My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
About Our Father, Alexander Gross, Sr.
As A Young Man
The Great Gross Family Disaster of 1922
In 1922 an event took place within our family that decisively influenced the lives of all of us, born and unborn, for at least two generations. In 1879 Papa was born in what was then Austria-Hungary and came to England at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. In London he had successfully launched his first map company, Geographia, which brought him into close company with Fleet Street publishers, political leaders, and other major figures of the time. And all of this lasted until the early Twenties, culminating in 1922 when everything fell apart. I have heard about this disaster many times over from Papa, my half-sister Phyllis, my half-brother Anthony, and even a few independent observers.
There are several versions of the story. Apparently Papa had been a bit careless in allotting shares of his business to family members and others. Or his associates knowingly swindled him. Or perhaps his wife did him in by voting her shares with those of his enemies. Or it could have been his careless habit of sleeping with too many of his partners' wives. British anti-Semitism is likely to have also played a role. Mix and match, pick any or all, the upshot was that in 1922 Papa lost everything and found himself on a boat bound for America. His son and daughter were suddenly forced to leave their fashionable English schools and more or less fend for themselves, Tony at 17 but Phyllis at only 16.
Papa never fully got over this reversal, nor as I would discover did my two half-siblings. Papa vowed that in the ripeness of time he would find some way of clearing his name in England, and perhaps even then hatched the dream of one day siring a son, to whom he would give his own name, someone who would return to England and reestablish his own reputation and that of his company. One year later, in 1923, he met my mother in the main reading room of the New York Public Library and would soon follow her when she returned to Illinois. They would continue to see each other over throughout the Twenties and into the Thirties, leading to my birth in 1931. Papa's dream had turned into something resembling reality, perhaps it was no more unrealistic than the dreams many parents have for their children. Anyway, this is where I enter the picture.
THE LONG TREK DOWNTOWN
TO VISIT PAPA
To describe my father as a bundle of contradictions would be an enormous understatement. Several cliché phrases come close to describing what Papa was like: a born leader, a strict Middle European disciplinarian with an iron will, an authority figure impossible to contradict. All of these were true in their way, but they do not totally capture him, they leave out his deep concern for all his children, including in my case his passion to turn me into a replica of himself. But also his genuine compassion when he finally realized that I could not fulfill his dreams.
I remember him increasingly becoming a part of my life over the years as I began to drift from childhood into adolescence. There had been a false start around the time I was five when he mistook me for an adult and took me to a major Hungarian celebration of some sort at an outdoor restaurant. I still recall vast numbers of strangers, men and women, ranged around me at huge tables, eating strange food and speaking some incomprehensible language. I conformed as best I could at my age as he invited me to consume a cold, sour, whitish liquid called egylevesh, or cherry soup, which he described as an exquisite delight. I responded by vomiting it copiously over the table and several guests.
After this there was a lapse in our contacts outside my mother's apartment, where he would visit us every other Sunday or so. I do recall him taking me to visit a few museums, where I was probably mystified or bored. But our next major outing did not occur until I was nearly eight, when he took me off to the New York World's Fair during the summer of 1939.
He made sure I visited the British Pavilion, where he proudly pointed out art works by his other son, my half-brother Tony, who by now was 34 and attaining a certain fame in the English art world.
I had by then heard so much about Tony and my half-sister Phyllis that I saw them in my mind's eye as shining and beneficent figures who were waiting to embrace and welcome me when the right time came along. Tony's works (and even the odd one by Phyllis) covered the walls of our New York apartment. After all, they were the only brother and sister I had, but I must admit I found it less than helpful that they were first of all three thousand miles away and more importantly, according to Papa, leading adult lives of outstanding success, while I was still just a kid growing up Inwood, Manhattan's northern-most precinct.
At the Fair Papa took me to several other national pavilions and extolled the virtues of these distant lands. He assured me that soon it would be my fate to travel to those nations and experience their full glory. Or in other versions Tony and Phyllis would suddenly appear among us in America, though Europe was of course a far better place. And make no mistakethe accent in "Papa" was firmly on the last syllable.
I was taken twice more to the World's Fair that summer by my mother, and I remember being caught up in the excitement its multiple pavilions and exhibits inspired in my mind. I recall looking out at night over the multi-colored lights of the Lagoon of Nations and concluding that surely Papa was rightthe world was a vast and wondrous place, full of remarkable achievements, and I felt a surge of pride that I was so closely connected in my own family to all these distant nations.
Even then I felt especially lucky to be part of such a cosmopolitan clan, whose members could move freely over the globe. After all we made the maps that enabled people everywhere to understand how great a world this truly was. There aren't too many international families of cartographers in the world, and I was truly fortunate to be part of one. I awaited my turn to join the upper echelons of our family and was honored to think that my relatives could drop in at any moment.
Unfortunately, September of 1939 also arrived, and all of those remarkably civilized nations were suddenly busy bombing and invading each other. Tony was serving in the British Army as a war artist, and Phyllis was also involved with war-related work. It would be six long years before I would meet either of my siblings.
Seemingly unfazed by these events, Papa began a slow, gradual, but steady campaign to educate and civilize me. His heart-felt effort stretched over time and space, ranging from 1940 all the way to 1945, when Phyllis first appeared on the scene, then to my departure for college in 1949 and onwards to my first visit to Europe in 1953, finally reaching a climax of sorts with Papa's death in 1958.
