Wednesday, March 31, 2010

First Edition of Jane Austen's "Emma" Sells For $489,747

A first edition of Jane Austen’s classic novel Emma has fetched £325,000 ($489,747) in a private transaction between Jonkers Rare Books of Henley-on-Thames, U.K., and a British collector.

Why the high price? It is the most spectacular presentation copy of the book known to exist.

There are presentation copies (a copy of a book given to someone by the author or publisher) and then there are presentation copies. This copy is a double-whammy jaw-dropper: a presentation and an association copy - a copy owned by someone with a relationship of some nature to the author. Here, the association is about as strong as can be found.

Published in 1816, this copy of Emma - a triple-decker (three volumes) in first edition - was presented to her friend, Anne Sharp, who was the model for Mrs. Weston (the former Miss Taylor) in the novel. It is inscribed "From the author" by the publisher (on fly-leaf of volume one), and with the signature of Anne Sharp (on the fly-leaf of each volume).

The two met when Sharp became governess to Austen's niece Fanny Knight, and remained lifelong intimates. Austen drew on "my dearest Anne's" experiences in creating Mrs. Weston, the governess in this story about the adventures of a young matchmaker blind to her own perfect match.

Christiaan Jonkers said that there had been several clients from around the  world who were considering the book but that he was pleased that it would remain in the U.K.

“The fact that it is the only presentation copy is also really something,” he said. It was bought by Jonkers at Bonhams in 2008 for a then-record of £180,000 ($271,294, including buyer's premium) and had subsequently been exhibited in Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco.

The rare-gigamonster end of the trade appears to be quite healthy.

Thanks to iBookcollector.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

First Auction Exclusively Devoted to British Spy Novels Coming Soon

Journey into Fear (1940). Estimate: $2K-$3K.

On Thursday, April 8, auction house Swann Galleries in New York will offer The Otto Penzler Collection of British Espionage and Thriller Fiction. The sale represents a select portion of the private library of the well-known mystery fiction specialist and proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City who amassed his collection of rare spy and suspense books over 40 years. In that time, Penzler befriended many noted authors including Eric Ambler, Ken Follett, John Gardner and others, who inscribed copies of their works.

“British spy novels are among the greatest of all works in the mystery genre,” Penzler said in the introduction to the auction catalogue. “This is the first auction ever devoted entirely to this important literary genre.”

Casino Royale (1953), "near perfect. "Estimate: $20K-$30K.

The auction offers more than twenty-five of these books, and among the most notable are a first edition of the first Bond book, Casino Royale, in near perfect condition, 1953 ($20,000 to $30,000); a fine copy of Moonraker, inscribed and signed by the author to known Fleming collector Eileen M. Cond, $15,000 to $25,000); and a signed limited edition of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first novel published after the debut of the film series and an immediate bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic, 1963 ($6,000 to $9,000).

Moonraker (1955), inscribed and signed by the author. Estimate: $15K to $25K.

There is also a fascinating archive of correspondence between Fleming, illustrator Richard Chopping—who created many of the best known dust jacket images for the series—and others, containing details about jacket art, payment information and more, 62 letters in total, 1950s-60s ($12,000 to $18,000).
Cause For Alarm (1938), signed and inscribed. Estimate: $5K-$7K.

A run of works by Eric Ambler includes a rare first edition in the scarce dust jacket of Cause for Alarm, signed and inscribed to Penzler ($5,000 to $7,000); a first edition of Journey into Fear, which was made into the popular film noir starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton ($2,000 to $3,000); and signed first American editions of both books.

 Stamboul Train (1932). Estimate: $2K-$3K.

Among notable first editions of Graham Greene works are a bright copy of Stamboul Train ($2,000 to $3,000); and a wartime printing of The Ministry of Fear, written during his Foreign Service appointment in West Africa, 1943 ($1,000 to $1,500).

There are 319 lots being offered, with estimated prices at $100 and up.

The catalog to the sale is available online.

Or, if you prefer to go insane while reading a rare book auction catalogue, by all means view the catalog in its “3D” version. Special viewing glasses are not necessary but you may wish to have a 3D brick at hand to throw at your computer’s screen: It’s simply a Flash-animated version with pages that “turn” with the ease of pulling tape off of paper, a perfect recreation of the facility and convenience of the print catalog reading experience - from Pandora. Where's a Navi when you need one?

Of related interest:

Is the Rare Book World Ready for a Fully-Interactive Catalog on CD? Part 1.

Is the Rare Book World Ready for a Fully-Interactive Catalog on CD? Part 2.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Budget Woes Make Libraries Eat Their Words

A Brief History Of Thyme By Bridget Booher.
(All Images Courtesy of Duke University Edible Book Festival.)

These are tough times for libraries. Media reports every day tell of city, county, and state governments cutting library budgets in the face of massive revenue shortfalls. But the beginning of the month of April brings the worst news yet. Not just in the US but worldwide, libraries around the globe will literally be slicing up their books to raise money. Those who care about their collections must rally before their rarest delicacies are consumed, and lost forever in the bowels of money hungry citizens. Bibliophiles everywhere must either start cooking with gas or risk seeing their favorite tomes swallowed up.

The Tail Of Peter Rabbit By Judy Baily.

As you digest this bitter pill, don't forget one choice tidbit: this Thursday is the anniversary of the date upon which Geoffrey Chaucer's famous tale of two fools, The Nun's Priest's Tale, begins. This chapter of The Canterbury Tales commences: "Syn March bigan thritty dayes and two," which readers took to mean "April 1." Jokers know this fruity date as April Fool's Day, but it's equally kosher to call it International Edible Books Day. And as Sir Francis Bacon (whose very name conjures up a meaty image) once remarked: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and the other few to be chewed and digested." So why not celebrate the first day of the fourth month of the year by nibbling before the tomes burn?

Flan Of Green Gables By Meg Brown.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss-shimi by Meg and Jody Brown.

The International Edible Book Festival is held annually on or about April 1st. Schools, libraries, art galleries, and civic organizations around the globe hold contests and award prizes for the most creative cookery commemorating codices. Many of the competitions are charitable events, with entries auctioned off to the highest bidder. (Perhaps this year these cash cows can be milked to beef up the budgets of starving libraries.) The holiday itself was cooked-up by two women, Judith A. Hoffberg and Beatrice Coron, to publicize and honor the work of book artists. The day's official website,, offers links to parties partaking in the feast worldwide, as well a menu of past repasts, and recipes for whipping up a tasteful celebration. It notes that a smorgasbord of nations from Chile to Greece to Turkey are previous participants.

A Confederacy Of Blintzes By Kurt Cumiskey.

The website also mentions another ingredient that flavors the festivities: April 1 is the birthday of French epicure and gastronome Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, (1755-1826) the father of food writing. His eight volume Physiologie du Gout, ou Meditations de Gastronomie Transcendante; ouvrage theorique, historique et a l'ordre du jour, dedie aux Gastronomes parisiens, par un Professeur, membre de plusieurs societes litteraires et savantes (The Physiology of Taste, or, Meditations of transcendent gastronomy; a theoretical, historical and topical work, dedicated to the gastronomes of Paris by a professor, member of several literary and scholarly societies) was published anonymously in 1825, and has been a staple of foodies ever since. Upper crust Parisians, and the creme de la creme of high society worldwide, gobbled up the tome and made Brillat-Savarin the apple of their eyes. For the last year of the author's life, this work was his bread and butter.

A Tree Grows In Broccoli by Winston Atkins.

