The Guggenheims: A Family History
by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger
497 pp., $29.95
Growing Up Guggenheim: A Personal History of a Family
by Peter Lawson-Johnston
ISI Books, 2005
142 pp., $35
The Guggenheims are one of the least well-known great families of American philanthropy. Some people know about the contributions Solomon and Peggy Guggenheim made to the art world, and more people have heard of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which provides intellectuals with fellowships for producing creative work, but few comprehend the vast reach and influence the family has had on American life and culture.
The family has been so influential in part because there are so many of them, a point not lost on the author of a 1930 Fortune profile of the family: “Henry Ford is wealthier than any Guggenheim. ‘But,’ someone has said, ‘there is only one Henry Ford, and there are a lot of Guggenheims.’”
The Guggenheims created a great fortune, and their philanthropy aided scores of artists and scientists. Biographers of the family have many interesting people to write about. Yet surprisingly, it’s been over 25 years since a general study of the family has been released. In 1964 Milton Lomask published Seed Money, an authorized account that contains valuable information on the donors and how various Guggenheim charities came into being. And in 1978 John Davis published The Guggenheims, which remains an indispensable resource. Apart from these readings, three books about Peggy Guggenheim have emerged. One is an autobiography, the other two biographies, with Anton Gill’s in 2002 being the most recent.
So it’s significant that one of America’s most generous families is the subject of two new books. Peter Lawson-Johnston’s Growing Up Guggenheim is the first autobiography to emerge from the fourth generation of Guggenheims. And Irwin and Debi Unger released a new study of the family titled, The Guggenheims: A Family History.
Peter Lawson-Johnston’s father, a British diplomat, married Barbara Guggenheim, the second of Solomon Guggenheim’s three daughters. Growing Up Guggenheim, his slight but interesting memoir, includes chapters on Solomon, Harry, and Peggy Guggenheim, as well as Lawson-Johnston’s own philanthropic work as president of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s board of directors. Lawson-Johnston remembers his grandfather Solomon as a distant but doting ancestor, his cousin Harry as a tough-minded entrepreneur, and his cousin Peggy as both highly intelligent and highly eccentric.
Irwin and Debi Unger are experienced authors who have collaborated on many histories, mostly about the 1960s. Unfortunately, their talent for writing history doesn’t shine through in this work. While they add some new information about the family, particularly its business achievements, this important information is overshadowed by minutiae. The Ungers display a compulsion for writing about every descendant of Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905), who arrived in America in 1848 a penniless immigrant and died in 1905 a multimillionaire. His wealth came from mining; the family owned a majority stake in American Smelting and Refining (later Asarco) and minority stakes in Kennecott Copper and Anaconda. This lack of editorial discretion on the authors’ part produces flat prose and tedious pages about the lives of his less-important great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren.
The Ungers’ coverage of the Guggenheim charities is likewise uneven. They do a good job describing the important work of Daniel and Harry Guggenheim in advancing aviation, but are surprisingly poor in telling the history of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. This is particularly surprising because Irwin Unger received two Guggenheim Fellowships. Readers who want to know more about the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s early years will still need to read Davis if they want to know what Simon had in mind when he set up the foundation, and Lomask if they want to explore the ideas of Henry Allen Moe, a champion talent-spotter whose skills ensured that the Guggenheim Foundation was an important influence on American arts and culture. The best source for learning about the colorful uses to which early Guggenheim recipients put their grants remains Peter Lyon’s “The Adventurous Angels,” published in Horizon in 1959.
In my opinion, the Guggenheims produced five great philanthropists: Daniel Guggenheim, an aviation pioneer; Simon Guggenheim, founder of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation; art patrons Solomon and Peggy Guggenheim; and Harry F. Guggenheim, son of Daniel, who continued his father’s research in aviation and completed his uncle Solomon’s museum.
