This book is the full-scale biography Kahn has long deserved. Theresa Collins chronicles Kahn's life and times and reveals his singular place at the intersection of capitalism and modernity. Drawing on research in private correspondence, congressional testimony, and other sources, she paints a fascinating portrait of the figure whose seemingly incongruous identities as benefactor and banker inspired the New York Times to dub him the "Man of Velvet and Steel."
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Art, Money, and Modern Time
By Theresa M. Collins
University of North Carolina Press
Copyright © 2002 The University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.
Locating Otto Kahn
Otto Hermann Kahn, a banker, was the most influential patron of the arts ever known to America. He brought a Golden Age to the Metropolitan Opera and the dancer Vaslav Nijinsky to America, and he steered Hart Crane toward his epic poem The Bridge. A Broadway angel, Kahn heard George Gershwin play "The Man I Love" and invested $10,000 in Lady Be Good! He also championed the civic virtues of art, and once told a New York City mayor that a piano in every apartment would do more to prevent crime than a policeman on every corner. Such sincerity was one reason for Margaret Anderson to admire Kahn. The Little Review co-founder remembered him as an uncommonly cultured millionaire and benefactor, with whom bohemian artistic and literary types would be willing to spend more than a little time, and not expect to feel completely bored or soiled as a result.
A sophisticate of legendary, effervescent charm, Otto Kahn was cosmopolitan in every fiber of his being, a conservative with a flair for the new, sometimes considered the only capitalist of his era with a soul. He played a singularly significant role in the cultural history of his time, to the extent that he perfectly fit Zora Neale Hurston's term "Negrotarian," denoting humanitarian whites who supported talent striving for artistic recognition under the umbrella of the Harlem Renaissance. By other criteria, Kahn was a prominent symbol of high finance, a renowned partner of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., one of the great international banking houses of Wall Street that epitomized the marshaling of money and power in an age when cash, gold, and various idioms of business culture were the stock-in-trade of modernists. His attachment to the arts made Otto Kahn remarkable among monied men, and though it might have tested his tolerance for artistic revolt, three towering figures of the American literary canon who benefited from Kahn's largesse punned his name in their works. Hart Crane did it in The Bridge, as did Ezra Pound in his Cantos and Eugene O'Neill in Marco Millions. Each was most obviously borrowing from Coleridge's poem "Kubla Khan," and given the Great Khan's renown for introducing bank notes or paper money, swapping "Kahn" for "Khan" or "Chan" or "Kubla" would become a common enough practice. The New York Times did it when editorializing about Kahn's unsuccessful attempt to build a more modern Metropolitan Opera House, and a hint later worked itself into Nathanael West's novella The Day of the Locust, which reaches its climax at Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre.
Citizen Kane quietly codified the trend. Like the Khan's palace in Coleridge's poem, the mansion of Charles Foster Kane was called Xanadu, "the world's largest private pleasure ground." As it happened, Otto Kahn's chateau on Long Island was the second largest private residence in America, and the opening sequence of Kane even included shots of it among the stock footage. Those two points weigh in favor of an argument made by one of the film's most careful students, that Kane's castle was more an amalgam of the ideal American millionaire's palace than strictly a copy of William Randolph Hearst's estate. Yet a closer look at the script itself subtly indicates that Otto Kahn was yet another influence, quieter than Hearst, in associating the American millionaire with the legends of Xanadu.
Although Otto Kahn died in 1934, he was hardly forgotten by moviemakers. In 1919 he was a key influence in bringing Wall Street to finance Hollywood, and members of his banking house were board members at Paramount Pictures for many years after. When Kane's screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, sat down to write the script, some specific memories of Otto Kahn came to life, too. In the 1920s, the early days of his career, "Mank" was an aspiring journalist and dramatist, and part of the celebrated Algonquin Hotel circle in New York. He picked up publicity work promoting dancer Isadora Duncan and Austrian theatrical producer Max Reinhardt, both of whom received Kahn's patronage. He also ventured a try at producing Round the Town, a revue that drew upon illustrious collaborators, but it failed, leaving Mankiewicz in debt. Otto Kahn helped him over the hump with a $2,500 loan. Afterward Mankiewicz headed west. His connection to Kahn likely eased his introduction at Paramount, where Mankiewicz swiftly became the highest-paid writer in the movies, reportedly making more than $40,000 his first year. Not long after, he encountered Kahn again, only to learn that the loan was not a gift: Kahn expected repayment if an artist later enjoyed commercial success. Mankiewicz, who was also a notorious gambler and always strapped for cash, could not convince his patron of sufficient ongoing hardship without revealing its real cause. The writer repaid the debt fully in installments.
Thus Mankiewicz's personal perspective on great monied wealth came from many experiences, not only his personal relationship with Hearst. In all probability, in early 1940, when he was looking around for ideas while writing Kane, his memory of Kahn led him to lift a passage from Matthew Josephson's popular book The Robber Barons (1934), which told how Kahn's country estate was built on an artificial bluff to give it a view of Long Island Sound. A trace of these remarks was written into the newsreel sequence of Citizen Kane, in which Xanadu is first described: "Here on the deserts of the gulf coast a private mountain was commissioned and privately built." While earlier versions of the script resembled Josephson's words even more closely, it would seem that his Robber Barons sat alongside Ferdinand Lundberg's Imperial Hearst on the screenwriter's bookshelf. Lundberg eventually sued Mankiewicz for plagiarism, but Josephson did not notice or did not care.
The textual cross-references deserve exposition, not only because Hearst's castle, San Simeon, sits on a natural hill, but more deeply because any reader or writer of biography appreciates Citizen Kane. Obsessed with obituary and the human condition, the film's inconclusive grappling with different points of view makes a broadly relevant parable. More to the point, Kane belongs to a specific tradition of reportage, established and advanced in both the founding era of celebrity and the consolidating era of capitalism. It battles authority and authenticity, mixing facts with fictions that make saints and devilsor just sorry soulsout of the masters of industrial time. Surely, Otto Kahn belongs to the same tradition, but his place in Citizen Kaneso rapid, encoded, and easily overlookedhas other meanings. Much in the way historical memory is preserved, one must be told to find him there, and recognize how twists in consciousness, reality, and truth are lineaments of modernity.
