While the nation was at war abroad, Roiphe, who was coming of age in 1940s New York City, saw her parents at war in their living room. Roiphe's evocative writing puts readers right in Apartment 8C, where a constant tension plays out between a disappointed and ineffectual mother, a philandering father who uses his wife's money to entertain other women, and a difficult brother. Behind the leisure culture of wealthy Jewish society the mahjongg games, the cocktail parties, the summer houses lurks a brutality that strikes a chord with a daughter who longs to heal the wounds of her troubled family.
Writing with a novelist's sensibility, Roiphe reveals the poignant story of a family that has finally claimed its material wealth in a prosperous America but has yet to claim its spiritual due.
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Later when we would drive in from our country house along Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx or out to visit a friend on Long Island and we'd drive through Queens, after tunnels or bridges, after streets of warehouses and factories smelling of glues and yeast, we'd pass the small two-family attached houses that lined the road before the city would slide into suburb. We'd see the striped awnings on each little brick house, the chairs on the porches where flowerpots vied for space with barbeque grills, the small iron gates, behind which blue and white painted statues of the Virgin watched as the cars going or coming from Manhattan flowed by. From rooftops Santa Claus sometimes waved and near the garage door ceramic spotted deer grazed on closet-sized lawns. My mother would be smoking, ashes falling in her lap, she would be sitting on a cushion so she could see over the driving wheel. She would be wearing her dark glasses to hide the puffiness of her eyes, the circles beneath them. She would drive slowly so she could look at the houses carefully. Cars would honk and pass and some would open their windows and yell at her. "Get a horse," "Woman drivers." Then my mother would sigh, a deep sigh, "If only your father and I lived in one of those houses and we worked together in our candy store, then maybe -- " and she would sigh again. "If only I lived like this," she would say and wave her hand across the Bronx or over Queens. But she didn't. We, my father, my mother, my brother and I, our nurse, Greta, our cook, Emma, our maid, either Bernice or Ingrid, or Bridget, lived in apartment 8C at 1185 ParkAvenue. Blanche Phillips Roth, daughter of the late Isaac Phillips, of the Phillips Van Heusen Shirt company, and her husband, Eugene Frederick Roth, had moved into the building, right after their honeymoon trip. The year was 1931.
In the last days of the nineteenth century the New York Metropolitan map marked the place as Goat Hill. There were a few farms, shrubs, fences, and animals with long tails brushing away the flies in the summer heat. Then as the city pushed at its edges, as the rich and the poor found their appointed places it became the almost falling-off far end of Park Avenue: a broad elegant street, the kind you saw in Paris, in Rome, more sedate of course, more sober, fewer gargoyles, stone angels, wreaths and marble inlays. The almost simplicity of the buildings, their dignified height, their white stone, their red bricks, their portly girths, their well-groomed awnings of dark green and dark wine supported by gleaming brass poles suited the American burgher's need to hide the transparent immaturity of his land.
By the late 1930s a commuter train to the new suburbs in Westchester ran night and day beneath the iron-fenced center islands that were planted with ivy to disguise the access grates. Sometimes the boys waiting for a school bus would run into the middle of the avenue and leap over the iron fence. Lying down on their stomachs, with the cars passing on either side, they would peer down into the ground watching the cinders floating upward, staring at the soot-blackened wooden beams, at the ash-stained walls that plunged way down to the tracks below. They would hear the sound of metal wheels, the rush of sparks, a constant pulse from the trains passing out of or returning to Grand Central Station. A few blocks farther uptown from our building, the railroad tracks appeared in the open air, and every so often a train would rumble out of the ground following the uphill slope till it became an elevated train from which its passengers could stare into the windows of the tenements that lined this part of the never aptly named Park Avenue. Then the sun would light the dusty train windows or rain would splash down on the interlocking chains that held the railroad cars together leaving pools of dirty water around the darkened railroad ties.
Standing on the overpass on 97th Street you could look back at Park Avenue or ahead to the tilting fire escape laced four-story, laundry-flapping, cabbage-smelling buildings that pressed against the stone walls that lifted the tracks into the sky. The overpass was a line drawn in cement. It marked the formal end of Park Avenue and the true beginning of Harlem. The children from Park Avenue knew never to cross that line.
In the 1930s buildings along Park Avenue stood firm no matter what befell their inhabitants. Doormen with white gloves and gold braid on their hats opened the taxi doors. Elevator men with Irish names and shining shoes pushed levers forward or backward and the elevators, made of burnished wooden panels, trimmed in shining brass, rose and fell, rose and fell, like yo-yos on an invisible string. In the large windowless basements with gray stone walls Negro laundresses washed clothes by hand in white enamel tubs and hung the clothes on wooden racks. Behind the tubs rows of long ironing boards sat like so many coffins after a disaster. From eight in the morning till six at night the steam rose from the heavy pressing irons, ten, twenty laundresses at a time bending, standing, the smell of human sweat mingling with soap powders hanging in the wet and heavy air.
