It’s been a beautiful week in New York; quiet still. But lovely with lots of huge cumulous clouds passing through the bluest of blue skies. There is a peacefulness in the air right now.
With the current events as grim and foreboding as they seem, there is a great pleasure in the escape to history with all its reflections and implications clearly defined.
A friend, a native New Yorker with mutual historical interests, sent me a copy of Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd; The Great Jewish Families of New York, which was first published to great success in 1967. I first read it back then, but re-reading I realized I was a fleeting and unfocused viewer in those 20-something days.
I recalled having little patience back then for the adventures of a family I’d never heard of that occupied the first third of the story; a family that still remains obscure to most of us: the Seligmans. Brothers from Germany who came to United States in the 1830s working as door-to-door peddlers traveling the roads of the Deep South on a path that led to the California Gold Rush, the Lincoln Presidency and the Civil War and to a financial house on Wall Street that was thought by some to rival the Rothschilds in Europe.
Work, work, work. And more work. And family, family, family. Ironically although they were Jewish and immigrants to the New World they were able to claim their religious heritage without the constraints of the sectarian. A saga, it was.
By the 1870s, the Seligmans were a leading family in banking and in New York, separated from their non-Jewish (WASP) colleagues by the spector of casual anti-Semitism. In those ancient times, the Jewish bankers were excluded not only from what was then called “Society,” also from many business opportunities. Just because.
Many didn’t care and moved on. Many others were insulted. Nevertheless, they built their own society with its many mansions and progeny. The first generation of Seligmans in America was prolific. By the third generation they numbered well over 100 strong, and living large with their brethren and their neighbors on Murray Hill, Madison and Fifth Avenues.
From Our Crowd:
“Walking became a tradition among the Jewish bankers. Walking countered some of the effects of these (their enormous at-home daily meals). There was a point of dignity too. Carriages were for lazy men and men of little consequence. The splendor of the conveyance could dim the splendor of the passenger folded up within. Walking toughened the physical and moral fiber, but it was also a social form of locomotion. Walking, a man could meet his friends. Afoot, he could keep abreast of what the competition was doing. One did business while one walked, and one walked even when one sailed. In a few years’ time Jacob Schiff – who would tower above every financial figure in Wall Street – would be able to boast that he had made a million dollars while doing his morning constitutional about the deck of the Berengeria.
“(The Jewish Bankers were remarkable among nineteenth-century travelers because they talked to people; gentile society of the period was antisocial when it traveled, afraid of strangers, foreigners, parvenus, and other dangerous shipboard alliances.)
Of course it also may have been true that the bankers walked out of habit. The grandiose phrase for men like Marcus Goldman, Solomon Loeb and the Seligmans was “merchant bankers.” But they were in many ways, still peddlers covering their routes, only now they were peddling IOU’s.”
Chips Channon Diaries, continued. “Chips,” an American born, eventually aka Sir Henry Channon, was the best kind of gadfly, sitting on the windowsill of history watching as it goes parading by. Ultimately he was a Diarist/Chronicler, well aware of the allure of its writings, and its shortcomings: “Reformers are always finally neglected while memoirs of the frivolous will always be eagerly read.”
The diaries were first published in 1967, same year as Our Crowd, and later re-published in paperback in 1993 when I found it. I looked it up on Amazon. It’s hard to find a copy. They had two paperback copies of the second volume, with not a word about the first.
An excerpt: “8 April 1935. Honor (Channon’s wife, Lady Honor Guinness)has taken to reading George Moore, and when I found her with one of my old books in her hand, I thought of the days when I knew that old charlatan well. For he was a bit cheap, though the greatest singer, perhaps, of English, that ever lived. His work to me is always more like music than prose, and indeed when once I asked him if he was re-writing Ulick and Soracha, he replied: ‘My dear young man, I have re-orchestrated it.’
