We did this interview a couple of weeks ago via email. I told Frances to only answer the questions she found interesting. I’ve left in tact all questions I sent her.
* What were the biggest obstacles you had to face in making this book?
The biggest challenge was finding information about early Los Angeles. I really wanted to write about the development of the Jewish community as at least 8 Jews were in the region by 1850. But the LA Jewish community has done a poor job of preserving its history. I went to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple, which is the successor to B’nai B’rith, LA’s first synagogue, and asked to see their old minute books. The director was very helpful but he had to scrounge through numerous cabinets to find them, and then he only found documents from the 1890s onward. All the earliest documents are missing. Apparently, no one realized years ago that these documents were worth preserving.
I got bits of information about the Jewish contribution to the settling of Los Angeles by reading the newspapers of the 1850s, 1860s, and 1870s. I spent weeks and weeks in the basement of the UC Berkeley library scrolling through the Los Angeles Star, Herald, and other papers. Reporters back then covered social occasions, so I found descriptions of events like B’nai B’rith’s first conformation in 1870 at the Teutonic Hall, dances to raise money for the temple, and the dedication ceremony in 1872 for the temple, then located on Fort Street. (Broadway). I also found some really poignant things, like the death of 5 year old Eugene Hellman, the son of Samuel and Adelaide Hellman. He and his brothers were playing on and around a wagon laden with goods. The wagon driver kept yelling at the kids to get off the wagon, but they ignored him. Then tragedy struck. Eugene Hellman fell off the wagon and the horse crushed him. This was in July 1871. It was the first recorded Hellman death in Los Angeles.
* I believe this is your first book. What surprised you about the process of publishing/promoting your book?
I was surprised how long it took. I started this project around 2000 and it has taken 8 years for it to be published. But I loved researching the book and meeting people. Who wouldn’t enjoy doing research at the Huntington Library where you get to look at old documents in the morning and then wander the verdant gardens during lunch? I also connected with lots of Hellman relatives I never knew existed. While Isaias Hellman moved to San Francisco in 1890 to take over the Nevada Bank, his two brothers, Herman and James, remained in Los Angeles. There were other Hellman cousins as well (Hellmans first came to LA in 1854) so there are dozens of descendants in the area. They welcomed me and have been very supportive of Towers of Gold.
* Why did you go for that provocative subtitle, "created California" and do you think your book made that case convincingly?
My first title was Towers of Gold: Isaias Hellman and the Creation of California. But my publisher really wanted to get the word Jewish in the title since Jews are avid readers. And while the subtitle suggests that I think Hellman was the only creator of California, I don’t actually think that. Clearly lots of people made this state what it is. But I can argue that Hellman played a pivotal role in the creation of at least 8 industries: banking, transportation, land development, oil, water, wine, electricity and education. That’s a pretty broad swath. He really was extremely important to the development of the state.
* Do you have any thoughts about why Orthodox Judaism did not take off in San Francisco but did in Los Angeles?
It’s important to remember that when the first wave of Jews came to California in the 1850s, they were mostly from Central Europe. And there was no real Reform movement then, or clear distinction between Reform and Orthodox. Hellman and the other early Jewish settlers practiced a traditional Judaism in the beginning. But they had to adapt to America and they fit their religion into the broader society. I regard it as an attempt to survive in a new land rather that a rejection of their religion.
There are Orthodox Jews in San Francisco. My sister-in-law to be is Orthodox and she lives near Boston. She was visiting recently and she said there are thousands of Orthodox families in the Bay Area. Perhaps there are fewer than in LA, but there is a thriving community here.
* San Francisco Jews seem highly assimilated with in general only an attenuated relationship to the tradition? Any thoughts on this?
Jews poured into San Francisco after gold was discovered in 1848. The first services were held in 1850 and they would be considered Orthodox in many ways. These were men and (some) women who had recently fled countries that had only identified them as Jews. They had only intermittently been considered citizens of Franconia or Bavaria or Posen and Alsace. So when they came to the United States they were afforded the opportunity for the first time to be regarded first as Californians. Can you imagine the level of frustration Jews built up over the centuries? Those who came here were allowed to excel without restrictions for the first time in their lives. So they sought to enter American society. Many of them retained their religious affiliations but adapted them for a new country. You need to look at these pioneers through the lens of the 19th century rather than the lens of the 21st century.
However, after years of not being as ardent about their Jewish identity, Jews today in the Bay Area are growing more observant. I am a member of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco. There are now 2,700 families who are members. The temple introduced something called the contemporary service which is mostly singing in Hebrew. It is now much more popular that the Classic Reform service, with its choir and a top-down direction from the rabbis. Many other temples in the Bay Area have seen similar surges in membership.
* Orthodox Judaism seems largely absent from the characters in this book. I’m guessing it is largely absent from the history of California until recently.
