The Cyclopædia of American Biography/Kahn, Otto Hermann

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The Cyclopædia of American Biography  (1918) 
James E. Homans, editor
Kahn, Otto Hermann

KAHN, Otto Hermann, banker and art patron, b. in Mannheim, Germany, 21 Feb., 1867. Son of Bernhard and Emma (Eberstadt) Kahn. From his father, a prosperous banker of Mannheim, Otto inherited a love of art in its various developments which caused him to become internationally distinguished as an earnest advocate and liberal supporter, not only of what was excellent in music, painting, sculpture, and literature, but of all that promised to become so. He always has been broad, democratic, and catholic in his artistic judgment, a judgment that has seldom been questioned, and never successfully controverted. He grew up in an atmosphere of art, for his father's home in Mannheim was a rendezvous for a wide circle of artists, musicians, singers, sculptors, and writers. His own ambition was to be a musician, and he learned to play several instruments before he was graduated at the high school. But he was one of eight children and his father had set plans for the career of each one. In his own case he was destined to be a banker and perhaps, to his disgust, certainly to his disappointment, instead of being permitted to make the study of music his life work, after passing through college, at the age of seventeen, he was placed in a bank at Karlsruhe, near Mannheim, to learn finance from the very fountain. His principal duties for some time were those of junior clerk. Speaking of the months when he filled this hard-working and undignified position, Otto Kahn is quoted as having said: “It was a useful salutary training, for it taught discipline and order. One must learn to obey before he is fit to command. It instilled a proper sense of one's place, and emphasized that the most humble duties must be performed conscientiously and without any loss of self-respect. I suppose I must have wiped the inkwells fairly satisfactorily, for it was not long before I was promoted and had another novice to clean my inkwell and fetch my lunch.” For three years Otto Kahn remained in the bank at Karlsruhe, advancing until he was thoroughly grounded in the intricacies of finance, and could properly be called a good banker at that time. Then the call of the army came and he entered the Kaiser's Hussars to give the required years of service. As a soldier he was as thorough as in everything else, and the effect of his military training has always remained with him in his upright carriage and easy grace of movement. On leaving the army he went to the important London agency of the Deutsche Bank, where he remained five years. Here he displayed such unusual talents that he became second in command when he had been there but a comparatively short time. The English mode of life, both political and social, appealed to him so forcefully that, when he had become thoroughly familiar with its traditions, its freedom and broadness of outlook on the world he decided to renounce his German citizenship and became naturalized as an Englishman. As he has expressed it, very happily, he became an “Englishman from conviction.” Notwithstanding that he was an aristocrat by birth, education, and associations, he was thoroughly democratic at heart and his aversion to everything that savored of coercion and abridgment of freedom was deep and sincere. When he went to London first he had no intention of becoming a British subject. His course was prompted solely by his admiration for the institutions of the country as they appealed to him, and in that, as in every important act of his life, he never lacked for an instant the courage of his convictions. It was in 1893 that the marked talents of Mr. Kahn attracted the notice of the heads of the great London banking firm of Speyer and Company, and they offered him an important position in their New York house. He accepted, but intended to remain only temporarily in America. Before he had been long in New York, however, he changed his mind. He decided that both the people and climate of the United States were congenial to his temperament, and soon he became so completely absorbed in the business and social activities of New York that he had no wish for any others. On the first of January, 1897, he became a member of the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. He did much to enhance the already great prestige and influence of that famous institution of high finance. Almost immediately he was thrown into contact with the railroad builder, E. H. Harriman. These two, gifted with the clear, quick thought that is always the precursor of brilliant deeds, took to each other immediately. In spite of sharply defined differences in temperament and method, they became as brothers. In opposition to Harriman's gruff, domineering, aggressive manner in business, was Mr. Kahn's calm, good-humored, almost gentle deportment. True, the velvet glove he extended so smilingly covered a fist of steel, but the fist did not smite unless real occasion arose. Then the blow came hard, swift, and sudden, and always was effective. The, traveled, cultured banker and diplomat had early learned the value of cultivating the good will of others, thus enlisting their co-operation, rather than arousing a spirit of combativeness in them by a challenging truculence. That was the difference in the methods of these two exceptionally able men. Otto Kahn at this time was only thirty years of age, but he took an almost equal part with Harriman in the gigantic task of reorganizing the Union Pacific Railroad, a work which in its early stages had been handled by that master of finance and railroad management, Jacob H. Schiff, the head of the firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Otto Kahn proved his ability to analyze mathematically and scientifically the innumerable problems that were constantly presented in this enormously responsible undertaking. It was not only his important part in perfecting the Northern Pacific system that caused Mr. Kahn soon to be acknowledged as the ablest reorganizer of railroads in the United States. His unerring judgment has been applied to the Baltimore and Ohio; Missouri Pacific; Wabash; Chicago and Eastern Illinois; the Texas and Pacific; and other great systems. He saved the Missouri Pacific almost from total ruin by a singularly bold stroke, which