Who can kill a general in his bed?
Over throw dictators if they’re Red
Sometime in the late 1980s, the editors at The New York Post decided to enhance the literary quality of their Sunday paper. As if that wasn’t odd enough, one of the many mysterious choices they made for the section was to hire me to be a kind of New York version of Studs Terkel â€” Studs Lite, I guess you can say. After a couple of months, the editors came to their senses and got rid of me, but until they showed me the door, I had a terrific time, wandering around with my tape recorder or seeking out by phone people I could tie to an anniversary or current event. Amazingly, there were no restrictions on what I could write, but I guess that when I interviewed a woman about what it was like to have an abortion in the years before Roe v. Wade my fate at the paper was sealed.
A few years before, I had interviewed Tuli Kupferberg for a series of reminiscences I was stitching together for The Bill of Rights Journal. I have to admit, including him was a bitch of a stretch, but I had always loved the Fugs, ever since a friend in high school put one of their albums on his turntable. We just couldn’t believe it: “They put that on a record?” They were a kind of rock version of Mad magazine, totally thumbing their collective noses at everything, and even better, as musicians they were really lousy â€” Â proudly so.
I had a blast talking to him, and soon after I began writing the Post series, I sought an excuse to talk to him. That turned out to be the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock, a pretty flimsy excuse, of course, since the Fugs didn’t play at Woodstock. But, hey, I didn’t give a shit, I was going to visit Tuli again. Come to think of it, I’m sure the interview with Tuli didn’t enhance my stature at the Post either.
No matter. Tuli was a wonderful and warm host. The thing about him though was that underneath all that silliness was the breadth of knowledge of a real historian. His apartment on Sixth Avenue looked like a library, and my guess was he had read most of the books that occupied a high percentage of his floor space. If you read his song lyrics, you’ll see the literary references. The guy knew his stuff.
The scans below of the interview as it appeared in the paper are pretty lousy. I have a tape recording of the interview. I’ll try to post some excerpts in the near future.
After the interview came out, Tuli called to say he liked it, which both pleased and surprised me. We stayed in touch for a while, and over the years he’d occasionally send me something in the mail. Sometimes they’d be little pornographic drawings, just squiggles really of penises and vaginas. I saved some of Â it. He also sent more substantial gifts. I had told him “Kill For Peace was one of my favorite Fugs songs, so he ripped out a page from a song book and sent it to me. The lyrics are well-worth reprinting.
Then there was this booklet of songs:
I especially liked this one:
This was the back cover:
Then there was Tuli’s take on the old IWW Songbook:
Here’s one selection:
Tuesday nothing, Wednesday and Thursday nothing
Friday for a change, a little more nothing
Saturday once more nothing.
R.I.P., Tuli. You did your work, and you did it well.
After my post on the Strunskys, I received several nice emails from Michael Strunsky whose father English was the brother of Emily and Leonore. Here’s what he had to say:
“In about 1918 George Gershwin was a song plugger at Remickâ€™s, a music publishing house on Tin Pan Alley (28th street, I think). Â You remember, the â€œpluggersâ€ were the first line salesmen whose job it was to get vaudeville performers to include a new song in his (her) act, resulting in sheet music sales. Â One night a co-plugger in the next cubicle by the name of Herman Paley invited GG to his familyâ€™s house for dinner. Â At dinner was Hermanâ€™s younger brother Lou Paley, and Louâ€™s very pretty girlfriend, Emily Strunsky. Â The three of them formed a friendship that lasted until Georgeâ€™s death in 1937, and they formed the â€œpartnershipâ€ that finally convinced Georgeâ€™s older brother Ira to wed Emilyâ€™s younger sister, Leonore (Lee) in 1926. Â George played at Emily and Louâ€™s wedding in 1920 and, a few weeks later, accompanied them to a house in Harlem to test a used Steinway piano (they bought it) which today sits in my living room in San Francisco.”
Michael also attached this ad from a socialist paper:
The food is good
The prices moderate
The environment pleasant
Three Steps Down
19 West Eighth Street
“PS: Al Hirschfeld Â used to come by every morning and paint the day’s menu on the wall for which he was paid a free lunch.
I know this doesn’t quite fit the theme of this blog, but I couldn’t resist.
