stories 1 - 9
1920 - 1943
FROM HELL'S KITCHEN TO HARVARD
Here you will find a brief extract of some events that may have shaped my life from the time I was born in a little village in Transylvania to my early years in New York. After my parents divorced when I was six, I became a lonely adolescent. For my antics, I was threatened with expulsion from a special high school for “gifted boys.” I managed to earn a diploma from City College and gain admittance and a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where my legal mind was shaped, and I began to see the world in a new light.
no high school diploma for me
life at city college and romance
lessons learned at harvard law
Story 1: Starting Life in America
It was only by chance, after I had passed my eighty-fourth birthday, that I became aware that I had entered the United States under false pretenses. The records of the immigration authorities on Ellis Island showed that I came into the country from the town of Ciolt, in Romania, on January 29, 1921 as a 4-month-old single female by the name of Bela. The truth is that I am, and always have been, a male. I was at least two-and-a-half-times older than the record stated, and no one has ever called me Bela, although my Jewish name was Berrel. The indication that I was unmarried at that time is probably accurate. I doubt whether even the Immigration and Naturalization Service would treat the errors on the ship’s manifest as valid cause for deportation. I shall always be grateful for the generous immigration policies of the United States at that time.
I was accompanied on the midwinter voyage from Europe by my 27-year old father, my 24-year-old mother, and my three-year-old sister named Pepi, although she was called Perril. We had both been born in the same little peasant cottage in Transylvania. When she was born, Transylvania, inhabited largely by Jews and Gypsies, was part of Hungary. After World War I, parts of Transylvania were ceded to Romania, a country that gained fame as the home of the mythical vampire Count Dracula. Romania was also noted for its persecution of the Jews. Hungary enjoyed a similar reputation. Whether it was called Hungary or Romania, it was a good idea for Jews and Gypsies to leave. The only reason we traveled in third-class steerage across the cold Atlantic in January was that there was no fourth-class. I am told that I kept howling with hunger, cold, or colic all of the time. The oldest of my mother’s five brothers came with us. His name was Leppold, but Americans called him Leopold. He often reminded me in later years that he had saved my life when he stopped my father, who became enraged by my incessant crying, from throwing me overboard. Frankly, I did not recall the event, but I was always grateful nevertheless to my Uncle Leppold, whatever he was called.
Please allow me to set the stage and take you back to my first memories, as faded or jaded as they may be, of my earliest childhood days in this golden land of promise. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) provided shelter for my family when we came off the boat. There were some days or weeks sharing crowded space with poor relatives while my father searched in vain for paid employment. For reasons still unknown, my father bore the same name as the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Ferencz Josef. Ferencz is usually a first name, equivalent to Franz, Frank or Francis, but we seemed to be backward people, at least in name. As far as I know, my father was not of royal blood. He was only a one-eyed Jewish shoemaker who couldn’t possibly find a job in America in the vocation to which he was apprenticed.
Despite having lost an eye as a youth, and very limited schooling, he boasted that he could make a pair of boots from a single piece of cowhide. He had lugged his heavy anvils, hammers, and shoemaking tools all the way from his little village to New York City. No one had told him that there weren’t many cows in New York City, and even fewer customers for boots hand-made by a Transylvanian cobbler. He soon learned, to his surprise and sorrow, that Americans wore shoes made by machines he couldn’t operate. At 26 years of age, he had a 23-year old wife and two small children to support. Unable to speak English, barely literate, homeless and penniless, he was happy when a Jewish landlord offered him a job as a janitor tending three apartment houses in the New York district known as Hell’s Kitchen. It was, as I later learned, the highest density crime area in the nation at the time. We were given permission to live in the subterranean cellar. We were happy to have found our new home in the promised land. That’s where my memory of the world begins.
I was about three years old when my mind came out of its cocoon. I recall the our apartment had been partitioned off from the rest of the cellar. Its wood-burning stove was near the large and deep sink that served as a basin for washing mops, clothes, and children. The gas lights had to be lit with a match. There were niches that served as bedrooms for parents, kids, or paying guests (known as boarders). The room that had the two windows facing the alley that led up to the street served as both kitchen and dining room. Hungarian immigrants often came for a home-style meal prepared by my mother for a modest price. A new portable zinc tub could be filled with pails of hot water where adults could take their weekly baths. Other parts of the cellar were frequently occupied by alcoholics or pungent vagrants who came in out of the cold to sleep on beds made of old newspapers taken from a stack by the stone wall. My mother, who normally spoke to me in Yiddish when she was not scolding me in Romanian or Hungarian, regularly warned me to stay away from “the bums.” I learned that “live and let live” was the best policy.
The basement at 346 West 56th Street became my preschool kindergarten. It was there that I learned to muse about life and death, the spirit of free enterprise, business ethics, the perils of gambling and alcoholism, the advantages of law over crime, and similar subjects taught primarily in the school of hard knocks.
Let me begin with what may be my first and perhaps my most profound observation. What can a little child know about life and death? Put yourself into the shoes—or better still the improvised bunk—of a skinny little blonde-haired boy who began to ponder the questions left unanswered by ancient sages. At the foot of my bed, which was regularly shared by my sister or visitors, there was a shelf that framed the opening into the kitchen through which some light and air could pass into the “bedroom.” It was on that shelf that the “Yourtzeit” (literally, Yiddish for “time of year”) glasses were placed. In orthodox Jewish tradition, the memory of deceased loved ones is celebrated by lighting a candle on certain anniversary dates that are recalled on a special calendar. Each candle was set in a glass filled with paraffin that would burn for many hours. They were readily available and no respectable Jewish home would be without them. After the candles were consumed, the memorial vessel became the common drinking glass on Jewish tables.
In response to my incessant inquiries, my mother explained the significance of the fire that flickered in that odd-shaped glass placed on a shelf at the foot of my bed. She told me that it reflected the soul of a dear departed, and it was a way of remembering and communicating with that loved one. I understood what she said but I wasn’t quite convinced. I watched the flames very carefully but I never detected any souls or spirits. The only movement was the flame and some drifting smoke. What was particularly striking was the fact that very often, when it seemed that the fire was about to go out, it would ignite again with a bright flare and continue burning. That might happen several times before the flame finally disappeared in swirling black smoke and then was gone forever. I concluded that the flickering candle was a true reflection of real life. When it looks like there is no hope and the end is near, there may still be life left and it can keep on burning for a while longer. I learned never to blow out the candle of life before its time has come.
Story 2: An Enterprising Young Man
My mind has some difficulty distinguishing the timing of events that occurred between the carefree age of three, and the age of six when my parents divorced. From all reports, I was a very tiny but very active child who would never sit still. I think I cried in a Hungarian accent. My mother would place my sister and I out for an airing at the head of the dozen iron steps that led up from our basement apartment. My sister, now called “Pearl,” was an orderly child who would stay put. I would immediately dash off and disappear, much to my sister’s consternation and frustration since she, being eighteen months older than I, was expected to serve as my guardian. Like a stray cat or a puppy, I invariably returned home, usually looking somewhat disheveled or slightly filthy, after having scooted off on some adventurous tour of the forbidden neighborhood.
To keep me out of mischief I was assigned various chores that I could do in the cellar. One of the more significant ones was to help my father collect the garbage. I guess I was perhaps four, or maybe even five, before I qualified for that responsibility. In every kitchen in every apartment there was a small closet-like door that opened onto a shaft that contained the dumbwaiter. At least once a day, the janitor was required to “take the garbage.” A lift, hand-operated via a rope pulley in the basement, was hauled up, and each tenant would deposit trash on the dumbwaiter shelf. There was no refrigeration in those days and you could always smell when the garbage was being collected. The janitor would unload the garbage into a large metal can that he would then carry up the steps to the sidewalk for collection by the city’s garbage collectors. I was occasionally allowed to help my father pull on the ropes. You could say that I was sort of the Assistant Janitor. My first foray into the ranks of a titled, but unpaid, employee was not as much fun as one might think. My father wore gloves but I had none. The twisted fibers were coarse and prickly and hurt my tender hands. As my father kept pushing me out of the way, I didn’t much like the assignment.
In due course, I persuaded my boss to promote me to a more respectable position. I would receive whatever newspapers or bottles were unloaded and arrange them neatly for later recycling. Although I was too young to read, I soon learned that some of the empty milk bottles had an embossed number blown into the glass. If such bottles were returned to the grocer he would give me two cents, and in some cases even three cents, for the empty bottle. Eureka! That is how I started to make my fortune. I became an independent entrepreneur in the environmental conservation business! It was not long after that I decided to expand my operations.
