Q. How did you come upon the story of Isaias Hellman?
A. As a fifth-generation Californian, I grew up knowing that I had a relative who had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank. When I had children of my own, I wanted to find out more about our family history. I took a trip to the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco, where I was amazed to discover there were dozens of boxes filled with papers about Isaias Hellman, my great great grandfather. Once I started to poke into them, the reporter in me took over. I couldn’t stop digging.
Q. What was the most interesting thing you discovered about Hellman?
A. That he was a Zelig-like character who played an essential, but sometimes hidden role, in the development of the West. As a banker, Hellman worked closely with many of the iconic business figures of the late 19th and 20th centuries, including Collis Huntington, Henry Huntington, Edward Harriman, Meyer Lehman of Lehman Brothers, Harrison Gray Otis of the Los Angeles Times, Edward Doheny and Charles Canfield, two of the largest oil men in the world, and Levi Strauss, the jeans maker. It became clear during my research that Hellman had a magic touch and an astute business sense. People sought him out to help their businesses succeed.
Q. How did you figure out the story of his life?
A. It wasn’t easy. When I started my research, I didn’t even know the names of Hellman’s brothers and sisters or how he got into the banking business. I had to go through thousands of pages of his letters, business correspondence, receipts, and diary entries to develop a timeline of his life. It was like a big puzzle. But there were lots of rewards along the way. I traveled to his birthplace in Reckendorf, Germany, saw where he was born, and took my daughters to visit the graves of their great great great great grandparents. That was a very moving experience. I spent time in some of the most magnificent libraries in the world, including the Bancroft and Huntington libraries.
Genealogy is immensely popular in the United States and I understand why. We are a nation of immigrants and most of us don’t know our own family stories. It is thrilling to look through old censuses, city directories, and newspaper articles to trace family members. The hunt is addictive and every time you uncover a new, small, fact, you feel like you have achieved a major victory.
Q. Was it difficult to remain objective while writing about a relative?
A. No. If Hellman was still alive and I knew him, it would have been hard to write about him. But he is dead and can’t be affected by revelations about his personal or business dealings. Besides, it is not only people’s good qualities that make them interesting, but their shortcomings as well. I tried to draw a portrait of a complex man.
Q. Were there any mysteries you uncovered while writing the book?
A. Yes, and tracking those down were some of the best moments I had in writing the book. I discovered a Hellman who had a son born out of wedlock, a Hellman relative who embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and fled to South America, and stories of great fortunes made and lost.
Q. How did your research change your perceptions of your family?
A. The best part of writing this book was meeting dozens of relatives I never knew existed. The Hellmans lived for generations in Reckendorf, a small German town, but started to leave in the 1840s. Now there are Hellmans all around the world. While I knew lots of Hellman descendants in San Francisco, I didn’t know about the dozens who lived in the Los Angeles area, or those in St. Louis, Portland, New York, and New Orleans. I even tracked down the family of a Hellman born out of wedlock in the 19th century. They live in Iowa and were surprised to hear from me!
Q. Why should people care about Isaias Hellman?
A. Hellman lived in a complicated world, one that offered amazing opportunities, but one that was also consumed by bigotry, prejudice, and violence. He grew up Germany, in a society that mistrusted Jews and passed laws to make sure they did not succeed financially. He moved to a remote corner of the world (pueblo-era Los Angeles) and fought to improve himself and the world around him. Like many people who come to California, Hellman reinvented himself. In that way he mirrors many of the people who live in the West today.
In addition, Hellman played a direct role in the creation of some of the country’s biggest corporations and industries. His actions continue to reverberate today, at Wells Fargo Bank, the Bank of America, in the educational system of the University of California, in the California oil economy, and elsewhere.
Lastly, Hellman represents the great wave of Jews who came to California during the Gold Rush and stayed to transform the frontier into a wealthy and powerful state. The experience of Jews in the West in the 19th century is very different than the history of Jews in other parts of the country. Since California was an unformed society, Jews faced minimal discrimination. They became merchants and politicians and leaders in their communities. It’s a fascinating story that is not well-known.