A friend recently sent me a link to a cool blog about old New York. The posts themselves were fascinating enough, but then I saw something in the blog roll that really caught my imagination: a digitized collection of the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle. I clicked the link and saw the search feature and couldn’t resist typing in my own name. This is what came up:
Yup, I apparently descend from an assassin. And, to be honest, there’s something cool about it. Other than my grandfather who fought for the Russians in World War I (and got his ass shot up for it), it’s not like I come from a family of war heroes or cowboys or even Communist labor goons. We weren’t athletes or scholars or spies, although my Dad did once run for office as a way to improve business. He ran for the State Senate in New York as a member of the Liberal Party in 1950. Here’s his flyer, which indicates he was a member of the “Odd Fellows.” I would think that would have been a good enough reason to vote for him, but apparently I was in the minority. Â I think he got about fifty votes.
I don’t know anything about Kisseloff the assassin, except according to the story he wasn’t, I gather, a very competent assassin. That sort of fits in with my family’s history. What motivated him? Was it politics? Was it poverty? Was it my great-great grandmother’s lousy blintzes?
I’d like to think he was a hired hit man for the good guys, or that he was kind to his mother or the shtetl idiot. It doesn’t say Kisseloff’s full name. I’m thinking Levi Harvey Kisseloff or Yonatan Shpilkes Kisseloff. I imagine him riding through the Russian steppes with the theme from the Soviet western, “The Gonnifs , The Bad and the Ugly” playing in the background, an outlaw, but a man who still brought home a good report card.
When I showed the article to my friend Bill, he wrote back, saying, “I always knew you were trouble.” Maybe I was. Maybe I am. After all, Â murder is in my blood. Yup, I’m trouble. Jeff “Trouble” Kisseloff. Chuck Liddell better watch out. I’m thinking of joining the MMA.
Back in the 1980s, when I was writing my book about New York City, I became probably the 1,578th person to fall in love with Emily Strunsky Paley. Emily was around 90 at the time, so there was no question of my violating a few hundred basic rules of journalism or nature, but more than once I thought wistfully, If only I was sixty years older.
Even then, Emily retained much of the beauty and all of the charm that she was famous for in Greenwich Village in the years after World War I. Everybody in the Village loved Emily, almost as much as they did her father Albert, who was known around the Village as Papa Strunsky, one of the most beloved people ever to live on the island of Manhattan. And hereâ€™s the amazing thing to any New Yorker or anyone who ever lived in New York: he was a landlord.
When he died in 1942, the funeral home was packed with former tenants who wept at his death â€” and not with happiness as would normally be the case when a tenant attends his landlordâ€™s funeral.
Albert Â was a socialist, but in a sudden burst of capitalist ambition, he and his brother Hyman made a deal with Columbia University to lease the tenements the college owned on theÂ block below Washington Square Park. But Papa had neither the head nor the heart for making money off others. He filled the tenements with struggling artists and could hardly ever bring himself to collect rent from them. He carried many of them for years. Emily told me that one day she filled in for his secretary. She pulled out the books and saw that hardly anyone was paying rent, so she wrote them letters, â€œvery nice letters,â€ she said, asking them to pay what they owed. When her father found out, she said, he went from door to door, telling his tenants, â€œMy daughter is writing letters. Donâ€™t pay any attention.â€
Emily said that when Albert wasnâ€™t working he liked to go to Ellis Island, and if he saw an immigrant who was alone, heâ€™d invite him home and let him stay there until he was set. He even moved to a basement apartment in one of his buildings after he gave his own flat to one of his tenants. A lot of talented artists owned their careers to him. Sometimes they repaid him by giving him their painting in lieu of rent. He would just pile their work in his basement. Years later, the family found that some of the art was worth a small fortune.
Her father did try to dispossess a few tenants for nonpayment, Emily remembered. In one instance though, he drove the tenant he had just dispossessed to his new apartment. When they got out of the car and inspected the new place, Albert found it wasnâ€™t to his liking, so they got back into the car â€œand my father gave him back his old apartment.â€
When another case landed in court, the judge lectured the tenant that she had an obligation to pay rent. The tenant started to cry, so Albert pulled out a handkerchief, wiped her face and told her, â€œDonâ€™t pay any attention to the judge, heâ€™s heartless.â€
Eventually, he and his brother lost the buildings because they couldnâ€™t cover the lease. But Papa wasnâ€™t the only saint in the family. His wife ran a restaurant on Eighth Street called Three Steps Down. It was run the same way that Papa operated his apartments. People ordered their food and paid what they wanted. Emily remembered one customer who came every day for years and never paid a nickel.
If ever there was a First Family of Manhattan, it was the Strunsky Family. Emilyâ€™s sister Leonore was also gorgeous, but she didnâ€™t have her sisterâ€™s warmth. She did have a cool husband though. In the â€˜20s, the Strunsky family used to have friends over to their home on Eighth Street for parties on Saturday nights. They owned a piano, and often a guest would sit down and play. Because of the Strunsky girls, those parties attracted quite a few eligible bachelors, among them George and Ira Gershwin, and it was Ira who married Leonore.
