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Sondheim: A Life
A Book Excerpt by Meryle Secrest

Several of the girls turned out to be artistic. Rose painted on china; Frances (Frankie) played the piano beautifully; and Foxy showed a precocious interest in fashion design. Anna was the Latinist and family scholar, who completed a four-year college course in three at Brown and went on to get a master's degree in education. Victor was the one to whom no one paid much attention. But there were certain disconnections, certain fault lines running through the family that must have shown themselves before they all became adults and drifted away. Anna and Rose had grown up in the Pale of Settlement and had to learn a new language and new, foreign ways in Nottingham; Frances and Victor had grown up in Nottingham and then had to make their own adjustments to an industrial American city. Etta Janet and Marienne would not have understood any of these psychic shocks. As adults they were concerned about each other in a businesslike kind of way, but if they felt warmth they did not show it.

Anna, as oldest, was perhaps the most involved with the fates of her brother and sisters. "She cared about everybody," her daughter Joan Barnet recalled. "She was the regretter in the family." Frankie was the pretty one; her daughter, Myra Berzoff, recalled, "Anna was the smart one, Foxy was artistic, but my mother was absolutely beautiful." She was also unreliable. "She told elaborate Little Women stories about skating on the pond and hot chocolate, but she lied so much that I never knew what to believe. It was self-fulfilling, self-gratifying; a way to make herself look better." Mrs. Berzoff's brother, Arthur Persky, said his mother was like all the Fox women. "All of them considered themselves superior. My mother was a New England Scarlett O'Hara who never raised a finger and was quite above doing anything considered work, and the world's worst cook. She couldn't boil water." A clue to the evolving aspirations of Stephen Sondheim's mother can be gleaned from a photograph taken in 1913, when Etta Janet, who soon dropped her first name, no doubt for aesthetic reasons, was about sixteen and her sister Marienne in her early teens. Their fond mother looks benevolently at the camera, signaling her approval while Foxy, with some kind of flower garland in her hair, and wearing a dress in the "artistic" style that could have been her own design, takes center stage. These were girls whose father dealt in small objects of great beauty and value, and who had given Anna a present of a diamond surrounded by sapphires, even if the diamond was flawed and one he therefore could not sell. Joan Barnet said, "Look at Herman Wouk's portrait of Marjorie Morningstar. The values are what you wear and how you look."

At some point the Fox family moved to New York and were living in Harlem in the days when it was a Jewish neighborhood. Foxy went to Parsons, the famous design school. While there, she made friends with a young woman destined to become even more successful than she was: Jo Copeland. Her daughter, the novelist Lois Gould, recalled that Jo Copeland had achieved such success by the age of seventeen that she was able to put her brother through Harvard Law School. They were "young women traveling together," Gould said. Stephen Sondheim said, "Jo Copeland was very commanding. When she came into the room, you knew she was a dress designer. When my mother came in, it was this woman who had good taste in clothes."

Foxy might have looked demure-her son suspected that in certain situations she could even be quite shy-but no one who knew her was misled. Myra Berzoff said, "Stephen's mother was a doozie. The most pretentious, self-centered, narcissistic woman I have ever known in my life. My father [Robert Persky] adored Herbert and couldn't bear her. She was a snob who didn't like the fact that she came from a working-class background. She was a very brilliant designer, very successful, one who falsified her background and assumed a false accent. She was pretentious beyond belief."

