My Uncle Harold Nathanson, my father’s older brother by two years, was a doctor, an allergist who started to lose his sight in his early 30s. There is some question as to the cause. His macho brothers claimed that it was related to an old football injury.
In those days, back in the 1930s, Minneapolis was considered a very anti-Semitic town. The local hospitals would not admit patients of Jewish doctors, so professionals like my uncle had to arrange admissions indirectly through Christian colleagues. Such privileges were not available for Jewish physicians until the opening of Mount Sinai Hospital in 1950.
Despite his handicap, Harold still continued to treat patients in his office in the Medical Arts building. In his later years he had no nurse or receptionist yet continued to practice until his eye sight deteriorated to the point of near-blindness.
He refused however, to let the loss of his sight slow him down. A regular listener to radio news and commentary programs, he would meet weekly with people at the Jewish Home for the Aged and lecture to the residents on current events and world politics. He was an avid gardener. In the winter he planted tomato seeds in cigar boxes (what else?) in the basement of his home in South Minneapolis, and transfer the plants to his garden next door in the spring.
Harold spent at least an hour a day tending that garden. Though he could not see the plants themselves, he had rigged up lines of strings down the rows, so he could cultivate his garden as he crawled between these rows on his hands and knees.
Despite his handicap, Harold and his wife Florence would sometimes come out and spend a few weeks during the winter in Los Angeles. My wife, Elayne, and I always looked forward to those visits. Florence was a wonderful woman who lived to be 95. They had two sons, Iric and Jim. I am in contact with Iric who is an author and the family historian. He and his wife Marlene live in Minneapolis. Jim, a couple of years younger, is a professional consultant to the Republican party and lives with his wife Carol in Dayton, Ohio.
How does a loving son objectively profile his father? I don’t have a quick answer, but let me try. If there was ever a “pride and joy” in Ike and Rose Nathanson’s family, my dad, Gilbert, certainly fit that bill.
He was a boy scout, an honor student, an athlete, a law school graduate and he married Myndal Weinstein, a beautiful girl from a nice Jewish family. He fathered three pretty good kids and was a charitable leader and a highly respected member of the Minneapolis community.
I couldn’t ask for a better genetic head-start. He was the finest human being I have ever known. As a role model, I only hope that I have been able to pass down a modicum of my father’s love, compassion and integrity to my own children and grandchildren.
Gilbert Nathanson was born in Minneapolis December 11, 1904, the second son of Ike and Rose Nathanson. As he would repeat many times, he “had a great childhood and a great family. What more can anyone say?”
Like all the Nathansons, Dad attended North High School where he played football at 129 lbs. He went to the University of Minnesota, joined a fraternity, swam for the school and was the University’s tennis champion.
Dad worked summers as a lifeguard at Calhoun Lake, a job he said he got with thanks to pull from his Uncle Louie who was, at the time, director of the Minneapolis Civil Service. A good student, Dad went on to graduate from the U of M Law School Class of 1926.
The following year, Dad met Myndal Weinstein. Actually, he was dating her cousin Pearl Wolpert at the time. As the story goes, both Myndal and Gilbert were having problems with their respective dates at a party one night, and Dad wound up driving the other guy’s girl (my mother-to-be) home. They married on August 26, 1928, and I was born in early August the following year.
Starting salaries for young men fresh out of law school were not enough to support a wife and soon to be baby boy. So, he took a job in the family business and spent the first few years of their marriage as a traveling salesman for his father’s company, Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco.
My father got a career boost, thanks to a couple of uncles, Nate and Henry Nathanson, who were pioneers in the movie business in Canada. Through their Hollywood connections they arranged to have my father take over the Monogram Pictures distributorship in Minneapolis.
It was a lot more lucrative than selling tobacco products, but his territory (Minnesota and The Dakotas) required that he spend most of the week on the road calling on small town movie theatres.
Shortly after the birth of my brother “Butsy” (Gary), four-and-a-half years after my own), Gilbert again, with assistance from his uncles, purchased the Republic Pictures distributorship. This was a step up in the movie business, as Republic had such Western movie stars as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Actually John Wayne got his start playing a cowboy for Republic.
As the years passed, Dad moved into the exhibition end of the movie business, acquiring theatres in Minneapolis and several other cities in Minnesota.
Gil Nathanson, was always very involved in Minneapolis charitable organizations. He was an active member of the Variety Club of the Northwest and instrumental in the establishment, funding and construction of the Variety Club’s renowned Heart Hospital on the University of Minnesota campus.