wrested the control of the road from a management that had proved itself inadequate, although fighting to hold its power to the very end. More than once the prompt and vigorous action of Otto Kahn averted an imminent financial panic. A notable instance was his rescuing from collapse the famous Pearson-Farquhar syndicate when it found itself in deep water in a daring attempt to combine several existing lines of railroad into a great transcontinental system that would excel any other in existence. When the American International Corporation, with its $50,000,000 capital and its vast protentialities for making eminent America's position in the world of trade and finance, was in process of formation, it was Otto H. Kahn who took an active part in the negotiations, and brought them to a successful issue. In fact, the president of the corporation, Charles A. Stone, confessed to an interviewer: “I don't know what we should have done without the counsel and practical assistance of Mr. Kahn. He is a wonder, his understanding of international affairs is amazing.” Another great work in which Mr. Kahn showed his transcendent ability was in conducting the intricate, delicate negotiations which led to the opening of the doors of the Paris Bourse to American securities and the listing there of $50,000,000 Pennsylvania bonds, in 1906, the first official listing of American securities in Paris. Also he had a large share later in the negotiations which resulted in the issue by Kuhn, Loeb and Company of $50,000,000 of City of Paris bonds and $60,000,000 Bordeaux-Lyons and Marseilles bonds. As an art connoisseur, Otto H. Kahn is probably better known to the world at large than he is as a banker. He reorganized the Metropolitan Opera in New York as he would have reorganized a railroad. Regardless of expense to himself personally, he introduced many valuable reforms both artistically and managerially, ended costly and useless excrescences, raised the tone of artistic aspiration, and in general put new life into the institution. He is chairman of the Metropolitan Opera Company and he gives a great deal of valuable time to its affairs inspired only by his genuine love of music, coupled with the determination that what is offered by the organization shall be of the finest quality it is possible to acquire, no matter at what expense or labor. To Mr. Kahn music, beautiful paintings, vitalized statuary, and real literature are the essentials of a full life, and he would as soon try to live without food as to deprive himself of an interest in the beautiful and the true as exemplified in art in all its aspects. Nor has he ever been selfish in his enjoyment of art. His sentiments in this regard he once put into words which are well worth quoting, “Mæcenases are needed,” he said, &ldquo for the dramatic stage, the operatic stage, the concert stage; for conservatories and art academies; for the encouragement and support of American writers, painters, sculptors, decorators, in fact for all those things which in Europe are done by princes, governments, and communities . . . to strive toward fostering the art life of the country, toward counteracting harsh militarism, toward relieving the monotony and strain of the people's every-day life by helping to awaken or foster in them the love and the understanding of that which is beautiful and inspiring, and aversion and contempt for that which is vulgar, cheap, and degrading, that is a humanitarian effort eminently worth making.” In all his activities aside from those of his banking house, Mr. Kahn has been inspired not by a wish to cater to the whims of people of his own social standing, but by a sincere desire to furnish for the masses the mental and spiritual nourishment afforded by genuine art and beauty and culture. In addition to holding the chairmanship of the Metropolitan Opera Company, he was chairman of the Century Opera Company, founded to give opera at popular prices, treasurer of the New Theater, vice-president and principal founder of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, director of the Boston Opera Company, and honorary director of the Royal Opera Company, Covent Garden, London. Among other institutions in which he takes a helpful interest are the Boys' Club, New York City, which was founded by E. H. Harriman, and the Neurological Institute, also in New York, and which Mr. Kahn helped to establish. Besides his membership in the banking firm of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, he is a director of the following: Equitable Trust Company, Union Pacific Railroad Company, Southern Pacific Company, Oregon Short Line Railroad Company, Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, and Morristown Trust Company. Mr. Kahn drives a four-in-hand, and likes riding, automobiling, golfing, and sailing, and has a proper respect for the great American game of baseball. Also he understands cricket. He plays both violin and cello with the skill and taste of a virtuoso, and is an omnivorous reader. One of his inviolable rules is to read for one hour every night before retiring no matter how late it may be. Although an Englishman by adoption and with a clear road to membership in the British parliament, had he chosen to accept it, after more than twenty years of residence in the United States, in which, as he expressed it, “my roots have gone too deeply into American soil ever to be transplanted,” he took the necessary steps to become legally an American, thus consummating in due form what he long had been actually — a loyal representative citizen of the country which he had cause to look upon as his very own. One of Mr. Kahn's projects for the advancement of art, and which has met with universal approval, is to establish in America a counterpart of the Luxembourg gallery of Paris, a place where the work of contemporary American artists can be exhibited free to the people, where the artist can go for recognition, and where the people will gain a better understanding of art. It is characteristic of Mr. Kahn that he is ever ready to aid genuine talent, especially in the young, and that he takes time to seek opportunities to do real service in the cause of art and culture in America. In 1896 he married Sadie, daughter of Abraham Wolff, one of the founders of the banking house of Kuhn, Loeb and Company, and they have two sons and two daughters.


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