Three of these great philanthropists were sons of Meyer Guggenheim. Daniel Guggenheim (1856-1930) was persuaded by his son Harry to take an interest in aviation and funded many important aviation ventures in the 1920s and 1930s. The Daniel Guggenheim Fund supported the research of rocket pioneer Robert Goddard, who was mocked by the New York Times for suggesting that rockets could one day reach the moon. A $100,000 grant enabled him to move from Massachusetts to New Mexico in 1930, where the skies were friendlier for launches and the people minded their own business. Another Guggenheim program persuaded 6,000 cities and towns to mark buildings in their communities so that aviators could look at the markings to see where they were. (Everyone who marked his or her building received a certificate personally signed by Charles Lindbergh.) In 1927, the Guggenheim Fund loaned aviation entrepreneur Harris “Pop” Hanshue $140,000 to launch the first commercial passenger service in the United States between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Hanshue was able to repay the Guggenheim loan by 1929—and the grant showed that passenger airlines could be profitable.
Simon Guggenheim (1867-1941) decided to create a foundation as a tribute to his son John Simon Guggenheim, who died at age 17 after complications from pneumonia. He asked American Smelting and Refining’s general counsel Carroll Atwood Wilson for advice. Wilson recommended hiring as consultants Swarthmore College president Frank Ayledotte and Henry Allen Moe, who had recently completed a Rhodes Scholarship and needed a job. Wilson, Ayledotte, and Moe together came up with the idea for the Guggenheim Fellowships—competitive one-year fellowships open to scholars age 25-35, The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which began grantmaking in 1925, has faltered in recent years, as its selection committee increasingly prefers tenured professors in endowed chairs over the young and struggling. But at least for the first 20 years, the Guggenheim Fellowships did a fine job in helping young novelists, painters, and professors fulfill their potential.
Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949) only became an important philanthropist in his seventies, when he fell under the spell of Baroness Hilla von Rebay, a forceful woman. (According to Peter Lawson-Johnston, the family’s nickname for the baroness was “the B.” “Even at an early age,” Lawson-Johnston writes, “I sensed that ‘B’ did not stand for ‘baroness.’”) Baroness von Rebay convinced Guggenheim to invest in what she called “non-objectivist art.” In 1937, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation was created to purchase this art. It also took on the tedious job of buying land and commissioning renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the building that would hold these works.
When Solomon Guggenheim died in 1949, his museum was still on the drawing boards, stalled by bureaucracy. (The New York City Department of Housing and Building claimed that Wright’s design violated 32 clauses of the New York City housing code.) Harry Guggenheim (1890-1971) successfully cut the red tape, ensuring that the Guggenheim Museum was completed by 1959. Harry also launched the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, which continues today its studies of the “human penchant for violence, aggression, and dominance.”
Benjamin Guggenheim, Peggy’s father, went down on the Titanic after he put on his tuxedo and announced he would die like a gentleman. Peggy Guggenheim used a small fortune and a great deal of entrepreneurial ingenuity to become one of the most important art patrons of the 1930s and ’40s. As a result of negotiations by Harry Guggenheim and Peter Lawson-Johnston (who was president of the Guggenheim Museum board), her collection was absorbed into the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation after her death
“In the end,” the Ungers write, “our memory of the Guggenheims as a family depends on their benefactions.” Indeed. Donors can learn two valuable lessons from Guggenheim philanthropy. First, donors with strong ideas are more successful than those who delegate everything to their staff and leave no instructions on what sort of grants should be made. During their lifetimes, the Guggenheims often received abuse for their ideas. When Solomon Guggenheim launched his first exhibition in 1939, for example, New York Times art critic Edward Alden Jewell condemned the exhibit as “a religious cult set to incidental music.” Yet history’s verdict is that Solomon Guggenheim was a major donor and Edward Jewell is forgotten.
Second, giving money to younger scholars is a better (and cheaper) way to allot money than giving grants to established, well-credentialed veterans. The Guggenheims were at their best when they funded artists and scientists at the start of their careers. Composer Aaron Copland, for example, was 26 when he received his Guggenheim Fellowship; Samuel Barber was 24. By giving this money early, the Guggenheim Foundation probably did more to advance Guggenheim Fellows’ careers than they would have if they gave large grants after their fellows had become successful.
Both The Guggenheims and Growing Up Guggenheim remind us that the Guggenheims were among the greatest donors of the twentieth century. There’s still plenty of unexplored territory, however, for scholars and biographers who want to study the Guggenheims’ achievements.
Contributing Martin Morse Wooster wrote the entry on the Guggenheims for Notable American Philanthropists.