Book chronicles one of S.F.s most influential Jews

When the Giants played the first baseball game at their new downtown ballpark several weeks ago, a few longtime San Franciscans might have been hit with a fleeting memory of the late Ben Swig.

A new biography of one of San Francisco's most famous Jewish philanthropists will help sharpen the cloudy recollection.

In one chapter of "Dealing From the Heart," author Bernice Scharlach recounts Swig's feverish attempt to spearhead a downtown ballpark project way back in 1954, four years before the Giants moved west from New York.

Moreover, Swig wanted to construct a moving walkway that would take fans from the stadium's South of Market location, up Stockton Street to Union Square.

"It wasn't going to cost the taxpayers anything and everyone thought it was a great idea," Scharlach, who lives in San Jose, said in a recent interview. "But then politics came in…[Swig's idea] was done in by a lot of chicanery."

Swig, who died in 1980 at age 86, might have shaken his head and said, "I told you so" now that a downtown baseball stadium is finally about to open.

"History has proved that he was too far ahead of his time; and San Francisco is finally beginning to catch up to his dream," Scharlach writes.

Even without contributing a ballpark to San Francisco, however, Swig certainly left his mark on the local skyline. "His extraordinary career as an investor and philanthropist is the stuff of legend," Scharlach writes.

Already a successful businessmen back East, he burst on the local scene in 1945 when he bought controlling interest in the Fairmont Hotel. Later in the decade, after moving from Massachusetts to San Francisco, he added another of the city's most elegant hotels, the St. Francis, to his burgeoning real estate empire.

As his bank accounts grew, so did Swig's prominence. His influence among local, state and even some national politicians was viewed as giving Jewish San Franciscans more political clout than they had ever before enjoyed.

Swig supported Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. He watched the returns of California's 1966 gubernatorial election, won by Ronald Reagan, on TV with former Gov. Pat Brown, who lost that race. Brown and his son Jerry, now Oakland's mayor, sat in the first row at Swig's funeral in 1980.

Swig palled around with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, and received an audience with Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion and Pope Paul VI.

"When I started this book in 1993, I knew Ben Swig was a man who contributed an awful lot to San Francisco," said the 73-year-old Scharlach. "But I realized I didn't know much more than he owned the St. Francis, the Fairmont and was a super philanthropist. I found out a great deal more than that."

Not a member of San Francisco's old Jewish families, Swig influenced the Bay Area Jewish community as few "outsiders" had done before; philanthropy was his scepter.

"Philanthropy was Ben Swig's hobby, his recreation, his sport," the late Rabbi Alvin Fine once told Scharlach. The head rabbi at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El from 1948 to 1964 was a close friend and confidant of Swig's.

"Whenever and wherever people gathered to do good, he wanted a piece of it," Fine is quoted as saying.

Swig gave millions of dollars over his lifetime to Brandeis University, Israel Bonds, United Jewish Appeal, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the national Reform movement. But he also gave to many Catholic institutions, including the University of Santa Clara.

"He felt that if a Jew was for himself alone, he wouldn't have a voice in the Jewish community," Scharlach said.

Scharlach's chronologically constructed book delves into Swig's rousing method of philanthropy. He liked to donate his money concertedly and conspicuously, which was unheard of at the time; most of the transplanted German Jews preferred a quiet, behind-the-scenes style.

"He brought a new standard of giving to the community," Scharlach said, noting that Swig used to threaten business owners that he wouldn't buy things from their companies if they didn't make hefty charitable contributions.

Scharlach writes about Swig carefully recording each of his achievements and recounting them in a brochure he produced called "Benjamin H. Swig, Committees and Directorships, Civic and Charitable Organizations, Business and Religious Affiliations, Awards and Citations."

Swig handed out the brochure, which grew bigger every year, to people who came into his office and often to strangers he sat next to on airplanes.

Scharlach, a reporter for the Contra Costa Times in the '60s and an editor for the Jewish Observer of the East Bay in the '70s, has written two other books: "House of Harmony," a story of the Concordia-Argonaut club's first 130 years, was published in 1983 and "Big Alma," a biography of Alma Spreckels, was published in 1995.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr is J.'s former managing editor and former Hardly Strictly Bagels food columnist. He lives and writes in Mexico.