I’d like to plunk down in Riccardo’s and be over-served with “Italian” calories, or better yet, in Frank Sinatra’s favorite Chicago hangout, the Twin Anchors, with a couple of over-large Martinis at the bar, with a game, any game, on the box and ribs on the way from the kitchen. Spicy or mild sauce? (Remember, the mild isn’t that mild.) We sit at Frank’s table with the phone next to it and suddenly it’s 1985 and the Bears are The Bears. It’s winter and nice to be inside, in Chicago, and served. The hum in the room agrees. Now as I look back there are no seats left at the bar and people are enjoying themselves, enjoying being themselves: unselfconscious and on the loud side as they wait for a table. It won’t be soon, it won’t be long, but who’s in a hurry? As the plates of ribs go by blood pressures rise imperceptibly amongst the standees around the room. Behind the bar the waitress is generous, the vodkas come from good families, nothing minor league about them. They gone down well, taking the blue cheese olives with them. It’s a Friday night party and people linger, putting off the moment when they have to wrap up and hit the wind from the lake (The Hawk) that’s been waiting to mug them just outside the front door.
‘Hey Siri, play Brubeck.”
Another evening is upon us and my wife says, after weeks of “Take 5” tolerance, “Play something else?”
Grudgingly I flip through the Iphone looking for something else, something to match, if anything can, the 1964 Belgium recording of “Take 5”. But Brubeck and Morello’s drum solo and Wright and especially Paul Desmond win the moment; the “sound of a dry martini” drives me to the freezer, looking for the vodka. And olives.
But no Cashel Blue or any blu/blue in the house, a mistake. I make do with dry parmesan which won’t stuff an olive but at least it’s cheese and cuts the rawness of the vodka. And at least I have the proper glass in my hand.
I keep searching.
Now the regulars come up, a marching band of memories. Years, even decades of sound tracks go by. I settle on Bohemian Rhapsody. I know she likes it but not too much. Then The Blues Project, sounding more alive after all these decades than most bands you’ve ever heard. Wake me, shake me…I think about The Velvet Underground. I always think about the Velvet Underground. but don’t ever want to wear it out. We used to listen to “Heroin” in Brighton in our first bed.
Meanwhile the vodka goes down really well and it’s almost time for the England match. I remember making love to Penelope on the floor in the basement flat of Lewes Crescent (Marcus and Mitzi Cunliffe’s magnificent house) and lifting my head to flash Martin Chivers of Tottenham, an argy-bargy forward in black and white, a forward line all by himself. Sex and football.
Meanwhile Brubeck was was leaving in the dust younger music with music made long before, but which sounded younger. (“Take 5”, written by Desmond, was early 50s.) What jazz did was to kick music into “what’s new” every time it was played depending on who played it. Music that was not stuck in time if the musicians were fresh to it.
So I played something else and something else and finally went back the the sound of a dry martini.
2Tom Wyld and Jonathan HarriesLikeCommentShare
Karl walked into the dining room of the Knightsbridge hotel. He was not alone. A woman with a striking crown of curly red hair was with him. The din of conversation lowered a decibel as the room looked up from its smoked salmon and warm bread. There in a far corner, by the window, sat Vidal Sassoon. In front of him was a large glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
Vidal was short, dark, and taut, a wound spring. Sun-tanned, he was the way men get when they stay in shape long passed the age they’re supposed to let go.
No fat around the middle. Muscled without being muscular. He was, at 70 something, what other men describe as well put together. Attractive to the opposite sex after 3 wives (and he knew it). He had expressive hands, like a conductor or a sculptor. And he was intense. An intensity that was, at this point, on the lookout for something new to be intense about.
Sassoon had left his challenges and triumphs behind.
The years in the orphanage when his mother could not afford to keep him and his brother. The 1948 Israeli war for independence where, after years of fascist Jew-baiting in the east end, he had gone to fight. The slow climb up the hairdresser’s assistants ladder.
And then the Bond Street salon, fashionable women lining the stairs to his door, the articles in Queen and Nova, the television coverage (a BRITISH success story) the cuts that made him famous worldwide, like the Asymmetric-Geometric, the first bob with sex appeal which put him on the map and freed women to go from work to dinner with just a comb (just wash and go).
And finally the chain of salons across two continents.
He treated women’s hair, which he described as fabric, seriously.
