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Before Entrepreneurship 3: New York in the Forties

To a child, New York in the forties seemed safe. As kids, we crossed Broadway to go to the park, we walked around the corner to go to school, and we rode the subway alone by the time we were nine, when Wollman Memorial Ice Skating Rink opened. I was also allowed to go to the Museum of Natural History on the A train with a friend. After school, we went home, got our roller skates, and sidewalk skated around the neighborhood. On occasion, my mother stared out the window to see if I was visible, but I really don’t remember being watched too closely.

Perhaps that was because my parents’ life in the 40s got pretty busy. My father, by the time we moved uptown to Washington Heights, had segued from helping organize the baker’s union and representing. oppressed workers to representing theatrical talent and oppressed black jazz musicians.

This meant he “had” to go out to nightclubs every night, and my mother “had to” go with him. I have pretty fragmentary and mysterious memories of my father’s. “work.” One of those fragmentary memories was that, we were never allowed to wake him up in the morning, and I never knew what time he came home at night. He had to “catch the acts” while they were performing, and he and my mother seemed (to a child’s memory) to go out every night to a night club. My mother wore very fancy dresses, and a stole that looked like bunch of strung together cats. She explained to me that they were “stone martens.” I just looked them up on Wickipedia and found out they are part of the weasel family, and that they are predators from Central Europe.

My mother didn’t get up in the morning either like the other mothers. I hardly remember mornings when I was an only child, but by the time my brother was born almost four years later, we had a maid, Dilcy, who arrived at our house very early in the morning, made us breakfast, and was responsible for getting us off to school. My mother found her through an ad in the paper. She was tall and thin, and a wonderful dresser. Some man had given her syphilis, and my mother took her to our family doctor to get her antibiotics, which were new at the time and apparently cured her.

Even though she had a communicable venereal disease, it never occurred to my mother to let her go, because my brother and I loved her. The only option was to make her well.

When I came home from school for lunch, my mother was awake and my father was already gone. Mom was never much of a cook, and I remember a lot of egg salad and tuna salad sandwiches as I listened to radio soap operas like “Our Gal Sunday” and “The Romance of Helen Trent” with her until I went back to school. I’m not sure my mother was ever fulfilled by being a mother the way she loved the glamor of being my father’s wife. She told me endlessly (to my detriment, I’m sure), that her job was to stay close to my father so no other woman would steal him away from her. That’s why she made sure to go out with him at night, and why she accompanied him on long business trips by train to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. I think she loved going to nightclubs, especially in the 40s and 50s, which were the the high years of the New York 52nd Street jazz scene.

By long business trips, I mean a month at a time, while Brad and I were left with Dilcy and my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harry, a childless couple who loved us. Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harry came and stayed in our apartment at night so Dilcy wouldn’t have to sleep over every night, because Dilcy had her own daughter at home.

Uncle Harry was my mother’s brother. He vanished from my life at an early age. One day I came home from school and found everyone crying around the kitchen table. I hid under the table to try to hear what the adults were saying, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

When I was older, I found out that my Uncle Harry had died of a heart attack while having intercourse with a woman who wasn’t his wife. He was a liquor salesman, and my Aunt Ruth worked for a pearl vendor in the Jewelry Exchange. All the parties are dead now, and I don’t know the details, but my mother told me many years later that my Aunt Ruth was terribly hurt, but that Harry was her favorite brother, and. whatever happened affair-wise was not important.

Her other brother, Mack, lived in our apartment building, a floor below us. He and his wife and son were part of my parents’ social circle. My mother was close to her siblings (except for one older sister, whom she hated), but she sure didn’t like my father’s family. She always thought they were ne’er-do-wells who were always borrowing money from my dad. My dad, however, was close to them.

While these two families, my mother’s and my father’s, (the Rosens and the Olmans) lived in apartment buildings in New York City, they lived like all recent immigrant families: they stayed very close to their relatives, they helped each other out financially and physically, and the one ones who were better off tried to pull the entire family along. As I sit down to write about it, my family background seems very much like the families around me in Arizona, the immigrants from Mexico. The barrio isn’t that different from the lower East Side in New York or the German Jewish community in Washington Heights during World War II.

