She knew all along that someone was her great-great-grandfather. But it wasn't until she was grown up with children of her own that Frances Dinkelspiel found out her great-great-grandfather was someone. A fifth-generation Californian and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, People, and the San Jose Mercury News, Berkeley resident Dinkelspiel grew up knowing vaguely that Isaias Hellman, who immigrated to the United States from Europe in 1859, "had something to do with Wells Fargo Bank." Wanting to teach her kids about their heritage, she visited the California Historical Society in San Francisco, "where I was amazed to discover ... dozens of boxes filled with papers about Hellman. Once I started to poke into them," Dinkelspiel says, "the reporter in me took over. I couldn't stop digging. I went through 50,000 archival documents, including letters, business correspondence, diary entries, receipts, and photographs."
Originally a humble shop owner, Hellman became one of the state's most influential financiers, transforming Wells Fargo into a major financial institution. His investments resulted in the building of trolley lines, the discovery of California's oil reserves, and the establishment of the University of Southern California. A University of California regent, Hellman helped rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and was a wine-industry kingpin for twenty years. Learning all this, "I felt I had stumbled on an unknown story," Dinkelspiel says. "Hellman's life is full of drama — assassination attempts, stagecoach robberies, train wrecks, love, betrayal, and theft — and I thought I could write a gripping tale of his life." She discusses that tale, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, at Mrs. Dalloway's (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on November 15.
But how could one individual who didn't start out wealthy end up wielding so much power in so many different avenues? "There is no doubt that Isaias Hellman was a financial genius who had a talent for predicting which businesses would flourish," his great-great-granddaughter reflects. "It is also important to remember that he came to California in 1859, at a time when most of the state was undeveloped ... and Hellman took advantage of that." Researching this book was a major history lesson. The more she learned about "how the state developed, how the Gold Rush attracted people from around the world, how California was a haven for those fleeing religious persecution," the more she came to see that "the West has truly been a place of new beginnings." Most of us don't have bona fide historical figures lurking in our family trees, but it might still be worth giving them a shake now and then. 4 p.m. MrsDalloways.com.
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