And Papa's campaign also definitely ranged over spaceManhattan is an island twelve times as long as it is broad, so during an extensive expanse of Sundaysat first every other Sunday but finally occupying almost every single one, and sometimes including other days of the week as well, I was assigned a duty I had no choice but to fulfill. On all of those days you need to imagine me starting out near the very northern tip of the island and making my way via IRT subway all the way south to Times Square to take the shuttle eastward to Grand Central, and from there to walk further east to the impressively tall buildings of Second Avenue.
Between 1940 and 1952 the United Nations complex did not yet exist, which meant that one of the most imposing buildings in the neighborhood, situated on two sides of East 44th Street, was the Beaux Arts Apartment Hotel, where Papa resided. Once I arrived in the lobby, I would enter one of the three visitor's phone booths and ask an operator to be connected to Room 1024 South. Papa's voice would answer, he would tell me to come up, and I would take an elevator to the tenth floor and walk down to the end of the hall. Here I would knock, and finally enter his apartment.
As I did so, I was aware even during my youngest days that I was crossing some sort of major threshold, though it would be years before I realized how enormous a gap it truly was.
Though it was billed as a studio apartment, a term much misused in recent days, it was one of the largest rooms I had ever seen. It was in fact immense, and Papa would place me in one of four great armchairs as he sat back in another some twenty feet away. There was plenty of space between him and the windows behind him, and there were other places in the room for a compact kitchen (which he almost never used except to boil an egg in the morning), a walk-in closet, and a full-sized bathroom.
Those years seated opposite Papa, ranging from 1940 to 1957, have all merged together in my mind, as though they were a single continuous film recording my own personal growth. If I can't always pin down the precise year in what follows, it's because of this blended, telescoped view I have of all the events that engulfed me. But it's safe to assume that the more adult questions or topics date from when I had grown older, or once I entered college, or when I was trying to sort myself out afterwards.
When I first sat down in that armchair, I was barely able to fill it, and Papa felt in every way like a giant seated across the room from me. Less than ten years later I was a tall, almost gawky young man, six inches taller than Papa, and he had assumed something closer to his real appearance as a shortish, balding, swarthy but still remarkably imposing figure.
Let me repeat that a bit differently and paraphrase how I expressed it in my abridged version of this tale. As I say, Papa was a short, balding, swarthy man, and he was also a Hungarian Jew who spoke with a foreign accent. It is currently rather fashionable in England to celebrate women who appear to be good at business, though only after many decades when quite the reverse was true.
It is not at all fashionable in England these days to celebrate short, balding, swarthy men who happen to be Hungarian Jews and speak with foreign accents. It was in any case a persuasive and fascinating accent, a blend of Bela Lugosi at his most sonorous with George Sanders at his most charming. It was an accent that drew you in, that made you feel what he said was urgently important.
The gist of our exchanges during the seventeen years of my visits was remarkably broad and included almost any topic the mind can imagine. Papa listened carefully to my most immature utterances, he questioned me repeatedly about what I was learning in school, and seemed truly interested in my answers (and at times expressed amazement at how closely American education was following the latest developments in science, an area where he felt English education had failed). Of course he also added his own opinions wherever he felt they were necessary.
We discussed many other topics besides my education. "Discussed" is perhaps too august a wordwhat he had to tell me took the form far more often of a lecture, almost a sermon, especially during my younger years, as though his goal was to fill my mind as completely as he could with the contents of his own mind. And since his mindalong with the experiences that filled itwas remarkably rich and embraced so many nations and cultures, I did not at first resent his method, especially during my early years. There were certain recurrent subjects that he would return to again and again, as though he wanted to be positive that his ideasand even his experienceswere engraved on my mind.
Here are a few of those recurrent topics:
How important the pursuit of mapping and cartography was, what an important role the Geographia Map Company played in it (along with an earlier English Map Company with the same name), and why I should devote serious consideration to following in his footsteps.
What an incredibly rich life he had led, ranging from his earliest days in Austria-Hungary to the era of his greatest success in England to his more recent American adventures.
How important in my life my half-sister Phyllis and my half-brother Anthony would become for me, though this would not begin to merge with reality until World War II had ended and they finally visited America.
How deeply wronged he had been by his late wife, whom he described as someone he had trusted with his life, only to discover that her mind was slowly but surely descending into madness. He harped on this story again and again and at one point even made me read a play he had written about their tempestuous relationship. He would end up writing a number of plays and occasionally talk about possible productions, though nothing ever came of this.
How crucially important it wasand he stressed this to me again and again over the yearsto make and have money and to live as well as possible. And how vital being skillful at business was to achieving this goal.
How and why many of the nations of Europe were far more important than the US, despite reigning American prejudices to the contrary. Since these very nations were during many years of our conversations engaged in barbarous warfare against one another, I had a few problems accepting this notion even when I was relatively young.
How totally unfair and unjust he found the capitalist system, a view he never let interfere with his own skill as a capitalist nor his devotion to making money. Unlike many avowed communists of the time, he saw no imminent likelihood that capitalism would fail, it merely seemed logical to him that sooner or later communism (or an extreme form of socialism) would take over. And during the Thirties he had actually written articles advocating communism for extreme left-wing journals of the time. As scholars of that era are likely to agree, this was a fairly common viewpoint among Thirties intellectuals, especially Jewish intellectuals.