Establishing the place of cinema among the arts is critical to this process. Thinking cinematically lends a different beginning and structure to biography. In the cinema no less than in the writing of biography or history, time, space, and logic do not, in Kristin Thompson's phrase, "fit together unproblematically." And as a method for reshaping narratives and themes, the cinematic metaphor goes beyond the heuristics of painted portraiture, allowing biography to maneuver and cross-cut between evidence, episodes, and perceptions so that Otto Kahn, international finance, and the modern arts in which he was involved all become one field of vision. Such thoughts put forth a different means for the biographical genre to present, explain, and develop not only one life, but also the shifting silhouettes of modernity.
Locating Otto Kahn is chancing upon a leitmotif. That aspect of the Kahn mystique was spoofed in a New Yorker piece by Rube Goldberg, which imagined how a tourist in the 1920s might cope with the dizzying possibility of seeing America's most celebrated banker-patron at every turn in a day about town. Kahn greets an opera singer at the Customs House, then shows up at the Ritz, and later sits among the first-nighters for the opening of a new revue. Everyone seems to be talking to or about Otto Kahnhis stockholdings, his travels, his art collection, his speeches, his theatrical underwriting. When Kahn is finally spotted at a late-night club, playing the kettledrum in a jazz band, the visitor can take no more. He is carted off to the mental ward at Bellevue Hospital: a conclusion that should worry any potential biographer of Kahn.
Goldberg's fantasy found company in a few tuneful parodies concerning other aspects of the Kahn mystique. In Cole Porter's "Opera Star," a lampoon of soprano Maria Jeritza from 1925, the "opera vamp" betrays that the secrets of her success are passion and sex appeal, the kind she brings to the stage and to "the roles that I portray for Otto Kahn-o." In 1927, Fanny Brice played a similar character, albeit one much lower on the ladder of success, who pokes fun at the exchange of sexual favors expected on the rise to stardom and asks:
Is something the matter with Otto Kahn
Or is something the matter with me?
I wrote a note and told him what a star I would make.
He sent it back and marked it "Opened by mistake."
I'd even get fatter for Otto Kahn,
As all prima donnas must be.
I studied with Scotti, if you know what I mean.
He said I had the finest diaphragm he had seen!
And if my high C don't hand Otto a thrill,
I think my tra-la-la will.
Whether worried about libel or other repercussionsperhaps from the possible allusion of "diaphragm" to birth controlthe Victor Talking Machine Company expressed reservations about recording the song, prompting Brice to call Kahn to verify that it would not offend him. It did not.
No such clearance was necessary for the Marx Brothers, who satirized Kahn in their 1928 musical Animal Crackers (two years before their movie of the same name). Set at the gala party of a wealthy Long Island doyenne, Animal Crackers parodies Kahn in the character of Roscoe W. Chandler, a millionaire art collector and legendary patron who is one of two honored guests (or attractions). The other is Captain Spaulding, the African explorer, played by Groucho Marx, who corners the wealthy Chandler and asks, "How would you like to finance a scientific expedition?" The request startles Chandler, for Spaulding wants him to pay for the "one thing that I've always wanted to do before I quit""Retire." Indeed, the spoof was not only of Kahn and the bewildering variety of petitions for his support, but also of the petitioning talent, whose ultimate desire was sufficient money to develop a genius or project with complete liberty. Before the scene ends with Groucho's classic line, "You go Uruguay and I'll go mine," the dialogue keeps spinning hilariously around other attributes of Kahn that were obvious to anyone with a bead of contemporary New York wit. Kahn's plans to build a new opera house, his opinions of art and money, and the schedules of busy men all get minced in rapid-fire lunacy.
If some stories or sightings stand out better than others, the best are those neither easily found nor simply accounted. While researching the life of the renowned urban planner Robert Moses, for instance, Robert Caro discovered that Kahn was the lone "baron" to whom Moses deferred when constructing the Northern State Parkway. Although Moses built his reputation for being above corruption and proudly laid plans for building the parkway through the property of other millionaires, he backed off when the original route threatened to plow directly through the most prized amenity of Kahn's country estate: his golf course. Any hint of corruption stayed quiet for more than fifty years until Caro found some telling documents that unambiguously confirmed how Kahn had placed financial contributions into the coffers of Moses' Parkway Commission. That discovery ended Moses' cooperation with the biographer. It also sealed a portrait of Kahn. The modern aristocrat could, with the stroke of a millionaire's wand, successfully resist the enclosure of his property by the state. Otto Kahn had the power to make mountains, to move public works, to undermine the public good.
All the same, he also created a legacy of pleasure. There was a peculiarly democratizing effect in Kahn's management of wealth and celebrity. For all the elitism, Otto Kahn's world was a playground for High Bohemiaa place for kings and commonerswhere lavish weekend romps might begin with guests being transported from Manhattan to Long Island on the banker's private yacht. Once commenced, some of the parties went all night. The 126-room chateau gave guests plenty of space to slip off, in private, so that dramatist Charles McArthur could pursue "boobish love antics" with Helen Hayes before "the open fire at Otto Kahn's," or so that publisher Horace Liveright might find himself propped against "a Kahn castle buttress" one morning, confessing his sexual impotence to writer Ben Hecht. A few weekends were too irrepressibly raucous for the moral standards of Mrs. Otto Kahn, who stayed away from the bacchanalia whenever Alexander Woolcott's crowd gathered and was simply horrified by the antics of Harpo Marx. She thought that entire side of Kahn's life to be undignified, and she had a completely different conception of what an important banker should do and how he should behave. As often as not, however, Kahn's entertainments stood firmly on formalities.
When Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein visited in 1930, for instance, he shot and then lost some photographs of Kahn's country place, but the meals made more lasting impressions. Years later there were still vivid memories of servants all about the tabletheir "hands appear from beyond the range of vision and simply paralyze your digestion." What he remembered best, though, was the artichoke, "the memorable, rhythmic sensation of confusion with the artichoke at Otto H.'s table!" Having been called away to the telephone while others ate their serving, Eisenstein returned to his seat of honor beside Kahn where he faced his first artichoke, not knowing how it should be eaten. In silent soliloquy, he wondered, "How, then, do millionaires eat artichokes? Only the soft, fleshy tender base? Or do they, like other mortals, have to suck out the fleshy bottoms of the separately torn-off leaves." He panicked "at the thought that I shall have to execute this operation... before the whole gathering... watching with folded arms to see how the Russian barbarian will get out of this tricky situation." A scene of impending death from Ivan the Terrible came to mind.
The writer Klaus Mann penned another view. For him, Kahn's city palace on upper Fifth Avenue took its place among the pulse and roar and vistas of Manhattan, as part of the modern and American experience peculiar to New York: "There was something exciting and frightful about spending the afternoon with a bunch of penniless trampsand then to rush home, to the Astor [Hotel], and change clothes for an opulent dinner party, say, at the palace of Otto H. Kahn." To Mann, another German, Kahn was more clearly an idiom of the grand bourgeoisie and the awkwardness of great wealth: "We were considerably impressed, not so much by his patronizing chat as the stunning display of Rembrandts and Mantegnas in his princely mansion. The millionaire, pleased by our awe, was all polite serenity and condescending blandness.... We never really felt at ease in his company. He had just too much money: the thought of it was faintly irritating. There are people who cannot help making insipid cracks about physical deformities in the presence of hunchbacks and midgets. Thus we were constantly tempted to discuss at the table of Otto H., the disquieting, indeed, untenable phenomenon of enormous wealth."
One need not challenge Mann's impression, or apologize for Kahn, yet it would be fair to note that the art collection, like the day-to-day supervision of architects, designers, and house staff, was primarily the work of his wife, Addie. Even though the public always associated the collection with Kahn as head of household, and he did purchase much of it himself, the banker-patron was less intensely involved with the paintings and sculpture that decorated his houses than he was interested in the collaborative theatrical arts, of which painting and sculpture were part. However, the art in his palaces did stimulate conversation if not always wonderment. As Eisenstein gazed upon one painting, Kahn asked, "Do you recognize the brush?" Eisenstein could not. Kahn responded, "Only a Jew could paint a face so subtly!"adding it was Rembrandt. The filmmaker, thinking, "Rembrandt is not a god in my pantheon," chose to "make a show, as if I were looking at El Greco," whose work he personally preferred. It made sense to flatter the patron. Eisenstein was en route to Hollywood, and a passport stamped with Kahn's approval would not hurt his career.
One happens upon Kahn in so many places that the tracking itself can be as indulgent and intriguing as it is fun. His activities around town with literary communist Mike Gold, for example, would seem to reprise scenes of Heinrich Heine jaunting "famillionairely" with James Rothschild in the previous century. At other moments Kahn's life seemed to look ahead, with a view to traits more obviously characteristic of the twentieth century. Given how a subsidy for Jane Heap, co-editor of the Little Review, for instance, arrived exactly at the moment when Matthew Josephson published in its pages, the full extent of Kahn's patronage should hint at a multiplier effect, or networks and interdependencies, that both socialize and individualize Kahn's importance.
A subject so widely found can be frustrating as well. If Klaus Mann thought Kahn had too much money and not enough essence, those keen on Kahn's biography might arrive at a similar conclusion when assessing the scope and amount of source material for him. Kahn appears with stunning frequency in a wide range of monographic literature, memoirs, and governmental hearings. Numerous biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias include him, and his death in 1934 was recorded in all the major newspapers and glossy magazines of the day. Two breezy biographies have since presented his fabled life for popular audiences: Mary Jane Matz's The Many Lives of Otto Kahn (1963) and John Kobler's Otto the Magnificent (1988). He was a major figure in Our Crowd (1967), Stephen Birmingham's study of New York's German Jewish elite, and any good history of Wall Street in the early twentieth century includes Otto Kahn as a partner of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., the investment house "second only to Morgan among private bankers, and second to none in railway banking" during the heyday of both.
Inevitably, a search brings one to the enormous collection of his personal papers at Princeton University, a collection of some 250,000 items that is as much a magnet as it is an obstacle in locating Otto Kahn. Long ago, letters that would corroborate rumors of Kahn's extramarital transgressions were removed and destroyed, apparently upon the orders of the family during the early 1960s, as the collection was prepared for Matz's biography. The archives of his banking house are also missing. The extant documentation, meanwhile, is unevenly distributed chronologically. Most of the Kahn collection represents his later years, and almost nothing is left from before the Great War. An imaginative mind might associate this lacuna with the trajectory of modernity itselfmarking 1914 as an apocalypseand be content with the symbolism, except that such associative thinking also allows the unevenness of evidence to suggest something other than merely holes in the documentation. If Kahn's life is informed by, reflective of, and influential in the course of modernity, as I argue, the erasures as well as the evidence are indicative of how life is negotiated.
