr. Sklare would be offending hundreds of thousands of American Jews who feel they are “good Jews,” religiously speaking, and who follow Conservative or Reform practices. . . .
Nor could Mr. Sklare possibly find fault with the German Jew for being lax in founding and supporting synagogues or temples, because he has a fine record in this regard. Nor could he refer to attendance by German Jews at religious services . . .—for they are no better and no worse in this respect than other Jews.
There is, moreover, a further and very fundamental point to be made in this connection. It has been fashionable for many years to criticize the German Jew as an as-similationist, and to contrast him with the Jew of Eastern European origin who is said to be more religiously observant, and possessed of a much stronger ethnic feeling. While this may have been correct in the past, . . . it is less true of the present situation in America. American Jews are being integrated at every level . . . and in this process, undesirable changes are also taking place. Hundreds of thousands never see a synagogue from the inside; intermarriage is rising rapidly, aliya to Israel is down to a trickle. If this is not assimilation, what is? In fact, the point has been made that the American Jew is assimilating faster than the German Jew ever did. . . .
Jamaica, New York
To the Editor:
Marshall Sklare’s article raises a number of questions that cannot properly be discussed within a strictly American context. . . .
The phenomenon of “Our Crowd” deserves to be studied more scientifically, by comparing it to Jewish establishments—whether of German or Sephardic origin—that have developed in other societies; it should be discussed, for instance, in terms of aristocrats of finance, like the Rothschild and Sassoon families, or an aristocracy of political or literary eminence like the D’Israelis and Palgraves in 19th-century London. “Our Crowd” could also usefully be compared with the Parsee financial and industrial é’lite which grew up in 19th-century Bombay. There a small, similarly intermarried group—the Tata, Wadia, Jehangir, Dadabhoy, and Dinsha families—belonging to an entirely different religious minority, endowed this Indian metropolis with almost as astounding a number of philanthropic and cultural institutions as New York owes to “Our Crowd.”
Secondly, we still need objective and properly documented studies of the ties that may originally have existed between “Our Crowd” in New York and the more established Jewish business-elites of the Old World. The Jewish bullion-brokers of London and some Alsatian-Jewish Paris banking families, for instance, once had extensive financial interests in San Francisco’s business world, at the time of the Gold Rush and in the ensuing decades. (San Francisco’s “The White House” department store, to take one example, was founded by a Frenchman, Raphaël Weill, who was a cousin of the Paris bankers, Lazare Fréres.) But New York . . . soon began to attract most of these European-Jewish financiers as a more permanent base for their activities in the New World. . . .
Again, many well-established Old-World Jewish families tended at first to have only limited faith in the New-World enterprises of New York’s “Our Crowd.” Communications between Wall Street and London, Paris, Frankfurt, and Vienna were not yet developed to the point where European investors could know at a moment’s notice, as they can today, . . . exactly where they stood in American financial markets. Nor were they made more confident by the fact that many of the early entrepreneurs of “Our Crowd” had originally emigrated to America as the black sheep or unwelcome poor relations of European-Jewish families which were already prosperous. My own maternal grandfather, the late Felix Waldheim, who . . . was a partner in the London textile firm of Waldheim, Guggenheim, and Florsheim, had been one of the original investors in the mining ventures of the poor American cousin of his well-to-do partner, Moritz Guggenheim, a native of Baden, near Zurich. But my grandfather had little faith in the future of these ventures and sold out as soon as he was assured of a profit. He then invested heavily in such things as the rayon industry in Tsarist Russia, which he considered much safer.
My paternal grandfather’s family, on the other hand, remained for many decades in a close business association, as exporters of European and Far-Eastern manufactured goods, with the department-store-owning members of “Our Crowd.” Yet my father’s family never invested in their ventures, nor did it intermarry with their families, perhaps because we were Sefardim and closely related to titled European Sefardic families. . . . An alliance with a family whose wealth was more recent might have been socially compromising in the eyes of the European Gentile aristocracy with which we already had some social contacts.
From my own boyhood I can remember only two “Our Crowd” families which were considered socially acceptable, around 1920, in Paris and London society: the Schiffs and the Blumenthals. In Germany, the New York branches of the Warburg, Ladenburg, Seligman, and Strauss families were also considered acceptable, mainly because their German relatives had already been received in Prussian Court circles before 1914. The King family of New York, however—which originally emigrated to America from England—constituted a notable exception in this respect; though the family was soon absorbed into “Our Crowd,” it retained from its origins in Chester a distinctive quality of Early Victorian refinement. Later, the three Stettheimer sisters, Florine, Ettie, and Carrie, who were related to the Seligman banking family, also achieved a peculiar distinction of their own in an international intellectual élite which included Marcel Duchamp and the New York Dadaists of 1917. . . .
This leads us to . . . “Our Crowd” ‘s claim to be “the closest thing to aristocracy” that New York or America has seen. In Europe, the various equivalents of “Our Crowd,” whether of Sefardic or German origin, achieved acknowledgment long ago as members of the recognized aristocracy of several different nations, without necessarily abjuring their Jewish faith. Though Benjamin Disraeli was baptized even before being elected to the House of Commons, Jewish peers have now been able to sit in the House of Lords for over a hundred years without having to become Christians. In 1923, when I attended Charterhouse, one of the most exclusive English “public schools,” my Jewish classmates could be excused from attendance at Anglican chapel-services if they went to a synagogue instead. This happened to prove very inconvenient, however, so that practically none of us availed ourselves of a privilege that would not have been granted us in America at Groton. . . .
England’s Jewish aristocracy perhaps owes its real distinction to the fact that it has never been exclusively recruited from the worlds of finance, industry, and “trade,” but has always included men who owed their titles to their achievements in more traditionally aristocratic fields of public service—like the late Marquis of Reading—or in science and the arts. True aristocracy, it would seem, can be achieved only by adopting the standards of a recognized existing aristocracy. But New York’s WASP robber barons failed, in this respect, to be generally recognized as aristocrats, even though they refused to accept Otto Kahn as their equal in the Metropolitan Opera’s “Diamond Horseshoe.” “Our Crowd” was thus left somehow suspended in mid-air, with no real star to which to hitch its wagon. Hence the deplorable tendency of these families to marry . . . so many of their daughters off to dubious and dollar-hungry scions of a déclassée European aristocracy rather than to what a Jewish Henry James might have called “the real thing”—a Rothschild or a Camon-do who still scorned them. “Our Crowd” thus remained, even as recently as the 20′s, almost as isolated in New York . . . as Bombay’s Parsee establishment which, in spite of a number of British baronetcies and knighthoods, never made the grade in London society as successfully as, for instance, the Sassoon and Khadoorie families, Baghdadian Jews who made their fortunes in Bombay, Calcutta, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.
In conclusion, one can only hope that the popular success of Stephen Birmingham’s “Our Crowd” will now have an important side effect: to inspire more scholarly historians to undertake the research that might later lead to a systematic comparative study of the socioeconomic phenomenon of a minority’s decisive role in the financial and cultural life of a world metropolis.
Department of English
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
I found Marshall Sklare’s observations on Stephen Birmingham’s “Our Crowd” somewhat offensive.
