The Last Rebbes – Epilogue

There is a reason this account stops in 1974 and does not continue as a full-fledged history of the Hasidim.: My bad, chopped-up article on the subject appeared in the New York Times Magazine that fall. After that, I gave up on the idea of doing anything more—there was no demand, and I would have lost access in any case. This narrative mostly consists of verbatim notes I wrote up in 1973-74 on cheap yellow paper, then retyped into my computer over the last couple of years, editing along the way.

I don’t present this as a great work of journalism. But it’s a document of sorts: It tells the story of my encounters with the Hasidim at a particular moment in history: the era of Watergate and the Yom Kippur war, and the aging of the great Rebbes. 

Almost 50 years have passed, and there are sad postscripts to several of the stories. 

Samuel Shrage died of a heart attack in 1976. There were charges within Hasidic ranks that the African-American ambulance attendants took their sweet time and let him die. I couldn’t believe that, and his death saddened me. 

A summer or two later, I was in CBGB’s, the Bowery punk-rock club. As Patti Smith was shrieking, I ran into David the Lubavitch dropout. He was very unfriendly, and said, “Stop asking me how I am.” I concluded based on his attire and the venue that he had not returned to Lubavitch. 

In 1979, the Satmar Rebbe died at age 92. Given the state of his health, I suspected the Satmar were already used to getting along without him. Later, I learned that the movement split into two groups, with different leadership.

There also was change at Lubavitch, although it took longer to unfold. In 1991, the Rebbe and his caravan of cars were driving back to Crown Heights from Montefiore Cemetery, when the last car in the procession hit and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old African-American child. This precipitated riots and conflict in which a young Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed to death. These tragic events exacerbated stresses that had existed as far back as the 1960s. 

The Rebbe died in 1994. And the Lubavitch movement also split into two groups, at least intellectually—those who believed the late Rebbe was the messiah and those didn’t. 

The Bobover Rebbe died in 2000, and his movement, too, eventually broke into two groups.

Historians may uncover the truth behind these splits. But I have my own theory: that the job in each case had become too big for one man. 

The passing of the Satmar, Lubavitch and Bobover Rebbes marked the end of an epoch. These were the leaders who escaped the Holocaust and made their way to the United States. There they pulled together small groups of survivors and new adherents who had nowhere else to turn, helping them get a toehold in America and in so doing rebuilt their shattered communities until they were more robust than ever, in the face of grave poverty and other problems, all the while giving tirelessly of themselves as they entered old age. Hopefully, no future Rebbes will face such harrowing challenges. 

That’s why this account is called The Last Rebbes. 

Of course, other people also performed remarkable feats during that time. And both younger and older Rebbes continue to lead their congregations today. But Schneerson, Teitelbaum and Halberstam were giants by any measure. 

As for me, you might wonder if this experience turned me into a Hasid. It didn’t. A skeptic, a bohemian and a hack. I could never submit to the kind of regimented religious life pursued by Hasidic Jews: 

But I did feel drawn to Jewish identity, on whatever level–my wife and I would sometimes show up at Friday night services at a Conservative synagogue, just to feel like we belonged.

Still, we didn’t belong all that much. 

While a Zionist, I had long been bothered by the Haredi’s outsize political influence in Israel, and the Orthodox rabbinate’s power to determine who is a Jew and to pass on the legitimacy of marriages. It’s one thing to voluntarily choose a religious way of life—it’s another to be compelled to observe even small elements of it. Surely, there must be room in the Jewish tent for converts, non-believers, Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, individuals whose fathers were Jewish but not their mothers, gays, lesbians, the transgendered and other outliers. 

People of a certain bent might also question the tendency of the Orthodox in the U.S. to support Republican candidates and to align on issues with the religious right. 

Late in 1974, I was on the Broadway Limited train from New York to Chicago, when men wearing black coats and hats boarded in Ohio. Not Hasidim—Amish. I did a double take. My traveling companion sarcastically said. “There’s your next article.”

Please, no—I’d had enough of black-coated religious groups for a time and was in fact fleeing New York to escape the probable reaction to my 

article in Crown Heights. But one thing became clear as the years went by

and I grew even more ambivalent about the politics and my own belief structure: I missed the Hasidim. 

Boxing In Old Havana

By Ray Schultz

Havana, an old-world city known in folklore for its vice and political turmoil, was the dateline for at least two big stories in 1952. In March, the 1930s strong man Fulgencio Batista returned to power in a coup. In December, Kid Gavilan of Camaguey defended his world welterweight title against Billy Graham at the Gran Stadium. “The weather was hot—and Gavilan’s attack was as torrid,” the New York Times said. And nestled in the crowd was a 15 year-old amateur boxer named Angel Fortez Garcia. 

One of several Cuban fighters starting out in the ‘50s, Garcia was a future friend and peer of Sugar Ramos, Jose Napoles, Luis Rodriguez, Benny Kid Paret, Jose Legra, Florentino Fernandez, Doug Vaillant and many more. Two things set Garcia apart from most of them, though. One was his background. Paret fought to escape the Santa Clara sugar cane fields, Ramos, from Matanzas, because his father promised him extra food. Garcia was the son of an Army officer. He grew up in “a nice place in a well-kept suburb of Havana, a good neighborhood,” Chino Govin said. “There were six kids, a happy family.”

What had attracted him to boxing? “Some fights I saw on TV,” Garcia told me, and that was no doubt true. But I suspect he was also drawn to the money and the good times.

The other difference was his ring name. While Garcia admired Gavilan, the first Cuban champ since Kid Chocolate in the 1930s, he was more influenced by the man who had twice beaten Gavilan: Sugar Ray Robinson. Yet instead of calling himself Sugar (as Ramos did), Garcia or someone around him came up with a variation that fit better with his name: He would be Angel Robinson Garcia. 

Having won all his amateur fights, Garcia turned pro in July 1955, kayoing Roberto Garcia in a one-round featherweight bout in Havana, and he won four more before losing to Renaldo Marquez in Santa Clara. He was then 18 years old. “At the preliminary stage, he only lost one fight,” Chino Govin said. “The decision was a robbery. He fought the same guy three more times.” 

The next year was even better. Garcia scored 17 straight wins, many in distant towns, and topped it off by beating Trini Ruiz in ten rounds in Havana. He was fighting main events within 18 months of turning pro, and that meant something in Havana, that “hot and radiant” city, as Carlos Eire described it, where an upcoming pugilist was a celebrity.  “But Havana was not in the United States,” Eire continued. “That was the beauty of it, and the horror. So much freedom, so little freedom. Freedom to be reckless, but no genuine freedom from woe. Plenty of thrills, and an overabundance of risks, large and small. But so little margin for error, and so few safety nets.” 

Not that Garcia felt he needed a safety net. Ever the tough guy, he fought Chico Morales in Santiago de Cuba after sleeping all night in a theater and then on a park bench. Exhausted from that, and from a 14-hour bus ride, he went to the weigh-in, made the weight, then chowed down on “eggs, bacon, sausages and a little cheese, cold milk and lots of coffee” in a pub, the Italian writer Dario Torromeo reported. And he won the fight, although it is not listed on his record, Torromeo added.  