I was eighteen and a sophomore in college (Minnesota of course) and my brother was thirteen at the time our sister Nancy was born.
Nancy’s arrival was a delightful surprise to us all. She was a beautiful baby, and I was delighted to show her off to my buddies and others who teased me, of course, with question relative to her paternity.
She certainly changed our lives. The whole house smelled like baby powder. In a couple of years my parents were on the nursery school circuit again. They began running with a younger crowd. In time they were attending PTA meetings.
I enjoyed the fringe benefits associated with the company of a series of nurse maids and baby sitters living just down the hall which in itself merits another story. I believe that, with the assistance of one particular Nordic blonde who looked a lot like Grace Kelly, my little brother entered manhood at the ripe young age of fourteen.
Myndal and Gilbert left Minneapolis in 1965. Dad sold his theatres and moved to Palm Springs where he invested in the purchase and took over the management of the Cable TV business in that town which had recently been acquired by the Nathanson and Harris families.
Golfers both, Myndal and Gilbert enjoyed the desert life, bought a beautiful home at one of the local country clubs, where they remained for the balance of their lives. Myndal passed away at 89 and Gilbert lived to be 93. He had a rich fulfilling life. The day before he died he played eighteen holes of golf, three rubbers of bridge and completed the crossword puzzle, as he did every day of the week. He retired to bed after finishing several chapters of a current mystery novel. Sometime during that evening our father, the grandfather of my children, left to join and go dancing again with his beautiful Myndal.
My dad was second in line followed by his brother, Dodo (David). Unfortunately Dodo was ill and physically limited most of the years I knew him. He too may have been the victim of a football accident. They say that Dodo was the brightest of the Nathanson men, and despite his affirmaties, he ran Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco Company even when he was invalided and housebound. My brother Butsy was his stock broker and claims that Dodo was the wisest investor he has ever known.
Dodo was always kind and generous to me, during those years when I worked for him at Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco. Only once was his patience with me tested. I remember the incident very well. (This particular story was lifted from “Tobacco Tales”, an earlier Blog.)
Some of the smaller stores I called on paid me for the merchandise by check or cash upon delivery. Others, the larger accounts, were billed by the office which extended them credit on 30 day terms. From time to time however, a customer might fall behind as much as sixty days. In those cases I was asked to request payment for the delinquent balance in full upon their next delivery.
I was in college at that time and had taken a number of courses in Economics, and Money and Banking. I was well aware that, though they had to extend credit to these special accounts, wholesalers such as Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco worked on very small profit margins and really couldn’t afford to carry substantial receivables. Cash flow in the wholesale business is very critical.
All the big accounts were serviced at that time by my Uncle Milton Nathanson, Dodo’s brother. These were the chains, some with as many as a half dozen local stores. They were the bread and butter of the business. One day I happened to be going through the receivables when I came across the Snyders Drug account. Snyders, at the time, had 8 stores in the twin cities and suburbs. I was shocked to see that we had been carrying $100,000 of Snyders’ receivables on our books. That is like a million in today’s dollars.
I don’t know what prompted me to send a letter demanding payment to Snyders. I remember however, that after a few days, having received no response, I called their bookkeeper, who said he would turn the matter over to his boss, Shirley Snyder. First name aside, Shirley Snyder was a man who, like Uncle Milton, had a well-known reputation with the ladies. After having received no response I called the bookkeeper again.
This time I got a response but not from Shirley Snyder or his bookkeeper. This time I got a call from my Uncle Dodo Nathanson who had been home sick for the past month and another from Milton Nathanson who had been vacationing in Hawaii.
“Geoffrey… What are you doing?” asked my Uncle Dodo, obviously very upset. “Threatening our biggest account? Are you aware that Crabtree and Phillips would kill to get Snyder’s business away from us?”
Milton’s call from Hawaii was gentler. “Geoffrey,” Milton said in his deep super salesman’s voice, “I want you to go down to Juster Brothers and pick up a sport coat I ordered and personally bring it over to Shirley Snyder with my apologies. I spoke with Shirley and explained things. He understands. We are very good friends and I’m sure the matter will be forgotten.”
Dodo later explained that the big receivables balances they carry for an important client like Snyders was a form of insurance, so the customer wouldn’t take his business elsewhere. I was to discover later that there were several other important accounts that enjoyed a similar courtesy. My Economics professors at Minnesota never showed me where the line item “good will” appears on a financial statement.
