10/4/11 - rebuilding lives in america

In today's excerpt - in 1940, the executives of Paris-based Lazard Freres, one of the world's greatest investment banking firms, were forced to flee before the Nazis and try and rebuild their lives in America. Andre Meyer, a legend in Paris and perhaps the most powerful of them all, had two impossible tasks—first to escape from Europe and then to ascend the ranks of power in New York as a virtual unknown. His task was made easier, though, because he had kept a large part of his fortune intact and could use it toward both ends:

"The outbreak of war across Europe was of particular concern, understandably, to the partners of Lazard Freres et Cie and to all those people associated with the Paris firm. Kristallnacht had definitively proved Hitler's determination to rid Europe of Jews as quickly as possible. Lazard was one of the best-known Jewish banks in Europe. The David-Weills and Andre Meyer were among the most famous bankers in Europe. So it was not long after the German invasion of Poland that many French Jews began to consider an escape. In the face of the Nazi war machine, survival was now the focus of the Lazard partners—for the firm and for themselves—on both sides of the Atlantic. ...

"After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, Andre Meyer ... knew it was just a matter of time before he would have to abandon Paris and, together with his family, leave France. 'Meyer had no illusions about his situation,' Cary Reich wrote. 'He was a prominent Jewish banker working for a prominent Jewish bank.' He had also been outspoken in his efforts to help German Jews escape Germany. And Andre had contributed money to finance a plot to assassinate Hitler.

"By the last week of May 1940, Andre decided the time had come to leave the City of Light. He locked his apartment on the Cours Albert Premier and hired a car and driver to take him to Bordeaux. After a few days there, he packed up his family, and together they headed to the Spanish border. Before leaving Bordeaux, Andre was able to obtain incredibly valuable and hard-to-come-by visas for entry into—and passage through—Spain. At the border, while other [Jewish] refugees from France were standing in interminable lines, often without success—a scene Andre's son, Philippe, remembered vividly as one of complete havoc—the Meyer family was whisked past the hoi polloi and into the country. They took a train to Santander, and then, a few days later, moved on to the relative safety of Lisbon, in Portugal, to begin the arduous [but sucessful] task of obtaining an even more coveted visa for entry into the United States. ...

"There remains to this day resentment about the relative ease of Andre's exit. 'There are people today, whom I met in Paris,' said [future partner] Felix Rohatyn, 'who were related to Andre and who will never forgive him for leaving and leaving them behind, because they went through Spain, which others were not able to do.' ...

"Upon arriving in New York, the Meyers stayed at the Stanhope Hotel on Fifth Avenue. Then they moved on to the Delmonico on Park Avenue and then on to a few others before settling, finally, at the ultraluxurious Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, where they took up residence in a two-bedroom suite on the thirty-third floor. All this meandering around the Upper East Side was evidence of just how out of sorts Andre felt beyond the world he had created for himself in Paris. He had been misdiagnosed as having cancer. He had trouble speaking English. He had no clients. Worse, nobody knew who he was or what he had accomplished at Lazard in Paris. He was no longer important to anyone. 'It was all a great shock for him - Nazism, the war, France's defeat,' his son Philippe explained. 'On the personal side, he had been a great, great success, and suddenly everything collapsed, and he had to start all over again. And he didn't know if he had the strength or courage to do it.'

"Finally, sometime around May 1, 1941, Andre recovered from this malaise and headed back into the fray. ... Typically, Andre - in his efforts to regain his previous form - set his sights on the grandest prize of all: wooing as a client the much-admired David Sarnoff, the chairman of RCA. For starters, Andre donated the unheard-of sum of $100,000 to the United Jewish Appeal, one of Sarnoff's favorite charities. Sarnoff, somewhat baffled by such largesse from a man he had neither heard of nor met, sought out Andre, as Andre hoped he would. ... The two hit it off famously; RCA remained a Lazard client for decades. 'Getting the RCA account then was the equivalent of getting the Microsoft account today,' explained Patrick Gerschel, Andre's grandson."


William D. Cohan


The Last Tycoons: The Secret History of Lazard Freres & Co.


Random House


Copyright 2008 by William D. Cohan


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