Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Clara's Scrapbook: Rumors and Romance Part 2

I'm an old lady by now and I'm very surprised by the mishegoss  (Yiddish for craziness, foolishness) going on regarding a romance I had in the late 1930's, over fifty years ago.

The mishegoss started when my niece Betsy visited a few weeks ago and asked, not so innocently I must say, whether I had dated a cartoonist when I was young. She said she heard rumors. “What rumors,” I asked, and if I remember right, she replied, “My mom (my older sister Rose) told Sue (Betsy’s older sister) that you fell in love with the guy who drew the Little Lulu comic-strip and that your mother banished you to Los Angeles to get you away from him.”

Oy I opened a can of worms when I asked about the rumors and allowed our conversation to continue. Now that I think of it, I could have just changed the subject. Coulda, woulda, shoulda doesn’t help anymore.

I sidestepped telling Betsy the true story. I didn’t tell her that I had indeed dated a cartoonist. Rather, I spun a tale loosely based on my time in California, telling her that I went to LA looking for adventure when I was in my twenties.

Betsy was visiting at the home I share with my husband Rolland in Dixon, Illinois when we had the conversation. After she returned to Chicago, where she lives, I tried to put our conversation out of my head. I was fairly successful until Betsy dropped a bombshell when she sent me a copy of a letter dated 1/14/45, that her mother Rose wrote to Len (my brother-in-law). This was one of the letters Len and Rose wrote to each other daily while Len was in the army during World War II. I remember them mentioning the letters and telling me that they might one day publish them in a book titled Letters to My Love. What can I say? We are all aspiring authors in this family.

They never compiled the letters into a book and in 1991 after my dear sister Rose died, Len passed the letters on to Betsy. Somehow, Betsy just happened to be reading the letters and came upon a reference to me being in California. Betsy the letter along with this note , “Aunt Claire, here is something about your time in California and some guy named Cecil. Thought you might be interested to see it.” 

Here’s an excerpt the letter where Rose quotes MY letter, and comments on what I wrote.

I received a letter from Claire today, which was a masterpiece of directness. She wrote, “Please talk to Mother and tell her to stop calling Cecil and telling him to leave town or promise he wouldn’t bother me when I come back. I got a letter from Cecil telling me this. Tell Mother I have no thoughts of him any longer that he is content and I am too. Advise Mother that they have a good attorney at the News and she can get into plenty of trouble. I am very happy in California but I am coming back for a visit, the only reason being that I’m tired of the letters, crying and desperate Mother is writing. I’m coming to straighten things out and go back promptly.” I guess there’s a big blowout brewing and Mother’s conduct is perfectly inexcusable. I talked with Mary (our oldest sister) and neither of us knew what to do. Joe (Mary’s husband) advised not mentioning it, but I thought Mary would be the best person to tell Mother Claire said thus and so about Cecil and then Mary should refuse to discuss it. … It’s a… mess, and I get disgusted thinking of my Mother maneuvering around so. [1]

OK, so I wrote about a guy named Cecil and said, “I have no thoughts of him any longer…” And there was stuff about “Mother maneuvering around so,” as Rose succinctly put it.

OK, so finally I think it is time to tell the whole story. It was a beautiful and awful experience and I’m 80 years old and why not?  

Cecil was Cecil Jensen and during the time we dated, he was a political cartoonist at the Chicago Daily News. A few years later he started drawing a daily comic-strip titled Elmo about a disingenuous guy who was always making a mess of things. And in the late 1940’s, probably with the encouragement of the newspaper syndicates of the day, Cecil dropped Elmo in favor of a minor character Debbie, and became most well-known for his long-running syndicated Little Debbie comic-strip. At the time, there were a few other popular comic-strips about young girls who were outspoken rascals including Nancy and Little Lulu.

Yes, of course the Daily News had good attorneys on staff who could have gone after Mother if she continued pestering Cecil. I believe these days they call Mother’s behavior “stalking." Yes, even though Cecil and I had come to terms with our romance ending, we wrote to each other now and then when I was in California. We always expected our romance would end. He was after all 14 years older than me and most damning of all to my Jewish Russian immigrant mother, he was not Jewish. And yes, I was happy in California, even though I was always financially teetering on the edge of poverty, and I had every intention to return there after a short visit to Chicago to “straighten things out” with Mother.

There was a lot in the short paragraph I wrote to Rose and it reminded me of Cecil, how well we got on and how much fun we had together.  But it also reminded me of Mother’s nagging behavior and that part was painful to remember.

Since I was going through my old photographs, I dug out the picture of Cecil and me taken in 1940, and also came upon copies of a few of his political cartoons and some some clippings of the Elmo and Little Debbie comic-strips.

I showed the photo to my husband Rolland and mentioned that Cecil, whom I dated many many years ago, called me Clara, the romantic name I was given at birth. I told Roll (pronounced Rahl) that he was my second love, but Cecil was my first love – way back in the late 1930’s, early 1940’s.

“So that is you and this Cecil Jensen guy? Wow, you were young and beautiful and he’s pretty good looking too! So you say he was your first love and there was no one else until you met me.

 “I’m flattered. Dearie,” Rolland continued, “the young Clara LeBrint was quite the gal then and the older Claire LeBrint Metzer still is today. You sure look pleased with yourself in that picture, with that sweet smile and kinda dreamy look in your eyes. These days you have a big beautiful smile and a sparkle in your eyes, I would like to think because you are with me. Yes? [I nodded my head in agreement]. I’m one lucky guy, that you fell for me and consented to marry me -- finally -- after I chased you all the way to Israel. Remember?”