In May 1957, age 20, Garcia faced Orlando (Baby) Echevarria, a rugged southpaw, for the Cuban junior lightweight crown. He was inspired because Sugar Ray Robinson, at age 35, had just kayoed Gene Fullmer with a perfect left hook to win the world middleweight title for the fourth time.  

“The sensational victory in the rematch against Gene Fullmer has enthused the manner of Angel ‘Robinson’ Garcia, who talked of emulating his great idol in his combat on Saturday,” Diario De La Marina noted. 

“‘I have prepared myself to make an intelligent fight and gain a rapid victory like my great idol Sugar Ray Robinson,’ Garcia said. ‘I have decided to demonstrate to the fanatics who have seen my last encounters and think I committed many errors. The opportunity has come to my door.’” 

Garcia failed to kayo Echevarria, but he outpointed him in 12 rounds, and in his next bout that October beat Guillermo Medina with “a lot of left jabbing and moves,” Chino Govin said. Kid Gavilan’s legendary trainer, Yamil Chade, was impressed with Garcia, and at some point became his manager. 

Batista, meanwhile, was working with the gangster Meyer Lansky to build casinos and collect a “personal share of the gaming industry’s profits,” historians Dick Cluster and Rafael Hernandez wrote. One obstacle in his path was the 26th of July movement led by Castro. These rebels had stormed the Moncada army base on July 26, 1953, and were now fighting the regime from the Sierra Maestra mountains. There were frequent explosions and blackouts in Havana.  

In February 1958, Batista opened a City of Sports, the centerpiece of which was a $2 million indoor arena adorned with pink marble from the province of Pinar del Rio. The inaugural week was to start with the annual Gran Premio automobile race and end with an all-star boxing card. This would feature world lightweight champ Joe (Old Bones) Brown vs. the light-skinned Baby Echevarria, Garcia’s recent foe, in a non-title bout that would be broadcast to the States.  

Batista should have thought it through a little better. The previous year’s Gran Premio winner, Juan Manuel Fangio of Argentina, was standing in his hotel lobby the day before the meet when he felt a gun in his back, Sports Illustrated reported. Moments later, reporters received this call:  “This is the 26th of July speaking. We kidnapped Fangio.” 

The race went on anyway, and what happened next had nothing to do with Castro. A  race car skidded on an oil slick on the Malecon, Havana’s oceanfront highway, and hurtled into the unprotected crowd at 100 mph. Seven people were killed, their empty shoes “a stark indictment of heedless and irresponsible men,” a reporter wrote. Fangio watched it on TV with his captors, who released him after the race. 

Another politician might have cancelled the boxing program. Not Batista. It went on under armed guard, and 12,000 people, everyone from Joe Louis to the cowboy star Gene Autry, were there to see Cuba humiliated. Two Cubans, Oscar Suarez and Jose Ramon Flores, lost to Mexicans, Flores sustaining a cerebral hemorrhage. Then Echeverria got in the ring with Joe Brown. He landed the first punch, but Brown floored him with a right and finished him when he got up—Old Bones did not want to prolong this. “My easiest fight,” Brown said. “He’s very strong, but not too smart.” 

If there was any consolation for Cubans, it was in a bout for the Latin American junior lightweight title: Angel Robinson Garcia versus Panama’s Isidro Martinez. Outboxed at first, Garcia cut Martinez in the 7th, decked him in the 8th and finished him in the 9th when he could no longer move his left leg. “Angel Robinson Garcia, who has a striking resemblance to Sugar Ray, pounded out a 2-fisted attack in the 9th round to halt Isidro Martinez of Panama for the Jr. Lightweight crown,” Nat Fleischer, the dean of boxing writers, wrote in The Ring. Nineteen years and hundreds of fights later, Garcia recalled that he was the only Cuban to win that night. “I win for Cuba,” he said.

Dangerous Ring Rivalries

By Ray Schultz

Gil Clancy, the former gym teacher who trained fighters, had a gruff manner, and I could imagine him greeting a boy’s gym class by sneering, “Hello, girls.” He was all charm, though, when Oscar said I was writing Garcia’s biography. “Garcia is a great fighter, one in a million,” he said. “He’s fought everyone and knows what to do in the ring.” Then he threw this damper on it: “He’ll never make any more money.” 

Clancy’s biggest success, Emile Griffith, joined him in praising Garcia. “That man there is the only man who’s been fighting longer than I have—four more years,” Griffith said one day. Oscar returned the compliment. “This man was five times a champion.” Yes he was: Three times welterweight and twice middleweight champ, the Virgin Islander was the only fighter at the Solar Gym with his own dressing room. 

Now a grizzled 39, the once-handsome Griffith had a long history with Garcia’s countrymen. Having decisioned Luis Rodriguez and Florentino Fernandez in early bouts, he was matched with Benny Kid Paret for the welterweight championship in Miami in April 1961. Paret was the first of the new Cubans to win a title—he’d beaten Don Jordan for it in May 1960–and he was a likeable champ. The words “true love” were tattooed on his bicep, and his “ebullience was infectious,” Sports Illustrated wrote.

Paret was “not a naturally hard hitter or a consummate boxer,” the magazine continued. Yet he never gave an inch, and Griffith had trouble with him. Then Gil Clancy smacked Griffith at the start of the thirteenth round. Griffith went out and landed a good left hook, then another, then a right, and Paret went down for the count.

A rematch followed at Madison Square Garden in the fall, and Paret won it by a split decision after 15 grueling rounds—how happy he looked as his cornermen hoisted him aloft. Then came the third bout—at the Garden—in March 1962. The weigh-in was ugly—Paret called Griffith a “maricon”– and the ill feeling went into the ring with them. I saw it on TV. Paret floored Griffith in the sixth, but Griffith recovered and in the twelfth, he staggered Paret with a right. Paret “reeled onto the ropes,” Bob Waters reported. “His head was on the top strand of ropes and his right arm was crooked around the middle strand. Griffith hit him with a series of right uppercuts and then threw hook after hook for about 10 seconds until referee Ruby Goldstein grabbed Griffith and tugged him away.” 

In the dressing room, Clancy “allowed Griffith half an hour to be jubilant over his victory,” Waters wrote. “Then he broke the news that Paret was badly hurt” (brain dead, in fact).  Waters was moved by what he saw the next day. “A Methodist, Griffith prayed for Paret in a Roman Catholic church. Paret is a Catholic. ‘I prayed for Benny,’ Emile said. ‘I asked God, to please save him…make him well. I broke down. I wanted to regain the title very much, but no title is worth this.’” 

Despite those prayers, Paret died on April 3, and on the Fight of the Week that Saturday, the bell was tolled ten times for him. The non-boxing world was unmoved by this demonstration, and there were calls for abolition of the sport. Critics pointed out that Paret had taken a savage beating from the middleweight champ Gene Fullmer only a few months before. “Paret was one of the toughest guys I’d ever fought as far as actual tough,” Fullmer told Peter Heller. “I never hit anybody more punches harder than I hit Paret.”

