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.


Part [1] [2] [3] [4]  [5] [6]


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