March 16, 1940 is the date on which Samuel Untermyer, one of the wealthiest and most powerful attorneys in America, as well as an early and highly active Jewish critic of Hitler’s regime, died, at the age of 81 or 82.
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Samuel Untermyer was born in either March or June 1858, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Both of his parents, Isadore Untermyer and the former Therese Laudauer, had emigrated there from their native Bavaria in the 1840s. They married after Therese was widowed from her first husband, Salomon Guggenheimer.
Isadore Untermyer served as an officer in the Confederate army and died in 1866, shortly after the end of the Civil War, after having lost most of his money in a failed investment in tobacco farming. But Therese had money of her own, which she invested in a store and real estate. When things in postwar Lynchburg became too difficult, in 1868 she moved with her six children to New York, where she owned and ran a boarding house.
Samuel studied at the City College of New York, followed by Columbia Law School, from which he graduated in 1878. After his admission to the bar, he joined his older half-brother Randolph Guggenheimer in a law practice. Later they were joined by two more brothers, Isaac and Maurice Untermyer.
First Jewish firm on Wall Street
Although initially the firm took on law cases of every type, they soon became specialists in corporate law, and in particular represented a number of German-American breweries. The partners moved their firm from midtown Manhattan to Wall Street, taking on a number of new A-list clients, including William Randolph Hearst, United Fruit, The New York Times and British American Tobacco. They were, in fact, the first and only Jewish firm operating on Wall Street toward the end of the 19th century; after Randolph Guggenheimer’s death in 1907, Samuel Untermyer became the senior partner.
Untermyer’s legal career saw him move from being a deal-maker, who was willing to be paid for his services in stock rather than cash (although when he arranged the merger of Boston Consolidated Copper with Utah Copper, in 1910, he took what was at the time the biggest fee paid to a lawyer in the United States, $775,000) to becoming a trust-buster and reformer.
He was a supporter of Democratic presidents Woodrow Wilson and later Franklin D. Roosevelt, both great reformers, and in 1911 served as counsel to the House committee (the Pujo Committee) that investigated and recommended reforms of the banking and currency-exchange industries. He also helped write the legislation that led to creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and the Federal Trade Commission.
Untermyer could afford to do such work, having amassed personal wealth estimated at $50 million by 1922.
‘Cruel campaign of extermination’
When Untermyer’s political efforts did not yield a cabinet-level position, he began to spend more time on Jewish communal affairs. He was an early Zionist leader, and president of the Keren Hayesod in the United States. Together with his law partner Louis Marshall, he pursued lawsuits against Henry Ford for his anti-Semitic activities and, after the rise of Hitler, tried to organize a global boycott of German goods.
Untermyer had long been proud of his German heritage and had significant business interests in Germany. But within months of Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, in 1933, he was referring to “Germany’s cruel campaign of extermination” against the Jews. He became president of the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, which pushed, with only limited success, for a boycott of Germany.
Untermyer’s positions had a number of opponents in the American Jewish community, and he broke with the Zionist leadership in Palestine over the 1935 Transfer agreement, which helped Jews leave Germany for the Land of Israel, in exchange for their property being used to buy German goods for export to Palestine.
Untermyer owned a 150-acre estate, Greystone, in Yonkers, New York, where he employed 60 gardeners. He was married to the former Minnie Carl, the daughter of German Protestants, until her death, in 1924. She was a great patron of the arts.