The threat of death or injury didn’t deter Garcia. Fighting the Corsican Saveur Chiocca that fall, he caught a “shattering right to the jaw,” and went down for six, then hit the floor again a moment later. But he “gained control of his rapid feet” and won the fight, The Ring wrote. Next, he fought the ranked French welterweight Jean Josselin. “Josselin belted away unceasingly, always moving forward,” The Ring reported. Garcia retaliated by “roughing things up whenever he got the chance.” The heavier Josselin was “badly marked, Garcia undamaged, but utterly exhausted at the finish.” 

I asked Garcia about Paret the night we drank at the Beauburn bar. He answered, more or less, that Benny was tough, but that he didn’t think it could happen to a fighter with his own defensive skills. 

Maybe not. But a year after Paret died, two Cubans fought for world titles on the same program in Los Angeles. Welterweight Luis Rodriguez outpointed Griffith in a close one, reversing his earlier loss, and Garcia’s friend Sugar Ramos kayoed Davey Moore for the featherweight crown. Ramos was a stalker, who concentrated on “blows to the mid-section, and stinging lefts and rights,” Sports Illustrated wrote. The end came in the tenth. Moore was “knocked to the canvas twice and reeled helplessly against the ropes as the round ended,” Bob Waters wrote. In his dressing room, Moore said, ‘This just wasn’t one of my nights. It was a bad night.’” Then he collapsed, and Waters reported the next day that Moore was near death. The scene was a strange replay of the one the year before. 

“‘I am very, very sorry,’ Ramos said to the clusters of people who were standing in the hospital lobby,” Waters wrote. “’We are friends outside of the ring. I wanted to see Davey. I wanted to tell him I am sorry.’ Moore’s manager, Willie Ketchum, said, “‘Don’t worry, Kid. He’s in good hands. He’s in God’s hands. And you gotta trust God.” 

Griffith sent Ramos a telegram: “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault. You’ve got to pray; you’ve got to have faith.” But Moore died and boxing was again condemned. In a song titled, “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, Bob Dylan mocked the excuses of every party to it, including Ramos, “who came here from Cuba’s door where boxing ain’t allowed no more.” 

I personally resented those lyrics when I read them years later. How could you condemn a man who fought at age 12 for extra helpings of food and faced the same dangers in the ring as Moore? But the verse that upset me most seemed aimed at Bob Waters himself:

“Not me, said the boxing writer

Pounding print on his old typewriter

Saying boxing ain’t to blame

There’s just as much danger in a football game” 

Of course, the deaths depressed me—I grieved for Paret and Moore. But I felt protective toward boxing. I was sickened later when a radical newspaper tied Barney Ross to Jack Ruby and possibly to the Kennedy assassination. Barney Ross, the three-time title holder and hero of Guadalcanal? How dare they? And I agreed with Red Smith’s defense of fighters: “It is hard to believe that a nation bereft of such men would be the stronger or better for it.” 

Once again, the tragedy didn’t stop Garcia. He kayoed the Jaguar of the Sahara, Aissa Hashas, in Tunis, and won another war with Sauveur Chioca in Paris. And assuming he heard it, he ignored the commentary coming from Havana on the “criminal methods of professional boxing—boxing being run by real gangsters who are interested only in filling their bags with dollars and do not have the least regard for the lives of the fighters.” 

Back in the Day With Henry Cowen

By Ray Schultz

Return with us now to the year 1941. Franklin Roosevelt was President, Joe Louis was heavyweight king, Frank Sinatra was singing with Tommy Dorsey, and 21 year-old Henry Cowen was taking a one-time course at New York University: Direct mail copywriting.  

Not that Henry set out wanting to write junk mail copy (who ever did?). He had his eyes on a banking career. But he was a born writer, so he signed up for the course. Oddly,  the first question they asked was, “How’s your math?” 

“I didn’t know why they wanted to know that,” Henry said in an interview in 1996. But he found out. “Everything was based on the math,” he recalled. “We learned how to do the budgets and the test reports.”

I’m recalling all this because we recently passed Henry’s centennial; he died in 2011.  

Direct mail may not have been the career he wanted, but he was one of the best direct mail copywriters who ever lived, and here’s the proof: copy he wrote as a young man was still selling subs in the age of the internet. 

He was also, to me, one of the nicest guys who ever graced the business. 

The Early Days at Cowles

Henry got his first copywriting job in 1942 at Look magazine. To get it, though, he had to move to Des Moines, Iowa, a place where “the people were nice and the winters were terrible.” 

Conditions were primitive in the Cowles office in the Wallace Homestead building. “We had manual typewriters, no air conditioners and no offices,” Henry recalled. “We created little offices by using file cabinets. When the assistant sub manager traveled, I pushed his files over an inch or two to make his smaller and mine bigger.” 

Look, then five years old, was in a circulation war with Henry Luce’s Life. It had “a lot of single copy circulation, and subscriptions were just coming into their own,” Henry said.  

There were no computers in those days. Envelopes were inserted by hand. With Les Suhler and Max Ross as mentors, Henry wrote letters, studied response, served as art director and ordered mailing lists. “Les said, ‘Spread the list business around. Give everyone their fair share.’” So he did: To brokers like George Bryant, Lew Kleid, Walter Drey and Arthur Martin Karl.  

The state of mailing lists? “We could segment by geography and the age of the list—recency, frequency, that type of thing,” Henry said. “We were sophisticated in using our own names, so sophisticated we could tell whether a person had renewed once, twice, three, four, five or six times. Later, we brought in an industrial engineer and he said, ‘You’re going too far. You’re too segmented.’”

Outside lists came on labels, but the house list was on Speedomat plates, making it  difficult to change an address. Not to worry: “They explained that farmers didn’t move much, so that wasn’t a big problem,” Henry said.  

Look also used some telephone lists, typed directly from phone books by women working at home. “We took the world’s poorest mailing list and made it a good list,” Henry said. 

The basic Look letter was two pages, “nicely written,” and mailed in a No. 9 plain white business envelope. “But it wasn’t jazzy,” he added. There were no premiums and no brochures. (“I don’t believe in brochures to this day.”) But the mailings worked. The offer for new subs? “Sixteen issues for a buck.” 

“We had a different renewal series for each source, and we did a lot of advanced renewals,” Henry recalled.  They even sent hand-personalized mail. “We personalized the name with a brush and ink—in gold, red or blue,” he said. “And we tested them. Gold was best, next was red.” 

Look did sub mailings in “places where no-one was mailing: Hawaii, Guam, the Panama Canal Zone, Alaska.” It also sold subs in Mexico City, Caracas and pre-Castro Cuba. “We sent the letters in English, and got a good return, but then the advertising department decided it didn’t want that circulation,” he said.  

Look also sold subs to department store charge account customers.

“We had stores in just about town in the United States,” Henry explained. “In New York City, we would alternate between Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Gimbals’. The orders would come back to the stores, and they would do the billing, so the payups were 99% or better.”

Some of those pieces might look a little strange today. “One store in Ohio had a policy of not using dollar signs, so the mailing went out without dollar signs. They knew their customers” Henry said.  

Sweepstakes

In 1952, a circulation expert named Harold Mertz visited Des Moines and tried to sell Henry, now a DM veteran, on something called Publishers Clearing House. His idea? Multiple sub offers would be mailed in a single envelope.  