Pearl Harbor came seven months after I was born, but it didn’t impact our family much because my father was not eligible for the Army. Rheumatic fever had left him, like my Uncle Harry, with heart disease, and both of them stayed home when all the other men went off to fight. Instead, my parents tried to support their relatives in Europe with money, or help them come over to the US. In later life, my mother was a charter member of the Ellis Island Foundation and of the Holocaust Museum. I only found out about that accidentally — being Jewish wasn’t a big activist deal in my family.

That might have been because so many of my father’s clients were black, and my family thought that being Jewish wasn’t anywhere near as bad as being black in America.

Or it might have been because my parents shared NOTHING negative with my brother and me. They never bothered telling me about concentration camps, just as they had difficulty explaining to me where our relatives (my grandfathers, my great uncle, even Uncle Harry) went when they died. Certain people just vanished from my life without an explanation. This continued all the way up through college.

One day in about third grade, a boy with a really bad speech impediment showed up in our class. When we tried to make fun of him, we were told sternly by the teacher that his parents had escaped from the Nazis with him when he was a baby, and that they had sewn his mouth shut so he couldn’t give their whereabouts away by crying. That was Peter Rogers. I’m sure that wasn’t his real name, and that his family had changed it. Everybody’s family name seemed to have been changed. Our last name wasn’t originally Olman; that was the name given to my grandfather Benjamin Olman at Ellis Island when the immigration officer couldn’t pronounce his real name. And my father’s first name wasn’t Chauncey, as I thought it was. As I got older, I understood that his actual first name was Samuel, and his middle name began with a C. and was Anglicized by him to Chauncey. He then went from Samuel Chauncey Olman to S. Chauncey Olman to Chauncey S. Olman, the man I knew as my father.

And my mother? She transformed right along with him. Although I knew her as Sybil Edith, that turned out to have been Edith Sylvia until all that social climbing began. And there’s more. When she died, we found her birth certificate, which revealed that, at the bottom of it all, she wasn’t even Edith or Sylvia: she was Yetta.

It was bad enough that my parents went to Europe for a summer to see the results of the war when I was ten, leaving us in summer camp while they toured the Riviera and went to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I guess it was a big deal, but I only cared because they brought me home a puppy — miniature brown French poodle I named Demi Tasse.

Although my parents regularly criss crossed the country to Los Angeles, It was their first trip abroad, and it was a big deal to them. They wrote me postcards from Nice and Capri and Cap D’Antibes. I hated every postcard even though i was desperate for mail from home.

I was busy being a homesick, fat ten-year-old New York City intellectual, ostracized by a bunk full of Long Island future cheerleaders. While my parents went on the Queen Elizabeth, I went straight to softball and swimming hell. My first real summer of athletics was a social and physical failure; for the first time in my life my mind was not appreciated and therefore I felt like a total misfit. I escaped into the bushes to read, avoiding all those team sports where i could be chosen last and stationed in the outfield. I got poison ivy.

My brother, three and a half years younger, took to summer camp like a fish to water. He wasn’t any help at all. I think I was glad he got an even worse case of poison ivy. Somehow he deserved it, because he betrayed me by fitting in.

I wish I knew whether my parents went to see any of the important landmarks or battlefields of the war, but I don’t think they did. They certainly didn’t tell me about any. They bought a couple of samovars out of a castle that had been appropriated for the troops during the war, and my mother’s decorator cleverly wired them as lamps. I still have them, and I’ve recently discovered that they’re just silverplate, as fifty years of my type of care (none) have revealed. There’s brass visible underneath:-) I wonder if my parents thought they were buying bargain sterling after the war. `

A fresh fruit vendor. came around our neighborhood, and later a “Good Humor” man in a truck. When you realize all this happened on upper Broadway, a street that also had trolley cars and autos, you realize how different traffic levels were right after the war, when most families didn’t even have cars.

