Benjamin Graham’s story began two centuries ago, circa 1890, when his parents met and married in England. His mother, Dorothy Graham, née Gesundheit, was born in 1870 into a Jewish merchant family in Warsaw, Poland. Her grandfather, Jacob Gesundheit, was a businessman and honored religious scholar who became chief rabbi of Warsaw in 1870; his writings were highly respected by Talmudic scholars. Dorothy was eleven years old in 1881, when anti-Semitic riots shattered the security of Warsaw’s Jewish community. The Warsaw pogrom, as the riots came to be known, was apparently not the inciting incident that spurred Dorothy and her parents to leave Poland. In his Memoirs, Ben Graham states that his mother received a good education “for a Warsaw girl in the 1880s,” suggesting that she completed high school in Poland. Most likely, Dorothy immigrated to England with her parents soon after she turned eighteen.
Ben Graham’s father, Isaac Grossbaum, was born in England in 1868 into an Orthodox Jewish family. Isaac’s parents, Rebecca Rosa and Bernard Grossbaum, were both born in Warsaw in 1846 and immigrated to England in the mid-1860s. Isaac was the second of their eleven children.
After Dorothy and Isaac wed, they lived in Birmingham and had two sons about a year apart, Leon and Victor. The family then moved to Isaac’s parents’ home in London.
“I was born on May 9, 1894, at 87 Aberdeen Road in London, England and my original name was Benjamin Grossbaum.”
Benjamin Grossbaum, later Benjamin Graham, was the third son of his parents, Dorothy and Isaac Grossbaum. He spent his first year of life in his paternal grandparents’ London home. Ben was twenty when, in 1914, the American branch of the family changed its name from Grossbaum to Graham. He cites the reason as anti-German sentiment, due to the advent of World War I. Rampant anti-Semitism also influenced the decision.
Ben Graham’s father Isaac worked at Grossbaum & Sons, Bernard Grossbaum’s London shop that sold china and bric-a-brac imported from Germany and Austria. The photograph featured at the top of this post pictures a “hand decorated and gilded Dresden porcelain plate, made by Grossbaum & Sohne 1890-1914,” according to the bill of sale. “Made by” indicates that a Dresden factory produced and painted the plate and other wares especially for their shop. My husband purchased the plate for me as a gift, at a cost well under $200, chosen from a variety of “Grossbaum & Sons Dresden porcelain” items available for sale online. The backstamp, or maker’s mark, pictured below appears on the bottom of the plate, the initials “G” and “S” signifying “Grossbaum” and “Sons,” or “Söhne” in German.
I wonder if my great-grandfather Isaac or great-great-grandfather Bernard ever touched this plate that bears their mark. They might be surprised to see it on my kitchen counter, holding a rare fruit that hadn’t yet arrived in London: California-grown avocados.
A year after Ben was born, Bernard asked his son Isaac to open a branch of the family business in New York. In 1895, Isaac and Dorothy set sail for America with their three sons. At twenty-five, Dorothy experienced her second dislocation, this time leaving her parents behind in Brighton, England. Isaac, twenty-seven, left his parents and ten siblings in London. It took moxie for this young couple to pull up roots and set sail with their three little boys for an unknown shore.
On the voyage to New York, the Grossbaums traveled second class. Ben’s parents must have had their hands full, keeping Leon (age three), Victor (age two), and Ben (age one) safe and fed during that trans-Atlantic passage. I envision little Ben in his mother’s arms as the ship steams past the Statue of Liberty, and he lays eyes for the first time on the great city that will become his land of opportunity.
The Grossbaum family arrived in America in more fortunate circumstances than most Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century. Most immigrants traveled in steerage or fourth class, in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, and upon arrival endured long lines for medical and legal processing on Ellis Island. As second-class passengers, the Grossbaums, too, passed through Ellis Island, but merely received a glance from a U.S. doctor before they set foot on American soil.
Isaac and Dorothy Grossbaum were British citizens and fluent English speakers. They landed in America with enough money to avoid the cramped, disease-ridden tenements where most Jewish immigrants lived. They found lodging at a house owned by a widow named Mrs. Myers, whose eight young adult sons and daughters all lived at home. I wonder how they managed with fourteen people sharing a bathroom—or, in the 1890s, was it an outhouse?