I myself had previously read and reviewed the book. I agreed with Sklare that the book was intellectually thin and written in a style calculated to provide entertainment rather than edification. The German-Jewish upper class that grew up in 19th-century America played a very important role in the economic life of this country, as well as of Europe, in the years between the Civil War and World War I. Yet the general reading public is not keenly interested in abstract economic history; it is, however, always interested in anecdotes about the weaknesses of the rich, whether Gentile or Jew. Birmingham, an accomplished writer, knows this, and the book has been on the best-seller lists for some time now. And he quite naturally devoted more space in the book to the bizarre doings of Adolph Lewisohn than to the real accomplishments of Herbert Lehman, to the social climbing of Otto Kahn rather than the brilliant leadership role played by his Kuhn, Loeb partner, Jacob Schiff. I too was bored with this approach. Where I part with Sklare is when he jumps from this quite valid criticism and goes on to say that “Birmingham dotes on Lewisohn,” that “while Birmingham always interprets Kahn’s behavior in the most favorable terms, he shows no such partiality to Jacob Schiff.” Here Sklare has simply missed the point. Birmingham is just catering to the public. How many writers about “High Society” have devoted far more space to the Gentile counterparts of Otto Kahn or Adolph Lewisohn than to the accomplishments of such socialites as Franklin Roosevelt or Adlai Stevenson? This is the nature of the beast and not Birmingham’s fault.
Sklare, moreover, does not rest here; instead he goes on to accuse Birmingham of latent, if not blatant, anti-Semitism. This, I think, is unfair. Nor do I like the conspiratorial way in which Sklare opens his observations by going into details about how the book was conceived by a “non-Jewish” publishing house, seeming to imply that Harper & Row (which I have always thought of as a first-rate publisher, period, rather than as a good “non-Jewish” one) are also anti-Semitic. Since when have reviewers felt the need to discuss the ethnicity of publishers and authors when evaluating a book? Or have ethnic politics now moved over into the literary world? This book, then, is no more anti-Semitic than Josephson’s Robber Barons or Lundberg’s America’s 60 Families were anti-Gentile. Nor, I should imagine, was Manchester’s Death of a President (published by the same “non-Jewish” firm) anti-Catholic, although it hardly pleased the Kennedy clan.
In the same vein, Sklare goes on to criticize both Birmingham and myself for admiring the aristocratic virtues but at the same time feeling that the only good Jews are, as he puts it, “Gentile aristocrats.” This is simply not the case on my part, nor on Birmingham’s as I read him. I prefer Schiff to Kahn. As Sklare ought to know, all social climbers, whether Gentile or Jew, lack self-respect and suffer from greater or lesser degrees of self-hate. And it is surely not a matter of ethnicity but of temperament and moral fiber. One might as well go into their ethnic origins when discussing the differences between Perle Mesta and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Sklare’s style of criticism is nicely revealed in the following lines:
Baltzell shares Birmingham’s admiration for Jews and he too ascribes great virtue to them, but as Richard L. Rubenstein has argued, he focuses his criticism on the rejecttion by the WASP establishment of the assimilating Jew, rather than on the treatment accorded to the Jew who wishes to preserve his separate identity. Both Baltzell and Birmingham view assimilation as the price the minority should be willing to pay for its acceptance by the majority. Thus, in their very criticism of the shortcomings of the WASP establishment, they reveal how deeply they share its assumptions.
Both men having last names beginning with “B” and both men being non-Jews, they could, I suppose, hardly be expected to do otherwise. But to be more serious: though I do not presume to speak for Birmingham, I myself do not ascribe “great virtue” to Jews in general but rather to some men who happen to be Jews and not to others; on the whole but not always, moreover, I do tend to admire Jews who prefer to preserve their identity more than those who try to hide it. What I do not approve of is racism, one aspect of which is the proclivity to attribute a man’s virtues or vices to his ethnic origins, to fail to react to the man rather than a Jew’s son or grandson. I consider it immoral to speak of a “Jewish-Episcopalian.” It is, I have thought, the democratic way to allow a man freely to choose his religion.
