Stories told in April, 2010

Poor relations

This story takes place in 1954. It was told on April 23rd, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

It was while l was working in the steel mill that my father’s sister died. Aunt Ella had been married to Rudolph Lederer, who was reputed to have been a big bootlegger in the Prohibition years. He owned the largest brewery in Chicago during the Depression, and they lived in a style that would be impressive even today. They had a big house on Sheridan Road, on the Lake Michigan beach. Each of their four children had a convertible to drive, and the parents kept a limousine and another car.

Every year until he died, Rudolph would preside over Thanksgiving festivities as the next best thing to a family patriarch. His grandchildren and my sister and l would eat in the breakfast room, and ll remember that we would each have our own molded ice cream turkey for dessert.

Ella Lederer had been trained to be a rich man‘s wife, and she played the role well. l heard her admit once she would not have known what to do if she’d ever had to get a job; she guessed she could be a hostess in a restaurant.

After Rudolph died, she resolved to enjoy life on her own terms. She remarried twice, moving to California the second time. We got very nice birthday and Christmas gifts from her in the mail.

Obviously, being near such wealth and having none raised some tensions. Those in the immediate family did everything they could to protect it, while those who were not did everything they could to get their hands on it, our side of the family as much as anyone else. My father, a lawyer with a small private practice, was the only exception: he never got any business from Rudolph, so he never had to be obsequious. My mother, on the other hand, was the classic poor relative, always honored to be invited to dine at the court of the sovereign. After Ella’s visits to Chicago, everyone would come down to the train station to see her and her current husband off. I noticed very early that none of our other relatives, or anyone else‘s, got the whole family at the station waving goodbye every time they left town.

When Ella died in 1954, we took it for granted that we would get some consolation prize, perhaps when she was brought back to Chicago to be buried. There was so much money, some of it had to spill down our way.

Weeks passed and nothing happened, with either the burial or the will, and we figured that she had been buried quietly in California. Then my mother called to tell me the burial would be at the family plot at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago in two days.

In California, Ella had married a retired Ford dealer named Bernstein. “Doc” Bernstein was a Republican, but he looked like Franklin Roosevelt, and took great delight in it. He affected some of the mannerisms – the cigarette holder, the jaunty hat. Ella had signed a prenuptial agreement giving Doc $250,000 on her death, and the woman he divorced to marry Ella got a $250,000 settlement of her own.

The prenuptial agreement, however, had made no provision for the body, so Doc had been holding onto it. Everything has its price. The Lederers paid him a ransom of $45,000, and he and the casket got on a train for Chicago.

The day came for the burial, and naturally, being the poorest relatives, we were the first to arrive at the cemetery. lt was just us and Doc, who was indignant that no one had been at the station to meet him and Mother, as he referred to my aunt. The closer the impending ceremony, the more agitated Doc became. With each new relative who showed up, his grief and his anger rose to new heights. Ella had scarcely died, he complained, before her daughters had come over to take the minks and the jewelry. My mother, the poor in-law, rose for just a moment above her station to whisper to my sister and me, “He wanted them himself.” By the time Ella’s own children arrived, Doc had worked up a real froth. The place was already in an uproar when he suddenly collapsed on the casket.

This was not an old man in a yarmulke, now, acting out a tradition; he was an aristocratic English Jew, American-born, about six feet tall, and he was putting on quite a show. He had seen the tombstone, and it said Ella Lederer, even though her name legally was Ella Bernstein.

That afternoon Doc got an extra $15,000 from the estate for the insult – a bit like a bridge penalty — and the Lederers finally were rid of him. (Years later, the Lederer sons sued the daughters over parts of the estate, and the four of them never spoke to each other again.) That evening Doc phoned my mother for a date. She turned him down, and that was the last we heard from Uncle Doc, a man who understood better than anyone else l’ve met that death is a commodity: just another occasion for the primitive accumulation of capital.

l did end up getting $5,000 from my aunt’s estate, an enormous sum to me. I‘d never had any money before. l used part of it to buy a car, gave some to my mother and some to the American Socialist, blew the rest, and loved every minute of it.

Meet the Beatles

This story takes place in 1964. It was told on April 18th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

I’d been in the business for five years when the Beatles fell into my lap in 1964. I had a regular folk concert series going that was very well attended, I was organizing some shows with Henry Mancini, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis, and I’d branched out into jazz concerts too. One morning I got a call from Jerry Perenchio, the Los Angeles talent agent who earlier had handled Mancini and Mathis for MCA, the largest booking agency in the country.