How unspeakably foolish he found all the world's religions, and how important it was for me to see through and resist all the arguments claiming that anything like a "God" could exist. In this he was equally the disciple of the great American atheist advocate Robert Ingersoll and the Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, both of whose views he would frequently cite to me. This also was an opinion held by many intellectuals at that time, especially among Jews who had escaped from Hasidism and other orthodox Jewish backgrounds. I would mull over his views and after a decade or so come to agree with him, though with a few provisos about what constitutes a religion and whether his outlook should be imposed on others. Totally opposed to this stance were the two adult women in my life, Phyllis and my mother, though both had given up trying to discuss the subject with him.
How I would one day travel to Europe myself and come to agree with all his conclusions. I would be able to observe for myself how perceptive his opinions about the nations of Europe truly were. And if I turned out to be sufficiently wise and patient, I would also be running his map companies both in the US and England.
He also stressed the all-consuming importance of an incident I have already described as "The Great Gross Family Disaster of 1922." He was truly obsessed by these events, as were Phyllis and Tony in their own ways, and it took only the slightest spark to launch him into a long tirade on the subject. Irrational plans can spring out of such circumstances, which is the only way I can explain his fixation that somehow I might one day be able to intervene and reverse what had happened to him during that year. This was, as I can now fully realize, a largely irrational project, for I was never either by health or temperament suited for such a mission. But it was nonetheless in fulfillment of such a plan that he had summoned me to sit before him over so many years.
As I grew older, there was also a pitch he delivered with some enthusiasm about a man's need to stay free of marriage and enjoy many women. I'll be returning to that shortly.
Papa had landed in England from Austria-Hungary around 1900 and founded his first family around the map-publishing business. He was enormously successful, especially after World War I began, and he emerged as one of the few people in England who could not only map Mitteleuropa but actually knew something about the various nations that comprised it and could speak several of its languages. He grew close to Fleet Street newspaper publishers and even to members of the English government as his business began to flourish. And in Papa's apartment once the war was over, I would come to meet passing through New York a number of prominent Britons whose mere presence demonstrated to me that Papa's version of events was largely true.
While I was growing up, Papa had done everything he could to instill in me a knowledge of the entire world, even a sense of internationalism, something I took to with great enthusiasm. Almost every time he visited my mother and me, he brought along a map. sometimes more than one, all of them maps that he himself had published. These included city maps, national maps, maps of various regions of the world, maps created for special purposes. And once war began, there were war maps as well, specially designed to help those whose relatives were serving abroad to see where their loved ones were fighting. He also encouraged me to collect stamps, something I quickly came to enjoy, by bringing me foreign stamps from all the mail that arrived in his office. He often brought me entire "covers," the complete envelopes as they had been mailed from foreign cities. During the war years these came mostly from Latin American nations, since mail from Europe was limited. Even today I sometimes smile when TV reporters have trouble saying the names of foreign localities I learned to pronounce almost seventy years ago.
He even gave me picture puzzle maps of various nations or continents, which still provide me, even today after so many changes in national names and borders, with a practical knowledge of how the world fits together. On more than one occasion he would sit me down at a large table while he showed me the two volumes of a huge world atlas he had published during his best years in London. It was interleaved with larger and smaller photographic copies of various regions or nations (xerox machines did not exist back then), and he would show me how he could take pages from his atlas and use them as the basis for creating new maps, where more detailed information could be inserted.
When I was eleven he also began to bring me into Geographia's offices, located in a now vanished building at 145 West 57th Street. He introduced me to everyone in the office and sat me down at a desk to perform some sort of dull but simple indexing work. His major sales outlet in New York was the Hudson News Company, which distributed publications to the city's countless newsstands and candy stores. His best seller, which still exists in a slightly different form today, was a series of "little red book guides" to each of the boroughs, which provided the precise house numbers at intersections throughout the city. Policeman, salesmen, and delivery people all bought copies, as did many ordinary citizens.
Papa also published maps and guides to many cities beyond New York and as time went on began to branch out into other fields such as tax guides and other self-help titles, all of which appeared on newsstands next to his maps. Right next to them stood the most controversial publications of the time: comic books, which like TV and films today were targeted as encouraging violence. But Papa still saw a publishing opportunity here: although a fervent atheist, at one point he even hired artists and writers to create a comic book version of the scriptures, entitled Picture Stories from the Bible. I don't think it sold very well but it gained Papa a few press notices for his innovative approach to religion.
At this point I wish there were some way I could take you up to a typical New York newsstand of the Thirties, Forties, or Fifties and show you the wealth of inexpensive magazines, pamphlets, and miniature books they had on display. This was during a time when few could afford books, bookstores were few and far between, and most "best-sellers" found the majority of their readers at book-renting parlors at 3 or 4 or 5 cents a day, tucked away in stationery shops and cigar stores. This was how my mother read Gone With the Wind, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and many other famous books of the time.
In those days the newsstand was a vast emporium displaying all manner of low-level fiction and useful advice: romances, westerns, science fiction, movie stars, astrology, even advice to the lovelorn, but also more practical booklets on gardening, hunting and fishing, legal advice, how to pay or avoid your taxes. And of course maps, guidebooks, and comic books. Into their midst, inspired by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany, came the very first "pocket books," at first a wild experiment, but soon enough a burgeoning business eventually absorbed by Simon and Schuster. Altogether the New York newsstand was a monument to, for, and of American popular literature. Of this vast marketing turf it's just possible that Papa presided over as much as one percent.