We live in a secular age when the family has been replaced as the main socializing agency by the school and the university. One cannot discuss the role of the private school, the country club, or the prestige universities, from the point of view of their forever needing revitalization by men of talent in each generation, without discussing the social dysfunctions and just plain inhumanity of treating men of non-WASP origins unfairly because of their ancestors. And regardless of how Sklare feels about the survival of Judaism, parents who send their children to institutions like Groton or Princeton are encouraging them to lose their ethnic identity. If I read the modern American scene rightly, there are quite a few wealthy, ethnic parents who want their children to go to such institutions, where, in contrast to the situation in Endicott Peabody’s day, they will assimilate WASP ethnicity if not, certainly, Christianity. Finally, I do not share the assumptions of all too many members of the WASP upper class in this country; for most of them wish that all Jews would remain apart and protect their identity as Jews, much more in the style of Marshall Sklare’s preferences than mine.
Incidentally, Birmingham notes that today at Kuhn, Loeb the partners include a Schiff and a Kahn. The Schiff grandson is listed in the Social Register, while the Kahn grandson is not. I suppose, if Sklare reads my values rightly, I should prefer Mr. Schiff to Mr. Kahn. I know neither man. I should imagine, however, not necessarily and perhaps quite to the contrary.
E. Digby Baltzell
Mr. Sklare writes:
E. Digby Baltzell cannot be serious in contending that I think Stephen Birmingham is an anti-Semite. The point I made was that Birmingham was philo-Semitic, which of course creates its own set of problems, like projecting onto Jews the virtues which Birmingham feels are wanting in contemporary American society. Since Birmingham does not mention my charging him with anti-Semitism, Baltzell can rest easy on this score.
I regret that my reference to Harper & Row as a “non-Jewish” publisher so irritates Professor Baltzell that he charges me with irrelevancy and playing ethnic politics. Again, he burdens me with making an accusation of anti-Semitism where none was intended. My point, of course, was that “Our Crowd” shows just how popular a non-fiction book about Jews can be. Professor Baltzell, who has devoted much study to the upper class of Philadelphia, will recall that in 1888 the Jewish Publication Society of America was established in his city. The JPS was a necessity because books of Jewish interest were unattractive to all but ethnic publishers; this is no longer the case.
I have no doubt that Professor Baltzell prefers individuals of stern moral fiber but this preference—noble in itself—is irrelevant. What is at stake is the choice of societal models. I prefer a pluralist model; it is clear from Professor Baltzell’s book, The Protestant Establishment, that he does not. His book demonstrates exactly what he says it does: “. . . the social dysfunctions and just plain inhumanity of treating men of non-WASP origins unfairly because of their ancestors.” Baltzell’s protest, then, is about the exclusion of men whose ancestors are Jewish—men who concede the authority and the superiority of the WASP establishment. What he says is that it is both stupid and cruel to exclude such men. In his second chapter (“La Guardia, Weinberg, and Others”) he gets to the heart of the matter with the case of Sidney Weinberg:
In his Who’s Who biography . . . [Weinberg] lists no affiliations with specifically Jewish organizations, and most of the boards on which he serves (such as that of the Presbyterian Hospital) are composed primarily of Gentiles. But in spite of all this his friends are unable or unwilling to declassify him. At their club at least, he is not a unique individual but a member of a category, a category called The Jews.
To those who choose the pluralist model, the problem is not so much the status occupied by that group whose ancestors are Jewish as it is the position accorded in society to those who retain their identity, and who, by virtue of this fact, refuse to concede the authority and superiority of the WASP establishment.
I do find Professor Baltzell’s response cheering, however. Sensitivity about the full implications of “Anglo-Saxon conformity,” as sociologist Milton Gordon would probably term his position, is all to the good. Would that others shared this sensitivity.
To the Editor:
In his interesting discussion on Che Guevara in the December 1967 issue [“The Legacy of Che Guevara”], Norman Gall quotes an article from the Economist and, in the next paragraph, gives the reader his interpretation of it. I should be glad if you would give me the space to record that Mr. Gall’s interpretation is not what the Economist thinks; that it is, indeed, more or less the exact opposite; and that your readers will not find, either in that issue of the Economist or any other, the views that Mr. Gall apparently attributes to us.