Growing Up Guggenheim: A Personal History of a Family Enterprise

Growing Up Guggenheim: A Personal History of a Family Enterprise

by Peter Lawson-Johnston

ISBN: 9781933859194

Publisher Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Published in Arts & Photography/Business of Art

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

GRANDPA SOLOMON The Museum's Founding Father

My great-great-grandfather Simon and his son Meyer arrived in Philadelphia in 1848 from Lengnau, Switzerland, after a two-month sea journey. One of two towns in all of Switzerland where Jews were allowed to live, Lengnau had for generations offered Meyer's ancestors neither opportunity nor security. Forbidden to own land, Lengnau Jews were allowed to work only as peddlers, tailors, or moneylenders. The Swiss authorities confiscated income beyond that which provided a meager subsistence.

In search of anything better than the bleak future preordained in their homeland, the Guggenheim family joined the great nineteenth-century European exodus to America. Virtually penniless, father and son became door-to-door peddlers. Meyer, in his early twenties, was particularly successful at selling stove polish to farmers and miners in the Pennsylvania Dutch country. Soon, the Guggenheims set up a business to manufacture stove polish and, later, something called "coffee essence," a concentrate made principally of chicory.

By 1852, Meyer, at twenty-five, could afford to marry his nineteen-year-old sweetheart, Barbara Meyer, with whom he had fallen in love on the voyage to America. By 1873 they had eight sons and three daughters.

After Simon died in 1869 at the age of seventy-six, Great-Grandfather Meyer expanded the family business by becoming a wholesale spice merchant, manufacturer of lye, and importer of laces and embroideries. He and Barbara had eleven children: daughters Jenette, Rose, and Cora, and sons Isaac, Daniel, Murry, Solomon, Benjamin, twins Simon and Robert (Robert died at age nine), and William. A hard-driving man, Meyer was devoted to his family and determined to instill ambition in his seven surviving sons so that they could ultimately join him in the family business. Barbara, who had no interest in business, apparently was a truly dedicated mother who enjoyed that role enormously. In addition to creating a warm home for her family, Barbara instilled in her children a love of music and the arts and supported their philanthropic inclinations.

The children attended Catholic day schools in Philadelphia. In their late teens, Dan, Murry, and my grandfather Solomon were sent to Switzerland to learn the embroidery business. Upon their return, Meyer formed a partnership, M. Guggenheim's Sons, giving each son an equal share, even though the older brothers shouldered most of the workload in the early years. A family story that passed down to my generation tells how Meyer once gathered all the brothers together, handed each a stick, and asked him to break it. He then had each brother attempt to break seven sticks together, which none could. His moral: in unity, strength.

In 1881, Meyer learned of a silver and lead mine in Leadville, Colorado, that was for sale because it was flooded. He invested in what became the famous A.Y. and Minnie Mines, which turned into a bonanza. Soon the Guggenheims were deep into the highly profitable mining business.

Grandfather Solomon, at thirty, was sent to Mexico in 1891 to supervise the construction of a smelter in Monterrey. I've been told he carried a loaded revolver at all times and proved to his father and older brothers that he was both courageous and effective. Ultimately, the Guggenheims dominated copper, lead, and zinc mining and smelting in the U.S., owning or controlling American Smelting and Refining Corporation, Kennecott Copper, and others. In the years prior to World War I, the family had secured control over as much as 80 percent of the world's copper, lead, and silver mines.

At the peak of their success they discovered the famous Chuquicamata Copper Mine in Chile, owned diamond-mining operations in the Congo and in Angola (in partnership with Thomas Fortune Ryan and Societe Generale de Belgique), gold mines in the Yukon, and copper mines in Alaska. When Meyer died at seventy-eight in 1904, he left each son a multimillionaire.

Their liquid assets were vastly increased in 1923, when my grandfather three of his brothers decided to sell Chuquicamata to the Anaconda Company for $70 million (more than $700 million in 2002 dollars). Because their decision was made over the objections of Dan's son, Harry, and Murry's son, Edmond, the Chuquicamata sale scattered Meyer's hallowed "bundle of sticks" for this and succeeding Guggenheim generations. Nevertheless, that 1923 sale left each of the Guggenheim brothers among the wealthiest men in the world, and each in his own way began to employ that wealth in ways so grand they soon eclipsed and obscured the roots of the family fortune.

* * *

Born in 1927, four years after Grandfather Solomon realized his share of those assets-and began spending them lavishly-I assumed, as children do, that his way of life was a timeless condition, not the magnificent exercise in semi-nouveau riche it actually was.

To say my grandparents lived expensively is a gross understatement, though to a measurable extent my grandfather had earned it, over and above his inheritance. My half-brother, Michael Wettach (who died in 1999), and I used to talk about the things we remembered most about our visits to Grandpa Solomon and Grandma Irene. In the end, the overwhelming luxury of their lifestyle left the most durable impression on us both.