I sure do love Rolland, my husband of twenty-something years. “How could I forget Dearie? That was the trip when I thought I lost my passport and you kept me as calm as was possible. You know me; I sure do get nervoused-up. But it turned out OK. The passport was in my purse the whole time that I thought it was lost.”

Claire and Rolland in Israel

Rolland was my second love, but the first and only guy I married, at the ripe old age of 53. And I thought to myself, Maybe now is the time to tell Roll a little bit about my younger self and about Cecil. He might get a kick out of knowing how cosmopolitan I was and he might remember Cecil Jensen’s political cartoons or at least his comic-strip “Little Debbie.”

I showed Roll a few of Cecil’s cartoons from the late 1930’s and the 40’s, the war years, and a few of the comic-strips and asked if he knew Cecil Jensen’s work.

“I don’t recognize any of this,” he said. “Remember Dearie I’m a bit younger than you.”

“Yes, Roll, you are eight years my junior so when I was romancing Cecil you were still in short pants, or in high school, or maybe in college. But I’m not complaining because I captured you, my most wonderful younger husband. “

“Yes dearie, and I’ll always be younger,” he quipped.

“Always,” I agreed.

He said with laughter in his voice, “My family was too cultured to read comic-strips. We were involved in opera and highfalutin music. You know how I love Wagner and can sit contentedly through his 5 ½ hour Ring Cycle.”

“Oh I know which is why I never go with you. Anything over three hours is too much for me.”

“Well it was my heritage. Remember my grandfather was the famous opera singer, Adolf Muhlmann and my mother Zerline Muhlmann Metzger was the founder of the All Children’s Grand Opera Company of Chicago and I sang with the children’s opera company when I was a teen. Don’t we have a picture of me in my opera regalia?”

“I remember the stories you told about your grandfather. In fact I wrote a story about Adolf, and how he went from yeshiva bocher  (Yiddish for young Jewish male student studying Jewish texts full-time) to opera singer. And yes, I remember stories about your mother and the children’s opera and I think we have a picture of you performing in it.”

The conversation about Cecil was over. I realized Roll didn’t much care about that romance. We have our own romance and he’s most happy with us. Me too.

One day I’ll write the story about Cecil and me and I’ll share it with Betsy, who will I’m sure share it with her sisters. Maybe someday, when I’m long gone, she will let others read the story of my first romance. Maybe someday it will get put on that newfangled computer invention the "world wide web." Rolland’s a computer whiz and told me about this “web-thing.” He says it will let everyone around the world read all kinds of information about history and about people’s lives. Pipe dream, I say. And anyways who would want to know about a romance between an unknown young girl and a political cartoonist. Hmm… sounds like the plot for a movie, what with an interfering mother it could be quite interesting! 

Enough speculation.

I went looking for the story about Adolf Muhlmann and the picture of young Rolland.  And I found both. The story was titled “How Grandfather Became A Singer”[2] and I wrote it exactly as Rolland told me, in the first person as if I were him. It told how Alter, born in Tzarist Russia (who changed his first name to Adolf), became an opera singer. I also found a related story I’d written for FATE Magazine [3] about why Rolls grandfather’s birth name was Alter (Yiddish for old man). Alter’s superstitious mother Milke gave him this name to fool the Angel of Death into thinking the baby was indeed an old man. Before this baby was born, Milke gave birth to several children who died in infancy. She wanted to ensure Alter lived to a ripe old age. Adolf Muhlmann lived into his 70’s, so Milke’s ruse worked.

And here is Rolland in his teen years as a member of the All Children’s Grand Opera Company. He is on stage for Wagner’s opera Flying Dutchman.

I asked Roll how long this opera was. He said only a little over two hours, performed without an intermission and he reminded me that I went with him to see it at least once.

“Did I stay awake?”

“Well dearie, we saw a rousing version of it at Orchestra Hall, with the Chicago Symphony and Chorus, conducted by George Solti, and of course some famous soloists. So I expect you stayed awake."

What a memory Rolland has! Me? I don’t remember going to that opera -- Wagner was never my thing.


This story is from Clara’s Scrapbook: A Novel Inspired by Photos, Stories, and What-Not Saved by Claire LeBrint Metzger. The novel is a work in progress and Claire, the narrator, writes her stories at age 80 in 1994 .

The Clara Stories are dedicated  to
Claire LeBrint Metzger, of blessed memory 
b 1914 - d 2002

Footnotes below indicate existing documents in the Fuchs/Lebrint Archives held by Betsy Fuchs.

[1] Letter from Rose Fuchs to Leonard Fuchs dated 1/14/45, which includes a letter from Claire LeBrint to her sister Rose Fuchs.

[2] “How Grandfather became A Singer,” by Claire Metzger, undated, unpublished typed manuscript.

[3] This Alter story was from “Adam’s First Wife Lilith” by Claire Metzger, published in FATE Magazine, November 1990.  Also from the article, by way of explanation for Claire’s story about Alter, “When Lilith appeared in Jewish folklore… she was called the Angel of Death…Milke knew her several small children had died in infancy, and in her unhappiness wondered whether she was being punished for a sin. Or was it the ‘Angel of Death,’ a phrase she had heard in her own childhood.”