“I told him to save his money because people had tried that before,” Henry said. “Curtis had tried it, Sears, Roebuck and Montgomery Ward had tried it in a way.” 

But Mertz was “smarter than they were,” Henry admitted. “He worked harder and made it work.” Indeed, in 1960, after 18 years at Look, Henry found himself working at PCH.

At that time, PCH was “still only doing $4 million worth of business,” Henry said. And early PCH letters did not have stamps or sweepstakes. 

“Harold would write a letter like, ‘Dear Friend, it’s springtime,’” Henry said. “He wasn’t talking about the benefits or anything like that.” But the copy improved, thanks to Henry and a fellow copywriting legend named Marvin Barkley. 

At some point in the 60s, PCH finally started doing sweeps. But, as Henry put it, “We made a lot of mistakes.” For example, Reader’s Digest had a grand prize of $25,000. “People would say, ‘Do they really give that away?” So PCH offered a large number of small prizes—the highest was $10.

“It barely made a ripple,” Henry continued. “So we tried a $1,000 prize, and that did 25% better than $10. Then we got brave and went to $5,000, better yet, then to $25,000, then the sky’s the limit!” 

Founder Mertz was “a very smart guy, a very tough guy, a little hard for some people,” Henry said.

He added, “We didn’t even have a calculator in the office, but he could add up a column in the millions, 20 different numbers, zip zip zip. He was a genius at it.” 

Did Henry have any sample letters from the old days at Look and PCH? He got wary: He wasn’t about to share his trade secrets.  

“I still use some of those leads,” he said. “I bring them back every few years.”

Arlo Guthrie Introduces ‘Alice’s Restaurant’

The Newport Navalog, July 21, 1967

By Ray Schultz

First of all, it’s raining, and things are getting kind of soggy on Festival Field. Second, Joan Baez is sitting in the next seat eating a sandwich, the Goodyear Blimp is flying overhead, and an English group, the Young Tradition, is performing on stage. With that combination of props, it’s hard enough to concentrate on anything, particularly in the middle of a wet Sunday afternoon. And let’s face it, you do feel conspicuous, shall we say, in your conservative Navy haircut.

You’re just about ready to pack up shop and leave when Judy Collins comes on stage and makes the following announcement:

“As you know, all of us in the folk music scene were trained and influenced by one man more than any other, Mr. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie.”

The crowd starts clapping and stamping. 

“It’s impossible for Woody to be with us at this time, but we have to carry on his work and ideas, a remarkable young man, who toured Japan with me last month, his son, Mr. Arlo Guthrie.”

More applause, and some people are standing up. 

“All I can say is his creativity boggles the mind. Here he is, ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Arlo Guthrie!”

With applause thundering the whole of Festival Field, a skinny ragamuffin-looking boy walks on stage, toting an ordinary folk guitar. He’s dressed in faded blue jeans, a beat-up jacket, and an old felt ranger’s hat, out from which his long curly hair projects on either side like two enormous mouse-ears. 

Everyone in the crowd start shouting ‘Alice! Alice!” and the young skinny troubadour on stage says: “You can yell a you want, I’m not gonna sing it.” Then, as he’s tuning the guitar, “You’re probably wonderin’ why I am gonna sing it again, after singing it yesterday. Well, I figure if I sing it enough, you’ll get sick of it and I won’t have to sing it so much any more then. I hope you get good and wet.”

With that, he begins a simple melody line with a voice not quite as raspy as Bob Dylan’s:

You can get anything you want,

at Alice’s restaurant

You can’t get anything you want,

at Alice’s restaurant

Just walk right in, around the back, bout a

Half a mile from the railroad track

You can get anything you want at Alice’s restaurant.

Then, strumming the guitar lightly, he begins a talking jag that lasts for something like 25 minutes. 

“This here is the ‘Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part Two,’ as oppose to the ‘Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part One,’ or as oppose to any version of Alice’s restaurant you might have heard, or any Alice’s restaurant you might have been in across the country. The name of the restaurant is not Alice’s restaurant, Alice just works there, but that’s just the name of the song, because it is about Alice, and that’s why I named the song Alice’s Restaurant.”

Well, it goes on about his being rejected for the draft after being convicted of littering in Stockbridge Mass. On Thanksgiving day. Twenty-five minutes of it, and each line funnier than the last. Towards the end of the song, he suggests that when faced with the draft, you should ‘enter the Army psychiatrist’s office, singing the chorus of Alice,” and “you’ll probably get rejected.”

“If three people go in and sing Alice’s restaurant, he chants, “then they might think it’s an or-gan-i-zation. If 50 people go in singing the song, they’re gonna think it’s a m o v e m e n t, and friends, it is a movement, it’s the “Alice’s Restaurant Bad Times Massacree Part Two” movement. I’d like you to sing it with me. With feeling. We’ll just wait till comes around again on the guitar. Here it comes.”

The crowd starts singing until he stops and tells them they’re doing terribly and should start again. Finally, he does the last note and chord of the epic, and then it explodes! The crow gives a thundering standing ovation that lasts for ten minutes, George Wein invites him back for the evening convert, and you know, you feel, that here in front of your eyes is standing the man who will be the next king of folk music. The Arlo Guthrie Masacree Parts One, Two, Three and Four movement!

Later that night he climaxes the 1967 Newport Folk Festival with another performance of the song, this time with Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Oscar Bran, Theodore Bikel and the rest joining in on the last chorus. You leave Festival Field with “Alice’s Restaurant” on your brain. Martha Matzke, a Providence Journal reporter, says: “He’s beautiful.” The New York Times calls him the new “festival hero.” Arlo Guthrie is here!

The young man who created that very remarkable song and experience for an audience of 15,000, is the 20 year-old son of Woody Guthrie, the rambling bard who wrote and sang so eloquently of the problems faced by the dust-bowl okies during the great depression 30 years ago. Since the early 1950s, Woody has been in a Brooklyn hospital, with Huntington’s Chorea, a progressively worsening disease of the nervous system. Friday night, the entire cast of festival performers sang Woody’s “This Land Is Your Land,” in honor of his 55th birthday.

Then here is young Arlo—with his own genius, an the only authentic claim among folk singer to being one of the “children of Woody Guthrie.”

In an interview with a Navy reporter Sunday night, he was asked how Woody feels about his son’s career.” He’s all for it,” young Guthrie said. When asked how his father is doing these days, he said: “He’s alive. That’s all I can say.”

Arlo was born in Coney Island, N.Y. and grew up in Massachusetts. He started playing the guitar when he was about six years old. He started performing professionally about two years ago, and has already toured England and Japan. 

He said that the visits to his father by such top folk performers as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Jack Elliot, impressed him deeply.  Besides his father, he lists Jack Elliot as the greatest influence on his writing and singing. 

At this points, he has no plans for electrification of his music, or for any protest singing. 

“I plan to stay away rom the marching,” he said. 

He was genuinely pleased at his reception at the folk festival, and “feels great” about his first record album, which will be released by Reprise next month. 

Like his father, he’s done his share of rambling around the country. He has a sister who is currently performing bossa nova music. 

His repertoire includes blues and country music and the ‘Alice’ type of thing. 