There is great gossip, for example, about the ladies in his life, which his own daughter freely admitted years after her father's death. But the absence of a locked letter book that once contained evidence of his affairs prevents us from prying or from seeing too clearly that the patron's sofa furnished a corner of the cultural marketplace. Such openly secret sexual affairs would be forever haunted by gossip. Only rarely does a witness speak bluntly of it, as actress Louise Brooks did, in describing party nights at Kahn's suite in the Ritz Hotel, where showgirls sparkling with ambition came for drinks and dalliances with very rich men, hoping it would lead to a movie contract. Just the same, hardly anyone touring Kahn's mansion in Manhattannow a prestigious convent and schoolgoes away without hearing tales of how a semi-private staircase was his path in escorting young starlets to his bedroom for private entertainment. An air of suspicion ultimately suffuses Kahn's every encounter with attractive women. Any moment Kahn was alone with one is alive with interpretative possibilities, if not solid evidence, although that does not diminish our passions for looking.
As great an interest is served by questions. Asking what, for example, results from Kahn's negotiations between private and public, one sees nothing indecent, immoral, or untidy about himself available to the public eye. He behaved mostly like the character in a novel by Maurice Barrées who says, "You have to show people a smooth surface, give them only an appearance of yourself, be absent." As we shall see, it was more comfortable for Kahn to let the art of his patronage disclose facets of modern eroticism. Concealment characterized his conduct in business as well, yet in both Kahn suggested a modicum of openness, which by comparison with other haute financiers seemed fresh and new.
This biography turns Kahn's catalog into a contemplative exercise. Moving the subject beyond random recognitions, but holding on to the thought that his ubiquity is also a clue to his interest and importance, there is a chance to introduce a large historical context. The scenes and settings in which this character acts connect a set of rarely combined themes in the generation from the belle epoque to the Great Depression. They may suggest a partial synthesis for an era too often divided by the Great War, not simply because that watershed was not the end of Kahn's life, but more broadly because Kahn's life intersects with numerous traditions that linger within modern transitions, and confound some "past-be-damned" assumptions of modernism. His life mirrored and engaged the main transformations in world capitalism and the social architecture of western bourgeois culture. Within that matrix, one finds the nurturing of a specifically transatlantic cosmopolitanism that can be identified with the artistic impulses of Otto Kahn's patronage and the mystery of money for Otto Kahn's generation. If not clearly refracting the dominance of his class, or the many modernisms, or what Catherine R. Stimpson calls "the already messily large number of meanings attached to the word 'culture' itself," Otto Kahn nonetheless challenges us to treat such themes as culture, modernism, and class in a way that suggests coherence amidst contradictions.
Retooling narrative biography to the task, this study takes the problem of totality and its parts as a central issue of a life in modern time. Kahn sought some coherence within art, money, and geopolitics, the forces that dominated his actions. Once his artistic interests are set alongside high finance, both indeed appear to be combinations and collaborations. His life also highlights the subject of intermediaries, a function of bankers and patrons alike, and more broadly it builds on the idea that actors in networks are important characters, as well as characteristics of modernity. If here such ideas ring more loudly than the usual cheers for Kahn's greatness, it is, I think, the only way to appreciate Otto Kahn, not as a catalog of actions, but rather a distinctly transatlantic life of cosmopolitanism, which foreshadows the history of globalization.
The resulting style is not nearly as neo-avant-garde as the desired effect for biography might suggest. True enough, at times readers may need to work through prose that is more impressionistic than sharp. But while I have repressed many urges to break some of the formalistic conventions in academic writing as well as formulaic biography, I remain steeped in the documentary tradition. There is also a conventional structure. A beginning, a middle, and an end correspond with Kahn's youth, adulthood, and seniority. Since the documents before 1914 are thin, but the life in those years is neither irrelevant nor erased in later stages, my approach to time is fluid even within a chronological arrangement. At several points the narrative unites montage with memory, or it combines sequence and simultaneity with flashback and juxtaposition. There are regular pauses to elaborate how the characters act within circles and webs, for Kahn is the prime subjectbut not in isolation, lest we miss the intricacies or importance of his supporting role.
Mapping out this presence cannot be flat. It needs an eye for abstractions and symbols. Yet it must also account for concrete layers of circumstance and the signifying relevance of fact. Short of being the determining variables in either history or Otto Kahn's life, the structural shifts and economic circumstances of his time shaped both the mental and material world of modernity. So on the one hand, large trends find more personal expression than pure economic data or critical theory can express, while on the other, modernist sensibilities complicate the mission. Like liberalism or Jewishness or culture, the modern drifts through Kahn's world, without neat categories, seeming to be whatever one thinks it to be, for ideas of modern life, modernism, and modernization pose a constantly re-imaged reality. There is always more than one answer, another comment, the chance of no set pattern in the unifying and splintering. The modern strikes an arabesque of contradictions. If one direction refers to newness, unrest, and liberation, the other reaches toward imitation, persistence, and repression.
That said, a basic if not simple challenge is to move beyond dichotomies. One customary thought about Kahn has made him out to be the master of different personalities operating in separate worlds. As early as 1911, the New York Times described the contrasts in a "Man of Steel and Velvet." Another New York daily was soon writing of "two Otto Kahns"the Wall Street character, "cold, calm, courteous and impenetrable," and the "uptown" Otto Kahn, "supple, accommodating and urbane." Time later perpetuated the idea: "By day he was Otto Kahn the bankershrewd, suave, sometimes ruthless.... After dark he was Otto Kahn, patron of arts, bon vivant, first nighter at opera and theatre." I take another view. When the financier and angel seemed to be incongruous identities, Otto Kahn was operating in multiple roles, and though his capacity to do so left many confused as to which was dominant, a good case can be made for their interaction.
He rigidly separated neither daytime and nocturnal activities nor downtown and uptown interests in business and art. He could be shrewd in artistic matters, accommodating in business. Much of his patronage was also administered from his office in New York's downtown financial district, where he convened board meetings of the Metropolitan Opera Company and conducted a voluminous correspondence with creative talents. The seemingly anomalous decorum led Theatre Guild co-founder Lawrence Langner to remark that Kahn "habitually enlivened... [the] dull routine of making millions by interviewing at his office Metropolitan Opera divas, ballet dancers, painters and other glamorous souls who dispelled the gloom of Wall Street like rays of fitful sunlight." Even Time would marvel at how a text concerning monetary theory sat on his desk "side by side with a cello concerto." Kahn was not alone in such practices during his time; he was only the best known. If few understood the interdependence between the banker and the patron, to some extent it appears that Kahn himself did. Otto Kahn was doing exactly what he thought a perfectly modern millionaire should do.