Joan Barnet thought Foxy was capable of generous gestures, even affectionate, although "one never got a real feeling of warmth. She was vain. I remember seeing twenty little hats in her wardrobe and twenty little bottles of perfume, everything in order and very elegant. She could be so generous. She would bring me lots of presents, things like exquisite little doll's carriages from Paris. And she was very good to her mother; I think that Bessie's apartment on West Eighty-first Street was underwritten by Foxy after my grandfather died." She particularly recalls a photograph of herself as a little girl being hugged by Foxy, who was wearing a flapper hat, and the memory made her feel sad. "That is my warmest memory of her. I think she must have been very hurt to become so tough." That was before Foxy had her prominent nose reconfigured. Being the plain one in a family so concerned with personal appearance must have been a trial, which could have partly explained her meticulous interest in such matters, although it was one more reason for others to find her wanting. The novelist Jill Robinson, who met her on the West Coast in the early 1950s, took a charitable view. She said, "I remember her as very stylish and aloof in that 1940s way, wearing cocked hats with veils. Someone who could walk well in high heels and handle a cigarette with style. She was probably an Anna Wintour sort of person, full of guts and gumption," which was her misfortune. "In those days a lot of women who were ambitious, comic, raunchy, and sexy were considered bitchy, because they weren't sexy-cute. A woman could be self-destructive sexy, like Marilyn, or reserved sexy, like Gloria Swanson, or icy sexy, like Grace Kelly, but she could not be aggressive, bawdy sexy. She could not be comic sexy. That was dangerous."

Stephen Sondheim thought his father had married his mother for practical reasons. "I think-this is my opinion-that it was a bargain. I think my mother was in love with my father, and he was not in love with her, but needed a designer. That's a guess." Nevertheless, there were other reasons why Foxy might have seemed an ideal wife. For someone as emotionally distant and evasive as Herbert, Foxy's ability to blurt out every thought that came into her head, good or bad, to express her views forthrightly (as he might have thought), might have seemed an attractive quality, at least at first. She might even have been giving voice to some of the things he longed to say himself but had been thoroughly inhibited from expressing. To him she might have looked like a rough, gutsy character, full of life and high spirits. She had a knack for gathering people around her, and a staggering amount of chutzpah; Susan Blanchard, Oscar Hammerstein's stepdaughter, said she was the kind of person who could talk a jeweler like Van Cleef and Arpels into lending her a priceless necklace and matching earrings to wear for the evening; perhaps that was something else her husband admired. "She invented herself," another friend commented. The writer Dominick Dunne liked her gift of the riposte most of all: it was true she could be cutting, but she was also very funny, he said. She could be charming. She loved parties, and any fashion designer has to become a relentless social climber. In the days when even the Sears catalogue was using the names of Loretta Young, Joan Marsh, and Fay Wray to promote its evening gowns, hats, and handbags, every fashion house needed a retinue of actresses and film stars. Foxy had already befriended Florence Desmond, Glenda Farrell, Colleen Moore, Helen Kane (the baby-faced "boop-boop-a-doop" girl), and many others. She was always seeking to add to her collection and was an indefatigable first-nighter at Broadway shows. All this made her very useful if one were selling a line of expensive clothes.

One can easily see why Foxy Sondheim had decided that the San Remo was the perfect background for the kind of sophisticated life she wanted to have. The new apartment building, which was to occupy a whole block between West Seventy-fourth and Seventy-fifth Streets, had been in the news since 1928, when a building syndicate had announced plans to buy the hotel of the same name that was on the site and erect a splendid edifice of twenty-seven floors, placing it among the city's tallest apartment buildings at the time.

Roth's ingenious interior plan dispensed with the usual long, echoing corridors, making use of semiprivate elevators to carry tenants to within a few feet of their own front doors, which was considered a great improvement. The San Remo's lobbies were richly detailed with large terrazzo-square floors, marble walls in various subtle shades, and dark beige marble panels. In terms of design, the San Remo was a transitional building, and Art Moderne details were making their appearance beside the Beaux-Arts bas reliefs and ceiling vaultings. The average rent was two hundred dollars a month, in days when a sales clerk at Woolworth's made seven dollars a week and scores of the homeless were living in Central Park in a shanty-town "Hooverville" erected on the Great Lawn between Seventy-ninth and Eighty-sixth Streets, just five blocks away.

