BY JAMES P . PROUT
The Business of Tomorrow : The Visionary Life of Harry Guggenheim
By Dirk Smillie
Pegasus Books , 2021 340 pages with photos , notes and index $ 27.95
In the late 1960s , near the end of a very crowded , very rich and very accomplished life , Harry Guggenheim ( 1890-1971 ) cautioned his grandson : “ You write of ‘ depression and anxieties ’ in your search for understanding . Excessive introspection will not solve the problem , but , on the contrary , may blur your vision .” That , folks , is what ’ s called old school advice .
Although written to another , Guggenheim ’ s sentiments apply equally to his own character and activities . As told by author Dirk Smillie in The Business of Tomorrow , The Visionary Life of Harry Guggenheim , action and commitment were Guggenheim ’ s watchwords . Of course , life is easier when you are born into a fabulously wealthy family , that ’ s true . But even with his advantages , Guggenheim didn ’ t waste a lot of time sunning himself . At various points in his life , he was a mining executive in South America , pilot , veteran of WW I and II , industrialist , US ambassador , real estate investor and horse breeder . And that ’ s not all ! Smillie ’ s book is a compact , straight-from-the-shoulder story of somebody who not only met many of the most interesting people of the 20th century , but whose energy and pride in his family gave us one of the world ’ s most iconic and important art museums .
Smillie starts the story in 1848 , when the first of the Guggenheim family settles outside Philadelphia . Through hard work , constant innovation and good investment sense , the family went from peddling stove polish and household goods to owning a piece of a silver mine in Colorado . When the mine hit , the family ’ s business direction was set : mining , metal smelting and later chemicals . Finding and supplying these key ingredients to an industrializing world would be the source of the Guggenheim wealth well into the 20th century .
Harry Guggenheim was born in the Gilded Age into immense wealth , with family compounds in New Jersey and New York City . After attending Cambridge University , he dutifully moved to Chile , developing and managing a copper mine . As WW I opened and expanded , Guggenheim lost several of his Cambridge classmates . As war grew closer to the United States , he decided in 1916 – 17 to master a new skill and technology that would become a life-long passion : aviation .
The commitment to aviation ( and later rocket research ) is a continuing theme of Smillie ’ s narrative of Guggenheim . He caught the flying bug early and he never lost it . In the 1910s , he got flying lessons from Glenn Curtiss ( kind of like learning coding from Bill Gates ) and became a naval pilot in World War I . In the 1920s , he funded aeronautical schools and pioneered instrument flying . He met Charles Lindbergh a few days before Lindbergh flew off to Paris , and they became life-long friends . ( More on the Lindbergh relationship later .) During World War II , in his 50s , he strapped himself into an Avenger fighter bomber and flew a few missions in the Pacific as a gunner .
While helping expand US aviation , Guggenheim found time to lunch with a couple of Presidents , serve as Ambassador to Cuba , help fund relief for Jewish war refugees , buy major real estate in South Carolina and train and race thoroughbred horses , winning the Kentucky Derby . Through the decades , he advanced and directed the Guggenheim family interests , with its various branches and personalities .
As should be clear by now , Smillie had a lot of material to work with , and the story moves along briskly and efficiently . There are some areas where I would have liked more thoughtful exploration of his personal relationships , particularly regarding Lindbergh . Guggenheim mentored Lindbergh , supported him and helped him court Anne Morrow . Then , as the 1940s opened , Lindbergh went into the anti-Semitic dung heap . But , strangely , Guggenheim didn ’ t disown him . It ’ s hard to figure .
One of the brightest parts of the book covers one of Guggenheim ’ s most enduring and endearing efforts : driving the design , construction and endowment of the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue . In the 16 years it took from conception to completion , he stayed loyal to his uncle Solomon ’ s intent . You can feel the exasperation as Guggenheim referees a cast of artistic divas , including Frank Lloyd Wright and somebody called Baroness Hilla Rebay von Ehrenwiesen ( that ’ s a mouthful ). Some of the vignettes are almost laugh-out-loud funny .
The Guggenheim Museum is a remarkable achievement — a must see — a round building in a city of right angles . But as this book well explains , it is but one part of the life of a remarkable man . Old school , but not old fashioned . I heartily recommend the book .
James P . Prout is a lawyer with more than 30 years of capital market experience . He is now a consultant to some of the world ’ s biggest corporations . He can be reached at jpprout @ gmail . com .
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