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 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.
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.
(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€
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.