Positioning Otto Kahn among real and fictionalized millionaires amplifies our perspective. Understanding the modern millionaire is to understand fascinations with power, and several compasses are available for the task. While there is still no incontestable standard that will apply, there does seem to be a need to establish a type, and one rule of F. Scott Fitzgerald is pertinent: "Some instincts prepare us for unreality," for "even intelligent and impassioned reporters of life," says Fitzgerald, "have made the country of the rich as unreal as fairy-land." The estates of Otto Kahn in Citizen Kane remind us further of this warning. Almost by conditioning, one reaches for referential categories, looking to comparable livesgrouping, sorting, separating, and comparing. It is a widely exercised practice of study, and in Kane, when the newsreel editors are directed to show how Kane "was different from Ford? Or Hearst... or Rockefelleror John Doe," it continues a tradition of public life coming to grips not only with the individual fortunes of capitalism, but also with clusters of cohorts who form and clash as socioeconomic elites, set trends in style and taste, and stand apart from John Doe or everyman. The Christian Science Monitor once did much the same, setting Kahn "in the front rank of that company that represented to the man in the street the capitalistic system." The so-called "man in the street" was intended to represent "everyman" on "Main Street," but it could also be the average denizen of Wall Street, as both "Main Street" and "Wall Street" were the perennial juxtapositions of community in advancing American capitalism.
A better personification of Wall Street in this modern time was J.P. Morgan, a name that figures distinctly in Kahn's story. Although Kahn was thirty years younger than the elder Pierpont Morgan, he was born in the same year as the younger J. P. ("Jack") Morgan, with whom he shared numerous characteristics as a model of what Frederick Lewis Allen called "the Wall Street standard in dress and in deportment." They were always finely attired, sporting impeccably trimmed mustaches, and, as each owned city mansions and country estates (Kahn's spread on Long Island employed thirty-five live-in servants), they also practiced a few uniform activities in leisure, including a passion for golf. But all together, their expressed monied status reflected shared beliefs regarding the proper administration of wealthwhat Europeans projected as bourgeois respectability, and what Americans determined was befitting wealth. Even so, while Otto Kahn was sometimes measured up to be "a small edition of J. P. Morgan," no two men could be more dissimilar. Morgan carried a tall, bulky body and looked and acted awkward in public. Kahn, shorter and slimmer, moved lithely in nearly every visible situation. He consequently enjoyed numerous social advantages that Morgan lacked, or did not value. Reasonably as important, though, were those similarities that betrayed differences. These worked against Kahn in geopolitics, where Otto Kahn and Jack Morgan were noted Anglophiles, yet Morgan's loyalty to British causes was never doubted as the German-born Kahn's would be. And there was no escape from the most basic difference between Jack Morgan and Otto Kahn: Morgan represented the apogee of the Yankee private international bank, his family having long ago set their roots in American soil; Kahn was foreign-born, a naturalized American, and part of the last cohesive generation in the German Jewish financial elite. Both men were scions of a new generation in their family-based, private international bank, but Otto Kahn was more the newcomer, as well as an outsider.
Another shared, conflicted heritage was no simple matter. Both financiers attracted intense public scrutiny by champions and critics alike. Episodes in their business careers became allegories of economic power, woven into the general society as moral lessons through politics, journalism, and the arts. Their lives were interpreted alternatively as blessed or satanic, just or unfair, creative or destructive. Still, if public culture could imagine Wall Street as the source of economic evil and think negatively of the big businesses, that perception could also changeor be changedand did change, as middle-class animosity toward giant firms and their Wall Street agents gradually moved toward accommodation during Kahn's career. Regulatory legislation, the corporate revolution, and a buffer of public relations counsel significantly helped to remove individuals from the direct line of public fire, yet with Otto Kahn the individual Wall Streeter was himself an agent of reshaping hostility into acceptance. Of course there were other progressive-minded business men of his generation, including several of his fellow partners in the banking house of Kuhn, Loeb. The exceptional quality of Kahn lay in the fact that it would be hard to find another financier who was so clearly influenced by theatricality as Otto Kahn when, with the tone of a stage critic, he denounced anti-business investigations as a pattern of cheap entertainments: "The appeal all too often is to the gallery, hungry for sensation"or when, with the instincts of a drama coach, he identified effective techniques that financiers could muster to seem less defensive, reactive, or inflammatory. It effectively brought Otto Kahn to juste-milieux (points between two extremes).
In short, Kahn perceived better ways to play his scenes. He pursued his role with thorough flair, forming cooperative solutions that not only mirrored the collaborative forms of opera and theater, his favored art forms, but also echoed the "community of interest" principles that were working to suppress the extremes of industrial and financial competition. It cannot be forgotten that Kuhn, Loeb's main business, the railroads, were about as quick as operas and theaters in discovering how useful good publicity could be. That would be notable if it only rubbed off on Otto Kahn. It is significant because, when it came to public relations, Kahn not only valued the advice of good counsel, he gave it too, and was himself a model of how one could go about modernizing and managing public impressions.
Other insights into this modern life are derived from geographical modeling. For example, like many of his time, Otto Kahn moved from smaller to larger cities as he expanded his own importance in the world. From the regionally important, medium-sized cities of his birth (Mannheim) and his first practical training (Karlsruhe), he went to Berlin, the financial and cultural capital of Germany and a major world city. In 1888 he arrived in London, the truly dominant world metropolis, the indisputable hub of international finance, and, if less commanding in cultural prestige than Paris, a cultural capital nonetheless. He became a British subject in 1893, but soon relocated to New York, an emerging world city.