Now, years later, having sold his name to what was to become the uber corporate Procter and Gamble, all he had was his Brand to look out for and keep overly corporate hands off of.
He was very famous, very rich and very bored. But not old.
But she, the red head across the table, interested him. Or rather her hair did. Deliberately he leaned across and put his hands slowly through her curls, and smiled as the red hair sprang back. “Good. Very good”. For a moment I thought he was going to bury his face in it.
“Vidal, this is Jean. She is dying to meet you.”
“So pleased you came along. Vidal said, hands still exploring her hair, “ Do you want a job?”
“I have a job. I am your art director at the agency. I want an interview.”
“Have some fresh orange juice,” he said, pushing the glass across the table.
She sipped and looked up, pleased.
‘That’s because it’s fresh. If juice is squeezed more than 20 minutes ago, I don’t drink it.”
Meanwhile Kurt wished he was at another table. Or another restaurant. Or back in The Complete Gent, cutting men’s hair. He liked Vidal. The man had made his mark. But this public love-making made him squirm. Now what? It was like looking at himself in the mirror and asking the question.
So what’s next?
But the mirror kept shtum.
Vidal and Jean got up to leave. Both were smiling. She had her portfolio of concept ads to show him. I guess you got your interview, Kurt thought, as they walked out the door.
That’s just what Karl did: the German Army.
In it took him to the outskirts of Moscow, on to St Petersberg, Poland, Czechoslovakia, he toured the low countries, and finally, France. His war tour was just about over.
In Normandy, just outside Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the American Army took over his travel arrangements.
Karl, along with thousands of other German tourists, were taken across the ocean to Vermont. There they built roads, repaired bridges and cleared forests (today we call that that infrastructure). The pay was not good. In fact, it was nonexistent. No bother. They came with low expectations. They weren’t seeking a better life. Life would do. They were prisoners of war. The New England winters didn’t bother them. They remembered all too well the draft from Siberia. It was a good deal. The Americans got free labour. The tourists got three meals a day and the chance to learn English. They also escaped the chaos and rubble that was Western Europe. When their war was finally over (1950) some went back to what was left of the Fatherland but more than a few preferred life without bomb craters and rationing and the chance meeting of fellow comrades on the street. They chose to stay put. Slowly they were absorbed in this new freedom. Eventually Karl was discharged, abandoned really, in New York City. The first thing he did was to take the subway to the Bowery where the second hand shops sold everything from kitchen stuff to barber’s scissors and acquired a pair of professional barbers’ scissors. He began to practice his old vocation. It was the early 50s everyone wanted sprucing up. Everyone needed a haircut. Karl was in business.
In the Bronx, in a small store-front on McClellan Avenue, just east of the Grand Concourse, Karl put out his shingle, or in his case, a sign in the window. It was not a busy street but “Karl The Barber” was one man and two chairs. He didn’t need many customers.
Although he spoke with a heavy accent, he was not mocked by the locals. With a few exceptions. Small kids taunted and teased outside his window. They made the Nazi salute and with their index finger a mustache, then tore down the street passed the candy store laughing with delicious terror. When he burst out in his white smock, razor in raised hand and yelling loudly in German. That’s how he got his nickname in the neighbourhood, The Mad Barber. But grownups left him alone. Who in that neighborhood did not speak with Eastern Europe, Germany or Russia on their lips? Everyone had a past they wanted to keep there. Everyone had been kicked from pillar to post by events. And everyone had an ambition of one kind or another. Ambitions, yes. Pretensions, no. Initially, Karl’s ambition was to be left alone and have enough to eat. His time in the war had left him with a hunger which even with extra helpings would not go away. Long kosher salamis hung from the ceiling in his room, hardening by the day. His body stayed thin. The same with cold. A storm hit the city and left 2 feet of snow in front of the building. An arctic wind followed and turned the snow into a block of ice which the city soon made black. Karl’s building at least had steam heat. He took over a spare room in the basement, between the storage room filled with bikes and baby carriages and the large black boiler that turned the residents’ garbage into cans of ash which the city collected every 2 weeks. It was a dark, a quiet place, a safe place to collect thoughts
Karl practiced English by listening to baseball. Baseball games on radio were his tutorials. He listened to Red Barber describe how the Yankees won. He started to read. First the sports pages of the New York Post. Then novels were his favorite (he had seen enough history not to want to read about it.). One day a man came in while he was deep in a book about Brooklyn, where the tree grows. You know the one. They talked while Karl snipped. The man, an ex-Marine, liked his haircut and liked Karl.