Jerry, who had got his start booking bands for fraternities in college, was a cut above the average talent agent in a few ways: he was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and was interested in things outside show business, a rare thing among agents. He had a sense of ethics — another unusual quirk — and at the same time he could be self-serving and ruthless. I liked him.

“You’re gonna be called and offered the BeatIes,” Jerry told me. “They’re gonna be big. They’re gonna do business. Don‘t miss it.”

I did not know the Beatles from Adam. They were one more of the English pop bands that were capturing the fancy of American teenagers that year. But they had just released a series of records that were selling phenomenally, so the timing seemed right. The money wasn’t that big, even for the early 1960s. I guaranteed a take of $25,000 or sixty percent of the gross for General Artists Corporation, which was running the tour, and I booked them into the International Amphitheatre, with eleven thousand seats.

It was a hall that until then had mainly seen rodeos; before I put the Beatles there, the only musical act to play the Amphitheatre had been Elvis Presley.

We were sold out by mail almost the moment we announced the show on the radio. We had to go back on the air right away and tell people, “Don’t send your money in. There are no more tickets.”

It was obvious that something new had happened. What it was, I didn’t have the vaguest idea. The Beatles were a clean-cut group with original songs that were not particularly profound — lightweight love songs, bubblegum music. Their dress was unusual but not at all threatening. Somehow they, and the other British acts that followed them, had touched something among young Americans that American music had not. Terminally cute and clever, they seemed to have found the handle to some of the same anything-is-possible feeling that John Kennedy’s administration had successfully locked into with its rhetoric of “new beginnings.” This was still a time when people thought we might be able to get somewhere by appealing to peopIe’s morality, joining hands and singing songs. There was a great notion that the world was going to get better.

What I couldn‘t see was how this Beatles phenomenon had anything to do with that. I was doing concerts with Pete Seeger, a singer who really did know how to articulate people’s hopes for change. Peter, Paul and Mary, the most successful of the pop folk trios, seemed to have something significant to say. I was managing the Chad Mitchell Trio, another pop folk group whose political satire was on the cutting edge for several years. Miriam Makeba, the extraordinary singer Harry Belafonte had brought over from South Africa, was a regular on my stages. And there was Bob Dylan, who was just then shaking up the country’s intelligentsia. In this company, the Beatles seemed lightweight, unconnected to what was going on in America. Maybe they were inspiring the kids, but they weren‘t doing anything for me. Except making me money.

James Hickman

This story takes place in 1947. It was told on April 14th, 2010 by Frank.  Be the first to comment

James Hickman was a Black sharecropper who‘d come up north in 1944 with his wife and six children to get a job in a steel mill. He managed to find a one-room apartment in a falling-down tenement building, but soon after the family moved in the landlord began trying to evict them. The landlord wanted to subdivide the building even further, to take advantage of the high rents brought on by the critically tight housing supply.

After repeated threats to burn them out, the landlord set fire to the place while Hickman was at work. Three of the children escaped by jumping out a window. The other three were killed.

There was a big outcry in the city, but the landlord (who was Black himself) had the support of the real estate industry, and therefore of the Democratic machine. Nothing happened. Six months later to the day, the enraged Hickman claimed he had a vision, went to the landlord’s house and shot him.

Milt Zaslow, who did his political work under the name Mike Bartell, was the SWP’s top organizer in Chicago. Bartell had been working for years, and with some success, to organize tenants in the neighborhood where Hickman’s tragedy had happened. He had led fights to keep rents down and beef up inspection, and to keep landlords from discriminating against Black tenants.

Mike‘s work had earned him, and the SWP by extension, a solid reputation in the area. lt was Mike that Hickman’s neighbors immediately called on to help rescue Hickman from a murder rap. I had just got out of the Navy and had no job. Military unemployment insurance paid me a few bucks a month, and I was staying at my mother’s house while I looked for a better situation. When Mike Bartell asked me to work with him, I didn’t think twice about it.

We organized as broad a defense committee as we could pull together, meaning that most of the people involved owed nothing to the SWP, but simply knew a case of racial injustice when they saw one. Willoughby Abner, a vice president of the Chicago CIO Council and a very militant black leader, was a left-leaning social democrat who was friendly to the SWP. Charlie Chiakulas was president of the United Auto Workers local at Revere Copper and Brass, and a natural leader. Sidney Lens was a gifted mediator and writer, a Trotskyist in his youth, who had made a brilliant career of organizing tough industrial union locals. Henry McGee was president of the Chicago NAACP.

