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.
Forty years ago today, four students at Kent State University â€” Allison Krause, Jeff Miller, Sandy Scheuer and Â William Schroeder â€” were murdered by agents of the US government. It was maybe the signature event of my generation in terms of demonstrating how far the government would go to stifle dissent. None of the students were armed, and none presented even the Â remotest threat to the National Guardsmen on campus. Yet, no soldier was ever prosecuted for the crime.
A few days after the killings, protesters at my high school in East Meadow, New York, were set upon by right-wing students shouting anti-Semitic slogans. It was no Kent State, but it was an indication that the roots of Kent State were deeply embedded in our soil. When African-American Congressmen are spat upon by tea party members in Washington DC, we are reminded yet again that the poison continues to spread.
In 2007, I wrote a book called “Generation on Fire” in response to Kent State, but primarily as a tribute to the remarkable courage and rebellious spirit that sparked so many of the great changes that came out of the 1960s, Â The last chapter was devoted to the memory of Allison Krause, as told by her boyfriend, Barry Levine, and her mother Doris while I cried into my tape recorder. Here is a pdf of the chapter. Feel free to pass it around. I posted a few more pictures on the book’s Web site here.
It’s been forty years but I’m still very pissed off about Kent State and Richard Fucking Nixon and the cowards who fired those deadly bullets but who still get to drink their beers and sun their big bellies in their backyards while four kids who had been looking forward to long, happy lives, are instead in the ground, their families still devastated
We don’t know who you are, but you do. I hope that every moment of contentment you’ve had since that afternoon has been offset by misery and guilt.Â I wonder whether some time today you’ll pause to think with regret about the lives you destroyed. But I doubt it.Â After all, they shoot students, don’t they?
A few days ago I was watching the most recent GEICOÂ commercial, when I laughed out loud. Itâ€™s the one where the tough-sounding actor asks, â€œDoes switching to GEICO really save on car insurance? Is Ed â€˜Too Tallâ€™ Jones really too tall?â€
I laughed because that really was my former good buddy Ed on the scale.
Itâ€™s not a bad story.
When I was in journalism school, I wrote a long article on Gleasonâ€™s Gym, the last of the cityâ€™s old-time boxing gyms. I hung out there for months and got to know the fighters and trainers for whom it was a second home. Â Even with the haze of cheap cigar smoke that permeated the place, I loved listening to the veteran trainers trade war stories about Benny Leonard and Rocky Marciano or just sitting around shooting the shit with boxers who were as a group the nicest athletes I ever met. All that nastiness dissipated as soon as they stepped outside the ropes.
Even after I graduated, I would take the subway down there to visit the friends I had made. One day in the summer of 1979, I heard derisive talk that six foot, nine-inch Ed â€œToo Tall Jones,â€ a starting defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys who had been the first pick of the 1974 draft, was giving football up for boxing. No one thought he could make it. Boxing was just too tough a sport they said, even compared to pro football.
A couple of days later I was running around the bridle path that circles the Central Park reservoir when I saw a TV truck up ahead, with a camera focused on a very tall African-American man as he was jogging along. He wasnâ€™t going very quickly, so I caught up to him in a second or two and called out, â€œWho are you?â€
â€œEd Jones,â€ he said, peering down at me. â€œTheyâ€™re doing a story on me, he said pointing to the cameras that had the ABC network logo on their side. I trailed behind a while. After a few minutes the camera crew went off and Ed continued on alone, ignoring the stares from the other runners, who, Iâ€™m sure had never seen a jogger that big in their lives and never would again.
I caught up to him again and asked him how his training was going. I mentioned that I had heard talk about him at the gym (but didnâ€™t say that gave him no chance of succeeding). He was curious about Gleasonâ€™s (he trained at the Times Square Gym) and about who was working out there. We talked boxing as we ran. I was surprised at how knowledgeable â€” and friendly â€” he was.
We did a few more laps, and he was done. It turned out he lived around the corner from me on 77th Street, and he invited me up to his place for some Gatorade. I canâ€™t remember what he said about boxing, except that it was always his first love, and he had hired Dave Wolf, a journalist, as a manager (Dave had written a terrific biography of the basketball player Connie Hawkins) and a respected trainer, Murphy Griffith â€” Emileâ€™s uncle â€” to train him. They were two serious guys and wouldnâ€™t have bothered with Ed had he not been as well.
When I got up to leave, Ed said he liked to run in the afternoon, and if I wanted to do, heâ€™d be glad to meet me the next day. Frankly, as a runner Ed was a little slow for me, but, hell, it was Too Tall Jones and he seemed like any newcomer to the city who didnâ€™t know anyone, so I thought, why not.
Over the next weeks, we ran together almost every day. The usual routine was three or four laps around the bridle path (maybe more) and then weâ€™d do sprints on the path outside the reservoir.