International Edible Book Day is a virtual global banquet with the bill of fare, from soup to nuts, on the table for all to enjoy. Numerous organizations have created their own online remembrance of feasts past, complete with mouth-watering photos of cordon bleu entries. Try googling "edible books" to get your fill of the sweetest samples. And if you can stomach it, be sure to partake of the zesty zingers that spice up the bulk of the entries. Yes there are puns aplenty on the menu--20,000 Leeks Under The Sea, anyone? No? You want something fresher? How about The Red Cabbage Of Courage? Or perhaps a classic like Great Eggplantations is more to your taste? Okay, I'll cut this short. Wouldn't want you to bust a gut laughing and risk losing your lunch.

When Horses and Human Keisters Collide

Thirty-thousand years ago, horses began to appear in cave-paintings. Their domestication occurred between 4000-3500 BCE. The Botai culture of modern Khazakstan, land of the superb Cossack horsemen, were early masters of horseback riding. The Blackfoot tribe of Native-Americans of the Plains were noted for their expert horsemanship.

Nations stood or fell upon the back of a horse. The trade in horses was lively, and sharp salesmen could make a killing: “A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!” Such a deal; I imagine the horse-trader in this hustle retired quite comfortably after fleecing Richard the Fool; he would have settled for a hamlet in Herefordshire. Never spill your guts to a horse- or car-salesman.


 By the nineteenth century, owning and riding a horse was as necessary as owning and driving a car is today, essential for personal transportation.

And the number of blockheads then behind the reins was no less than those behind the wheel today. Today’s driving school is yesterday’s equestrian academy. One imagines the frustrations of riding instructors in that era to be as acute as driving instructors now experience, leading to transient ischemic attacks just shy of lethal heart attack or stroke.

You can lead a horseman to water but you can’t make them think. So, cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of the wary: These horseback riders are a menace to themselves and the public.

However, all is not lost (except dignity); help is on the way.

Presenting An Academy for Grown Horsemen; Containing the Completest Instructions for Walking, Trotting, Cantering, Galloping, Stumbling, and Tumbling by “Geofrey Gambado,” with hand-colored copper-plate engravings by Henry Bunbury, along with Annals of Horsemanship, a piquant account of uneasy posteriors on anxious ponies and subsequent accidents. Both books are quite rare.

Never has the human heine had such comic impact with saddles.

But who the heck is Geofrey Gambado, who snaps quips with a buggy whip?

“Gambado is said to have been Francis Grose, compiler of  A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” (Riely, John C.  Horace Walpole and ‘the Second Hogarth’, in Eighteenth Century Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, Autumn, 1975). In addition to his works on antiquities, satiric essays, and volumes on non-standard words and meanings, Francis Grose (1731-1791) wrote Rules for Drawing Caricaturas: with an Essay on Comic Painting (1788).

“Though only an indifferent draughtsman, he mixed with professional and amateur artists, and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1767–8 and at the Royal Academy in the nine years following” (Oxford Online DNB). The frontispiece portrait of “Gambado” in The Academy, unsigned (all other signed Bunbury), bears an uncanny resemblance to Grose: a “stocky, corpulent figure which Grose himself caricatured" (DNB).

 The stipple engraved plates were designed by Henry William Bunbury (1750-1811). "Bunbury owed much during his lifetime to the charm of a genial nature, and to his position as a man of family and education. West flattered him, and Walpole enthusiastically compared him to Hogarth. He was the friend of Goldsmith, Garrick, and Reynolds, and the favourite of the Duke and Duchess of York, to whom in 1787 he was appointed equerry. All this, coupled with the facts that he was seldom, if ever, personal, and wholly abstained from political subjects, greatly aided his popularity with the printsellers and the public of his day, and secured his admission, as an honorary exhibitor, to the walls of the Academy, where between 1780 and 1808 his works frequently appeared… [They] are not without a good deal of grotesque drollery of the rough-and-ready kind in vogue towards the end of the last century¾that is to say, drollery depending in a great measure for its laughable qualities upon absurd contrasts, ludicrous distortions, horseplay, and personal misadventure." (DNB).

 “’The lovers of humor were inconsolable for the loss of Hogarth, but from his ashes a number of sportive geniuses have sprung up, and the works of Bunbury [et al] have entertained us’ (Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, May 1790). Just at this time, one of these ‘sportive geniuses’ was at the height of his popularity. Of the many amateur caricaturists who flourished during the second half of the eighteenth century, Bunbury was undoubtedly the most famous. His talents for depicting humorous incidents of everyday life and manners established him as a master of the burlesque, and his reputation in social caricature rivaled that of Thomas Rowlandson or James Gillray.” (Op cit Riely, p.28).

A “singulier ouvrage” (Brunet).

[BUNBURY, Henry]. Gambado, Geoffrey (pseud.). An Academy for Grown Horsemen; Containing the Completest Instructions for Walking, Trotting, Cantering, Galloping, Stumbling, and Tumbling. Illustrated with Copper Plates, and Adorned with a Portrait of the Author. London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly, 1812.


[BUNBURY, Henry]. Gambado, Geofrey (pseud.). Annals of Horsemanship: Containing Accounts of Accidental Experiments and Experimental Accidents, Both Successful and Unsuccessful: Communicated by Various Correspondents to Geoffrey Gambado, Esq.…Together with Most Instructive Remarks Thereon, and Answers Thereto, by that Accomplished Genius. And Now First Published, by the Editor of the Academy for Grown Horsemen. Illustrated with Cuts by the Most Eminent Artists. London: Printed for John Stockdale, Piccadilly, 1812.

First Collected Edition, originally issued separately in 1785 and 1791 respectively with the engravings in sepia only. Two works in one large quarto volume (12 7/8 x 9 3/4 in; 315 x 250 mm). Hand colored frontispiece, xxviii, 36, eleven hand colored plates; [1 half-title], [printer’s imprint], hand colored frontispiece, xix, [1 blank], 81, [blank], [1 directions to binder], [1 blank, sixteen hand colored plates, pp. With the original title label neatly mounted on blank.

Fourth editions of Gambano’s droll classics on horsemanship featuring Bunbury’s humorous caricatures, issued here as one volume with separate title pages and hand colored plates as called for, the plates in prior editions typically in sepia only.

Cf. Huth 52. Cf. UCBA I,633. CF. Lowndes 860. Cf. Graesse III,22. Cf. Podeschi 90. Cf. Lewine 204. Cf. Allibone, vol I, p.282. Cf. Brunet II, 1474.

Color Plates in Academy…:

Portrait of Gambado
The Mistaken Notion
A Bit of Blood
One Way to Stop Your Horse
How to Ride Genteel and Agreeable Down Hill
How to Lose Your Way
How to Turn Any Horse, Mare, or Gelding
How to Stop Your Horse at Pleasure
How to be Run Away With
How to Pass a Carriage
How to Ride a Horse on Three Legs
How to Ride Up Hyde Park

Color Plates in Annals:

The Apotheosis of Geoffrey Gambado
Mr. Gambado Seeing the World in a Six Mile Tour Famed in History
Dr. Cassock F.R.S. T.P.Q. Inventor of the Noble Puzzle for Tumble Down Horses
The Puzzle for the Dog, The Puzzle for the Horse, The Puzzle for Turk, Frenchman, or, Christian
How to Make the Most of a Horse
How to Make the Least of Him
How to Do Things by Halves
Tricks Upon Travellers
Love and Wind
Me & My Wife and Daughter
How to Make the Mare to Go
How to Prevent the Horse Slipping his Girths
How to Ride Without a Bridle
A Daisy Cutter with his Varieties
The Tumbler, or its Affinities
A Horse with a Nose
How to Travel Upon Two Legs in a Frost

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Biggest Jew In Chicago Part 6

Praying to God was not the only act of submission that Poppy conceded to. He also yielded to a basic, human need.

