Lee Kohns (1864-1927)
Lee Kohns was born in Columbus, GA., September 1, 1864. His mother, Hermine Straus, was the daughter of Lazarus and Sara Straus. His father was Lazarus Kohns. Both his parents, his father directly and his mother indirectly, were of that group of liberty-loving German Jews who along with many other liberal Germans found that the harsh and autocratic government of '48 made life there unbearable and came to America, the land of opportunity and freedom, to start their life anew.
Lee Kohns' father built a small business in Auburn GA., and Lazarus Straus, after running a general store in Talbotton GA., transferred his modestly successful business to Columbus, Ga. Shortly thereafter the Civil War with its disastrous financial aftermath greatly depleted their small capital. They came to New York and, after paying off their pre-war debts, which, although of doubtful legal sanction were morally binding, started again in separate enterprises.
Lee Kohns was educated at Donai Institute and public school, and in 1884 graduated from the College of the City of New York. His father in the meantime had become partner of L. Straus & Sons, founded by Lazarus Straus. Upon his graduation Lee Kohns entered the employ of his grandfather, father, and uncles Isidor, Nathan and Oscar S. Straus. He remained a member of the firm, being for a long period managing partner, until his retirement in 1923. Through his interest in L. Straus & Sons he became a partner in Abraham & Straus, of Brooklyn, and later when it was incorporated became a director and vice-president. He was for many years, and at the time of his death, a director of the American Exchange-Irving Trust Company and the National Guaranty Insurance Co. He held at varying times the presidency of the New York Board of Trade & Transportation, and the presidency of the Crockery Board of Trade.
Lee Kohns' recognized integrity and business ability was such that he was offered the Fusion nomination for President of the Borough of Manhattan on the Gaynor ticket in 1909, which he declined, and again in 1918 he refused the office of Deputy Commissioner of Public Welfare. He also declined various public offices offered him by Presidents Cleveland and Roosevelt.
After the World War, Lee Kohns, believing that a proper understanding of each other by the peoples of France and the United States was essential for the well-being of both countries, conceived the plan of establishing a chair of American literature and civilization a the Sorbonne (University of Paris). He accordingly endowed this chair which very properly was named for him. Although the plans for the establishment had been perfected less than a year before his death he saw the great enthusiasm among well-informed people of both countries, and that the work was about to start with every prospect of becoming a valuable contribution to international good-will.
Lee Kohns died January 18, 1927, in his sixty-third year. Although he had never held, nor been candidate for, public office, he devoted a large portion of his time, energy and ability to public and semi-public matters. Primarily a business man, and a successful one, he did much more than merely to attend to his own personal business, he was always alive to, and keenly interested in, any movement which would improve civic conditions and tend to give greater opportunities to the mass of the people. As a result, at the time of his death, he was first vice-president and chairman of the executive committee of the Educational Alliance, trustee of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropic Societies, trustee of the Andrew Freedman Home, trustee of the United Hospital Fund, and trustee of the College of the City of New York.
“Hermine Straus Kohns 1846-1923” Straus Historical Society Newsletter Vol. 7 No. 1 (New York: February 1999); pp. 4-7.
“Unsent Telegram from Lee Kohns after ‘Titanic’” Straus Historical Society Newsletter Vol. 3 No. 1 (New York: August 2001); p. 10.
Source: The Straus Historical Society