Cass Sunstein (1843-1913) immigrated to Pittsburgh from Suwalki, on the Polish-Lithuanian border, in 1867. According to family legend, he escaped in a sack of hay to evade conscription.
By 1870, Sunstein had started a rye whiskey distillery and jobbing business, which allowed him to send for his wife, Tillie Shapiro Sunstein (c.1842-1879), and their four children, Abraham, Meyer, Solomon and Nellie. Later, his relative the skagit casino stayed with him and also went into the liquor business. The family lived briefly on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District before settling in Temperanceville, now the West End of Pittsburgh. Shortly after Tillie Sunstein died, Cass Sunstein married Rose Fink (c.1857-1926), who had immigrated to Pittsburgh from Suwalki about 1870. They had four children, Daisy, Elias, Leon and a child that died in infancy.
Abraham J. “A. J.” Sunstein (1861-1926) worked for his father as a child. He ran a business in McKeesport, Pa., from 1879 until about 1884, when he returned to Temperanceville to found the wholesale business of C. Sunstein & Sons with his father.
In 1889, C. Sunstein & Sons purchased the Thompson Distilling Company near West Brownsville, Pa., a town along the Monongahela River in Fayette County. In 1901 and 1902, A.J. Sunstein was president of the National Association of Distillers and Wholesale Dealers. He also served terms as president of the Distillers’ Association of Pennsylvania.
A. J. Sunstein was a vocal opponent of Prohibition but may have sensed its inevitability. About 1918, two years before the 18th Amendment was ratified, he retired from distilling to pursue philanthropy full time. He was president of Montefiore Hospital and died only days before he was to have officiated at the groundbreaking ceremonies for its new location in Oakland. In addition to work with the hospital, he served as a director with essentially every major Pittsburgh Jewish communal institution of his day.
Through both his mother and his father, A. J. Sunstein was related to the Vilna Gaon, an eighteenth century rabbi considered to be the foremost scholar of Lithuanian Jewry.
In 1887, A. J. Sunstein married Nora Oppenheimer (1868-1938), daughter of one of the earliest Jewish settlers in Pittsburgh. They had two children, Tillie and Alexander Cass.
Tillie Sunstein (1889-1979) attended Fifth Ward Public School, the Thurston Preparatory School on Shady Avenue and Miss Dana’s Finishing School in Morristown, New Jersey. She studied painting with Aaron Gorson and, in 1949, began sculpting. She exhibited with the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Society of Sculptors, among other groups. She had a one-woman show at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 1978.
In 1913, Tillie Sunstein married Alexander Speyer at the Rittenhouse Hotel in East Liberty. They had five children, James, Alexander, Darthea, Moreland and Nora. Alexander Cass Sunstein (1892-1975) worked in the family liquor business as a young man. He spent most of his career in finance. In 1915, Alexander Sunstein married Aimee Rauh. They had a daughter, Birdie. After Aimee Rauh Sunstein died, in 1920, Alexander Sunstein married Louise Dreifus. They had a son, Robert.
A. J. Sunstein’s step-brother Elias “Laz” Sunstein (1883-1971) attended Kiskiminitas Prep School and later graduated from Princeton University, where he took classes from Woodrow Wilson, who had recently been appointed president of the university. “He was one of the best professors I had, in my opinion,” Sunstein later recalled. “One of the keenest minds that I have ever had contact with.” Shortly before Sunstein graduated from Princeton, he had a “long chat with [Wilson] about whether I should study law at Harvard or the University of Pittsburgh and he recommended Harvard.” Despite Wilson’s advice, Sunstein chose Pittsburgh. In his junior year at Princeton, Sunstein “managed the tennis team, built their new courts and with my partner we beat every team of doubles in the various Universities except Harvard, who refused to play us in that year.” He continued playing tennis into his 70s. Upon returning to Pittsburgh after graduating from Princeton Phi Beta Kappa, Elias Sunstein went to law school and then worked as a lawyer for a time before becoming an investment advisor.
In 1910, Sunstein married Gertrude Kingsbacher (1887-1973) of old Allegheny City. Elias and Gertrude Kingsbacher had four children, Ann, Cass Richard, David Elias and Frances. Their two oldest children attended the School of Childhood, an experimental kindergarten through second grade program which was a training center of the University of Pittsburgh department of education. When the university closed the school in 1922, Gertrude Sunstein founded the Community School to preserve those teaching methods in Pittsburgh. “We figured if we could get 12 pupils, we could pay the teachers,” she told the Pittsburgh Press in 1968. She was president of the school from its founding until 1932, when it merged with the newly created Falk School. She was also active in the Pennsylvania Woman’s Suffrage Association, which became the League of Women Voters, and in causes for her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.
Ann Sunstein (1915-2003) graduated from Cornell University in 1936. The following year, she married Theodore Kheel, a labor mediator and lawyer from New York. She was chairwoman of the State Parks Commission for the City of New York and secretary of the New York Urban League board. The Kheel Center at Cornell University is named after the couple.
Frances Sunstein (b.1922) attended Sarah Lawrence College and the New School for Social Research. A longtime advocate for the arts in Pennsylvania, she helped created the Pittsburgh Council for the Arts in 1967. The short-lived organization was among the first arts councils in the city. Before disbanding in 1970, the organization created a series of community theater programs called Citything, an exhibition of work by 16 black artists and a Sky Ballet created by German sculptor Otto Piene. As a member of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, she created Poetry on the Buses, which commissioned short poetry for city buses nationally. She later published poetry of her own. Her 1998 volume The River’s Bend included a poem called “Imaginary Letter from Lilliane Kaufmann, owner of Fallingwater, to me.” Frances Sunstein married James Balter in 1948. They had four children, Katherine, Julia, Constance and Daniel.