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Sondheim: A Life
A Book Excerpt by Meryle Secrest


An Institutionalized Child

The San Remo apartment building on Central Park West, to which Stephen Joshua Sondheim was taken in 1930 when he was six months old, has been a landmark in New York City almost since the day it first opened that same year. Like the familiar view of the domes, spires, and towers of Whitehall as seen from the bridge of St. James's Park, London, the twin towers of the San Remo are distinctive for the silhouette they present when viewed from the Lake in Central Park. They rise serenely from the broken line of trees at their base, their genteel reflections trailing at the water's edge. The juxtaposition of such a sophisticated architectural style with a pastoral setting, of man living in harmony with nature, one as old as Arcadia, brings thoughts of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones. By no accident Emery Roth, architect of the San Remo, was as dedicated as were his famous precursors to the study of Greek and Roman architecture; he was also a fervent adherent of the Italian Renaissance revival that swept the country at the turn of the century. Like other architects of the period, Roth saw his role less as the builder of gilded drawing rooms than as a calling: that of a high priest designing temporal cathedrals in the manner of those European counterparts who were expressing, they felt, the human links between art and habitation.

However, one cannot take the analogy between these views of the London scene and the San Remo too far. The dreaming vistas of Whitehall have the same air of ancient splendor, but they are farther away and their outlines tend toward the horizontal. The emphasis is all on the foreground, the silhouettes of boats, a fountain in full flood: the bewitching promise of an oasis in the middle of a metropolis. As seen from Central Park, the San Remo commands as much awe as admiration. It is as if a citadel had soared into the air beside that urban refuge, one designed to defend and exclude: the emblem of prohibitive chic.

That the parents of Stephen Sondheim, Herbert and Janet Sondheim, should have chosen such a background was perhaps no accident, since, like their architect, the Sondheims had dedicated themselves to "les arts de vivre" and were newly rich. Although Herbert Sondheim was only thirty-five when he moved into the San Remo, he had made a rapid advance from lowly beginnings in the garment trade to found his own dress house before he was thirty. Both husband and wife were involved in the firm, he as president-he had just become sole owner of the house he co-founded seven years before-and she as chief designer. Sondheim had begun at the very bottom of the ladder, but that he was destined to prosper seems unsurprising, given his paternal ancestors. He was the grandson of German Jewish immigrants. His grandfather, Isaac, born in Bessen-Darmstadt, emigrated to the United States in 1848 and settled with his wife, Rosa, on the Lower East Side. Family legend gives no clue to his occupation, but in the city directory of 1866 there is an Isaac Sondheim listed as a peddler; no doubt Rosa took in lodgers. Isaac died at the age of sixty-five in a freak accident. He was hit by a streetcar in his own neighborhood in 1883 and succumbed as the result of his injuries about two months later. His wife lived on in quiet obscurity until 1914, but by then she had moved to a much better address.

Isaac and Rosa Sondheim had four sons. Three of them, Meyer, Joseph, and Abraham, died young, mute testimony perhaps to the conditions to which they had been exposed as children in the New York slums. The first-born, Simon (who became Samuel), survived and prospered. Before long he was in business for himself, making shirtwaists, or "waists," as they were called, the tailored blouses with starched collars and cuffs that were all the rage for working girls at the turn of the century. He had two locations, on Broadway and on East Thirty-eighth Street, and was soon well enough off to move his widowed mother to a better address just off Fifth Avenue, on East Eighty-eighth Street. His marriage to BerthaGuttenstein in the summer of 1894 in the fashionable Temple Emanu-El must have been a splendid affair. Quite soon thereafter they were living two blocks away from Rosa Sondheim, at 23 East Ninetieth Street. In due course three children arrived: Herbert, born on July 2, 1895; Walter, born a year later; and Edna, born in 1900.

Family photographs of about 1905 show the two boys in starched collars, ties, belted jackets, and knickerbockers; Edna has a big bow in her hair; and their mother stands in the background, wearing a severe summer dress and a pale expression. If it was a privileged upbringing, it was an unbending one. Stephen Sondheim recalls his father saying that his grandparents were "strict German disciplinarians, you know, keep your hands folded and don't put your elbows on the table." There was also the fact that Samuel, who was almost forty by the time he married, soon took on a portly look and had, perhaps, the reactions of any middle-aged man, with pressing problems at the office and a heavy dinner inside him, when confronted with a roomful of boisterous children. All one can tell from his photograph is that he cut his hair very short, in the German style, wore a military mustache, and that if his views matched his eyebrows, they were most emphatic. His sons bore him no resemblance. As children they had heads as delicately modeled as Botticelli angels and faces as grave and unfathomable.

Then, when Herbert was in his early teens, disaster struck. There was a run on the Knickerbocker Trust Company in Wall Street which led to a general bank panic. Some respectable companies collapsed in 1908; Samuel Sondheim's was one of them. The family was forced to move to a house on Elm Street in New Rochelle, a location they chose because, as everyone knew, one could live there comfortably on much less than one could in Manhattan. By 1910 he had a business in men's hats. Or perhaps he was just a salesman; no one was quite sure. There could be no thought of further education for Herbert; he was fifteen and went to work. He began by pushing carts in the garment district and graduated to carrying the packing trunks of salesmen.

