Otto Kahn: Art, Money, & Modern Time

Theresa M. Collins has written a solid, well-researched, and insightful study of Otto Kahn, the premier American art patron of the early twentieth century and a senior partner of the New York investment house Kuhn, Loeb, and Company. While based on broad research, Otto Kahn derives largely from the voluminous Kahn Papers at Princeton, the Metropolitan Opera Archives, and the Pierpont Morgan Library, each representing a different phase of Kahn’s life—the personal, the art patron, and the investment banker. Collins’s subject is less Otto Kahn than the time frame of his life, the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first third of the twentieth century, a period she labels modernity.

Collins argues that Kahn exemplified broad historical changes in the North Atlantic world. Born a middle-class, assimilated German Jew, Kahn secured his partnership at Kuhn, Loeb through a virtually arranged marriage. Kahn governed his life by the cultural norms of the German upper middle class that included genteel manners, discreet private conduct, an appreciation and knowledge of arts and literature, and a commitment to public service. Kahn never viewed wealth itself an end. For much of his life, while an acknowledged German Jew, Kahn assiduously sought membership in the anti-Semitic, Anglo-American upper class. Kahn believed class and culture would neutralize his ethnic otherness.

In New York, a city of immigrants and migrants who tended to judge individuals on wealth and accomplishment, Kahn found his Jewish background meant less. Kahn also possessed what New York’s elite craved, European sophistication. Kahn’s commitment to grand opera, the symphony, and modern theater and dance gave him an entrée into the city’s most prestigious cultural circles. For nearly forty years he served as the chief patron and trustee of the Metropolitan Opera, transforming it into the most important opera house in the world. Drawn to the modern performing arts, Kahn brought to New York the best of Europe’s modern directors and choreographers. Kahn also sought out and patronized promising American artists and groups including the Provincetown Players. By the 1920s he had become the patron of American arts.

Kahn’s personal quest for recognition, his patronage, and his banking were interrelated and connected to the changes in the North Atlantic world. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, money, technology, culture, and power transcended their national and ethnic boundaries and became increasingly internationalized under the rubrics of modern science, capitalism, cosmopolitan culture, and the League of Nations. Otto Kahn sought to further such changes. He died in 1934 at the age of sixty-seven, his wealth diminished, the Holocaust underway, and capitalism crippled. The atomic age that emerged after World War II bore little resemblance to the European cosmopolitanism that Otto Kahn, the House of Morgan, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers had fostered.

The University of North Carolina Press did us a great service by publishing the book. For most historians of the twentieth century, however, Otto Kahn is a useful but not essential book.

By Theresa M. Collins