As we drew closer to Edna’s house, the roar of the sea grabbed my attention. When we arrived, our acerbically witty, stylish, very blonde hostess was standing at the front door. There is a story behind our friendship. We shared feeling stifled by the sterile suburbs. We’d found each other at the Baldwin Bridge Club, both of us there to conquer the vapidity of suburban life. The game of Bridge shuts the door on all other thoughts or worries. It fills the empty spaces. We liked each other at once, but who knew she led a collection of women who would liberate my hidden aspirations? Edna’s vintage house wrapped its shingles around me as I sensed that I was headed for something special.
She introduced me to what seemed an endless cascade of inspiring women—artists, actors, novelists, journalists, doctors, lawyers, painters, composers, psychoanalysts—all achievers. They raised a spark that fired up unknown truths from the past. There were feisty,talented women in this astral world of lively discourse. Marlyn Brill became a friend instantly. She was a kindred activist; both of us had worked on Jesse Jackson’s symbolic campaign for president. I swam in a sea of female energy and courage. For me at that time, the notion of a career showed up only in dreams. My extra-domestic focus was mainly on human rights projects, political campaigns, Bridge games, and paddle tennis. But these savvy women knew their onions, a mix of brainy broads, young, old, and in-between. I was astonished by the teamwork and their embrace of me, a stranger. The women were bonded. One talked of reframing her ambitions inside male power. A new dynamic for me, the innocent among them.
The next night I walked barefoot to the ocean, sat in the damp sand, the crescent moon squinting at me, my heartbeat in sync with the rolling waves. In the dim light, I saw only white foam, my mind fizzing with the island’s female power and beauty. I’d met Dorothy Carr, an old broad with a teenage appetite for adventure. She embod- ied the intertwining of old and young, her curiosity ranging from the arcane to a belief in science fiction coming true in the future. She became the landlady for our first full summer on the island the following year. Books and memorabilia from global travels filled the crusty beach house. Dorothy mixed pain and wit with an existen- tial truth that kept her life brilliantly satisfying, like my sister Judy. Dorothy became a favorite Bridge partner, mentor, and ageless, sexy friend. No longer alive, she’s still a spirit that inspires me when I need it most. On the first day of our full season, I awoke in her house to sun-rays poking up from the horizon. Walking to the sea, I felt a soft, chilly ocean breeze. My bare toes curled into the welcoming sand as I listened to sound and fury revert to calm and quiet in a rhythm that eased my senses. Traversing the island on naked feet roused a sense of freedom that spilled over to my children.
A Hollywood Star and a Punch in the Mouth
One day on a bench waiting for a ferry, I eyed a tall male body striding toward me in khaki shorts, his caramel skin glowing from the sun, shirt unbuttoned to the waist. My right leg began to quake as he closed in. He was the man on TV with whom I’d fallen in love at age fifteen, a crush that haunted my dreams. When Harry Belafonte offered his hand to say hello, I reached up to return the clasp and pressed hard with my other hand to stop the leg from shuddering. I was fifteen years old again, my crush standing over me. I went stupid. Mercifully, the ferry came.
Dolores Autori, a new friend who’d been a Katherine Dunham dancer, had been close to the Belafontes for years. She persuaded them to rent a house on the bay. On their deck one day, I watched a Cypress Gardens-style spectacle. Bronzed bodies in sexy bikinis kick- ing up high waves on water skis, slaloming in graceful curves and turns. I tried to look indifferent to disguise my envy and discomfort. Harry did exactly what I was afraid of. He beckoned me to try. I declined. He promised to set me up to soar away firmly on the skis. Everyone joined in the pressure. “Don’t be a scaredy-cat.” “What are you afraid of?” I am a strong swimmer, so how bad could it be? I eased into the water behind the boat. Harry put his arms around my waist to put me in the correct position. Then, oh no, an underwater hand grab!