Orthodox Judaism really took off when the third wave of Jews came to the United States in the 1880s. (The first wave was Sephardim, then Jews from Central Europe, and then Jews from Eastern Europe) Hundreds of thousands of Jews came to the U.S. to escape the pograms of Russia and they retained their traditional ways once they arrived here. Most of them settled on the East Coast and those who came west tended to settle in San Francisco.
* The current banking meltdown, you couldn’t have asked for a better tie-in? Does history have anything to teach us? Does it have anything to teach us about our current mortgage/banking troubles?
One of the major issues underlying the economic meltdown is a lack of confidence. No one trusts any one else so banks have been reluctant to make loans to other banks or even to good customers.
There was a banking crisis about once ever 10 years in the late 19th ad early 20th centuries. There was no Federal Reserve of FDIC insurance, so people actually could – and did – lose all their savings during bank panics. Isaias Hellman, in both 1875 and 1893, stopped bank runs in Los Angles because people had confidence in him. They saw Hellman, the president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank, LA’s first successful bank, as making sure there were enough deposits so anyone could get their money any time they wanted. They trusted him to take care of them, and he did. So he could intervene in rocky times and calm people down. The world is way too complicated now for one man to have that type of reputation or influence.
* I was interested that anti-Semitism did not play a big role in the lives of Jewish immigrants to CA until the 1890s and even then seemed far from dominant. Did this surprise you? Have you ever experienced anti-Semitism?
One of the little-known but fascinating aspects of California history is that it was so accommodating to Jews and members of some other minority groups (not the Chinese.) Jews who came to California were able to set up stores and rise to positions of prominence without much opposition. There were Jews on the city councils of Los Angeles and San Francisco soon after those cities’ founding. Hellman was appointed as a regent of the University of California in 1881, and he was the second Jew to be appointed. So the opportunities on the west coast were much greater than those of the east coast. Of course, many Jews in New York and New Orleans had tremendous success as well.
* I often feel like America in general and California in particular is about as close to utopia as one can get in this world. Do you feel that way?
I love California. I love the big open sky, the golden hills, the oak trees of northern California. California is a place where people can reinvent themselves if they want, and I think that is a good thing.
* Why do you think people on the West Coast are less religious than those on the East Coast?
We like to bicycle, jog, walk in the hills, and eat good food more than sit in temple and develop a formal relationship to God. People on the West Coast are more skeptical about organized religion. Many are very spiritual; they just don’t belong to a temple.
* Have you spent enough time out of CA to be able to spot its idiosyncrasies?
* How did your feelings about Isaias Hellman change over the course of researching and writing this book? You don’t exactly slop over with emotion in this text. This book feels to me a like a biography by a journalist rather than one by a critic or friend of the subject. Did you struggle with how much emotion to put into the text? With embroidering events or staying strictly journalistic? Did you have to resist an urge to be "novelistic and exciting"?
I have been a journalist for 25 years and my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, People magazine, and other places. Even though Isaias Hellman is my great great grandfather, I wanted to write a book that illuminated the history of California. I went through more than 50,000 pages of archival documents, including letters, contracts, business correspondence, diary entries, and newspapers. It is a serious biography, I hope, but one filled with action and excitement. There is an assassination attempt, a stagecoach robbery, a train wreck, love stories, betrayal, embezzlement, war, the construction of massive mansions, and more in Towers of Gold. I never strayed from the facts but I drew from various accounts to create the vivid scenes in the book.
If I don’t slop over with emotion, it’s because I never knew Isaias Hellman. He died 40 years before I was born. I also had to use the facts that I had culled from letters and diary entries and newspaper articles about him. I could not suggest what he was thinking unless he had mentioned somewhere in his papers what he had been thinking.
* Did you have to overcome your background in journalism to do something different — a booklength biography or was the book a simple extension of your prior journalism?
When I took a leave of absence from my staff position at the San Jose Mercury News, I decided I wanted to write personal essays. Then I decided to write a book. I had to teach myself an entirely new style of writing – more descriptive, more scene-based, slowed down to create dramatic tension. It is definitely different than the inverted pyramid style of newspaper reporting. But the investigative techniques I used as a journalist came in handy during my research.
* Do you come from money? Do you have feelings about "the rich"? Did you have to process any feelings about "the rich and powerful" while writing this or were you always at ease with "the rich"?
* Did you have an elite upbringing? Private school etc?
* Do you believe in the decline of the generations? That previous generations were giants and we are only pygmies on the shoulders of giants?
I don’t believe in the decline of the generations. Many descendants of Isaias Hellman have gone on to do important things and give back to society. Some were regents of the University of California, and many have donated funds to the school. There are doctors, lawyers, artists, businessmen. One grandson, Edward Heller, was one of the founders of Silicon Valley. He was an original venture capitalist. His father started the SF Symphony. A great great grandson Warren Hellman is one of California’s most successful businessmen. Plus, he’s generous. He throws a free, three day concert in Golden Gate Park every year called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. There are 5 stages, dozens of musicians, and hundreds of thousands of concert goers. So I think descendants of influential men can and do go on to lead productive lives.