I had noticed in my sojourns around the block that there were a number of boys peddling newspapers on Eighth Avenue. They carried a pile of papers under their arms and shouted “Extra, Extra! Get your papers!” Many of the men hurrying home from work would grab a copy of the Daily News and stick some money into the hands of the screaming vendors. It didn’t look difficult to me so I decided to embark on a career as a newsboy. I had an ample supply of papers I had dutifully assembled in the cellar. I put a batch together neatly, paraded up to the avenue and began to holler, “Getcher papers!” Business was proceeding briskly as pennies kept popping into my hand like manna from heaven. With all profit and no taxes, it might have been a great enterprise but, unfortunately, it didn’t last very long. One fine gentleman glanced at his new purchase and discovered that it wasn’t new at all. With an apologetic smile, I gave him a full two-cents refund. He then gently escorted me back home. Papa gave me a dirty look, promised to chastise me, and took all my dough. That was the end of what could have been a very lucrative career. I learned that not every business venture is bound to succeed—especially if you don’t play by the rules.
More gainful opportunities arose one day when a young artist stopped by the house to speak to my mother. He was looking for a small girl to model for a Christmas drawing he was preparing for the cover of a popular magazine. My long blond hair had been cut by my Mom in the usual flowerpot style. I auditioned wearing my sister’s blouse. I was offered the job. The studio was not far away. I recall posing while holding a large peppermint candy cane. For my efforts I was paid two-dollars and fifty cents in nickels and dimes which I proudly presented to my dear managing agent. Of course my mother also wanted a copy of the picture. I found my way back to the studio and was assured that as soon as the painting was published I would get a reprint; I was invited to return another day. I was glad to visit since I always received some candies. Pretty models in the studio would gush that I was “so cute.” They would further reward me with hugs and kisses. Although I was never offered either a reproduction or additional pay, I must admit that the fringe benefits of my temporary employment were rather gratifying. Money isn’t everything.
A great deal can be accomplished without high financing. Goodwill can be very rewarding. Take, for example, my connection with Tony the shoeshine man. He had a little booth sandwiched between two tall buildings on 56th Street. He was within the bounds of my permissible sojourns, since a visit to his shoeshine parlor did not require me to cross a street. If, in circling the block, I noticed that both of his high customer chairs were empty and he seemed to be lonely, I would stop to bid him good morning. We could chat until a customer arrived. He was learning English interspersed with Yiddish and I was learning to speak with an Italian accent. I may have reminded him of his family back in Italy. I’m sure he welcomed my visits since he always gave me a Tootsie Roll from a box of candies he had on display. Each “Tootsie” cost only a penny, but that usually exceeded my available cash, and so I accepted the chewy chocolate as a gesture of friendship from one immigrant to another.
If, due to circumstances beyond my control, I had been away from home longer than expected, I knew that my mother would be worried and angry with me when I returned. I would make an extra stop at Tony’s to wish him good day and explain my troubles to him. I told him quite honestly how I needed a Tootsie Roll to appease my Mom. When I got back to our basement late, I would be greeted by scowls and shouts in Yiddish or other languages demanding to know where I had been. I replied innocently that I was sorry I was delayed, but I had been busy consoling Tony who missed his family. I would then present my Tootsie Roll with a sweet declaration, “Look what I brought you.” I was very close to my mother’s heart, but throughout the rest of her life, whenever I tried to sweet-talk her, she would say, “Here comes Benny with his Tootsie Roll.” Nevertheless, a kind word turneth away wrath. No cash required.
One of the tenants in our house was an old medical doctor who had lost his sight. He would sit on the stoop for long hours and I would sit with him to keep him company. Occasionally, I would even take him for a walk around the block while he rested his hand on my shoulder and I served as his eyes. We were not of the same generation. He was a very old man and I was a very young child, yet somehow a bond developed between us. Many years later, after he died, I learned that he had named me in his will as the recipient of all of his books, including his old medical texts. They had no real value but I guess he had nothing else to give. Perhaps he thought I would become a doctor. Although I derived no real benefit from his last testament, I have never forgotten his kindness.
Story 3: Education on the Sidewalks of New York
Hell’s Kitchen, where I lived before I reached seven years of age, was not a very friendly place. The residents were mainly Irish and Italians who had settled in New York to avoid starvation in their beloved home countries. All the policemen, firemen, and motormen who drove the trolleys or elevated trains were Irish. As far as I could tell, Italians dug ditches or sold vegetables. The numerous offspring of these immigrants seemed primarily intent on beating each other up. I tagged along and got on well with all of them. I was adopted as a mascot by both sides. When they were not fighting gang wars in defense of their neighborhoods, they were busy pilfering. Potatoes roasted on the sidewalk only tasted good if the “Mickeys” were first snitched from a fruit store. Other harmless sidewalk sports included various forms of gambling. I learned about shooting craps from the ground up.
In those days there were no such diversions as television, video games, or cell phones to entertain kids. Adolescents would hang out on the stoops or sidewalks and look for trouble. If they were seen kneeling on the pavement, it was not in prayer—they were tossing dice. The stakes were usually a penny, but occasionally some sport would toss in a nickel bet. When engaging in such high finance, it was prudent to have a sentry posted to protect the players from predators or the police. That’s where I came in. I never gambled. Rather than relying on the toss of the dice, I preferred a sure thing. I served as the lookout man. I stood near the corner and if I saw a cop coming I would have to shout “Cheezit, the cops!” Whereupon, the kneeling gang would jump up and run like hell. The Irish cop would chase after them cursing and swinging his nightstick before returning to pick up the pot for himself. By that time, of course, I had quietly pocketed whatever pennies had been hastily abandoned. All the arm of the law could get from me was an angelic smile. First come first served.
It was a time when the manufacture, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages was against the law, but prohibition was rarely observed. My father, known as “Joe the Janitor,” did a little bootlegging on the side. He liked a little nip now and then and he had a certain talent for improvising to meet emergency situations. It was legally permissible to use alcohol for medical or religious purposes. Although he would hardly be mistaken for a medical professional, my father could pass as a fairly pious man. He would take me with him to early morning services in the back room of a nearby store that also served as a synagogue. I could not understand any of the lamentations in Hebrew and I thought the whole thing was quite boring. The concluding service on the Sabbath required that a braided candle be doused with alcohol; obviously, one could not practice the faith without a little booze near the pulpit.
I don’t know where he learned it, but my father was able to convert a mash of boiling potatoes into a plain fiery liquid that dripped from the copper distillery hidden in our basement. I am not suggesting that my Pop was going into competition with Al Capone, but his modest production served a useful and friendly service to the community. The Irish cops who patrolled the beat on foot would often feel weary and stop by for a little refreshment. Some even took along a flask of the whiskey to remind them of home. The honest ones would leave a dollar or two on the table. I always appreciated honest policemen. Because the shiny copper boiler had to be concealed and my father had admonished me not to talk about it, I sensed that something fishy was going on. I can guess that it was my inherent respect for law and order, and for freedom of speech, that prompted me to start speaking openly about my father’s new vocation and friendship with the police. In what may have been my first victory over organized crime, the distillery in our home soon disappeared. I can guess that my Pop sometimes regretted that he hadn’t thrown me overboard.
I was made aware of the evils of drink by various experiences as a very young child. I recall the day that my father confronted a drunk who had been throwing bricks from the roof. In his official capacity as Janitor-in-charge, my Dad ordered him to desist. In defiance, the offender took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and, in his best brogue and a stance reminiscent of boxing champion John L. Sullivan, challenged my old man to a fight. Rumanians are not noted for their valor. It is rumored that Rumanian soldiers wore uniforms only on their backs since that’s all the enemy ever saw. My father was no hero and had never heard of the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. When the drunk jabbed with his left, my father pulled the heavy cover off a nearby garbage can and held it up like the shield of a Roman gladiator. After another punch was thrown, the battle was on. My father smashed his opponent squarely in the face with the smelly shield and kept pounding away at the fallen villain’s head as he lay moaning on the ground until rescued by the cop on the beat. I’m sure my father never felt bound by the biblical mandate “an eye for an eye,” but he knew that if attacked you must defend yourself—particularly if there is a garbage cover handy.
Another educational experience involving liquor occurred when I was perhaps 4 years old. It was Passover, a time of celebration when families reunite to remember the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The prayer ritual requires repeated sips of wine. The kosher purple grape juice was sufficiently fermented and sweet to make it very palatable and I did my religious duty with gusto and glee. I was soon feeling quite happy and even more talkative than usual—much to the amusement of all present. They kept pouring more wine and I kept drinking it. Soon, I was what experts call “drunk as a skunk.” I recall vividly how the room kept spinning round and round while I got sicker and sicker. That was the first time in my life that I ever became inebriated. It was also the last. I had learned the value of moderation in all things.
