To anyone growing up in New York City in the 1930’s, the trinity of LaGuardia, Lehman, and Roosevelt seemed as fixed and permanent as the city streets. It was hardly possible to remember who had preceded them as mayor, governor, and President; it was hardly possible to imagine any of them ever being defeated. And indeed, so long as they chose to run for these offices, all three of them did prove invincible. LaGuardia retired in 1945, Roosevelt died in office in 1945, Lehman after ten years as governor became director of UNRRA during World War II.
The earnest, efficient Governor of New York State had none of the flamboyance of his two great contemporaries. There are no good stories about him, as both a New Yorker profile-writer of the 30’s and his sympathetic and honest recent biographer, Allan Nevins, agree.1 But Lehman was not to be defined in history solely by his career as governor. LaGuardia and Roosevelt died, but Lehman went on to seven years in the Senate, and finally, and most remarkably, he entered in his eighties on yet another phase of his political career, becoming the elder statesman and major single resource of the New York Reform Democrats. Perhaps the greatest political triumph of his career—one can scarcely say his last—was the defeat of the regular Democratic organization by the Wagner-Reform coalition he forged in 1961. In this astonishing victory, Lehman’s sagacity, energy, experience, and wealth played an enormous role. By now, in a different era, the only defect of the great governor seems cured: he appears today almost colorful against the gray background of contemporary New York politics, for he reaches back to and reminds us of more colorful days.
Lehman’s career is awe-inspiring in its length. Before the turn of the century he worked with Lillian Wald on the Lower East Side at her Henry Street Settlement; during the first decade of the century he helped to form several American corporations; in World War I, he was among the organizers of the Joint Distribution Committee, laboring to save Jews from the battlefields over which the soldiers of the Czar and the Kaiser were fighting. And yet to understand Lehman’s career one must go back even further, to the decade before the Civil War, which is, in fact, where Nevins begins his biography. It is no irrelevant snobbery about ancestors that makes it necessary to begin there: it is rather that Lehman comes directly out of the ethos that was being formed by German Jewish immigrant peddlers and merchants in the small towns of the United States in the 1850’s. In this very distinctive world, family loyalty, sobriety, business skill and enterprise, and a decent appreciation of education, culture, and charity combined to create a seedbed for a large number of admirable citizens. Flexners, Strauses, Schiffs, Guggenheims, Lewisohns, Seligmans, Lehmans—the country is dotted with their museums and hospitals and concert halls as well as with less tangible evidences of their skill at the making of money and their generosity in the giving of it.
Lehman’s father and uncle started out before the Civil War in Montgomery, Alabama, as merchants and traders. A Southern patriot during the war, the elder Lehman subsequently moved to New York, the growing center of American business, as so many Jewish merchants from Southern towns were doing in the 70’s and 80’s. It was in New York that Herbert Lehman was born and raised, attending Rabbi Gottheil’s Temple Emanu-El along with the other young people of the prosperous German Jewish families in the city. Columbia and Barnard were their favored colleges, but one of Lehman’s teachers persuaded his father that Williams would be better for him. In 1899, a graduate of Williams, he returned to New York, where his brothers and cousins were developing Lehman Brothers, but instead of joining the family banking house immediately, he entered the office of a textile concern (with which, to be sure, the family had connections). The company was located on Worth Street, in one of those handsome cast-iron fronted buildings which housed the textile trade for so long, and are now coming down for parking lots. His friends in those days included, Nevins tells us, “Eugene Meyer . . . who had come from California and Yale, [and who] was head of his own banking firm; Paul Sachs, of Goldman, Sachs & Company, his career as head of the Fogg Art Museum all before him2; Sam A. Lewisohn, whose sister married Lehman’s brother, and entered his family’s banking house; and Hans Zinsser, [who] was well embarked upon medicine.”
