The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America

  • By Daniel Schulman
  • Knopf
  • 592 pp.
  • Reviewed by Matthew P. Fink
  • November 30, 2023

An able, if incomplete, look at Manhattan’s long-ago financiers.

The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America

The Money Kings relates the remarkable history of the elite German-Jewish families of New York City. In it, author Daniel Schulman describes how family members typically immigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century and worked as peddlers and owners of small retail stores in the South and Midwest. They then moved to New York, where they entered the world of finance, becoming phenomenally successful and wealthy.

Nonetheless, they were looked down upon by Manhattan’s gentile establishment and faced antisemitism in both their professional and social lives. In response, wealthy German Jews formed their own clubs and inter-married at an astounding rate. They were extremely philanthropic and in particular helped poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The book is thoroughly researched and tells its story well, covering much of the same territory as Stephen Birmingham’s 1967 Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York. However, the two books differ in focus. The Money Kings emphasizes German-Jewish families’ financial transactions and political activities. It devotes almost an entire chapter to famed financier Jacob Schiff’s making loans to Japan during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) but refusing to do so for Russia because of its antisemitic policies. In contrast, Our Crowd covers the Japan-Russia loan matter in just four pages. Similarly, The Money Kings describes Schiff’s successful effort to have the U.S. government condemn Romania for its antisemitism, whereas Our Crowd never mentions that country.

Another difference is that Our Crowd emphasizes the families’ social lives, devoting an entire chapter to the refusal in 1877 by a Saratoga, New York, resort hotel to admit banker Joseph Seligman and his family because they were Jews. In contrast, The Money Kings discusses this matter as part of a broader chapter on discrimination and assimilation.

Based on the differences between the two books, I’d normally recommend that people primarily interested in finance and politics read The Money Kings, and that those more interested in high society read Our Crowd. But one aspect of The Money Kings gives me pause. Financial historians including Vincent P. Carosso and Ron Chernow have stated that in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, investment banking was dominated by two types of firms: German-Jewish banks and protestant or “Yankee” banks. The leading investment bank was J.P. Morgan & Co., a Yankee bank, and in 1913, the House Pujo Committee investigated an alleged “money trust” and concluded that six investment banks controlled American finance and industry. All six were Yankee banks.

Given this background, I was surprised by The Money Kings subtitle: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America, since it gives all the credit to German-Jewish banks and ignores the role played by Yankee banks. Perhaps this misleading wording came from the publisher, who wanted a catchy headline. Yet the author, too, gives the same erroneous impression that Wall Street’s and the nation’s growth was entirely due to the efforts of German-Jewish banks. Writes Schulman in his preface:

“This is a book about the evolution of modern finance, about Wall Street pioneers who formed towering institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Kuhn Loeb, and Lehman Brothers, and who shaped, to an astonishing degree, the world we live in today.”

Similarly, his introduction states, “Wealth and power, and the myriad ways these German-Jewish dynasties left their mark in the modern world by expending both, are themes that run throughout this book.” While the body of the book explains that there were two types of banks, it fails to make clear Yankee banks were dominant.

It may be that contemporary historians have not given sufficient attention to the importance of German-Jewish banks. If so, The Money Kings was an opportunity to correct this error. Instead, it goes way too far in the opposite direction by exaggerating the role played by German-Jewish banks and ignoring the greater importance of Yankee banks. Thus, if I had to recommend one book about New York’s German-Jewish elite, it would be Our Crowd.

Finally, after reading the two works back-to-back, I recalled Yogi Berra’s comment upon learning that the mayor of Dublin, Ireland, was Jewish: “Only in America.”

Matthew P. Fink is the former president of the national mutual fund association the Investment Company Institute. He is the author of The Rise of Mutual Funds: An Insider’s View and The Unlikely Reformer: Carter Glass and Financial Regulation. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and Harvard Law School. 

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