Dodo and his wife Ruth had a daughter, Joan (“Sookie”), who was quite nice and very beautiful.
Dodo left a substantial estate when he died in his mid-60s. By then however, I was living in Los Angeles, and apart from periodic visits to Minneapolis, I saw very little of this remarkable man in his later years.
Milton Nathanson was next in line and surely the most colorful member of my dad’s colorful family… and certainly its best salesman. An athlete like his brothers, he was best known however for his exploits with the ladies. His wardrobe was legend. I don’t think he ever bought a suit “off the rack” as they say. His clothes were tailor-made by Juster Brothers, Minneapolis’s premier men’s store. His shirts, his shoes, everything was custom made. During his time Milton was the best dressed and one of the most eligible bachelors in the Twin Cities.
As luck would have it my uncle Milt and I were just about the same size. Considering that he seldom wore a suit or sport coat for more than six months, I enjoyed the best collection of hand-me-downs on the University of Minnesota campus.
One of the girls who Milt dated was a beautiful blonde named Duffy whose parents had a house on Cedar Lake. Duffy and her girlfriends were the talk of the neighborhood because they sunbathed topless on Duffy’s dock. This was long before women or girls did those things.
However, Duffy never made it off that dock to the altar with Milton. He married an attractive Jewish girl named Pat ‘Somebody’, and they had a daughter named Sami Myra.
Milton was never cut out for traditional marriage however, so Pat divorced him. She and Sami moved to San Antonio Texas, where she met and married a nice man named Sylvan Nordhous. I spent time with them when I was in the Air Force and stationed in Laredo. Sami was in college and very beautiful. She also had some beautiful girlfriends, so I enjoyed many weekends in San Antonio.
Milton’s romance with Carol Bruce makes great story material. Carol was a movie actress and night club singer who starred in several Broadway musicals. She met Milton at the Radisson Hotel in Minneapolis where she was appearing on one of her night club tours. As the story goes, Milt was star-struck and sat, so they say, at the same table for a week never missing a performance. Carol, whose real name was Shirley Levy, was a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx. Milton proposed at the end of that week, and they were married not long after in our living room on Benton Blvd. Milton joined Carol in New York at the end of her tour and they took an apartment on Washington Square. He never returned to Minneapolis except for funerals and/or short visits to see Rosie.
Someone invented an electric oven-slash-broiler for domestic use and brought in Milton to market the product wherever small appliances were sold. Milton introduced the “Broil Quick” as it was called through every small appliance store in America. Elayne and I received three as wedding gifts.
Carol got pregnant a couple of years into their marriage and gave up the movies and night club tours. They named their daughter Julie after the part Carol played on Broadway in the musical “Show Boat”. Milton continued to travel, often visiting clients in Los Angeles. I don’t know how he did it, but he always stayed in the same suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel and always enjoyed the same cabana at the pool. He ate dinner every night he was in town at La Rue, which at the time was considered the finest restaurant in Los Angeles. To my knowledge he never dined alone at La Rue, and there were always one or two beautiful women at his Beverly Hills cabana.
For a while he was seeing Zsa Zsa Gabor and later several other actresses during his visits to Los Angeles. It was just a matter of time before he and Carol reached an understanding. He took an apartment on Wilshire Blvd with a beautiful French girl named Solange.
He started another rotisserie company because, though he had literally built Broil Quick from nothing, he was never given more than a small ownership participation. He found a new financial partner and in no time his new company and its Roto Broiler eclipsed Broil Quick’s sales and became the dominant player in the field.
Roto Broil was ultimately sold to a major appliance company. Milton was now in a position to explore other opportunities, one of which was an investment in several discount house concessions in the Los Angeles area with a chain called White Front. White front was one of the country’s first discount houses. To compete with the department stores they offered Concessions to individual entrepreneurs who would own and operate such departments as furniture, clothing, watches, carpets, jewelry etc. These concessionaires actually rented the space from the store owner in exchange for a small share of a concessioners’ revenue.
Milton invited my father to come in as a partner with him in the operation, this time involving several concessions at a new discount house called Kay’s. I was between jobs at the time and so was my brother Butsy, so he hired us to work at Kay’s. Our experience at Kay’s Discount House at 51st and Broadway in Los Angeles is a story in itself, which was the subject of Geoff Nate’s Blog 6.
