Hotels Yiddishe & Goyishe:
An interview with Elinor Lipman, author of The Inn At Lake Devine
Elinor Lipman’s THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE (1998 Random House $23.95; 1999 Vintage $12) links the culture of two amazingly different resorts–the large Jewish Halseeyon in the Catskills and the small anti-Semitic Inn at Lake Devine in Vermont. Natalie Marx, incensed at the family’s 1962 exclusion from the Inn at Lake Devine, plans revenge. But revenge gets tempered by a later visit when she accompanies Robin, a gentile summer camp friend and her family who just happen to be long-time vacationers at the Inn. Robin is later engaged to one of the son’s of the Inn’s owners, but dies in a car crash on the way to the wedding. Natalie, a newly graduated chef, stays and helps cook and tend the mourners, cementing Natalie’s attachment to the Vermont hotel. Elinor Lipman has tackled some thorny issues such as Antisemitism and intermarriage.
- Phil Brown: In the Acknowledgements, the reader learns that your mother indeed got a letter from a restricted hotel denying your family accommodations because you were Jewish. Was this a big factor in writing this book?
Elinor Lipman: It was a very big factor. I had started something about a neighborhood, and I though, I’ll put some Jews in there. And then I remembered–not that I had ever forgotten–the letter my family received in the early 60s. I wrote a beginning to a possible new story, embroidering a family around it, and faxed the pages to my former editor, Stacy Schiff (winner of 2000 Pulitzer Prize for biography for VERA). She called me and said, “This is it. This is your next book.” I said, “But I’m not sure if it’s a novel. I’m not sure if I can sustain it.” And she said, “You have to.” I asked why and she answered, “Because no one’s ever written a novel about anti-Semitism in comedic fashion.” That did it. I took that as my charge.
- Are there other autobiographical elements as well?
Just the sort of little emotional truths that work their way into an author’s work. I made everything up, and I had to because all I had from life was the memory of the letter and my reaction to it. My mother showed it to me–a piece of white stationery with an etching of the hotel. It said, “We do have openings on the dates you requested. The people who return year after year and feel most comfortable here are Gentiles.” I remember being stunned by it and thinking, “How did they know we were Jewish?” And then I said–the way Natalie did–“Can we go?” My mother answered, “You don’t go where you are not wanted.” In real life, that was the end of it, but in my character’s life, it became something of an obsession.
- Why did your mother originally pick this place to go?
No one can understand this, and many people say to me, “What an odd thinking to do! Everyone knew that you couldn’t go to these places.” But she picked Lake Dunmore–now the truth comes out–from a booklet put out by the Chamber of Commerce or some such office. This is sounding exactly like my chapter. I’m guessing she picked half a dozen in our price range, and oddly enough, this one grander place. We ended up, in fact, renting a modest little cottage at a place called The Oak Hill Lodge.
- You were on the same lake?
Yes we were. And we swam at a state park from which we could see the hotel that turned us down. It was very pristine and white with green grass that sloped down to the water–quite grand, which made it look out of our pale.
- To my knowledge, nobody has ever written a book that counterposes any kind of a Gentile hotel to a Catskills hotel. How did you decide to make that particular juxtaposition?
I felt this driving force to go to the Catskills because I’d created these gentile sons of the anti-Semitic innkeeper, and I wanted to turn the table and makes these boys fish out of water. I had never been to the Catskills–my parents were not drawn to anything splashy or outside of New England. My parents, when I was too young to remember, in the early 1950s, went to a place in Sandwich, Mass. My mother walked up to the counter and asked if they had a cabin. They said, “Yes” until my mother signed her name, and they said, “I’m sorry we made a mistake, we don’t take children.” As for the Catskills, I called a close friend, Madeleine Blais, (Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and memoirist) and proposed we take a trip with our two boys, who are best friends. “How would you like to take Nick & Ben and go to the Catskills?” So with about five days’ notice, Maddy, whom I should add went to Ursuline Academy and then college of New Rochelle, for a total of eight years of Catholic education–sad solemnly, “I’ve always wanted to go to the Catskills.” The two boys–who were thirteen then–had the times of their lives.
- How did you pick Kutsher’s?
I picked Kutsher’s because and English actress named Maureen Lipman–no relation but something like a penpal–who had toured the Catskills and written it up for an English newspaper. I called her and asked, “Where should we go?” I need a place that’s not too glamorous, and might be the Jewish analog to the Inn at Lake Devine–family owned and not huge. She said without hesitation, “Kutsher’s”. That decision was reinforced when I called the hotel, and the reservations desk said, “Yes, we have openings, and it’s $69 per person.” I asked what that included, and she said, “Three delicious meals!” (laughs) I thought, “this is for me”. I was only there two nights, but I walked around, which I don’t usually do, with a notebook and pen. Went to everything–every night club act, every lounge comedian. And it was so interesting seeing it through the eyes of a journalist–Madeline–and a gentile journalist at that. Ask our husbands, it was all we talked about for weeks after we returned.
- So did she actually help you with the flavor of it? Did she correct any of your impressions?