That Herbert Sondheim advanced at such a rapid pace in the rough and tumble of the garment district must have had something to do with his appearance. In adulthood he had acquired his father's strongly marked brows, which punctuated his otherwise unremarkable features and gave his face a certain distinction. An air of natural gentility was perhaps emphasized by the sleek head, hair flattened in the fashionable twenties style, a fondness for well-tailored suits, beautiful manners, and a way of standing with a quizzical smile, developed a decade before Clark Gable discovered its virtues-it is said that ladies found Herbert very attractive. He had a "wonderful, sly sense of humor," his son Stephen said, an aptitude for business and an elusive something else that must have aided his ascent. Perhaps it was the virtue of resourcefulness; at any rate, he demonstrated this at an early stage when he decided to start a dance studio in the evenings. As luck would have it, one night his pupil was a dress manufacturer, who naturally saw all sorts of promise in Herbert and gave him a job. All that pushing and carrying was over; from now on, Herbert was a dress salesman and young man about town.

By 1923, when he was twenty-eight, Herbert Sondheim had become president of the Sondheim-Levy Company, with offices on West Thirty-ninth Street; and by 1930, at the height of the Depression, he had bought out his partner. He was established as a manufacturer of beautifully made clothes of marked style and taste, selling to select stores. Still, nothing quite explains the rapid transformation of this poorly educated, penniless young man into a position on Seventh Avenue, if not quite that of haute-couturier, certainly far above his peers, who were turning out cheap dresses in the thousands, a man who knew what his particular client wanted almost before she did herself. The mystery about his rise is equaled by an enigmatic aspect to his personality. Behind the energy and persuasive charm was someone whose gentle manner concealed a melancholic view of life, and whose emotions were as elusive as his smile; when he was faced with an unpleasant confrontation, his solution was to slide away.

If the picture of Herbert Sondheim's personality is blurred-people who met him later in life often dismissed him as a "good, gray businessman"-the same cannot be said of his wife. Here was someone with whom you immediately came to grips, for good or ill, a sprawling personality who escaped ordinary definitions, the kind of person who came crashing into your life and left some kind of mark-usually a scar-before she crashed out again. Janet Fox had the same penurious upbringing as her husband; she shared his ambitious dreams and, like him, had a special gift that had catapulted her up the fashion ladder.

There, however, the resemblance ends. Whilst the Sondheims had long since made the transition from working poor to genteel middle class, and from immigrant status to that of native born, the Foxes were new arrivals with rough manners, still fighting for a foothold in the New World, unsure of themselves and struggling to acquire, sometimes with comical results, the veneer of savoir faire that would mark their transition into the bourgeoisie. Janet Fox, always called "Foxy," was the fifth child of Joseph M. and Bessie Fox. They were Lithuanian Jews from Vilna who had arrived in the United States by a circuitous route. The family's history is sketchy, and no one knows what Joseph Fox's name was originally-it certainly was not Fox. But it is believed that he and his wife, Bessie, had their first two children, Anna Leah (1883) and Rose Sarah (1890), in Vilna, before emigrating to England, where they had relatives in Nottingham. They stayed there for a decade, and two more children were born, Frances (1892) and Victor (1894). In 1895 they emigrated again, to Fall River, Massachusetts, where one of Bessie's brothers was already established. There the last two children arrived. Etta Janet was born on March 13, 1897, followed by Marienne Gladys in 1900. Six children, the financial demands of two major migrations, the need for shoes, coats, plates, pans, mattresses, blankets, and piano lessons-one wonders how any man, even one who is being helped by his relatives, could have survived. The one photograph that exists of Joseph Fox gives a certain clue. He stands, hat on the back of his head, as if momentarily arrested from the grinding daily round, like a man who has discovered how tired he is. In one hand a traveling bag, in the other a steel box: these were the tools of his trade, since he dealt in precious stones. His granddaughter Joan Barnet recalled that he traveled constantly. She thought he had fled from Vilna to evade conscription in the Russian army. He and his wife were members of the Hasidim and, when they were living on Sherwood Rise, a hilly section near Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, they had sent their children to Hebrew school. When a father is hardly ever at home, perhaps it does not matter so much that he is mean-tempered and unpleasant; even so, that is the only thing that is said about Joseph. Their grandchildren have kinder things to say about Bessie. Like all the Fox women, she was tiny and slim-hipped, with a generous bosom. She kept a kosher household and wore a wig like other Hasidic women, speaking in Yiddish or heavily accented English, and the grandchildren all remember how tender she was, how generous with her gestures, and forgiving.

Several of the girls turned out to be... ››



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With three hand-held cameras, one major theatrical milestone and nearly nineteen hours of footage, this rare and intimate look with Original Cast Album - Company is a must for any Sondheim fan.

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All Sondheim completists are sure to now own the first complete recording of The Frogs coupled with Evening Primrose. Do you?

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