Abe “Longy” Zwillman (1899-1959) was known as the Al Capone of New Jersey, running the state as his personal fiefdom.

As a youth in Newark’s rough Third Ward, he was a pushcart peddler and, because of his 6’2” frame and attitude, became a protector of fellow Jewish merchants. He began selling lottery tickets, soon afterward assuming control of the Newark’s numbers racket. With the onset of Prohibition, he became New Jersey’s top importer and distributor of bootleg liquor. He later took control of Newark’s prostitution, gambling rackets, and labor unions. With his hands in all the illegal rackets, Zwillman was the most successful of all Jewish gangsters. Meyer Lansky may have been more notorious but he essentially confined his activities to gambling operations. The Zwillman reality trumps the Lansky legend.

With Repeal came straw-man partner/ownerships in many legit businesses, including hotels and restaurants. He had pieces of the casino action in Havana, Miami, Newark, Las Vegas, and New York. Longy Zwillman controlled the cash-cow cigarette vending businesses in cities throughout the U.S. He was movie star Jean Harlow’s lover early in her career. For over twenty years he had most of New Jersey’s politicians in his pocket.

But by 1959, FBI and IRS probes and various and sundry legal tsouris were taking their toll on “der Langer” (“The Tall One,” in Yiddish). Subpoenaed to testify before the McClellan Senate Crime Committee, on the cusp of his appearance he was found hung by an electrical cord in the basement of his home, one hand grasping a section of the noose, dressed to the nines in silk pajamas, bathrobe, socks and leather slippers. Tranquilizers were found in his pocket, and a half empty bottle of liquor nearby. The authorities ruled his death a suicide secondary to temporary insanity but considering that new bruising was found on his body, wire marks on his wrist, and that the manner in which he hung  would have required the skill of a Chinese acrobat to pull off solo, his associates were dubious, at best; Luciano and Lansky considered it a rubout, Vito Genovese ordering the killing to quell his fear that Longy would recite the long and short of his resume.

Longy Zwillman in 1959, just a few months before his "suicide."
(Photo: Life magazine).

Zwillman was Poppy and Joe Davis’ silent partner in Oxford Distribution, taking half of Davis’ 66% ownership; it was Longy who had initially bankrolled the business, through Davis. Rosenstiel knew it, Poppy knew it. Until my father told me a couple of years ago, I didn’t. There are a few in the family who I suspect remain ignorant of this glaring fact.

I am not naive. I know that the line between the legitimate and illegitimate world is sometimes, at best, fuzzy, I know that Poppy was an honorable man; Oxford was a legit business, run straight, though bankrolled by money a darker shade of green. I have also come to understand that his profound need to be his own man with his own business - to feel important, by his standards - led him to partner with, however personally likable Zwillman may have been and long-standing their relationship, one of the most notorious crime lords in the U.S. It is one thing to be friends with mobsters; it is quite another to be a business partner. All of a sudden, the romance of the underworld had lost much of its allure. It was no longer great stories, colorful history, the toughness borne of struggle, the ability to mete out punishment without benefit or care of the justice system. It had always been at my doorstep - a guy living down the block from us in Queens was a major bookie, and the son of the local capo stole one of his mother's bracelets to give my to my sister, whom he had a crush on - now it had entered my home, if only as uneasy history.

I winced.

Yet I cannot pass judgment so easily, if at all. "All of us go thru certain stages of life with mixed feelings," he wrote to me forty-two years ago, when I was seventeen. I suspect the partnership may have risen in a corner of his heart as he was writing that line. It was not a Faustian bargain he had made; God, the soul, and Satan had nothing to do with it. It was a Chicago deal: You did what you needed to do, pragmatic, no B.S., stark reality, and, if not amoral, not too fussy about ideals. There were no virgins in the liquor business; chastity was not 100-proof. And I am not a prig. Nor ignorant: Oxford was not the only liquor wholesaler in the United States with a hidden investor of interest to law enforcement. It was far from unusual: Men of question who were in the liquor business during Prohibition continued in the trade after Repeal, masked from state regulators; it was what they knew.

Not too long ago my father bestowed upon me a blessing that filled me with enormous pride: During a phone call, he told me that I was tougher than him, more like Poppy than he was. I felt my father’s admiration and it wrapped around me as Poppy’s embrace once had. And, alone that night, I nearly cried.

My father spent much of his life trying to measure up to Poppy. Me, too. I pulled time fighting as an amateur, worked as a bouncer, and did some strictly legal though ethically dubious strong-arm work. I also provided occasional enforcement, gratis, for a friend, who, at the time, the mid-1970s, was the largest pot dealer on L.A.’s West Side.

Contrary to the bum’s screams as he ran down the alley at 2AM afterward, I was not trying to kill him. Pancaking and dropping a thief with a swiftly kicked-out car door as he tries to flee with a thousand dollars that do not belong to him, who had stolen a lovingly restored Harley the day before and now demanded a kilo of Humboldt County’s finest sinsemilla for its return leading to a wild chase through the back alleys of Santa Monica with mystery tail cars and paranoia rooted in reality, is not a homicidal act. It is a concerned citizen’s arrest. And a measured response.

The fully-automatic AR-15 assault rifle that Wayne’s brother, Jimmy (whose presence was not of my choosing), owned, he'd left at home lying on the couch. The .45 automatic that he brought along to keep him company during the proceedings was not, on my watch, given opportunity for exercise. In this extreme I was in way over my head but in too deep to back out and I had to see it through. That imbroglio, which could have easily gone a lot - a lot - worse, began to put things into perspective. My career as a shtarker ended.

Once, Poppy, in his sixties, and Dad were in an elevator together, another man, a younger, tough-looking guy riding along with them. When the man exited, Poppy turned to Dad and said, “I can take him, I can still do it.”

Poppy, Jack Dempsey, and liquor business associate Bill Lewis, 1951.

He was, perhaps, thinking of his pal, Dempsey, who, in his late sixties-early seventies, was mugged by two punks on the street outside of his apartment building in New York. When the cops arrived, the kids were on the ground and afraid to rise until the police made sure Dempsey was no longer a threat to their lives.

A few years ago, I got into it with a young jerk who had, in the wee hours, illegally parked where I live, literally at my doorstep. I start, per usual, polite. He balks. I reason. He lips. That's it; I’m ready to start swinging. And then it hits me: I’m in my late 50s. Yeah, I could probably take care of this putz but there's no guarantee; why am I even considering it? And over a parking beef! He doesn’t know my background,  I don’t know his. I backed off, the scene ended without incident, and I felt like a schmuck afterward. Poppy would have taken care of this without flinching.

Six months ago, I was assaulted from behind while in a liquor store paying for a pack of gum. It was a hard, forceful punch to my shoulder and though not painful was a serious statement of intent. I slowly, carefully turned around, on guard, to face a wild-eyed guy who accused me of staring at and “fucking with” him. No such thing occurred. What would Poppy do?

This is what I did: Nothing. One look at the guy and I not only know that I could seriously hurt this person - the way he held his hands up to fight told me that he had no idea what he was doing - but that he was a schizophrenic off his meds. I was dressed up to go somewhere I wanted to get to. I didn’t want to get my clothes messed and I didn’t want to be late. In a quiet voice I firmly told the man he was crazy, advised the store clerk behind plexiglass to call the police, and walked out.