Our father could never become as successful in New York as he had been in London, simply because he had too many competitors, many of whom had been publishing maps long before him. There were Hagstrom and Hammond of course, and there was also Rand McNally, by far the best known US map publisher. I remember being a bit upset when LIFE ran a feature article on this company and even showed the Rand McNally family dwelling in far more luxurious surroundings than the modest quarters where my mother and I lived in Inwood.
Papa was intensely proud of Geographia, and I wanted to feel proud as well. The best time probably came during the year or so when Papa had won the New York subway map bidding, and his version of the system was posted in every subway car and every single station. But when I told him how happy this made me, he simply scolded me and complained that he had needed to bid so low in order to gain the contract that he wasn't really making any money, though he added that the publicity had probably brought him some new business.
I had probably turned 12 when he embarked on a series of booklets about each of the American statestheir geography, history, major industries, and tourist attractions. Papa needed someone to write all 48 histories, and so with some solemnity he escorted me into the History Room of the New York Public Library at 42nd Street. He led me up to a shelf containing the WPA volumes for each of the then 48 states, created as part of the nation's public works project during the Depression, and took down one of the volumes. He turned to the section on the state's history, some forty pages long, and told me to use it as my source for rewriting that history in no more than two or three pages. If I completed this for each of the 48 states, he would let me have the money to buy and build the six-inch reflector telescope kit I felt so passionate about. This was my first real job as a writer, and some of what I learned then still serves me today.
Oh yes, astronomy, I almost forgot about that. It was one of my major passions starting from age 11. Today everyone is interested in astronomy, ever since we launched the space program. But this certainly wasn't true during the early 1940s. I was probably attracted to the subject as an extension of my interest in earth maps. After all, every world atlas in those days used to have a page devoted to the Solar System, so perhaps that's where it started. Anyway, Papa approvedI think he also saw it as an extension of earth geography. When I say I was passionate, I am not exaggeratingby the time I was 12 I knew the names of all the constellations and major stars in the Northern sky, and quite a few in the Southern Hemisphere as well. What's more, even in the dim light of uptown Manhattan I could readily point out most of them to anyone who was interested. I was constantly visiting the Hayden Planetarium and was befriended by Clyde Fisher, its curator at the time. I also went to a few meetings of their Junior Astronomy Club and peered at the sky and/or its image with others my age through a refractor and a large reflector on the grounds of the planetarium.
But quite unlike today, almost nobody else cared about astronomy back then. If you even dared to mention the subject, most people either got it confused with astrology or called you a useless "star gazer." I vividly remember one night by the Hudson near Dyckman Street, probably during the summer of 1943, I was out in the dark busily maneuvering my field glasses, my star maps, and my flashlight (which I turned on and off occasionally to read my maps), when I was approached by a policeman. I had been reported by others around me as a probable German spy sending dangerous messages with my flashlight to other spies in New Jersey. Needless to say, I was able to avoid any such charges, but this simply shows how astronomy was regarded in the years before the space program. This too is not really a digression, and I'll get around later to explaining how I think it relates to Phyllis, Papa, and the truth.
There was usually something new or exotic to be found around Papa's apartment. After the war it was often a magazine or a book in Hungarian. He would explain apologetically that he could not stop these from comingbecause he had been brought up in Hungary, the communist government kept sending him propaganda in the hope of persuading him to return. There was no chance of that happening, for despite Papa's espousal of communism, he had nothing but contempt for the Hungarian regime.
He was proud of his British passport, which he often showed me, and even when he didn't it was frequently on display on a little table next to the wall. At one point (I'm guessing it was around 1952) he told me that in order to regularize his US residence, he might have to become an American citizen. He actually asked my advice: did I think this was a good idea? I told him I didn't think so, that changing one's nationality once, as he had done when he moved from Hungary to England, was enough for anyone in a lifetime. He found this a reasonable reply and as far as I know never became an American.
Papa tried to keep up with every phase of my education, and he was often quite successful, During my freshman year at college, I became deeply immersed in the Ancient Greek language and decided I wanted to major in Classics. Papa was a bit concerned by this, but not as much as one might think, since members of my parents' generation still believed that the classics should form the basis of any true education. This was still true at Oxford and on the continent, besides which my mother knew Greek and had taught Latin during the Twenties in the high schools of southern Illinois.
I remember at one point trying to explain to him my deep though somewhat pedantic belief that Homer must be read out loud in Greek with something resembling a correct pitch accent in order to truly appreciate the beauty of the poetry. I was concerned that I had not succeeded in persuading him (or even in making my point) when he picked out a volume from his shelf and began to read to me from Petöfi's Hungarian translation of the Iliad. The meter relied on stress rather than pitch, but it was still quite beautiful. Papa had understood me perfectly and was eager to let me know this was the case.
There was one realm where Papa was more than willing to be the learner and actually sought out my assistance, wherever American slang or pronunciation was concerned. He did not want to learn American slang, in fact he wanted to avoid it at all costs, but he nonetheless wanted to understand it when used by others. He had himself taught English to foreigners at one stage of his life, and despite the fact that he had by now been living in the US for several decades he was always punctilious in teaching his students British English. I don't think I ever heard him use the expression "okay" in his life, and this alone makes quite unlikely Phyllis' tale in one of her books that he wanted to name the A to Z Atlas of London the "Okay Atlas."