This background provides one of the major shaping elements of Lehman’s career. Even before he went away to college he had discovered the teeming East European Jewish ghetto on the Lower East Side and its problems. One of the Schiffs, it seems, first took him down to the Henry Street Settlement, where he learned about tenement reform, sweatshops, and all the rest. Later came the First World War and the establishment of the Joint Distribution Committee; and after the war he was active in the great enterprises of the “Joint” in helping in the reconstruction of the economic base of Jewish life in Poland and Soviet Russia. When, many years thereafter, Lehman took over the nascent international organization that was being readied in 1943 to aid in the rehabilitation of Europe and the other theaters of war, he came with vast experience in many fields, including the specific one of setting up relief projects under adverse political conditions. Sixty-five years after his first visit to the Lower East Side, Lehman sits on the board of the Henry Street Settlement; is active in the affairs of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Committee; and visits the new zoo in Central Park that he and his wife have given to the children of the city. The stretch of years is very long, but one can still trace a strong, clear line of connection from the German Jewish community that was being shaped in the New York City of the 1860’s to the activities of the former governor in the New York City of the 1960’s.
A longside the civic and philanthropic work, there was the banking career, which began when Lehman entered the family banking house in 1909. Investment banking has always offered a particularly strategic position from which to view and understand the major trends in American society and economy. It permits one—indeed it requires one—to examine in detail new needs and new opportunities and the various ways in which entrepreneurs attempt to tap and organize them. Lehman Brothers was no exception. The firm supplied capital to the Underwood Corporation in 1910, the F.W. Woolworth Company in 1911, the Continental Can Company in 1913, and helped launch the Studebaker Corporation, as the climax to a sequence of mergers, before World War I. In its smaller way, Lehman Brothers performed the same services—and reaped the same rewards—as J. P. Morgan and other important investment bankers in creating the great American corporations. The Lehmans became rich—and Herbert Lehman acquired an education that was to serve him well in later years.
But here again a remarkably strong line of connection can be traced back to the special world of the mid-19th-century German Jewish immigrant merchants. For the Lehman firm was most closely identified with the huge new developments in merchandising in the first decades of our own century—the rise of the mail order houses, the department stores, and the chain stores—and German Jews were prominent in all these fields. As Nevins writes:
This leadership [in financing and advising the largest companies in the distributive industry] they were destined to keep, so that in 1950 the firm could declare: “Of today’s twenty largest retailing enterprises, Lehman Brothers has been or is presently regarded as investment broker for more than half.” The house has had a particularly close connection with the development of the department store in the United States. It played a principal role in finding capital for the creation of Federated Department Stores, Allied Department Stores, and Interstate Department Stores, and it acted as financial agent for R. H. Macy & Company, Gimbel Brothers, and other famous establishments.
Widening the path they had opened by financing the F. W. Woolworth Company in 1912, the partners also acted as investment bankers for S. H. Kress & Company, the W. T. Grant Company, and other chain stores.
And after World War I, Lehman Brothers also financed “several substantial groups of department stores in Germany largely controlled by Jewish interests.”
The firm was not limited of course to the distributive industries. Aside from the early involvement in automobiles (through Studebaker), there were truck trailers (Fruehauf), shipping (American Export Lines), consumer credit (C.I.T. Financial Corporation), aviation (Aviation Corporation), rubber (Goodrich), metals (American Metal Company). But there was no question where the center of activity lay. Herbert Lehman’s last great enterprise as a banker before the crash of 1929 and his entry into public life was to help arrange (along with Samuel D. Leidesdorf) the sale of Bamberger’s department store in Newark to R. H. Macy. Bamberger’s was owned by the bachelor Louis Bamberger and his sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Felix Fuld. With the money from the sale of the store, and with the advice of Abraham Flexner, Bamberger established the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton—just in time to create a haven for Albert Einstein and other scientists and scholars escaping from Hitler. Lehman was a member of the first Board of Trustees.
Here, then, we have a typical example of the way German Jewish merchandising, banking, and philanthropy all interlocked. For while investment banking was indeed a valuable bridge to understanding and influencing the larger American world, it was also closely tied to the smaller German Jewish world. Some of the merchants from little stores in the South became department store owners, and some became bankers, and the latter helped finance the former. They were very often related; family ties were close and were strengthened by strategic marriages, and business dealings flowed easily along family lines.