German and Irish nannies carefully pushed stately carriages, English prams with shining silver wheels and dark blue wood sides in and out the doors. Babies slept on monogrammed linen sheets and leaned their small heads against lace pillows propped against the gray canvas hoods. There were closets full of Spode and delft, of gold-handled water pitchers and silver platters etched with portraits of nymphs and satyrs gamboling beneath laurel trees. There were draperies on the windows of velvet and damask. There were Chinese screens and tapestries brought back from trips to France and Belgium. There were dark green walls and deep red walls hung with landscapes or still lifes or ringed with silver Aztec designs. There were black and white marble squares across the foyer floor and candelabras with their golden arms extended outward. There were crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There were jade picture frames on the pianos. There were Chippendale desks and art deco bowls. There were Bauhaus chairs, silver lilies around the mirror frames, vases from Tiffany's, glass from Steuben. There were shimmering silk nightgowns trimmed in Swiss lace in the drawers and monogrammed and hand-embroidered tablecloths from Belgium in the cupboards.
1185 Park Avenue took up the entire block of 93rd Street to 94th Street. There were three pairs of Gothic wedding cake gray stone arches at each of the entrances. There were three long thin columns supporting each arch and the arches formed shadowed aisles, an intentional echo of the mighty cathedrals of Europe. The main arch led to a dark cavernous courtyard that was half a city block deep. At the center there was a water-splashing stone fountain encircled by plantings. The sun did not reach down there and the pachysandra and ivy would die, would need to be replaced again and again. Heavy gray cobblestones formed a circular path around six entryways each with its own eighteenth-century sconces and an iron-worked marquee. All of the lobbies were decorated with green and white marble squares, art deco mirrors, and vases filled with fresh flowers resting on skinny black tables with legs shaped like bent lilies. There were geometric shapes on the wallpaper. Chauffeurs drove their cars inside the courtyard to pick up passengers. All deliveries were made through the basement's long corridors with entrances on the side streets. Maids and cooks, window washers, grocery boys, and nannies also used the basement to come and go.
This was one of the few buildings on Park Avenue where Jews in the early thirties could rent and so they did in large numbers. It was also the only building on the street that looked like a mock fortress, a combination cathedral and castle, secure, imposing, a tribute to American engineering. On duty there were always at least two Irish doormen at the front and one at each entryway, their uniforms similar to police uniforms and at their waists they carried billy sticks, and around their necks hung silver whistles. Every elevator had its own white-gloved attendant whose duties included ferrying tenants up and down and maintaining a perfect polish on the mirrors and the decorative brass. After midnight the black iron gates with their sharp points at the top were closed tight and locked across all three arched entrances.
The apartments contained long hallways, dining rooms and dens, built-in bars, sewing rooms and music rooms. In each there were maids and cooks who lived in the narrow divided area behind the kitchen. The servants shared a small bath and from the ceiling in the back of the apartment above each of their beds a bare bulb hung down from a chain. The heating pipes were exposed in those rooms and you had to be careful not to touch them in the dead of winter or else you might get burned.
Farther downtown on Park Avenue the Episcopalian non-Jews lived inside their own buildings. Their children went to their own kindergartens and they had their own hospitals and pediatricians, orthodontists, orthopedists, stockbrokers, funeral homes, and charity balls. They drove up on weekends to their own country clubs. Their city clubs were furnished with shabby overstuffed chairs that had been used for many generations. Their oriental rugs had worn patches from resting under a great aunt's piano or a grandfather's parlor table. Their sons spent an afternoon or so each month marching in the Knickerbocker Greys, pretending to be soldiers while practicing for future roles of leadership. Their daughters rode horses at private stables in Long Island and Connecticut. They had coming-out parties and predance dinners for offspring of those who knew someone who had gone to school with the far-from-admired Franklin or Eleanor Roosevelt. They had a polo club in New Jersey. They had a Junior League with a membership whose names were all listed in The Social Register that did good works for the poor with the funds received from their annual Christmas bazaar. Their summer homes were in East Hampton, Newport, or Bar Harbor Maine. They belonged to the Harvard Club and the Yale Club and their sons went to Groton and Exeter and Andover and St. Paul's. They wore the same clothes as everyone else but not quite. They didn't wear socks with their moccasins. They knew each other instantly on sight.
If society is a pyramid in which the top comes to a point, they were the point. They did not so much cast a shadow over the rest as provide a source of constant anxiety for the others. That is the place where you weren't wanted. That is the restricted hotel on this block. That is the hospital that doesn't allow Jewish doctors to admit patients. That is the school you won't bother to apply to. "Them" was the word spoken with a touch of awe and a spark of anger. Who are "they" really to think they own the world and are so much better than "us"? The big businesses, the big banks, the big fortunes, the big givers to charity, the big owners of boxes at the opera: all of them were "them." They didn't want "us." Who cared. In America who cared. And besides one could imitate them or at least try.