Mike Myer, one of our lawyers, had defended the Minneapolis Trotskyists in the original Smith Act case; William Temple was Joe Louis’s lawyer; and Leon DesPres was a prominent civil rights lawyer on Chicago‘s South Side. I got to be the committee’s secretary, in charge of keeping everything going day to day.

Our immediate line of defense was based on class: in essence, Hickman had a right to shoot the landlord. The landlord had murdered his children, and he had got no justice. It was an unorthodox way to make a legal argument, but then the case itself was pretty unprecedented.

So was the public response. Tallulah Bankhead spoke for us at a rally that drew twelve hundred people to a Black church on the South Side. in the midst of a magnificent reading of a speech Sid Lens had written for her, she came to a part about the Negro race. She stopped and remarked, “I love the Negro race,“ and brought the house down.

I toured the Midwest and the East Coast, speaking to small groups of union members and churchgoers, raising money and support. Several labor unions came to our aid, and not just on paper. My connections in the American Veterans’ Committee paid off when I got the AVC to send us a message of support.

We knew that the only way to free Hickman was to win a political struggle in the black community and in labor around the housing question, which was the reason he had done the shooting. You couldn’t narrow the defense.

http://www.youtube.com/user/tmkuster#p/a/u/0/UW0kuCgUb1A

Before long, we could tell the social heat was building in the city. We knew we had a hung jury — one of the jurors was a member of Chiakulas’ local, which had adopted a resolution in support of the Hickman defense committee, and had given money. This was a time when a union resolution meant something to most members. There was no way that juror was going to vote to convict.

The State’s Attorney knew everything we knew, and as soon as it became clear that we had the social backing we needed, he began to back off. The case was causing a big international stir, and it was just not worth the bad press.
Finally the verdict came down. It was a hung jury. After about a month of negotiating over the retrial, the state offered a deal: Hickman could plead guilty to manslaughter and serve no time.
The Chicago Tribune was hysterically opposed, and the Chicago Board of Realtors tried to scuttle the deal at the last minute. They didn’t want it written into case law that tenants could shoot their landlords.
Until the last gavel fell, nobody knew whether the deal was going to go through. But it did, and Hickman never served any more time in prison.
Hickman‘s wife became friendly to the SWP, but Hickman himself really believed that just as God had directed him to do the killing, it was God who had freed him. That was all right with us. We had accomplished what we set out to do. Besides redressing an injustice, I think we had also alerted some people to their rights and put the landlords a little on the defensive about what they could and couldn’t do.

Combat

This story takes place in 1938. It was told on April 10th, 2010 by Frank.  1 Comment

Boxing and wrestling have a way of becoming terribly important during hard economic times. I remember good tickets for the Braddock-Louis fight at Soldier Field, in the midst of the Depression, going for a hundred dollars. Thanks to my mother’s job at the Illinois Athletic Commission, l could get into wrestling shows at the Rainbow Gardens almost every week. l would occasionally go to the boxing matches at the Marigold Gardens and at the Amphitheatre, but that was farther away and my mother worried that I might get lost or hurt. Despite her restrictions, l managed to see a lot of great fights.

Every Christmas my mother would pile up big shopping bags full of gifts of liquor and candy she’d got in return for boxing tickets that the promoters would give her. I would meet her at the EI train every night for two or three weeks in a row to help her carry them. People love access, and they love to be able to tell their friends thy got their tickets from someone on the inside, even if the tickets aren’t any better than the ones you can buy at the box office. My mother, as secretary of the Athletic Commission, had access to what was a very exciting world for many people. And yet as the Depression ended, and then we went on into World War ll, she seemed to come home with fewer gifts every year.

I couldn’t identify with much of Jewish culture as a boy, but I certainly identified with the Jewish athletes of the time. Hank Greenberg was my man on the Tigers, and Sid Luckman and Solly Sherman played football for the Chicago Bears. There were a number of Jewish boxers, all of whom belied the stereotype of the meek Jew.

I rooted for Max Baer, Slapsie Maxie Rosenbaum, Barney Ross, Davy Day and Benny Leonard. I remember the year three different Jewish all-American college football players went pro: Marshall Goldberg, Sid Luckman and Solly Sherman. But for a long time none of them could hold a candle to Roughie Silverstein, who was personally embroiled in hand-to-hand combat against Nazism at the Rainbow Arena.

