Book review: Towers of Gold

by Philip Brewer on 10 December 2008 3 comments

Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California by Frances Dinkelspiel.

It will not, I think, surprise my regular readers to hear that I like to read books about money.  All kinds of books about money--not just books on personal finance and frugality, but just about anything, including monetary histories and stories of wealth.  Dinkelspiel's new book hits those last two categories (besides being an engaging biography as well).

The book is the story of how Isaias Hellman, a jewish immigrant from Germany, started as a shopkeeper in Los Angeles in 1859, and went on to found two banks, run two others, and have as much influence on the history of money in California as anyone.

As you might expect, I particularly enjoyed the parts about money.  The "towers of gold" of the title refer to the way Hellman dealt with runs on his banks--by piling up so many gold coins on the counter that anxious depositors could see for themselves that the bank had enough cash on hand.  Also fascinating, though, are the stories of early mass transit in Los Angeles (where Hellman made a fortune), land speculation in Los Angeles (where he made another), and the early politics of the water supply (where he made a little money as well).

Also interesting are the threads that run through to the present.  For example, Hellman ran the Wells Fargo bank for many years (a name that people will still recognize).

If the book has a flaw, it's that it succeeds a little too well at what it's intended to be--a biography of an interesting person.  Dinkelspiel never finds a single narrative thread to hang the other pieces of the story on--there are a dozen threads.  Each one is interesting in its own right--the thread of his family, the thread of his jewishness, the thread of the railroads (the land speculation, the dangerous frontier, the San Francisco earthquake, fire, and aftermath)--but they remain individual threads.

If you like any of a dozen different kinds of books--biographies, monetary histories, corporate histories, stories of wealth and power, stories of the frontier--you'll find things to like in Towers of Gold.  I did.

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Mark

Great site.

I think the first investment anyone should make is in themselves.

Mark

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wildgift

I'll have to read this book. I'm from an area of LA where there's a street named Hellman, and I bet it's for him. It's on the eastside.

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Ruby

Shame on you for not capitalizing Jewish in your otherwise well written article about Towers of Gold which I am reviewing for my book club. I asked the guide at the Erhmann-Hellman summer home at Lake Taoe to include the word Jewish when she talked about Hellman being a German immigrant. Too often we only hear that someone is Jewish when they have done something bad i.e. Jewish fianancier Bernie Madoff.