My sister and I were never left in the care of baby-sitters who expected to be paid. Instead, we were deposited in the nearby movie house, the “Chalona,” on Ninth Avenue. Admission cost only a dime, and kids could be taken in by an adult and left there indefinitely. The movies showed cowboys chasing Indians while the piano player in the front row pounded away with music or noise supposed to reflect the action on the silent screen. There was a lot of shooting and fighting and the good guys all wore white hats while the bad guys wore black hats and usually ended up dead. Indians, who never wore hats, didn’t do so well either. The written text was supposed to explain the wild gesticulation of the actors. Of course, I could not read, nor did I know anybody who could. It was quite exciting nevertheless, and I got the gist of what was going on. On one occasion, when I was deposited as usual, I could not be located when my father came to retrieve me. The management regretted that a search of the house would only be possible after the last show. It was close to midnight when all the customers had left, that I was found sound asleep under a seat in one of the front rows. When the screen is filled with killing and violence, a good sleep can be very refreshing.
On one busy and rainy day, my mother told my sister and I to go to the movies by ourselves. I was no more than six and my sister less than eight. We were instructed never to cross over the wide Ninth Avenue, with its horse-drawn wagons and even automobiles, without help from an adult. The standard routine was for me to wait till a gentleman approached and then ask politely, “Mister, please cross me cross.” At the box office we had to wait for another adult to get us into the theater. Along came a teenager who spotted what we were waiting for and offered to buy our tickets for us. He took the quarter that my sister clutched in her hand, went up to the box office, and then, laughing, spurted away into the distance with our money. We both stood there in the rain and started to bawl as though our hearts would break. Soon, an elderly gentleman came along and asked us why we were crying so bitterly. We tried to explain but it was very difficult through our tears. He finally understood what had happened and told us not to worry. He took out a handkerchief to help dry our tears. He then bought two tickets and escorted us into the theater where he found two seats with a good view. We told him that one of our parents would come to collect us and we thanked him politely as he left. A few minutes later, the stranger returned with an ice-cream cone for each of us. Neither my sister nor I ever forgot that kindness. Not everyone is mean and rotten. The world is not such a bad place after all.
Story 4: Growing Up Feeling Lost
Things at home were not going well. My father and mother would spend much time just shouting at each other; which rather disturbed my tranquility. My parents were second cousins who had been betrothed by their parents, as was a common custom in the old country. It soon became clear that Hell’s Kitchen would never qualify as a setting for marriages made in heaven. The poverty and hard work didn’t make things easier. My mother had lost two children through miscarriage before my sister and I were born. The anticipated birth of still another baby added to the tensions. When a new little sister joined us in the dank cellar I looked forward to playing with the cute new playmate. The frail newcomer soon fell seriously ill. To relieve the burdens on my mother, my older sister “Pearl” and I were sent away to join our uncle Leppold and his family on their small farm nearby. He had several children about our age and we all had fun together as we enjoyed the fresh country air of Port Jervis. It didn’t last long.
When I arrived back to my home in the basement, I rushed merrily to the dark room in the rear to rejoin my dear little sister. But there was no trace of her. My mother explained gently that the baby had gone to heaven and would never return. I cried and remembered the flickering candles. To console me, a concerned relative bought me a little red tricycle. I was rather excited to steer it around the basement, but I missed the baby, who had died of pneumonia. After a few days, my new bike also disappeared. It was the only bicycle I have ever owned in my life. I often wondered what kind of a person would steal a toy from a grieving child.
On weekends, the family would sometimes walk to Central Park to hear the Goldman Band playing on the mall. We occasionally went to the Yiddish theater on Avenue B to see a drama about the son who left his poor parents in Poland and then married a “Shiksa” in America. The whole audience bawled at the shame of such ungrateful sacrilege. I didn’t understand why it was so terrible to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish but I regretted the pain he caused his parents. I laughed at the comics singing funny songs in Yiddish. We even bought some of the records to play on our new gramophone at home. As the singer’s voice began to slow to a southern drawl it was my duty to start winding up the machine furiously to accelerate him back to a peppy Yiddish ending.
We also visited my mother’s father, who was the only grandparent I ever knew. He was a small man with a long beard and a longer pipe dangling from his lip. He lived in a lower east side tenement that had been improved to provide a flush toilet on each landing. For five cents cash, a public bath was also available about two blocks away on Rivington Street. I was entrusted to give my grandpa a gift of fifty-cents when we left and sometimes we even delighted him with some cigars that cost a nickel a pack. Since my grandpa had no visible means of support, I was entranced by a story he told of how he had earned some money. Apparently, one of his elderly neighbors, fearing that death was approaching, offered to buy some of my Grandpa’s “Mitvahs,” or good deeds. The theory was that good deeds would help the owner, or bearer, gain admittance to heaven. I didn’t quite grasp how the transfer was made and was somewhat skeptical about its validity. Nevertheless, in later years, when called upon for a favor, I kept a record in a “Mitzvah” file and was even tempted to ask for a receipt for every good deed. You never know what will lie in store on the final Day of Reckoning.
One of the regular boarders in our basement apartment who was especially kind to my sister and I was a Hungarian immigrant named Dave Schwartz. He had left Budapest when Jews were excluded from the universities, and instead had found work in New York as an iron worker. He was an intelligent and hardworking man whose English was intelligible—providing you understood Hungarian. On Sundays, he would take us for a ride on a Fifth Avenue bus with an open upper deck from which we could look down on the fancy shops and people. We were allowed to stay on the bus as long as we liked, without paying any extra fare. Mr. Schwartz would even buy us an ice-cream cone for the trip. We liked Mr. Schwartz. So did my mother.
I was about six-and a-half years old when my parents decided to divorce. My parents’ separation after ten years of unholy acrimony was long overdue. They were simply mismatched. It was a friendly parting of the ways. By amicable agreement, custody of the children was given to my mother. She got my sister and I, and that was all. There was no need for a property settlement, as there was no property to divide. The family had to move out of the cellar, new lodging had to be found, both parents had to figure out some way to keep themselves and the children from going hungry, and there had to be a new beginning. If there was such a thing as “Welfare,” my parents never heard of it. Public grants for child-support were nonexistent, and Social Security had not yet been invented. In times of trouble the prevailing guide was, “The Lord helps those who help themselves.” In fact, there was not much choice.
Fortunately, my mother had an older sister who was married to a tailor and they lived in their own house in Brooklyn. “Tante Fani” and “Uncle Sam” Isaac had two older children of their own. Our Mom arranged for her sister to take in both me and Pearl temporarily. About half a year after filing for divorce, my father married a nice Transylvanian woman named Rose Fried, whose acquaintance he had made via an ad in the local Hungarian newspaper. A few weeks thereafter, my mother was wed to a Hungarian man called—you guessed it—Dave Schwartz. And they all lived happily ever after. They all got along fine with each other once the marital bonds were shifted. When the train is not going in the right direction, it is prudent to change course and take another train.
Life in my aunt’s home was bearable because they had a dog, a German shepherd named “Lightening.” I could hitch him to a sled in the wintertime and he would drag me all over the neighborhood in the snow. My Uncle Sam was a pleasant man who was usually smiling and tipsy. My cousin Sidney would deliver lunch to his father at the tailor shop, and I could ride along on the handlebars of his bike. My uncle even allowed me to jump up and down on the pressing machine and watch the steam pour out. Great fun! Sam made a fair living as a tailor, but since his marriage had been prearranged by his parents, he found his happiness in a bottle. Fani had a boarder, who was a Greek named Albert who cleaned felt hats. I liked Albert. Fani did too.
On Sunday, Tante Fani might take me to nearby Coney Island. We would find a spot on the crowded beach, put down a blanket and dash into the pounding sea. As she pranced up and down in the waves with me in her arms, I was convinced that she was trying to drown me. I recall when she left me on the blanket, saying she would soon return. After a few minutes had passed, I concluded that she had abandoned me. I began to search the beach frantically until I was intercepted by a friendly cop who asked if I was lost. I replied, with my usual truthfulness, that it was my aunt who was lost. He took me to the station house and a loudspeaker began to boom, “Tante Fani. Tante Fani. Please come to the station house and pick up your boy.” When we were reunited, the first thing she did was to give me a slap in the face. Some people are really ungrateful.
