American Prince American Prince American Prince | Chapter 9 of 30 - Part: 1 of 4

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A Battered Childhood


My parents, Emanuel and Helen Schwartz, on their
wedding day, 1922.

When I was a little boy, two or three years old, my parents would go out for dinner and a dance at the First Hungarian Independent Lodge. Because I carried on so much about being left with anyone else, they had to take me along. While they were eating dinner, I sat by my mother on the floor, and when she got up to dance with my father, I would latch on to her and not let go. She’d be dancing with my father, and I’d be holding on to her leg for dear life.

Neither of my parents was very demonstrative with their affections. My father, Emanuel (Manny) Schwartz, was a first-rate tailor, and I can see him even now, hunched over his sewing machine, making alterations to people’s clothes. As talented as he was, during my childhood he made very little money. I remember one time he had come home only to discover he had lost the little yellow envelope with his twenty-two-dollar salary in it.

He ran out of the house. I followed him down the street as he looked in the gutter and on the sidewalk for the entire twelve blocks back to his place of work. How did the envelope fall out of his pocket? Did his pocket have a hole in it? I felt terrible for him that day. My father was visibly shaken by the fact that he’d lost that money. It was one of the few times he expressed emotion of any kind, other than the frustration he regularly showed my mother during their constant bickering.

My father wasn’t a fearful person; quite the contrary. And yet there was a kind of pathetic quality to him. When he was a young man, not long after he got married, my father came across an ad in the Hungarian newspaper that read dancers wanted. It gave an address in Brooklyn. He took time off work and made the trip to the outer borough to pursue his dream of being in show business. When he got there, they told him to take off his shoes and roll up his trousers and go into an adjacent room. In the room was a vat of grapes, and he was told to step in it. They were making wine, and they needed grape crushers. That was his dancing career. He went there that once, and he never went back.

Victor Schwartz, my father’s father, came to America around 1917 with his eldest son, Arthur, who joined the merchant marine, went off to sea, and never was heard from again. Grandpa Victor had arranged for his wife and four younger children in Hungary to join him in America once he was established. Soon after he opened a secondhand clothing store in New York, he wrote a letter to his wife, but she didn’t hear from him after that.

Running out of patience, my grandmother got herself and her children on a boat in steerage to America. When she walked into my grandfather’s store with my father and his three sisters in tow, Victor nearly fell over. He had had no idea his family was coming, and now he had five additional mouths to feed! My grandmother didn’t make a big fuss over her husband’s less-thanenthusiastic reception. She just got on with it. She found a cheap place to live, my grandfather moved in, and they were a family again.

I have only fleeting memories of my father’s parents. I remember Victor Schwartz as a tough guy. Once, when I was young, I was in my father’s tailor shop when my grandfather lost his temper over something and picked up an iron as if to strike my father with it. I was terrified, but my father just stood calmly and looked at him. My grandmother, a tall, forceful woman who ran my grandfather’s life, stepped in and stopped him. The feeling I remember most from my grandparents is sadness: somewhere along the way they lost their love of life, and they died soon after.

My father, Manny, was originally going to become an electrician. When the family was still living in Hungary, Victor had arranged to pay an electrician in Budapest to teach my father the trade. After traveling five hours on the family donkey, Victor and Manny arrived in the city, but when they came to the electrician’s shop, it was closed. After staying overnight at a nearby inn, they found the shop still closed the next morning.

My grandfather wasn’t about to spend any more money on lodging, so he walked a few stores down to a tailor shop. He told the owner how good his son—my father—was with his hands, and he arranged for the tailor to take my father on as an apprentice. The tailor gave my father a room and a sewing machine, and after several months my father became very adept at his trade. He had a real aptitude for it.

Years later my father told me about a relative of his by the name of Katonah Hershul. Katonah in Hungarian means soldier, and Hershul is Harry. Soldier Harry. Katonah Hershul stood over seven feet tall, and he was so strong he could pull a cannon out of the mud. When World War I began, my father wanted to enlist in the Hungarian army. He and some friends had hidden pistols in his bathroom in case the town was attacked, but my grandmother put her foot down about joining the army, so he never got his chance to fight.


One of my favorite things to do as a kid was to visit my father’s three sisters, who lived with their families in the Bronx. My parents would dress me and my younger brother Julius up in our nice clothes, and we’d get on the subway to go to see my aunts: Irene, Helen, and Barbara.

Irene was a huge, obese woman who had married a man who was very thin, which struck me as funny. Aunt Irene would always greet us at the door with fresh-baked cookies or candy. Aunt Helen was also very generous. Her husband, Morris, owned a butcher shop, and every time I went to visit him there, Morris would cut up some meat for me, wrap it up, and say, “Take it home to the family.” My third aunt we called Barbara, although her given name was Burish. She had married a man in the restaurant business, and they had a giant of a son, as big as Soldier Harry.