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part XIII

It was the evening of Thursday, Aug. 8, 1974. The Lubavitchers had announced a farbrengen with the Rebbe, and I dutifully showed up in Crown Heights. But my mind was elsewhere, as were most people’s: Richard Nixon was giving a speech that night, and the reports said he was resigning. 

Maybe it was me, but there was a strange feeling in the hall—it wasn’t as festive as usual. A Hasid was selling black shoes in the lobby. The Rebbe spoke, and there were the usual songs and toasts. But what did he say on this strange night? 

“He spoke a lot about the Messiah,” Hirsh Gonsburg told me. (That seemed logical, given the belief that the Messiah’s arrival will be preceded by great turmoil.) 

“He feels the Messiah is overdue?”

“He says it all depends on our work.”

“What does he want you to do?”

“What we’re doing—everything. Help out other people, mostly spiritual. He starts with Talmud, and Bible, like a lecture.” 

A few days later, armed with the assignment from the Times Magazine, I met with Yehuda Krinsky. First, we went over questions the Times wanted answered, like how many Lubavitchers there were in the world and Krinsky answered (there were 750,000). Then he tried to explain Hasidism to me. 

“The Chabad philosophy is not just a philosophy,” he said. “It’s actually a deeper understanding of and involvement in Judaism. As such, it makes the person a better Jew, but it also makes him a different Jew. Because his comprehension of what Judaism is a lot deeper and more sensitive than the Jew on the street who hadn’t had the advantage of the Chabad way of life, and therefore his practice is different.”

“How so?” I asked.

“There’s a story about this old Tzaddik, who when he used to put on his tefillin in the morning, he would be so emotionally involved in it that two people would have to hold him because he used to go into an ecstatic involvement in it. Why? Because his concept of tefillin was such that his involvement moved him to the state of ecstasy. Of course, not everyone is at that level. His putting on tefillin was different than my putting on tefillin, because he was one with what he was doing.”

“But how do you get to that stage?”

“What Chabad philosophy tries to inculcate in a person is that the person, whatever he does, does it with a deeper understanding of what the mitzvah is, so he knows this is God’s Torah, not an intellectual book of philosophy, and therefore, he’s a different kind of person.”

Krinsky then enunciated a belief that ran against my egalitarian grain.  “There are different levels in people. The Bible talks about the eyes of the people. The leaders of the people are often referred to in Judaism as ‘the heads.’ In the physiological structure of a person, you have his head, his heart, his hands, his feet. Now there are different levels of life. You can’t compare the level of life in the heart to the level of life in the sole of the foot. A person can live without a foot, but he can’t live without a heart or without a mind. So, obviously, the life coming forth from the soul has different levels of emanation.”

Krinsky was just getting started. “The same thing is true in the structure of a people as a whole. You have those who are the leaders, and those who you might call the feet of the people. The Bible tells about Moses–he mentioned the 600,000 foot people that ’I am amongst.’ There is this difference between levels of people. And the leader characterizes the head, which is delicate and very sensitive. It’s simply a different type of person. In a democracy, everybody is the same. You have the past president—is he or is he not above the law? Obviously, he’s not above the law. But in any case, when you’re talking about the Jewish people as a whole, they’ve been blessed through the generations with extraordinary leadership—not in the secular Jewish sense, I’m talking in the religious sense. Beginning with Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob, and subsequently Moses, Joshua and the Prophets, then we came into the time of the Mishnaic sages, and the Talmudic sages. They’ve been a very small number, but they’ve been people who were capable of leading the people through very difficult times. And actually, they are on a different level. They don’t look upon themselves as different—it says that Moses was the most modest person, he held himself lower than the lowest of the people that he led, because he was in fact a true leader, in an authentic way.”

“Is the Rebbe on that level?” 

“The Rebbe is in the same way, because of the outstanding ability, the outstanding concern for the people,” Krinsky answered. “I would say the Rebbe is more concerned with his fellow Jew, regardless of the type of Jew, than a person on a lower level who’s a compassionate person involved in helping others. This mitzvah campaign—it’s not the Rebbe’s business. He doesn’t gain anything off it. What gain does he have? There’s no monetary gain, it doesn’t make his house any nicer, no more prestige or honor—he simply does it for the sake of the mitzvah itself. If there’s something lacking somewhere, by any Jew, in any part of the world, he feels that lack, he feels that something, he can’t rest or take it easy. What I’m trying to say is that the Rebbe’s capacity for leadership in general—there are certain prerequisites. First of all, the man has to be well-versed in Torah study—you can’t be an ignoramus, and as far as that’s concerned, the Rebbe is an acknowledged genius in all fields of Jewish study. That’s intellectually speaking. But you have to be emotionally involved with your people, you have to feel that their concern is your concern. And it’s very evident.”

“It sounds like a lonely job, almost like the presidency,” I ventured. 

“I think that to a degree, there’s a comparison there. I think it’s a very lonely kind of a position. The Rebbe is not only closely tied in with the people constantly, he knows what’s going on. He’s very well informed as to everything, in the total world in general.”

“But what about the man? I impertinently asked. “Do you think he enjoys his food?”

“We’re talking on a very superficial level,” Krinsky replied. “You must remember that there is a difference between Judaism and other religions. In Chabbad Hasidus, more than any other philosophy, it’s a total job, it’s not something where you go to church on Sunday, and the rest of the week you can do what you want. It’s a total, encompassing kind of existence, from the instance you’re born to the end of your life, and we believe, beyond that.” 

He continued, as if I were a candidate.

“There’s a definite pattern by which a person must live. From the instant he gets up in the morning, he has to wash his hands, says his prayers, then he has to put on tefillin. ‘In all your ways you should know Him.’ That Biblical injunction is not to be taken superficially, it’s a very serious one in the sense that a Jew, no matter what he does, when he eats, sleeps, he does it with a certain ultimate goal, an ultimate purpose in mind, which is to bring Godliness into the world. He should do his job thoroughly, he should give to charity, raise children, lead his family in Yiddishkeit. There is no area in life that is exempt of Yiddishkeit. In the Tanya, the basic book of Chabbad philosophy, written by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, he talks about when one eats, everything one does, has to be for a higher purpose. When one eats, he should not go down to the level of the food, but he should bring the food up to a higher level. For example, you have the animal, mineral, vegetable. The ultimate of the mineral is that it should give out vegetation, it should produce the vegetable. The ultimate of the vegetable is that it should be eaten by the animal. The ultimate of the animal is that it be elevated to a higher sphere, which is the human being. The ultimate of the human being is that he be elevated to a higher sphere, to Godliness. So that obviously, the food that a person eats is on a lower level than he is, and his obligation is to elevate to divinity, which is to be found in everything, the food hat he eats to a higher sphere.”

I was awed—he had, in effect, answered my question, although that wasn’t the type reply I was seeking. 

 “Who would be the closest person to the Rebbe?”

He mentioned a Rabbi Hartichov. “He’s about the same age, and is the Rebbe’s closest confidant,” Krinsky said. 

“He’s just a friend?

“Not just a friend, it’s his position. He’s involved in that work. He works until very late at night, and even when he’s home a few hours resting, his mind is here. I think it’s

 that way with most of us here. There’s a lot of satisfaction, of course. You’re really never free of it, when you’re home.” 