Twenty-five years ago, I would have crawled into a hole and died of shame. This time, I felt great.

In retrospect, I understand that at that moment I had cast off Poppy’s shadow and hung-up the suit of lead. Forty-six years after my Bar Mitzvah, I had become a man.

My father came into his own after Poppy, Joe Davis and Longy Zwillman closed Oxford (an exclusive distributorship was at a major disadvantage by the mid-1950s). He grew into sales, succeeded, and worked for another distributor for a few years before accepting an offer from Poppy's brother, Uncle Bob, who had become a vice-president at - the ironies don’t get richer - Jim Beam, still owned by Uncle Harry Blum. Uncle Bob had ultimately risen higher in the executive suite than Poppy and had certainly earned more money: Uncle Bob and Aunt Belle’s apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago was a cozy stadium with four-bedrooms. And when Uncle Bob retired, Dad stepped into his job. But not before Uncle Harry sold Beam to American Tobacco for seventeen million dollars in 1967. I have no idea what Poppy made of all this but it had to hit him on some level.

Last year, a guy my age who had once worked as a liquor salesman contacted me to find out if I was Ken Gertz's son. He liked, admired and respected him. He had no idea who Poppy was; ancient history. To him, the only great, big, awe-inspiring Gertz was my father. I was very proud.

I was luckier than him. He and I were able to put aside our differences, bond and become close while we were both relatively young men. Dad had to wait until Poppy was quite old before the distance could be bridged and it was a tentative trek.

My bond with my father runs deep; were were raised by the same man. Despite promising himself that he'd never repeat Poppy’s failings as a father, he, with no other role model for guidance, did so anyway; it was in the marrow. 

When I got spanked - which was not often - Dad says I never cried. I suspect the tears were too scared to show up. Though utterly intimidated, I dared talk back to him. It wasn't courage: I was a precocious moron. As I got older, I used language that if Dad had used with Poppy he’d have been the boy who died young due to complications secondary to big mouth. Dad said he was torn between respect for standing up to him and impulses toward filicide.

The first lesson a boy learns about being a man is that he will never, ever measure up to his father. It occurs during the first lesson on pissing while standing up. The boy looks over to his father; all he sees, just above eye level, is his father's penis. He looks down at his own. No comparison, not even close. The impression lasts a lifetime, remaining in the subconscious regardless of the passage of years and physical maturity.

Men learn to resemble their fathers, an unconscious home-school education and metamorphosis. Until my late teens, I was always told that I favored my mother's side of the family. Boys don't like being told that they look like their mother. As far as facial features and coloring go, I still do. But somewhere along the way, my physiognomy and physique became overlaid with my father's facial expressions, body language, gait, gestures, mien, and manner of speech. People who know us both now tell me I look like him. What they mean is that I remind them of him. I couldn't be prouder.

With the death of my grandfather, age, and - let us not discount the obvious - declining testosterone level, Dad's fundamental sweetness surfaced with a high brix rating.

My father dreams about his father. They are at peace. And I am at peace with Poppy, who, having dominated every thought of manhood I’ve ever had, has now receded to place where I can deeply love him without feeling inadequate and accept him with all his faults while remaining in awe of a man, a milieu, and a vintage notion of masculinity, manhood, and male behavior forged in a bygone era. Tempered by time and experience, I am my Poppy and my father but I am most of all, me.

My eyes have welled up. I’m going to cry. I don’t care. This is my memorial to Poppy. And an aching acknowledgment of a man, and an inevitability that looms large on the horizon. This is my giant embrace of both these men. God, I love them.

But I chuckle through tears as I recall the time when Poppy, in retirement, was wheeled out of his building on an ambulance gurney. He turned to Grandma and weakly commanded, “Molly, make sure to take care of ‘em!” To not tip the paramedics would have been a crime against nature. It was the way to make sure that things got done and got done right.

"You can get away with murder in Chicago but you can't get a parking ticket fixed," Poppy used to complain in the old days, referring to the notorious Judge Homer Lyle, who took his (then) job as head traffic court magistrate very personally, pocketing a hefty percentage of all parking and traffic violation fines for the entire city. Being well-connected, knowing the right people no matter who they were, exerting strength and power, and greasing the system with green lube was just the way things worked in the world. At least in the world of the biggest Jew in Chicago, a good and decent man fired in the kiln of "the Bloody 20th" and glazed by Prohibition in the city of big shoulders, who, a few years later, died from exhaustion while trying to take care of the woman who had taken care of him for his entire adult life. Her job finished, she died five days later and, per Jewish law, was buried twenty-fours hours afterward - on his birthday.

Poppy and California real estate magnate, Bill Lyons, 1970.

I have a vision of a time when Dad, Poppy and I are together in the realm of the gone. We order shots of Schenley or Jim Beam, not for consumption, just to make sure they’re in stock. “It’s for selling not for drinking” continues to be the family motto. The booze evaporates in the glasses as we have an eternal conversation. Death has a way of stripping away defenses and masculine posturing. Age differences and relationship hierarchies are rendered meaningless; we speak as close friends who, with nothing to lose, speak freely without fear; the three of us are old Jewish men. After reviewing ongoing bowel and frequent urination issues (some things never end), swashbuckling and swordsmanship in youth, we just talk. And talk. And talk. As always, I never tire of listening to them. They’re my pals. I always said I could listen to them forever. Now I am. (It may get a bit tiresome after the first 50,000 years, at which point we'll declare enough already and begin to mix with the rest of the family, friends, and other post-life alter kockers).

Who was the toughest? Turns out that, under the skin, we each had soft centers. That’s us, three cream puffs in search of crust to keep the custard safe. Don’t mess with us, we’re baked goods, rough n’ ready prune rugellah with cinnamon sugar on top and the only thing we now intimidate are dearly departed Pillsbury Bake-Off losers.

Poppy, however, remains first amongst equals. No contest.

On the occasion of my father's Bar Mitzvah, 1933:
My great-great grandfather Aaron Gershowetz, age 107 (front); 
my father, Kenneth Post OptionsG. Gertz; my grandfather, Edward M. Gertz; 
my great-grandfather, Morris/Maurice Gershowetz/Gertz.
I am proud to be the cub in this pride of lions.

Part [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Friday, March 26, 2010

"King Of Humbug" Takes A Bow At British Library

The Great Showman's Motto Was: "Without Promotion Something Terrible Happens: Nothing!"
Banner Created by Mark Coleman for The National Fairground Archive Exhibit: Humbug! Celebrating 200 Years Of P.T. Barnum.

As journalist H.L Mencken famously said: "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." He could have added; "And no one knew that better than P.T. Barnum." This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Barnum, who became the first show biz millionaire by catering to the flip side of the public's attraction to the beautiful. Barnum knew that in a repressive society like that of the Victorian era, humanity's shamefully unacceptable craving for the eccentric, the strange, the bizarre, and the downright freakish had been starved for far too long. The people's thirst for comeliness had been quenched, but somebody had to satisfy society's hunger for homeliness. A new British exhibit sponsored by The University Of Sheffield's Western Bank Library and National Fairground Archive (NFA) celebrates the showman who won over the world, and even made a fan of Queen Victoria, by letting his freak flag fly.

