REVIEW WRITTEN BY LINDA STEIN
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History buffs will enjoy a fascinating biography of Albert M. Greenfield, a real estate tycoon whose long career helped shaped Philadelphia in the 20th Century.
“The Outsider: Albert M. Greenfield and the Fall of the Protestant Establishment,” penned by Dan Rottenberg tells the tale of a man whose self-confidence, optimism and determination lead to success in business despite the ingrained prejudice against Jews at that time, followed by a dramatic financial reversal and a phoenix-like return to prosperity.
Born in Russia, Greenfield, who lived from 1887 to 1967, founded a real estate empire during the Roaring 20’s and a retail domain that included Lits and Bonwit Teller, hotels, newspapers and a candy company. His biggest failure occurred during the Great Depression when a group of establishment bankers allowed a bank that Greenfield owned to topple.
In this engaging and thoroughly researched book, Rottenberg brings to life a man who befriended presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson, as well as Pennsylvania politicians of his day. He also forged coalitions between Jews, Catholics and blacks during his long career, eventually founding the Greenfield Center for Human Relations at the University of Pennsylvania. Appointed in 1956 to the Philadelphia Planning Commission by reformer Mayor Richardson Dilworth, Greenfield, with Ed Bacon, was behind the redevelopment of Society Hill as a tony enclave.
“In a city previously accustomed to old money and slow movement, here was the most complex and demanding urban project ever attempted — in Philadelphia or anywhere else,” Rottenberg wrote. “In effect, Bacon’s vision and Greenfield’s plan both sought to reverse the process that the Pennsylvania Railroad had begun eighty years earlier — that is, it would draw Philadelphia’s upper and upper-middle classes back into the heart of the city, much as the railroad had lured them to the Main Line in the nineteenth century.”
In an interview, Rottenberg, 72, said the book had its genesis in an article he’d written for “Philadelphia” magazine in 1976, however extensive and meticulous research augmented it. At that time Rottenberg had interviewed people, now deceased, who knew Greenfield and was able to bring their insights into his book. For this book he interviewed additional members of Greenfield’s family, friends and business associates and researched Greenfield’s papers. Greenfield, a journalist and author who always has projects “on the back burner,” had been thinking about writing about the fall of the Protestant establishment and also how Jews have changed America.
Greenfield’s “story really ties into both of those book ideas,” he said. It was “a prism to look at these larger issues.”
Rottenberg grew up in New York and majored in American Civilization at Penn, where he met his wife, Barbara. The Rottenbergs, who recently celebrated their 50th anniversary, have two grown daughters and four grandchildren. After a stint as a journalist in Portland, Indiana, where he was the youngest ever editor of a daily newspaper, Rottenberg moved to Chicago where he worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, then became managing editor of the Chicago Journalism Review.
He returned to Philadelphia, his wife’s hometown, in 1972 to take the helm of “Philadelphia” magazine. Rottenberg went on to edit “Welcomat,” a free weekly newspaper in Philadelphia.
While meeting with an agent he pitched several ideas for books, none of which impressed her. As he was about to leave, he suggested a book to help Jews find their roots. The result, “Finding Our Fathers” published by Random House in 1977 helped create interest in Jewish genealogy, which remains strong today.
From his earliest years, Rottenberg has been a writer. At 8 years old, he put out a class newspaper.
“Life hands you surprises,” Rottenberg said. “I always thought I’d spend my whole life on daily newspapers.”
Rottenberg, the author of 11 books, including “The Man who made Wall Street: Anthony J. Drexel and the Rise of Modern Finance,” is the founding editor of “The Broad Street Review,” an arts and culture website.
“The Outsider,” published by Temple University Press, is also available as an eBook.