“Does it take away at all from your observance?”

“As far as practical observance is concerned, you still do that. But it does diminish from the time that I put in on studying. Speaking for myself, I wish I had more time to study.”

“The Rebbe’s health is good?” 

“Thank God. Sometimes he looks tired, which is understandable. He’s never left for a vacation or taken a rest that I know if. He just hasn’t. He’s never missed a day. I think what drives the whole thing is when any one of these individuals stationed in any part of the world looks at the Rebbe and sees how hard he drives himself, I think this gives him the stimulus to drive himself, and he doesn’t let up on himself, and he’s demanding of other people he works through, and I think his own schedule and his own approach to work stimulates others. He doesn’t ask any more of anyone else than he does himself.”

“If you’re working with him closely, is there a level on which you can socialize with him?”

“There’s really no socializing. I’ve been involved right now about 17 or 18 years, and as close as I’ve come to the Rebbe, I would say that he’s still an enigma, and I think even his closest confident, Rabbi Hartichov, would attest to the same thing. Despite the close activity at any given time, the Rebbe remains an enigma. He seems to be all locked up. There are territories there that are just virgin seemingly. No one has entered. “

“Do you think he has doubts?”

“Well, I would assume the decisions that he makes are thought through very carefully, cautiously, and before a decision is made, there might be doubt, I don’t know how to term it.” 

“I mean religious doubts, philosophical doubts.” 

“No, no, no. The Rebbe is a very believing man. Chabbad does profess intellectual inspection and introspection and involvement and research, but it doesn’t negate belief in any way. Therefore, belief is always there, it’s the rock bed of Judaism, and all the investigation that goes on intellectually speaking or philosophically speaking goes along hand-in-hand with the belief. There are no doubts by the religious Jew as to basic Jewish beliefs. The reason for the mystery is that the Rebbe is such a deep character, a complex person, that I simply think that he might be involved with certain studies, with certain matters of Torah, that he might not speak to the individual about at the time.  But in his thinking, his way of life, these are things he is involved in, in a higher sphere of mental and emotional involvement.” 

That was my last visit to Lubavitch.

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part XII

By Ray Schultz

One hot Tuesday in August 1974, I found myself in a Hertz truck manned by young Rabbinic students on vacation. Their job was to drive around the city, jump out at different spots and urge American Jews to “identify.” My job, as I saw it, was to survive the ride.

By this time, I was on assignment from The New York Times Magazine. The Times had spurned an earlier proposal of mine, but another writer’s article on the Hasidim had fallen through, and the Times suddenly was interested in a mish-mash I had written, its main virtue being that it was “not too chicken soupy,” an editor wrote. But they wanted revisions. And their first demand was that I ride one of these new Mitzvah Mobiles—that was the news hook. I called Yehuda Krinsky, who seemed none too friendly at first. But faced with an impending article, he was helpful.

So there I was. Our first stop was Wall Street, where the truck attracted bemusement at best. The young men who manned it would sidle up to people on the street and ask, in confidential tones, “Are you Jewish?” If the answer was yes, they would start their pitch, but would withdraw the proffered booklets if the person said no.

Men who said they were Jewish were invited to enter the trucks. Most didn’t—as Shrage had said in a somewhat shocking remark, the Hasidim reminded acculturated American Jews of  “something they had a nose job to forget.” The few who did enter were instructed on the importance of charity boxes and tefillin. And they would be invited to put on tefillin. I, a non-believer, also was coerced into donning tefillin before the truck even took off, but I was now fairly skilled at wrapping it around my arm.

We left Wall Street, and after a bumpy drive to Brooklyn, parked on a corner near Sheepshead Bay. With klezmer music blaring from the truck, an old man started dancing on the sidewalk. They kept asking him if he was Jewish, but he wouldn’t stop dancing long enough to answer.

***

My other mandate from the Times was that I profile a “plain foot soldier” in Lubavitch. So Krinsky served one up. Hirsh Gonsburg, age 45, ran a printing house, The Empire Press, on Empire Blvd. He was born in Moscow, where he attended a small yeshiva in a basement. His father was an alumnus of the original Lubavitch yeshiva, and a photographer who occasionally took shots for Isvestia, the Soviet news agency. In 1938, the family moved to Palestine to avoid the coming war, and young Hirsh and his two brothers were able to pursue their yeshiva studies in peace. In 1948, at age 18, he came to America to study in Crown Heights, and met a young woman named Rasha Denburg, who came from a respected family. They were married. Rather than going in for teaching or further Rabbinic training, Gonsburg took a job with a small print shop in East New York, and started learning the printing business. After a brief period in Montreal, he returned to Crown Heights, and in 1967, with a loan from the Small Business Administration, he and Mordecai Chean, opened their own shop. They print publications for Lubavitch in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, and pamphlets for various businesses in the area. Both men enjoyed the work, but said it was tough to make a living. No matter what they earned, 10% of their incomes had to go to Lubavitch. “It’s part of Jewish law,” said Gonsburg.

Like most men, Gonsburg carried the burden of mitzvahs for his family. He arose at 6:30 every morning and went to shul. There he donned his tefillin and tallis (prayer shawl) for morning prayer. He davened for 45 minutes, then returned home for breakfast. His shul was a small place near his house. Though most men would rather daven where the Rebbe was, they usually went closest to home. At 9:30, he arrived at work and began a long, hard day. Within an hour, his hands were usually full of printer’s ink, and his ears subjected to the constant clacking of the hot-type machines. Occasionally, he and Chean had to wash up and go over to Manhattan for business. In the course of a day, they were required to go through two more prayer sessions. One was mincha, or afternoon prayer. They usually davened together at the shop, with the co-workers. “The only requirement is that we do it by sundown,” he said. “If it’s late, we’ll just close the shop up: it takes about 15 minutes.” At night, he went to shul for evening prayer, which also takes 15 minutes, and after dinner he usually studied Torah for an hour or two by himself. “We have to keep studying,” he said. “It’s an ongoing thing. The Rebbe is studying, too.”

Gonsburg’s two sons attended yeshiva, where they spent half a day on religious subjects and half on state-required secular subjects. An average Hasidic schoolboy, in his bright-colored yarmulke and close-cropped hair, spends 8 or 9 hours a day (in school and at home) of grueling work in Torah, Talmud and Hasidus, and by the time he is 10 years old, will already be something of an expert, I was told. In addition, by the tender age of five, he would also mostly likely speak English, Yiddish, the sacred language Hebrew, and possibly one or more European languages, such as Russian or French, depending on where his parents came from.

At some point, I asked Gonsburg about his wife, and he replied, somewhat abashedly, that she had passed away in 1969. “We manage, thank God,” he said

To get a woman’s perspective, I visited Menachim Blau’s home to interview his wife Esther, who ran the Hadar Hatorah women’s program. Their house was neatly but not plushily decorated—there were photos of the previous and current Rebbes on the wall. Blau took out tefillin, kissed it and bade me to put it on. Esther brought out a quart of Tropicana orange juice and lemon meringue pie. While we talked, another woman sat in the front room and rocked their small baby.