Being Bertha’s kid, I had almost free run of the place. Once I was even allowed to fill in for the state ticket inspector, whose official job was to stand at the gate and make sure people had proper tickets so that the state of Illinois would get its ticket tax money. Of course, this was Chicago. The inspector’s real job was to let some people in and keep others out according to a complicated system of debts and favors. For doing nothing that night, I got to take home a large shopping bag full of liquor and Hershey chocolate bars sent to the inspector by appreciative wrestling fans. I could tell the gifts far exceeded the value of the tickets.

Fritz von Shott was tall, massive German wrestler. Once a year there would be an elimination tournament, and the semifinals would always end with Fritz beating Bert Ruby, a Hungarian Jew, by two out of three falls. Fritz would then provoke the crowd to a frenzy with some strutting and a Nazi salute or two. The promoters played this thing as close to a riot as they could. A lot of Germans would show up to root for Fritz, and everyone was at least as passionately involved with the antics as I was. The factions in the crowd would reliably generate a few freelance fights of their own.

Then Fritz and Roughy Silverstein, a Jewish boy from the west side who was the reigning state champ, would fight for the championship, and in Chicago, Roughy would always win. Very little has changed in wrestling since then, except that the show has gotten if anything more grotesque; the general aim was always to pit a good guy against a bad guy. To the Jews in the crowd, Roughy — shorter and even broader of beam than Fritz — represented us against all the bad people who were persecuting Jews in the world, so it was very important to see him uphold our honor.

Lou Gordon was a Chicago cop who moonlighted as a referee at wrestling matches and college football games. He got twenty-five dollars a match, and that was how he was getting through the Depression. He had been an all-American football player for the University of Illinois, but he’d broken a leg after one season with the Bears. Lou’s political connections (he was married to Congressman Adolph Sabath’s niece) had got him in at the Athletic Commission, where my mother was secretary, and they got to be friends. Lou became for a while a kind of surrogate father to me. He often saw me home from wrestling matches as a favor to my mother.

Late one night, after Roughy had vanquished Fritz and the place was winding down from its fever, Lou told me to wait for him upstairs by the dressing rooms. I knew my way around the arena, but this was the first time I’d been allowed upstairs.

The moment I walked into the dressing room hallway I knew there was something funny about this. There was no separation between the athletes’ quarters, and there was no sign of the violent antagonism that had been evident in the ring. Roughy and Fritz, in their street clothes, came out of the dressing room arm in arm. They stopped. Lou introduced me to them. We chatted a little, or at least they did. My mouth hung open. Then they excused themselves: they were driving to Milwaukee for the next fight, and they had to get on the road. I couldn’t believe it. I was silent, traumatized, on the train ride home with Lou, and soon after that I lost all interest in wrestling.

Sellout

This story takes place in 1967. It was told on April 2nd, 2010 by Frank.  1 Comment

If you had told me then that Chicago would remember me as the man who brought the Beatles, I would have laughed at you. It was August 1966. A week earlier, John Lennon had set off an uproar with his offhand observation about art and life. It was all over the papers in this country: “We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ‘n roll or Christianity.”

Maybe he was right, but some people were saying Lennon had put his foot fatally in his mouth this time. The Beatles’ very career was threatened. The press was in a tizzy. A movement was taking shape in the South to ban Beatles records from stores.

Lennon had refused to say anything more in England. But the group had promised a press conference in Chicago to kick off their fifteen-city tour of the United States, and now hundreds of press types were pouring in from all over the world to see if there would be an apology. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, was flying over to handle the onslaught himself. And there I was at the ramp at O’Hare Airport, waiting for Brian Epstein.

Jack Mabley, in his column for the Chicago Herald-American that day, was thundering that the Beatles should take their money and go home. I had brought in Mabley to introduce the Beatles form the stage at the last concert they did for me, but he had apparently changed his mind about them since then. Len O’Connor, a commentator for the big WGN radio station, added a loud attack on the air. I guessed that if even these guys had had such a profound change of heart, it meant proper society must be pretty thoroughly shocked. Epstein was sure the reporters would have his boys’ heads for it.

They could have them, for all I cared. My main concern at this point was to get this over with and get home. I didn’t have much to say to Epstein about anything. I was much more interested in Vladimir Lenin’s views than in John Lennon’s. I guess I was in the minority on both those matters, but I was used to that.

In any case, I was just the promoter. My job was to put the asses in the seats, and if I did it well, I expected to be left alone.

Norman Weiss, the Beatles’ booking agent at General Artists, had called at the last minute and asked me to meet Epstein myself with a limousine. In my eight years in the business I had occasionally been forced to hire limos for artists, but I had drawn the line at attending them personally. This time I reluctantly agreed, sure that this was the final step in my progress as a sellout.