Then and Now: The visionary immigrant with a golden touch

Sandy Weill, who created the world’s biggest bank with Citigroup, raised some eyebrows recently when he said on CNBC that large banks should be broken up, and the industry better regulated.

Isaias Hellman in the 1890s

In New York, where Weill ran Citigroup, he combined financial daring with massive philanthropy, giving more than $500 million to what is now the Weill Cornell Medical College. Recently ensconced in Sonoma, where on Sept. 29 the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Hall at Sonoma State University will open, Weill is attempting to change the rules of banking to better profit the country at large.

A Bay Area model for this kind of banking and philanthropic vision goes back to German-Jewish immigrant Isaias Hellman (1842-1920), who became L.A.’s first banker and a founder of the University of Southern California before moving to San Francisco to become the West Coast’s most important financier.

He is best known today for turning Wells Fargo into a financial powerhouse, but his larger impact was in creating a culture of economic possibilities for California, linking its future — by bank, education and public works — to the rest of the country’s.

His leadership or funding of the Napa wine industry, the Southern Pacific Railway, the University of California and a group of major banks is outlined in the award-winning biography “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Berkeley resident and Hellman’s great-great-granddaughter, Frances Dinkelspiel.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.