Samuel Untermyer: The Superlawyer Who Took on Hitler

The cut-throat qualities that made Untermyer the first American lawyer to nab a one-million-dollar fee morphed into aesthetic impulses that made his multi-million bulb garden grow.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Samuel Untermyer, a hard-nosed lawyer, an eagle-eyed investor, a big-hearted civic leader, and a green-thumbed horticulturalist, was torn when America fought Germany in World War I—only to be among the first Americans to turn on Hitler’s Germany, long before America entered World War II.

In truth, Untermyer’s nostalgia for his ancestral homeland in 1917 was far more characteristic than his fiery advocacy 16 years later. Born to German Jewish immigrants turned Confederate supporters in 1858, Untermyer described himself “as one of German parentage, whose ancestors were for centuries imbedded in the soil of that land,” and someone with the “strongest feeling of sympathy toward the German people.”

Indeed, Untermyer grew up in the clubby confines of the German immigrant elite. His law firm was a partnership of German-American relatives. He even married a non-Jewish German woman Minnie Carl. But within weeks of Adolf Hitler’s coming to power in January, 1933, when most German Jews were deciding to stay in Nazi Germany—and most Americans were trying to appease it—Untermyer understood what was happening.

Filled with “revulsion against the sadistic cruelties of the present regime,” disgusted that “ninety-nine percent of the German people… are thereby relegated to semi-barbarism,” he demanded American action. He founded—and bankrolled—the campaign to boycott German goods. Although he was on the right side of history, as what the academic Richard Hawkins called “Hitler’s bitterest foe”—even many American Jewish leaders opposed him. The fight failed—and broke him, destroying his health.

Ironically, even while running this tough political battle, Untermyer also played the role of America’s most magnanimous and flamboyant gentleman farmer, who spent decades cultivating a New World Garden of Eden. In 1899, Untermyer bought Greystone-on-Hudson in Yonkers, New York, from the estate of the former Democratic presidential nominee Samuel Tilden. For the next 41 years, Untermyer collected and cultivated and cross-pollinated, until Betters Homes and Garden deemed his 163 acres worth of gardens “among the loveliest in America.”

It seems that, through some instinct for equilibrium, the cut-throat qualities that made Untermyer the first American lawyer to nab a one-million-dollar fee morphed into aesthetic impulses that made his multi-million bulb garden grow. At the same time, of course, the zeal that made him America’s first “superman of law,” a Progressive do-gooder, and an anti-Nazi freedom fighter carried over into the obsessive way he cultivated his spread.  

Untermyer embodied the American dream—with the Rockefeller-Carnegie corollary of giving back grandly once you’ve made it big. He grew up fatherless in New York City—after his father put all his money in Confederate bonds and all his faith in that thankfully lost cause. Educated at the City College of New York and Columbia Law School, Untermyer made his fortune in a family law firm Guggeinheimer and Untermeyer made up of other ambitious, well-educated, high-cultured, German-Jewish immigrants: his half-brother Randolph Guggenheimer, his brother Isaac Untermeyer, and, for a particularly productive four decades, his best friend from law school, the great jurist and American Jewish activist Louis Marshall.

Untermeyer was a master trial lawyer—ruthless but luminous. In the cozy world of the New York elites, his cross-examinations, broke witnesses, made fortunes, and lost him friendships. He was also a masterful—and innovative—corporate lawyer. As just enough of an outsider from the cozy WASPy Wall Street firms to be a visionary, he became one of the first lawyers to take company shares in lieu of cash fees, to champion minority interests in shareholder fights, and invested in companies his practice exposed him to. By 1922, his fortune was estimated at $50 million—nearly $700 million in today’s dollars.

As Untermyer clawed his way up, he dismissed labor unions and focused on business almost exclusively. By the time he reached his forties, he became swept up by the Progressive movement—trusting Big Government to balance out Big Business and impose order. He also became more philanthropic and civic-minded.  In 1912, he turned his courtroom theatrics on J.P. Morgan and other financiers as the counsel to the Congress’s Pujo Money Trust Inquiry.