I guess I spent a year with my gruff Tante Fani in Brooklyn. I never forgot that she took us in when we didn’t have a roof over our heads, and I treated her with respect as long as she lived. My father had tried to enroll me in a public school in Manhattan when I was six years old, but the principal, noting my unusually small size and the fact that I spoke only Yiddish, would not accept me. When I began school in Brooklyn, I still had problems speaking the language, and I couldn’t read. But if I heard a story once, I could repeat it verbatim. I was once apprehended by the teacher “reading” correctly from the wrong page.
As soon as my mother and Dave could save up enough money to rent a room, I could visit them. When they finally saved up enough to pay a month’s rent for an apartment in the Bronx, my sister and I went home to heaven.
My mother remained on good terms with her cousin, my father, and I would visit or live with him on irregular occasions, depending upon availability and convenience of the parties concerned. I got along fine with my stepmother who was a quiet and kindly lady who, in rapid succession, became the mother of two sons. My stepmother’s name was “Rose” and she was called “Itcha,” because it was easier to pronounce than her Hebrew name, “Rivka.” In summation: my mother had two children, my father’s wife had two children, my father had four children, and my mother’s husband had none. Who says life has to be simple?
There is a period of my life between the ages of about seven to about thirteen that are my lost years. I was growing up in the Bronx and shuttling between my father and my mother, and from apartment to apartment when our inability to pay the rent inspired us to move. In 1929, the crash came. The banks were closed. No one could find work. My Mom worked as a dressmaker or hatmaker, and Dave was employed as a toolmaker or a watchman or whatever he could get to make ends meet. My father became a housepainter when he could find such work. It was a time of deep depression in more ways than one. I hated to go to the U.S. Government “home relief” station where surplus food was given away in the form of two-pound loaves of bread and blocks of frozen butter or American cheese. Once they gave away surplus green woolen sweaters. I was too embarrassed to wear one because all the other kids had the same garment and could recognize the source. My mother assigned chores to keep us busy around the house. My domineering sister served as foreman on the job. Slavery would have been easier.
I attended various public schools in the Bronx, never staying long enough to make real friends. I loved to read and always had a public library card that was well used. My schooling was accelerated when teachers thought I could skip some of the lower classes. My size prevented my participation in popular sports such as basketball, football, or even baseball. Besides, my mother didn’t believe that such violent games were a way for a nice Jewish boy to behave. She objected to my joining the Boy Scouts because she thought it was a military organization. My only “buddy” was my stepmother’s nephew Lou Perlman, who was called “Mutchy,” short for “Mortimer,” which he was never called. [END NOTE 1] His mother and my stepmother were sisters and were very attached. The families always lived close to each other. We spent some happy summer weeks together in the Catskill Mountains where families could rent a room and share a kitchen at very modest cost. Air-conditioning was unheard of. People who couldn’t afford to go to the mountains slept on the roof or the fire-escapes to get some cool air. Vacations on the farm were spent entertaining ourselves and tossing horseshoes. There wasn’t much else to do besides killing hoards of mosquitoes. In short, I was, by inclination, as well as necessity, very much a loner. I don’t recall ever having been a normal adolescent.
During the depression years, no one I knew earned enough money to pay for both food and rent. Many landlords offered “concessions” to new tenants who would move into an apartment that had been suddenly and quietly vacated by the prior occupant. The new residents were allowed to live rent free for a few months. That was an amount we could afford. The family, consisting of my mother, my stepfather, now called “Uncle Dave,” my 12-year old sister and I, moved into a nice brick building in a good neighborhood in the Bronx. Of course, there was no elevator in the five story walk-up. The higher the dwelling, the lower the rent. We were given a vacancy near the roof. My mother would have preferred one higher up—she was a strong believer in fresh air.
The parks around our new home on Bainbridge Avenue made a fine playground. When the hills of Van Cortlandt or Mosholu Park were covered with snow, their slopes were great for sledding—if you had a sled. One wintry day, I was having fun sliding down a long hill in my cardboard box. A boy went racing past on his new Flexible Flyer and careened straight into a big rock on which had been painted, in large white letters, “JESUS SAVES.” Well, his life was saved but they had to carry him off in an ambulance. His twisted sled was abandoned. I dragged it home for repairs. I don’t know who saved the injured boy but I do know that Uncle Dave, the ironworker, saved the sled.
I was never a strong believer in the trappings of religion. When, as a child, my father took me to the local “shule” and hired a non Jew to ignite the gas flame, I thought it was a waste of five cents since I could handle the job for less. My stepfather came from Budapest, which was considered an “enlightened” city, and he did not share the orthodoxy of Jews from the East. We couldn’t afford to send me to Hebrew school except for a few weeks to learn to read, but not understand, the prayers needed for my Bar Mitzvah. We never celebrated any birthdays and my coming of age at thirteen was no big deal. I was familiar with the usual accouterments of orthodoxy, such as the “yarmulke,” the prayer shawl, the phylacteries wrapped around arm and head, but they never impressed me as more than ornaments carried forward from some ancient and mystical traditions. Good deeds on earth seemed more important than unintelligible prayers to an invisible Deity. I dutifully composed a customary Bar Mitzvah speech in praise of my parents and teachers. My Hebrew instructor, understandably, was not satisfied with the paucity of the gift he received for his efforts. He made his dissatisfaction plain in the presence of my classmates. Of course, I was very embarrassed. If that was what being a religious Jew meant, I wanted no part of it.
In my early teens, to earn some pocket money, I held a large variety of positions. My usual title was Delivery Boy. I assembled and delivered the Sunday papers from the local candy store. As compensation, I received a cup of hot chocolate or a milkshake when I arrived at about 6 A.M. I was allowed to keep whatever tips I might get. It was a losing business. On cold winter mornings there might be heavy snow on the ground. I would pile the papers on my newly repaired sled and drag it from house to house. Occasionally, the papers might be scattered by a heavy gust of wind. I would desperately reassemble the wet pages and trudge them to apartments that might be five flights up. I always rang the bell, in hopes of receiving a five cents tip. Instead of a nickel, I usually received a gruff command through the locked door, “Leave it on the floor!” I soon looked for another career.
A more interesting opportunity soon presented itself. I became the Assistant Manager in a Chinese laundry store. The owner spoke practically no English, which matched equally my knowledge of Mandarin. He taught me how to use an abacus and how to curse in Chinese. I would inform customers when the laundry would be finished and how much it would cost. Mr. Lee, which might have been his name, scribbled something in Chinese on a small receipt that had two parts with the same number. I would explain to the customer that if he didn’t present his receipt, he would lose his laundry. If they wanted the clean shirts delivered, they had to pay in advance. I would render that important delivery service, and gratuities would be gratefully received. There weren’t too many occasions to be grateful.
To be perfectly frank, I stayed with Mr. Lee because I was sorry for him. He worked very hard for long hours and slept on a small cot in the back room that contained only a deep tub for washing clothes by hand. Several large sacks of rice seemed to be his only source of nourishment. Each Sunday, he would put on his black suit and take the elevated train to Chinatown to exchange news with friends from home. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China was at war. My friend was worried about the safety of his family and decided to go home. He asked me to accompany him to Woolworth’s “five-and-ten-cents store” to help him buy some gifts for his family in China. He could not resist the call of family and country. I never saw him again. I often thought of how unfortunate it was that such a hard working man could not live in peace and dignity because of conflicts in another part of the world.
Story 5: The Hazards of Being Mickey Mouse
My theatrical career began when I was about twelve. The local movie house ran a special promotional event every Saturday morning, when busy mothers would be happy to see their kids out of the house. Some genius decided to establish a Mickey Mouse Club that would meet in the theater and be treated to an array of cartoons in addition to the regular cowboy movie. Each participant would receive a membership pin showing Mickey Mouse and the name “MICK!” written underneath. Girls would receive a “MINNIE” badge. Wearing it prominently on an outer garment would be a symbol of honor. Before the cartoons were shown, the audience was treated to a medley of Mickey Mouse songs or cheers in which the members were all expected to participate. It was not always in tune but it sure was loud!
Probably because of my small size, the theater management selected me to be the “CHIEF MICKEY.” My “CHIEF MINNIE” was rather shy and skinny. I wasn’t crazy about her. I was expected to lead the noisy audience in such stirring cheers as: “Handy Dandy, sweet as candy, happy kids are we! Eeny-icky, Minnie, Mickey, M O U S E!” As compensation, I could come into the movie house free at any time. I could also wear a badge much larger than the one that adorned the other kids, and mine would say “CHIEF!” The rule was that when Mickey Mice would meet, they would salute each other with the greeting, “Hi Mick” or “Hi Chief!” Furthermore, all participants received a membership card on which a stamp was placed for every attendance. When ten stamps were reached, each lucky participant would be entitled to a free drawing to win a beautiful new bicycle. Who could ask for anything more? “Hi Chief!” resonated in every yard and hallway. I became the most popular kid on the cement campus of Public School Number 80 in the Bronx.
