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Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California

3.99  ·  Rating Details ·  147 Ratings  ·  34 Reviews
Isaias Hellman, a Jewish immigrant, arrived in California in 1859 with very little money in his pocket and his brother Herman by his side.  By the time he died, he had effectively transformed Los Angeles into the modern metropolis we see today.  In Frances Dinkelspiel's groundbreaking history, the early days of California are seen through the life of a man who started out ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published January 5th 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin (first published November 11th 2008)
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Leif Erik
Jan 16, 2012 Leif Erik rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: california, econ
This is a tough one to rate. The information and subject matter borders between 4-5 stars, while the writing is around 1-2. Dinkelspiel writes like the reporter she is, the book is like a series of feature pieces strung together in chronological order. This technique actually works by and large, but there are way to many mini-sections that come out of nowhere and don't connect at all to what follows. If you read Ron Chernow or Walter Benjamin you'll probably find Dinkelspiel frustrating. This is ...more
Mar 24, 2014 Cathy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This fascinating book gave me more insight into the development of modern California than almost anything I've read before. It is a testament to how one person with drive, vision, and intelligence can change the world around him. It is also a testament to the opportunity offered by the United States to people thwarted in their countries of origin.

Though Isaias Hellman was Jewish, that is really the least compelling thing about the book. I was riveted by how he, along with a group of other visio
Jun 25, 2012 Raphael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's hard to imagine, but Los Angeles, the largest city in California and a global metropolis, was originally not poised for such greatness. In "Towers of Gold," Frances Dinkelspiel weaves an intricate tale of how Los Angeles in particular and California in general became what they are today using Isaias Hellman, a central figure in California's early history as a state, as the focus.
Dinkelspiel not only recounts Mr. Hellman's exploits, she also provides enough detail to draw the reader into the
Jan 08, 2009 Kemble rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is so much more than the biography of just one man. Frances Dinkelspiel’s telling of the true story of Isaias Hellman brings to life the history of modern California, from its most humble beginnings. You’re brought back to see how a few adobe huts in the middle of nowhere led to the world’s most vibrant economy, and a state of vast cultural and social influence. “Towers of Gold” is rich with details about our past that will have you dazzling colleagues at the office water cooler.
Dec 31, 2008 Dan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Towers of Gold rediscovers Isaias Hellman, once justly celebrated as one of the most important businessmen in California's development, both in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There is hardly a major California economic development in a 50-year span with which Hellman was not involved. Dinkelspiel has created a fascinating history of the state's growth through the lens of one man's history.
Mar 17, 2013 Greg rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the business/economic history of California or the history of Judaism in California. Traces the history of Isaias Hellman, grandfather of Warren Hellman (Hellman and Friedman, recently passed away), penniless migrant from bavaria, became CEO of Bank of America, one of the richest men in California in 1900.
May 03, 2010 Sculptinghair rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It's a great history of
California through the life of Isaias Hellman. If you grew up in Los Angeles or San Francisco you'll get a kick out of it.
Dec 26, 2008 Mahlon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: California or banking history buffs
Recommended to Mahlon by: Amazon
Shelves: read-2009
Frances Dinkelspiel has written a fascinating, meticulously researched portrait of her ancestor Isaias Hellman, one of the premier bankers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hellman played such a key role in shaping not only California's economy, but it's educational system as well. He came to Los Angeles in 1859 from a small village in Germany, and through his founding of the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank helped transform it from a sleepy pueblo into the bustling financial capital it is ...more
Aug 16, 2010 Nicole rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in California history
Recommended to Nicole by: My mother
This was an interesting biography of a man, Isaias Hellman, who was involved in so many aspects of California history that it almost seems like a joke. How could one man have been so instrumental in starting the banking, oil, transportation, and wine industries in California? But he did.

Hellman was a German jew who moved to Los Angeles in 1859, when only a few thousand people lived there. He almost single-handedly turned L.A. into a major city with economic power and enough infrastructure to su
Harriet Rochlin
In her landmark biography of Isaias Wolf Hellman, Frances Dinkelspiel, his great-great-granddaughter, presents a prototype of a California rags-to-riches pioneer. His attributes, all prodigious, included intelligence, need, ego and prudence (don't lend to those who can't you pay back), plus shrewd partnering, in marriage and business. In 1859 at seventeen, Isaias left Reckendorf, Bavaria, to join a Hellman relative in Los Angeles, population 4,000. Gold gone, new rushes had erupted in California ...more
Linda Books
Sep 26, 2013 Linda Books rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book has been on my shelf for far too long. Although my husband read it as soon as we got it, I hadn't until I implemented the first of my intentional Unplugged Shabbat days, when I try to set aside Saturday to read all day (generally something with Jewish content).

