THE KING OF FIFTH AVENUE: The Fortunes of August Belmont by David Black
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THE KING OF FIFTH AVENUE: The Fortunes of August Belmont

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German-born, (quietly) Jewish banker August Belmont (1816-1890) cut a figure in mid-19th-century financial, social, diplomatic, political, and sporting circles; and author Black, a journalist and auspicious first-novelist (Like Father, 1978), has filled out all those circles into 700-plus pages of Masterpiece Theater mini-dramas and strikingly-set scenes . . . while still keeping the domestic circle the emotional core of his book. In the opening pages, we see very young August (briefly, Aaron) in the Rhenish village of Alzey just when the restrictions against Jews are fading--and, paradoxically, the yearly round of Christian and Jewish observances reminds a Jewish child of his abiding apartness. Such a child, Black writes, ""might reward himself for being excluded from the gentile merrymaking by feeling special; and feeling special, he could easily grow up convinced he could do something extraordinary."" Then, at eight years, August is taken by his parsimonious widower-father to live with his Rothschild-connected grandmother in Frankfurt--to get a good education and a head-start on his future career. Frankfurt is grand, overwhelming; denied the small, ideal world of Alzey, he will have to create an ideal world for himself--""just as the rich people riding through town in their private carriages . . . seemed to have done."" Black doesn't harp on any of this: as a Rothschild emissary (bound for Cuba), Belmont lands in New York in the midst of the 1837 Panic, and promptly nominates himself as the family's new American agent; soon a leading private banker and a social lion--""a careful businessman who spent unheard-of sums on luxuries""--he weds Commodore Matthew Galbraith Perry's beautiful and clever daughter Caroline (whose letters are one of Black's archival treasures); an active, loyal Democrat, he wins appointment to The Hague--where he surmounts the diplomatic pitfalls (which would be trying, here, if they weren't so well explained) and he and Caroline brilliantly surmount the snares of being below-the-salt Americans. Meanwhile he has seen his querulous father--who will continue to tax him for being a spendthrift. That interweave of large affairs, ceremonies and occasions, and personal relations is the reason Black didn't need a subject who was the utmost anything (and the reason, too, that the book is ill-served by the titular suggestion that this is another Social whirl). We will see Belmont become a suspect chairman of the Democratic National Committee (accused, even, of complicity in Lincoln's assassination); the antagonist of Gould and Fisk--and of Boss Tweed; a premier horse-breeder (whence Belmont Park); the troubled father of erring sons. A brimming saga--large of scope and large of heart.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Dial