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Tuesday, July 20, 2010


The book about my parents, perhaps not surprisingly, was somewhat more difficult to write, despite the fact that I had a wonderful array of letters from each of them. As I have already indicated, the Wolffs and the Ornsteins were friends, because the young girls, Ella Nislow and Clara Perlmutter, had worked side by side in a cap-making sweatshop in Lower Manhattan when they were in their teens. My father, Walter, was the eldest of his brothers and sister, and my mother, Charlotte [or Lotte, as she came to be called] was also the eldest of the Ornstein children. In their late teens, they both belonged to Circle One of the Young People's Socialist League of Brooklyn. The Yipsels, as they are known, were the youth branch of the Socialist Party. They would have periodic get togethers that were part serious political talk and part dancing and gossip. Walter went to Boy's High School, from which he was apparently suspended at one point for making political speeches. As you can imagine, my sister and I were put under a good deal of pressure to excel in school. It came as a great delight, therefore, for me to discover that my father, the Great Brain and High School Principal, had graduated with a 65 average.

My mother, whom both my sister and I secretly believed had more brains than our father, was forced to leave high school at the age of sixteen to get secretarial training and find a job, because her father suffered a crippling stroke that placed severe economic burdens on the family. She became a spectacular typist and stenographer who could organize an entire office or turn a department store upside down over the phone if she did not get what she had ordered. Very quickly, she secured a position as secretary to the City Editor of the New York Herald Tribune, one of the major New York evening newspapers [and heir to the Herald in which Karl Marx published rafts of political reporting from his home in London.]

After squeaking out of Boys' High, my father enrolled in City College, which for generations offered poor young men an outstanding free college education [it was not until 1929, much later, that women were admitted to graduate programs, and only in 1951 did it become fully co-educational]. Walter, my uncle Bob, who was one year younger, Sidney Hook, and Ernest Nagel were all students together. Those were storied times, when each tiny faction on the left had its own booth in the student cafeteria. My father would take notes on the lectures he attended, and then repeat as much as he could to his friends in Circle One who could not even afford a free college education.

From the letters of those teenage years, I gradually formed an image of my father as an intense young man with severe hang ups about anything sexual. In the archive are several painful letters from him to his friends in which he writes with the stern disapproval of a Savonarola about the innocent kissing games that "the bunch" engaged in during their gatherings. Even as a young man, he exhibited the self-important pomposity that infuriated me so. But joined to this rather unattractive side of my father's personality was a genuine and quite charming love of the nature and of the Catskills where he spent each summer hiking and camping.

While Walter left New York each summer to hike and camp in the Catskills, Lotte stayed at home, working. They wrote to one another almost every day. Lotte told stories of seeing General Pershing march up Fifth Avenue in triumph after the conclusion of the Great War. Walter wrote lyrical descriptions of the mountains. At the risk of trying the patience of my readers, I am going to reproduce here in toto two letters written on the same day, September 6, 1919, the first from Walter describing a hike in the woods, the second from Lotte describing a meeting of Circle One. Taken together, they capture not only the relationship developing between these two young people [Walter at this point not yet eighteen, Lotte already turned nineteen] but also something of what their world was like.

"Dear Lottie,
I left off in my other letter with a discussion of my prowess as a walker - ha!ha! After leaving the men I attempted to live up to my reputation. The sun was hot, but the woods moist and cool; this alone was sufficient to spur me on.

I pushed up the trail at a great rate - past Brisbane’s (of the Journal) house, up, up, always up! And while rushing headlong on my way - I saw - the prettiest, daintiest, little fawn imaginable.

it was so tiny, so frail, and evidently so unsophisticated, even for an animal with its knowledge of the woods, that I felt like offering to help it. it was not even afraid of me! There it stood, thirty-five feet away, while I twisted and turned to a better position. When I could see its beautiful head, I stiffened; here we stood!
The fawn could not understand or recognize this object which did not move; the wonder of it is that it stayed near the trail while I was coming up, making so much noise; I verily believe the fawn was so young that it did not know ‘man.’
it was a sweet creature, tho' slight, of a dark brown thruout, except for the white patch on the throat underneath the jaw, and a similar patch, similarly colored on the under side of the tail.

Its eyes were dark, and limpid. Its ears delicately wrought as a Chinese vase.
All this I noticed as we stared at each other - Finally, it turned to go, as it did so I whistled - swift as a flash its head was turned toward me; I played with it for a minute or two - and then with a flirt of its tail it bounded away!
It was the second deer I have seen in a wild state - and it made me feel happy all the way up - it was as dainty and beautiful as if it had been cut from a picture; I hope I did not frighten it.