This was simply a sloppy invention on Phyllis' part, on a par with her assertion that Papa's mother was both a Catholic, related even to a bishop, and an "Aryan." None of which could be true, since Papa was a Jew, and in Judaism being Jewish can only pass through the maternal line. The part about being "Aryan" obviously sprang from fears arising in Germany, while Phyllis never came close to understanding America and probably chose the word "okay" for the same reason that lazy British writers imagine they can portray Americans by simply putting the words "Wow" or "Gee whiz" in their mouths.
Papa still had a few problems pronouncing some English words, and I recall helping him with the accent on "attribute" as verb or noun plus the added confusion of "attribution." He never doubted that England was superior to America, despite his reverses of 1922, and always tried to sound as English as possible, if only to impress his American business friends. He very much favored the now dated expression "I say!" and whenever surprised he would exclaim "Good Lord!" When confused he would repeat "What, what, what, what?" many times over. I still find myself coming out with both expressions today, and sometimes when I do, I wonder which of us is really speaking.
Life with my father was by no means all lectures and sermons. Papa was an extremely sensual person, and he expressed his sensuality in many ways. He enjoyed the sound of his own voice, but he also enjoyed other people and loved to be in their midst. He particularly took delight in eating good food, and it was especially painful for him in later years when his doctors finally told him he could no longer enjoy his favorite hot Hungarian peppers.
After spraying me with questions and reviewing the details of my education, as evening approached the time drew near for a certain invariable ritual: Papa would arise from his chair and walk to a table whose chief adornments were a telephone and a bottle of expensive Scotch whiskey. He would produce two shot glasses from a drawer and fill them both with whiskey. Then we would both drain our glasses as he had taught me to do, in a single draught. On occasion I still take down a shot glass and follow his example, though with cognac rather than whiskey (to the dismay of my French relatives, who insist cognac must be drunk in a snifter).
Next we would both perform a further ritual act he told me he had learned as a boy in Hungary. We would first use the fingers of one hand to massage our necks around our Adam's Apples and then reach back with both hands and rub forward in a single motion from the back of our necks towards our Adam's Apples. Papa believed this would prevent us from catching a cold while outdoors and in general protect us from noxious influences. Decades later I came to study Chinese Medicine in great detail, which led me to believe that Papa may have inherited this massage from the Mongolian forbears of the Hungarian people. On occasion I still perform this ritual myself.
And off we would go into the night on our quest for a restaurant. Going out to eat in the evening was Papa's principal ritual. His breakfast was at home and always simple: a boiled egg, a slice of toast or two, and a cup of coffee, all of which he had learned to prepare himself. His lunches, unless business required him to take them elsewhere, were usually just down 57th Street from his offices at the Horn & Hardhart's automat, once the epitome of art nouveau modernism and now vanished from the face of the earth. Papa gained a certain reputation from this habit, as he would mix with all sorts of people at the Automat and listen to their stories. Occasionally he was moved to give money to a few of those he met, and he once showed me a story about him in the Daily News entitled something like "The Sage of the Automat."
But in the evening Papa would insist on treating himself (and whoever happened to be with him) to an expensive dinner at a good (and often a well-known) restaurant. Eating good dinners was almost a religion for Papa, and he more than once recounted to me his sadness when during his early days in Budapest or London he was unable to afford such meals. He would describe how miserable he felt looking into the windows of fashionable restaurants, while lacking the means to enter them, and how he never wanted me to know such misery. All of this was of course just one small part of his plot to persuade me to follow in his footsteps as a bon vivant and a businessman, something I was never cut out for in the first place.
Probably the most famous restaurant we frequented was Lindy's during its heyday in the Forties. Readers of Damon Runyon are familiar with it as "Mindy's." as it was portrayed onstage and in the Sinatra-Brandon version of the musical Guys and Dolls. If you saw that film, you know what Lindy's looked like, as the producers went to great pains to reproduce the decor. There was always a long line of tourists waiting to get in when we came along, but at the very sight of Papa the doorman immediately invited him in ahead of everyone else (and of course Papa handed the doorman a folded gratuity). Papa did his best to play the role of what we would now call a "high roller," and even though he never to my knowledge gambled, he had the act down to near perfection.
Yes, Lindy's was exciting in its way, & yes, we got to see a fair number of celebrities, assuming that's what's important in life (as Papa probably believed, but I did not). Among those we glimpsed dining there more than once were Elizabeth Taylor with her current husband, Joe DiMaggio, and even J. Edgar Hoover with his boyfriend. I never saw the real-life equivalents of Runyan's characters, Harry the Horse, Nathan Detroit, or Good Time Charley, but they were almost certainly there as well. Perhaps Papa, who dined there far more often than I did, actually met them, at the time he considered himself a playwright and was anxious to meet anyone who might help him gain a production.
Another restaurant we frequently visited was a piece of old New York history called Jannsen's. One reason we went there: it was just a few blocks away from Papa's apartment, located on the second floor of the Grand Central Station building. The restaurant echoed the decor of Vienna or Budapest, there were deers' heads mounted on several walls, and there was usually a string trio playing schmaltzy Strauss-era melodies. Papa felt very much at home therehe expected me to feel the same, and I did my best to please him.
