Don't Blame the Lehman Brothers

Last Updated Sep 22, 2008 5:03 PM EDT

lehman.jpgThey didn't have anything to do with it. In fact, according to a brace of interesting pieces in the Jewish daily Forward, no Lehman has had anything to do with the firm, Lehman Brothers, since 1969, except for one, who works -- or, perhaps, worked -- out of the now bankrupt company's Palm Beach, Fla. office.

The original Lehmans, Emmanuel, Henry and Mayer, were entrepreneurial German Jewish immigrants who arrived on America's shores in the 1840s. Like other Jewish immigrants of the time, "they started out as peddlers along the waterways, highways and byways of a rapidly expanding nation," writes Kenneth Libo, in the Forward article, "Lehman, from Cotton to Cash." "In a single generation [they] advanced from peddling pots and pans to running family-owned and- operated merchant and investment banking houses on Wall Street."

The original Lehmans' contemporaries, says Libo, included such still familiar names as "Seligman, Kuhn, Loeb, Goldman, Sachse (yes, that Goldman, that Sachs) and Lewisohn." Among the company's major early credits is partnering with Goldman, Sachs & Co. to bring to the mass market a little catalog outfit called Sears, Roebuck & Co.

The 1960s through the 1980s saw a spate of mergers and acquisitions that left Lehman Brothers as little more than the middle initial in "Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc.," an American Express company. In the 1990s, Amex began divesting in banking and securities, and spun off what would come to be known as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., in 1994. Except in name, the current, bankrupt Lehman Brothers Inc. essentially has nothing to do with Emmanuel, Henry and Mayer. In fact, Lehman Brothers as we know it today is really no more than a 14-year-old firm.

How does that make Emmanuel, Henry and Mayer's descendants feel? Sad but ambivalent, mostly. "It's not happy to see one's family's name in a situation like this," said John Loeb, a great-grandson of Mayer Lehman, in Marissa Brostoff's piece in Forward. "But I don't think it's going to in any way change their lifestyles."