(But, gee, I wish you had been there - it would have given you so much plea¬sure to gaze into those liquid-eyes, and to whistle as it turned to go - all right! wait until next year, I’ll show you)

Well, I arrived - including the time I wasted washing my mouth at two springs, taking off my sweater, and watching the deer (not wasted) it took me one hour and five minutes - and I now, right here, lay claim to the world’s championship for climb¬ing Belle Ayre - one man, I know, went up in 58 minutes - but he never stopped - I wasted at least ten minutes - so Who Is Going To Dispute My Claim! (-- supposed to represent stentorian tones –) I pause for a reply!

The observer on Belle Ayre is a good friend of mine - he was very glad to see me - and so we chatted for a while before I went up the tower.

But I did go finally, and then - oh! Lottie, I wanted you there so much - if for nothing else than to see the astonishment, and the look of pleasure on your face, as you gazed on the most magnificent view of the Katskills.

The day was perfect! The air remarkably clear! Is it surprising that we saw the Berkshire Hills? (Yes, we, you and I: I had intended taking you up Slide, but I can't resist the temptation - and we’ll go up Slide, anyway.)

And do you remember how the view was divided: on the left fields, houses, clearings, roads, railroad tracks - on the right, hills, mountains, woods, and green trees all over?

To the left we saw magnificent hotels, beautiful inns, and cozy little homes. Do you remem¬ber the one I picked out for you - I’ll give it to you if you promise to make me a frequent guest! It was so pretty, there, in the sunshine, its red tile roof shining brightly, and its white sides giving the impression of coolness. And its garden, and lawn were so well kept - is it any wonder you wanted it?

And then - to the front, and right - mountains upon mountains, one growing out of the other, until to the right, towering high above them all, we saw giant Slide!
Lottie, I will never forget the grandeur of that scene - oh! how glad I was that you could be with me - to stand by my side and marvel at what Nature had done. And do you remember, how I explained all those formations? How I pointed out that the action of the wind, and rain, and above all the cutting action of the streams had worn down a gigantic plateau, until today, we have a region of hills and valleys?
Truly, Nature is wonderful - and the most wonderful part of it all was that we should be there; two minute specks in the world of ours - two ‘nothings’ in the universe which contains an infinite number of solar systems vastly greater than ours. The wonder of it all held us then - we could hardly speak, for fear that the spell would be dissolved, and we would once more assume our egoistic attitudes.
Yes, Lottie, such philosophic moments are good; they teach us more than schools and books can. They make us realize our true position; they give us humility, they give us, above all, patience and understanding.

But it grew a little chilly then, and we were forced to leave the tower. Oh! how hungry we were - we did justice to our lunch, did we not? Mr. Persons was kind enough, then, to show us around the place - to explain how he built his cabin, and his garden - both of which represent years of toil.

There was much more to learn from this fine, kindly old man, grown philo¬sophic and patient of the world and its ways because of his long sojourn on the moun¬tain. Eleven summers, from April to November, he has stayed there; apart from the world, and with but few people to whom he can talk, even in Summer months, when hardly a day passes without some visitors.

But the tower was too fascinating, and we were almost compelled to climb it once more. There we sat, our backs against the wire netting which surrounds it, wrapped in warm sweaters, and with a world of beauty before us.

Ah! what a place for conversation, Lottie. Just enough clouds to make the sky beautiful, a gentle breeze no longer chilling, the fields, the woods, the mountains - all about us, and above us - and we two perched there high above everything - is it remarkable that our mind was philosophic - and our discourse of the same nature?
We talked about life - about the earth - and about the universe - and marvelled that such things should be; and that we should sit there and consider them.
We wished that the millions of boys and girls the world over who lived in slums and worked their lives out for a mere pittance could come to the mountains, and could get, if only once, the Weltanschauung (world-outlook) which an experience like this gives one.

We talked about the Movement, the part we would like to play in it, the part we should play in it - and we spent many minutes considering what part a mother should devote to it. We agreed in many matters, and failed to agree in others - but we understood each other better for the discussion.
And then the conversation turned to our friends, their faults, their good points - and what they meant to us - a topic never-ending in its interest, and limitless in its scope.

But it was late then, and we were due at supper - How everyone would be frightened if we failed to appear - and how the tongues would begin to wag. ‘I knew he would hurt her by taking her up Belle Ayre, I knew it!’ Ha!Ha! we fooled them, eh? We had a wonderful time, we were raised on the wings of philosophy and friend¬ship to heights we never dared to climb and those prosaic fools were afraid he would tax her strength! As if he did not know how far he could go, and as if he would dare go farther!

The climb down was uneventful, we went down the Big Indian Trail - walked through the Fort Close Hollow, and, wonder of wonders, got a hitch! We were late for supper, just a bit, but we made up for it, all right! It was a pleasure to watch you eat - you’ll gain ten pounds if you don’t watch out.