Isaac opened his shop and soon demonstrated his talent for business. As the New York branch of Grossbaum & Sons prospered, the family fortunes rose. The Grossbaums moved to a four-story residence on 122nd Street with a dumbwaiter, big enough for Ben to have fun squeezing himself into the lower half and hoisting himself up and down. Isaac was under pressure to send a significant portion of his earnings to his father Bernard, whose London shop was floundering. When Bernard caught his assistant embezzling money, the assistant threatened to shoot Bernard if he alerted the police. To meet his large English family’s demand for financial support, Isaac was away from home a great deal, traveling to auctions where he bought and sold goods at a furious pace. At some point unspecified by Ben, Isaac’s older brother Emanuel and one or more of his younger brothers immigrated to New York to help Isaac with the business.
Soon Isaac and Dorothy were sufficiently well off to acquire a private, four-story brownstone in fashionable Harlem. The household employed a cook, a maid, and a French governess, whom Ben called his Mademoiselle. He had fond memories of her teaching him French. A handful of years after stepping off the boat, the Grossbaums were living the American dream.
At age six, Ben joined his older brothers at public school, where he proved a gifted student. In 1903, after the family’s move to 116th Street in Harlem, he enrolled in Public School 10, one of the first of New York’s fine public schools that helped the immigrant population to assimilate. In February of that year, eight-year-old Ben skipped a grade, into the all-boy classroom of his most memorable teacher, the “blonde and beautiful”—and, to Ben’s mind, all-powerful—Miss Churchill.
In late February of 1903, Mademoiselle arrived at the school, sent for the three boys, and rushed them to see their father at German Hospital. Ben, age eight, knew his father had undergone surgery for a condition called “yellow jaundice.” (“Years later,” he wrote, “I learned it was cancer of the pancreas.”) His father’s hospital stay had seemed like another one of his business trips. Now Isaac lay ill in his sickbed.
“…he placed his weak hand on each of our heads in turn and gave us his final blessing. I kissed him, I know, feeling more apprehension and bewilderment than filial affection. Then we tiptoed out.”
Ben’s distress must have been heightened by his mother’s absence during this visit, and his lack of preparation for saying goodbye to his father. Afterward, at their Uncle Emanuel’s house, Mademoiselle reassured the boys that their father would recover. Ben’s brother Victor, however, cried as he “began to stumble through some Hebrew prayers.” Mademoiselle then took them home and waited with them for Dorothy to return. Hours later, their weeping mother arrived to give them the news of their father’s death.
“…I was not too young to understand that from that moment on everything would be different, unhappily different.”
Ben Graham omits from his Memoirs what must have been a painful scene where he realizes that their cook, maid, and governess will not be taking care of him and his brothers anymore. His mother had no money to pay them. (Later in the Blog, I will posit that Ben had a strong yet unrecognized attachment to his governess, making her loss especially hard.) Now Mother was all Ben and his brothers had. A mother who, in the best of times, had openly aired her ambivalence about having Ben as her son. Now, she was stressed by financial hardship, by shame about her diminished standing and threadbare clothes, by the demands of raising three boys alone, and by the strain of doing the work the servants once did.
Isaac’s brothers, who had worked at the china shop under Isaac’s resourceful direction, failed to keep the shop afloat. Then Dorothy’s brother Maurice, a brilliant engineer, took over and failed. Within a year, the family business went belly-up.
“In a few distressful years, every cent of what Father had left us was used up or lost…”
When Isaac was alive, Dorothy didn’t have to put her children to bed, cook a meal or wash a dish. A very high standard of living indeed. Now she was forced to sell her possessions, pawn her jewelry, and make ends meet on handouts from her siblings, especially her elder brother Maurice who had settled in Brooklyn. As for young Ben Grossbaum, he’d been six when his family was rich, and now that he was nine, his family was poor.
These were tough blows for a boy to suffer. First and foremost, he lost his father. He lost the three women who took care of him, including the governess who nurtured him. He lost his house, his room, a happy mother. He lost all financial security.
As in most origin stories, Ben Graham’s early losses shaped the man he would become. Right after college, he turned down a remarkable opportunity to consider three offers of professorships at Columbia in diverse departments: Greek and Latin Philosophy, English, and Mathematics. He took a low-level position at an investment firm because he believed it offered prospects for higher earnings in future. He resolved that, once he established himself, his widowed mother would never again be poor.
Family need was the tinder. Ben Graham’s urge to prove his worth ignited that need into flames. He asked the essential Wall Street question: is there a better way to invest? To give the world his answer, Benjamin Graham harnessed his superlative gifts and drove his fiery chariot across the sky.
Next: we consider the decade when Ben Graham’s mother found herself penniless, with three boys to raise. How will they get by?