Unfortunately Kay’s and some of Milton’s other business ventures ran into financial difficulties. Nevertheless, he still enjoyed his lavish lifestyle, commuting back and forth between his apartment in New York and The Beverly Hills Hotel. I can’t recall whether he and Carol ever divorced.
Meanwhile Milton’s high roller lifestyle and diminishing health were taking a toll on my uncle. Fifty years of smoking Chesterfield cigarettes earned Milton a severe case of emphysema, which slowed him down considerably. This cut deeply into his ability to travel and with that his earning potential. Fortunately, my father and Jerry Gruenberg were available to help him out in those last few difficult years.
The last time I saw Milton was one evening when he was living alone in a small apartment in New York. At his request, Elayne and I picked up some take out from a local Chinese restaurant. Sadly he had aged considerably since our last visit. He was on oxygen that night but insisted that it was only a “temporary thing”. My infamous Uncle Milt died a few months later at the age of 71. The “legend” was dead… long live the legend.
Several years after Milton’s death Carol Bruce’s long dormant career had a rebirth of sorts. She scored a supporting role in a popular TV network sitcom as the radio station owner in “WKRP Cincinnati”, which ran on CBS for 4 or 5 seasons.
Don’t miss Carol Bruce singing to our troops overseas, circa 1945 in our “Etc. Etc. Etc.” segment.
Milton Nathanson was a tough act to follow, but his brother Joseph didn’t bother. Joe was certainly the most laid back member of that family, a claim which no one disputed. He always did his own thing. My dad used to say he was a natural athlete. Like his older brothers Joe played some football, and according to Dad was the best tennis and ping pong player in the family. He also took up golf a little later and became a low handicapper.
As the story goes, the world champion ping pong player, a man named Coleman Clark, stopped over in Minneapolis during one of his tours. He challenged any and all comers to a 2 out of 3 game match, during which he would remain seated in a chair. He offered $100, a lot of money in those days, to anyone who could win one game and $200 if the challenger could win the match. As the story goes, Joe beat him in the first game, and the champion conceded the second and left town.
But as many a loser will tell you Joe’s best sport was Gin Rummy. All of his brothers played Gin Rummy, but he was a “grand master” if there is such a thing in that game. He owned the Jack and Jill shops, a small chain of children’s stores in Minneapolis, the first of their kind in that part of the country. People used to say that Jack and Jill was Joe’s hobby, whereas Gin Rummy was his career.
I worked at the Jack and Jill stores during the Christmas holidays as a stock boy for a dollar an hour. My job was to unpack, label and fold children’s clothing. I was also asked to take each day’s deposits over to the First Produce State Bank.
Coincidentally, I had only recently opened my own little “Dime-a-Time” account at that bank. I was fourteen and very proud of the fact that I had my own checking account, though I seldom wrote a check. And besides, it would have cost me ten cents. Nevertheless I was proud, and probably the only kid in the neighborhood with his own checkbook, though I must admit that my balance seldom exceeded low three figures.
As they do today, banks sent out statements at the end of each month showing account activity. Sometime shortly after the winter break, my first holiday season at Jack and Jill, I received my bank statement for the month of December. I was amazed and delighted to see that my account balance had jumped from two figures to four. In fact the bottom line was over $2,000.
Someone had screwed up. I didn’t know what to do. I suffered for at least 24 hours as my conscience wavered back and forth. Should I or shouldn’t I say something to the bank? My decision was to do nothing at least until the next statement came out. Maybe it would correct itself. If nothing happened I was rich. It wasn’t my fault. It was the bank’s screw-up. It was their problem.
Several days later I got a call from my usually laid back Uncle Joe. “How have you been Geoffrey? School OK? Everybody appreciated your help over the holidays; in fact, one of the salesgirls has a crush on you.”
“Really?” I replied, “Which one?”
“Doris,” replied Joe, “the one with the big bosom… Geoffrey, by the way… on another matter; you have an account over at the Produce State Bank don’t you?”
Without waiting for my response he asked “Have you received your statement from the bank this month?”
“Oh my God,” I thought to myself, “It’s HIS money.”
“No, I haven’t.” I lied.
“Well when it comes in, give me a call. I’m having a problem with the bank.”
“OK” I responded, and two hours later called him back.
“That figures.” said Joe, “Someone there must have screwed up and credited my $1800 deposit into your account. I’ll give them a call; you may have to sign some papers.
“Sure thing” I replied. “Sorry about the mix-up. I guess someone confused the name Jeff Nathanson for Joe Nathanson.”
