- Author of He Had it Made
Interview conducted by Phil Brown
from In the Mountains #3 June 1997
Although set in the fictional Sesame Hotel, He Had it Made (1959) was based on the real Aladdin in Woodbourne, where author Sidney Offit worked as the steward in addition to renting rooms to guests. In the Mountains interviewed Offit about how he came to write He Had it Made.
- Phil Brown: What prompted you to write this book?
Sidney Offit: I was absolutely knocked over by the Catskills. I’d only been at the Catskills for 7 years when I wrote the novel. It took me 2 years to write. When you write a novel you have to work out a psychological need to write it. I had a need to deal with that hotel at a waiter’s level. I was the boss’ son-in-law which in the Catskills is not the respected role.
- You went there to make money?
I went there first as a guest…visiting. I just couldn’t believe that place. It seemed to me…my dad was a bookie so we lived outside the structures of society. My mother was a reader and a cultivated lady. She had a strong feeling about Jewish life and tradition and religion. I had never seen anything that flamboyant, that ostentatious. Yet beneath it that extraordinary vibrancy. As soon as I went to the kitchen, there was an extraordinary fascination. I loved it. I couldn’t believe that I was going to play the key roles in producing all these meals. Culturally respected, fiercely competitive structure. Everybody said it–feeding people in the Catskills was the toughest job in the world. There were the most demanding quantities. To me it was like…you can hear it in my voice. It was like going right into the Olympics. I’m going to be able to do this? This shows you what a mundane fellow I am. All this steak and roast beef and chicken. I picked up the formulation of it. It’s the only thing I ever learned fast. What this required was a certain amount of pre-planning that you had to allow. One of the major challenges of those kitchens was not to run out. Running out of an item in the Catskills was almost like a terrorist assault. As much as you could have a non-violent terrorist assault.
- How was He Had It Made received in 1959?
It was at the time when Moss Hart had just written a memoir of his theater career. He had reflected on his experiences in the Catskills. That gave it a topical lift. Louis Nichols in the NY Times interviewed me. Appearing in that column was a literary trophy. On the Jack Parr show we talked about the book and I told a few short stories–examples of the eccentricities of the kitchen.
- How real are the characters?
All were invented. I tried to do an idealized aspect of my in-laws. They didn’t speak with an accent, but they had the NY intonation. I have a good ear for dialogue.
- Al Brody, the leading character, is a manipulative waiter out to make a quick buck and to exploit women sexually. The novel leaves vague whether Brody’s marriage to the owner’s daughter is mercenary.
Al Brody was a production of my resentment of some of the aggressiveness of the waiters. At first I had no respect for them. These guys were shocking to me that their need for making money was so strong. With Brody I played him through as the version of the guy that I was so intimidated by when I first came up. A guy I know read this book and invited me for lunch. He said, “I read your book. You really did betray yourself. You had this whole culture you were ready to nail. Then you let Brody off the hook. You shouldn’t have done that.” I was offended by it. It was a misreading. I wanted to humanize Brody. I saw it sympathetically.
The Aladdin is still operating, run by Carrie Komito, Offit’s mother-in-law. The first version was called 5 and 3 House, based on the $5 and $3 weekly tips to waiters and busboys. Long out of print, He Had it Made may be republished in the coming year; we certainly hope so, for it is an incredibly realistic and humorous view of life in the kitchen and dining room. Offit has been a novelist (including The Other Side of the Street), children’s book writer (Only a Girl Like You), magazine sports correspondent, TV commentator, the senior editor of Intellectual Digest, and New York University writing professor. His Memoirs of the Bookie’s Son has just been published by St. Martin’s Press.