The Guggenheims: A Family History by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

The Guggenheims: A Family History is a unique journey into the history of a prominent American family. The Guggenheim name holds a enduring place in the American consciousness, but today many reasonably well-informed people, this reader included, may wonder exactly what the family’s claim to fame entails. With this new biography, Pulitzer Prize winner Irwin Unger and his wife Debi Unger set out to present the Guggenheim family from a fresh perspective. In a storytelling tone, this in-depth biography guides readers through a journey across familial generations in a growing and changing America.

Formidable buildings, generous foundations, society scandals — all these factors generally follow noteworthy players in American history, and the Guggenheim family is no exception. The distinguishing factor of the book is the style in which authors, Irwin and Debi Unger, present the facts. A unique presentation of archive-worthy content expressed in gripping narrative prose makes this information-dense biography a valuable source of facts as well as a pleasurable read.

The authors dedicate themselves to presenting an exhaustive history of the family’s origins beginning with the Guggenheim family’s entrée into the world of mining in the late 1800s and continuing through to the state of the Guggenheim family as 2005 begins. At times, the story fits the stereotype of so many well-known families. A self-made man immigrates to America and begins a dynasty. His offspring are dedicated to carrying on their pioneering forefather’s success, but as the decades fly by, younger generations of socialites and artists squander the family fortune. The residents of the Guggenheim family tree correspond reasonably well to these clichéd guidelines, but exceptional characters do make their presence known as well.

The original family patriarch, Meyer, and his family arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from Hamburg, Germany, in 1848. By 1881, Meyer was the owner of prosperous silver, lead, and copper mines, beginning a connection with natural resources that would prove profitable for many generations to come.

The Guggenheims: A Family History explores not only this extraordinary family through the generations, but also the cultural and societal details of each phase of the family’s growth. No personal stories are without circumstantial signifiers of the times in which they occurred. Readers may be pleased to find that not only is this a biography, it is an enjoyable journey through American history from turn-of-the-century immigration to contemporary culture.

Hard facts are conveyed through a rich storytelling tone, and the effect is an informative and pleasant read. Though undeniably scholarly in nature, the book also has a uniquely witty tone. The Ungers, while respectful of their subjects, are by no means bound to tight-lipped recounts of dry stories. Humorous character profiles, family anecdotes, and tales of high society mingle seamlessly with the names, dates, and facts associated with the financial and philanthropic empire built by the Guggenheims. The Guggenheim men and women are presented in a realistic light, with both flaws and merits receiving adequate coverage.

Though meticulously researched and extremely well-written, the book, due to its sheer length, can become overwhelming. The authors obviously aim to explore every viable nook and cranny in the family history, including most identifiable relatives, any business ventures, and all legacies left by the Guggenheims. For readers searching for facts, this biography is exemplary. For the casual reader looking to learn about an iconic American family, the task to make it through this voluminous book may be too great at times.

As a reader coming into the book with little knowledge of the Guggenheim family, I was stuck by both the richness of the family history and the finesse with Irwin and Debi Unger presented the story. Aside from the Guggenheim Museum and the ongoing philanthropic pursuits so characteristic of the family, the Guggenheim name has faded considerably from the consciousness of the American public. In the final chapters of the book, the authors describe a family meeting that took place in 1984. About 100 descendents of family patriarch, Meyer Guggenheim, gathered for a reunion in New York City. The chapter in which this event is described is entitled “Unraveling.” The authors express the idea that the Guggenheim family is bound by frail ties. Perhaps with The Guggenheims: A Family History, Irwin and Debi Unger have revived the name and legacy of this great American dynasty for the Guggenheim family and readers around the world for generations to come.