“You’re buried here. Manhattan is where rich people walk their expensive dogs, a cup of coffee can set you back a buck and reputations are made.”
“Why do I need a reputation?”
“To build up your business. Have you no ambition?”
“In my experience getting noticed gets you into trouble. No?”
They left it for the moment. But the next time the man came in for a haircut he had a proposition.
“Look, you’re a talented guy and (I bet) not afraid of working. Let’s put that graft to better use than here. Come and work for me. Take a chance, what’s to lose?”
“What would I do? All I know is cutting hair.”
“Look, a haircut can be $1.25 or $10:00. Same cut, same hair. On the East Side men spend a fortune grooming themselves. I believe you could be in the middle that.”
That was the beginning of the The Complete Gent, a busines concept that caught the imagination of men who were following their wives into better clothes. Name clothes.
Maybe not Chanel or Dior, but Cardin and Geoffrey Bean. They needed to look good.
Karl liked the name, The Complete Gent. A promise, a statement of fact. Nothing phony or European about it except for his accent and the occasional “Scheisse!”under his breath when he clipped more than hair, and apologized profusely.
Complete Gent started with grooming, and grooming started with a haircut. Men would come in, unbutton the top of their shirts, take off their shoes and relax. Karl had the ability to make them forget the office, the meetings, the bad news phone calls, the desiderata of life. Hot towels, soothing fingers on their temples, Dave Brubeck on the speakers. No news channels, no hectoring commercials, no world outside.
Karl and his mentor opened first one shop and then another. Each had the peace and solemnity of some place special. None had more than 2 chairs. Personal and service were unspoken watch words. They followed their concept with a line of products that followed the men home. Shampoo, scalp rubs, conditioners and skin balms. Each priced 50%/100% more than the men ever intended spending on themselves. Packaging was confident, plain, masculine, inviting indulgence. Hand addressed packages arrived at Christmas and customers’ birthdays with that understated wrapping paper. Each was signed by Karl and his (now) partner. New employees were trained by Karl.
By year two, they were in the money. And Karl was out of the Bronx. In year three they were targeted by the big names in male grooming. Gillette, Old Spice, and Procter and Gamble came calling. But the partners felt most at home with an Italian brand backed by the designer Giorgio Armani. Two trips to Italy and ten years after the war ended the deal was done.
Now Karl could pack his bags and travel, and see the rest of the world.
It’s been more than a year. As I turned the corner from Wardour into Old Compton I suddenly paniced: is it still there? Or has it gone with the Covid. Now that would be serious to us survivors. I. Camisa gone? The awning, the bicycle in front with the large delivery basket gone? Fresh pastas gone? Trays of tagliatelle, prosciutto stuffed ravioli gone? Those small anchovy packed olives, no more? The wall of dried pastas of all shapes and sizes, bags of caranoli rice, and the window of giant slabs of parmesano reggiano, replaced in the supermarkets by prepackaged triangles of who-knows-what. A tiny corner of what makes Soho, Soho and London London. More than a neighborhood but a key respository of weekend and holiday memories of family around the table, memories taken away. Prociuttto, cut skin thin, mortadella, fat sausages hanging from the ceiling (black pepper, fenobchio) no more? All that makes serving labor intensive and waiting long. All that differentiates it from supermarkets and pre-wrapped and impersonal “customer service”. There is no hurry, just hunger and the anxiety of wishes being fulfilled. But wait, there it is, the awning, the floor that would be saw-dusted in busy times. And no line! Behind the counter, Madame. Still in charge not just of the shop but of me, her customers and fulfilling a 50 year tradition. ( I have been a pilgrim there since 1966.0 Gruff, unsmiling but all forgiven, all OK. She recognized me. Civilization is saved for now. No speech of welcome in voice-raised Italian, but enough acknowledgement to prove to me Soho is still Soho. No more Lucien and Francis, but there is till Camisa. Bonjourno!
Words Fail Me.
For the last year I have hardly spoken.
Rarely have I been able to. Participating in a conversation, impossible. With no choice I have learned to listen. But overall this has been frustrating. I can’t answer the phone. I can’t whisper to my wife in bed or shout at a dog, tail wagging and wandering into traffic. Every day I stand in front of a mirror as instructed and dig for my “voice”, which when working is a bull frog in the night, but is mostly the sound of escaping breath.