Herbert and Foxy could not afford the grandest apartments of all, the duplexes in the south tower, which consisted of fourteen rooms, including seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, and a library-those were among the finest apartments in the city. Nor could they afford to live on the park, which did not prevent them from entering their apartment from either of the two splendid lobbies on Central Park West as well as from a relatively obscure one on Seventy-fifth Street. Nevertheless, they had the comfort of knowing that their neighbors were all well-heeled and influential.

Herbert and Foxy's first and only child was born on March 22, 1930, while they were waiting to take possession of their new quarters. In the interim, they lived in a hotel.

As a mother, Foxy took the kind of progressive position one would expect of someone whose livelihood depended on being absolutely up to the minute, if not in front of it. If fashion decreed that a baby's skin should have lavish doses of sunlight, the infant Stephen must be divested of his clothes and paraded about in his carriage. "I was strolled naked!" he said, his tone conveying the helplessness of someone whose life was being organized by a determined woman, an image reinforced by an early photograph in which the two-year-old is standing between his mother's knees, each tiny hand imprisoned at arm's length, looking like a puzzled puppet. He had a nurse, a Miss Daly, whom he does not remember at all, and at the age of four he was enrolled in a prekindergarten class. The school chosen for him was twelve blocks to the south on Central Park West. It had been founded by Felix Adler, a nineteenth-century social reformer who had begun life as a rabbinical student but who had decided that religion was inadequate to deal with the problems of the modern world. Being born into an observant household seemed to have left no mark on Etta Janet, or rather, seemed to have convinced her that she wanted nothing more to do with it. She declared on numerous occasions that she had been educated in a convent, a claim her son considered too preposterous to be believed, adding to his suspicion that she was ashamed of being Jewish. If this were the case, the Ethical Culture School was the ideal solution for parents uneasily poised between a strict adherence to old dogmas and atheism: although it was considered a radical school, it might have looked to both Sondheims as the only alternative. As for religious instruction, Stephen Joshua Sondheim received none at all. He never had a bar mitzvah ceremony, he knew nothing about the observances of the Jewish calendar, and he did not enter a synagogue until he was nineteen years old.

While Mommy and Daddy were at their office at 530 Seventh Avenue, Stephen, often called Stevie or Sonny, had to be kept occupied. He remembers going to Miss Mabel Walker's prekindergarten class, then skipping kindergarten and entering first grade in 1935, at the age of five, taught by Mrs. Esther Burnham. He took second grade with Miss Marian Stevens and third grade with Miss Louise Welles. After school every day he would go looking for his friends Henry ("Skippy") and Felicia Steiner, who lived a few floors below him at 146 Central Park West. Their parents, Ethel and Howard Steiner, were friendly with the Sondheims. They would all play games in the Steiner apartment or various forms of skip ball on the street. Six o'clock was suppertime, and Stephen would listen to the radio until his father got home from work. He has no memory at all of his mother in those days. "My father would come into my bedroom every night, and often he would hold out his hand and I could touch his hand and I might get a quarter out of it, or something like that," he said. "Little bribes."

On Saturdays he went to "something called Group, which was a way of parents getting rid of their kids. And Group would either be in Central Park or Van Cortlandt Park [in the Bronx]. Mostly Jewish kids, and mostly from the West Side. It started at nine in the morning and went until six in the evening, and we'd do games like Hare and Hounds and stuff like that. So those were my Saturdays." Sunday mornings would be spent breakfasting with his parents; in the afternoons his father might take him to a football or baseball game on the Polo Grounds or at Yankee Stadium.

He enjoyed school. "One of the reasons I love teachers, obviously, is that where I felt great was in school, because . . . whether there was competition with my peers or not, I didn't feel any backlash from it. The teachers obviously thought I was terrific because I was smart. And then I had Skippy and Felicia for fun after school, and so, who should complain? And I loved Group. It wasn't that I thought, Oh, I wish I could be with Mommy and Daddy. I loved running around the park, you know, looking for clues and doing chasing games. I thought it was swell!"

Those long summer holidays were... ››



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