“Forget about it” said Joe. “These things happen.”
As I look back on that incident today, it wasn’t the store’s receipts that had been misdirected, because the store’s deposit always went into the Jack and Jill account. I have a hunch that one or more of Joes’ Gin Rummy buddies contributed those 1800 bucks.
Not to be outdone by his brother Milton, Joe had three wives. The first, Polly Weiskof was a nice Jewish girl from a nice Jewish family. In fact all of Joe’s wives were nice Jewish girls. Polly had spunk, however. When Joe was drafted into the army during World War II, she followed him to basic training, just like Paulette Goddard in “I love a Soldier”, where she demanded that, having taken away her “meal ticket”, they had to take “care of her too”. She threatened to camp out on that base. Fortunately for the army, they discovered Joe had hay fever and sent he and Polly home with a medical discharge.
Joe and Polly had one son, Paul Jay. After they split she married another man named Kronick and Paul Jay took his last name.
Joe married another local woman, Maxine Segal, who was later a major player in the Minneapolis community and a leader in the field of public education. She was instrumental in the establishment of the first community college in the Twin Cities. Maxine, who passed away recently, was also a former member of the Minneapolis Technical College Board of Directors.
Maxine and Joe produced three sons; one: Bob, who I remember as an entrepreneur, another, Dick, was a naval officer, now retired, and the eldest, Bruce, is today in the real estate business in Florida.
Joe and Maxine had few interests in common. They divorced and Joe married a very nice widow, Betty Rappaport, from a prominent Minneapolis family. Betty loved, understood and appreciated my uncle until he died during a botched heart surgery in his late sixties.
‘Paulie’, as he was called by his family, was Rose and Ike’s youngest and his mother’s pet. Pampered as a kid, he was a chunky little boy because Rose fed him anything he wanted at any time he asked for it.
“What did you bring me Mama?” Paulie used to ask when his mother returned home from shopping.
“A loch from a bagel” she would reply.
“Really? Can I have it now Mama?”
“Certainly; help yourself.”
“Where is it Mama?” Paul asked.
“Everywhere darling. Loch means hole in Yiddish Dear. What’s in a hole?”
“Nothing!” he replied. “You tease me mama. You didn’t bring me anything.”
“Love, darling… I always bring you love.”
“That’s not fair Mama.”
Very seldom did Rose come back from shopping without a sweet for her little boy who grew to weigh 200 lbs when he was a star tackle playing football at North High School. Like his brothers, he entered the University of Minnesota where he played on the freshman football team, which makes for another Nathanson family story.
Legend has it that the incident took place early in Paulie’s first and last football game at Minnesota. As the tale goes, Paulie had spent all of the first half of the game on the bench. His brother Milton happened to be in the stands during that game. Sensing his kid brother’s frustration, Milton went down to the field and asked Paulie why he wasn’t playing.
“Coach Bierman hasn’t put me in,” said Paulie.
“Well he must have overlooked you. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional; you are the best defensive player on the team. You better put yourself in the game. That right tackle out there looks like he needs a rest anyway.”
“Ok Milton,” replied Paulie as he trotted out onto the field waving at the tackle his brother had selected for replacement. Unaware of Paulie’s assertive move, the coach, Bernie Bierman finally decided to make some substitutions.
“Ok Nathanson,” he said looking down the bench. “Get in there and make some tackles. Nathanson? Where’s Nathanson?”
“He’s in there already,” said the player Paul replaced.
“What?” said the coach. “Who sent him in?”
Getting no response Bierman pulled Paulie out of the game, never said another word to him, and that ended my uncle’s University of Minnesota’s football career. Milton explained that Bierman was “obviously anti-semitic.”
No one is sure how it happened. However they say that Milton the super salesman had something to do with obtaining a football scholarship for his kid brother at the University of Southern California. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, Paul never played a Varsity football game at USC. His freshman year was interrupted by World War II, and he wound up playing football for the United States Coast Guard before being shipped overseas. It is said that Paul upheld the family tradition by winning the ping pong championship of the South Pacific. I have trouble visualizing a little ping pong paddle at the end of that massive right arm.
“So it wasn’t football,” his brother Milton used to say, “Paulie was always destined for greatness.”