She pointed out to me that-no matter what the situation-everyone tried to make a joke, whether it was on a nature walk or whatever. And I don’t think I would have noticed that because I’m used to that, enmeshed in it. And another thing that I found so interesting: Maddy & I went down to the bar at 6 for the alleged happy hour–but nobody else was there. It was empty. At dinner, in fact, there was on cocktail waitress for this teeming room of guests. We offered our carafe of red wine to some people at the next table. And they all said, “Oh my God, what a wonderful idea! Oh, and it’s her birthday, pointing to one of the wives,” as if nobody had ever thought of it: wine with dinner! What a great idea. And when they finally got the cocktail waitresses, everybody had, literally, a demitasse. So we had to notice stereotype number two.
- You made the Halseeyon into a more religious place than Kutsher’s is. What made you do that?
I did that because I wanted it to be more of an extreme, more of a contrast between the Jewish hotel and the gentiles-only hotel. I wanted the two sons to be immersed in it. Things like not being able to press the buttons on the elevator and so that was it: purely for narrative convenience.
- Did you tell the Kutshers that were a novelist?
Yes I did. I followed the manager around a bit; he carried the walkie-talkie. I said to him, “My story is set in the early ’70s. Can you give me an idea of what it looked like?” And he just waved his arms and said, “Like this.” Also, I sat in Mrs. Kutsher’s office for a while–she’s such a beautiful woman–and so loved the way she talked to guests on the phone, rolling her eyes at their annoying questions, making me laugh.
- I don’t know if you got this for real, but some of the forward-looking hotel owners sent their kids to the Cornell Hotel School; that was for real.
That was a total coincidence.
- You just made that up?
That was just me asking myself, where would the son of a restricted hotel owner and the daughter of a kosher hotel owner meet? And immediately I thought, Cornell.
- I want to get back something that really started with the first question. Why are Jews fascinated with anti-Semitism?
Because everybody’s fascinated, I mean, the whole family, Natalie, of course for herself she keeps engineering everything. But in a way, everybody is fascinated. Sometimes people say, “What doesn’t make sense to me is why Natalie would try so hard to ingratiate herself to an anti-Semitic innkeeper?” I could answer a little bit better after I spoke to a group of women in Longmeadow Mass, essentially a Jewish retirement home. One of them told me about when she was a little girl–and this woman was now probably seventy–there was a woman in the neighborhood who was German ans an over anti-Semite. And she remembered her mother walking down the street, and the unfriendly German woman was ahead of her. Her mother was walking fast to catch up with this offensive woman–trying to just get acknowledged and exchange a pleasantry. The daughter was offering this to me because someone in the audience was asking, “Would Natalie have tried so hard? Why wouldn’t she have been so greatly offended?” The daughter felt it was an illustration, on a very small human scale, of the insultee needing to prove that she was worthy of the insulter’s attention. Really just a need to be nice.
- Is there also some element of saying, “Look we really are good people, you should see who we are.”
Absolutely, yes. To know us is to like us, and we can set this misapprehension straight.
- Now you’ve got the two boys, they both married Jewish girls?
No. One couple just walks off into the sunset. There’s no wedding.
- Right, ok, but the reader, no, may often think that sunset is marriage.
About a hundred percent of them think that.
- Is this a devise for saying that love and romance can overcome religious obstacles?
Jewish readers often ask, “Don’t you think you’re endorsing mixed marriage?” And I say, “This is not a book about people who met through a Jewish singles network. This is fiction. This is in many ways a romantic comedy, and in order to have a romantic comedy, you need to have obstacles. And when you start off with a little Jewish girl, age 12, being hurt and rejected by an anti-Semitic inn keeper, what better plot twist than to give these bigot sons who fall in love with Jewish girls? And in fact I jokingly used to call the subtitle The Revenge of the Jewish Girls. The question before the novelist is NOT “Am I endorsing inter-marriage?” The question is, “Is it believable that a Jewish woman can fall in love with a Lutheran man? Does it work as a story?”
- You make a lot of comparing the food and the eating culture of the two hotels. That was obviously very deliberate.
I went home with menus. At the same time, I wanted to make fun of the goyishe food at the fictional inn. I had to go back in time to roast leg of spring chicken with a wedge of iceberg lettuce and Floating Island. I don’t know if I had chicken croquettes in there, but I might as well have had.
- Now, when Natalie is cooking at the Inn at Lake Devine, he cooks up some mushrooms picked by Mr. Berry the least anti-Semitic of the family, and poisons fortunately not the guests. The end result of this is the inn is closed and then Feldman buys it for his daughter to start up an extension to the Catskills with the correct spelling of Halcyon. This is the ultimate retribution.
Absolutely, and in fact that’s why, when people say, “Oh, too bad they had to marry these shaygitzes.” Then I say, “But what better revenge on their anti-Semitic mother?” I felt there was a very small question…one could probably make an argument for Natalie’s principal goal being to close the inn and ruin the family, but I’d like to leave that sort of open.
- There are so many novels about Jewish life, by Jewish novelists and so few deal with the Catskills. Did you think about this when you were writing the book, and why is this?
No, no I didn’t.
- Do you think people look back and say Elinor Lipman’s novel is one of those novels about the Catskills, that people will learn about the Catskills in some way from it?
You know, I actually think it will. My paperback publisher, Vintage, of the various nice quotes they could have quoted the one they put on the book says, “Think, Jane Austen in the Catskills.”
- The name “Halseeyon”–where did you get that from?
Usually once per novel, I ask my husband or son to name something in it. This time it was my husband, and he said without hesitation, “Halcyon”. Then I added, “but of course the owner would spell it phonetically.
- Have you had any interest in going back to the Catskills since then?
Oh, I’d go back in a minute.