Of course, living in the Bay Area, knowing some Hellman family members and having heard Frances Dinkelspiel speak (when I bought the book), I'd heard quite a bit about it. But both in writing style and content, Towers of Gold is
Denis Farley
Oct 27, 2009 Denis Farley rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting view of California as seen through the life and times of Isaias Hellman. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1859 from Bavaria and worked in his cousin's dry goods store. By his death in 1920, Hellman was considered the leading financier of the Pacific Coast. Here's the link to more information at Wikipedia:

The great-great grandaughter of Hellman, Frances Dinkelspiel, wrote the book. Published by St. Martins Press in November 2008, it was a San Franc
Jan 15, 2016 Ronnie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned a lot from this book, but found the writing quite dry. That's why I didn't give it a higher rating. As someone who didn't grow up in California, it was particularly interesting to learn the early history of so many familiar names like Levi-Strauss, Haas, Lilienthal, Lehman, Fleishhacker etc. and their influence on the growth of both Los Angeles and San Francisco. The reader has to bear in mind that the author is the great granddaughter of Isaias Hellman, so there may be some bias regar ...more
Oct 18, 2010 Mary rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting piece of California history. Dinkelspiel's writing was a little spotty, and I feel she gave her great great grandfather (Isais Hellman, the subject of the book) a pass in terms of ethics and character a few too many times. Having said that, I think it is fantastic that she dug out this family history and shared it with the world. Hellman was certainly a "behind the scenes" kind of guy, so we might not have heard much about him and his impact on the economic development of the West wi ...more
Mar 28, 2015 Scott rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating book, filled with stories of how California became California. Centered around Isaias Hellman, a man of modest means who fled the oppression of Jews in his small German community as a teen, and then took advantage of American opportunities and his iwn abilities to become a very wealthy man who helped finance the rise of California in the second half of the 19th Century, the book provides a glimpse into life in early California, a time not so distant.
Oct 14, 2014 Spiros rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the history of California
Shelves: bins, california
An interesting view of the early development of Los Angeles. Isaias Hellman certainly had his fingers in a whole lot of pies throughout California, between the Farmers and Merchants Bank, the Los Angeles Rail Roads, the University of California, the University of Southern California, the Nevada National Bank (which merged into Wells Fargo), and even a tangential role in the development of Lake Tahoe. For such a major force, he seems to have been a singularly colorless character.
Dec 14, 2008 Sandy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Being a native Californian born and raised in L.A., where this story mostly starts is great historically. Later the story will move to SF, near where i live now. It's always i ntresting to hear tales of how things used to be, and this one definitely fits the bill. I also got to hear the author speak last month, when the book first came out. She's the subject's great-great-granddaughter, and that's what inspired to do research and write the book.
Julie Mozena
May 17, 2014 Julie Mozena rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved reading about how California grew up, particularly southern CA. The personal stories are of course the most interesting but there are a lot of fascinating details re the growth of the banking industry as well. I know that doesn't sound possible but it's true - it's so interesting to learn about how the CA economy was slowly built by Hellmann and others.
Feb 25, 2009 Linda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've only begun this very interesting-sounding book. A good friend of mine grew up near the author. It's the story of the Jewish family who made Wells Fargo Bank what it is today. I've only begun reading, but it looks like a great book to learn about Jewish families in the Bay Area of California.
Nov 03, 2012 Eliot rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A very interesting and enjoyable read. I found this book to be informative on a Jewish immigrant's success as a banker,entrepreneur, and philanthropist. It is an amazing story of such a man who played a major role in the development of California, Wells Fargo Bank and various business developments. I highly recommend this book!
Laura Milvy
Interesting but I felt a very biased book. Isaias Hellman is presented in very good light which I doubt was all true. It spoke of some prominent Jewish families but left out others like the Marcus Koshland.
California, jews and money. Story of my life. A biography written by a relative, so it may prove to be less interesting than I hoped.

ETA: I couldn't finish this, so I sent it back to the library.
Jun 21, 2010 Nicola rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this at the perfect time, and I love California history. Fun and interesting look at Hellman's role in California industry and development. At times, read like Imperial San Francisco for LA. At times biased. But I was hooked.
John Hellman
Sep 20, 2012 John Hellman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed reading this bio.A amazing journey of a immigrant from Germany. I enjoyed seeing how California developed into a economic power.with the help of this financier.He helped develop Los Angeles and San Fransico.
James G.
Sep 02, 2012 James G. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
a great, easy read that is an important window into the history of the state of California
The July read for the Los Feliz Public Library Adult Book Group. Should be interesting as it's California history which I am less familiar with.
Lilly Miriam
Apr 29, 2010 Lilly Miriam rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
5 stars for sure! Fascinating!
Apr 01, 2009 Ann rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great on early history and development of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Christina Dudley
Aug 06, 2010 Christina Dudley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really enjoyed this life of a man entwined Zelig-style with California history. Lots of fascinating tidbits and local color.
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Frances Dinkelspiel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, People Magazine and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of Berkeleyside, an award-winning news site. Her newest book is Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California. Her first book was the bestselling, award-winning Towers of Gold: How One Jewish I ...more
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