Not to be outdone by his brothers, Milton and Joseph, Paul also had three wives. No one remembers the name of his first, though I vividly recall a buxom woman with long curly black hair. As the family used to tell it, she was a woman of doubtful reputation that he met in Chicago. Fortunately his brothers were successful in arranging for an annulment. She was supposed to have returned to Chicago with a substantial check in her purse.
His second wife was a contemporary of mine. Renee Wassserman was a beautiful girl and very popular. No one in our family could figure out why she was interested in Paul who was ten years her senior. As it turns out however, her family also lived on Elwood, in an apartment on the other side of the park.
The Nathanson family was highly thought of in that neighborhood. After all they lived in the big house across from the shul and the Nathanson men were legend. Renee’s parents must have thought that their daughter was marrying into royalty. Actually, Renee was the best thing that could have ever happened to Paul. Marrying one of the most beautiful Jewish girls in Minneapolis did great things for his self-esteem. Paul moved out of the house; they took their own apartment and proceeded to have two children, Julie and Ross. Unfortunately their marriage didn’t last. They divorced after five years and Paul moved back into 801 Elwood with his mother.
Julie has two beautiful daughters, Ashley and Taylor. They are pictured left to right with their mother and grandmother, Renee.
Paul managed Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco Company, however he tried adding a number of sundry lines including toys which he purchased at the spring trade show. His customers were more than willing to take the toys provided that they could reserve the right to return unsold merchandise after Christmas for full credit. Unfortunately Paul guessed wrong, and he wound up taking back a warehouse full of toys that didn’t sell. The company never recovered. Nathanson Cigar and Tobacco folded after 50 years in business, and Paul became a manufacturer’s representative. Five years later he married a very nice woman named Rita who loved him for himself, and they lived happily together until his death at the age of 69.
My grandmother’s sister Anna died quite young at 42, leaving her traveling salesman husband Bill Gruenberg with their three boys, Leonard 15, Hershel 9 and Jerrry 3. As I remember, Uncle Bill was a pipe salesman who traveled five days a week, but was always expected at 801 Elwood for Sunday dinners. He was a delightful man who had a twinkle in his eye, something he passed on to all three of his boys.
What with the boys’ father on the road Anna’s sisters stepped in. Rose brought Jerry into her family at 801 Elwood, Hershel went to live with Aunt Frieda Goldberg and her family in St. Paul and Leonard wound up with Rose’s other sister Faye and her husband Jake Goldenberg. For a short time six years later Leonard moved in with us in our rented duplex on Girard Avenue where he and I shared a twin bedroom. My one-year-old brother, Butsy and our housekeeper Clara occupied the third bedroom.
What a treat it was for this little 6-year-old to have the equivalent of a big brother sharing his bedroom. We became great buddies. Leonard had a lot of wonderful stories. He was a great ladies’ man, and I vividly remember watching him get dressed and ready for a date.
Things were great until the ‘incident’. I guess It was destined to happen. I was sound asleep that night. It was around 11:00 pm, and my parents had just returned from an evening with friends. As was their routine, they checked my little brother’s room to make sure that everything was OK. When they peeked into my bedroom however, they were in for a surprise. I was sound asleep in my bed. However, Leonard was not alone in his, and his ‘guest’ sat up quickly when the door was opened.
“Gilbert!” my mother said to my father, and I still remember those words today. “There is a woman in bed with Leonard. What is she doing there?” Turning to an abruptly wakened Leonard she screamed “Out! Out!… both of you Out! Out! My God that’s my child. What about my child?” And then she slammed the door.
It took a while, maybe a couple of years, for my mother to forgive Leonard; who of course moved back with Aunt Faye after that incident. On the other hand, it was the beginning of a family legend, and Leonard went on to build on that reputation.
During WWII Leonard served as a Lt. Commander in the Navy and participated in the Japanese surrender proceedings on the battleship Missouri on September 2, 1942.
He was married to a nice local Minneapolis girl named Nessa, and they had two children, Ann and Bill. Thanks to my father and our movie family connections he went to work for RKO Pictures as a salesman, from there to branch manager and later national sales manager with offices in New York City.
I visited Leonard and his family at their home in Scarsdale, NY and later after his divorce from Nessa when he lived in an apartment in New York City. I met several of his lady friends on my visits to New York and often I stayed in his apartment. On those occasions Leonard and I had an understanding. It wasn’t unusual to get a call from him in the middle of the night suggesting that I take a “walk in the park” for a few hours. Even back in the 50s people seldom ventured alone into Central Park after dark, so I usually went to an all-night movie and hung out at the Automat.