Emily Paley, painting by George Gershwin
Emily and Leonore had a younger brother named English. English owned a tomato canning plant in New Jersey. One day, he took Ira on a tour of the place. Ira was impressed, except he pronounced it â€œtoe-mah-toe.â€
â€œIra,â€ English told him, â€œif I said it that way, none of the workers would know what I was talking about.â€
Ira replied, â€œYouâ€™re just like Leonore. If I say, â€œee-ther, she says â€œeye-ther.â€
I guess you can figure out the rest of the story.
Ira Gershwin, a friend Mabel, George Gershwin, Emily Paley
The family also had a place on the Jersey shore where their friends were always invited. Aside from the Gershwins, there would be S.N. Behrman, Eugene Oâ€™Neill, Sholem Asch, and Oscar Levant. It was a charmed life, until the day that Emily remembered George telling her that he kept smelling something burning. It turned out to be the first indication that he was suffering from the brain tumor that would soon kill him. Emily still had his piano in her apartment when I would visit. If Iâ€™m not mistaken, it was the piano he used to compose â€œRhapsody in Blue.â€ I liked to tinkle a couple of keys just for the thrill of it.
Strunsky family hotel in Belmar, NJ, 1926; in front: George Gershwin; first row: Marjorie Paley, Morris Strunsky, Elsie Payson, Howard Dietz, Cecilia Hayes, Arthur Caesar, Emily Paley, Phil Charig, Leonore Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, George Backer, Harold Goldman; second row: Cecilia Ager, Mrs. Bela Blau, Mischa Levitski, Henrietta Malkiel Poynter, Jim Englander, Anita Keen; third row: Milton Ager, Lou Paley, Bela Blau, S. N. Behrman, Mrs. Arthur Caesar, English Strunsky, Harold Keyserling, Barney Paley; rear right: Albert "Papa Strunsky."
(Click on photo for larger version)
Emily inherited her fatherâ€™s saintliness. She eventually married a friend of the Gershwinâ€™s, Lou Paley, but she stayed in touch with her many admirers for the rest of her life. John Huston sent her flowers every year on her birthday. Zero Mostel asked her to be the godmother to his children.
When she died in 1990, the family asked me to assemble a memorial booklet of letters that Emilyâ€™s friends had written to her over the years. My favorites were two from George. In one, he wrote, â€œA beautiful day in June could take lessons from you,â€ and in the other, written on July 4, 1940, he said, â€œPatriotic and personal greetings to you who even if I had 963 other sisters-in-law would always be my favorite.â€
Then there was this note from Mostel: â€œDearest Emily, I have nothing to write you in a letter, but my secretary has nothing to do, so I am writing to you. Love, Zero.â€
Emily in her early 80s
The more I got to know Emily the more I came to understand how extrordinary a family the Strunskys were. Her father had two sisters. Rose was a radical journalist who went to Russia to cover the 1905 revolution and had to be bailed out of prison by Teddy Roosevelt. She later wrote one of the most respected biographies of Abraham Lincoln.
Another sister, Anna, was a lover of Jack London and was the only person to collaborate with him on a book (â€œThe Kempton-Wace Lettersâ€). Thatâ€™s when the family was living in San Francisco. They were there when the earthquake hit. Emily remembered their neighbor in a panic, running naked in the street â€” that was Enrico Caruso.
Anna eventually married William English Walling, a leading progressive intellectual. They had a daughter also named Anna. She married a writer many years her senior named Norman Matson. Matson had been John Reedâ€™s (â€œTen Days That Shook the Worldâ€) roommate in the Village. Anna told me a story once about how one day when Norman and John were sharing their cold water flat, they saw an old bathtub sitting on the street. They dragged it home and set it down in their kitchen and eagerly began drawing water for a bath. The problem was they had no hot water. Thatâ€™s when Reed â€” who had one of the great journalistic minds in history â€” had the bright idea of putting a bunch of candles under the tub to heat the water. He didnâ€™t count on the candles scorching his butt when he climbed into the tub.
After Matson died, Anna married the New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger and was as lovely in her 80s as Emily had been, so was her sister Rosamund, a renowned beauty in her day who married an Albanian prince. Another relative was Simeon Strunsky, who wrote charming editorial pieces for the Times. My favorite relative though was Emilyâ€™s cousin Max, an orthopedic surgeon who was also an inventor. Out of sympathy for the working class, he invented a vacuum that both washed and dried floors. Another brother, Morris, in his mid-50s, volunteered for the Merchant Marines during World War II, and managed to survive the legendarily treacherous Murmansk Run, the supply channel to the Soviet Union that went along the Arctic.
