The Mon­ey Kings: The Epic Sto­ry of the Jew­ish Immi­grants Who Trans­formed Wall Street and Shaped Mod­ern America

  • Review
By – November 27, 2023

Daniel Schulman’s The Mon­ey Kings is a well-researched eco­nom­ic his­to­ry of the foun­da­tions of Jew­ish wealth and phil­an­thropy in Amer­i­ca. Men from the lead­ing Ger­man Jew­ish fam­i­lies of the time — Schiff, Selig­man, Lehman, Gold­man, Sachs, and War­burg — are the main play­ers. Today, their names are inscribed on count­less New York cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, but do we ever won­der how their vast for­tunes were built, in a world that fun­da­men­tal­ly dis­trust­ed Jews? 

Arriv­ing in Amer­i­ca in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry with Ashke­nazi roots, these young immi­grants stud­ied the dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic land­scape care­ful­ly, assess­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ties offered here. Some start­ed as ped­dlers, mov­ing up to ware­hous­ing and financ­ing in the South’s cot­ton trade. Oth­ers began their careers by arbi­trag­ing cur­ren­cies, then buy­ing and sell­ing debt. Before long, many had bought or built man­sions on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They sup­port­ed their shuls and char­i­ties, cel­e­brat­ed the High Hol­i­days, said kad­dish, and observed oth­er Jew­ish rit­u­als as they pleased. Mar­ry­ing non-Jews was not yet accept­able, and the spous­es of daugh­ters were often absorbed into the fathers’ busi­ness­es. Sons would attend Ivy League schools before land­ing appren­tice­ships at allied finan­cial insti­tu­tions. Oper­at­ing in a world of large­ly unspo­ken anti­semitism, they social­ized most­ly with each oth­er, only min­gling with select non-Jew­ish financiers and politi­cians (includ­ing J.P. Mor­gan and Woodrow Wil­son) when mak­ing finan­cial deals.

By keep­ing a low pro­file, these men could play strate­gic roles in major rob­ber baron con­sol­i­da­tions — for exam­ple, in rail­road, oil, and sug­ar trusts — and still avoid a lot of anti-Jew­ish push­back. But the anti­semitism was still there. After World War I, Hen­ry Ford and Charles Edward Cough­lin (com­mon­ly known as Father Cough­lin) released the flood­gates, call­ing Schiff and his asso­ciates world-dom­i­nat­ing Elders of Zion,” and the poi­son of prej­u­dice flowed freely. Many of the so-called Mon­ey Kings retired in the after­math of the 1929 stock mar­ket crash. Beyond their phys­i­cal frailty, they couldn’t grasp the real­i­ties of Hitler’s rise to pow­er, they were too fond of the Ger­many they remem­bered from their youth.

When Schul­man describes the inevitable deaths of these finan­cial patri­archs, read­ers may find them­selves unex­pect­ed­ly affect­ed. This old­er gen­er­a­tion was smart, pick­ing their bat­tles care­ful­ly and let­ting the small stuff slide. One imag­ines Schiff’s chutz­pah, telling Tsar Nicholas II that he would have to let the Jews out, before Schiff would arrange loans for his gov­ern­ment. The Tsar balked, and Schiff’s mon­ey helped Japan defeat Rus­sia. Schiff lis­tened to Lil­lian Wald’s plans for a set­tle­ment house and went on to finance it.

Finan­cial his­to­ry can be dry to some, but Schul­man sea­sons his account with enter­tain­ing anec­dotes. He’s alert to themes that res­onate today, like Theodore Roosevelt’s dia­tribes against hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ties, or his nativist attempts to lim­it immi­gra­tion. While it’s Schiff who stands out, he’s well sit­u­at­ed in the con­text of his net­work, so the read­er gleans a fuller pic­ture of turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish life and is shown a robust study of late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can finan­cial history. 

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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