Among these three families, I had seven cousins, six girls and the young giant. I remember Cousin Stella best. One night when I was about ten, I was playing at Stella’s house when she and her two girlfriends went into her mother’s closet, took out lingerie and sleeping gowns, and played house. They took off their play clothes and put on these see-through garments. They were a year or so younger than I was, so watching these half-naked little girls prance around in their nighties didn’t have as much effect on me as it might have later on, but still it was something I never forgot. I wasn’t quite sure what sex was yet, but I knew it was something forbidden and exciting.

One of the cousins enjoyed driving me crazy. When she was six teen she would wear summer dresses without underwear, and she would rub up against me. My other cousins were older, some much older, so I didn’t have a chance to get to know them very well.


The Hungarian lodge that my father belonged to met on the East Side of Manhattan around 110th Street. Sometimes when he went, he’d bring me along. As president of the lodge my father ran the meetings, and whenever he announced a five-minute break, I can remember everyone running next door to grab a smoke. All those lodge members were heavy smokers, and my father was no exception. From the time I can remember, my father smoked two packs of Lucky Strike cigarettes a day.

The lodge members would light up and talk about sweet-looking girls they’d seen, how business was going, and how things were at home. After the five minutes were up, they’d stub out their cigarettes and drift back to the meeting room. My father would take up his mallet and rap the dais, and then they would discuss serious matters, like where they were going to hold the summer picnic.

I wasn’t always a big fan of those lodge meetings, but I enjoyed that picnic the Hungarian lodge held every summer in Corona, Queens. The outdoor tables groaned under the weight of Hungarian salami, goulash, and stuffed cabbage—all the great Hungarian delicacies. Everybody had a good time. The women clustered together, gossiping and clucking good-naturedly at the children. The men sat around in their colorful, embroidered vests and long-sleeved shirts, smoking and telling stories about the old country. Going to those picnics was one of the few times I felt like I was part of a community, connected to something larger than myself.

The idea was that lodge members were supposed to help each other out during tough financial times, but after the Depression hit in 1929, there wasn’t much anyone could do. They were all broke. Not long afterward my father lost interest in the lodge and in his Hungarian heritage. So did a lot of other men who were dragged down by poverty. Instead of pulling together, they left to go it alone.

My memories of my mother, Helen Schwartz, are dominated by how unhappy she seemed in a loveless marriage. All she ever seemed to talk to my father about was his lack of financial success. She rode him mercilessly about it. I don’t really know why my father wasn’t more successful. He was a talented tailor, and he was well liked in the neighborhood, but I guess he just wasn’t much of a businessman. Unfortunately, my mother viewed his financial struggles with contempt. When she looked around and saw her own relatives thriving, it only made her feel worse about my father. And her tongue only grew more caustic.

The moment my father came through the door after work, my parents started screaming at each other. It made me want to run away, but there was no place for me to go. One time I tried staying at my cousin Andrew’s place, but that didn’t last. I just couldn’t make the adjustment. Not that I was nuts about living with my parents. Even in my own home I wrestled with feelings of loneliness and depression. But over time I learned to cope, mostly by realizing that I couldn’t count on anyone else, which later on would have the unexpected benefit of making me resourceful and independent.

My father made so little money that at one point we lived in the back of my father’s tailor shop in a building that had been condemned by the city. Not only was the place run-down and drafty, we were vulnerable to being robbed by anyone coming down the fire escape from the roof. Our windows didn’t lock. One night my father heard sounds outside the window, so he grabbed the wooden stick he used to hold up the sleeves of the clothing he was sewing, pulled the window open, and scared off an intruder. There was no one to turn to for help. Except for our apartment the building was lifeless, abandoned. We were squatters, pure and simple, and left to our own devices.

Like lots of kids in those days, I escaped the constant stress of poverty and unhappiness by going to the movies. I saw my first movie when I was all of two years old. I don’t remember its title, but I recall a stuntman jumping over buildings and I remember horses. From that day on, I went to the movies as often as I could. If my mother couldn’t take me, she would pay an older girl in the neighborhood a dime to go along.

Apart from the escape provided by Hollywood, the tension from the endless fighting between my parents was relentless. I can recall only one time when they weren’t at each other’s throats. I was fifteen or sixteen, and when I arrived home after school I was surprised to see my father wasn’t in his shop. Both my parents were in the kitchen—kissing! I stopped and stood there, dumbstruck. They were laughing and talking as if they liked each other. I had never seen them like that.

My mother looked up and said to me, “We’re going to be eating pretty soon. Go wash up and get ready for dinner.” My father didn’t take his eyes off her, and she was smiling at him. I went into my bedroom, where, to my astonishment, I broke down in tears. I hadn’t realized what I was missing until that moment, when my parents were actually getting along. Unfortunately, the mood didn’t last. By dinnertime my parents were at it again, screaming at each other or lapsing into the usual bitter silences.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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