I punched him in the mouth with my clenched fist and in full view of family and friends. Everyone, even his wife, Julie, and my husband, Ed, applauded, laughing. Was this some kind of test? If it was, I guess I’d passed. He was fresh. I socked him. The memory of that punch and the friendship that grew were what empowered me to visit his dressing room at the ABC studio a couple of years later. Our first Fire Island summer had been full of fun. There were marvelous parties with terrific people, and Harry was almost always around. One afternoon after a few hours of crazy poker, we walked together to the beach.
Still overwhelmed that a fifteen-year-old crazy crush was my new friend, I said, “Isn’t it great that everybody here loves you so?” I thought he was going to punch me back as he shouted, “Love? You call that love? Where the hell was love when I needed it? Why do the people who slammed the door in my face now hold it open? It makes me sick.”
I felt stupid. Was it the teenage crush that mucked up my think- ing? Or maybe I wasn’t as hip as I thought I was. You’ll soon find out more about why abandoned the young black students in Red Hook and felt awful. It didn’t help that it was the racist Brooklyn public school system that caused me to quit. That cowardice and my blunder with Harry drove me back to all the writers my Brooklyn College professor had turned me onto. I’d angered a man I adored and respected. What the hell was that about? As close as I’d been to the Black experience from childhood on, I knew I had never come close enough to really know a world that was not mine. I knew I didn’t belong, but it’s what I wanted. I needed to know and respect the boundaries.
An Inspiring Professor
I entered a crowded classroom, daylight barely seeping through unwashed windows. In front of a chalkboard stood a long- bearded, yarmulka-wearing Orthodox Jew with tassels sticking out of his old-fashioned, oversized, velvet-collared black jacket. How could an Orthodox Jew constrained by time-honored sanctions be my first political science professor? Was he the scholar to enlighten me on “postmodern secular issues”? I squirmed in trepidation, then was taken aback by his comprehensive opening remarks. I played with the idea that this educator named Mordecai was sent by the gods to validate my decision to change my major. A man clothed in the garb of unbending ritual chose an existential approach to civics. I was struck by his philosophic, global view of history, particularly on the Holocaust and its relation to slavery. His words verified what was stirring in my brain. In a few weeks, this odd-looking person seemed a soulmate—and I was having a bit of a crush.
He inspired me to read more poetry and novels by Langston Hughes. He talked of Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, both novels I’d already relished. He felt strongly about one I’d never heard of, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In keeping with his connection of slavery with the Holocaust, he recommended a wide range of books by Jewish writers past and present, many I’d read and appreciated deeply, especially I. B. Singer’s Satan in Goray. Mornings I’d awake and leap out of bed—so much to look forward to. I hoped that after class, my professor and I might keep talking. It was uncanny that in spite of the differences between us in age, lifestyle, priorities, and experience, I felt safe and respected in his company. He took my life intention seriously.
Uneasy about the attraction, I said to myself, “Don’t worry, you’re a committed virgin, engaged at last to boyfriend Eddie. Mordecai’s an Orthodox Jew, a married man. Don’t be ridiculous.” The first to arrive in class, I sauntered over to my seat in the second row and took out a compact to check for smudges. I lifted my head and saw Mordecai staring at me. When he caught my glance, he looked at his watch as if unaware I was in the room. But why? Was he looking at his watch to remind himself he’s old enough to be my father? Mordecai upset my equilibrium. Did he remind me of my dad? He was not handsome, although our private sessions were filled with handsome moments. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, made me think hard about what it means to be a woman—black or white. Yet when I sought Mordecai’s wisdom on the myths that pigeonhole women in our society, he changed the subject like the shamas in shul who chased me upstairs to be with females hidden behind the cur- tain. I snapped out of that image to ask Mordecai why women were thought unworthy to pray with the men. No answer. Maybe he was as stuck in his myth as I’d been in mine. But his tethering Black history to Jewishness continued to be exciting.
A Better World?
Working on Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, I shared a lot with my sons. I wanted them to see the candidate in Harlem surrounded by children looking up to him with adoring eyes. I wanted them to know that this man of privilege faced a moment of truth with pov- erty and racism that transformed him. I wanted them to know that he’d sent troops to protect Dr. King and his backers from a raging white mob and that he made it possible for James Meredith to be the first black student at Mississippi University. My boys went to public schools where whites were not a majority. In my mind, that was a way to grow up comfortable in the real world. It was the reason I’d chosen the West Side of New York to escape from the sterile suburbs.