Most of the metal went to the war effort. We got a car somewhere around 1949, but it didn’t play a role in our lives that I remember until the 1950s, when some broke client traded my father a 1951 Daimler supposedly built for the Queen of England for some fees he owed. That car was really cool. It had right hand drive, with which my father struggled,( especially when we parked on the street in front of our apartment building,) and burled walnut interiors with a bar in the back seat.

Clearly the Daimler’s interior captivated me. By this time, I realized my dad was special compared to the other kids’ fathers. It’s not that we had more money — we were also middle class — but the clients of Chauncey Olman Attorney-at-Law were mostly black musicians and performers — Pearl Bailey, Billy Daniels, Lena Horne, Mildred Bailey, Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson — who played in famous nightclubs like Lou Walters’ Latin Quarter (yes, that was Barbara Walters’ dad) and Julie Podell’s Copacabana. There was one called The Blue Angel, and one called Cafe Society. And in Hollywood it was Ciro’s.

Chauncey was a professional, and proud of it (he early on told me “you’ve. got to have a profession,” because professions were open to smart Jews and they were one way of assuring yourself a good income. And if you worked for yourself you couldn’t get discriminated against or fired.

He was, of course, a born entrepreneur; he went straight from his clerkship with the judge to a solo practice. As far as I know, he never did anything but run his own business and his own life. Nobody told him what to do. “you’ve got to be a little bit different, “ he told me, sliding his (custom made) gold cufflinks with the image of Billy Daniels singing “that old black magic” into the French cuffs of his (custom made) sheer light blue voile shirt and donning his white thin tie. My father ordered these sheer blue shirts by the dozen, and the skinny white ties by the box. They were his signature look, and he adopted it so he couldn’t get lost in the crowd. He wore a variation of the same thing every day.

I took that advice to heart. No one will ever tell you I haven’t been a little bit different.

There was a lot of glamor surrounding my family, which I understood was not the life of a typical lawyer. Later, I turned down his advice to follow his profession, passing up not one, but two acceptances to Columbia Law School in favor of more studies in English. My father warned me in his inimitable way:”d’ya. know what you can do with a degree in English? Sell shoes.” I didn’t care. I guessed that as a woman lawyer I would end up doing research in some big firm, and that wasn’t for me. Later I would come to know Justice Sandra O’Connor and hear her tell about how she had to start as a legal secretary after graduating from Stanford Law School because she was a woman. That was only ten or twelve years before me.

Chauncey did, however, continue to fund my education, right through the Ph.D that he never saw me finish. He died suddenly in 1965 after walking up eight flights of steps to get to our apartment during the NYC blackout. The elevators weren’t working, exercise was not yet accepted for cardiac patients, and. valve replacements were in “alpha” testing, not yet being tried on human beings.

My idol, he collapsed after he entered our 57th Street apartment, and my brother could not find anyone to resuscitate him in the blackout’s chaos. It probably would have been too late anyway. It sounds from his last words,”my heart is beating so fast,” that he had a fatal arrhythmia. But I’m not a doctor, and I was already married and gone to graduate school at Syracuse with my mandatory medical student husband and MA in English from Columbia in hand.

That was husband #1. My father paid for the wedding, on the roof of the St. Moritz Hotel in 1963, six months before Kennedy died. My mother never liked Owen, with whom I was wildly in love, and my father told me not to get married. But he walked me down the aisle anyway. He educated me, warning me always about the perils of too much education for a girl and how it scared away the boys. Somewhere up there he is laughing, because he was right. I didn’t need to get married. On the other hand, there have been husbands #2, #3, #4, and #5, so education doesn’t scare EVERYONE off.

My father was wrong about only one thing. I never sold shoes. Selling shoes is about the only thing I have NOT done.