Buying a loaf of bread is a challenge to both buyer and seller. Especially if there are many varieties of bread on the shelves. I would not want to be behind me, waiting to be served.
I do converse, or try to, without words, like getting into a taxi in Rome. Lots of hands gestures, pointing, etc. Actually it’s remarkable how much basic stuff can get done wordlessly, especially with familiar and sympathetic sales people. I cultivate them. The butchers down the road at HG Walter I consider family. I am sure they consider me part of the neighbourhood. But not perhaps who they want to get too familiar with.
Recently, Daniel, who I hadn’t seen in a while, presented me with a magnificent t pork chop. Good man.
The larenjectomy was on March 6th last year. For some reason I was under the impression, or gave myself the impression, it was not going to be a major deal. I have no idea why I. Repression? Denial? Laziness no doubt. Wasn’t cancer for major organs? But what’s major if not your voice box? Knowing what I know now I’d have come out of the drug induced unconsciousness and stopped the scalpel in Mr Awad’s skilled hand and taken my chances with the cancer option. Sure, the cancer could come back, as it often does…but who knows. As a kid growing up I lived in fear of cancer. The word itself had malevolent power. It had taken our mother, but no-one told us kids what was going on. The word was not mentioned in our presence.
To us it was more than a disease, it was a mystery, a nightmare, and symptomatic of both our ignorance and impotence. It was a sentence of death.
But now I was silently angry, and anger, you’ll be glad to know, chases fear into a corner. But as someone whose career and persona depended on being articulate, someone who could hold a room as my father could, extempore, someone who voice was his VOICE, this last year has been excruciating: a slow death of personality. I have shrunk, I have become and smaller, in all ways. I believe, however, that if I can reclaim my voice I can reclaim myself. So if you see me standing in front of a mirror croaking like Froggie the Gremlin of Buster Brown fame, be encouraging.
“Hi ya, kid!. Hi ya!”
70 Years ago Times Square was the scariest place on Earth.
The movie theater was full of people and anticipation. It was still only matinee time as dusk settled on 44th Street. It felt night time. I have re-run the movie in my head scores of times. I remember it clearly. The flying saucer circles and lands in a park in Washington DC. People run, leaving picnics behind. Suddenly a metallic door appears in the side of the seamless ship and slides open. Out walks tall, elegant and soft spoken Michael Rennie. He seems dressed in Aluminum and is masked. He pulls a strange device from his suit.
It springs open.
People in the audience gasp. The army has arrived and a soldier, just as nervy as the audience, fires a round from his WWII rifle and wings Rennnie. He goes to ground, clutching his shoulder.
Now a giant metallic robot appears in the doorway, his face masked by a metal plate that slides up revealing a pulsating light. We later learn his name is Gort and although he never speaks he will be remembered for one of the most memorable lines in the movies:
“Klaatu Barada Nicto!”
Inside where his mouth would have been is a ray gun or laser. It pulses. When it speaks members of the army dematerialize. Rifles dissolve in their hands
At that point I stood up in the now silent theater.
I grabbed my father’s arm and said, in a calm, loud voice: “We’re going!” My six year old brain told me it was time.
It was definitely time. ”The Day The Earth Stood Still. and come to Times Square. New York and I needed to be somewhere else.
At some point in the following 70 years I realized DC was a red herring, there as the movie’s location to involve the government and max up incipient paranoia, in this case fear of “the other”. All the characters were clearly New Yorkers (come on, what else could Sam Jaffee be?) Only Michael; Rennie didn’t fit, but hey, he was an alien probably a Brit.
The ending of th film is tame. Klaatu and Gort, his robot galactic policeman, take off for the heavens. This planet is no place for them. Which poses a question.
If not them, for who?
I was very taken with a friend’s description of herself as her own archivist.
Of course we are all biographers, color commentators and play-by-play announcers of our own lives. We aren’t Mel Allens or Harry Carays, and don’t go to the studio or sit in a box at the top of the stands. We broadcast (or narrowcast) from unconscious to conscious, and back again. Suddenly I find myself approaching the endgame. Not the biological inevitability but the messy and increasingly medical mud slide towards it. The bitty surrender of autonomy. I am not happy approaching the bottom of my 8th or top of the 9th. I have never given a thought to my last at bat.
