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Banker to the stars

Bram Goldsmith, 89, looks back on almost four decades at the top of City National Bank, which has turned a profit 78 straight quarters

August 05, 2012|E. Scott Reckard

Many joined the Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills, a retreat for stars and their representatives who as Jews were unwelcome at downtown's Jonathan and California clubs, bastions of what passed for old money in boomtown L.A.

These entrepreneurs had been snubbed by old-line bankers with little interest in funding new ventures, Bram Goldsmith says. "Starting a new business, if you were having a problem, they wouldn't think about helping you."

So Hart and his circle opened the bank in 1954 with a focus on helping to grow young businesses -- the philosophy still reflected in the bank's motto, "The way up."

"If they're entitled to a loan the officers should lend them money, and if they're not entitled they shouldn't lend them money," Bram Goldsmith says. "But you treat them as good customers. And we have always done precisely that -- give people the courtesy of respecting them."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 09, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Bram Goldsmith: An article in the Aug. 5 Business section about longtime City National Bank executive Bram Goldsmith included a photo of him with the Jacksons. The accompanying caption said Michael Jackson was shown displaying his No. 1 single "Shake Your Body." The song, whose full title is "Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)," was recorded by the Jacksons and peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in May 1979.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 10, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
City National Bank: An article in the Aug. 5 Business section about City National Bank misidentified the bank's first chairman as Ben Maltz, the grandfather of City National Chief Executive Russell Goldsmith. The bank's first chairman was Jay Kasler.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 14, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
City National Bank: An article in the Aug. 5 Business section about City National Bank misidentified the bank's first chairman as Ben Maltz, the grandfather of City National Chief Executive Russell Goldsmith. The bank's first chairman was Jay Kasler.

The bank's first chairman was Bram's father-in-law and Russell's grandfather, Ben Maltz, a whiskey broker from Chicago who was partners in a wholesale liquor business with Hart.

Hart, who became the bank's president in 1955, was, as Mercury Savings & Loan Chairman Leonard Shane told The Times in 1985, both brilliant and uncouth, "a rough, tough cookie" who wound up among the founders of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Music Center.

In his 2006 book, "Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers," Gus Russo wrote that Hart's past included a stint as a beer driver for Al Capone, eight arrests related to illegal games of chance at a cigar store he ran in downtown L.A., and a stake in the Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel partnership that built the Flamingo Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.

But it was Hart's connections to Hollywood and the celebrity world that proved instrumental in shaping City National's identity. He was a director of Columbia Pictures for 20 years and president of the Del Mar racetrack in 1953, when MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was its chairman.

Hart had carried his good friend Sinatra through some lean years in the early 1950s and helped resurrect his career by helping to finance the film "From Here to Eternity."

Another Hart pal was Korshak, a powerful labor lawyer identified in congressional testimony as the liaison between Hollywood and the Chicago mob. Korshak and Sinatra directed their associates to the ultra-private new bank, assuring them that their funds would avoid outside scrutiny, Russo wrote.

"It was like a Swiss bank account in Beverly Hills," he said in an interview.

Bram Goldsmith, who replaced his father-in-law on City National's board in 1964, says he knew of no Hart ties to underworld figures. He recalls Hart as "a very generous human being," for his philanthropy and support of his many friends.

Besides entertainment, City National's other strong suit was always real estate, a field Goldsmith knows something about.

He was an up-and-coming young builder from Chicago when he followed his father-in-law west in the winter of 1952, with Russell barely out of diapers. His mother-in-law rented a house for the family for a month on Rodeo Drive north of Wilshire Boulevard, which at the time had a bridle path beside the street.

"We left Chicago with 8 inches of snow, and it took days to dig out the driveway to get the car and ship it here. I looked out the window and here were two people cantering along!" he recalled.

"I said, 'My God, this is heaven! Forget going anywhere else.'"

The founders had raised $3 million in capital when City National opened in January 1954, "a hell of a lot of money in those days," Goldsmith recalled, and the start-up boomed.

A 1958 Times story said assets reached the "astonishing total" of $42.5 million in just four years, which "shattered all national banking records." (City National had $24 billion in assets as of June 30.)

Meanwhile, Bram Goldsmith was carving out his career at Buckeye Construction Co., making millions with City National backing as he graduated from suburban homes to office buildings over the years -- 31 of them in Beverly Hills, where they still line Wilshire Boulevard.

A 1965 Times photo shows Hart with Goldsmith, watching steelworkers place a 32-ton caisson in the ground to support L.A.'s newest skyscraper. It was City National's 26-story tower at Pershing Square, at the time one of the tallest buildings downtown and a joint venture between the bank and Buckeye, which Goldsmith ran along with partner George Konheim.

(The bank's current headquarters, City National Plaza downtown, was built in a joint venture by onetime California giants Richfield Oil Co. and Bank of America, now merged into out-of-state conglomerates. "In a sense, we have replaced Arco and Bank of America," Russell Goldsmith says. "It's remarkable.")

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