Now, though, as we turn to the political career which is after all the heart of Lehman’s story, the web of consistency is broken. There was very little in German Jewish experience in America that tied up with politics. The making of Jewish wealth has been rather remote from politics, compared, at any rate, with the wealth of some other ethnic groups. Jewish wealth was not big enough to be involved in the high policy of the nation, as was big wealth in heavy industry; nor was it very closely connected to local politics, except insofar as the merchants wanted honest and efficient government.
Political skills are probably in part inherited, and there was little in this area that Lehman could inherit from his family. Nor was he a “natural.” He did not try out his talents on the stage, as Al Smith did. He did not have a deep knowledge of and interest in American history and politics. And yet he became one of the most successful politicians New York State has ever known. He ran for office ten times, defeating such formidable opponents as Robert Moses, Thomas E. Dewey, and John Foster Dulles, and he was beaten only once. If he had not been Jewish, he would certainly have been a contender for the Presidency, as every New York governor automatically is (consider the sequence of Smith, Roosevelt, Dewey, Harriman, Rockefeller). No one should underestimate the combination of ability and ambition and drive (as well as sheer luck) that such political success in New York State requires.
There are many routes into politics, and I imagine Lehman’s would strike most professional politicians as rather peculiar. Businessmen do sometimes go into politics late in life, as witness Wendell Wilkie and George Romney, but usually after they have achieved a name for themselves. Lehman, however, was an investment banker, and those gray eminences seem to prefer not to develop an identifiable name. On the other hand, he was interested in politics even as a young man, and in the problems that politics deal with. Just out of Williams, he joined a local Democratic club. He was of course anti-Tammany, but a Democrat as his father, a Southern patriot, had been. (It is their Southern origin which helps explain why some bankers are Democrats.) He also ran a boys’ club for the Henry Street Settlement and learned about the troubles of the Lower East Side. His main form of participation in politics, however, was inevitably financial.
In 1912, along with many other reforming and progressive Democrats, Lehman supported William Sulzer, the Lower East Side congressman, for the governorship. Sulzer was anti-Tammany, and he won. Immediately upon taking office, he got into a violent fight with the organization over a direct primary bill, and was rousing the state to support him against the legislature when a legislative investigating committee revealed that he had not reported a number of substantial campaign contributions, including one. of $5,000 from Lehman. Testifying at Sulzer’s impeachment trial, Lehman had no trouble in convincing his hearers that he had given the money to support what he thought was an honest reformer and expected nothing but progress in return. “As he came down from the stand,” Nevins relates, “a Republican senator plucked his sleeve. ‘You really gave Bill Sulzer $5,000 with no strings whatever?’ . . . ‘Yes,’ said Lehman. ‘Well, you’re just the kind of man the Republican Party needs!’”
There is another story, also involving $5,000 of Lehman’s money, which is wonderfully revealing of the usefulness of bankers and their relatives in politics. During the Presidential election of 1916, the early returns showed Charles Evans Hughes ahead and Woodrow Wilson losing; as the night wore on, Wilson moved out front by a small margin, and it became clear that California would decide the election. The Democrats, watching the returns from their head-quarters in New York, were afraid that the Republicans, then in power in California, might try to steal the election: “Money was needed instantly to hire guards over the ballot boxes, and nobody knew where to find it. Happily, Lehman had an uncle in San Francisco, I. W. Hellman, who was head of the Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank. He telegraphed asking that $5,000 be placed immediately to the credit of the Democrats, and although Hellman was a Republican, the money was ready as soon as the bank opened.”
But money and access to money were not the only financial assets Lehman brought to his political activities; his detailed knowledge of business and banking also helped to further his career. Thus during the Sulzer administration, he was appointed to a committee engaged in a massive revision of the New York State banking laws, and during World War I he worked in the Navy Department in Washington on purchasing and procurement of supplies, and then on dismantling the huge machine that had been built up to provision the military. A supporter of Alfred E. Smith for the 1924 Democratic nomination in the lengthy and exhausting battle in Madison Square Garden between immigrant and small-town America, Lehman in 1928 became financial chairman of Smith’s campaign committee. In that campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt was prevailed upon to run for Governor of New York State. Since Roosevelt was still recovering from infantile paralysis, part of the agreement stipulated that an energetic and capable lieutenant governor, on whom the major burden of administration would fall, be nominated along with him. Lehman was chosen, and thus at the age of fifty, he found himself running for the first time for public office.
