This week, in North Philly Notes, a Q&A with Dan Rottenberg, author of The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment.
How and why did you come to study Albert M. Greenfield?
Like most authors, I’ve always had several books on the back burner. One, for years, was a book about how Jews have changed business in America and vice versa. Another was a book about the decline of the Protestant establishment in America. I came across Albert M. Greenfield, and I realized this man ties into both of those themes, and that’s what I was really interested in. He was the quintessential Russian immigrant hustler who terrified the Protestant establishment in Philadelphia. They tried to shut him down in 1930. They thought they had. He came back and shut many of them down.
What surprised you in researching and telling Greenfield’s story?
What surprised me was that I couldn’t quite get a handle on him: Do I like this man or don’t I like him? There were a lot of things about Greenfield that I really liked and that I found I had in common with him—he was a tremendous optimist, and had no use for people who whined and complained—I’m pretty much the same way. He had very little empathy for people who had problems. He said take your problems somewhere else. On the other hand, he did a lot of things that were not quite ethical. He had his own narrative of his life, a lot of it was total nonsense. What I had to do as the writer was sift out the myth from the facts.
How do you think Greenfield used his Jewishness, or broke away from the stereotype in his business affairs?
Greenfield was Jewish, but he really broke all boundaries, and all rules. His basic mantra was, I can define myself as whatever I want. Sometimes he defined himself as Jewish, sometimes he thought he was the second coming of Benjamin Franklin. He was all over the place.
Do you find that his business savvy was his sheer love of business, versus fear of financial failure?
When you come right down to it, he was not really that concerned with making money or power, he really just loved to play the game. He lost a fortune twice in his life, and came back and each time, he really got the sense that he enjoyed the comeback. It was much more fun. He once said, “I’d rather fall off the highest rung than never climb the ladder.”
Greenfield was active in real estate, banking, retail, and politics, among other things. What do you think was his greatest accomplishment?
In business, he built up a huge empire, including department store chains up and down the east coast. He built some of the major building that still stand to this day, including the Ben Franklin Hotel and the Philadelphia Building, which for years was called the Bankers’ Security Building, named for his company. But really his business empire collapsed shortly after he died. It was largely a one-man band. His legacy really lies elsewhere.
What was his greatest disaster?
Probably the failure of the Banker’s Trust Company in 1930—his venture into banking. He just assumed he was smarter than everybody else and he could succeed at anything he put his hand to. Banking turned out to be something very different than real estate. In real estate, the biggest asset is your optimism, your ability to inspire confidence in your investors or tenants. In a banker, your biggest asset is your reputation for prudence, caution, and reliability. Totally different things.
What do you think Greenfield’s legacy in Philadelphia is today?
I would say his greatest legacy is the message that his life transmits to people, that you, as a private, ordinary citizen, can really exert tremendous influence on your community, your country—if you really want to. The idea that we ought to be a little more optimistic about the future—that we ought to be a little more accepting of change. You can make your own identity, whatever you want it to be, and collectively, we can make this community and this world a better place if we want. I also think his legacy is the importance of immigrants in our society. Every generation there is a fear of immigrants and a feeling that immigrants don’t really know what America is about. Greenfield had the opposite idea. He said immigrants really appreciate America more than anybody else does.
About the author
Dan Rottenberg is the author of eleven books, including The Man Who Made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance, and the founding editor of the Broad Street Review, an arts and culture website.