Mrs. Blau told me the girl’s training program was the right one for women. “Girls can’t sit and study, they must work to support the men during first year or so of marriage while the men complete their studies,” she said. Her husband gravely nodded in agreement at some point.

Mrs. Blau continued that women are relieved of many of the responsibilities that fall on men—not that women are less valuable, only that “each sex has its role,” she said. “That of women is to make children—they are required only to observe those commandments for which they can find time. We want women to serve our Lord, but her part or role is by raising the family, to be fruitful, to have children.” Finally, without my even inferring it, she said, “Religious people don’t feel women are lower.”

The Last Rebbes: Life Among The Hasidic Jews, Part XI

By Ray Schultz

In my ignorance, I now considered myself an expert on the varieties of Hasidism. In addition to the Satmar and Lubavitch, there were the Breslover Hasidim, the “Dead Hasids,” so called because their founding Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman, had died and never been replaced; they were viewed by other Hasidim with a mixture of contempt and pity, I thought. There were the Gere, the Belze and the Squarer, who inhabited New Square, in Rockland County, New York. 

I’d also somehow heard of the Sassover Hasiim, and I visited the remnant that existed in their shul on the ground floor of a tenement in in the East Village of New York. To get to it, you had to walk through a dark alleyway. The Rebbe was a slightly passive young man, maybe 27, who did not look to me like a leader. Everyone else was elderly. They could barely pull together a minyan for afternoon prayer. 

Next on my tour were the Bobover, one of the largest groups in the city. They lived mostly in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighborhood served by an El line that went to Coney Island. One Friday morning, I visited Rabbi Halberstam, a nephew of Shlomo Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, who at 67 was one of the most well-known Hasidic leaders in New York. We sat at a dining room table with a large, bright chandelier overhead and enjoyed soft drinks while talking.  

The Bobover dynasty was founded in Sanz, Poland in 1830 by Chaim Halberstam.  He learned with Rabbi Naftali Horowitz, who in turn had learned with Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhenskwho had studied with the Maggid of Mezeritch, successor to the Bal Shem Tov himself. Rabbi Weisblum “was above our conception, we can’t even conceive the mind that he had,” our host, Rabbi Halberstam said. 

The current Rebbe’s father, Ben Zion Halberstam, had greatly expanded the movement after World War I, helping and praying for people with serious problems. Life was hard in Poland. And like other Hasidic groups, the Bobover were caught up in the horror overtaking Europe. The Rebbe, Ben Zion Helmerstam, was shot to death by the Nazis along with 1,200 other Jews in a slaughter in Lvov, Poland in 1941. And Shlomo Halberstam’s wife and two children also died in the Holocaust.

Despite these tragedies, Shlomo Halberstam took up the mantle of Rebbe and devoted himself to smuggling people out of concentration camps. In one operation, he hired coal trucks that were shipping coal into Hungary, and made double layers near the bottom, 20 to 24 inches wide, and there they would hide people. “The drivers got paid, they knew what was going on, and they smuggled out hundreds of people,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “He was running a whole intelligence system.” 

Some of the Bobover escaped to Russia, and found themselves in Siberia. Rabbi Halberstam’s own father died in prison there. The Hasidim were afraid to take Russian citizenship because it meant they couldn’t return to Poland, they thought. But in the end, they were allowed to go home, only to find that anti-Semitism still prevailed in Poland and that they were not welcome back.

The Rebbe’s son left for Palestine on one of two ships headed there. The British Navy sank one, and fired on the other. The young man barely made it to land. 

Finally, the Rebbe arrived in the United States and found himself ministering to survivors, some of whom had not belonged to the Bobover congregation.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of other Hasidic movements some who were just wiped out, and there were no followers to reinstate it,” Rabbi Halberstam said. “There was nothing left in those countries, Poland, Hungary, Austria, nothing left over there.” 

These survivors were often burdened with psychiatric problems, as were their children. But few were ever treated because people wouldn’t seek help. And even if they did, there were few professionals qualified to deal with these issues. “What is psychiatric help going to do when a kid starts talking about a dybbuk or gilgul?” asked Rabbi Yitchak Rubin, a Bobover I spoke with that same week. Rabbi Rubin added that some of these children were “skeletons,” or challenged in other ways, and encumbered with the fears of the parents. 

“There are little kids whose parents from the camps won’t let them ride on public transportation—they’re afraid they will be driven to the camps,” he said. 

It fell upon the Rebbe to pull the surviving followers together—if he could. 

“It was the Rebbe’s job to encourage them and prove to them they could start anew,” Halberstam said. That was the first challenge.  

Then there was the problem of making a living. 

“In early part of 1946 or ’47, the people who came over were lost people without any families, nobody to turn to, so the Rebbe felt that he must try and help these people,” Halberstam said. “So instead of them going out, not knowing English, not knowing where to start in this new country, he felt it was his duty to provide them with an occupation where they can make a decent living. “ The Rebbe decided on watch repair and jewelry. 

Why those two trades?

“He had meetings with professional people, with economists, from various trades, and had some of his businessmen bringing in people from the Labor Dept.,” Halberstam answered. “It was decided that these would be the most appropriate trades for a Jewish Hasidic youngster. It was an individual trade—there wouldn’t be any problems with unions, or with observing the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays.” 

The training program lasted for two years—after that, there was no need. 

How did the Rebbe bear up under all this pressure? Halberstam answered by saying something I had never heard about any of the other Rebbes: “He has a tremendous sense of humor, not only a sense of humor, but he rises himself above any problem he may encounter.”

This was reflected in the character of the Bobover, who while just as serious as other groups in their observance, they avoided controversy.

 “We do not discourage anyone, we do not disqualify anyone from becoming part of our movement,” Halberstam said. “To the contrary we tolerate anyone’s views.” 

The Rebbe himself “is accessible to all,” Halberstam continued. “He’s in constant contact He has weekly gatherings every Friday night after the first Sabbath meal. The congregation would come where the rabbi comes. He says the kiddush, and they drink a cup of wine and sing the Sabbath songs. The Rabbi eats his Sabbath meal, and the rest of the people participate either by drinking a cup of beer, and eating fruit, and dance. And on this occasion the Rabbi gives a sermon. During this sermon, he will seek a certain topic to speak about. Sometimes it’s about education of children, sometimes it’ about ethics. Whatever the topic is, people are delighted and exceptionally enthusiastic about it.”  

The Bobover were also known for their joyous singing.

“An important point in the Bobover movement is singing because my grandfather, the Rebbe’s father, was a great singer, a composer,” Halberstam said. “He composed beautiful songs, we have records that we distributed. The Rebbe today also makes very beautiful compositions, so singing is important. It’s a good release, it tends to make you joyous and gives a lot of young people a certain feeling. It gives you patriotism, and they could be enthralled and prepare for the gatherings and for the holidays.”

Once again, I was astounded by the diversity within the Hasidic movement– how the Satmar, Lubavitcher and Bobover could have such distinct characters while rigorously adhering to the same commandments.  