Then there was Albertâ€™s mother, who I guess is the point of all this. She was born in 1848 in Babinitz, a small shtetl 400 miles from Moscow. She had ten children. Six survived to adulthood, a pretty good percentage back then. The family immigrated to the United States in 1886.
In the 1930s, although she had never written anything in her life other than letters, she took it upon herself to ease the familyâ€™s financial burden by writing and publishing her autobiography. Anna remembered coming home from school and seeing her grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, â€œwriting in beautiful mysterious Yiddish script on yellow paper.â€
It never was published, but the manuscript was translated by a few family members and passed around among them. Sometime after my book, â€œYou Must Remember This,â€ was published, I thought about writing a biography of the Strunsky family. Emily went into her closet and pulled out the manuscript. As I had been with all the Strunskys, I was completely charmed by these Aleichem-like stories from the old country, when she was a girl and a young woman. I also couldn’t help but think that the pages I was holding were bringing back to life a world that my own ancestors had occupied. Iâ€™ll post more of her stories over time, but here are a few to give you a taste.
Oh, did I not want to post this one. It’s not the content, it’s the fact that this is the last picture in the “Dubin at Work” series. What a pleasure it has been to share Harry and Ron Dubin’s amazing creativity. What a gift they’ve left us with. If you are new to this series of color photos of old New York, click here for the first post and story. Click on the tag to the right for the rest of the pictures. I have two treats to accompany the post. The first is a copy of Harry’s notes that were included with the photos when they were put on exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Click on the page to enlarge it.
This morning, I spoke to Ron Dubin on the phone. To hear Â what he had to say about the series, click here.
So here’s the last one. Think of it as Harry waving goodbye. So long, Harry, we’ll miss you.
My grandfather wasn’t a great guy (in fact, he was a lousy one) but he was a great baseball fan. He often took my mother and aunt to Ebbets Field, and when the great ballpark was torn down he retrieved one of the bricks. It now sits on my bookshelf.
He was also one of those people who liked to score games, and as it turned out, he also liked to save the occasional scorecard. My Aunt lives in Florida, and a few years ago she sent me a package with a bunch of scorecards from the 1940s. I didn’t look too carefully at them before I put them away in a binder for safekeeping. Then a few weeks ago, I thought it would be nice to do a baseball-related post for opening day, so I pulled out those old scorecards.
That’s when I had one of those moments that a collector has once or twice in a lifetime â€” if he’s lucky. As I sorted through the small pile, I noticed that on the cover of one of the 1947 scorecards my grandfather had scribbled “Opening Day.”
Now, if you were a Brooklyn Dodgers fan, or if you just know a few things about baseball history, you know what happened on opening day, 1947. Do you? I’ll stop typing for a moment to let you guess.
Let’s see a show of hands.
That’s right. Opening day 1947 marked the historic day that Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut. It may have been the most important baseball game ever played, and here I was with the scorecard from that game in my hands.
Below are scans from the front and back covers and the inside pages. The scorecard itself is at this moment at Lelands.com, getting ready for auction. There’s a good chance it will cover our moving expenses this summer. My grandfather wasn’t an especially nice person, but from the grave he did me a solid. Knowing him as I did though, I’m sure if he was alive and had realized what I had, he would have grabbed it out of my hands in a second and taken off with it. Fortunately, he’d also be 102 now, so I could probably catch up to his walker and overpower him.
Here are the scans, and as always they’re clickable.
I don’t know what Harry is actually pretending to do in this shot. Is he squeezing Â a very small cantaloupe, or is he just bragging to his assistant, ‘Look, Melvin, I can palm a grapefruit.”
I do know he’s behind the wheel of his own delivery truck, and what a great truck it is. Check out where they put the rearview mirror in those days.
The photo, as always, is clickable.
Do telegrams even exist anymore?
Well, if they do and you need a form, here’s one. I have a bunch of them and use them as note pads. If you click on each side, it’ll make it larger enough to send the images to Kinkos so they can make cool pads out of them for you too.
This does remind me of one of my favorite jokes. A guy gets a job as a messenger for a singing telegram company, and it’s his first day. His boss hands him a message and tells him to deliver it to a woman across town. He gets to her house and knocks on the door.
“Yes?” she asks.
“I have a telegram for you, but it’s a singing telegram.”
“Well, sing it.”
“I better not.”
“Listen young man, if you want to keep your job, you better sing it.”
“Ok, if you insist…..[sings jauntily] Boom, boom, bah, boom, bah, boom, your sister Rose is dead.”
Probably would have been better had I told it in person. Anyway, here are the forms. The back actually makes for interesting reading.
