As I have been aging, I have spent more time thinking about my mother and father. I will not dwell on my mother, because there are not many good things I can say about her. (After you read about my father you will probably say there aren’t many good things to say about him either.) Suffice it to say that my mother was a social butterfly; more concerned with appearances than substance. She was a pianist and she and her sister were Leonard Bernstein’s first music teachers. Her parents were immigrants from Russia and Poland, and my grandfather was one of the nicest people I had ever met. My grandmother had a mean streak – which was inherited by my mother – and not nearly as nice as Grandpa. My mother and father were very wealthy – more about that in a moment – and I had my own governess until I was seven years old.
We lived just on the border of Beverly Hills and Los Angeles; yet I was culturally deprived. I had never been north of the San Fernando Valley; east of East Los Angeles; or south of San Pedro.. I had been sent to Girl Scout camp on Catalina, where I proceeded to get seasick from the time we left San Pedro until the return. I was always left in the care of the governess or the maid. When my mother married my father, an immigrant from Budapest, she became a “decorator to the stars” and it was not unusual to have celebrities in the house daily, nor was it unusual for her to take me on some of her jobs to “show me off.”
But my father was a wonderful man to my sister (younger) and I. He always tried to undue the damage my mother had caused, only to incur her wrath. But….he was wealthy; gave her everything she ever wanted – to the point of filing bankruptcy – and then he became a wealthy man again. You see, my father was a “professional con man.” This is the honest to goodness truth: my dad sold “non-existent property with oil wells on it.” And he sold a lot of them. For a lot of money. And he was a gambler. A fairly good one at that. And if that wasn’t enough, he was a lowly “member of the mob.” I think I must have been about 7 years old when the phone rang and I answered it. (Wonder where the maid was?) A man asked to speak to “Harry.” (All his friends called him “Jimmy.”) When I asked who was calling – my governess schooled me in the right way to answer the phone – the caller said “Mickey Cohen.” Even at 7 I knew who he was. My dad asked me not to tell my mother – and promised to buy me something I wanted if I didn’t tell her, and, of course, I never told her.
Everyone loved my dad. He was charming with dark black curly hair and beautiful green eyes. He spoke with a slight Hungarian accent that made him even more charming. He owned a furniture store in Watts – yes – a white man owning a store in Watts in the 40’s and 50’s. He made wonderful deals with the people in the neighborhood. He gave them money; he loaned them money; he knew the children’s name of his clients; he always had candy in his pockets for them; everyone loved “Jimmy.” In retrospect, he probably gouged them by his wonderful “deals.”
I don’t know when he was caught selling his “real estate deals.” I know it was before I was born, and I know that he spent a year in Leavenworth but no one would talk to me about it when I was old enough, and none of his family is left to talk to me now. But I do know that as a child there was nothing I wanted for; my clothes were all hand-made and I spent hours at “Helen Fenton’s” having my clothes fitted to my mother’s specifications.
When I was sixteen my parents divorced. (Hence my marriage at 17!) Almost immediately my mother married another wealthy man – who also ended up filing for bankruptcy. But my allegiance went to my father, who would win big at the racetrack – Hollywood Park and/or Santa Anita. Remember, this was before he could bet any other place but Las Vegas. He would come over to see me and give me $1-2000 dollars and tell me to put it in a safe place. It was always given to me as a “gift” and sometimes I would have it a day; sometimes a few months, but he always came to “borrow” it back.
He was somewhat of a “drama queen.” He frequently “attempted” suicide; often times I would visit him at Los Angeles General Hospital where he would be recovering from the latest attempt. And he always promised that he wouldn’t do it again – until the next time. I don’t ever remember it being a “touch and go” situation; rather it was a ploy for attention.
When he turned about 55 I found he wasn’t coming over as frequently as before. Sometimes he would leave an envelope in my mailbox with $5000-$10,000 in it telling me he really hit it big and the money was mine. My former husband and I would wonder what kind of bets he must be making to come up with such a big “profit.”
Then one day I got a call from “Ms. Betty”. Her voice sounded so old I thought we might not be able to finish the conversation! She asked me if I knew how to get in touch with “Jimmy.” I asked her how she managed to get my phone number and she said that one time when Jimmy was asleep she went through his wallet and found my number. She told me that she had given over $80,000 for Jimmy to invest for her and she hadn’t heard from him in a few weeks. She wondered how her investment was doing. She told me that they were “in love” and he told her as soon as her investment doubled they would be getting married. I asked how old she was and she had just celebrated her 79th birthday.
I left word for my dad to call me and it took weeks before he did. In the meantime, another lady called me with virtually the same question – “How do I get in touch with Jimmy.” Their wedding was only a few weeks away and she wanted to talk to him. “For crying out loud, Dad, why are you keeping my telephone number in your wallet”, I asked. He said that if was walking across the street and had a heart attack he wanted someone to notify me. (The ironic thing is that was exactly how he died – and that was how I was notified, but years later.)
Do you remember when newspaper boys stood in the middle of the street selling the morning and/or evening editions to the newspapers to people driving home? One day on the way home from my teaching job, I looked at the headlines of the Los Angeles Times, smack dab into the face of my father. The headlines read “ . . . Harry, The Hapless Horse Player” . . . with the byline “promised to marry 9 women for their investments.” It is a wonder that I didn’t run over the newspaper boy.
It turned out that Ms. Betty could not find my dad and reported him to the police. They did an investigation and turned up 8 other women that had given him money to invest. When they were asked why they did it, their answer is so familiar to me today. To a woman they answered, “we were lonely.” Apparently my dad had lost none of his charm. He wined and dined the ladies – probably on their money – took them out, cuddled with them, and they “fell in love.” It is interesting to note that only Ms. Betty filed charges against him. I am sure that the other 8 women thought he would be back to them as soon as he served his 3 year jail sentence. I know he never made restitution; Santa Anita and Hollywood Park had all the money. There were no investments; he didn’t even play the favorites because if they won “ . . they wouldn’t pay anything.”
So why am I writing about things that happened so many years go? I am almost embarrassed to tell you. And the realization today almost dropped me to my knees. I could easily be any one of those 9 women. Like them, I, too am very lonely. I fell in love with a younger man, and I would have done anything he would have asked of me. I kept thinking that I don’t have a lot of cash on hand, but I live in a large house in Pt. Loma. If he needed money I could easily get my hands on a large sum of money to give to him.
Being lonely makes a person very vulnerable. There isn’t much that the person won’t do to assuage that loneliness. Probably every possible solution has been looked at; tried; and discarded. It is not that one is “buying” happiness; rather one is seeking a way out of the depression that threatens almost every waking moment. To have someone give you a hug; a kiss; an embrace is worth all the money in the bank. To wake up next to a warm body and know you aren’t alone in the world is a wonderful feeling.
Today my former friend called and asked me how much I paid for my car a few months ago. He was with me every step of the way in that purchase. I almost – almost – offered him a loan just so I could have him put his arms around me one more time; to feel human warmth, affection, and, in my own mind, love. I didn’t, but am I any different than the women that trusted my father; that looked for love and were willing to pay for it? I wonder. I did not offer the loan but I thought of it; perhaps I am not as bad as my father’s women. After all, they had to have obtained the money somehow. For now – I will not sell my house, and I will still seek happiness and companionship.