His experience in business, both public and private, and in philanthropy, had prepared him well for administrative work, and during F.D.R.’s four years as governor he struggled efficiently and conscientiously with the problems of the great depression—the closing of the banks, the needs of relief, the difficulties of conducting the state’s business in the face of falling revenues. He did a good job as lieutenant governor, and he felt that he deserved the governorship when F.D.R. moved on to the Presidential nomination in 1932. The organization, however, led by Curry of Tammany, preferred him in Washington, and had it all arranged for him to be nominated for senator, with Robert F. Wagner getting the nod for governor. But Lehman wanted to remain in Albany, and had his own organization, even if one of a rather different character from the party’s—Adolph S. Ochs of the New York Times, for example, privately put pressure on Roosevelt to force the party to nominate Lehman for the governorship—and by this time he also had a public name, and considerable power. Nevins describes how at the state convention he strode into the hotel room in which the chiefs of the New York State Democratic Party—Curry of Tammany, Dan O’Connell of Albany, Kelly of Syracuse, Murphy of Troy, McCooey, and others—were meeting to settle on the distribution of nominations, and announced that if they tried to nominate him for the Senate, he would decline. The party chieftains were checkmated.
A critical reading of the story, as Nevins tells it, makes it hard to see precisely why Lehman thought they were planning to knife him in the back. After all, they were ready to send him to the Senate, and this is where most governors seem to want to go. Lehman himself was very eager after World War II to get into the Senate. Indeed, the story reminds one, both in the violence with which Lehman reacted to the parceling out of the prizes by the party chiefs, and in the vagueness surrounding the causes of this reaction, of what happened twenty-six years later at another New York State Democratic convention. This was the convention at which De Sapio, Curry’s successor, wanted to run Frank Hogan for senator instead of the liberals’ choice, Thomas K. Finletter. It was a disastrous convention for the New York Democrats. The cry of “bossism” helped produce a crushing defeat for Governor Harriman by Nelson Rockefeller, and it also brought the big guns of the New York State Democracy, Herbert H. Lehman and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, solidly into the camp of the Reform Democats and led to the complete defeat of the organization in 1961.
In both cases, the organization’s sins seem venial. The argument in 1932 was how to distribute two good men in two good offices; the argument in 1958 was also over two men who did not as far as one could see differ greatly in competence, character, or appeal. The real passion, one may legitimately infer, was aroused by deeper and less rational considerations: as Daniel P. Moynihan has brilliantly shown,3 the divisions in the New York State Democratic party are more tribal than ideological, and tribal warfare has always been notoriously bloody and unmeasured.
Back in 1932, to be sure, the tribal elements, the conflicts between German Jews and white Protestants and Irish Catholics, probably played a smaller role in American politics, even in the Empire State, than they do today. Tickets were not as neatly balanced thirty years ago as they are now. (Lehman did not, as far as the record shows, succeed in politics because he “represented” the Jews or could get Jewish votes: the chief elements in his rise were money, managerial experience, knowledge of finance.) In 1932 the First World War seemed far away; even the battle over immigration restriction seemed far away—who would want to emigrate to the United States in 1932? Hitler had not yet risen to forge German and East European Jews in America into a single self-conscious group; the Spanish Civil War, which broke the easy alliance of Al Smith’s day of immigrant Irish Catholic and immigrant Jew, was still far off in the distance; so was the Second World War and its aftermath, the struggle over Nazism and Communism which divided groups on the basis of religion and nationality rather than simply economic need and interest.