Oh, those wind sprints. Â I still hurt from them. We ran between two lampposts that were spaced maybe fifty or sixty yards apart. After each sprint, weâ€™d rest maybe five seconds before we went back the other way. Murphy told Ed he needed to do ten of them. After two, I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
Still, for the first three or four, Iâ€™d easily beat him, and my chest would swell with pride when heâ€™d say something like, â€œYou can really bring it.â€ This was a guy who ran with Bob Hayes. But then with a wink heâ€™d invariably say something like, â€œI think Iâ€™m going to push you on the next one.â€
So on the next one, I was really determined. If he was going to run extra hard, so would I. And, I told myself, I was a pretty fast runner. Even Ed agreed. My trick was to say â€œgo,â€ and then take off to give myself a little chance. Ten yards, I had him. Twenty yards, I was even further ahead, thirty he was toast. But then something would happen. It would be like that smoke thing on â€œLost,â€ because it was the sound that hit, the sound of someone whooshing right be. By the time I hit thirty five yards Ed was done. I never saw anyone so fast in my life. Then heâ€™d laugh, let me beat him a couple of more times before burying me again.
One day, as I headed into Edâ€™s building, there was a kid in a red hooded sweatshirt, literally sitting in the bushes. â€œAre you going up to Edâ€™s apartment?â€ he asked.
â€œYeah,â€ I answered, â€œwho are you?â€
â€œIâ€™m Boom Boom Mancini,â€ he said, shaking my hand. “I also train with Murphy. He said we should all do our roadwork together.â€ So for a while, Ray, who at that time had had just a couple of professional fights as a lightweightj, joined us on our runs. Ray was a real contrast to Ed, and not only in terms of size. He talked a mile a minute, about Youngstown where he came from, his father (who had been an excellent lightweight fighter, also named Boom Boom, but who never got to fight for the championship. Rayâ€™s whole career was dedicated to winning the title his father never achieved), his training, everything. Ed looked upon him with great amusement, but telling me privately that Ray was a terrific non-stop fighter in training, and he was sure that Ray would win the lightweight crown one day.
Ray wasnâ€™t a bad distance runner, but he couldnâ€™t keep up with us on the sprints, and as a result, he didnâ€™t like doing them. He also preferred to run in the morning and over time he joined us less often.
Because Ed and I were neighbors and he was new to the city, weâ€™d occasionally get a bite to eat together. For a couple of reasons, he was especially taken with a place on Columbus called Tickers. One, it had an all-you-can eat Sunday brunch (I can still see the fear on the ownersâ€™ faces when heâ€™d approach the front door). Even more so, though, was the really attractive and normal-sized waitress that Ed wanted to ask out, but was too shy about it (He complained that people were always fixing him up with tall women), so he would just go back repeatedly, leaving her bigger and bigger tips until one day he finally got the courage up to write his phone number on the back of the bill. I have no idea if she ever called him.
Ed was a Southern guy from Tennessee, and the city was a bit of a mystery to him, and it wasnâ€™t just the women. He loved music but it frustrated him that the city had no blues clubs (â€œWhy do people think that because Iâ€™m black that Iâ€™d be a jazz fan?â€), and Â it also pissed him off when people would ask him, “How’s the weather up there?” He was too much of a gentleman ever to take my advice about that, which was to spit down on them and say, “It’s raining.”
I also think he really missed his teammates. Boxing is a pretty lonely sport, and the only times heâ€™d see his friends was when theyâ€™d come out for his fights.Â He was also being ridiculed regularly for what he was trying to â€” unfairly, I thought. Ed trained hard to learn a sport that outside of a few amateur bouts years before he barely had any background in. Nor was he looking for a big payday. In fact, he gave up a lucrative, guaranteed contract to try a sport that could kill him. It was months in the gym before he had his first fight, and while he didnâ€™t lose it, he got hammered pretty hard. But while people laughed at him, he just went back to the gym and worked, determined to make it.
As it turned out, he never lost a fight, but it was also clear that he wasnâ€™t going to win a championship. One day over lunch he confided that he was thinking of quitting. â€œIâ€™ll tell you something I havenâ€™t even told Murph,â€ he said quietly. â€œIn my last year of college I hurt my shoulder, but I knew might be drafted first so I didnâ€™t say anything. Itâ€™s bothered me ever since, and I canâ€™t throw a punch right.â€
It was true. A columnist said when Ed tried to throw an overhand left he looked Â like he was tossing tinsel on a Christmas tree. I think he also missed being part of a team. There just isnâ€™t a lot of companionship in boxing.