P.T. Barnum's American Museum, located 1841-1865, at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street in lower Manhattan, combined sensational sideshow attractions with earnest attempts at educational and moral uplift. When a raging fire destroyed the American Museum on July 13, 1865, some citizens lamented its loss while others cheered. Barnum quickly re-opened the American Museum at a different location, but it too burned to the ground in 1868.
(Banner Created by Mark Coleman for The National Fairground Archive.)

The exhibit, Humbug! Celebrating 200 Years of P.T Barnum, showcases original posters, handbills, and memorabilia used by the famed entertainer to promote his shows over 100 years ago. It celebrates the trickster who took America and England by storm with his collection of real and invented freakish attractions. The curator of the exhibit, Professor Vanessa Toulmin, Director of the NFA, is pleased to have the chance to show off many one-of-a-kind items from her collection: "The archive material on display is usually all in boxes behind the scenes, so it's a fantastic opportunity to see around 100 items from the depths of our archive." When asked to explain the magic of Barnum she replies: "He's probably the world's greatest showman. He created what we know today as PR/marketing and showmanship. Everything I've ever thought of, he did it!"

Jumbo the Elephant was born in 1861 in the French Sudan. He was bought by the Paris Zoo, and transferred to the London Zoo in 1865. The gentle giant was much loved for giving rides on his back to children who visited him. Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum in 1882 for $10,000. (When it was learned Barnum planned to transport the elephant to America, 100,000 school children wrote to Queen Victoria in protest.) Jumbo died at a train crossing in St. Thomas, Ontario when he was crushed by a locomotive. Barnum later claimed Jumbo died a hero's death, trying to save a baby elephant from harm.

(Banners Created by Mark Coleman for The National Fairground Archive.)

Chang and Eng Bunker, Barnum's famous Siamese Twins, were joined at the sternum and shared a larger than normal liver. Born in 1811 in Siam (now Thailand) they arrived in the United States in 1829. At age forty-two, Chang and Eng married sisters Addie and Sally Yates, and they fathered twenty-one children. The two died on the same day, three hours apart. The fused liver of the Bunker brothers was preserved and is currently on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia.

Professor Toulmin wanted Humbug! to be a fitting tribute to Barnum, so she commissioned two artists to jazz up and modernize the exhibit by creating original artwork inspired by the master showman's sizzle, pizazz, and razzle-dazzle. Sheffield sculptor Anthony Bennett created a ten foot statue of Barnum for the show, and artist Mark Copeland of the Insect Circus Museum painted ten cloth banners, each ten feet high, commemorating some of Barnum's star attractions and key aspects of his career in show business.

Anthony Bennett's Oversize Sculpture of Barnum, Specially Commissioned by The National Fairground Archive.
(Photo Courtesy Of National Fairground Archive.)

Bennett's sculpture took four months to create, not counting a significant amount of time for research. He was impressed not only with Barnum's theatricality, but also with his anti-slavery views in the Civil War era. He found it both ironic and admirable that Barnum worked to expose the fraudulent psychics and medical charlatans of the time, who took advantage of the poor and uneducated. Bennett explains his half human/half insect take on Barnum this way: "As you will see in the sculpture Barnum has got cricket's legs. It's a reference to Pinocchio. Jiminy Cricket was the moral guardian for Pinocchio and I wanted to put that across with Barnum. I wanted to have fun with the transformation and create something almost in a comic book style. I didn't want to create something really serious, but have fun and entertain as well as inform."

Mark Coleman's (very) idealized take on Barnum's Bathing Beauty. Before exhibiting his "mermaid" in 1842, Barnum created a media frenzy by claiming that: "Dr. Griffin, agent of the Lyceum of Natural History in London" would be visiting New York with a "veritable mermaid taken among the Feejee Islands." ("Dr. Griffin" was Barnum's friend Levi Lyman.) The creature was really the upper torso of a monkey sewn to the lower half of a fish. It was one of Barnum's biggest attractions during his first year in show biz.

(Banners Created by Mark Coleman for The National Fairground Archive.)

Barnum claimed former slave Joice Heth was 161 years old, and had been a nanny to George Washington. Upon her death, Barnum had an autopsy performed to prove her age. When the doctor determined Heth had died at 80, Barnum claimed it was the wrong body, and swore that "the real Joice Heth is on tour."

Painter Mark Copeland's ten canvas banners celebrate such Barnum stalwarts as The FeeJee Mermaid, General Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng The Siamese Twins, Madame Josephine Clofullia The Bearded Lady, and William Henry Johnson AKA Zip AKA What Is It? Copeland has a great affection for the letterpress posters used to advertise Victorian traveling side shows: "I always loved the nonsense that was written on them. The way they're worded, particularly the old ones: you sort of promise more than you deliver in a lot of ways, and that's fine." His banners for Humbug! bear that same bombastic braggadocio.

Josephine Boisdechene had a two-inch beard at age seven. She eventually married a French painter, changed her billing to "Madame Josephine Clofullia," and had two children. A museum customer, William Charr, sued her in 1853 claiming she was actually a man. Barnum, her husband, her father, and various physicians all testified she was biologically female, and the case was dismissed. The publicity made The Bearded Lady more popular than ever. She always appeared in public beautifully dressed in the latest Victorian feminine fashions.
(Archival Material Courtesy Of The National Fairground Archive.)

In addition to the fearlessly flashy art, and the never-before-seen archival material, Humbug! has one more trick up its sleeve to guarantee delivery of the frills, chills, and thrills that the greatest showman on earth deserves. Curator Vanessa Toulmin leads a secret life as a circus showgirl: "My family are O'Connors, and they're from a Travelling tradition. My great-grandmother was from an English show family and she and my great-grandfather set up the O'Connor Fair, which has been running...for 70 years. I've been backwards and forwards to Ireland many times. I have family in Ireland who are Travellers. I've been thrown out of pubs there for being a Traveller."

William Henry Johnson, a microcephalic man given a pointy haircut, was dressed by Barnum in a furry suit to play the role of the missing link between ape and man. His 40 year career rattling the bars of his "cage" and yammering in gibberish was quite lucrative. When uncaged, he lived in a Connecticut mansion that was a gift from Barnum. On his deathbed Johnson turned to Barnum and said: "Well, we fooled 'em for a long time, didn't we?"

(Banners Created By Mark Coleman for The National Fairground Archive.)

The three foot, 4 inch tall General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, was a distant relative of Barnum's. Stratton and Barnum began to work together when the boy was only four years of age. He was given singing, acting, and dancing lessons, and toured America by the time he was five. A year later, in 1844, he appeared before Queen Victoria and played with the three-year-old Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. Tom Thumb married Lavinia Warren, also a midget, in 1863. Barnum's advertisements often depicted the couple with a child although they had no children.

Toulmin debuted an earlier version of the Humbug! at Blackpool's annual celebration of fairground, circuses, sideshows, and freak shows: Showzam! Interviewed at that fun-filled locale, the Professor revealed her saucy side: "When I was a child I wanted to leave the fair and run away to university. Here I'm a showgirl . When I go back to Sheffield I will have to be an academic again. My colleagues think I have a split personality."

A Newspaper Caricature of Barnum Done During His Lifetime.
(Archival Material Courtesy Of National Fairground Archive.)

So step right up to the Western Bank Library between March 5 and May 27, 2010 and behold: Ancient and authentic artifacts of a bygone age! Larger-than-life-size likenesses of the strangest sideshow attractions the world has ever known! The amazing and mysterious half-man half-beast effigy of the showman who charmed the crowned heads of Europe! And for a special limited engagement: (Just returned from the bestial badlands of Blackpool!) The One and Only Venus Vanessa, Scholarly Showgirl of Sheffield!