One morning after Leonard had left for his office, and shortly after I had finished my shower there was a knock on the front door. I wrapped a towel around my waist and went to check it out. There standing in the hall was a beautiful young woman in a raincoat.
“Oh,” she seemed surprised. “Where’s Leonard? I saw the steam from the shower. My apartment’s just down the hall.”
Then I took a second look at the girl. Yes, she was wearing a raincoat, but she was in her bare feet. I realized then that all she probably had on at that moment was the raincoat.
“Come on in,” I said in my best early 20’s cool.
“No, no,” she replied. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you. I can only imagine what you must be thinking.” And then with a wink she said “I just stopped by to see if Leonard could spare a cube or two of sugar.” Then turning on her bare feet she walked back to her apartment and out of my life.
“Damn!” I groaned to myself. “Damn, Damn. Another missed opportunity.”
What could I have done? What should I have said? When I told Leonard what had happened that morning he laughed. “Oh… that was Chloe. She lives next door. We’re just good friends.”
“Yeah… good friends,” I thought to myself. “Sure, you bet. Welcome to the big city Geoffrey; you blew it. You really blew it.”
Leonard left RKO when RKO stopped making movies. He went into independent theatrical and motion picture production. He produced the Broadway play “Compulsion” based on the best-selling novel by Meyer Levin. He imported and distributed “Dear John”, a Swedish film considered sexually explicit for those times, because of its nude scenes. He went on to produce such successful films as Sounder II, Birch Interval, and Flashdance. Leonard was remarried for a short time to an attractive young lady named Ginnie and later to a very nice woman named Babette. They took a second home at Tamerisk Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. My cousin Leonard was a colorful guy who knew how to live the good life. He played golf and bridge as well as life for high stakes until his death at eighty-three.
My cousin Hershel was certainly one of the most remarkable men this blogger has ever known. He was nine years old when his mother Anna died, and he went to live with her sister Frieda’s family in St. Paul. Hershel went to the University of Minnesota and later worked for my father at his Republic Pictures distributorship in Minneapolis. In time Dad succeeded in arranging for Hershel to move to Los Angeles and work at Republic Studios as an assistant director.
Like many young men at the time, Hershel’s new career was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He was drafted into the army and shipped to North Carolina. He served in Guam and was later attached to a unit in Hawaii assigned to entertain the troops. The unit was directed by Maurice Evans, the famous Shakespearian actor.
This was during the early days of the great polio epidemic of the 1940s. Unfortunately Hershel contracted the disease. The army transferred him back to the mainland for treatment at Fort Snelling in St. Paul. Coincidentally, Minneapolis at that time was the home of the Sister Kenny Institute, which had developed the world’s most advanced methods of treating polio victims. The disease was also known as ‘Infantile Paralysis’, because many children became infected.
I remember visiting Hershel at the army hospital. The disease had infected his lungs, and he was confined in a respiratory breathing apparatus called an iron lung.
The iron lung is a long tubular-shaped horizontal tank into which the patient’s entire body is placed with only his head exposed. Initially, polio victims seldom spent more than an hour a day outside the device, breathing on their own with only short breaks for physical therapy.
Throughout his treatment, which lasted two years, Hershel never lost his positive attitude, and as the months went by he was able to spend more and more time outside the iron lung. He never complained and did everything he could to keep up the spirits of other patients going through the same treatment.
Polio is a very crippling disease that usually affects the lower part of the body in the form of partial paralysis. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a polio victim.
During the course of his treatment Hershel was discharged from the army, and when able to travel was transferred back to Los Angeles where he could continue physical therapy at the Veteran’s Hospital. In time he was able to get around on crutches, drive a specially adapted car and live on his own. Republic Pictures, like most of the other studios, welcomed back their returning veterans. Though Hershel’s limited strength and mobility restricted his job options, Republic made a place for him, and he worked at the studio until his retirement.
Throughout the ups and downs of Hershel’s life and career, one highlight in particular stands out. It took place in early 1949. Hershel had been invited by some friends to attend an NBC radio show broadcast from the network’s studios in Hollywood. The show was “This is Your Life”, one of the most popular programs on American radio.
Each week the host, Ralph Edwards, would announce the name of a surprise visitor who had been invited by friends to attend the broadcast, unbeknownst that he or she was to be the honoree. “This is Your Life” which eventually became a popular TV program, honored movie stars such as Mickey Rooney, Kirk Douglas, Dorothy Lamour and Bette Davis and sports celebrities like Joe Lewis, Jesse Owens and Casey Stengel. Also honored were recording artists, Eddie Cantor, Johnny Cash and Peggy Lee as well as evangelist Billy Graham.
