Monday, November 26, 2018

Clara's Story: Rumors and Romance Part 1

1934 "How not to accept a proposal"
Today my niece Betsy is visiting Dixon, Illinois where I’ve lived with my husband Rolland Metzger since we married twenty-something years ago. We married when I was 53, oy I was almost an “old maid,” and definitely I was slow at finding someone to tie-the-knot with. But Roll was worth the wait.

Speaking of old, oy gavult I just turned 80. I’m not the gad-about I used to be, so Betsy has joined me in my home-hobby, looking through old photos, scrapbooks and what-not I’ve saved during my lifetime. Betsy found a picture of me dated 1934, with a note I wrote on the back How not to accept a proposal and she asks, “Aunt Claire, what’s the story behind this?”

“He wasn’t my type. I was only twenty and if I remember right – it was a long time ago when the photo was snapped – I was thinking: I don't want to date this guy. I hope he gets the message.”

Then she asked, “So you didn’t want to date that guy but I wonder, was there someone that you wanted to date, a cartoonist maybe? There were rumors..."

Involuntarily, I snapped back at her in a sharp, kind of shrill voice, unlike my usual warm and friendly way of talking, “What rumors?” 

She seemed reluctant to answer, but also bursting to tell me. My dear niece, who is a daughter to me, is a bit like her mom Rose who loved to gossip and talk about other people's love lives.

Betsy's words came out haltingly, reluctantly, “My mom told Sue (her older sister) who told me…that you fell in love with the creator of the Little Lulu comic strip… that he wasn’t Jewish… and that he was married or maybe divorced.” She stopped, took a deep breath, and added, “Mom also said that Grandma LeBrint sent you to Los Angeles to break up the romance.”

Then she continued, “If not the cartoonist, Sue thought the romance might have been with Nelson Algren,” and she laughed. I had to laugh too. It was absurd! Nelson Algren, the author who had a long tempestuous love affair with Simone de Beauvoir, the French writer and author of The Feminine Mystic, who herself had a life-long love-commitment with the author and philospher Jean Paul Sartre.

"Can you imagine," I said, "Claire LeBrint mixed up in that romantic mess with those three very public very famous writers?"

Her last question broke the tension and I told her what I thought might have been the source of the Nelson Algren rumor. “Strange but true, the Algren family lived down the street from us in Albany Park and your mom and Aunt Mary (the oldest LeBrint sister) knew him. Nelson was Mary’s age and only a year older than Rose and the three of them went to Haugan, the neighborhood school together. Nelson was four or five years older than me and I didn’t know him. But being the literary type, at some point, I tried to read his book, The Man with the Golden Arm. I never finished it. It was too raw and real for my taste. But, I have to tell you: I’m flattered Sue would think I might have dated Nelson Algren.” I had to laugh again, “Me and Nelson and Simone and Sartre – imagine!” 

It was true, I had a romance with a political cartoonist when I was in my mid-twenties. He was twelve years older than me, single, and most damning of all – he wasn't Jewish. My immigrant Jewish mother banished me to LA to get me away from him. Had I continued with this man, it would have been a shonda for my mother. Shonda is the Yiddish word meaning a disgrace, a shame, a terrible embarrassment, a scandal not only for the family but also for the entire Jewish community. This may seem like an extreme reaction today, but most immigrant families in the old days insisted that their children “stick to their own kind,” to quote from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story

I was a young gal seeking adventure when we dated. It was wonderful. We were in love. But more than that I was a good, mostly obedient daughter who could not go against her parent's wishes. So when it came down to it, I had to do what my mother told me and off to California I went.

I wasn’t about to tell Betsy about the cartoonist. I was happily married to my dear husband Rolland, so why would I want to open that can of worms? Now that I think about it, Rolland might be amused, not surprised at all. He knew that I had wide-ranging interests before we met and had dated quite a bit and that I had many adventures and was quite a live wire.

But I could tell Betsy about California, so I continued, "Yes, with my mother's encouragement I went to Los Angeles when I was in my twenties, to live there for a while."

I needed a break from this conversation, so I made us some instant coffee, and we chatted about plays we had seen, family happenings, and so on.


THE MOSTLY TRUTHFUL STORY OF MY TIME IN CALIFORNIA

I decided I would tell Betsy about California leaving out everything related to my romance with the cartoonist. It was a good enough story without that part, especially since it included my encounter with the actor Lee J. Cobb. 

And this is what I told her.

Our family knew the young Leo Jacoby, who took the name Lee J. Cobb when he became an actor. Cobb’s family lived in New York City. His parents had emigrated from Kishenev, Bessarabia in Czarist Russia (now Romania) where his father had worked with my father. This made our familes landsmen. It was the custom among immigrants to have landsmen stay while they were getting established in America. Some time in the 1920’s, the young Leo Jacoby took advantage of his parents’ landsmen status and stayed at our home in Chicago for a few weeks. I’m not sure why.

It was 1943 when I went to California. By then, Cobb was a movie star living in Hollywood. Mother must have gotten his address from his parents and assured me that he would be happy to help me get settled in Los Angeles. Mother thought it was only fair since he had stayed with us some years back. There were tears all around when I got on the Union Pacific train. It was my second train trip out West. The first was with Aunt Perle (my younger sister). We went to San Francisco and took a side trip to Los Angeles to visit cousins.