A few weeks later he did quit. He re-signed with the Cowboys and moved back to Dallas. The columnists all said, â€œI told you so,â€ but Ed got a bad rap. It took a lot of courage not only to give up the sport he loved but also to stand in the ring against someone who not only wanted to take his head off but was also perfectly capable of doing so. Iâ€™m sure none of the people who ridiculed him never had the guts to try something like that themselves. Years later when Michael Jordan quit the Bulls to try his hand at baseball, I instinctively understood and respected why he was doing it. He was also scorned. People are said to be stupid to leave so much money on the table to pursue something they love, butÂ the fact is, itâ€™s those who toil with no passion at what they do, who are the real victims, especially those who have a choice.
Anyway, at some point after Ed left, I got a call from Ray, would I want to run with him? Sure, I said, except Ray liked to run in the morning, and I worked all kinds of late hours. Still, what the hell, I was training for a marathon and needed the push, so whenever Ray was in town, the phone would ring around six in the morning.
â€œJeff?â€ a gruff voice would ask.
â€œYeah, Ray,â€ Iâ€™d say with the same kind of sleepy rumble, â€œIâ€™ll see you in a few minutes.â€
Weâ€™d meet in the park and run five or six miles around the main loop. While I slept on my feet, Ray would talk, of course, and Iâ€™d listen to his whirlwind conversation, a vocal style that matched his boxing technique.
One day, he brought along his roommate, Randy Stephens, who was as quiet as Ray was chatty. Randy was also out of Youngstown and was boxing as a cruiserweight. I liked Randy a lot, a gentle, sweet guy but also tough in the ring. One morning after we finished, we were standing in front of their apartment building, and I started joking with Randy about my own non-existent boxing style. Ray just shook his head in friendly disgust, but Randy decided to give me a pointer. â€œHold your hands this way,â€ he said, moving my arms so they protected both my head and body. â€œThere, thatâ€™s better. Now, you can defend yourself.â€ He then tapped me on the stomach with the same energy he probably used to flick a piece of lint off shirt, except it caused me to double over in pain while trying to catch my breath. That was the end of my pretend boxing career.
Ray was traveling a lot, so when he was on the road, Randy and I would run together, and then when Ray was back, it would be either the two of us or three of us. By far the most memorable run was before Rayâ€™s big fight with Alexis Arguello. This was Rayâ€™s first title shot. The fight was going to be held in Atlantic City, and Arguello was also training in New York. Ray and Arguello had terrific respect for each other, and neither was interested in engaging in any of the phony hostility that usually was a part of the build-up to big fights. Although they would soon try to destroy each other in the ring, they genuinely liked each other. The point was driven home to me during this one run one morning in the park about a week before their fight. It was already warm, and a thick mist enveloped us as we ran down the West Side drive. Suddenly out of the fog, coming right at us was Arguello on his morning run. Well, I thought, this was going to be interesting.
â€œAlex,â€ Ray shouted toward him. Arguello recognized Ray immediately and stopped in his tracks to reached out for him. For a few seconds they embraced warmly, before Ray said to him, â€œGood luck, my friend.â€
â€œYou too,â€ Arguello said. They meant it.
The next week I was sitting in the front row where I heard one of the most sickening sounds I could ever imagine. It was of a tremendous left hook, thudding against Rayâ€™s face in the thirteenth round. Rayâ€™s knees buckled. Blood flew everywhere, including all over my notebook. A few minutes later, the fight was over, and the two of them embraced, again with obvious fondness for each other.
Ray and I ran together a few times after the Arguello fight, although I remember becoming irritated with him when he made some negative comments about the press that I, as a member of said press, took personally. With Dave guiding him, Ray had played the press perfectly, but if youâ€™re going to put your story out there, you donâ€™t have the right to control it. Ray didnâ€™t quite understand that. He was also a religious person, and I didnâ€™t quite understand his willingness to fight in South Africa. But by then, he was a big celebrity and certainly didnâ€™t have to answer to me, and if I recall correctly his training had shifted to Las Vegas or someplace out West. He did eventually win the title and with Dave guiding him, retired with his earnings in tact. I still enjoyed my runs with Randy and was delighted when he won the cruiserweight championship.
About ten years ago, I was wandering on the Third Street mall in Santa Monica with a friend when Ray came walking toward us. I stopped him to chat and he seemed genuinely happy to reminisce until his wife pulled him away. Before we parted, he said Randy was doing well in retirement. It was good to see Ray again. Those were good days and he didn’t seem to be the worse for wear after all those wars in the ring.
Ed and I spoke a couple of times after he left the city but I never saw him again. Ed had always talked about being an r&b promoter when he retired. I also remember an odd conversation with him, in which he mentioned his fear of going bald. He said he would shave his head if he lost his hair, so I wasnâ€™t surprised that in the GEICO commercial he has a clean pate.
Back in 1980, I wrote a story about him for the newspaper where I was working as a sportswriter. They didnâ€™t want to send a photographer into the city to shoot his picture, so they asked me to do. After they used the print, I asked Ed to sign it. Somewhere among my clutter, I still have the notebook with Rayâ€™s dried DNA on the pages. I did manage to dig out the photo of Ed though.