Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tania Grossinger, Memoir of an Independent Woman

Don't let the title Memoir of an Independent Woman make you think this is strictly chick non-fic. Most women will, I think, find it interesting and inspiring, but so, I think, will most men. It's also, I believe, an excellent, if necessarily idiosyncratic, account of what it was like to be part of the generation that preceded mine and came to adulthood just as we leading-edge boomers were rattling our demographic sabers and threatening to reshape the culture in our image. The breadth of popular culture covered in this book is extensive: from Ayn Rand (more about her below) to Timothy Leary, with Hugh Hefner and Johnny Carson in between.

I've known Tania Grossinger--whose self-description on her web page is "Author; Consultant; Raconteur; Talk Show Guest; Travel Writer; Troublemaker"--since sometime in the late 1970s, when we were introduced--by whom I've forgotten, though it was likely Dermot McEvoy--at (where else?) the Lion's Head. She was one of those honored by having a book jacket displayed on the saloon's wall. The jacket collection ranged from Kitty Kelley's Jackie Oh! through various novels and poetry anthologies to a textbook on statistical analysis. Tania's contribution to the wall was the autobiographical Growing Up at Grossinger's, about girlhood at the Catskill resort that was the jeweled buckle on the Borscht Belt. I didn't read it; tales about resort life and visiting celebrities didn't seem especially relevant to my interests at the time.

Tania's and my times at the Head didn't overlap much. She tended to be there early in the evening. I was part of the later night crowd, which wasn't helpful to my career as a corporate lawyer. Now, having read her Memoir, I regret not having gotten to know her better.

Over the course of her life, Tania came to know several people who have been important to me, though only at a distance. As a young girl at Grossinger's she became a friend of Jackie Robinson. (The Brooklyn Dodgers were my first love in baseball, and Robinson was one of those I rooted for while watching the 1955 World Series.) While working as the publicist for Playboy (my "how to be cool" manual during my college years) Tania had a very funny (imagine!) encounter with Ayn Rand.  (At thirteen, responding to a challenge from my eighth grade math teacher, I read Atlas Shrugged, then followed it with The Fountainhead. I decided that really smart, ruthless people should rule the world, and if being a brilliant, highly individualistic architect like Howard Roark could land me a girlfriend like Dominique Francon--never mind that I didn't look like Gary Cooper--that's what I wanted to be. I was safely over Rand by high school, but I'm still grateful to her for introducing me to the world of ideas, even if they were mostly bad ones.) To top things off, Tania once had her lunch tab paid by then Senator John F. Kennedy in gratitude for her having been his tour guide at Brandeis University several years before, when she was a student.

Her most important accomplishment as a publicist was her work for Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique. As Tania tells the story, Friedan was one tough sell. At their first meeting, Friedan told Tania "she was out to change the world" and that Tania "was going to help her do it...and that was that." Tania did just that, although it was no easy task. At first, Friedan seemed determined to undermine her own project. Tania was able to schedule an appearance on a TV show called (I'm not making this up) Girl Talk, hosted by an old friend of Tania's, Virginia Graham. Before the show, Friedan insisted on stopping at Sardi's for a drink. When she went on the air Friedan was fried. Graham immediately challenged her, asserting that "girls" preferred being homemakers to having careers. Friedan answered by telling the viewers that Graham just wanted them to stay at home to be her "captive audience." During a commercial break, Friedan faced the studio audience and said that if Graham didn't let her have her say, she would "say the word 'orgasm' on television ten times!" This was very much a no-no in 1963.

Tania didn't let this disaster derail the project. She called in a chit to get a very reluctant Merv Griffin, one of the top TV hosts of the day, to allow Friedan on his show. Betty was at her best, and buzz for the book burgeoned. (I still have this thing for alliterations involving the letter "b.") Afterward, Tania was hired by the publisher, W.W. Norton, to handle publicity for The Feminine Mystique full time. One detail not to be missed from this time is the "Jewish mother" letters Tania would periodically receive from Friedan. Tania's success in promoting the book was such that, during my senior year (1963-64) at Robinson High School in Tampa, it seemed that at least half of the girls in Mrs. Blalock's Advanced English class gave book reports on something they invariably called The Feminine Mystic, which I assumed was about women who held seances, did tarot readings, or gazed into crystal balls.

(Speaking of which, Tania has a chapter on her experiences with "Psychics, Seers, and the Supernatural." I suggest you read it and decide.)

