The world belonged to them

Nicholas Fox Weber, author of "Patron Saints" and "Balthus: A Biography," is writing a biography of Le Corbusier.

Meyer and Barbara Guggenheim, the Swiss immigrants who started one of America’s richest families, had 11 children between 1854 and 1873. All but one survived. When the seven boys were all of working age, Meyer summoned them into his office and had each break a thin stick. The brittle sticks snapped like twigs. “He then passed around seven of the same sized sticks tied together and asked each to try to do the same thing with the bundle. None succeeded, of course. . . . ‘So it is with you. Together you are invincible.... Stay together, my sons, and the world will be yours,’ ” instructed the powerful father.

The strength of brothers working in tandem has applied to many of the families that have shaped America’s financial and philanthropic worlds -- the Rockefellers, the Warburgs and the Kennedys among them. It is the basis of Irwin and Debi Unger’s energetic, readable family biography, “The Guggenheims.” The seven sons amassed phenomenal wealth -- combined assets of about $200 million by 1929 -- and demonstrably affected our culture, medical care and even the development of aviation.

Being Jewish was a defining factor in their lives. The Ungers address the subject with insight and historical perspective. Whatever the individual members of the clan wanted or rejected in the way of religion or social identification, the real meaning of their Jewishness was defined by the rest of the world and its edicts. Anti-Semitism in Switzerland took some unique forms, including the “Jew Toll” exacted whenever peddlers -- among them Meyer Guggenheim’s ancestors -- relocated. In 1905, by which time their spectacular successes in mining and smelting had made the Guggenheims one of America’s richest families, boxes containing explosives were sent to the New York offices of M. Guggenheim’s Sons and of the financier Jacob Schiff because of their religion.


In World War I, most of the men in the family enlisted, and the women were leaders in the Red Cross and war bond effort. In 1917, Bernard Baruch and a colleague on the Raw Materials Commission visited Daniel, one of Meyer’s sons, in the large suite at New York’s St. Regis Hotel where he and his wife lived and asked if the family would lower the price of copper to support the war effort, which they did. This did not prevent Henry Ford, three years later, from accusing the Guggenheims of profiteering, a claim he publicized in his book “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.”

When the colorful arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, the daughter of another son, was a little girl, she and her cousins cheered when the hotel across from their grandfather’s beach house on the New Jersey shore burned, because it prohibited Jewish guests. Yet many family members were ambivalent about being identified by their background. They were proud of their non-Jewish appearance and small noses. Here poor Peggy was an exception. At 19, after she inherited money from her father, Benjamin, following his drowning on the Titanic, she treated herself to a nose job, but it was famously botched.

This fascinating family saga, told with the brisk spirit of its subjects, evokes the strength necessary to create a dynasty. Now when we see the name Solomon R. Guggenheim on the marvelous white entrance of Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiral museum in New York, we can picture that same man (another of Meyer’s sons) in the 1890s with a revolver in his belt so he could ward off banditos as he traveled in Mexico leasing mines and locating a smelter. His father was so tough that during “drastic surgery” for prostate cancer the poor guy refused anesthesia and smoked a cigar and listened to music.

The audacity took various forms. Another son, Simon, bought his election as senator from Colorado. The Republican blithely explained, “It is done all over the United States today.” At least his position allowed him to contest the Dillingham Immigration Commission proposal of classifying Jews “as members of a separate race.”

This long book is dizzying in its jumps between eras, with characters coming on and off the stage. The text suffers from lack of character development and a resemblance to class alumni notes: “Brian