In Charing Cross during a pretty tough night I thought, is this going to be it? Death making an appointment? Will I wake up (if I ever get to sleep?) Suddenly I was not in charge of my own narrative. I never felt so mortal. What a little cancer can do even, I am told, when there is no more cancer. The “major” surgery rocked me and continues to bully me into the age of feeble. I’m still in its thrall. I knew the surgery was a bad idea, but so reasonable. You want to live? 9 days afterwards I left the hospital, went home) and fell into bed and the arms of a three-week virus. I would fall asleep through the day and then around 9, and wake up at 11 in the morning. No doctors (they were loathe to bring unwanted guests from the hospital, so no “diagnosis”, but I was obvious. Couldn’t taste anything, couldn’t smell, didn’t like the taste of coffee! I was far too busy being tired. Sex, which had had always been ready for my call, wouldn’t answer. By this time Coronavirus had infiltrated and overwhelmed the hospital. It was everywhere, in fact, in mind and rumor. The cancer, yesterday’s big news, faded into yesterday’s news. It retired in the face of the virus. As did the plan for follow-up radiation. And the plan for more immuno therapy. It was declared much less scary and much less intrusive than first thought.
Abruptly, the meds declared a T2 instead of a T4. No cartilage intrusion.
Much hi-fiving amongst the doctors but surgery was already a fact and had consequences; I wanted to know if I could have avoided the knife. I don’t believe they understand it’s that big a deal: being mute, the hole in your neck leading directly to lungs and daring you to have a shower. I felt trespassed, transgressed. Made vulnerable. I felt taken advantage of. But there’s no use going on about it. The only thing to do is to stop shuffling around and work back into the best shape possible,
These late innings will not last. Must be ready for my last at bat. Meanwhile we have been in lockdown, self-isolating for 12 weeks and more to come. Luckily the house is spacious and has lots of good chairs which Penelope does her best to shame me out of. A friend sent a compilation of AJ Liebling from the New Yorker. I had read the gluttony in Paris piece (Between Meals) and thought it and he wonderful. His boxing essay (The Sweet Science) carried me back to the old Garden on 8th Avenue and Sugar Ray, Kid Gavilan and Rocky Marciano. Now making my way through Southern politics. The Earl of New Orleans is a portrait of Earl Long, an even more fascinating figure than his older brother, Huey, and why the South is the way it is. Liebling is so full of insights and stunning phrases and human observations.
He reminds me it’s why it’s good to be alive.
I interviewed at Leo Burnett London in the Spring of 1973. Prior to that I worked at 2 small agencies, one American, one Olde English. While getting my MA from the University of Sussex I wrote a freelance ad for Blackburn Advertising (later Blackburn-Daily). They paid me £35 for the ad which appeared on the back page of Variety, the show business newspaper. I thought, this is the business for me. When I graduated they offered me a job. I wish I had saved the ad.
Bill Blackburn wanted to be the new Bill Bernbach but he was shy and couldn’t make his mind up. He interviewed most of the major creatives in London and hired none of them. My first TV was directed by Alan Parker and Paul Windsor who had just left CDP. I could not understand why the writer looked in the camera and talked all the time. We casted a doe-eyed Harold Innocent, opera singer and actor who dead-panned the role of the dumb dad who made up the liquid breakfast drink while his kid just picked up the carton, poured and walked off. Simple, direct.
Then I went to little known Stuart Advertising in Holborn where we tripped a woman carrying a paraffin heater down the stairs for the London Fire Brigade. Why was she carrying a lit paraffin heater? Apparently people did.
So for me the Burnett job was entry to the big time. I asked people who did the good work there, which creative group to look out for. Ronnie Bond’s name was mentioned as was Chris Holland’s. Richard Asadurian got a nod.
I was offered a job by Bryan Oakes. Bryan was no threat to Bill Bernbach. He approved of work he thought the client would approve. Much later, in Chicago, I met his soul brother. *
Meanwhile Carl Hixon, a transplanted creative legend from Chicago, transfixed most of the London department with his larger than life stories of Leo, words like nifty and concepts like the brick out of place. But Carl knew an idea when he saw one, or when he didn’t.
