Monday, April 9, 2018

The Most Trusted Citizen in 1850s LA was a Jewish Frenchman

Don Solomon Lazard

Imagine, for a moment, that it's the 1850s and you've just arrived in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles has only been part of the United States for a few years (and some would argue it's part of the US in name only). Theft and murder are common. There are no banks (yet). You're carrying a few pieces of jewelry and just enough money to rent a room and start a small business. The ship to San Pedro and the long ride into town weren't cheap, and you can't afford to get robbed.

Who can you trust?

If you asked law-abiding locals who they would trust with cash and valuables, the answer would probably be "Don Solomon".

Solomon Lazard was from Lorraine. After stints in New Orleans and San Francisco working for his cousins' business, Lazard Frères (which was a dry goods company at the time), he decided to open his own dry goods business in San Diego. Unfortunately, sleepy little San Diego was too small of a town to support even a modest shop. Following the advice of a well-traveled sailor, Lazard decided to move his store to Los Angeles.

By 1853, Lazard and his cousin Maurice Kremer had set up shop in Mellus' Row, near the western corner of Los Angeles and Aliso Streets. Aliso Street was a very active business district in the 1850s, and the two cousins also benefitted from residents of San Gabriel, El Monte, and San Bernardino taking Aliso Street into town.

Soon enough, Lazard was elected to the City Council. He was a Third Lieutenant in the Los Angeles Guards (a volunteer militia - Los Angeles didn't have a military base yet). Lazard served on the Committee on Police, Committee on Streets, Committee on Lands, the Library Association, and the Chamber of Commerce. In 1856, he served on the Grand Jury. Two years later, he was appointed to supervise the local election.

Lazard was active in the Hebrew Benevolent Society, heading the Society's Committee on Charity and eventually serving as its President. (The Hebrew Benevolent Society is now known as Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.) When a deadly smallpox outbreak swept through Los Angeles in 1863 - disproportionately affecting Mexican and Native American Angelenos - the Committee on Charity, under Lazard's leadership, donated $150 (about $2900 today) and collected additional funds to help care for indigent patients.

Early LA didn't really have banks. The town was too lawless to appeal to most bankers, even when business was booming. But locals needed safe places to store money and valuables.

Lazard and Kremer were merchants, not bankers. But they had spotless reputations and a large safe. It didn't take long for their customers to ask if they could leave their gold and silver with Lazard and Kremer for safekeeping. Lazard later partnered with Timothy Wolfskill in a general store. A few years later, Solomon's brother Abraham came to Los Angeles and joined the family business.

Harris Newmark relates a story about Lazard's professional ethics: Austrian immigrant Mathias "Mateo" Sabichi had left $30,000 with Lazard. No one had heard from Sabichi in so long that Lazard's employees thought he would never come for it. But Sabichi eventually returned to town, and upon presenting the certificate of deposit, was able to claim every cent.

It's hardly surprising that Lazard was known as "Don Solomon". He was such a popular local figure that he often floor-managed balls and fandangos and served as pallbearer for at least one local industrialist's funeral.

Towards the end of 1860, Lazard was arrested in his native France. He had returned home to visit his mother, and, as French law dictated, had registered with the local police. Young French men were legally required to complete a term of military service, and Lazard had left home at age seventeen without having done so. In spite of the fact that he was now a U.S. citizen, Lazard was court-martialed and sentenced to a stint in prison.

Lazard was in luck, however: the newly-appointed American minister to France, Charles J. Faulkner, worked to secure his release, and Emperor Napoleon III intervened. (Ironically, Faulkner - a Southerner who was arrested in early 1861 for trying to secure weapons for the Confederacy - was the author of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.) Lazard did have to pay a fine, but he was able to return to Los Angeles in early 1861.

A street in the heart of Frenchtown was named Lazard Street. It was later changed to Ducommun Street (Ducommun Yard, home base for Ducommun Industries, was bordered by the street on one side - the site is now a Little Tokyo bus depot). A different Lazard Street exists today - it's a short residential cul-de-sac in San Fernando. (Side note: I was pleasantly surprised to see Cinderella Ranch houses on Lazard Street. I am obsessed with them.) Mayor Joseph Mascarel lived at 99 Lazard Street (the old one downtown) during the last years of his life.

Lazard Street sign in San Fernando
As for Lazard himself, home was 657 Westlake Avenue in Echo Park. He and his wife Caroline (née Newmark; cousin of Harris Newmark) had three daughters and three sons.

Lazard's store - which sold French, English, and American-made dry goods, boots, shoes, clothing, and groceries (boasting in an 1852 newspaper advertisement that they would always sell goods at the lowest market prices for cash and pay the highest price for gold dust) - prospered to the point of becoming LA's earliest department store. Ville de Paris, or City of Paris, was a fixture of downtown Los Angeles and the city's French community for years. (I will have to give City of Paris its own entry. I will note here, however, that City of Paris once occupied the building we now know as Grand Central Market. The next time you're grabbing lunch at GCM, look around you and see if you can spot the bones of the old department store in the market today.)

As time marched on, LA got bigger, and water management got to be a bigger problem. Marchesseault and Sainsevain weren't successful, but the Los Angeles City Water Company - founded by Prudent Beaudry, Solomon Lazard, and Dr. John S. Griffin - prevailed. Although Beaudry is known for his work as a developer and his successful efforts to bring water to his hilltop properties, he didn't helm the City Water Company. It was Solomon Lazard who held the office of President. When the Company's 30-year lease expired, the city bought the City Water Company - now the Department of Water and Power - for $2 million. (That's about $60 million today.) The water contract specified, among other points, that the Company would replace all the wooden pipes with twelve miles of iron pipes, erect an ornamental fountain in the Plaza (replacing the ugly old reservoir tank that stood on the site), place a fire hydrant at each intersection, and provide water free of charge to public schools, city hospitals, and jails.

Don Solomon, described as an "old pioneer" when he passed away in 1916 at the ripe old age of 89, was survived by his wife and four of their six children. He is buried at Home of Peace Memorial Park in East Los Angeles.

As for his extended family's dry-goods firm, Lazard Frères got into banking after Solomon left. The company is now a publicly-traded investment bank known simply as Lazard (NYSE: LAZ). Some sources (including my copy of Le Guide Francais) credit Solomon with founding Lazard Frères; however, Lazard states that their Los Angeles branch didn't open until 2003. Oddly, a 1987 Los Angeles Times article points to a planned LA office opening soon, claiming it would be the firm's first office in California since the San Francisco branch closed in 1906.

(Edited to add: I originally planned to write about J.B. Leonis this week. In light of the fact that 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll was brutally murdered in her apartment in Paris recently, I put J.B. on the back burner. LA's French community was not a monoculture, and this Franco-American blogger values the Lazards, Kremers, Meyers, Loebs etc. just as much as the Beaudrys, Pellissiers, Brousseaus, Mesmers, etc. Although I am not Jewish, I am from a heavily Jewish neighborhood, and bigotry of any kind really. pisses. me. off.

Rant over. I'm going to bed.)