As boys, we visited our grandparents most often at their palatial 200-acre estate, Trillora Court, at Port Washington's Sands Point on Long Island. It encompassed a beautiful nine-hole golf course, which his deceased brother Isaac had built for himself upon learning that the Sands Point Golf Club wouldn't admit him (or any other Jew). I formed a lifelong attachment to golf on that course. A much-better-than-average golfer, Solomon was portrayed in John H. Davis's monumental 1978 book The Guggenheims as "driving the ball past mossy baroque statues and fountains, formal Italian gardens," which as a youth I was too absorbed in the game-and still am-to notice.

Trillora was designed in the Italian Renaissance style, an immense, square, forty-room structure surrounding an enclosed courtyard. The driveway was a curving, mile-long path of small, bluestone chips. I remember waking to the sound of the grounds crew raking that endless gravel ribbon-a Sisyphean task that began again each time a car passed over it. My grandfather and grandmother each had a chauffeur. When approaching the house, my grandmother's chauffeur, Gunther, would give the horn three short beeps, while my grandfather's chauffeur, Allen, gave one long blast. These "codes" alerted the footman exclusively assigned to my grandfather or grandmother to race from the back of the house to the front in time to open the gates and retrieve his particular charge.

The other morning sound at Trillora was that of heavy steel blinds being raised outside the mansion's enormous windows. I'd bound out of bed and beat it downstairs to the formal dining room, where my grandfather and I would eat breakfast alone together before he went off to work in New York. He was an impeccably tailored gentleman, very short, perhaps five feet six inches, bald, with a prominent nose, blue eyes, and ruddy complexion, and I was delighted to have him all to myself on those occasions. We would dine on oatmeal (which my grandfather always called "porridge") topped with cream from Trillora's own dairy farm.

While Michael and I tried to be on our best behavior at Trillora, we weren't always successful. While Grandma considered me a "perfect little angel," there was the time when, at a very young age, I peed down the trough-like banister of the grand marble staircase. Another time, chasing a playmate down one of Trillora's cavernous halls, I grabbed a table in order to make a quick turn, causing a priceless statuette to smash to smithereens on the floor. My mother was furious. "But the little dear didn't mean it," cooed Grandma, "and the statue didn't mean anything to me anyway." Somehow all the pieces were swept up, and on my next visit, the statuette stood in its usual place, glued back together-although I swear to this day that what had been three standing figures had become, after its restoration, two standing figures and one reclining.

When I was ten or so, after returning from his office in New York or nine holes of golf, Grandpa started inviting Michael and me to his bedroom in the late afternoon, where he would lounge in bed reading the evening paper, dressed in his silk long underwear. Jules, his valet, would draw Grandpa's bath, after which Grandpa would don his black-tie attire for dinner, with Jules's help.

Boyd, the butler, would wheel a bar into the drawing room and Grandpa would ceremoniously concoct an "orange blossom" cocktail for himself; my brother and I were given an orange juice so that we could join him in the "happy hour." After dinner, we would gather around the radio and listen to Gabriel Heatter deliver the news. (As I recall, Grandpa was not an avid fan of Franklin D. Roosevelt.) Before dinner one such evening, Grandma explained at length her having bought that day an expensive necklace. Grandpa listened politely till she finished, then held up the gin bottle and said, "That's perfectly all right, Irene, but someone in the kitchen has gotten into my gin."

For her part, my grandmother was in many ways heir to the character of her mother-in-law, Barbara-sweet, affectionate, and focused on her family. Occasionally she displayed the penny-wise ways my mother inherited from her. She would refold her dinner napkin around a lipstick stain, put it back in its napkin ring, and tell Boyd that it hadn't been used, implying it need not be cleaned. She kept absolutely everything, and in going through her belongings after she died, one of us found a trunk of linen labeled, "Too darned to be used." Pondering this in retrospect, Michael said, "They still knew the value of a buck."

Both of my grandparents had canary appetites and ate very quickly. Because he could drink soup that was boiling hot, Grandma used to say that Grandpa, having been in the copper business, had a copper-lined stomach. Several close family friends of their generation would stop at Howard Johnson's on their way to Trillora because they knew that the Guggenheims' meal portions were so tiny. The parents of my mother's third husband, Henry Obre, came to Sunday dinner once and watched with famished terror as a platter with one less chop than there were diners slowly made its way around the table-a gustatory Russian roulette that kept everybody on the edge of their seats wondering who wasn't going to eat.

My grandfather's recreations ranged across many interests and locales. He hunted in Scotland; on his 12,000-acre plantation, Big Survey, near Yemassee, South Carolina; and in Idaho at Railroad Ranch. He was also an excellent fisherman. When I was about eleven, Grandpa took us on a cruise on the St. Lawrence River. He sat on the stern of the boat facing aft with his fishing line dragging behind. Each time he dozed off I would strike his line with my pole and he would yell with a start, "By Jove, I've just had a bite!" Teasing Grandpa in this fashion took a modicum of courage, for I was truly in awe of the man.

