Economist, lawyer, presidential adviser. The South Carolina–born son of Jewish immigrants, Leon Keyserling made his mark as an economist and architect of the New Deal of the 1930s. He was born on January 22, 1908, in Beaufort, the first child of William Keyserling and Jennie Hyman. Keyserling’s father had come to the United States from Lithuania in 1888 and established himself with the MacDonald, Wilkins and Company cotton gin and wholesale warehouse in Beaufort. Leon spent his early years on St. Helena Island, east of Beaufort, reading books with his mother and developing his gifts of quick comprehension and remarkable memory. In 1917 Leon moved with his parents and three siblings to town, where in the tenth grade he won an award for an essay entitled “A Bigger, Better, and More Beautiful Beaufort.” A framed copy hung in his office and, after his retirement, at his home.
At age sixteen, Keyserling left Beaufort and enrolled in Columbia University in New York. He graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in economics in 1928 and from Harvard University Law School in 1931, then returned to Columbia to teach economics. In 1933 he became chief legislative aide to New York senator Robert F. Wagner, and during the next four years he helped design major New Deal economic and employment programs. He was the principal draftsman of a $3 billion public works bill, the wage and hour provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933), the National Housing Act (1934–1935), the National Labor Relations Act (1935), and portions of the Social Security Act (1935).
During these years Keyserling also worked with the Senate Committee on Banking and Currency and wrote national platforms for the Democratic Party in 1936, 1940, and 1944. He helped to create the U.S. Housing Authority, and as the agency’s acting administrator and general counsel oversaw construction of millions of residences for war workers. His 1944 essay on postwar employment has been cited as the basis for the historic Employment Act of 1946, which created the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) and firmly established a federal government role in the expansion and stability of the national economy.
Keyserling served on President Harry Truman’s CEA from 1946 to 1953 and became its chairman in 1950. His interest in public policy continued after his retirement from government in 1953. He founded the Conference on Economic Progress, a private, nonprofit organization that published works criticizing the economic policies of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. During the 1970s he drafted legislation establishing the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Full Employment and Growth Act (1978).
On October 4, 1940, Keyserling married Mary Dublin, a professor of economics at Sarah Lawrence College. They had no children. Mary Dublin Keyserling went on to become an influential economist and social activist in her own right, serving as head of the Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Leon Keyserling died on August 9, 1987, in Washington, D.C.
Brazelton, W. Robert. Designing US Economic Policy: An Analytical Biography of Leon H. Keyserling. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Keyserling Family Papers and Leon Keyserling Papers. Special Collections, College of Charleston Library, Charleston.
Keyserling, Leon. Papers. Lauinger Library, Special Collections Division, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.
———. Papers and Oral History Interviews. Truman Presidential Museum and Library, Independence, Mo.
———. Progress or Poverty: The U.S. at the Crossroads. Washington, D.C.: Conference on Economic Progress, 1964.