Trying to prove monopolistic collaboration among six banking houses, Untermyer subpoenaed the King of Wall Street, J.P. Morgan. Untermyer made the banker wait for hours before testifying, hoping to agitate him. During this cinematic battle, Morgan thrilled his supporters by celebrating banking—and the giving of loans—as a matter of character. But Untermyer made Morgan look arrogant and ridiculous, as one of the most dictatorial men in America even denied having any power over his own firm. When Morgan died shortly after testifying, his son blamed Untermyer, nicknaming the lawyer “The Beast.”

Untermyer took on more civic crusades—nationally and locally. He helped Woodrow Wilson’s administration draft the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, and the Federal Trade Commission Bill. Still, rumors of lawyerly corner cutting and shenanigans prevented Wilson from appointing Untermyer to any high government position. Within New York, Untermyer investigated corruption in the building trades, tried unsuccessfully to unite New York’s transit system but did help maintain the 5-cent subway fare. A publicity hound, he commented frequently on a range of international and domestic issues.

During the First World War, Untermyer struggled, enamored of Germany and appalled by the assaults on civil liberties the wartime surge in Americanism provoked. He warned in 1918 against “unreasoning hatred, intolerance, and hysteria, masquerading in the guise of intensive patriotism.”

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Fifteen years later, when Hitler rose to power, Untermyer suffered no such ambivalence.  Three months into Hitler’s regime, in April, 1933, he was already condemning this “bigoted brute” and “the tame submission to his yoke of a proud, self-respecting people.” Untermyer’s commitment to the Jewish people had flourished as he grew older and more idealistic. By the 1930s, he had served as the President of the Zionist organization, Keren HaYesod, and Vice President of the more establishment-oriented American Jewish committee.

Being a Zionist in America in the 1920s was unconventional—but nothing prepared him for the attacks he endured, from Jews and non-Jews, when he tore into Hitler during the boycott campaign. Founding and leading the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights, Untermyer was already warning in 1933 that “the Hitler party is bent upon the extermination of the Jews in Germany, or upon driving them out of the country.” Characteristically, Untermyer ran his organization with such singlemindedness,  even one ally called him “The Fuhrer.”

Morris Waldman, the Executive Secretary of the American Jewish Committee, lectured Untermyer, saying: “it is imperative that in this grave and highly delicate situation, no individual should speak or act for the Jewish people, but all should entrust the responsibility to recognized organizations like the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith, who have been dealing with these problems for many years.”

Instead, Untermyer denounced these “timid” leaders for dithering. He mocked the “very large and respectable element among our people” opposing him—yet who fail “to suggest any other remedy.” He laced into the Jewish owners of R.H. Macy’s and other department stores who circumvented the boycott, proposing that Americans boycott Macy’s too. He acknowledged that some feared provoking Hitler into harsher acts, but giving a diagnosis of Nazis most Americans only accepted after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor eight years later, Untermyer wrote: “The men in control are bigoted fanatics to whom neither reason, justice nor humanity makes the slightest appeal. Their hatred is deep-seated and nothing but the fear of consequences will affect them.”

Untermyer’s wrath put his “most treasured” friendship with the great scientist Albert Einstein, at risk, due to Einstein’s silence regarding the boycott. Even in a letter inviting Mr. and Mrs. Einstein to visit him and mend fences, Untermyer couldn’t resist noting that Einstein was still a “hero” in Germany and could have helped tremendously, whereas “I am told that I have the distinction of being the most thoroughly hated and reviled man in Germany.” Of course, Untermyer was “proud of that distinction, and hope only that it is well-earned.”

Although the anti-Nazi boycott raised awareness of Nazi evil, it was more a warning light that most ignored rather than a sparkplug that ignited America’s conscience. By 1938, Untermyer quit—and he died in March, 1940.

It’s hard to know why some people can sense evil coming when most remain complacent. Still, we have much to learn from this enlightened gazillionaire, this aggressive reformer, this self-promoting do-gooder, who was able from his Yonkers Versailles to see his beloved Germany turn cruel—and was courageous enough to try stopping it.

Further Reading

The “Untermyer History” section of the Untermyer Gardens Conservancy website has a list of excellent articles.

Richard A. Hawkins, "Hitler's bitterest foe": Samuel Untermyer and the boycott of Nazi Germany, 1933-1938 (2007) details Untermyer heroic efforts.