The Biggest Jew In Chicago Part 5

Older, more relaxed, and with no need to exert authority, Poppy's affection for his grandchildren was enormous. The rind peeled, his sweetness emerged.

My father never tasted it.

Prior to the War, Dad studied at Wharton School of Business at University of Pennsylvania, his thesis covering the liquor industry but his heart wasn’t in it. When the War ended, Dad had ambitions to get into the air cargo business with another officer he’d met in Japan during the occupation. This was an emerging industry with exciting prospects for a young man. When he wrote Grandma of his plans, she shot his air cargo career out of the sky with a surface-to-air missive: “You’ll break your father’s heart.” After hearing that, telling Poppy of his dream was unthinkable, the prospect of confrontation unbearable.

The Oxford sales team, 1949. My father is 3d from right; my grandfather at far right.

He went to work for Poppy at Oxford as a street salesman. In Brooklyn. Tough territory. Poppy was tougher on him than any of his other salesmen, just to prove he wasn’t playing favorites. Dad was forbidden to enter his office but for anybody else at Oxford, secretaries to sales, the door was always open. Poppy was not a hard businessman; at heart a softy, the prospect of firing someone kept him up for nights beforehand.

When I was a kid, Dad would sometimes take me with him on his rounds. It seemed to me that Brooklyn liquor store owners were animals. They didn’t merely have rough edges, they were all rough, edges to the bone. Dad was not a natural salesman like Poppy. It was a square-peg gig for him. Worse, Poppy was a giant in the business, all these guys knew him, his reputation, were in awe, and respected him; they ate out of his hand.

They ate my father’s hand. Though he was 6’ 2”, 220lbs, and oh so far from a milquetoast, he felt like a midget, the weak son, an interloper in the dominion of his father, the king. He was well into his twenties before Poppy acknowledged that he was a man, and this is what earned his blessing: One day, Poppy - a sensitive, situationally volatile person behind the wheel never hesitating to mete out a good dressing down or worse to offending drivers who he felt slighted by - and Dad were in the Caddie in Manhattan when a truck cut them off as they approached a red light.

“Ken, get out of the car, go get him!” he exhorted. An obedient son, my father carried out his commanding officer’s orders. It was one of only a few bonding experiences they shared.

It used to drive my father crazy when Poppy leaned on him for being too tough with me; it was like Poppy had been abducted by aliens and returned a different man.

Poppy, Dad, and I. My Bar Mitzvah, 1964.

In the summer of 1964, on the cusp of thirteen, I visited Weatherford, the small town in Texas where my mother’s family hailed, home of my other grandfather, who died nine years before I was born, beatified, it seemed, by my mother and maternal grandmother after his death, was the polar opposite of Poppy, and, to me, an oppressive angel. He was the sky, Poppy the earth. My mother's brother-in-law, my Uncle Bill, taught me how to drive, each afternoon taking me out on an old rural delivery route outside of town where the only thing I risked crashing into was a cow, an unlikely prospect in the extreme. I was physically ready; tall, I could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel at the same time, and reasonably coordinated for the task. It was a heady experience.

A headier experience was yet to come. Chicago was the next stop on what had become an annual summer tour, and Poppy, upon learning of my new-found skill, decided that next class in the driver’s ed. syllabus would, naturally, be Urban Navigation, a relaxing motor along the tranquil streets, avenues and boulevards of a pedestrian-choked, traffic-packed metropolis.

No dummy, he didn’t tell Grandma of his plan for my higher education; he loved her dearly, why trigger a conniption fit leading to a massive stroke? And so two fools, one old enough to be my grandfather – wait, he was – the other old enough to know better but too young to care, embarked on a Disneyland attraction the Chicago Way, Mister and Master Toad’s Wild Ride Through The Loop – but, of course, without a Disney employee to panic-wrench the stop lever down at first scent of danger.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alas, prevents me from recounting the adventure in detail. Suffice it to say, though I projected an air of insouciant confidence throughout l’affaire insanit√©, I’m quite sure that the grip indents on the steering wheel present at its conclusion were not so at its onset. I do, however, remember the car, a 1957 white Cadillac Coupe de Ville with two-tone gray interior kept in immaculate condition, though not through any manual effort by Poppy.

1957 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

Occupants survived the ordeal intact, as did the car, pedestrians, and surrounding traffic and inanimate objects but it’s my understanding that afterward the poor Caddie exhibited strange tics, increased compression and resting rpm, tremors throughout the Body by Fisher, spasmodic air-intake to the manifolds, and distress in the lower tract, all of unknown origin. Had Poppy’s mechanic been a strict Freudian, I’m sure he would have recognized a classic case of GVAS, Generalized Vehicular Anxiety Syndrome. It’s in the American Automotive Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; you could look it up.

Upon our return home, Poppy exulted to Grandma about our escapade, her characteristic rubbing of lower lip against upper when distressed accelerating into overdrive with each emerging detail. Silent throughout, at tale’s end she turned and walked into their bedroom, returning moments later with object in hand. She shook it in his face.

“Your wallet! You didn’t have your wallet! No driver’s license, no identification, no money, no nothing! What if -"

"- Aw, Molly, you should have seen him. The kid’s a pistol!”

Oh yes, he was my god.

By late adolescence, I realized that if I wanted to be a man in this family I'd have to transform the tall, skinny bookworm with zero physical confidence, who squirmed out of physical confrontations throughout childhood and teens due to cowardice and lived in chronic shame, into some semblance of Gertz. I went from one extreme to the other.

After Oxford Distribution shut-down in the mid-1950s, Poppy again worked for other men as a sales executive. In 1966, Grandma and Poppy moved to Florida, living in a small apartment in a new building on Collins Avenue in Bal Harbour, just north of Miami Beach. Poppy retired.

While still vigorous, he had health issues; he’d suffered a heart attack a few years back and had slowed down. He took long walks on the beach for exercise, and I’d walk along side and listen to him share his experiences. I ate them up, enraptured. But I couldn’t help noticing that the flesh on his torso was atrophying, his legs – always thin in comparison to his upper body, had become pencil-thin.

Grandma, her life with Poppy one of love and admiration and martyrdom punctuated with a liberal dose of tsks and resigned head shaking at his behavior, now had to cope with having him underfoot 24/7/365 as he tried to exert his authority over their domestic life, her turf. He was doomed: Grandma, in her way, was tougher than he was and treated him as an indulged, overgrown son that needed to be watched over and cared for but she had the gift of allowing him to feel that he was the king while she ran the kingdom; she was wife-mommy. His world had dramatically shrunk. He became Keeper of the Carpet, rigorously inspecting the bare feet of all who’d been on the beach before they entered the apartment, making sure the white wall-to-wall wasn’t stained by tar from the sand.


Dear Steve -

We were so pleased to receive your letter altho it reflected the mood that you were in, which is a perfectly natural thing for one to be moody at times - when young one may call them growing pains, you begin to look, take stock of yourself and your outlook on life begins to take on different views.

Before I write another word I want you to know that I am not writing a lecturing letter, for I too am like you. I will not do anything that I don't wish to do. I know that I am a stubborn guy & just can't be false to myself. If I don't care for someone I keep my distance, I speak out as I please when I feel that I am right, altho many times I wish that I kept my big mouth shut...

One should always be a gentleman...

...All of us go thru certain stages of life with mixed feelings & I know that you will have your up & down charts, not because you are my grandson you are a pretty good thinking young man & will find yourself...