When I was growing up, i envied the glamor my parents had when they went out at night. How did I know where they went? Well, there are dozens of pictures of them in nightclubs with celebrities, and they brought me home the highball and lowball glasses, the autographed cocktail napkins and the matchbooks. Everyone collected matchbooks as souvenirs back then, because everybody drank cocktails, with which they smoked cigarettes,

This was the era that ended during the time of “Mad Men,” as I entered the workforce. During my childhood, although I always felt financially secure and assumed my future would be equally secure, I knew surprisingly little about what my parents’ lives were like. They didn’t share. We were only a big part of their lives on Sunday, when we took a drive “in the country,” the suburbs of New York and New Jersey, to visit relatives or look at houses we never bought.

I think my mother wanted to buy a house, but my father’s theory was that “a house was a deep hole into which you throw money.” As I look back on it, he was surprisingly correct. He saw through the entire real estate thing, although he did invest in income producing real estate partnerships in Hoboken.

We only found out about those after he died.

One reason I knew so little about my father’s life was that some of. my dad’s clients did drugs and beat their wives, as musicians did then (mostly heroin) and got arrested on drug charges. My father went and bailed them out in the middle of the night. The big thing was to prevent them from losing their”cabaret cards,” which were the licenses they needed to be able to perform in New York clubs. Our lives often revolved around my dad going to court to keep someone, drunk, violent, or addicted from losing his cabaret card. The last one of those I remember was Chet Baker, a brilliant musician who wasted most of his life with an addiction to heroin. But these aren’t the kind of anecdotes you bring home and share with your kids — at least not in the time I was young.

Billy Daniels, another of my father’s “acts,” the singer most famous for “That Old Black Magic,” was a man of mixed race who could pass for white. He was married to a white woman, but his children came out darker than he was. Since they couldn’t pass, he had to send them to school in Switzerland. They were not accepted in the United States. Only in retrospect do I understand how difficult this was. At the time, I thought it was very cool that they went to boarding school in Switzerland.

So when Pearl Bailey, very dark, married the white drummer Louis Bellson, my father urged them not to have children. In fact, he begged them not to have children. By this time I was old enough to know that my father was somewhat of a crusader for the rights of black people, so this gave me pause.

All his life, my father tried to get greater rights for black people, not as, any kind of civil rights crusade, but as legitimate contractual rights. for the individuals he represented. He therefore subtly corrected many wrongs: he started a music publishing company with a black partner because black musicians often were unable to own their own intellectual property and routinely got screwed out of their royalties. In fact, he started a couple of them: Cosmopolitan Publishing and Music Royalty Company. I remember them because sometimes he took us to his office, where Mae McGowan, his gray-haired secretary, had their file folders on her desk.

He negotiated into the contracts of his clients the right to eat and stay at the hotels in Vegas and LA where they performed, too. In retrospect, I see that he used the legal system wisely to help people of color get fairly treated — without making a big fuss over it.

Other people were my dad’s clients in the 40's, although I didn’t know who they were. All I knew was that sometimes they went to jail, and some to prison. My father would occasionally take the train up to Ossining to Sing Sing to visit them, because he was also their attorney. They were not entertainers. Of course I didn’t know what they did. I have no way to prove this, but I suspect some of them were mobsters. It stands to reason that, with the interconnections between the entertainment world and the world of organized crime during that era (which ended with the”Rat Pack” and Frank Sinatra’s alleged mob connections,) they were real criminals, and not just addicts.

My parents took pains not to let us know about them, although occasionally I overheard Daddy talking on the phone to someone named “Scarsy” or”Fingers.” And because I was left-handed, he sometimes called me”Lefty Louie.”

Instead of the mob, my parents socialized with the other middle class couples in our apartment building, who had children near my age. Those men were entrepreneurs: they had reached success in the garment business, the belt business, and the jewelry business. They sold things.

I cannot remember any of my parents’ friends having a job. Jobs were what women had before they got married, and what men had who didn’t want to get as far. The good jobs were teaching, nursing, and the civil service (government). Those jobs were known to be secure, and worthy. You reached those jobs by taking other jobs and you worked your way up. To do that, you went to a vocational high school, where you learned (if you were a woman) to type and take shorthand, or to teach or to nurse. If you were a man, you learned carpentry, or machining.

But if you were ambitious, a job was not for you.



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