A Little-Known Superhero in the Land of Movie-Making
In his recent blog post, “The Avengers: Building on a Jewish Comic Book Legacy,” Arie Kaplan, uses the new movie, Avengers: Infinity War, to remind us that almost all the creators – writers and illustrators – of Marvel Comics’ Avengers and Superman and his DC Comics’ Justice League of America cohorts, and the beyond-our-wildest-imagination worlds that they defended, were Jewish. It turns out that this is also an excellent time for a reminder that it was a real life Jewish superhero who almost single-handedly built the city and state where these movies, featuring fantastical characters and places imbued with Jewish references and symbolism, are typically created and premiere.
It has been a decade since the publication of Frances Dinkelspiel’s seminal (and, incredibly, singular) biography of her great-great-grandfather, Isaias Wolf Hellman, Towers of Gold: How One Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California. In a narrative that rings familiar to many of our own family histories, Dinkelspiel tells us how 16-year-old Isaias, with only his 15-year-old brother, Herman, emigrated from Bavaria to California in 1859. Though leery of the tough ocean crossing and hard life that lay ahead, Isaias knew that opportunities for him in the world he was leaving were disappearing as pogroms (massacres of Jews) were increasing in frequency and intensity.
The California where Isaias began his new life just six years after the end of the Civil War was, to the eye and in terms of economic, religious, cultural, and social influence, still dominated by its agrarian and Catholic Church-based structure and history. During the next 60 years, until his death in 1920, this serious-minded and determined immigrant (one almost doesn’t need to check out the most frequently seen picture of Hellman to “see” his classic stoic visage and long and thick Van Dyke-style beard) was the principal builder and financier of the enduring infrastructures and institutions that propelled the relatively primitive world he found upon his arrival into the modern world we inhabit today.
Hellman’s career began in and remained focused on banking and finance, where his hand and influence, though centered in California, extended nationwide. He financed the oil drilling projects that ignited the booming development of greater Los Angeles in the late 19th-century, as well as the public utilities (gas, water and electricity) in this new sprawling “Metropolis,” and the roadways, trolleys and trains that connected Southland cities with one another and the rest of California,
From houses to wineries, Hellman was involved in all facets of real estate, was one of three principal founders of the University of Southern California and served as a Regent of the University of California (my alma mater). In addition, he and his family were members of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Hellman was a lifelong supporter of many Jewish institutions and causes, but remained until his death strongly opposed to the idea of transforming Palestine into a new home for the world’s Jews, siding with the likes of Henry Morgenthau, Sr., and The New York Times’ publisher Adolph S. Ochs. He viewed the America he had helped build as the best bastion for economic and religious liberty and was afraid of being perceived as having dual loyalties. Just as his views on assorted topics evolved over time, it is not unreasonable to imagine that his views about Zionism might have progressed, too, had he lived just a few years more.
Although he died nearly a century ago, Hellman’s story remains important and compelling. His mark and influence on all things California endure in a world in which a new movie about Jewish-inspired superheroes has garnered more than a billion dollars in revenue in only two weeks’ time. Ten years after its publication, his progeny’s loving biography is still the best way to get to know him, his legacy, and this little-known piece of Jewish-American history.
Despite his contributions and enduring influence, there is no public monument to Hellman in California or elsewhere. (There is, however the publicly maintained Hellman-Ehrman Mansion, a former summer residence of the family, in Tahoe City, California, as well as several tributes on the USC campus and Hellman Streets in a few cities, including Long Beach, California).
One final observation: even though there were merely 18 (always an auspicious number!) years between Hellman’s death in 1920 and Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, Hellman has not appeared in any comic books or superhero films. That’s too bad because a few California natives – Liev Schreiber and Michael Stuhlbarg among them – would look amazing wearing Hellman’s iconic beard.
Photo: Courtesy of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio