Berkeley writers ancestor helped put California on map

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Isaias Hellman might not have the Jewish name recognition of a Levi Strauss or an Adolph Sutro in California history, but he almost single-handedly launched the Golden State into modernity.

“No one man in California has left an impress upon the financial affairs of the state in so many different communities and in such an unquestioned manner as I.W. Hellman,” wrote Ira Cross in his multi-volume “Financing an Empire: Banking in California.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, an award-winning journalist and Hellman’s great-great-granddaughter, meticulously documents her ancestor’s powerhouse biography in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,” an illuminating economic history of the Golden State in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She will speak Oct. 30 at the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival and Nov. 2 at the JCCSF’s Bookfest 2008.

Dinkelspiel spent eight years culling through more than 50,000 pieces of paper, including business ledgers, telegrams, personal letters and even grocery bills, in an effort to mold an accessible portrait of a titan of industry and finance.

Dinkelspiel then pieced together the disparate strands of Hellman’s story, which she found in archives and history books, from his arrival in California from Bavaria in the mid-19th century to his death in 1920. She also filled “Towers of Gold” with fascinating side tours of the other people and events that shaped the state’s development in the modern age.

“I love history. And it was a big puzzle, trying to construct a vision of Hellman’s life,” Dinkelspiel, who lives in Berkeley with her husband and their two daughters, said in an interview. “There never had been a book that laid out his trajectory.”

So for the first time, Hellman’s accomplishments are gathered in one book: He founded Los Angeles’ first bank, the Farmers and Merchants Bank; helped to establish the University of Southern California; invested heavily in water, gas and rail lines throughout the state; financed the burgeoning oil industry; rescued the financially troubled Los Angeles Times; and resurrected Nevada Bank and started the Union Trust Company, both of which later merged into Wells Fargo.

Hellman is credited with helping transform California into an economic powerhouse and turning Los Angeles and San Francisco into modern metropolises. He was a highly sought-after financier who consulted on the establishment of the Federal Reserve and bond sales.

Hellman was so powerful and respected that he virtually halted a run on the banks in Los Angeles in 1893, a story that lends the book its title. Amid a banking crisis, in which thousands of depositors withdrew money from their banks and forced several to close, “Hell- man and his brother heap[ed] mounds of gold coins on the mahogany counter [of their bank], in plain sight of the worried customers. Hellman had brought more than $500,000 from his personal account (about $11 million in 2006 dollars),” Dinkelspiel writes.

Hellman’s “towers of gold” caused the panic to subside. By day’s end, consumer confidence in the Farmers and Merchants Bank had grown so much that deposits were up $100,000. News of Hellman’s bold stunt spread across town and calmed everyone down.

Given the current financial crisis in the United States, it is almost impossible not to wonder what advice Hellman would offer.

“Times are very different,” said Dinkelspiel. “One thing Isaias always stood for was to keep the confidence of the customer. But the system is so much vaster now. You can’t have one person save the market.”

In addition to shedding more light on the Jewish movers and shakers in California history, Dinkelspiel delved into the role Hellman’s Judaism played in his life and in the lives of his contemporaries.

The author notes in “Towers of Gold” that Hellman preferred operating in the background — and the reason why, she surmises, may have been “a sense retained from Germany that it was better for Jews to keep a low profile.”

According to Dinkel-spiel, the profile Hell-man most identified with was American. Interestingly, Hellman was also decidedly against Palestine becoming a homeland for Jews because he feared, in part, that it might split American Jewish loyalties.

“He thought it would be better for European Jews to receive full equality in their homelands,” Dinkelspiel writes. “[Hellman] also disagreed with the notion that 100,000 Jews could or should take over 600,000 Arabs.”

Hellman was affected by the anti-Semitism that swirled around him. After the near-calamity in 1893, Hellman was accused of fomenting the gold shortage for his own purposes and labeled everything from a self-serving businessman to a Shylock.

“Because he was Jewish,” Dinkelspiel explained, “he felt he had to do things twice as well.”

“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (384 pages, St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Frances Dinkelspiel will speak at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 30 at the Contra Costa JCC, 2071 Tice Valley Blvd., Walnut Creek, as part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival. She will also speak at 5:15 p.m. Nov. 2 in conversation with Fred Basten on the topic of “California Moguls” as part of Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

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Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.