Today the name Guggenheim conjures up an empire of art museums noted as much for their avant-garde architecture as their tradition-tweaking...

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“The Guggenheims: A Family History”

by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger

Harper Collins, 560 pages, $29.95

Today the name Guggenheim conjures up an empire of art museums noted as much for their avant-garde architecture as their tradition-tweaking contemporary art.

When the first permanent Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum opened in 1959, it was housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s cylindrical masterpiece on Fifth Avenue in New York. In 1997 the museum again made international headlines when it opened the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, a swooping titanium construction designed by Frank Gehry. Both buildings were controversial when they were built and remain so today. Over the decades the museum has opened less architecturally flashy branches in Berlin, Venice and Las Vegas.

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“The Guggenheims: A Family History,” by Irwin Unger and Debi Unger, offers a fascinating look at a family that in less than a century transformed itself from a clan of penniless immigrants into the kind of stunningly wealthy captains of industry who could build costly art museums.

The tale, as the Ungers tell it, is a classic American success story: Ambitious, hardworking immigrants build a business dynasty during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, only to see it unravel in the mid- to late 20th century when third and fourth generations prove unwilling or unable to carry on the hard-driving entrepreneurialism of their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfather. With the 1979 death of the flamboyant Peggy Guggenheim, a woman who lived for art and love affairs and resided, notoriously, in Venice, there are no Guggenheims today who wield the power, prestige or sheer notoriety of their forebears.

The family continues to generously support the Guggenheim Museum and such philanthropies as the Guggenheim Fellowships for midcareer scientists, artists and academics, but the family’s fortune has greatly diminished.

Its early history is full of risk-taking businessmen. The family was founded by Meyer Guggenheim, a Swiss Jewish immigrant of German heritage who arrived in Philadelphia in 1848 as a teenager and peddled household goods to rural Pennsylvania housewives. Meyer was quick to exploit business opportunities, and soon he was inventing household products such as a polish that women bought to clean their cooking stoves.

Meyer and his wife had 11 children, including eight sons. The sons became the bedrock of the family dynasty, and by the late 19th century, Meyer and his sons had built a family fortune in lead and silver mining and metals refining. Guggenheim mines and smelters extended from Colorado and Alaska to Mexico, Chile and Peru. One of the surprising aspects of the Ungers’ biography is how this quintessentially East Coast immigrant family became inextricably entwined with the West and South America. Several of the men in the family became confidants to South American presidents, and Harry Guggenheim, a third-generation family member, was the U.S. ambassador to Cuba in the 1930s.

Though few Guggenheims over the generations were highly religious, most were nominally observant Jews, and their Jewishness was always a part of the family personality.

As the Ungers point out, high society in New York and elsewhere was made up of two distinct groups, wealthy Jews and wealthy non-Jews, and at a certain step on the social ladder the groups did not mingle. Despite their great wealth the Guggenheims, until well into the mid-20th century, could not get their children accepted to the best Ivy League prep schools, for instance; and one of the Ungers’ themes is that the Guggenheims’ great quest for success in business and society was fueled by their desire to hurdle the walls of anti-Semitism.

It is an engaging story recounted by the Ungers in fast-paced, well-documented style.

Robin Updike is a freelance arts writer and an Internet editor.