On the evening of January 11, 1949 Edwards announced to his audience and to everyone in the country listening to NBC that… “This is Your Life… Hershel Gruenberg”. I wasn’t there of course, but other family members were. A completely surprised Hershel was called up to the stage as was his father Bill, his brother Leonard and several movie actors including cowboy star Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans who sang a song dedicated to Hershel. Needless to say, Hershel was overwhelmed; yet with the help of his crutches he climbed up onto the stage and, along with the rest of the world, listened to Ralph Edwards tell the amazing story of a “remarkably brave man” named Hershel Gruenberg.
Hershel retired from Republic in the late 1950s and took an apartment in West Los Angeles. He kept busy working with other handicapped polio victims. In the early 1960s he joined the staff of our publication, FM and Fine Arts Magazine.
By now Hershel was able to move about with confidence. In his capacity as the magazine’s Business Manager, Hershel would take it upon himself to engage in collections from delinquent accounts. One day Hershel decided to go after a chronically slow paying retail advertiser who had ignored his numerous phone calls. Hershel drove down to his store to pay him a personal visit. The delinquent owner called me shortly after Hershel’s departure.
“How could I?” he said “How could I turn down that man… such a sweet guy, and on crutches yet?”
We sold the magazine in 1964 and Hershel went into retirement. I started another company about ten years later and lured him back again. I don’t exactly remember what his job entailed; maybe it was ‘collections’.
People used to talk about all the “great” athletes in our family, however in my opinion, Hershel was an All-American. How he managed to get up, shower and dress himself every morning still amazes me. He actually had to lie on the floor of his bedroom in order to put on his pants and tie his shoes. Dressing took him at least two hours, but he never complained.
Each morning he made his bed, prepared his own breakfast and cleaned up his apartment before leaving for the office. He also volunteered at the Home for the Aged and once a week drove a blind lady-friend around town to assist her with her shopping.
There came a time of course when it became difficult for Hershel to live alone. His brothers then arranged for him to move into the Motion Picture Home for industry retirees where he was certainly one of their most popular residents. He passed away there several years later at the age of 79. What a guy!
The youngest ‘Nathanson’ at 801 Elwood was Jerry Gruenberg, brother of Leonard and Hershel and ‘adopted’ brother of Harold, Gilbert, Dodo, Milton, Joseph and Paulie. Their mother Anna, Rose’s sister, died when Jerry was only three years old.
No mother could love a son any more than Rose loved her sister’s boy who she raised as one of her own. Less than seven years separated us, so Jerry could have been my older brother. Most important, he let me tag along after he and his buddies like I was one of the gang.
Like the rest of the family Jerry was a jock. In fact he will tell you that he, Jerry ‘Gruenberg’, was the only ‘Nathanson’ to actually play college football. That’s true, because when Jerry was a U.S. Navy cadet in the V-12 program during World War II, he played center for St. Olaf College.
At war’s end Jerry came back to Minneapolis and enrolled in the University of Minnesota where he and his ex-GI buddies had their pick of the coeds. At the time one of the most popular women on the Minnesota campus was a sorority girl named Joyce Orenstein from St. Paul. Jerry headed straight for Joyce and took her out of circulation. They were married in early 1948.
Joyce proved to be a winner from day one. She had pizazz, and all the Gruenbergs and Nathansons, including Rose, fell in love with her.
After college Jerry took a job as a salesman with RKO Pictures and later as regional sales manager for Eagle Lion, an independent movie company.
In 1961 he and Joyce and their growing family of two, soon to be four, sons moved to Milwaukee where he took over management of a movie theatre chain. Ten years later they moved to New York and Jerry became National Distribution Manager for Allied Artist Motion Pictures where he guided the rollout of such blockbuster hits as Papillon and Cabaret. He later built and managed movie theatres of his own.
Three of Jerry and Joyce’s four sons, Andy, John and Tom, followed their father into the motion picture business. The fourth, Bob, is a clinical psychologist and has remained with his family in Milwaukee. Jerry, the “oldest living Nathanson”, and Joyce are retired and now live in Palm Springs. They celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary and Jerry’s 90th birthday in December of last year, 2013.
All their kids and grandkids were there.