Helping Robert Kennedy become president was a mission that meant the world to me. His belief system had evolved from elitist to humanitarian. Clarence Jones was still the stranger who’d flirted with me at Eddie’s birthday party, the man I’d been running into from time to time, who was cochairman of Eugene McCarthy’s New York campaign for president. One of my RFK tasks was to monitor his star-studded Madison Square Garden rally. Speeches, comedy riffs, and songs raised thunderous roars of approval.
The crowd was thrilled by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward. Then Clarence stepped up to the podium. He was handsome, tall, and exquisitely dressed. In a cadence influenced by Dr. King, he intro- duced the man of the moment to deafening applause. McCarthy strode onto center stage. Thousands rose to their feet, cheering with almost riotous ferocity. The candidate opened with “you people,” then talked about “those people.” People of color are familiar with white folks referring to them in that generalized, stale appellation. The roar from a stadium filled with “those people” and “you people” answered with a sigh. Many thousands of people must have felt the insult. The crowd silenced like an unwinding clock and departed silently at the end of his remarks.
On my way out, I collided with Clarence. I couldn’t resist. “Why have you championed a candidate who says ‘you people’ to thousands of your brothers and sisters?” He replied, “Let’s have a drink and talk about it.”
Dad fell on the sidewalk on his way home at 10:30 p.m., right after he’d phoned me. He was lying under a tree until three in the morning. He died about an hour before they found him. I imagined my dad sprawled out on the sidewalk alive for hours, people stepping past him one by one without a glance. It’s hard to remember anything but the shock. Judy and I were told to go to the morgue to identify his body. We scrambled out of the cab and walked into a gray building with cracked windows and an odor that made me gasp for air. A man in a lab coat took us into a room so cold I saw my breath. He pulled out the trolley with a tag on his bare foot that read “Maurice Grad.” I covered my eyes.
“I don’t want to see my dad dead.”He said, “Please, ladies, let’s get this over with.” I looked at a colorless version of the face I loved. When the man in the white coat pushed my dad back into the metal wall, I nearly fainted. Outside we tried to recover our senses to place a call to our brother in Los Angeles. He said hello. I moved my mouth but made no sound.
“Who is this? If you don’t talk, I’m hanging up.” I said, “It’s me, Sammy. I have bad news. Dad suffered a heart attack! No, no, it was really bad. He died on the sidewalk at about two o’clock this morning. How will I tell the boys? He’d been lying there alive from ten thirty last night to three o’clock in the morning.”
I had to tell his grandsons that their favorite person in the whole wide world was gone.
With unblinking eyes fixated on nothingness, they stood like statues. They cried, they fought, they crumbled. Life without their champion who bounced coins off his bulging biceps, did magic tricks, rode the waves, built sandcastles, and taught them how to throw and catch a ball didn’t seem possible. At my wit’s end, I was empty of ideas to help them deal with the loss of their hero. At thirty-five, I was an orphan, my mother having died when I was twenty-nine. I think about the gift she gave me before she died, her warning not to let Eddie ruin my life. Maybe she did care, but not as much as Dad.
One night watching the very first election returns on TV, my dad railed against a military man in the Oval office. When it was clear that Eisenhower had won in a landslide, he smashed a mar- ble-topped table to smithereens by pounding it with a clenched fist to emphasize his point, shouting, “Ike will be the best president we ever had!” That was my dad, who, at weekday morning breakfasts, read aloud Westbrook Pegler’s columns against FDR and Fala, his dog. His temples pulsed, and the color red rose up from his neck to his cheeks.
I said, “Daddy, why do you read what upsets you?” He pointed to his heart and said, “This is where our emotions come from, dear one.” Then he touched his head to add, “This is where we hear the other side to get the whole story.”
Politics for me was a home away from home, a place where I was one of many but on a uniting mission—a mission that started at the kitchen table. I lived with a recurring dream of my dad’s ritual morning prayers laying tefillin every day but Saturday.