Dull, pollyannaish family history of greed and general financial grubbiness in post–Gold Rush California.
Freelance journalist Dinkelspiel, great-great granddaughter of Isaias Hellman (1842–1920), discovered a trove of his papers at the California Historical Society and spent eight years digging through them and visiting collections elsewhere to reconstruct the life of her financier forefather. After a brief personal introduction and an equally brief account of Hellman’s quick move to abort a run on his Farmers and Merchants bank in Los Angeles during the Panic of 1893, the author commences a chronological journey through his life. Hellman arrived fairly penniless in Los Angeles (population under 5,000) in 1859 but soon began an archetypal soaring ascension into the stratospheres of wealth. He boasted a mansion, a summer home in Lake Tahoe, successful children and a finger in just about every pie in the California sky: trolleys, oil, water, land, newspapers, higher education and, principally, banking. He consorted with Levi Strauss and competed with the Huntingtons; near the end, he testified repeatedly before grand juries in graft and corruption cases. The author, who often begins chapters with a weather report (“the air was crisp and cold”), offers scant analysis or criticism of her ancestor; the book often reads like a report prepared and delivered by an earnest middle-schooler during Family History Week. She does not consider in any serious, systematic way the deleterious effects Hellman’s greed might have had on employees, small businessmen and farmers. (One unappreciative guy took a couple of shots at him but missed.) As she sees it, all was for the greater good of California; it just so happens that her ancestor got exceedingly rich in the process.
A well-fed dog with no bark or bite.