After joining Kuhn, Loeb, his spatial activities became faster and wider. He usually spent one-third of every year in Europe, but he also toured the American railroad systems that Kuhn, Loeb served. These trips gave Kahn a vast sense of the American continent, and the press coverage en route afforded him the chance to create a positive image of the Wall Street financier in the West. In addition, whether touring the nation himself or sponsoring the national tours of important theatrical events, Kahn's name was as much associated with aesthetic culture as it was with economic culture. In the meantime, his trips between New York and Washington, to meet a president or testify before Congress, underscored the dynamics between competing economic and political centers. Finally, following the movement of money itself, Kahn's financial interests and influence would spin from the hub of American and European capitals throughout the world, elaborating global interdependence in the last third of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth century.
With all these movements Otto Kahn was representing the tempo, pace, and ranges of possibilities in modern space, time, and its most universal medium, money. But neither his comings and goings nor networks alone wholly suggests the images of the modernity that he created. To suggest the fuller range, we can locate Otto Kahn with a sense of place as well as space, and to this end the houses with which he was associated speak as symbols of his culture.
Probably his residences are the most obvious. His earliest country home was called Cedar Court, a set of twin mansions on 260 acres in the Normandie Heights section of Morristown, New Jersey, which actually belonged to Abraham Wolff, Kahn's father-in-law. It was here that the four children of Otto and Addie Kahn spent their early years, and, when elder daughter Maude made her debut in society, Enrico Caruso and Anna Pavlova performed. Cedar Court also stood in a community where the Kahns were concurrently assimilated and excluded, as Otto Kahn, a Jew, was barred from local social clubs, including the golf club adjacent to the property. Nor was he particularly welcome on the Millionaire Express, the special train that carried men of wealth between New York and Morristown. Another dwelling, the Greco-Italian villa called St. Dunstan's in London's Regent's Park, was acquired in early 1912 amid rumors that Kahn meant to stand for Parliament. Instead of becoming the family's residence, St. Dunstan's became a domain of Kahn's philanthropic distinction when he loaned the villa to Sir Arthur Pearson's pioneering rehabilitation program for blinded soldiers and sailors during the Great War.
Both St. Dunstan's and Cedar Court were razed by subsequent owners, but Kahn's two mansions in New York are still standing, although his family relinquished control of them not long after Kahn's death in 1934. As the Long Island estate passed through several owners, the acreage was subdivided into middle-class residences and a private golf club, while the mansion, its glamour and original opulence long gone, deteriorated seriously before becoming a site of locally regulated, privately financed preservation. During the real estate boom of the 1980s, developers failed in an attempt to restore the mansion and convert it into condominiums. In 1989 an anonymous Japanese buyer took title to the property, then let it back to the previous owner for alternative schemes of development under the name Oheka, an acronym for Otto Hermann Kahn. In this incarnation it takes bookings for weddings, fund-raisers, location photography, and the like, and, at the close of the twentieth century, there were plans to install a private health cluball meant to help fund the ongoing efforts of architectural restoration.
Kahn's other famed residence in New York, built in Florentine Renaissance style between 1914 and 1918 at 1100 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, directly across from the Carnegie mansion at Ninety-first Street, has been well maintained since its purchase by the Convent of the Sacred Heart in 1934. It has long since served as a school, gaining landmark status from the City of New York in 1970. Like the Long Island house, 1100 Fifth Avenue is also available for weddings and special events, a trademark of the postmodern condition that should be considered alongside another: the fate of Kahn's house of business.
Kuhn, Loeb & Co, the once-venerable private banking partnership, passed into extinction during the 1980s. Having merged with Lehman Brothers in 1977, Kuhn, Loeb's identity was virtually lost in subsequent implosions and restructuringto endure only in the annals of finance as an eminent investment house of the dynastic era. Founded in 1867, its indirect antecedents dated back to the general merchants' countinghouse of the fifteenth century, when credit, foreign exchange, and banking were but a few of a merchant's many activities. Such business then shared the same address as the family, though separated from family living quarters. In the nineteenth century, with merchant banks gradually specializing from commercial to financial capitalism, and transforming networks of commercial credit and foreign exchanges into the world's preeminent facilities for long-term investment and lending, the house of business separated from the house of residence. By the time of Kuhn, Loeb's founding (and Otto Kahn's birth), banking houses had relocated to central business districts of towns and cities, but the firms were still family houses. The business identity stayed linked with the lineage of a larger kin group, even as the bourgeois family or smaller kin group came to dominate home life. By the 1890s the leading houses of London, Paris, and New York, complete with their ties to financial communities in Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and elsewhere, were the principal intermediaries for railroad, government, and, increasingly, industrial financing. As sons and sons-in-laws replenished the places of elder, retiring, or expired partners, the few leading houses resembled dynasties.
Otto Kahn was among the handful of young bankers who, between 1897 and 1902, became the third generation of Kuhn, Loeb partners. Along with Kahn, these included Mortimer L. Schiff, Felix M. Warburg, and Paul M. Warburgthe core of a generation intended to succeed Jacob H. Schiff, the senior partner under whose leadership the firm rose to rival J. P. Morgan & Co. as the leading investment bank in America. The new partners shared common traditions that linked them to the family-based, international investment bank by birth or marriage. Otto Kahn's father-in-law was a Kuhn, Loeb partner; Jacob Schiff and Paul Warburg were married to daughters of Solomon Loeb, a founder of the firm; Felix Warburg was married to a daughter of Jacob Schiff; and Mortimer Schiff was the only son of Jacob Schiff. In addition, the Warburgs were brothers, and scions of M. M. Warburg & Co. in Hamburg, Germany. Though by 1911 the firm had admitted one partner not related to other partners by blood or marriage, as late as 1933 Otto Kahn would say of Kuhn, Loeb & Co., "We are a family affair."