Lehman was among the best governors New York has ever had. He was able to reorganize state finances, to urge programs for public development of natural resources, to improve the prisons, to expand the mental hospitals, to develop welfare and housing programs, and to improve the administration of relief. None of these problems was solved for all time; they never are; and every governor, if he can keep his mind on state business, faces them anew. Lehman, because there was really no place much better for him to go, remained governor for ten years, and could apply his full attention and energy to state affairs. And he was as successful as one could expect in the enormously difficult task he next undertook—the management of UNRRA, the relief and rehabilitation agency which tried to move into the devastated countries right behind the invading Allied armies.
Meanwhile, the world was changing and Lehman, the banker, the governor, the relief administrator, changed with it. He had never been a Zionist; along with others of his group, he had put his faith and his money into the rehabilitation of the Jews in Europe, and had seen Palestine only as a supplementary means of relief. These men were not nationalists, but Hitler changed all that. When Lehman entered the Senate in 1949, he was an ardent supporter of the new Jewish state, and he has remained a strong supporter since. Historical developments had brought the one-time investment banker and the one-time socialist Jewish masses close together, and he was their leader in almost every sense.
In rather old-fashioned style, Lehman never consulted the polls or the portents to find out what the people were thinking before deciding what he would say. During the depression, this system—or lack of system—worked because what was demanded from a governor was economic efficiency and social conscience, and he had both. When he entered the Senate, he was too old and too independent to find it necessary to consult his constituency in detail; but by that time he was almost identical in outlook with a very important part of it, and when he spoke, as he always did, from his heart and his convictions, he never lost a vote, and indeed steadily increased his hold over the Jews of New York.
The issues which moved him were the same ones that moved them: Senator McCarthy, the immigration laws, civil liberties and civil rights, government ownership of public utilities. He argued his views with such passion that he was apparently less effective than he might have been in the Senate—that gentlemen’s club which accepts only a few passions as legitimate, and which for the rest demands compromise and adjustment. This was not Lehman’s style. His earnestness aroused admiration and devotion in New York City, but not so much in the Senate or in the country at large—though liberals everywhere were heartened by the old man who could not be induced to moderate his abomination of Senator McCarthy.
In 1956, he returned, almost eighty years old, to New York and to those who understood him, admired him, deferred to him. He discovered that he had greater influence than any ex-governor or ex-senator could have expected, in part because he expressed as well as any man what New York Jews, with their radical past and their liberal middle-class present, wanted in politics. Lehman, stemming from the small and elite German Jewish group, had traveled a very different road from the one the great majority of New York Jews had taken, but they had come out, in the end, pretty much at the same place. Thus in 1962, looking over the whole range of potential candidates to run against Rockefeller, the Democratic leaders decided that they needed another Lehman, but not, interestingly enough, because they wanted the qualities that had first brought Lehman a state nomination thirty-four years earlier. They were not looking for a sound and sober banker and businessman, with a social conscience. They were looking, to put the matter crudely, for a statesmanlike Jew, for this seemed to be the image that appealed to more voters and repelled fewer than any other in the armory of Democratic possibilities.
Yet, as the Democratic leaders have learned, it takes more than a Jewish name and a prominent family background to make a Herbert Lehman. It is not Lehman’s fault that his many identities—investment banker, philanthropist, governor, relief administrator, liberal senator, Reform leader—have coalesced into a single dominant image: that of the Jewish political leader. Nor was this development the fault of his constituency. It seemed that history, both in Europe and America, was working to make simpler national and religious images important for everyone in politics in the northeastern United States. That such a thing happened is to be regretted, for it impoverishes our ideas of richly complex men. In thinking about Herbert Lehman, however, we can, at least, remind ourselves of how many varied sources went into the making of his character, and how many different works he accomplished in his long and fruitful career. One can only hope that the Jewish group in America remains capable of producing men of equal stature.
1 Herbert H. Lehman and His Era, Scribner's, 448 pp., $7.50.
2 Note in recording the relations between German Jewish banking and culture that the Loeb in Harvard's Loeb Classical Library and the Loeb in Kuhn, Loeb and Company are one and the same.
3 See “Bosses and Reformers: A Profile of the New York Democrats” in COMMENTARY, June 1961.