Talk about friend problems, as you know I know so many people, however I only had one real close friend in all my life one who I could discuss problems, women, etc.

Your letter so expressed my young feelings, when you say you feel like you're living from the outside in. You are a part of life. Get over it Steve, this whole wide world is yours.

I want you to know that your Poppy is behind you 100%.

By the way, after reading your letter you sure know how to express your thoughts & feelings & you can become a writer (now don't laugh).

Grandma & I are just fine - enjoying life & in a way each other, when she doesn't pester me too much.



I sure write lousy

Only if penmanship trumps content.

Early one morning, from my foldout bed in their living room, I saw something that I never thought would occur. Through their slightly ajar bedroom door, I watched in amazement as Poppy wrapped phylacteries around his forearm and forehead and davened. My God bowed before another in submission.

Tomorrow: Part 6.

Part [1]  [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Biggest Jew In Chicago Part 4

The Depression was not a disaster for the family at all. But though Poppy was working, money was tight. He helped support some in the rest of the family and was assisting with tuition for two of his brothers' college and post-grad education. And maintaining image in his world was important, losing status could be construed as weakness – devastating to his standing amongst his peers and to business and, admittedly, his ego.

1931 Buick 4-door sedan, in red.

In 1931, he bought a top-of-the-line dark green Buick 4-door sedan with wire wheels, white sidewalls, running boards and a chrome trunk rack. The fine clothes had to continue, the generous tips, the handouts to the less fortunate. There were times when Grandma had to ask her mother for a few dollars here, a few dollars there, to help ends meet. Poppy was also borrowing money from the company. On the cusp of Repeal, he owed $6K, a major sum in those days, and he hated having that hang over his head.

Great-Grandpa Abe Degrafsky/Bernstein had retired early as a very successful horse-trader and had become an equally successful day-trader in the stock market, spending his days at a brokerage house watching the ticker. By never buying on margin and selling at the slightest downturn, he survived the Crash of 1929 and thrived, picking up stocks at their nadir when they had no place to go but up. Grandma’s brothers, Leo and Joe Bernstein, were looking for opportunities, Poppy was seeking help. Great-Grandpa Bernstein stepped in with a solution. He loaned Leo and Joe $10K to buy out Poppy’s share in National Brokerage, taking care of his debt and putting an extra $4K in his pocket, a sweet short-term return for Poppy but a major long-term disappointment, a fortune slipping through his fingers.

Prohibition had devastated the distillery business. Most had shut down completely, putting their equipment into storage. But by the early 1930s, the handwriting was on the wall for the Noble Experiment. In Kentucky, a small family business with a great name and established brand recognition decided it was time to prepare for the future but cash-poor, they needed a serious transfusion of capital. What had been National Brokerage Company had now morphed into Philip Blum Co. controlled by Great-Uncle Harry Blum, his father, Phillip, and Great-Uncles Leo and Joe Bernstein, in partnership with two others. They bought the Kentucky family’s business outright from its patriarch for $100,000, leaving the family to practice their art while they provided marketing and sales savvy.

The patriarch’s name was Jim Beam.

And so, while it then rained money in torrents and drenched the Blums and Bernsteins, Poppy was left holding an umbrella.

No longer a partner in a business, he became an employee, working for Isaac Bernheim’s Bernheim Distillery with the established brands, I.W. Harper, Old Charter, and Belmont. Prohibition was over, and in spite – or because - of the Depression, the liquor business boomed. Money was coming in and times were very good. Poppy was Western Sales Manager for Bernheim. All of the country’s wine and spirits distributors were Jewish. Well, not all. Missouri’s notoriously corrupt political boss, Tom Pendergast, owned a whiskey wholesale house that Poppy did business with. Poppy, of course, knew Pendergast, and one his political underlings, a then-hack named Harry Truman.

The children of Maurice and Grace Gertz, c. 1939.
Front row, from left: George, the youngest; Bob.
At rear, from left: Elmer, the runt of the litter,
who would become one of the nation's most
respected 1st Amendment lawyers; Bernice; Sol; Ed.

Grandma and Poppy moved to 5240 Sheridan Road, a major step up. In the mid thirties, Poppy started to go to New York on business, staying at the Park Central Hotel where ball players and fighters parked their carcasses while in town. That's where he met Max Baer, Tony Canzoneri, and most of the other contending and champion fighters of the era.

Max Baer (L) and his pal, Edward M. Gertz, 1935.

He met Baer in the hotel’s elevator. Impressed with Poppy's size and demeanor, Baer initiated a conversation; they became fast friends. In 1940, Poppy took my father to Trafton’s Gym, Chicago's boxing-mecca, to watch Max train for his fight with “Two-Ton” Tony Galento. To Baer and the star fighters he was “Eddie;” to the up and comers, “Mr. Gertz.” After kibitzing with Max et al, Poppy took Dad upstairs to Babe Barron’s betting parlor. Charlie "Babe" Barron was Chicago’s gambling kingpin, his bookie joint action central. Though he was never a problem gambler, Poppy did like to bet on the fights and baseball games, and to a lesser extent, the ponies but, as with his card-playing, he was conservative, never a high-stakes player. Poppy walked into Barron’s, Dad in tow. “Hiya, Eddie!” Barron big hellos. “Hi, Babe,” Poppy returns. Barron turns away, and Poppy leans over to Dad and whispers that Barron was tried and found not guilty for killing a guy in self-defense. My father is goggle-eyed.

On March 20, 1941, Max Baer wrote my father a letter written on the letterhead of the 20th Century Sporting Club, which controlled all boxing in New York and, by extension, the nation. He promised Dad, who he had become close to, a special 21st birthday present.

Dear Ken:
 Your dandy letter here and tickled me pink. I got quite a giggle out of your reference to my having written your Dad requesting that you come here to act as a spar mate for me in my preparatory work for the unraveling of Lou Nova, April 4, Madison Square Garden, N.Y. City.

I let you down the last time I met Nova. Not only you but many others. It was you I worried about, as I know all the boosting you did for me and any wagering you did was from the heart. I am going to give you a birthday present, Nova getting an assist, April 4. I trust it will be a happy crossing of another year in life’s journey. Sitting by the radio you will hear me give you the wishes for the happiness of the day, when I step to the ‘mike’ after tucking Nova away in sweet slumber. Maybe ‘sweet’ is not the word from the Nova viewpoint, but t is perfect from my angle. And yours, I know.

We are in a great spot up here. Cool, crisp, pine laden air that is so invigorating. Peps one up and makes him a glutton for work. It is the spur and oldster like me needs. I am right now in the best physical condition I have ever been in since I bowled over Max Schmeling. I have my [mind] set on putting Nova away, to be followed by (I hope) by a crack at Billy Conn, the winning over bother of them placing me in direct line for my coveted return bout with Joe Louis. Oh! Boy, if it just works out that way. Then my ring days will be complete. The first man to regain the heavyweight championship.

I want to tell you, Ken, that we do not work out on Saturdays. Every other day at 2 PM. Do try to come up some Sunday. YOU ASK ME ARE LADIES ADMITTED. You know me, Ken, they are invited and welcome. Bring along the fair one who has you entranced, this day & age. Will be looking forward to your coming.
Best personal good wishes, Sincerely Max Baer. P.S. What lousy typing Forgive me please pal. - M.”

Baer v. Nova, The Birthday Bout, April 4, 1941.

Max lost to Lou Nova by TKO in the eighth round. Some birthday gifts are best presented in a box rather than a boxing ring.

