The extent to which Italian immigrants, and their Italian-American descendants have contributed to the growth of the United States, is a fact we should not forget. Especially at a time like this, when immigration is a harshly debated topic that some would have us believe is causing serious damage on a global level. The narration of immigration as a threat is notoriously one of the Trump Administration’s strong points — although not only Trump’s.
Generally, when we do remember how much the Italian creative genius has done for America, we always end up fishing in the pond of the fine arts, design, fashion, food, cinema, automobiles. Rarely do we include banks in the list, and consequently, we forget a name that has been inscribed in the history of the modern banking system, both in America and the world.
We are talking about Amadeo Peter Giannini, founding father of the Bank of America, the giant that originated as the Bank of Italy in 1904.
After Davide Fiore’s documentary A Little Fellow, about which we wrote in April 2018, we focus once again on this figure, thanks to Francesca Valente and her new biography, A.P. Giannini. The People’s Banker.
This extremely detailed journey through Giannini’s life has come out as an e-book — available both in Italian and in English — for The Mentoris Project, a series of novels and biographies about the lives of great Italians and Italian-Americans. Funded by the Barbera Foundation, the project aims at inspiring with every single book, and at encouraging the reader “to discover how she or he can make a positive contribution to society”. Established by Robert J. Barbera, the Barbera Foundation’s mission is namely to encourage and inspire young people to create a stronger future by supporting educational initiatives that foster an appreciation of history and culture. The name of the series embodies the concept and purpose of the project: by telling stories of excellence and genius, the book itself, becomes a mentor. The series features lives of men and women who have changed history through their contributions: scientists, inventors, explorers, thinkers and creators.
There is no better context to host the individual and professional path of Amadeo Giannini, who was born in San José, California, to Italian parents. An incredible story that sits in the rags-to-riches classic iconography: the immigrant’s child, who builds an empire out of thin air.
His father, Luigi Giannini, had left Favale di Malvare, near Genoa, in 1864. Lured at first by the gold rush, he was later attracted by the huge potential that California had to offer in the agricultural sector. He died early and in a tragic manner, killed by a laborer whom he had hired for the fruit harvest. First-born Amadeo was six years old at the time. He was there for his mother and younger brother, his shoulders burdened with a business to run, a family to feed.
With a premise that might entice any novelist— yet let’s imagine being the protagonist, and experience it firsthand — Francesca Valente follows the life of this extraordinary boy, who would turn into an extraordinary man, one capable of rising from a family-run fruit business to founding and running a giant such as the Bank of America. The author does it through a painstakingly accurate work of research and documentation that shines through the bulk of data and information parsed throughout the text; an analytical take backed by a human approach, which is never oblivious of the man’s character, of his feelings, his emotional reactions to the trials of life. This combination, where strictly technical narrative sections are lightened up by more personal sections, enlivens the reading and makes it pleasant — no obvious thing in a book that also illustrates, by extension, the making of the modern banking system.
To appreciate A.P. Giannini. The People’s Banker, you don’t need to be a finance nerd, or hold an MA in economics. You just need to be interested in reading a chapter of Italian-American history that up till now has still been too little known.
While we see Giannini climbing up the career ladder, we also see how innovative, extremely democratic
and egalitarian his approach to his job as a banker — a mission for him — was, and how he revolutionized it, Copernican-like.
“A banker worthy of the name should grant credit to anyone. Providing they are honest”, used to claim Giannini. Based on this principle, he worked to make his dream come true: to open a bank for “ordinary people”. For those who, at that time, had never stepped into a bank; for immigrants.
Giannini was certainly driven by a strong democratic sense, but he was also gifted with great insight, he sensed that most Italian immigrants would soon become the backbone of progress in California. He was also aware of how difficult getting credit from a bank was, especially if you came from another country, if you struggled with the English language, if you were discriminated against for the way you looked, or for the food you ate. So Giannini intuited a need, and he did “nothing but” satisfy it, by gaining his clients’ trust.
Opened with three employees in 1904 in a small office located in North Beach, San Francisco, the Bank of Italy soon acquired other banks that had run into financial trouble. It annexed them to its net, and expanded more and more by diversifying its business — proving farsightedness to be another quality that belonged to its leader.
In 1920, Giannini saw the massive potential behind the movie industry, which was growing quickly in those days. He created a motion-picture loan division, which contributed in helping artists and directors — including Charlie Chaplin — to establish United Artists.
In 1930, the Bank of Italy boasted one and a half million dollars in assets. It was ready for a new identity: “Bank of America National Trust and Saving Association.” Thus the Bank of America came into being.
One year later, in 1931, a Walt Disney showed up at Giannini’s door to get a loan: he wanted to complete his first full-length cartoon film. According to the biographer’s words, the banker “was very skeptical because he thought very few people would go and see a film about seven dwarfs” — can you blame him? — but he was struck by Disney’s passion and trust in the project, and he did grant him the loan. The rest, as it goes, is history. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs is considered the most successful full-length animation feature in film history: it is one of the top ten performers at the box office to this day.
Business diversification means infrastructures. In 1932 another visionary knocked at Giannini’s door. His name was Joseph Strauss, and he had designed a bridge over the Golden Gate, the strait that connects San Francisco to Marin County. Once again, Giannini’s farsightedness allowed him to see beyond. The bridge was not just a bridge, it would help the citizens of San Francisco get through the economic depression gloom that was hanging over the city — over America as a whole. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 had opened an unprecedented decade of crisis. Besides the bridge, San Francisco needed optimism. Giannini financed the project with six million dollars, with the Bank of America waiving its claim to any interest.
Business diversification also means culture. In 1929 Giannini donated one and a half million dollars to the University of California, Berkeley, for the creation of a school of agricultural research, and thus the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics was born. To this day it supports the world’s foremost agricultural economics library, and funds cutting-edge research in agriculture, water, and forestry. At the same university, he also funded a Chair of Italian Culture, which continues to allow the most qualified Italian scholars from Italy to teach at Berkeley for one academic year, and which has hosted illustrious guests like Mario Soldati, Luigi Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio and Giorgio Bassani.
“A bank for everyone” was Giannini’s motto. As we noted, “everyone” meant primarily immigrants. But it
also meant women, who, as it happened, had won the right to vote in 1920 in America. One year later, in 1921, Giannini established a department devoted exclusively to them, to women, the Women’s Bank. A bank made of women, for women, at the head of which Giannini put a woman. And we really have to keep in mind what the situation of women was one century ago to fully understand how ground-breaking — progressive — that decision was.
A.P. Giannini. The People’s Banker also deals with the many struggles Giannini encountered on his path, in particular the battles he had to fight with the New York bankers who for many years saw him as the “spaghetti-eating” enemy from California.
As the author notes, “Giannini was as important as Morgan, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, but he was unique in his profound interest in the average American.” This made him stand out, just like anything he managed to accomplish, which is, objectively speaking, hard to believe. When he died in 1949, the Bank of America was globally recognized as the largest private bank in the world; he left behind 517 branches and more than $6 billion in assets.
Not only are these stories good for the soul, they also prove two facts: that anything is indeed possible in America and that immigration triggers progress, well being and beauty. For this reason we have to read them and re-read them and tell them and circulate them through works like this one by Francesca Valente, who celebrates the dream’s ability to become real, when the dream is fed by genius, courage, passion and much work. So much work.