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Introduction: Oh, Pioneers

By Ray Schultz

Copyright 2014

For Andrea

The consumer was prey who had to pray,” Copywriter Ed McLean

“`Who? Who’s got a steady job, a couple bucks nobody’s touched, who?’ David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross

Known for their beauty and even more for their vast ore deposits, the hills around Laramie, Wyoming were in 1865 the scene of regular knifings and garrotings. Then the Union Pacific Railroad was extended to Laramie, and westward from there: By 1875, trains were pulling in to refuel, and passengers were rushing into trackside restaurants to dine on dishes like minced liver on toast and calves tongue with tomato sauce. And there was one other sign of civilization: a lottery run by a man listed in the city directory as “Pattee, J.M., capitalist.”

Not that most townspeople were aware of the Lottery King. Having been run out of Omaha for swindling, Pattee had learned to operate by stealth. There would be no public drawings in Laramie, as there had been in Omaha. He would also pull back on advertising in newspapers. Why bother with that when there was a more hidden medium, one that would render him “hard to arrest for the deeds of the present, and harder to locate for the deeds of the past?”

That would be what is now called junk mail. This medium did not yet have a name, but it was the precursor of spam, and all other forms of instrusive advertising, and Pattee had mastered it. His circulars, 40,000 at a time, were printed by the Daily Sun, a newspaper located two doors down from his office, placed in hand-addressed envelopes, then loaded onto trains, some ending up “where the temperature is fifty degrees below zero, and little business has been transacted beyond sending to the general store for provisions,” as legend had it. Others went to places where “the golden scresent sinks beneath the blue water of the Gulf of Mexico. and summer is eternal.”

The pieces were simple prize sheets. There was no way to tailor the copy by classifying people by their characteristics. Still, early junk mailers like Pattee had little trouble targeting their customers: They referred to them, simply, as “the fools.”

It was all they needed. For the real pioneers were grifters of whom little good can be said except that they were less likely than train robbers or other postal felons to be tattooed.

Chapter 1: Crooked Colonials

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 24: The Traveling Salesman

By Ray Schultz

Edward Proctor Jr. was a child of privilege. He’d gone to the Hackley School, a boarding school, in Tarrytown, New York after his father decided that the children of tenant farmers of Teaneck, where his family lived, were not suitable classmates.

Young Proctor hardly ever saw his father, who worked non-stop to build the business he had bought. But as side benefits accrued as the prosperity of the 1920s took hold. One summer, the family visited 40 states on a train tour of the U.S.; the following year, they went on a European trip.

Proctor later attended Cornell, and hoped to become a journalist. He was hired as an intern on the Bergen Record in Northern New Jersey in the summer of 1931. One day, when the regular reporter didn’t show up, Proctor was sent to cover the dedication ceremony for the George Washington Bridge. He found himself riding in an elevator in the superstructure of the bridge with New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was shocked to see Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair.

It was easy to forget that his education was being paid for by the mailing list business, and that there was a depression going on. But Proctor was reminded of it that fall when his father called him in for a talk.

The old man got right to the point. Business was so bad that he had to restructure and lay off several people. There was no choice but for Ed Jr. to leave school and come to work for the company. Another young man would have rebelled, but Proctor took it well. “Everything my father suggested I just automatically accepted–so different from the children today,” he said.

So Proctor became an apprentice in the mailing list business, just as his father had in 1899. He started keeping entries in the same old ledger that had come down with Charles Guild from Boston. And although he attended night courses at Columbia University, he traveled one week a month to the Midwest.

It was a grueling regimen. Brokers like Proctor looked through newspapers for mail order ads, then contacted the companies and asked if they would rent their lists. “They made endless calls to list owners. They trudged up countless fights of stairs to dingy offices to meet with publishers and merchandisers who wore green eyeshades,” wrote the copywriter Denison Hatch.

“The big argument was money,” said Proctor. “We’d say, ”Look at all you’re losing. Ten dollars a thousand was a lot of money during the Depression.”

One such candidate was American Products, the possessor of about 2 million names mostly of the gullible. In a typical ad, it said:

Here is a new way to make money—a way that offers a chance for big, quick profits. Men and women everywhere are making $6 to $10 a day in full time—$1.00 to $2.00 an hour in spare time—taking orders for Jiffy Glass Cleaner—a new pure, harmless liquid that instantly cleans glass surfaces without water, soap or chamois.

Proctor visited them. “I went and sat in office in Cincinnati, trying to persuade them,” Proctor said. “They took in other bids, but ours was bigger—we had users lined up.”

In time, Proctor also “pried loose a few subscriber lists,” starting with that of The Workbasket, a magazine for “little old ladies who knitted.” He rented it to the publisher of a sex manual that he remembered as “How to Sleep with Your Wife.”

Then there was the Dale Carnegie list. “It reached a total of about 65,000 names and back in 1937 that was a large list — probably the largest high grade list available at the time,” Proctor said..

Either way, there was rental business to be had. Liberty magazine mailed millions of pieces for its Presidential poll, which wrongly forecast that Alf Landon would beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936–it was said to be the biggest direct mailing ever. And Lucky Strike mailed 12 million pieces for its Hit Parade that year.Capon Springs, which sold mineral water, sent this letter in 1933:

Dear friend:

Would you like to “feel years younger?”

Would you like to be “made over anew?”

Would you like your eliminative organs to function naturally, thoroughly, and of their own accord, without outside help?

Then drink water from the magic spring — the Fountain of Health — Capon Springs — “The most delicious water I have ever drunk.

The offer was 5 gallons of his water bottled and sealed at Capon Springs, West Virginia) for only $1.25 (regularly $3.25).

Also included in the envelope was a black-and-white brochure, titled “Things you will observe about Capon Springs Water,” which made these claims:

It leaves a clean taste in the mouth. Capon uncoats the tongue and checks pyorrhea.

It regulates the bowels. Capon restores their normal peristaltic action (the eliminative urge).”

Another good customer for mailing lists was Psychiana, the mail order religion run by Dr. Frank B. Robinson. I Talked with God. So Can You — It’s Easy, Dr. Robinson promised in his direct mail copy. You may learn to use this fathomless, pulsing, throbbing ocean of spiritual power just as you learn to use chemistry, physics or mathematics.

List brokers like Proctor were delighted with the sheer volume of names Robinson used. “Many mailing lists were prospected, with the highest conversion rates – 20 percent — coming from a lonely-hearts list and a list of inquirers interested in ‘the power of thought,’ wrote Martin Gross, a direct mail copywriter.

Gross continued, “The next list generated a return of 16 percent. These were mail order buyers of fish. (Always experimenting, Dr. Robinson had bought a very large list of these seafood lovers. He tested only 2,000; of those who responded, 16 percent bought the lessons. He expanded the test and the return was much like the first.)

“Other results included a Yoga list (14 percent), two astrological lists (12 percent and 11 percent), a Charles Atlas-like list (six percent) and a parents’ organization (six percent),” Gross continued. “No conversions at all were received from inquiries for a high-fashion list.”

When not on the road, young Proctor also adjusted to office lie. List brokers worked half a day on Saturday, and nobody was ever addressed by their first names. (“Everyone was Mr. or Miss,” Ed Proctor, Jr. said. “It was very formal in those days.”

Chapter 25: Harbors Of Missing Men