The Mickey Mouse Club was a joy for all concerned. Mothers got rid of their kids for awhile and the little darlings were being safely entertained. Hollywood heroes like Tom Mix and Ken Maynard raced around on horses chasing villains who always got shot or beat up in a saloon full of dirty drunks. Cowboys with white skin went out, in self-defense, to kill all the redskin savages. For nine weeks of such stirring and educational Saturday matinees I was an honored celebrity. Before the tenth week was reached, however, tragedy struck. The company that owned the theater was trapped between two rival unions, both run by gangsters. The theater was shut down. The tickets for the prize were worthless. As every celebrity knows, fame is fleeting and hazardous. I was held accountable by all the Mickey Mice. Instead of the usual friendly greeting from my faithful followers in the club, I heard nothing from the Rats but complaints, outrage, and scorn. Instead of appreciation and the usual clap on the back, all I got was a whack on the head.
Story 6: The Happy Man Moves On
It was probably my notoriety as Chief Mickey Mouse that procured for me an invitation to become a member of the Dramatic Club in Public School 80. The teacher in charge recruited me when I was in the seventh grade. She explained that I would have a part in a play that the club would produce. Membership dues would be fifty-cents per week to pay for the costumes. I was assigned a minor role and told to show up for the initial rehearsal the following week.
When I appeared, as scheduled, I remembered the part but I forgot the dues. My mother convinced me that since she could make my costume herself, I did not have to make the payment. The first rehearsal went so well that I saw no need for me to repeat it. When I showed up again, in time for the final performance, I was unceremoniously canned. In no uncertain terms, the irate instructor made plain that my presence as a member of the club was no longer desired. Not only was I delinquent in behavior and attendance but also in the payment of dues. I was out! My unsolicited career as a Thespian came to an abrupt halt. Since I had memorized my part perfectly, and did not yet appreciate the need for cooperative practice by the entire company. I felt that an injustice had been done.
When I was promoted into the eighth grade, another teacher gave me a second chance in the limelight. I was invited to star in the graduation play. No dues were required. The theme of the play was that a powerful but grumpy king always complained about his troubles and his aches and pains. The Crown’s doctors concluded that the only remedy for the ailing sovereign was to wear the shirt of a happy man. His couriers scoured the kingdom but every one they questioned had some sad tale to tell as a reason for his discontent. The searchers were desperate, fearing the wrath of the King if they returned empty-handed. By chance, while wandering over a meadow, the King’s guards heard the merry lilting tones of a flute being played by a young shepherd. When asked if he was happy, the boy looked puzzled by the question, but responded merrily that he found joy in every day. “Quick,” said the King’s man, “you must give us your shirt to save the life of our sovereign.” “But,” replied the flustered and hesitant youth, “I do not have a shirt to my back.” Whereupon, with a flourish, he opened his sheepskin coat and revealed a naked body covered only by a small pair of my black swimming trunks. Of course, I was the merry shepherd. When the apprehensive messengers reported to the King that the only happy person they could find in the kingdom did not even own a shirt, the monarch roared with laughter. He was cured forever. The audience applauded gleefully and I gained lasting fame as “The Happy Man.” I have tried to live up to the role ever since.
Another story during my years at P.S. 80 surely altered the course of my life. My eighth grade teacher was a kindly Irish lady named Mrs. Connelly. She cared about all of her students as though they were her own children. One day, she asked me to bring my parents to school to meet with the Principal. I feared the worst. When I explained that my father was no longer available, we settled on an appearance by my mother. At the appointed hour, my messy hair was combed, my dirty shoes were shined and, hand in hand, my mother and I appeared to meet the Principal and the teacher of my graduating class. They said, slowly and carefully, that they wanted to talk to my mother about the future of her only son. It sounded ominous.
They explained that I was an unusual child—a fact my mother, as well as some of my victims, already suspected. I guess she also expected a lesson on how to discipline unruly children. Much to our pleasant surprise, these splendid teachers wanted to talk to her about sending me to a special school; not for juvenile delinquents, but for “gifted boys.” We didn’t know what a “gifted boy” was, since I was not in the habit of receiving gifts. The terminology came from the official program of a unique educational institution. “Townsend Harris Preparatory School, Preparatory for the College of the City of New York” was the only school of its kind in the country. It offered an accelerated curriculum that, if passed successfully, would ensure automatic admittance to the College of the City of New York. There would be no tuition charges. No one in my parents’ family had ever gone to college. Everyone we knew went to work as soon as they could find a job. To finish high school was regarded as the highest possible academic achievement for immigrants like us. Now my mother was being told that her little boy might go to college and it would cost nothing, which was about all we could afford. Only in America! I have been a grateful patriot ever since.
My mother expressed appreciation and said that she would have to leave it to the teachers to decide what school I should attend. It was a moving meeting. It also meant that we would have to move—again. Townsend Harris High was located on 23rd Street in Manhattan in the building that housed the Business School of City College. If we stayed in the Bronx, I would have to travel alone on the Third Avenue El train for almost an hour to get to school every day. The teachers there were college professors, and the courses were geared to college students. It was expected that the studies would be completed in three years instead of the usual four. How or why I was selected, I do not know. A new door opened new opportunities. The challenge could not be turned down. The family began to look for new lodgings.
129 East 64th Street in Manhattan was a good address in a good neighborhood, and I could get to Townsend Harris by a short bus ride down Lexington Avenue. Of course, we couldn’t afford to live there. My determined and creative mother somehow managed to lease the small brownstone townhouse and rent the ten furnished rooms within as sublets. We lived on the ground floor, in what had been a kitchen, rented out the other rooms, kept the house clean, and in essence carried on the noble traditions of janitoring we had learned in Hell’s Kitchen. Uncle Dave tended the furnace and did repairs when he came home from his job as an ironworker. I was experienced as an Assistant Janitor, and was now on my way to becoming something more.
Story 7: No High School Diploma for Me
The first and must important thing I learned at Townsend Harris High School was that if I wanted to pass my courses I had to study. I never knew that before, so it came as a complete surprise when I promptly flunked Algebra and French. Eventually, I passed those, and also geometry, calculus, and advanced trigonometry. If, as they said, the study of mathematics was good for the brain, I never noticed it. To this day, I do not know what a logarithm is, and frankly, I don’t care. I only became interested in French when I reached fourteen and fell in love with Danielle Darrieux. She was an Ingrid-Bergman-type movie star whose films were shown “in living sound” in a nearby arts theater. While listening to her mellifluous French voice, I kept one eye glued on her and one on the large English subtitles. I left the theater looking a bit cockeyed but it was better than hearing my French professor’s incomprehensible explanation of how he had fought the battle of the Marne. Despite my slow linguistic start, during my own later war years, in Normandy, I was a valued interpreter. After the war, I even translated for Rene Cassin, the French Nobel Prize author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when he visited the United States. My high school professors deserve some praise for my ability to speak almost like a Parisian. But frankly, most of the credit belongs to Danielle.
As I was busy studying and working, I didn’t have much time or inclination for romance. I met my buddy Lou regularly and we had long walks and talks together. ”Goils,” as they were called in my neighborhood, were not in our repertoire. A new Hungarian in town moved in with Lou’s family. Gizi, whose name was Americanized as Gertrude, and pronounced Goity, did not impress me. “She sure looks like a greenhorn!” Her reaction to me was, “A silly kid!” Hardly enough to distract me from my studies.
Going to Townsend Harris presented more than a scholastic challenge. There was a nice cafeteria in the building, but it did me little good since I had no money to buy lunch. I devised a method to overcome the financial handicap. I set myself up in business as a promoter of a game of chance that might earn my sustenance. For an investment of ten cents I could buy a punch card that had 100 holes. Each hole contained a slip of rolled-up paper that contained a prediction of things to come - usually favorable. It also indicated whether you were the lucky winner of cash. Winnings could range from one to ten cents. The total of the lucky punches amounted to ninety cents. Using my newly discovered knowledge of calculus, I figured out that by hawking “A penny a punch!” in the locker room, I could collect a maximum of one dollar—which would only allow me to break even. Without a profit I would still go hungry. Recalling that necessity is the mother of invention, and that starvation is unhealthy, I used my creative imagination to solve the problem in ways that would have made my Hell’s Kitchen gang proud.