He felt even more at home in the Hungarian restaurants assembled in the now vanished Magyar quarter of First Avenue in the upper Seventies near Yorkville. We went to several of them, they had names like Csárdás and Cimbalom, but the one we visited most often was a more modest affair called Tzígeti's Hungarian Nest. Papa began taking me there only after I had started college, and it was here that I met many of the men Papa considered his friends, fellow businessmen, and equals. I was surprised to recognize them as somewhat familiar types, as they closely resembled the parents of some of my college friends. They were amiable, more than ready to give advice, a bit paunchy, and surprisingly to me they all had Jewish names. My mother was Protestant, and both she and Papa had raised me in the belief that we were all Christians.
Papa was totally in his element here. He and his companions were continually holding forth with apparent eloquence in three different languages: Hungarian, German, and English, so much so that I felt left out of the conversation about two-thirds of the time. They were constantly cracking jokes or making puns in all three tongues, and it was my duty to sit on the sidelines and pretend to understand. It was undoubtedly this assemblage my half-brother Tony was referring to when he once told me he didn't mind Papa so much, it was his kike business friends he couldn't stand, a fairly typical English remark of that era, though Tony and Phyllis were just as Jewish as I was.
Anyway, I was beginning to catch on that I might be half-Jewish. Papa may have thought he was sparing me needless grief by having my mother bring me up gentile, but he didn't quite understand how the New York education system worked. Starting in the fourth grade students were separated into classes according to IQs, and I was placed in the highest IQ class, at different times known as the IGC (or Intellectually Gifted Class), the IPC (or Intelligence Progress Class), or simply "the rapid" for the two semesters we completed in one.
Oddly enough, I was the only non-Jewish boy in the class, and late in the afternoon I found myself envying the Hebrew studies all the other boys were completing for their after-hours classes at the Shul. At an early age it began to seem odd to me that I had a Jewish name but was the only non-Jew there. Where Papa may have felt left out in England for being a Jew, in New York I was feeling much the same as a Gentile.
It was in 1946, a year after Phyllis' arrival, that Papa decided to take me out of New York's public schools and place me on an entry track for a major university. This meant switching me over to a prep school, and he made me take the entrance exam for Horace Mann. When I failed that year, he placed me at Morningside, a small school with good teachers located just across from Columbia University on 114th Street. The next year I passed the test for Horace Mann, and so I spent what most of New York called the eleventh and twelfth grades of high school in the Fifth and Sixth Form of an imitation English public school presided over not by a principal but naturally a "headmaster."
Of course the odd thing was that 95% of the students at this would-be English school were Jewish. This was decades before that school's faculty gained a reputation for sexual fun and games, if anything it was rather tame in those days. We had some good teachers though, and I responded well to the environment, studying not only French and Latin but taking my first steps in German and Russian. I had a few problems adjusting, for the first time I found myself associating with students who lived on Central Park West or Fifth Avenue or even Park Avenue, but I soon found my way.
I thought Papa would be impressed when I was sixteen and told him I had started studying Russian at Horace Mann, and he was. I told him Russian was an important language to learn since the Cold War was just beginning, and he was even more impressed. I was beginning to show him I understood world politics and was trying to be practical about my future. But he surprised me when he took my simple Russian texts from me and began to read them at least as perfectly as I could and clearly understood them just as well.
He explained to me that though he had been brought up in Hungary, there were lots of Serbs in that part of the world, and he had also grown up learning some of their language, which like Russian used the Cyrillic alphabet. He also told me that thanks to the Treaty of Versailles his birthplace was now located in Serbia. This frightened me a bitI didn't mind being part Hungarian (he of course said nothing about being Jewish), but I had seen the film Cat People a few years before, whose heroine was not only Serbian but menaced by an ancient curse that turned her into a panther. This was the only association I had with being Serbian at that time, but I ended up convincing myself that I was really Hungarian after all.
A year or so later I borrowed a book on Hungarian and told him I might also try learning that language, thinking I would please him. But his reaction was quite the reversehe ordered me to stop learning it immediately. Hungarian was very much a minority language, he explained, spoken by only a small fraction of the world's people, and I would be wasting my time if I learned it. Reluctantly I gave up and took my book back to the library.
I was no good at sports and found ways to get out of the two hours each day required by Horace Mann. Students who acted in school productions were excused from athletics, and since I already enjoyed acting, this helped part of the time. Under the football bleachers we also had a fully equipped old-fashioned print shop, and students who worked there were also excused from sports. This is how I became a genuine printer's devil, standing at huge shelves of type drawers, picking out one by one with my right hand each letter needed from the correct pigeon hole in the correct drawer and placing it in the metal "compostick," which I held in my left hand.
We paid for the upkeep of the printshop by filling orders for stationery and business cards from faculty members and students alike. Once my compostick was full, complete with "leading" genuine pieces of lead between the linesI would insert it into the huge frames that fit into the presses, electrified only to the extent that they would move back and forth rhythmically while I stuck cards or sheets of paper into the press one by one to be imprinted. You had to get the rhythm just right, or the printer would brush against your hand. We all knew that a couple of students had lost pieces of their fingers in the process. Papa was extremely proud that I was doing this and would boast to friends even in my hearing that I was learning printing from the ground up, which he saw as excellent preparation for cartography.