Dan Parfitt and I had gone to LA to shoot the launch of Cadbury’s Caramel. The idea was for Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy to meet for the first time in a casting office. When their names were called they bumped into each other at the door. After you. No, after you. Super theme: “Cadbury and Caramel. Some things were just meant for each other”. In LA Lee Lacey’s cast was so good we got smitten with the characters and forgot the idea was not Laurel and Hardy but Laurel and Hardy getting together. As Carl asked us after the screening in Cinema 2: “Where’s the idea.”
Leo press was mediocre until Mike Brant arrived, but its TV reel was one of the top five agency reels in town. It did standout work for Cadbury and McEwans and I soon found out who “it” was. The only thing Doug Buntrock liked more than beer advertising was beer. He was good at both. A workaholic/alcoholic in his faded blue denim uniform, he was not alone.
Everyone at 48 St Martins Lane liked a pint or three. Barry Fox, an excellent writer, sharp wit and hopeless Fulham supporter, partnered on and off with Dougie. Barry was at his desk by 7:30 and did a day’s work by 11AM, turning out smart headline after smart headline. Doug turned most down because he hadn’t written them. At 11 The Green Man opened. Bob Stanners and Norman Icke joined Barry and Doug. Ken Mullen and later Bob Byrne would follow. Alec Ovens, a tall Scot who unaccountably did not drink, was the senior producer. Doug Huxtable ran the department under Gareth Bogarde with an ex-army discipline. Felicity Latimer greeted clients in 2ndfloor reception looking like Margaret Thatcher’s double. But her heart as well as her politics were Labour. The agency was headed by Gordon Barrett. Only in his early thirties he seemed a decade older. A kind man but like many account people from an earlier generation Gordon was interested in clients not ads. He was not excited by them. And this was a most exciting time in London with CDP posting one 48 sheet knockout after another, BMP started it series of bear campaigns by John Webster, while David Abbott accounted for the more literary and intelligently written end of the business with his Economist and Volvo campaigns.
In any account of St Martins Lane in the 70s Anne Vigus and her late husband, Henry McQueen, must be mentioned. Neither was part of the creative world, but both were a core part of the of the place and time. Henry was a wonderful colleague and companion and entirely reliable. The agency driver, it was his smiling face you wanted to see at Heathrow late on a Friday after escaping a week of flights, hotel and meetings. Anne ran Travel, the best managed and most reliable department in the agency. She rescued me and many creatives from bad seats, bad rooms and fates worse than death (e.g., being stuck on a Friday night in Brussels). She moved from St Martins Lane to Chelsea to the End of the Known World behind the Tesco on the Cromwell Road. Now she resides in The Burnett/Saatchi shared building in Chancery Lane. Still the glue of the place, still rescuing travelers who need to get somewhere or out of somewhere, beside doing other jobs for the latest new management. We’re gone, they’ll be gone, but Anne remains.
For some reason Gordon asked me to a Christmas lunch with senior clients.
In a rather stuffy Rules-like wannabe, we sat around a large table drinking gin-and-tonics and making self-congratulatory remarks fully of the Christmas spirit. When the waiter rolled in the trolley with an enormous roast beef hands went up asking for extra fat. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Or the Bronx.
Then a human tornado hit St Martins Lane. Bob Barocci arrived, presumably to inject some energy, or perhaps to get him out of Chicago. Barocci’s strategy, conscious or otherwise, was to terrify the creatively unambitious account people until they were more afraid of him than they were of their clients. It worked. They didn’t understand that if someone pushed you, you pushed back.
Many who probably should not have been in a rapidly changing business emigrated out. Baroccis’s aggression was easy to dislike, here and in Chicago, where traditionalists were many.
The 70s ended for me in 1984. I had refused a couple of invitations to move to Chicago. But after watching an attractive young woman with no experience hired as a creative director behind the closed door of her first interview with MD/CD/Chairman Dennis Barham, I thought better of it. Perhaps the Midwest, though frigid, was more promising.
*Peter Husting ran the Procter & Gamble business. On a group outing to the Southside to watch the White Sox just after I arrived he pulled me aside. P&G were in a funk about one of our brands. The agency had had several attempts to find a solution. His advice was simple: “Go to Cincinnati and don’t come back until they’re happy”.
There’s something about families.