What they had, what they looked like, what they owned from a kind of haircut or color, to a kind of stock, to a kind of nose, to the shade of their eyes, is what everybody else desired. Of course you can't have a decent social pyramid without an equally decent shimmer of envy rising like transparent heat waves from its base.
Although we were on the Harlem end, the falling-off end, of Park Avenue Jews had a few of our own apartment buildings. Just as nice, maybe nicer because we made sure the lobby was redecorated every few years. We occupied nearly the same geographic space, but not exactly. Certainly two Park Avenues side by side coexisted if not with particular grace or kindness or mutuality at least without significant outward disturbance.
Several blocks farther east over on Second Avenue the chimneys of Ruppert Breweries spewed great swirls of smoke into the air. On a day when the wind was blowing off the East River the heavy sour sulfurous smell of malt floated up from the boiling vats inside the fortress-thick factory and drifted over Park Avenue. Then even in summer the maids would rush to close the windows and pull the drapes and the residents would put handkerchiefs over their mouths as they went in and out.
Downtown (you could ride there in a double-decker bus on Fifth Avenue or take the Third Avenue El) at the end of the 1930s in New York there were communists endlessly arguing on campuses and German intellectuals at the New School and socialists with stars in their eyes and a grim set to their lips. There were artists in Greenwich Village drinking and brawling. Edna St. Vincent Millay was burning her candle at both ends. The unions were building apartments for their workers over in the west twenties and union organizers shouted from soapboxes in Bryant Park behind the 42nd Street Library. Uptown there were jazz clubs in Harlem and across the bridge Irish pubs and Italian clubs in Queens. In Yorkville on 85th Street there were weekly bund meetings, swastikas on raised arms right there, in the Jaeger house tavern. There was a Father Divine preaching at 125th Street and on the radio a Father Coughlin blamed the entire litany of social ills on the greed of Jewish bankers.
This was a city that knew how to have a good time: tickertape parades down Wall Street, smoke from the Camel billboard on Times Square, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, bonnets at the Easter parade, tourists at the Empire State Building, bad guys, wannabes on the make at The Stork Club, 21, The Little Club, The El Morocco, drinking the night away watching the Copa girls lift their long legs, greeting the morning with cheesecake at Lindy's.
The city brimmed with mafia and gamblers, enforcers and astrologists all admired by columnists who crawled the clubs at night and told the public who was spotted where. There was no lack of ministers or loansharks. Broadway was lit up like a hopeful whore and she did good business. You could sit at a drugstore counter and sip a chocolate malted. You could meet a date under the clock at the Biltmore. Sardi's was where you went after theater. Damon Runyan told the truth but made up his happy endings. No one had ever heard of a theme park. Hollywood was where you went to sell out.
On our Park Avenue the men wore fedoras and left the house each day with a clean white cotton handkerchief in their breast pocket. The women wore hats with veils and Chanel suits and tight corsets and their silk stockings were held up by garter belts that left raw red marks on the upper thigh. They played mah-jongg on card tables fitted with a green velvet cloth. Their jewelry was gold. Their coats were mink. They lunched at the Plaza, they drank martinis after five o'clock, and on Saturdays they hopped in their cars and played a round of golf at their clubs in Westchester or New Jersey.
Off Park Avenue there were communists not just under the bed but on top of it too. There were Stalinists and Trotskyites who black-balled each other and carried on in the pages of small magazines and big publishing houses. There was Clifford Odets and Martha Graham. A person could have been reading Henry Miller and James Joyce.
At the end of the thirties the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was off fighting for justice in Spain and some people (no one I was related to) would not cross a picket line. But where I lived the uniformed doormen tipped their hats, the governesses wrote letters home, the elevator men drank beer in the basement. Yes, in other places there was a lot of talk about class society and the evils that followed in its wake but the people at 1185 were almost united in the belief that industry was our destiny, that money was the root of all good living, and the absence of money was the pit of despair, the face of the monster everyone feared. Anyway my parents didn't actually know any real communists. Later they did know a pinko or two.
On Park Avenue, a single generation away from the streets of Lvov, Lublin, Odessa, Vilna, Kiev, no one considered whether the children might be better off if the servants were fewer. Most of the men played squash or cards at their clubs. All the women had their hair done, permed, dyed, set in curlers, and dried and combed out twice a week, and a lady came to the house to wax their legs and a traveling salesman came to the door with his suitcase of fine linens imported, who knows how, from war-torn Europe. Eugene and Blanche Roth lived at 1185 Park Avenue in New York City all during the depression when wind and dust drove farmers to leave their homes and migrate to the edge of America and workers sold apples on street corners and banks closed and even the gangsters met with hard times.
But don't forget poor King Midas who couldn't taste the juice of one sweet pear.
Somewhere else in America a Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell child was baiting his safety pin hook with a worm and leaning over a brook. He had a big golden dog by his side and a fishing pole made from a whittled-down branch of a tree. He intended to bring a fish home for dinner.