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The Human Touch

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THE death of Otto Kahn recalls that hour, some time in 1928, I believe, when I interviewed the banker, art patron, and philanthropist, in preparation for an article I was writing about him for the old Outlook. The interview occurred during lunch in the dining room of the Kuhn. Loeb offices at 52 William street. I was struck by the curious contrast between the purplish face of the banker, that purplish color that denotes good living and, perhaps, a measure of self-indulgence, and the frugal meal the banker was having, for all I know, on doctor’s orders. While chops and all the fixings were my dish for that lunch, the patron of art was having no more than a large bowl of warm milk with some bran-like cereal.

I recall then being struck by the slightly Germanic burr with which the banker spoke his English, and I think that after the conversation I was aware of the real motivation in the banker’s patronage of art, and of music and of learning. He desired deeply to win acceptance of himself as a civilized human being rather than as a mere money-making banker. Having conquered the world of finance, as he then seemed to have conquered it, he was eager to conquer the world of art, to win a place for Otto Kahn in the circles of personal achievement, in the circles of fine impersonal conversation.


I think he had somewhat of a hankering for the Bohemian side of life, for the unorthodox aspects, I think that he had a sneaking admiration for the rebels, and one of his chums used to be, I believe, Mike Gold, of The Masses. I know that a number of young men who were trying to do things in the world of the theatre and in the world of art who were rather more like Mike Gold than Otto Kahn drew freely upon his generosity. I know of one man who was maintained, not lavishly it is true for a whole year, while he was writing a play that would, but did not make Broadway take notice. All this is perhaps not so strange when we bear in mind that his father was one of the 1848 revolutionaries of Germany, but most of those who knew Otto Kahn did not know that.

I recall two interesting things he said during that conversation. One was that he did not expect to obtain dividends on his art patronage. That is, if a man whom he was supporting did not write a great play, or a great book of poems, no harm was done, because if a man did achieve success, he might have achieved it in any event, perhaps without his help and he did not seem to care very much whether or not he could say that his subsidy made possible the creation of a great work of art. The other thing he said was an attempt to reconcile his philosophy as a supporter of the capitalist system with his help to artists and to the cause of music. The reconciliation was put in something like these words: “If we give the masses music and art, give them opportunities for expression, they will not be so eager for revolution, for upsetting things.” All of which sounded logical then and sounds logical now.


There is no gainsaying the fact that there are Jews at the right hand of President Roosevelt, concerned disinterestedly in helping him to frame a workable New Deal for these United States. An able reporter and writer whose identity is concealed under the pen name of “Unofficial Observer” gives us a book about the President, his program, those who are assisting him in carrying it forward in its many details and of the other figures at Washington in a book called “The New Dealers.” just published.

Four important American Jews are discussed in “The New Dealers”; Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, under the heading of Privy Councillors; Henry Morgenthau, Jr., under the general heading of Mad Money, and Bernard M. Baruch, under the head of Fallen Angels. The revelations of Mr. Baruch’s innocuous desuetude will come as a propaganda-smashing shock to those professional anti-Semites who fondly believed, and proclaimed, that Mr. Baruch was the power behind the throne of NRA Administrator, General Hugh S. Johnson.

Justice Brandeis’s chief link with Roosevelt consists in his “judicial endorsement of the right of the State to engage in bold experimentation.” As for Frankfurter, his specialty consists in “supplying the Administration with young liberal lawyers, sufficiently ingenious to justify the New Deal to the Courts and sufficiently radical to sympathize heartily with its purposes.” The striking fact about Frankfurter is that although he might have had almost any job in the gift of Roosevelt, his present preference is to continue to teach.

Unofficial Observer sums up the peculiar qualifications of Brandeis in the following paragraph:

“If the country were ruled by an aristocracy of brains, he would be one of the members of the small central board of control. If we lived under a system of constitutional monarchy, he would be one of the King’s honored Privy Councillors. As we live in a political democracy, which distrusts both brains and monarchical institutions, all that we can do with Brandeis is to give him a seat on the United States Supreme Court. It is a tribute to his power that, despite his handicaps of race, position and acute intelligence, he has given force and direction to American liberal politics for the last thirty years.”

Of Felix Frankfurter, our extremely able Unofficial Observer writes:

“If Brandeis is a prophet, Frankfurter, is a trainer of prophets who has made the Harvard Law School a sort of racing stable for liberal lawyers. One of our greatest teachers of youth, he also has the tact and ability to teach governors and Presidents. He has a keen mind and there are few men who can talk more enticingly…Felix more than any other one person is the legal master-mind of the New Deal, although he is in large part only the transmitter of the apostolic succession of Louis D. Brandeis.” Elsewhere our reporter says that Felix, as he calls him, is another Brandeis who wears plus fours instead of the conventional prophet’s garb, which is a neat way of stating a contrast.

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