Memories of mine go back to a time when my mother died of cancer after a 2 year—the usual 2 –year punishment period God or the Great God Cancer seems to require. When Ida was ill and dying the fault lines between the two sides of the family, hers and Chaim’s, were revealed. Not to me, I was too young to understand. But over the years my father communicated his attitude to some of the others pretty clearly. He was bad at hiding things like that. I suspect that long before, when he first arrived on the scene from Poland, this close knit family of 2 brothers and 3 sisters put up defenses. There is a picture of all of them sitting together on a couch and in front of it for a photograph: father, mother, Ida, Aunt Sara, Aunt Lilly, Lilly’s husband George, Uncle Dave, Aunt Fran, Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose all together in the center looking at the camera, with my father sitting in a chair off to one side, immersed in the New York Times. So when we no longer visited Aunt Lilly and I felt uncomfortable going to stay with Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose, I got the message. What I didn’t get was the sense that a Great Crime had been committed and my father was the criminal.
There was no doubt in my mind (now) that Chaim was initially resented by the family. The problem was he was both needed and resented. There were many reasons to resent him. He was smart, really smart. He was charismatic and successful (not in terms of money or business, but influence. People came to him for impartiality and advice, valuable commodities in the rough and tumble garment business. And they came for who he knew, even more valuable. A natural and confident speaker with a sense of humor; even in his Yiddish accented English, he could hold a room. In Poland he had been an organizer from an early age. A militant, he roused crowds and had a certain fame. Women liked him as well as men. Because he had influence people came to him to find jobs too. As did the family. He was a fixer. So he fixed them up. With hard to get tickets to shows, basketball games too as well as jobs. He loved that. He made connections. Problems happened when the jobs did not live up to expectations.
Then they became his fault.
The Great Crime, never stated, always implied, and him impugned, was an affair with, as far as I can piece together, one of the sisters, or the wife of one of the brothers. When did this happen? Before Ida was ill? When she was ill and dying? Over the years the whispered conspiracy was mainly kept alive by Aunt Fran with Uncle Dave an unwilling (I suspect) co-conspirator.
Hence a poisonous silence, and with it hostility, hostility inevitably bequeathed to the next generation, my cousins.
How could they avoid it. Chaim was the bogeyman.
Of course this is ridiculous. But families are. Whatever is supposed to have happened happened 70 years ago. One is tempted to say, to Fran especially, the keeper of the bitter flame, it’s time: get over it. Actually one can’t say that to Dave because he died last year at 91. And one can’t say it to Fran, who is 90 and in the Hebrew Home For the Aged in Riverdale, ironically two blocks from where I did most of my of my growing up.
Ida died in November, 1980. Chaim died a month and a half after Ida, an indication of how connected and interdependent they had become. So I am left alone to defend him, but from whom? I resent it, and I resent them, the whole family, which means their memory. I no longer care if they are blood relations. But meanwhile something’s happened which may give some credence to the Great Crime.
One of the ubiquitously marketed DNA products recently revealed a half sister. Her parents were good friends of my father’s. I remember them well. She was born in the early ‘50s, around the time or just before my father married his second Ida, the woman we considered our mother. We had dinner with my new sister and according to her they were all good friends: Ida, Chaim and her parents. They double-dated, went to restaurants and shows, exchanged dinners in each others apartments.
So was my father someone I knew? Did he, the object of sympathy of all those women who surrounded him, seek out solace in that terrible time when he was left with 2 small children, no wife and no job?
Whatever. It seems they’ll never tell me the Great Secret and for me it’s too late. I don’t want to know.
There is a post script. After our mother’s death Marcia and I were shunted from place to place while Chaim tried to figure out how to keep us together and go to work in a new job. We went first to his sister, Aunt Rachel which we hated. Rachel felt incredibly old, 19thCentury, and foreign (she spoke with a Scottish accent having spent decades in Glasgow on way from Poland to the Bronx). But now I realize she must have been in her 50s, perhaps 60. Later we were put in the care of Dorothy, who one day took us to Harlem to us visit her family. Everyone was black and I thought she was going to leave us there. The next year Chaim married the second Ida. Years later Ida told me she believed (and I believe) he did not marry her because of love—that or some kind of affection may have come later—but to look after us. (The opposite of the evil stepmother, Marcia summed her up perfectly: “She was a beautiful soul and we were lucky to have her.”) The rumor was that after the first Ida died some of the family had tried to adopt us. Who, I don’t know. I am sure that would have been for the best of reasons but I am also sure he would not have taken it that way. Taking his kids away? Chaim would have hated the idea. He would have been unforgiving and unforgetting.
And Chaim, like Aunt Fran, would never let go an injury.