Oddly enough, the basic business of Kuhn, Loeb was to finance soundly its organizational antithesis, the giant corporation, while the successful conduct of its partnership also included the preservation of an ancestral system. Though unlikely to have perceived this transformation, the house of finance that Otto Kahn knew and represented eventually became the kind of modern bureaucratic structure that Kuhn, Loeb had helped to pioneer for railroads and industrials. The transforming role of giant corporations as vehicles in a modernizing American economy, then, would ultimately sweep not only Kuhn, Loeb off the map of investment banking. With rare exception, all traditional financial houses would disappear. Successor firms might preserve a piece of the founding family name, common language may still refer to the banks as houses, and some of the investment functions repeat themselves, but contemporary investment banking structures, on the whole, are as different from the ancestral partnerships of Kahn's era as the industrial corporation was from the entrepreneurial firms of the early nineteenth century.
It is appropriate to discuss the social significance of investment banking as family enterprise, but choosing to highlight its history as a house affords an opportunity to establish and illuminate a long view of modernity. By acknowledging its antecedents in mercantile capitalism, one can position the merchant or private banking house on a continuum of transitions that runs from the mid-fifteenth century to the third quarter of the twentieth century, or, from the period that historians of Europe commonly call early modern to the currently fashionable conception of a post-modern era. If Otto Kahn's life and the period from 1867 to 1934 can be imagined as a prism of modernity's transitions, then the refractions bending with the house of Kuhn, Loeb may reveal some distinctive hues. Otto Kahn, his partners at Kuhn, Loeb, and their peers at other investment houses were agents of a capitalist system in transitionspatially, economically, politically, and socially. Historians see in this period a shift from a proprietary to corporate hegemony and, to the ultimate degree of human possibility, Kahn, his partners, and his peers were stewards of that transition. Bringing order from the reign of cutthroat competition, they were moderns in a sense not unlike that of architectural modernism, which tempered urban disorder. These financial capitalists among a few select others, such as the house of Morgan, "found a way to control and contain an explosive capitalist condition."
A different set of contests and surprises were evident in Kahn's largesse. Otto Kahn would put palatial "cinemansions" and intimate art houses on the same cultural landscape: he helped to create the real estate empire of Paramount Pictures, while simultaneously supporting the venue that became the Little Carnegie Cinema. In like manner, he embraced both the Metropolitan Opera and the Provincetown Playhouse. One was a great temple, the other a tiny laboratory of performance; but if the Provincetown, in its cramped little quarters downtown, seemed the bohemian modernist, hellbent on striking a perfect contrast to, or revolt against, the grandeur, elitism, and tradition that epitomized the Metropolitan Opera, the differences between such enterprises should not overshadow their analogies. Highlight the likenesses among the egos and ambitions of theatrical talent, no matter the venue, or count the set designers the two institutions shared, then find The Emperor Jones on the boards of both, and it becomes clear that Otto Kahn was not alone in migrating between them. Look more closely and note that the two institutions were alike in ways that mirror some of the strongest themes in Kahn's life: each was being pulled by concurrent tensions concerning the international nature of art, the demand for national credibility, and the lofty standards attached to making New York a global capital for both culture and finance.
Nonetheless, one problem makes opera stand out among the modern arts. An art form of European originborn of the Renaissance and nurtured by royal patronsopera attracted both elite and popular audiences well into the twentieth century, but, despite ongoing popularity within its venues of live, recorded, and broadcast performance, opera became the definitive reference for middle- and upper-class elitism. With its broad public appeal eventually fading, numerous critics read the transformation as an outcropping of aristocratic ambitions among the bourgeoisie, whose modernity would seem controlled by the meshing of royal traditionalism and urban embourgeoisement, wherever symbols of the nineteenth century wealth survived in the twentieth. The majestic palaces of bourgeois barons, the dynastic traditions of banking houses, and grand opera, then, are one of a kind, and opera fell captive to newly wealthy patrons, needing validity for their status in social rank, who blindly copied the traditions of the aristocracy before them.
Kahn's hand in this history suggests more nuances and variances. As millionaires of new social status, the haute bourgeoisie did emulate the aristocracy of Western European ancestry, with whom they also mixed and sometimes intermarried. Indeed, individual men of wealth but of commoneven Jewishancestry could be elevated to the ranks of European nobility, and Otto Kahn would put his own hopes on that track for a while. All the same, recent scholarship points to greater diversity than previously appreciated in the ambitions, tastes, and displays of new wealth, for Germans differed from French and English or Italians, and all sorts of issues put businessmen of one industry at odds with their counterparts in another industry. Whether the question is economic protectionism, or definitions of liberalism, or desires for social integration, no generalization comes without caution. It might be easier if the haute bourgeoisie had been a narrower cohort, limited to captains of industry or international financiersexcluding heirs of wealth, professionals, and civil servants, or forgetting the women, who were important philanthropists, salonists, and reformers. However, while financiers as a group alone could individually add up to a diverse lot, they did most clearly emulate the aristocracy of Western Europe in varied forms and manners. At the same time, they also invented new traditions, revising the criteria of elitism in the more modern, cosmopolitan world environment. Josáe Harris and Pat Thane have offered a compelling view of the paradox, jointly concluding that international financiers showed elements of aristocratic and bourgeois cultures that were "reducible to neither." The outcome was a pastiche of old and new, perhaps the most modern of all types, because one trait cohered haute financiers as a generalized breed: their most active participation in "a new kind of supranational socio-economic structure... that by the early twentieth century threatened to transcend and make obsolete the nineteenth-century boundaries of the nation and the state."