“He was pink, querulous, wounding and witty, and lived in a dream world of his own. His house in Ebury Street, where he worked for so long, was run by two excellent maid-servants, who adored and petted and protected him. The walls were hung with French pictures, usually modern. He could be very rude, particularly to other or younger writers. He pretended never to have read anything and indeed this was partly true, but he could be courtly to ladies when they were beautiful, or sufficiently important.
“He was fond of society but thought it tied him and took up too much of his time. He was mean financially, never saw his relations, and was unapproachable. He had blue eyes, pink face, white moustache and white hair, and looked like a walrus; and was pleased as a child with attentions from the Prince of Wales (ed. note: later Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor) when he was over eighty.
“I was once present at a peculiar scene when Lady Cunard was living at 5 Carlton House Terrace, some years ago. Her daughter Nancy became involved in the first of her many public scrapes, and I was sitting in the morning room with her mother talking about it, when George Moore was announced.
“Emerald (Cunard) leapt up, saying: ‘There’s little George Moore,’ as she always called him. They discussed Nancy and he made some tactless remark, which I do not recall, whereupon Emerald lost all control and in a frenzy of rage struck him with a paper cutter that lay on a Buhl table. She shook him, chased him and rained a volley of abuse on his bald, shining head.
“He was apologetic, cringing, and ran round the room to avoid further blows. At last he retreated, but it was odd to be present at this little scene between the greatest writer in Europe and the most sophisticated woman in London, and one wonders what their relations were that they could have been so intimate as to exchange blows.
“George Moore was licentious in mind and collected photographs of his women adorers and told racy little anecdotes with the idea of appearing more of a rake than he was. I think he was really an old monk, living in the wrong century, and it pleased him to play the rake.
“I told him once that my favourite book was Abelard and Eloise, and that I thought it much the most beautiful of all his works, and I was pleased when he said he thought so too. He adored Emerald for 25 years; certainly she was his greatest, and perhaps, only friend, and his manner with her was always that of the courting sailor.”
Ten days later.
“18 April. Ritz Hotel, Paris. Crossing from Dover, the boat was crowded with fashionables on holiday, going away for Easter. I sat with Lady Astor (the American born and bred Nancy Langhorne Shaw), who was chic, ondulee and gay. She accused me of introducing Honor to dreadful people like ‘that Cunard woman,” and asked me how it was that I, born of respectable American parents, could have such ‘low tastes.’ She is a queer combination of warm-heartedness, originality and rudeness. I find her antipatica.”
After Waterloo; Last of Napoleon. The Channon reference to Paris returned me to La Belle France by Alistair Horne (Knopf, 2004) which I’m halfway through. I opened it to this:
“So, with the Congress of Vienna, after 20 years of war, peace came finally to Europe. England withdrew to her island and empire to prosper in a hundred years, not of solitude, but of peaceable hegemony. The fallen tyrant, the ogre, the disturber of Europe’s equilibrium, was definitely mew’d on dank, wind-blown and termite-ridden Longwood where he would die – possibly of arsenic poisoning, some continue to think – in 1821.
“But for France, and Paris in particular, there would be little real tranquility in the short term. The country was financially, morally and physically in ruins. More insidiously still, the issues of the Great Revolution had never been properly resolved.
“Little more than three decades were to pass between Waterloo and the next major upheaval in Paris, in 1848, which would bring the end of the French monarchy. During those three decades, there would be two more major revolts in Paris, and after each one the proletariat, the poor and the revolutionaries of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine would feel that the bourgeois had cheated them out of their birthright, the gains of insurrection, as they had after the Great Revolution itself.
“It was a sense of being cheated comparable to what the same strata felt in post-Soviet Russia, where it was the ex-apparatchiks who were seen, deplorably, to make off with the fruits of the revolt.
“Nevertheless, there were elements in the Restoration (of the Bourbon throne) that a British historian like Richard Cobb, one of the greatest experts of the 19th century France, could find to justify it as ‘the happiest period in the violent and intransigent history of modern France.’”