A rest will make you feel better, and give back to you that vitality, that snap and vigour which will take you up Slide, which would take you anyplace.
Writing this has been a great pleasure to me - I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
Regards to all, As ever Walt"

"Sept 6, 1919
Dear Walt,
Today I must write to you, even if there were no 'one a day, 2 on Sunday' schedule, as per you. I'm sure you're dying to hear about the meeting.

Well, in the first place, Anne Shevitz was there. They have moved back to the city already. The honorable Louis Troupp was also there, as were, Joe Lapidus, Herb Cohen, Ben Batchkin and the rest of the lesser lights of the Club. Oh yes, Eddie Cohen was there, too.

Anne and Louis veritably fell on each other's necks after not having seen each other for so long. There wasn't much of a program. Nothing was prepared so we had an unprepared discussion on the Socialist movement in Mexico, and the relation of Mexico to the U.S. It was a very spirited affair led by Torgman and carried on mostly by Ked Ziegler, Herb Cohen and Torgman.

By the way, Torgman resigned from the circle last night and made a very touching little farewell speech.

After the meeting we sang songs and there was certainly a lot of pep in the singing due to Anne Shevitz's good playing.

Then we danced! And, oh Walter some dancing! Some strange fellow (strange to me) dropped in, and he played. My, but he could play ragtime! You just had to dance! Even staid Herb Cohen was dancing the shimmy. Think of it. We didn't want to go home. It was 12 before we left. Joe Lapidus walked me to the station. He is dying to learn to dance, so he's coming out to my house next week for a preliminary lesson.

Walt, if you don't stop calling me sick I'll kill you. I'm feeling splendidly, only as I said, I could stand a little more rest.

[Written above: I delivered all your regards. Anne said she hadn't received a letter from you yet.]

After this week tho, I think I'll be able to quiet down a little. My friends and the dressmaker have been leading me a merry chase for the past 2 weeks.
You ought to see the beautiful pink rose I have on me now. I saw it in the florists and couldn't resist buying it. If I thought you were still sentimental I'd press it and send it to you. I'll save it anyway, until, you write and tell me how sentimental you are.

Its funny to watch Louis Troupp and me. We're so very formal to each other, but in a jesting way. You see, when Morris and the gang and I went to Sea Edge Sunday, Morris was with me most of the time (yes, Tess was there, I know) and naturally we spoke a little about Louis Troupp and me.

Like a fool I told him the truth that I really admired Louis for his actions, etc. I suppose he told Louis and he with the usual egotistic masculine mind, put his own construction on it and probably thinks I only said that to hide my real feelings, that my heart was broken, etc. And again, like most men he takes pleasure in breaking a heart. The poor fish - if he only knew.

One thing and a very valuable one he has taught me however. Never to be serious with the boys in the Club. I don't know how I even got that way! Now, things are sailing beautifully I josh around with all of them and let them see I'm joshing. My trouble always was that I was too sincere. henceforth, I'll be very wary who I am sincere with. Some day I'll thank Louis for the lesson he taught me. I could kick myself for having to be taught such an obvious lesson. But, its all right. We all have to learn. No more paper, so, au revoir.

As ever, Lottie"

All my life, I have struggled with two conflicting images of my father -- the young, vigorous, athletic, romantic man, full of energy, eager to take on the world, and the old, overweight heavy smoking alcoholic, disappointed and bitter, seemingly insecure despite his professional success. I can see hints of the older man in the younger, to be sure, but I have never been able to discern in my experience of him, or in the letters and papers with which I spent so many hours, what went wrong. For many years, I was haunted by the fear that I would follow his path. Periodically, I dieted, I exercised, and -- though it might seem oddly incongruous -- I made certain repeatedly to tell my sons that I love them, something my father never once said to me. Now that I am seventy-six, only three years from the age at which my father died, I am confident that whatever other failings I may have, I am not that man whose final years caused me such dismay.

By the time I had finished my immersion in the archive of family papers and letters, I had two books, each roughly 120,000 words long. I made a selection of photographs from the manila envelopes and assembled the entire thing into two desktop published books. Collective Copies in Amherst xeroxed them and put them in ring binders, with a pair of pictures of Barney and Ella as grandparents on the cover of the first and pictures of Lotte and Walter as young adults on the second. Then I bundled them up and sent them off to my sister, my sons, and my cousins.

Barbara was quite interested in both volumes, of course, and my sons made polite comments, but only Cora, of all my cousins, even acknowledged the receipt of the books, and none of them seemed terribly interested in this intimate portrait of their forbears. I knew that there was no chance whatsoever of real publication, so I put the books on a shelf with my other unpublished work, the early book on Deterrence Theory and Game Theory, and more or less forgot about them. The writing had served its purpose. I felt that I had done honor to my grandparents and had come to terms with my feelings about my parents. Perhaps, after another fifty or one hundred years have passed, someone will find it valuable to have a detailed picture of life in early twentieth century New York socialist Jewish circles.

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