If I carefully sliced off the top layer of the punchboard, I could remove some of the wining numbers before pasting the top back again. All I needed was a fifteen cent surplus that would buy a hamburger and some mashed potatoes for lunch. Even if I removed some of the “winners,” that would still leave my eager customers with the excitement of the game and the paper prediction of good fortune as consolation for not picking one of the larger prizes. After all, the buyer was only risking a penny and all profits went to feed the poor. As in many borderline business ventures, and as I should have learned as a childhood vendor of old newspapers, there may be unanticipated consequences. The building custodian, noting the slips of paper dropped all over the floor, turned me in. I was summoned to the office of the Dean, a bully named Dr. Chastney. I guess he was respected as a strict disciplinarian. Quivering before him, I was immediately accosted with a fierce demand, “Don’t say a word! I want your father here tomorrow morning! One more word out of you and you’re expelled!” I hadn’t said anything. I didn’t dare mention that I hadn’t seen my father for about a year. I ran for a phone.
I managed to reach my father and begged him to come to the rescue. The last time I had been to school with him they wouldn’t admit me to kindergarten. I explained that I was in danger of being expelled. “What means expelled?” he asked. I explained that it was sort of like being shot. “For what?” I answered that I was only trying to earn my lunch money. “For this they want to shoot you?” Anyway, he came. Dr. Chastney began to work him over in an uninterrupted tirade: he was not running a school for gamblers and crooks! Gambling was illegal! Fathers should train their children to obey the law! He would give me one last chance! God bless America! My bewildered Dad, on my advice, listened quietly and simply nodded. He wondered what the burly man was raving about. We were dismissed by the Dean with the repeated sharp warning that this was my last chance! My father never understood what all the fuss and fuming was about. In times of adversity, people might do things they would later be ashamed of. That was not so clear to me when I was 14 but I concluded nonetheless that it would be prudent to retire from the gaming business and seek my fortune via more lawful pursuits.
Fame can come in unexpected ways. Since only males were admitted as students to Townsend Harris, all users of the High School pool were required to swim in the nude. We also had to pass a Red Cross lifesaving test. I had no problem until the instructor came to test my floating skills. I had to prove that I could float motionless for one minute. I knew I couldn’t do it. When I explained my disability, the instructor assured me that the human body was naturally buoyant and he would prove it. If I would clasp my knees to my chest and roll over face down into the water I would float like a cork. I did as I was told. As I had warned, I sank slowly to the bottom, head first. It was as though I had rocks in my head—an observation I had often heard. The lifeguard signaled me frantically to come up from the deep. He confessed that never before had he encountered such a phenomenon. He was, nevertheless, a man after my own heart. He found a way to turn adversity into opportunity.
He asked me if I liked bananas. Upon receiving a positive response, he explained that we were going to put on a water show at the end of the term and that I could play an unforgettable role. All I had to do was jump into the pool waving a banana, then sink to the bottom, as I had just demonstrated, and there peel the banana, stuff it into my mouth, blow out the chlorinated water, swallow the banana and rise to the surface flaunting the empty banana peel while wearing only a happy smile. At the gala, I performed the impossible stunt and earned the plaudits of the amazed crowd. The impact of my unusual feat was brought home to me about 20 years later as I was having lunch in a little bistro in Paris. A man of about my age, sitting at the other side of the cafe, came up to me and inquired cautiously, “Is your name Benny?” When I answered in the affirmative, he slapped me on the back, saying, “The last time I saw you, you were stark naked, under eight feet of water, eating a banana.” It’s amazing what can make a man memorable.
In addition to spending time in the pool, I spent much time in the gymnasium—almost leading to my downfall. I was an excellent tumbler and could shinny up a rope faster than a monkey. For my stunts on the rings I was known as “The man on the flying trapeze.” Weighing not much more than 100 pounds, I was also much sought after to be top man on the human pyramid. But that wasn’t good enough for Dr. Chastney. Once again, I was summoned to the Dean’s office. He had not forgotten me. He informed me that I had not been attending my gym classes. I explained that my gym classes were scheduled during the only time I had for lunch. I made up for my absences by going to the gym at other times. I assured him that the teachers would all confirm my regular attendance. The bureaucrat Chastney gave me an ultimatum: either I attended the scheduled classes, or I would not graduate and not be allowed to enter City College. And that was that! I didn’t like ultimatums, and I didn’t like bureaucrats. In fact, I didn’t like Chastney either. The wrath of Ferencz was upon him!
The next day, I went up to the City College main campus and asked to speak to the Dean in charge of admissions. I was greeted by a jolly Irishman who asked me my name. “Ferencz,” I replied. “Well, Terrence m’boy” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder, “what can I do for you?” I asked whether I could be admitted from Townsend Harris without having passed gym. “Why, of course, we would admit you Terrence m’boy. We’d be glad to have you.” I thanked him profusely and scooted away before he could discover that my name was Benny and I wasn’t Irish. Then I headed back downtown to confront my Nemesis on 23rd Street. “Sir,” I said, “I have just come from City College and they will admit me without having passed gym. You lied to me!” He turned red, gripped his teeth and snapped, “You’ll get no diploma from this school!” And so it came to pass that I never formally graduated from Townsend Harris. I learned that if you meet an insurmountable obstacle, with a little determination, and justice on your side, you can find ways to walk around it. I was off to City College and later to the greatest law school in the world without ever having received a High School diploma.
Story 8: Life at City College and the Beginning of Romance
The College of the City of New York was another unique institution. It charged no tuition. Only academically qualified males who met strict standards could be enrolled. There was no such thing as “open admissions.” Fortunately for me, graduates of Townsend Harris High were automatically accepted—even without a diploma. Many CCNY students came from immigrant homes. They were rough and tough and anything but genteel. For them, college was an opportunity to share the American dream; it was not a place for fun and games. “City” had no football team. Many of its Professors were world renowned. Professor Morris Raphael Cohen was a very distinguished philosopher who challenged conventional wisdom in a Yiddish accent. With the diversity and poverty of its students, City College was known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”
To accommodate my enrollment, of course, our family had to move again. City College, past Harlem Heights, was practically inaccessible from East 64th Street. I was glad to be gone from that so-called fashionable neighborhood. Too many of our tenants in the converted townhouse struck me as pretenders. There was the man who bought twelve pairs of handmade shoes and skipped without paying the bill of the tearful shoemaker who came looking for him. Wouldn’t one pair have been enough? Of course, he didn’t pay his rent either. Another charlatan proudly displayed medals he had in fact ordered for himself. A “lady,” for whom I had built a bookcase, paid me with a two-cent coin she claimed was a valuable family heirloom. My family never feigned to be upper crust and would never have tried to deceive or mistreat others as did some of the “elegant people” who lived near Park Avenue. I was happy when we moved back to the Bronx where there were fewer pretentious people. I could board a streetcar from our new apartment that would take me close to City College. If I missed the trolley, I could run all the way, lugging my books on my back, and still reach my first class almost on time.
After school, I was required to do chores at home under the glaring eye of my older sister Pearl, the manager. I have forgotten the details, but on one occasion she commanded me to do something that I thought was unreasonable and not in my job description. I refused. Venting her ire by slapping or scratching me was getting to be hazardous to her health so she refrained from her usual response and simply complained vociferously to higher authority. She phoned my mother, who was working as a seamstress nearby, and screamed about my transgressions. My mother got me on the phone and said that since my sister was older, I had to obey her and apologize. If I refused, I had to leave the house. I was never one to be intimidated. I packed a small bag, deposited my house key on the kitchen table and departed.
It is always a good rule not to jump off the diving board unless you know there is water in the pool. I knew that my father was legally responsible for the maintenance of his minor children, so I moved in on Pop. I also knew that financial maintenance was beyond his means. It was summertime, there was no school and I had no difficulty in finding gainful employment. I was accustomed to odd jobs, but some were odder than others. One of the neighbors was a paper-hanger with an ugly daughter my age. Her father promptly hired me as his assistant. While at work, he introduced me to his vaunted lovely girl. I preferred to look at the wallpaper in the bathroom. I began to look for other sources of employment.