My average wasn't high enough for Harvard or Yale, and in my senior year I applied to three colleges, Haverford, Oberlin, and Brown. All three accepted me, and on advice from friends and counselors I chose Brown, mainly because it was part of the "Ivy League." A few days before I left for Providence, Papa and I had a long heart-to-heart talk about my future. He naturally advised me to learn as much about business and math and economics as I could, but he realized my heart was in languages and literature.
Being European he had a deep respect for humanist values, and he did not overrule me, but he nonetheless made sure I saw his side of things. It was 1949, and all of Europe was still suffering from the aftermath of war. Papa felt this suffering quite deeply himself, but he still saw vast business opportunities. Because America was the only major nation left standing after the war, he passionately emphasized the vast amount of money waiting to be made by helping Europeans get back on their feet. If ever there was a time to go into business, he insisted, this was surely that time.
I replied with a mixture of dispassion and disinterest, and although I was scarcely an authority on economics, I believe my answer appears fairly sophisticated from today's perspective. Yes, I told him, Europe and the rest of the world truly need help, and yes, fortunes can surely be made in this manner, but this was only true of today. Thirty, forty, fifty years from now other nations will have caught up with us and even be competing with us, and how will anyone make money when that happens?
The true need, I proposed, was not for money or products but for knowledgeand for sharing that knowledge among all the peoples of the world. A sincere though perhaps naive answer, but that was how I saw things then. And the best use I could see for my time lay in learning languages and trying to understand what other peoples were really like. Papa did not really dispute this with me, though I'm sure he was somewhat disappointed.
In addition to Papa's Hungarian business friends, I would often meet English businessmen calling on Papa as they passed through New York, and they too would join us at dinner. I came to note a certain rhythm to their comings and goings. When they first arrived they would be overflowing with optimism and even joy at the prospect of an entire new market for whatever they were sellingjust imagine millions of new customers speaking the same language and sharing the same culture, eager to buy their products, what a fabulous invention the English-speaking world truly was. On their return, after their efforts had met with little success, they were quick to describe Americans as little better than barbarians, lowlife who lacked the sophistication to a appreciate the excellence of their goods.
Perhaps the most remarkable Briton I met passing through Papa's apartment was Sir Andrew McFadyean, whose considerable role in politics and international relations can be followed on wikipedia. He and his family were close friends of Papa, Phyllis, and the rest of us, and I am still pleased I had a chance to meet and have dinner with him and Papa. He was quite unlike most other Britons I had met so far, he did not specialize in sonorous claims about world affairs or even try to be witty, instead he asked friendly questions and actually listened to the answers. Since Sir Andrew's activities had a bearing on both the Versailles Conference of 1919 and adjusting the German war debt afterwards, it is possible that he might have even helped to avert World War II if only he had been listened to. It's no surprise that he was one of the first to advocate a unified postwar Europe, something still resisted by many in Britain.
As I grew taller and older, Papa became increasingly concerned about my sex life. As I mentioned in my shorter version, until he was 75 Papa was never ill a single day of his life, and he simply could not understand what other people meant when they complained of ill health. He even imagined they must be lazy or merely pretending. He simply had a different metabolism from most other people, as is true of quite a few successful business people. I have a pretty unique perspective on this subject, for I too have a different metabolism from most other people. But throughout my life, as I will explain shortly, my condition has been almost the opposite of Papa's.
I've used the word sensual to describe Papa, and this was also true of his attitude towards women. Let's face it, Papa was the sort of man that today's feminists love to vilify. They would be happiest if they could make all men like him disappear from the face of the earth. Papa truly enjoyed sexual pleasure on his own terms. He boasted of his many conquests and was deaf to any suggestion I made that he visit my mother more often. He relished the notion that men should enjoy women, that women were in fact made for men to enjoy. More than once I would hear him say, I can even still hear him saying it today: "There is no such thing as an impotent man, only a clumsy woman."
In retrospect this must sound perfectly outrageous. But this was simply Papa, just as Hugh Hefner is simply Hugh Hefner. In any case our father's behavior was nowhere near so reprehensible as that of several members of the English House of Lords while we lived over there, and I wouldn't be surprised if this were still true today. Perhaps as society slowly grows more sophisticated about sex, we may all finally come to recognize that not only do men like Papa exist, but their female counterparts are also very much alive. I believe the latest nom de guerre for them is "cougars," and that they are even considered rather fashionable.
Papa could not stop asking me about sex, I must have been 17 or 18 at the time when he insisted on knowing whether I felt a strong attraction towards good-looking women. I told him I did, but that I didn't know how to talk to them. He told me they were easy to talk to, and I would soon get over my feeling. Conditions were so repressed in those days that Papa didn't even ask me if I masturbated, but if he had asked me, I would have had to tell him that I didn't know what he was talking about. I remember once when we were walking along the boardwalk in Atlantic City, we came upon an outdoor pavilion where amid loud jazz music a hundred couples were busy dancing the lindy hop. It was some kind of dance contest, almost a scene from a Forties film, except these were indeed the Forties, and this was the real thing.
Papa pointed to specific girls busily gyrating their hips and bouncing their buttocks. He asked me if I felt anything rising between my legs while I watched them. I was able to answer quite truthfully that yes, I did. This made him quite happy, so happy he cut off the lecture he was just about to begin. He assured me that this was truly important, this was "life," and that I should feel proud I felt that way.
