A Family History
By Irwin Unger and Debi Unger
HarperCollins. 550 pp. $29.95
In 1848 -- the year that gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill near Sacramento, Calif. -- a Swiss Jewish peddler named Meyer Guggenheim arrived on a dock in Philadelphia, a major manufacturing center where he hoped to seek the fortune denied him in the repressive Swiss canton from which he had come. In 1984, almost a hundred of his descendants thronged the spiraling ramp of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum on New York City's Fifth Avenue for a group portrait, part of a celebration of one of the great American business dynasties. With a fortune based on a mining and refining empire that stretched from one end of the Western hemisphere to the other, the Guggenheims had become one of the richest families in the United States, outranked only by clans with names like Rockefeller, Ford, Mellon and Morgan; they had been U.S. senators, ambassadors and Kentucky Derby winners; they had pioneered in aviation, owned newspapers, endowed an iconic foundation to nurture intellectual life in America, and helped spread the gospel of modernism in the visual arts.
No wonder that in the 1960s Harry Guggenheim -- a World War I air ace, U.S. ambassador to Cuba and co-founder of Newsday -- discussed chronicling the saga of his family with one of his cousins, Harold Loeb. Loeb is now chiefly remembered as the model for Robert Cohn, the sad-sack Jewish patsy who is Jake Barnes's rival for the affections of Lady Brett Ashley in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; but as the founding editor of Broom, one of the iconic Little Magazines of 1920s expatriate Paris, he was also a man of some literary perspicacity. As Irwin and Debi Unger report in The Guggenheims, he was "skeptical of the enterprise. The subject was probably too big, they agreed. A biography of Meyer or of Harry's father, Daniel, might be more manageable. 'But if the writer is good enough,' Harold speculated, 'I suppose he can make a good book out of the larger canvas.' "
Unfortunately -- despite a wealth of credentials that include Irwin Unger's Pulitzer Prize for The Greenback Era -- the Ungers haven't managed to write that good book. Seemingly overwhelmed by their large and variegated cast of characters, and by the demands of telling both a public (or professional) and private story, they have produced a curiously arbitrary and bloodless account of this extraordinary family. They begin with 174 pages of corporate history -- the founding, growth and diversification of the Guggenheims' mining and metals-refining companies, among them Guggenex (Guggenheim Exploration Company), ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company) and Kennecott Copper -- that have all the excitement and allure of an annual report. And when they finally do turn to the flesh-and-blood Guggenheims behind these mining and smelting ventures, they race through their histories like guides in a portrait gallery.
Here's Isaac, "more an accountant than an entrepreneur," who had a fortune of $10 million, two houses in New York City and an Italian Renaissance mansion on Long Island; here's Daniel, "the family's chieftain," who "survived his older brother [Isaac] by eight years," had "a ten-room suite at the luxurious new St. Regis Hotel" and a Long Island mansion of his own, and was married to Florence, "a classically dutiful wife" whose role was to "oil the wheels" of her husband's social existence while simultaneously acting as a "sparkplug of the New York section of the Council on Jewish Women." (Did I mention that the mixed metaphor seems to be the Ungers' stylistic signature?) Over here we have Robert, "the spitting image of his father," who became a playboy and sexual adventurer, with multiple wives and mistresses; Gladys, who married Roger Straus (of the department-store and U.S. cabinet Strauses) at a wedding "attended by various Gimbels, Marshalls, Morgenthaus, Untermeyers, Adlers, Loebs, Strauses, and . . . many of the gentile high and mighty: Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, the Nicholas Longworths, Andrew Carnegie and his wife" and others.
And let's not forget Simon's two sons, George Denver, a gay manic depressive who "squandered his money in nightclubs and on drink and drugs" before shooting himself to death in 1939, and John Simon, "a sweet-faced lad" who died of mastoiditis while a student at Phillips Exeter Academy and was memorialized by the foundation bearing his name; nor their uncle William, a tireless crusader against Roosevelt's New Deal who was also a Broadway angel, chorus-girls' sugar-daddy and composer of now-forgotten popular songs like "Crumbs of Love." Alas, before any of these briefly sketched personages can develop into a full-fledged character, the Ungers recite his or her death date or the amount of his or her estate and turn to the next item in the checklist.
Only three Guggenheims escape the capsule-history treatment -- Harry, Solomon and Peggy, arguably the most colorful members of this far from lackluster family -- and the chapters devoted to them give a hint of the kind of book The Guggenheims might have been if it were better designed and focused. Harry, the Ungers relate, was an anomaly, at once the most controlling and most adventurous of his siblings. He took flyers on chancy enterprises like racing horses, starting up newspapers, bankrolling the then-little-known Jimmy Doolittle to develop the technology for instrument flying, and funding Robert Goddard's rocket research in the 1930s. But he was also a compulsive micro-manager who not only plotted out activity schedules for relatives visiting his South Carolina shooting lodge in his absence but also monitored his family's intestinal behavior, greeting his grandsons at breakfast with, "Boys, have you done your duty today?"
Unlike Harry, Solomon allowed himself to be overwhelmed, submitting his heart and his wallet to the iron whim of the German baroness and Surrealism proselytizer Hilla Rebay, who in the 1920s persuaded him to begin amassing a collection of contemporary art that became one of the landmarks of 20th-century modernism. "Hilla gave uncle Sol a whole new existence," said his niece Gladys Straus. Rebay not only guided his acquisitions but also persuaded him to hire Frank Lloyd Wright to design a building to house the collection: a radical, even revolutionary structure that, as the New York Times's architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, wrote, "has been hailed as a masterpiece, attacked as an atrocity, called the finest museum of all time and denounced as no museum at all."
The Ungers maintain that Sol's relationship with Rebay "while libidinous, . . . may well have sidestepped actual intercourse" (now there's a dance step); but there can be no doubt about the role of sex in the art-collecting habits of Sol's niece, Peggy, a love-starved woman whose childhood was blighted by the death of her father on the Titanic. "Peggy went to bed with everyone," said the assistant to Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. The list of her partners is a kind of honor roll of mid-20th-century culture: In addition to her two husbands, the High-Bohemian icon Laurence Vail and the Surrealist poet-painter Max Ernst, she had liaisons with Marcel Duchamp, Samuel Beckett, Yves Tanguy and scores of others. When she wasn't going to bed with artists, she was buying and exhibiting their work -- first in her innovative New York gallery, Art of This Century, and later at her palazzo (later the Peggy Guggenheim Collection) in Venice; and she was among the first to give one-man shows to the emerging American Abstract Expressionists, including Jackson Pollock. As the Ungers see it, "Peggy's quest for love had, as Freud supposed, been sublimated into art after all." While this kind of psychologizing may seem facile, it's a welcome change from the pallid recitation of real-estate holdings and corporate due diligence that constitutes the first part of this book.
"It would be satisfying," the Ungers write, as if to forestall such criticism, "to squeeze the Guggenheims into the family pattern described by Thomas Mann in Buddenbrooks, his novel about a nineteenth-century Lübeck merchant family. . . . But real life is messier than biographers would like." That, alas, is precisely the point. Real life isn't sliced and diced into a set of segregated chapters on business and family affairs or interrupted by comments like "We shall reserve this story to a later chapter." It's organic; it ebbs and flows, dictated by events and personalities. A good biography recognizes this truth and does its best to replicate it; too bad that Irwin and Debi Unger couldn't do the same.
Amanda Vaill is the author of "Everybody Was So Young," a biography of the Lost Generation icons Sara and Gerald Murphy, and co-author of "Seaman Schepps: A Century of New York Jewelry Design." Her biography of Jerome Robbins, "Somewhere," will be published next year.