Another of Tania's assignments, from the publisher Stein & Day, was to promote the novel Down All the Days by Christy Brown, the Irish writer, poet, and artist who had a form of cerebral palsy that made him barely able to speak, and unable to write except by tapping out code with the toes of his left foot. Tania had some success getting excerpts from his book read on TV, accompanied by scenes of where he'd grown up. Still, she wanted to get him on camera, and speaking. To accomplish this, she needed to find a good interlocutor. She introduced him to Malachy McCourt, an actor and founder of the Bells of Hell. At the Bells bar, they quickly became friends, and alcohol loosened Brown's tongue. Tania convinced the now recently deceased David Frost to have the two of them on his show. Frost initially objected to Tania's condition that they both have had a few drinks before going on air. "What if Christy falls off his chair?" Frost asked. Tania said he'd be strapped to his chair, and that, if the strap should break, "we'll take a commercial break, focus on the Irish musicians we've hired for the spot, pick him up, and proceed from there." The show was a great success, and the book sold well enough to be made into a movie with the title My Left Foot, in which Christy Brown is portrayed by Daniel Day Lewis.

Memoir isn't all tales of Tania's adventures with celebrities, although she's the sort of person for whom failure to name-drop would be a character defect akin to hiding one's light under a bushel. One story I found especially poignant is from Tania's time as a college student. She was a psychology major, and volunteered to help in a hospital for mentally ill children run by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. On her first day there, she noticed a girl who was being punished severely by the staff because she failed to respond to orders. Tania, who had learned basics of American Sign Language during her time at Grossinger's, guessed that the girl was deaf, and signed to her. The girl responded. When Tania pointed this out to the staff, she was asked to leave, and Brandeis was told not to send her back. Such were conditions in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts in the early 1950s. In 1966, Frederick Wiseman made a film, Titicut Follies, that exposed mistreatment of inmates at another Massachusetts facility, Bridgewater State Hospital.

I've focused above on some of the personalities and incidents described in Tania's Memoir, but I haven't discussed the book's major underlying theme: identity. Like me (I was a military brat), Tania had a peripatetic early life. She was born and lived in Chicago until shortly after her father died, when she was eight. Her mother then took her to Los Angeles, where they stayed until her mother lost her job with a high fashion hatmaker and, at the invitation of her father's cousin, they moved across the continent to Grossinger's, where her mother worked as a hostess. In L.A. Tania had been sent to a Christian Science Sunday school; it was only on her arrival at Grossinger's that she learned she was Jewish. At sixteen, having completed the requirements for high school graduation, she entered Brandeis University in the Boston suburbs. After college, she returned to L.A. for a while, then back to Chicago, the site of her unfortunate marriage. Tania's frequent changes of venue required her to re-establish her identity with new sets of schoolmates, friends, and others with whom she had frequent contact.

Tania also explores the question of identity through accounts of her loves, both failed, as in her early and brief marriage, and fulfilling, as in her relationship with Art D'Lugoff, a well known Greenwich Village club owner, which blossomed in her middle years and lasted through his death. Following that, for a time, Tania wrote, "I lost track of the real me, even doubted at times that there was one."

The one problematic love that is a thread throughout the book is that between Tania and her mother. Karla Seifer Grossinger's identity remains to some extent a mystery to her daughter even now. Born into a fairly prosperous Polish Jewish family, she went to Vienna and studied at the university there, though as Tania later learned she never received the degree she claimed.  Karla eventually came to Chicago, where she married Max Grossinger, an undistinguished businessman who was a cousin of the founder of the resort, and who died under mysterious circumstances that Karla would not discuss with Tania. Many members of Karla's family died in the Holocaust. She had two brothers who survived, but Karla was not on close terms with either of them. She was never abusive or harsh to Tania while her daughter was growing up, but always remained at something of a distance. Toward the end of her life she became emotionally demanding, to the extent that they became estranged. The penultimate chapter of Memoir has the title, "Trying to Reconcile with Mother."

Tania acknowledges that her relationship with Karla was the principal cause of her decision never to have a child. She does not, in retrospect, question this decision. Still, she was moved to write Memoir as a series of letters to "Natasha," a daughter she never had. She begins the final chapter, "Looking Back: Childless by Choice":
Knowing this will be my last letter to you, Natasha, saddens me more than I anticipated. Through this one-sided correspondence, I've made an attempt to share and make sense of my life, only to discover that lives may not be meant to be made sense of....At times it's been as if I'm writing about someone I'm meeting for the first time. I've been so many different people in so many different situations in so many different places that one needs the skills of a magician, which I most definitely am not, to pull it all together.
At the close, she notes that she is writing at the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days, "[t]he one holiday that even secular Jews like myself observe." (Even I, a non-Jew, have come to appreciate the Days of Awe.) She observed the custom of Tashlich, "symbolically casting [her] sins (via nuggets of bread) on the waters, in hopes they will be forgiven." I'm writing this on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. May your coming year be fruitful, Tania. May your Memoir find the success it richly deserves, and may you produce more good works.

Memoir of an Independent Woman is published by Skyhorse Publishing, New York City (2013).