A few years later, I learned from my mother that he had asked her if I was having wet dreams yet, and she had told him I was. He told her he wanted to take me to a whore house to "break me in" sexually, as he had done with my elder brother Tony in London. This was probably a common custom in Central Europe, but she absolutely forbade him to do so, and in retrospect I am grateful. I managed to solve this problem for myself, but only after I reached twenty. And I only figured out how to masturbate (and actually started to do so) after my first sexual experiences. Even back then twenty was late for an American male to lose his virginity. And although I did have a few wet dreams before that time, they hadn't been very frequent. Something was holding me back, though I had no idea what it was.
This was one of the first signs that like Papa my metabolism was different from that of most other people. I don't want to obtrude my own life problems onto what ought to be mainly a tale of my father and sister, and those who seek further enlightenment on this topic would do well to consult the final chapter of my book The Untold Sixties. But let me summarize for those who don't have the time or may not care that much.
I've hinted at health problems, and these would become more intense over the years. I was quite unable to keep normal hours and as I grew older became increasingly a night person, going to sleep around 7 AM and arising at noon. I had always been thirstier than other people, but from 18 onward my intake and output of water became extreme, amounting to as much as four gallons a day, though I didn't get around to taking measurements for many years. When I complained to doctors, they simply told me that drinking water was good for methey went on telling me this for ten long years.
My sleep and thirst together made it impossible for me to hold anything resembling a normal job, but I was able to function at least minimally as long as I wasn't forced to keep regular hours. Because of these problems I couldn't get to all of my classes and was asked to leave Brown University. Papa was remarkably patient with me, and I ended up at liberal Bard College, where I at last gained a degree. I had gone abroad for my junior year, and after graduating pleaded with Papa to let me return to Europe to continue my studies. This took me to Spain, where at 24 I finally held something resembling my first job, a nocturnal gig as a bilingual radio announcer for Radio Nacional de Espana (if you want, you can read more about that here). When I returned to New York I did my best to satisfy Papa's demands that I work in our offices, but I often wasn't able to do so.
This brings me up to 1957, when I again pleaded with Papa to let me go abroad for the third time. It was not an easy conversationwe met for dinner at the 42nd Street Longchamps, one of a chain of long-gone quasi-French restaurants that once dotted Manhattan. I often sighed in those days, and he criticized me for this habit, asking me not to do so. I told him I couldn't help it, I felt so tired most of the time. He replied that it was perfectly possible to change one's habits, I only needed sufficient will power to do so. But I felt so tired that I couldn't find my way through to that will power, I told him.
He insisted that I was mistaken, that he knew from all his vast experience of life that I had to be mistaken. He had used this argument with me many times before, but on this occasion I somehow found the strength to reply. I actually suggested to him that his experience might be blinding him, even limiting him from looking beyond it. I'm sure my reply shocked him, but he must have also somehow accepted my point.
For once Papa was a bit less formidable than usual. It was on this occasion that he confessed to me that his doctor had ordered him to stop eating his favorite Hungarian hot peppers, which truly saddened him. He had experienced some problems with his heart and had suddenly discovered the meaning of illness, perhaps even that others were not simulating when they they mentioned having health problems. At that time he had just a bit more than a year left to live, though he did not know this (or perhaps he did). I had never before seen him quite so sober and reflective.
Anyway, he agreed to let me return to Europe, where I spent another eighteen months until 1958, the year when I received an air letter from Phyllis informing me that Papa had died. At least he had managed to leave us while traveling first class on the Queen Elizabeth, so in a sense he passed on the way he would have wanted. I was forced to return to New York and meet with my father's trustees, including a lawyer named Milton Kean, who informed me in no uncertain terms that he had promised Papa he would "make a man of me." I was sent back to work two days a week at Geographia, then in transition pending a decision on its possible sale to another company.
The best thing that happened to me at that time was meeting my girlfriend, who would become my wife Ilene. She gave me the courage and stability to hit the medical books and seek out from doctors what was really holding me back. The second best thing was that I had been left a stipend of $100 a month in Papa's will, which in the New York of 1959 was just enough to live on in a meager fashion when combined with what my girlfriend was making from designing and selling costume jewelry.
When I informed Milton Kean that I intended to try living as a writer in the East Village on this sum, he was simply horrified. He belonged to that generation of Jews who had fled this very neighborhood for the suburbs and told me in no uncertain terms that I was doomed to live in squalor and degradation.
Phyllis showed up around this time but was no real helpher main goal was to get the US business sold so she could go back to London. About the most friendly and fraternal thing we did together was closing down Papa's apartment, and it was on this occasion I asked her how Jewish Papa had been. "He was completely one hundred percent Jewish," she confessed as she handed me a few of his shirts and an overcoat. "And you and I are precisely half-Jewish," she added. This was the first time in our long relationship that she had ever departed from the fiction that she and I and Papa had somehow metamorphosed into holy gentiles. The enormity of her admission will make a far greater impact once you have read my adjoining section about Phyllis.
In any case my quest for medical truth was making progress. I had come up with two possible candidates for my condition, something called Diabetes Insipidus (no relationship to the better-known form of Diabetes) and its causative agent, something then known as Hypothalamic Syndrome, causing sleep irregularity and a few other problems. I went to the interns at Bellevue, who at that time were close to my own age, and persuaded them to run the necessary tests. They did so, and of course I turned out to have both conditions.
This discovery was not at all welcomed by Phyllis and my brother in London, but I'll save all of that for my page about Phyllis, which you can now turn to by simply clicking here.
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