For some reason, side a is a bit cut off on the right. Click on it to see the full image.
Bugsy Siegel didn’t look like a bug. In his day,Â Â a slang word for crazy was “bugs.”Â Bugs Bunny was pretty crazy too, but a different kind of crazy. Crazy Eddie was crazy, but he didn’t kill anyone. He just sold a lot of electronic products so cheaply he went out of business (although that’s pretty crazy). Bugsy Â Siegel’sÂ crowd consisted of a lot of gangsters, guys who killed with impunity and sometimes just for the fun of it. It’s a scary thought that even by their standards Bugsy was off his rocker.
If you go to Las Vegas and have a good time playing the slots, you can thank Bugsy for that. In the 1940s, he built the Flamingo Hotel, the first of the Las Vegas palaces. He did it with mob money though, and those guys demanded a rather high return on their investments. When they didn’t appear to be getting it from Bugsy, they became unhappy. In those days, mobsters expressed their disappointment with someone by putting a bullet in their head. That’s precisely what happened to Bugsy on June 20, 1947 while he was sitting by the picture window of a friend’s living room in Beverly Hills when a bullet shattered the glass, entered his brain and blew out his eye, killing him instantly, Â of course. You can see it all reenacted by Warren Beatty in his bio of Bugsy called, appropriately enough, “Bugsy.”
I have a small connection to this, albeit a very tenuous one. Years later when Francis Coppola made the “The Godfather,” he had a great scene where the Las Vegas boss Mo Green gets shot in the eye. That came from the Siegel assassination. The actor who shot Mo Green was a fellow named Lenny Del Genio. Now, when I was in journalism school and was writing my masters thesis on boxing, I got to know Lenny. He had been a great lightweight fighter and had long since retired by then. Now, he was an entertainer and also had extra parts in movies. At boxing dinners, you could often find him strumming his guitar in the corner and was invariably the nicest guy in the room. He always laughed when I would compliment him on his marksmanship.
A few years later when I was writing “You Must Remember This,” I interviewed Lenny a couple of times to record his memories of growing up in East Harlem in the 1920s. One day while we were sitting in his living room, he told me one of my favorite stories in the book. It was about the big Italian families in his neighborhood and their penchant for the cousins all having the same names because they were either named for a close relative or a saint. Want to hear it? Ok, I’ll let Lenny tell it:
My uncle played the violin, his name was Nick D’Amico, the same as my other uncles. They were all named after grandfather. They were also musicians, and they played at nice hotels like the Plaza. One night, they were driving home with their violin cases in the car and the police stopped them for some infraction. Five of them were in there. The cop asked my uncle for his license.
The cop says, “Nick D’Amico, huh.”
And looked at the other four gentlemen, and he says to one of them, “By the way, what’s your name?”
“What do you do for a livin’?”
“I’m a violinist.”
And he went on to the other man. And the same thing happened. His name was Nick D’Amico and he was a violinist also. Now, the policeman is getting a little bit annoyed. He goes to number three, number four Â â€” all the same answer. When he got to the fifth guy, he says, “If you tell me that your name is Nick D’Amico and that you’re a violinist, you’re all goin’ to jail.”
He did, so he took them all down to the station. When they got there, the cop says, “I want to call your father and get to the bottom of this. “What’s his name?”
It was another Nick D’Amico!
So the cop says, “All of ya get outta here!” They all laughed, and they took out their violins and played for them.
I loved Lenny. While we were chatting, his wife told me that Lenny knew the lyrics to all the Mills Brothers songs. I have a thing for the Mills Brothers, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind playing “Paper Doll” for me. He did so readily. My tapes are now in the hands of the New York Public Library, and sitting in their dusty storage room is a recording of Lenny and me singing “Paper Doll” together. Those few minutes of tape recorded one of the great pleasures of my life. To this day I can never listen to the Mills Brothers without thinking of Lenny and the two of us harmonizing in his home.
Anyway, here’s me in front of the picture window where the Bug got squashed.
At first glance this might seem like a pedestrian entry in the series, but I think it paints a vivid picture of Upper East Side life back then, maybe elsewhere as well. In those days a customer had a very personal relationship with the grocer who knew all his/her customers’ food preferences. My guess is here the woman is placing her order which will be delivered some time that afternoon. It might be the weekly groceries or the food needed for a dinner party that night.Â That was the way it was done for decades up through the 1950s when supermarkets began to make inroads and quickly dominated the business. I’m sure the jacket and bowtie Harry is wearing are his own. The photo below is clickable, and for those new to this amazing series, click on the Harry Dubin tag for the previous photos and the original stories about Harry.