On the very day that I had left home, my mother appeared at the door as we were finishing dinner in my father’s apartment. She wanted words with me. “Uncle Dave” had been shocked to discover, when he returned from work, that I had departed and turned in my key. It called for an explanation. I always treated my mother with respect and we discussed the situation in quiet detail. I refused to apologize to my sister for not obeying her unreasonable demands. We were at an impasse. I said I would have to think about it. I also began to think about other things. Gertie—referred to theretofore as the “Greener Cousina”—was visiting her aunt, my stepmother, and could not help overhearing the conversation. She was apparently touched by my gentle and persuasive reasoning. I may thereby have won my most important case. It was not too long thereafter that I was impressed by her language skills and knowledge and her determination to go to night school to complete her education. The “Green” began to take on a rosy glow. In fact, I began to notice that she was very pretty. I was in no rush to return to my sister’s domination. I stayed with Pop until school started. Meanwhile Gertie and I began to take long walks, hand in hand. We became close friends. Being a proper Jewish girl, she saw to it that it was not too close.
Gertrude and I started dating. Since neither of us had any money, our favorite recreation was to go to Cooper Union to listen to lectures that were very enlightening—and free. We could afford the subway fare which was only five cents, and we might even “go Dutch” and share the costs. Sometimes I could be a sport and invite her to a hot chocolate at Stubies Ice Cram Parlor on Tremont Avenue. We could also go to the nearby Bronx zoo where we could look at the monkeys for nothing. If we stayed till it was dark we could sit on a park bench until driven away by hungry mosquitoes. There wasn’t too much time for that sort of thing, since Gert worked all day sewing in a clothing factory and then went to night school to continue her interrupted education. She was a very bright student and soon could even speak English without a Hungarian accent. She was eager to pursue a career in social work, and left her job with the Ladies Garment Workers Union to take a lesser-paying post as a social worker at the Bronx Hospital. We found we had much in common and saw each other whenever we could.
For reasons I have never fathomed, I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer. I never aspired to become a cowboy or a policeman or anything like that. Being distressed by what I saw in Hell’s Kitchen, I looked forward to a career that would enable me to prevent juvenile delinquency. Accordingly, I selected sociology as my major field of study. It was mandatory to also take other courses deemed essential for every well-educated gentleman. One of my choices was between biology, which would compel me to cut open a live frog, or botany, which I assumed would allow me to smell the roses rather than the formaldehyde. The fact that I couldn’t afford the textbook didn’t bother me since I could see that it was mostly written in Latin, a language I couldn’t understand anyway. I shouldn’t have been shocked when the kindly botany Professor whispered in my ear that I was going to flunk. I hastened to borrow a text and, much to everyone’s surprise, I somehow passed the course. The only thing I vaguely remember from my botany class is that a dicotyledonous leaf has two branches whereas a monocotyledonous leaf has only one. There’s nothing quite like a good college education.
During my college years, from 1937 to 1940, the world seemed to be in constant turmoil and on the brink of war. At seventeen, I didn’t realize that the world had always been that way and probably would always remain that way. Japan had recently invaded China; the Russian revolution after World War I had provoked there civil strife as Red Russians were killing White Russians, and the Marxists fighting with the Leninists. Germany was preparing for aggression. Many considered CCNY to be a hotbed of radicalism. One of the courses offered was “Dialectical Materialism.” Since I had not the slightest idea what that meant, and it did not interfere with my lunch schedule, I enrolled. The assigned readings dealt with debates between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and correspondence between Bukharin, Zinoviev, and other revolutionaries whose names also meant nothing to me. I dropped the course. Revolutions and revolutionaries was not my thing.
All social problems were being solved, or at least debated, in one of the City College alcoves known as “The Kremlin.” There, “Young Communists” argued fiercely and exchanged fisticuffs with “Young Socialists” about the best way to maintain peace. Since peace was a subject that appealed to me, I joined the debates. As far as I could make out, the primary goal of the communists was to kill the socialists and vice versa. Whatever I said, both sides called me a Trotskyite. I didn’t know that Leon Trotsky was a leading counterrevolutionary whose career ended abruptly when he was murdered with an ice pick by one of Stalin’s agents. Undaunted, I marched with a mob of City College activists who paraded about two miles to Columbia University holding high our banners calling for world peace. When we arrived at the high-brow college, hoping to be joined by hundreds of other intellectuals, we were assaulted with a barrage of chalk and blackboard erasers tossed from windows by Columbia students who declared war on us. I learned that there are differing views about how to run the world, and that trying to maintain peace can be a thankless, and even hazardous, endeavor.
Professor Bonaro Overstreet’s course in philosophy was very safe. All we had to do was read a novel by the noted English essayist Aldous Huxley. His book, Ends and Means, provided the basis for endless philosophical discussions in which I excelled. I believe there I came to the conclusion that lawful ends can only be sought by lawful means, a conclusion which earned me an “A” in the class.
For recreation, I frequently went to the gym. I even tried my hand as a 115 pound bantamweight boxer. I discovered that my tall and skinny opponents had arms that seemed to reach their ankles while mine did not exceed 29 inches. The coach suggested that maybe I might want to slim down to a flyweight. I mentioned this to my mother, but no Jewish mother could ever be persuaded that her child should lose weight. My Mom threatened to give me some boxing lessons I would never forget. That was a risk I wasn’t prepared to take. Maybe, as Marlon Brando said in his great film “On the Waterfront,” “I could have been a contender.” My boxing career was over.
Not everything I did in college was a waste of time. One of my more useful experiences came from my courses in Criminology. We tried to find a solution to the problem of juvenile truancy by kids who simply refused to go to school. Intuitively, I knew the answer. The teachers and the courses bored them. We devised a program of evening activities to attract the young truants. Those with a record of absences were invited to come voluntarily to participate in popular games and workshop activities. We provided lots of building materials but had a shortage of tools. The idea was to teach the little dears the joys of peaceful cooperation. A job of any size, such as building a rowboat, could only be completed by working together. Occasionally, one kid would try to hit another in the head with a hammer, but that was unusual.
To get to know some full fledged and certified juvenile delinquents, I was recommended for an unpaid summer job, as a counselor at a reform school in Dobbs Ferry, New York. The place of detention was felicitously called “The Children’s Village.” It offered small homes with “cottage parents” to calm the little darlings who had been persistent truants, runaways, thieves, or even murderers. One favorite sport of the misunderstood youngsters was to drop sugar cubes into the gas tanks of visiting guests. The unsuspecting visitors could ride away for a few miles before the entire engine had to be reassembled. I was only a few years older than some of those entrusted to my care. My boxing skills came in handy.
On my day off, I would hitchhike home to the Bronx and return carrying a bag of sweets for the poor dears. Invariably, the sweets were promptly stolen. After a few futile warnings, I set my trap. I returned with a sack of pungent peppermints. The bait was immediately taken. I lined up half a dozen of my suspects and asked them each to exhale forcefully. When the scent of mint could clearly be detected by all, we knew the identity of the thief. I then left it to his bunk buddies to decide on the appropriate response. When I returned half an hour later, the culprit had been tried by a jury of his peers and justice had obviously been done. He might have had trouble sitting, or even standing, for a while, but the crime was never repeated. Experience is often the best teacher. I learned that peace and justice go hand in hand.
My pre-law education included work as a volunteer “intern” in the criminal court system of New York City. My assignment was to arrange the court records of interviews by psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers who gave written opinions about the felons. I was surprised, and even shocked, to discover that some citizens who appeared quite respectable were capable of the most atrocious crimes. It became clear that some sex offenders were habitual criminals where imprisonment seemed to have no deterrent effect; on the contrary, incarceration only increased their aberrant behavior. No one knew what to do about political criminals, such as bomb-tossing terrorists trying to achieve a particular political or nationalistic goal. The professional habitual criminals were well known to the police and were frequently subjected to coercive techniques deigned to discourage further criminal behavior. It seldom worked, but sometimes it did. It was clear to me that progress toward a more humane and peaceful world would be a slow and difficult process. For many intransigent problems, there are no easy answers.
To earn some money, I became an anonymous “ghostwriter.” Some enterprising and impoverished senior in City College had devised a service to help his fellow man. If a student at another school, such as Brooklyn College or New York University, was in need of a term paper or a dissertation, the CCNY entrepreneur tried to be helpful. He had a stable of needy City students available as subcontractors for any subject. I would accept an assignment in any of the social sciences. (But I wouldn’t touch botany.) By collecting a pile of relevant books from the library, and spreading them out on my bedroom floor over the weekend, I could type out a requested paper for an unknown recipient on any acceptable subject for the sum of one hundred dollars—no questions asked. Not only did it provide me with a means of sustenance, I developed a skill at speed reading and writing, and learned more than I ever absorbed in school. It is not necessary to sit in a classroom to become a learned person, just as not all of those who flaunt academic degrees are well educated.
