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Bio lays out life that paralleled state history

Towers of Gold
Towers of Gold
By Frances Dinkelspiel

St. Martin's Press: 2008

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This review first appeared in the March 29, 2009 issue of the North County Times.

Frances Dinkelspiel's biography of her great-great-grandfather is an illuminating look at California's early days as a part of the United States. While a touch fawning at times, "Towers of Gold," her history of the life of Isaias Hellman, is also by its very nature the history of the rise of California's modern economy.

Born in a Jewish ghetto in Germany, Hellman became a Californian by chance (two cousins had set up shop in the tiny hamlet of Los Angeles, and agreed to take in 16-year-old Isaias and his younger brother, Herman) and a banker by accident (customers of his general store asked to keep valuables in his safe), but proved adept enough at it that he founded several banks in his career before purchasing Wells Fargo and turning it into a giant of West Coast finance.

Like most people who made real money off the California gold rush, Hellman (who had been sent by his parents to America in 1859 to escape growing anti-Semitism at home) catered to those who were seeking their fortune in the gold fields. After working in his cousins' dry-goods store, he saved up enough of his meager salary to open his own store. And when he saw the demand for space in his store's safe, he opened a bank as well.

Drawing on a wealth of correspondence, financial records and other documentation at the California Historical Society archives, Dinkelspiel has woven a narrative that shows Hellman not simply as a beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time, but as someone who recognized opportunities and took advantage of them to help California draw on its vast natural resources.

As a young businessman, Hellman helped craft a deal to run a railroad line to Los Angeles – giving that city access to other markets throughout the nation and ensuring that LA would become the largest city in California, not the then-larger towns of San Francisco and San Diego, with their large natural harbors.

After a series of acquisitions, Hellman found himself moving to San Francisco to manage his business interests – and providing much of the capital to rebuild that city after the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906. He was also an early supporter of the University of California, serving as a regent for many years. (The title of the book is taken from the face that during several financial crises, when runs on banks threatened economic disaster, Hellman would secure all the gold coins he could lay his hands on and re-open his banks personally, with the "towers of gold" coins stacked high on the bank's back counters for all to see – thus reassuring investors and depositors alike of his banks' solvency.)

Much of the book is taken up with Hellman's family relationships – the extended family contacts that also served as business connections, his marriage and children, his falling-out with his closest brother. While definitely an admiring biographer, Dinkelspiel is not completely without criticism of Isaias: She lays most of the blame for a long-running feud with his younger brother on Isaias' pride, and points out that in various other feuds he had with extended family and business associates, his pride was often an impediment to healing.

But whether Dinkelspiel is as hard on her ancestor as another author would have been, the fact remains that this book is a solidly written history that lays out the life of a pretty remarkable man whose impact on our state is still being felt today.