Thursday, March 1, 2007

Lots of Lehmans

Descendants of Mayer and Babette Lehman last night at the Museum of Jewish Heritage
3.1.07 - Families are almost always interesting. Our own families are interesting, and often astonishing. Everyone’s is unique. Or so we are prone to think. The source of our Selves, mysteries envelop families, legend arises .

Every anecdote and tidbit of memory enhances, even the most dramatic life stories – because ultimately it is about ourselves, who we are, who we think we are, and whence we came. The larger the family, the greater the saga because the diversity of the human condition is glorified in large families. Similarities, all kinds of similarities abound also, thanks to genetics.

All this business about “family” came to mind last night when I went down to the Museum of Jewish Heritage on the Battery for a book party (and family reunion)  for the Lehman family, one of the great families of New York of the last century.

The book is called “Lots of Lehmans.” It is the collaboration of three Lehman cousins,  William Bernhard, June Bingham Birge and John Loeb Jr., in collaboration with Kenneth Libo who put together the copious family memories and recollections from various cousins and created this fascinating document of a family, this branch of which was begun by one Mayer Lehman and his wife Babette Neugass who married in 1858 and settled in a big house in Montgomery, Alabama.

Both Mayer and Babette came from towns
in Germany, emigrating to the American South (Alabama and New Orleans). Mayer had come from a prosperous family in Germany but in those days, only the eldest son was invited into the family business (which in this case was cattle). So the younger boys came to the land of opportunity to seek their own fortunes. And they succeeded.

Within a few short years, they turned a traveling peddler business into a merchant store and then cotton brokerage known as Lehman Brothers. There were three boys. Two survived to leave the South as wealthy men, after the collapse of its economy at the end of the Civil War.

Babette and Mayer Lehman had four
children (three of whom survived childhood) when they lived in Alabama, and four more when they moved to New York. Around the turn of the century, the Lehman brothers joined forces with the firm of Goldman, Sachs and moved from cotton into the investment banking business.
Mayer and Babette Lehman
The story of the Lehman brothers’ is interesting business history but far more compelling is the story of Mayer and Babette’s development as parents and their resulting offspring, and their offspring, who went out into the world and brought distinction to the family name prominently in the worlds of civic duty, culture, and philanthropy.

The family has grown to more than 600 members and includes a US Secretary of the Treasury, a member of the House of Lords, a member of the House of Commons, the Manhattan district attorney, two ambassadors, two presidents of Temple Emanu-El, a playwright, a world-renowned art collector (the Lehman Wing of the Metropolitan Museum) and a large number of investment bankers, educators, judges, lawyers, a restaurateur, a boostore owner, two heads of major American corporations, a New York State park commissioner and a group of foundation executives.

Last night more than 100 Lehman descendents of Mayer and Babette congregated for the “book party.” Four generations later  are Morgenthaus, Loebs, Bronfmans, Bernhards, Altschuls, Lewisohns, Goodharts, Limburgs and many others, all direct descendants of this one couple.

Lessons to bear in mind: “The key to the flourishing of this remarkable family,” according to the history, “lay in its taking full advantage of educational and economic opportunities in the New World that had not existed for Jews in Europe.” There were also the rules for their children: Love Honor and Obey, especially “obey” Papa and Mama. Aha. Lest we forget (if we haven’t already).
William Bernhard, June Bingham Birge, and John Loeb Jr.
The couple were Reformed Jews who observed their religions holidays but eschewed many other religious traditions, substituting them with education in language, history and culture. In place of some of those traditions, Mayer taught his children the Jewish tradition of tsedaka – the joy of giving.

Every Sunday without fail, Mayer would take his three youngest children – Arthur, Irving and Herbert – through the wards of Mount Sinai Hospital to see for themselves both the fruits and the challenges of Jewish philanthropy. And to develop the rich tradition of the tsedaka .

As adults, Arthur became the family banker, Irving, a judge, and Herbert, governor of the State of New York and US Senator. All three of those boys also became major philanthropists – Arthur as a co-founder of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and the Museum of the City of New York, Herbert a supporter of Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement House and a founder of the Joint Distribution Committee, and Irving, a longtime president of the 92nd Street Y and Temple Emanu-El. The eldest son Sigmund was a founder of Montefiore Hospital.
Phoebe Eaton, Arthur Altschul, and Stacey Bronfman
John Loeb and and his daughter Alexandra Driscoll
A century after Mayer Lehman, by 1950, Lehman Brothers was the sixth largest banking house in the country. For the first seventy-five years only Lehmans were partners in Lehman Brothers. Not even relatives, no one unless the name was Lehman.

All that has changed now; I’m not sure what if any relationship the family has to the firm bearing its name. Nevertheless, the family prevails and thrives in so many aspects of those interests first inculcated by Mayer and Babette – business, government, civic duty, philanthropy and the creative arts. A healthy number of three or so generations of the family were there last night, very excited to be together, to be a part of a powerful force that left a lasting mark on the modern American community. You could really see the wonder and joy in the faces of so many family members as they posed for our photographs, and especially the group photograph.

The memory of that one couple could be celebrated with at least a dozen biographies socializing with and around each other last night at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in the Battery.

I rarely get down to that part of Manhattan, where Manhattan started, all replaced, of course by huge, towering structures. So there were new things to see and consider. Compared to the rest of the city, this section is very quiet at night. Last night there was almost a full moon that brightened the plazas, and the weather was cold but mild.

I left the party thinking about the phenomenon of all of those individuals who were part of one family, a family that had prevailed, powerfully even, in New York for more than a century. Part of it was the sheer numbers brought up with a strict consciousness of their relationship to the community (exercised or not) and each other. Sheer numbers no longer exist in families. Or, rarely -- which is best considering the sheer numbers of the planet’s population compared to a hundred fifty years ago when Mayer and Babette Lehman struck out onto the road of life.
John and Nicholas Loeb
Miss Cushing and John Loeb
June Bingham Birge and her daughter Claudia Bingham Meyers
Judith Loeb Chiara, Arthur Loeb, Ann Loeb Bronfman, and John Loeb and Sharon Handler
John Loeb, June Bingham Birge, and Henry Morgenthau