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.