The ambiguities of the bourgeoisie lead elsewhere. Only a few years before Dorothy Fields's enduring lyric, "If I never had a cent I'd be rich as Rockefeller," it was as popular in some circles to measure one's personal worth against that of Otto Kahn. "I am not Otto Kahn," complained Eugene O'Neill, when "seriously peeved" over delays in getting his due royalties from The Emperor Jones. In an earlier instance, it displeased O'Neill to hear the patron had offered a small loan; "Either he's there for the big help or he isn't," the playwright grumbled. Kahn's largesse regularly fell short of the many requests put upon him, or did not match the expectations and estimations of his riches. Luigi Pirandello was swept up by the buzz, in a good example, when Otto Kahn showed interest in bringing him to America and getting Paramount to buy his plays. Thinking Kahn was "one of the wealthiest persons in the world; they say he is the sixth richest," Pirandello figured, "if Otto Kahn... wants it... the deal should go through." As it turned out, he was one of many who eventually realized that Otto Kahn alone would not make all his dreams come true. In the result, Otto Kahn would not only be famous as the greatest patron of art, but also at once synonymous with shortcomings of great wealth and insufficient largesse.
In addition, this patron, celebrated for backing arts that would lose money, clearly did not wish to back anything less than the best or most promising in art. His concernor conceitseemed less about losing money than losing prestige as a connoisseur. But other limits were also clear. Among them, Otto Kahn would never surrender all his wealth to art, or risk his reputation as the reliable, conservative trustee of high finance by flirting too openly with scandalin art or business. He instead made compromises. Indeed, so did those who took Kahn's patronage, or came to feel that Kahn was one of the good guys on Wall Streetthe rare capitalist with a soul. If many among the artists and intellectuals in Kahn's orbit might indict commercialism and rebel against bourgeois values, they were themselves operating in a market economy, full of ambition, wanting recognition, and willing to give and take. In that regard, the artists and their patron had much in common. A compromise cannot be made without a collaborator.
When another millionaire mockingly opined that Otto Kahn wanted "to meet all the important people in the world," it did seem as though he collected living talent like objects for a curiosity cabinet, to complement the masterpieces of European art that decorated his mansions, as a way to show off or feel self-important. A grander purpose would better account for the effect. Otto Kahn was reformulating the spatial breadth of the arts and their marketplaces. He did for the arts what August Belmont had done for cuisine: change the tastes and set the cultural pace of New York City, while at the same time elevating the city to the ranks of a global financial capital. More important, the artistic and financial exchange under Kahn's patronage ran in two directions. As he brought European geniuses to America, he also sent American talent to Europe, and his own character was itself something of an experiment in the tensions of foreignness and internationalism.
Here was a modernism of interrelations, blends, and hybrids, always looking forward with a foot also in the past. So if Otto Kahn could not write like a Joycean, he did subscribe to the legal defense of Ulysses in the United States and ordered a copy of the book for himself through Shakespeare and Company in Paris long before November 1930, when he accompanied James Joyce to a performance of Guillaume Tell. He was not a devotee of psychoanalysis either, yet he was for several decades an acquaintance and occasionally a benefactor of George Sylvester Viereck, who first interviewed Freud for American audiences. Nor was Kahn's modernity more than tangentially touched by the revelations of Albert Einstein. When Kahn testified before the Senate Banking Committee in 1933, for instance, he reached for an Einsteinian metaphor to express himself, and then had to admit overreaching his grasp, for he did not understand the theory. However, the consistent factor in Kahn's modernity, right to the end, was optimism: all should work out well when the final curtain fell. That optimism of an incomplete Enlightenment, so important to him as a monied, cultured citizen, and as a Jew, was ultimately undermined and unfulfilled. Kahn's modernity emphasized the sweetness and light, but there was a dark side threatening, no more viciously than in the arrival of Hitlerism.
Excerpted from Otto Kahn by Theresa M. Collins. Copyright © 2002 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What People are Saying About This
Artistic interest and financial position merge in this examination of class, culture, and modernism in Western society. . . . The author's examination of Kahn's struggles with his own identity and sense of place in the midst of great change, especially in Germany, further broaden the volume's disciplinary boundaries.Choice
A solid, well-researched, and insightful study of Otto Kahn, the premier American art patron of the early twentieth century.Journal of American History
This first full-length biography of Otto Kahn offers a compelling portrait of a major figure in the history of American finance and culture. The keen eye and vivid prose of Theresa Collins illuminate the many facets of this fascinating character and his world.Maury Klein, University of Rhode Island
A considered and nuanced account of [the] early twentieth century American Medici. . . . Collins' accomplished biographical study profiles from the cinematic deftness with which she crosscuts facets of Kahn's life, an altogether appropriate technique in limning an existence so enamored of and beholden to modernity. Her use of the language of theater and film in interpretive contexts seamlessly brings his many worlds into a unified vision.Aufbau
This rich and fascinating biography tells the remarkable story of a remarkable man who, combining the power of an international financier with the finesse of a patron of the arts, helped make New York City a world cultural capital.Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Theresa Collins's Otto Kahn is a superb piece of biography and a major work of historical reclamation. This is history written in the grand mannersweeping in scope, majestic in style. And it restores to us in all his grandeur and cultural consequence a remarkable figure from our past.Martin Duberman, City University of New York
Engagingly written, [this book] will surely be definitive. . . . This biography does equal justice to the dual facets of [Kahn's] career.Business History Review
Collins shows how [Kahn] gave away money nearly as quickly as he earned it, his contributions to music, literature, theater, dance, painting and design establishing New York City as an international cultural mecca. . . . Essential details are expertly negotiated, and thornier questions on the reality of latent anti-Semitism among the heirs of the Gilded Age are explored in depth. . . . As Collins aptly demonstrates, this 'self-made aristocrat' mastered the East without losing his soul, and in the process, he ennobled the arts he loved.Opera News
The biography rests on prodigious research. . . . Collins makes outstanding use of those material available to her.Business History
[Collins] paints Kahn as a man of business who practiced art vicariously through those he aided.Library Journal