He was good friends with Joe. E. Lewis, the speakeasy singer who had his throat slashed when his Mob employer became offended when another Mob-owned club offered him a higher paying gig which Lewis had the nuts to accept. Lewis’ biography later became a star-vehicle movie for Sinatra, The Joker Is Wild. His vocal cords mangled and singing career over, Lewis became a popular nightclub comic. A notorious drinker and horse-player, he’d customarily punctuate his comedy routines with a shot of whiskey, exclaiming “Post-Time!” They met one night while the two were at an illegal gambling club. Lewis was, typically, losing at a craps table, Poppy next to him. Disgusted, Poppy grabbed the dice from him, rolled, and won. Lewis bet with Poppy that night, and for the rest of their friendship called him “Gertzie!,” the only person on the planet able to get away with that way too breezily familiar, irreverent moniker.

Things were sweet. Grandma and Poppy went to the Kentucky Derby every year, enjoying the high life.

In 1937, Bernheim sold out to Lewis S. Rosenstiel, who, during Prohibition, had been furiously buying up distilleries with large warehouse inventories holding permits from the federal government. When Repeal arrived, Rosenstiel, under his Schenley Brands umbrella, was poised to assume primacy of the liquor business in the United States, consolidating his position during the 1930s by buying every distillery he hadn’t already bought and making deals to import all the scotch, wine, and cordials he could.

Suffice it to say, gentiles may have been making all the whiskey in Kentucky and Tennessee, but Jews owned it, sold it, and dominated the business.

1938 Buick Roadmaster sedan.

With Bernheim now owned by Rosenstiel, Big Ed – now driving a 1938 Buick Roadmaster sedan that would last through the War - became Rosenstiel’s top man for the West; they had known each other during Prohibition, doing business and socializing together. Decades later, when Poppy was retired and living in Miami Beach, he told me, age 14, in a sudden flash of memory apropos of nothing, about their first meeting as employer-employee. Rosenstiel declared “Ed, you’ll wear the finest suits, stay in the finest hotels, eat the finest food – but I won’t pay for schtupping! Poppy chuckled in the telling and it remains unclear whether Rosenstiel was routinely laying down the law for potential behavior, or whether he was making a point based upon knowledge of my grandfather's habits. Poppy attracted women like static electricity attracts lint but it’s a mystery whether any of them stuck, had the hair on their arms stand up, and felt his current run through them. (But I have my suspicions).

In 1942, Rosenstiel, dissatisfied with his distributor in New York, asked Poppy to move there and establish a wholesale house to exclusively handle Schenley’s goods. An opportunity to become his own man again was thrown in his lap. Irresistible. But Poppy didn’t have the scratch, so Rosenstiel hooked him up with a mutual friend, Joe Davis, a gentleman from Newark who had previously owned the company that imported White Horse scotch and produced a couple of whiskey brands that were popular in the East. Poppy owned 33% of the business; Davis 67% for putting up the money, but management was equally held by contract. Poppy, who yearned to be a macher and have a business of his own, was now in the roses.

And it was roses for my father. Enlisting in the Army, he was now far away from home – and Poppy. World War II couldn’t possibly be tougher than being Ed Gertz’s son.

The author's father, Kenneth G. Gertz, in 1941, age 21.

He was a critical, judgmental and intimidating father. As a young boy, Dad once knocked a window out while playing baseball and spent the rest of the day in abject fear of Poppy’s wrath. Fortunately, when Poppy learned how the window had been broken, it was aces; he lived out his baseball fantasies through my father. But he constantly criticized Dad’s performance on the field. Home was where never was heard an encouraging word and the skies were all cloudy all day. Poppy was fearsome Chief Black Cloud, a figure of awe, respect and terror, though the prospect of punishment was far greater than the actual penalty.

Poppy seemed to be omniscient, the All-Seeing Eye, every citizen of Chicago his minion. Once, while in high school, Dad cut football practice and went to a burlesque show. That night, Poppy asked how football practice went. Dad told him oh, it was tough, a real workout, whew! Poppy gave him the Death Ray, declaring how would you know, you weren’t there! Dad protested but Poppy had him on the grill, demanding to know what he was doing on the corner of Van Buren and State Street. Dad cringed, grew pale, his chest tightened into a knot, his soul withered to a wisp. He stammered out the truth.

Poppy didn’t talk to him for three weeks. It would have been easier to bear a beating, which, fortunately, Poppy never delivered, not once. But an occasional sharp punctuation mark, oh yeah. One night, Uncle Sol’s at the house. He and Poppy get into it, trading punches. Next day, while Poppy’s driving Dad somewhere, my father commented that Uncle Sol was a mean man, he hit you. Poppy's reaction was instantaneous primal instinct. “Don’t you ever say anything against your Uncle Sol!” Whack!

But Dad had his moments of triumph. Getting into a fight one Friday afternoon after school, he came home with a broken hand. Grandma feared for my father’s life. Not to worry. When Poppy came home and learned the circumstances, Dad’s stock went up into the stratosphere. Next day, Poppy schlepped Dad around to his accounts. Swollen with pride, he showed off Dad’s swollen fist to all, declaring “the kid’s a regular Dempsey!” Dad was in seventh heaven. A bit short-lived. The following Monday, Poppy accompanied Dad to school to check out the boy who had been on the other side of Dad’s fist, needing to know that the kid got the worst of it. Fortunately – but not for the kid – his left peeper was blackened, his lower lip split.

Other people would tell Dad that Poppy said good things about him but Dad never heard them to his face. Poppy traveled a lot, often being away for three week stretches. During those interludes, Dad was king of the house with no one on top of him all the time with criticism. He was happy to see Poppy when he returned but after few days was glad to see Poppy leave again.

Cowardice was a mortal sin. One night, there was a big storm. The power went out and Dad started to cry. Poppy yelled at him for being a sissy. Dad was seven years old. At age nine, he went to a summer camp run like a military institution. He was terribly homesick, and he cried in Grandma’s arms when she came to visit – Poppy was, as usual, away on business - begging to be allowed to come home. Grandma told him Poppy would think he had a yellow streak down his back, the worst crime imaginable. Dad sucked it up.

Poppy’s job was embarrassing during Prohibition; Dad would tell his friends that Poppy was a broker rather than in the whiskey business. Poppy tried to be circumspect about the family field of employment. He had to visit Uncle Sol one night at Sol’s job. Which was managing a bottling plant for Capone. Taking him along for the ride, Poppy told Dad that Uncle Sol ran a soda factory. Whoopee for my father, who immediately upon arrival asked for a strawberry pop. Oy. Minions are sent scurrying to find an open grocer and fetch the kid a soda.

Grandma shielded Dad from Poppy. He thought my father had it too easy, was spoiled, as if it was Dad's fault that he wasn't born on Halsted Street. To the outside world, he was a hail fellow well met. At home, different story. He put a high premium on being manly; expressing emotion was not easy for him; it was at best a difficult task. There was a gruffness to him, tough to penetrate; he just couldn’t open up. He wrote expressive letters that were incongruous with his persona and the only evidence of his affection. Eye to eye, his tongue was stone or bristles. Though he yearned to have his daughter, my Aunt Marilyn, sit in his lap to be dandled and have affection returned, it didn’t happen. She was intimidated by him, too. He wanted to be gentle. He didn't know how. There are no photographs of Poppy playing with his children.

Physical affection and emotional warmth
with children would skip a generation:

Poppy and my sister, 1949.


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