This time I was traveling alone. I was a little scared but mostly happy for the adventure of it all. I arrived in LA and took a cab to Cobb’s house, using money Mother and Father gave me to cover my trip and my first few months in California. The cab driver delivered me to a mansion in the Hollywood hills, set back from the road on what seemed like several acres of land. I was so sure Cobb would welcome me that I sent the cab away.

I stared at the place in amazement and wonder, and with great trepidation and some excitement, I rang the bell. Cobb answered the door! I introduced myself as the daughter of Abe and Anna LeBrint from Chicago. Before I could remind him that he had stayed with us when he was Leo Jacoby, he gave me a cold and stony look, as if I was a scraggly stray cat, and slammed the door in my face. Crying, ashamed and disappointed, I walked, lugging my suitcase, from Hollywood several miles down the hill, found a pay phone, and called Mother collect. She reminded me that we had relatives in LA who would be glad to take me in. Perle and I had met them on our trip out West, but they weren’t famous like Lee J. Cobb! My relatives welcomed me into their home. I stayed with them a month or so and then found a room in a women’s boarding house in Boyle Heights, the Jewish area of Los Angeles.

After I settled into my room, with sheer guts, persistence, desperation, and nerve, I searched for a newspaper job. And amazingly, I was hired as a part-time cub reporter for a neighborhood paper. Maybe they were impressed by my “credentials,” which included two night school journalism classes I took at Northwestern University in Chicago. Or maybe it was just dumb luck.

Next order of business was to find a synagogue with a Jewish Singles group. I was happy that the LA Jewish crowd I at the singles group was eclectic and more freethinking than my Chicago friends had been. In the group were some aspiring actors, painters, and writers and other adventuresome transplants from all over the county, even a few from Chicago.

I was hoping to meet an attractive interesting Jewish guy, that we’d fall in love, and that I would be pleased to accept his proposal of marriage. I imagined we would live an exciting freewheeling California life. A gal can dream, can’t she?

The cub reporter job didn’t last. I easily found an office job, of course low paying – to be expected. Life in LA was good. I enjoyed my independence, being away from my bossy mother and my snooty snooping gossipy older sisters Mary and Rose. I missed Father who was sweet but ineffective. I didn’t miss the bookkeeping job I had at Father’s business, The Central Press in downtown Chicago. I was never meant to be a bookkeeper. I dreamed of being a creative writer, like I had been in my early twenties and secretly thought I might get back into theater, or maybe, since I was in LA, I might get small parts in a film or two. After all, in my early twenties, I had the lead role of Grazia in a production of Death Takes a Holiday.

Then I remembered seeing the little article and publicity photo in the scrapbook Betsy and I had been looking through. We found it again and were both impressed with the young Claire Le Brint.





I knew Betsy had many more questions: Did I have copies of “Jettison” and my poem “on page three.” (I didn’t think so.) I’m sure she also wanted to know why and when I left Los Angeles and returned to Chicago. But I was done reminiscing and tired from our conversation. I told her we could continue at another time even though I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I was most afraid she’d ask about the romance.

However, like me, Betsy seemed relieved to be done with our conversation. It had been emotional for her, asking such personal questions, and I bet she was tired too. And hungry. I know I was. It was getting to be dinnertime and Rolland, who had been out and about in Dixon, would be home soon.

I had to figure out whether we would have sandwiches or canned spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner. Betsy stayed for dinner and we had a little salad that I threw together, bread and butter, and the canned spaghetti, with Salerno Butter Cookies for dessert.  She left soon afterwards and drove the two hours back to her home in Chicago. She's a good driver so I didn't worry.

A FEW WEEKS LATER

After Betsy got home, she looked through the stories her mother Rose, of blessed memory, had written about growing up in Chicago. Betsy found one titled "The Lantzmen [sic] Who Stayed with Us," which included some about the young Leo Jacoby visiting the LeBrint family.

Betsy called to tell me that the young Leo was an award winning harmonica player before he got into acting and took the name Lee J. Cobb. You can bet we laughed about that! She sent me a  Xerox copy of the story. I include the part about Jacoby's visit below.

Excerpt from Memories of Childhood by Rose LeBrint Fuchs 
Our last lantzman was the best. He was a 17 year old at the time I was 17. He was not foreign born nor was he needy. He was on his way to Hollywood but wanted to see Chicago. He was the son of Ben Jacob [sic], the man who sent lantzmen to us from New York City. Leo … had won a harmonica contest, a popular instrument in those days, playing Ravel’s "Bolero." He won a week in Hollywood, to try out for Larry Adler’s harmonica band that played in the movies.

Nothing came of that tryout but Leo stayed with us again on his way back home and said he was going to be an actor. After a while he did make a hit … in the stage play “Golden Boy,” went on to Hollywood to play the same role in the movie, changed his name to Lee J. Cobb, a perfect take off of Leo Jacob, and made a fine living until he died a number of years ago.

I went to the library and found that Leo Jacoby was born in 1911 and died in 1976 after many years of being known by his professional actor name Lee J. Cobb.

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