My grades in college were excellent in subjects in which I was interested. I was in the top of the class in every course given in the sociology department. I had very little interest, or success, in unrelated matters. In 1940, at the age of 20, I received my degree from CCNY as a Bachelor of Social Sciences. I even attended the boring graduation ceremonies. What next? I didn’t know any lawyer and had no idea about law schools. My parents were in no position to help me. I felt that to lift myself out of my humble milieu and be qualified to achieve my goals, I would have to try to become the best student in the best law school in the world. I sent my application only to the Harvard Law School. I never found out how or why I was accepted at the elitist institution, but was admitted as a member of the class of 1943. Harvard here I come!
Story 9: Lessons Learned at Harvard Law School
The Dean welcomed the first year class at the Harvard Law School with the following declaration, “Look to the right of you then look to the left. At the end of this semester, one of you three will not be here.” The bottom third of the class would automatically be dropped. With considerable trepidation, I surreptitiously glanced to the right and then to the left. We were all frozen stiff.
The first thing I learned at Harvard was the meaning of fear. One of the professors in particular gloried in the terror he could strike in the hearts of legal neophytes. Professor Edward Warren, who taught Property Law, was always ready to pounce on any errant student. He seemed to have drawn inspiration from the Inquisition and its terrifying “Trials by Ordeal.” At the Law School, final grades were determined solely by the results of the written exam. Nevertheless, “Bull Warren,” as he was generally called, would shout out a grade for every answer received in class from a trembling student. His greatest joy seemed to be to heap scorn and humiliation on his helpless victims. I witnessed when he called one poor classmate forward, handed him a dime, and directed him to phone home and advise his parents that they were wasting their money since he would never become a lawyer. The other classmates howled with laughter and some apprehension. I don’t think Warren intended to be cruel, but I never saw that student in class again. I felt sorry for him and for his parents.
Visitors came to sit in on Warren’s classes to share the merriment of his tortures. There are always some who seem to enjoy the pain of others. Historically, many a victim has been burned at the stake to the cheers of the crowd. I was never one to revel in the misery of others. Even though some of my answers were greeted with a joyous shout, “Atta boy! Atta boy! A for you!” I was saddened to see the pain he inflicted when he responded to some hapless student by moaning, “Am I to breathe the breath of life into this lump of clay?” My disdain was intensified when I too felt the lash of Warren’s whip.
One early morning, I showed up just in time for the Property class, only to discover that the session had been moved to another building. I raced to the new location. I opened the door cautiously. Prof. Warren had started his lecture. Upon spotting me, he stopped in his tracks. Pointing a trembling finger at my startled eyes, he shouted, “You! Get Out! Get Out! Get Out!” Of course, I ran as though being chased by the Devil. At the end of the term, Warren read aloud the “grades” of those he wished to humiliate. Lo, Ben Ferencz’s name led all the rest. I approached him cautiously after class and said there must have been a mistake. I noted that he had often cried out that I had received an “A” and now he announced only “D’s.” “Ah,” he said “you are the one who came in late. I erased all of your “A’s” to teach you a lesson.” I never forgot that lesson. If you ever attend a class run by Professor Ed Warren, remember, “Better never than late.”
I learned something else from my class in Property Law. When I met the Prof in the hall after the final exam, he congratulated me and said he would have given me an “A” but for the fact that I didn’t know the difference between “personalty” and “realty.” He was absolutely right. Since I had never owned any property and had never heard the term “personalty,” I apparently goofed on one of the exam questions. I looked it up immediately, and ever since then I have known that “personalty is any property that is not realty, and realty is any property that is not personalty.” Being permanently endowed with such vital information, I guess one might credit Bull Warren as having taught me something after all. I don’t recall ever having made use of such profound wisdom.
The course in Contracts was taught by a very learned and respected scholar. Professor Lon Fuller was able to dissect every legal problem and split decision to reach the core thoughts that led reasonable men to reach diverse conclusions. To be able to understand the other fellow’s point of view, no matter how much you might disagree, is an invaluable skill that sometimes helps make life bearable. Lon Fuller honed and sharpened my legal mind. The same could be said of Professor Zachariah Chafee, who taught Ethics. He espoused human rights long before Human Rights was taught. From him I learned about tolerance and the need to treat all human beings justly. The most learned scholar of all my teachers was Roscoe Pound, who started his career as a Botanist, of all things, in Nebraska. His ability to categorize all knowledge into legal systems and his prodigious memory was truly phenomenal. He taught Jurisprudence, which probed the historical origins of different legal schools of thought. He was an old man when I had him as a teacher and he could hardly see. Reading his old notes, he was a bore. As a legal savant he was incomparable and inspiring. Fuller, Chafee, and Pound all marked me as an “A” student and I was grateful to them as great teachers. They also gave me confidence to believe that, if I put my mind to it, I could match the best of the best.
There were also other Professors who helped to shape my thinking. The course on Business Law taught me that corporate directors were employees hired to run businesses with consideration for the legitimate needs of the public, the employees, and the shareholders who owned the company. Any Chief Executive Officer who failed to be guided by those principles might find himself facing criminal charges for “nonfeasance,” not doing his job, “malfeasance,” doing it badly, or “misfeasance,” which was called “corruption.” We learned that contingent fees paid only upon the success of a case were both immoral and illegal. Encouraging clients to sue could be punishable as the common law crime known as “champerty.” If a lawyer advertised, he would be disbarred. I still cherish these teachings that I absorbed at the Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, they have become eroded or forgotten with the passage of time; the legal profession and the public are the worse for it.
For me, life at Harvard was a grind as well as an opportunity. I knew it was my big chance to make something of myself. Other Jewish boys from City College felt the same way. Some of the non-Jewish students had names that began with an initial and ended with a Roman numeral. They wore argyle socks and brown loafers and belonged to fraternities where they drank cocktails. On Sundays they could be seen punting their little boats on the Charles River. Many of those who came from military or private schools could be identified by the fact that they always said “Sir” to begin and end every sentence. It seemed very odd to me, but I learned that being polite doesn’t hurt, and might even make a good impression. I could see from my attic window that some of my classmates drove fancy red convertibles. If I wanted to go home for a holiday, I had to hitchhike. I was never envious. I considered myself very fortunate. The key to happiness was to be aware of my alternatives. It is a lesson I never forgot.
One of the habits I acquired as an infant was to try to eat regularly—if possible. On Sundays, the Commander Hotel, opposite the Law School, featured a special buffet brunch. For fifty cents, there was no limit to what one could devour. That sumptuous brunch could fill my stomach for a few days. To keep from starving for the remainder of the week, I found work as a busboy in the cafeteria of the nearby Divinity School. Just for clearing the tables after meals, I could eat my choice of leftovers. I was so grateful that, years later, I sent them some money to pay for the repasts I had consumed as an impoverished law student. I’m sure that gained me some blessings from various denominations. They put me on their mailing list for Divinity School Bulletins. After many years of reading their interesting ecumenical articles, I felt I could qualify as a Doctor of Divinity. Food for the mind may be even more important than food for the belly. I still read the Harvard Divinity Bulletins for mental nourishment.
My dream of paradise was to find myself lost in the stacks of the Harvard law library. I found such wonderful books to study and so much wisdom in the decisions of towering Judges like Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, Learned Hand, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, that a new world began to open before my eyes. Years later, in my first law office, I hung portraits of those three inspiring legal giants on the wall above my desk. When a visiting judge remarked that the legal greats looked down on me, I replied, “No, I look up to them.” The rough edges of my earlier education began to wear off as I found inspiration in some of the great jurists I most admired.
One of the things I learned from those studies was that man does not live by bread alone. I had to find some way to raise some real bread, otherwise known as cash. I had been elected to the Board of Student Advisers which paid a stipend for coaching students in brief-writing. I found a Federal program that offered small grants to needy students employed as legal assistants to professors. I promptly offered my services to Roscoe Pound. I had often seen him in the library, wearing his green visor while peering closely into some ancient text. I suggested that I might find and read books for him or do anything else to be helpful. He was kindly in his refusal. He explained that knowledge cannot be transmitted second hand through someone else’s head. I then offered my services to Professor Sheldon Glueck, who taught criminology. He and his wife had gained a reputation for their studies of juvenile delinquency. That was my chosen field and I could also point to the fact that I had won a scholarship based on my criminal law exam. I stressed that since the Federal program would pay me for being his assistant, there would be no cost to him. In short, I could be good for nothing. I got the job. Since Glueck was considering writing a book on German aggression and atrocities, my first assignment was to summarize every book in the Harvard library that related to war crimes. That course probably changed the course of my life.