Grandpa was also a yachtsman, and I particularly remember one of his more unconventional yachts, a converted World War I 305-foot U.S. destroyer he kept in Roslyn, Long Island. After the terrible hurricane of 1938 hit the area, Grandpa had his chauffeur take him to Roslyn to check on his yacht. He returned grinning from ear to ear and said, "It's a total loss." He was thrilled because he hadn't been able to sell the monster, which was fortunately insured.

A splendid raconteur, my grandfather took pains to include us in any good joke. Once, when I was a little boy, my brother Michael and I motored from Charleston to Long Island with Grandpa and Grandma. We stopped at Mount Vernon at the suggestion of my grandmother, who was a history buff. When she got out of the automobile with Michael, Grandpa asked me to stay behind with him. He then took me by the hand and we walked across the lawn to a wooded area. "Peter," he said, "I want you to be able to tell your grandchildren some day that you and your grandfather watered George Washington's lawn."

In short, I enjoyed a warm relationship with my grandfather and grew up with an image of him as a wealthy, powerful, avuncular gentleman. Until I was an adult, though, I knew next to nothing of his roots or his fortune. (I must still consult Davis's volume for certain historical details.) And because neither he nor my mother talked much about the Guggenheims, I was until adulthood unaware of the role the Guggenheim name played in the public's consciousness, or of the complex interests and motivations that drove his life when I knew him.

Like several of his brothers, Solomon sought to repay his adopted country some of the riches he had earned over the years. His mother, Barbara, had instilled in her children a philanthropic spirit, and toward this end they all established charitable endeavors. Dan focused on supporting aviation and rocketry, Murry set up a free dental clinic in New York City, Simon created a foundation in his son's memory to provide grants to aspiring artists and scholars (still renowned as the Guggenheim Fellowships). Benjamin, a playboy who went down with the Titanic, contributed indirectly to society through his daughter Peggy, who amassed a great art collection. All seven sons contributed to Mount Sinai Hospital at their mother's death.

And, late in life, my grandfather Solomon began to collect the contemporary art of his time, art few Americans understood or appreciated. The driving force behind this remarkable collection, a collection that in many ways defined and established modern art in the twentieth century, was my grandfather's "confidante" (for want of a perfect word), Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen. The baroness came to the United States from Germany in 1927 (the year I was born). A painter whose work had been exhibited in Germany, Switzerland, and France, the baroness brought with her a letter of introduction from my grandmother's sister. My grandmother acquired one of her works, which led to a commission to paint a full-length portrait of my sixty-five-year-old grandfather. Hilla was dynamic, visionary, mercurial, charming, thirty-six years old, and obviously attractive to her subject.

The following year, under Hilla's influence, Grandpa began to buy abstract and other highly nontraditional paintings-works by Kandinsky, Gleizes, Delaunay, Leger, Chagall, and other artists then virtually unknown in America. The paintings were hung in my grandparents' New York apartment. As interest in nonobjective (what we would now call abstract) art began to grow, more and more people came to the apartment to see Solomon's paintings. Eventually, my grandparents began to hold a weekly two-hour open house, inviting the public in to see these strange new works. They were, of course, the modern masterpieces that formed the nucleus of the famed collection now ensconced in the Guggenheim Museum, the institution with which our family name is most identified to this day and whose board I directed for the better part of my career.

Looking back, I'm somewhat amazed that neither Michael nor I had any real sense, as boys, of the value and importance of Grandpa's collection, though it was right in front of our eyes every time we visited my grandparents in New York City. Occupying the lion's share of the Plaza Hotel's second floor, my grandmother's and grandfather's separate Plaza domains reflected their distinct tastes in art and decor. My grandmother, whose maiden name was Rothschild ("but not the Rothschilds, dear," she used to say) had decorated her own suite, facing 58th Street, in "Old New York." Her sitting room, dressing room, and big bedroom were well stocked with French antiques and Persian rugs. Her paintings were beautiful and traditional: Oriental, late medieval, early Italian Renaissance, fifteenth-century Flemish.

As you left her suite, though, you entered a long hallway on the Fifth Avenue side where my grandfather's modern art reigned supreme. The walls were covered with Bauers, Braques, Chagalls, Kandinskys, Klees, Modiglianis (a magnificent nude of his was the only painting that left an impression on my boyhood memory), Picassos, and Seurats. The apartment's living room, dining room, and my grandfather's bedroom fronted Fifth Avenue (its windows surmount the flagpoles above the hotel's main entrance today); here, too, "the modern" dominated. The walls in his bedroom were covered in cork, and the toilet and sink in his bathroom were purple.


Excerpted from "Growing Up Guggenheim: A Personal History of a Family Enterprise" by Peter Lawson-Johnston. Copyright © 2006 by Peter Lawson-Johnston. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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