by Jack Landman
The year was 1929, an interesting year by any standards, but a most eventful year in my life because it was the year my father bought a Catskill Resort Hotel…the West Shore Country Club of Kauneonga Lake, NY.
I was just a kid, not yet out of elementary school, active, athletic, and presented with 65 acres that was sub-titled The Resort of Sport! It had a golf course (one of the very few). Just 9 holes, it had a house near the first tee that had been reserved for Paul Whiteman for a number of years. It had a baseball field, 2 handball courts, 2 tennis courts, a horseback riding stable, and the beautiful big section of North White Lake, Kauneonga Lake. Of course, there were row boats, canoes, a sand beach, and lots of fish. Wow! What an opportunity for adventure. No surprise at all that a love affair blossomed between the impressionable kid and the magnificent majesty of the sparsely inhabited Sullivan County Catskill mountains.
The way in which this all came about is an intriguing mystery. My dad, Max Landman, had arrived in the USA from a province of Romania, the Bucovina, at the age of 12 to escape military service. Landsleit helped him get a job in a “pushcart stable.” According to his version, an empty cart was where he slept, on sacks used for potatoes. Every penny earned was saved, and eventually he became a partner in the establishment, had his own little fruit and vegetable stand, then a store in Astoria, money to bring his brothers over here, my mom and to build a family of four sons and…wonder of wonders…to send us to Summitville for vacations in the summer!!
What did all of that have to do with becoming a hotel owner in the Catskills? Here is the story as I got it from Pop (in pieces). After our vacations in Summitville, we graduated to a few weeks at the famous resort, The Laurels, on Sacket Lake. My father was a very hard worker. Running a food store, with fruit and veggies entailed very early morning visits to Harlem Market and Washington Market, the wholesale areas where produce poured into the City from the agriculture of Long Island, New Jersey, and points west. Pop also loved to play cards. Pinochle was his idea of a great way to spend his Sundays and we all learned the game from him. Imagine his surprise when he observed the owner of the Laurels, Mr. Novick, playing pinochle during working hours, while the business, ostensibly, was running as if by itself. Obviously for pinochle lovers, this was indeed an attractive business. That very week, he began his search that led to the purchase of West Shore Country Club!
The next three years were filled with wonderment, discovery and growth. Since I was the youngest of 4 brothers, I had the luxury of having no discernable responsibility for any of the hotel activities or programs. As long as I was not a problem, no one expected me to be any part of a solution!
My oldest brother, an attorney, was very much part-time. My next oldest, Ben, had golden hands and took care of the maintenance as well as the dining room management. Brother Allan, an aspiring accountant, handled the office. Lucky me, I was left to explore, to enjoy every sport at the Resort of Sport as long as I met my mother’s direction of daily davening! Pop was the food buyer, which entailed bi-weekly trips to the wholesale markets in his REO Speed Wagon truck. Infrequently, when he wanted company, he would ask me to go with him, and I never said no. What could be more exciting than leaving the hotel about 2 a.m., reveling in the vibrancy of the Harlem and Washington Wholesale markets, and returning to White Lake as dawn was breaking!
Sports, however, were my bread and butter. Baseball and handball were my favorites with ping-pong close behind. I was learning tennis because of a crush I developed on a certain young lady. Golf, too, became very interesting because it was my first employment at the West Shore. When I realized I could earn 50 cents by carrying a bag of clubs for 9 holes, I tore myself away from the ball fields for a couple of afternoons each week to become a caddy and eventually, a pretty good golfer.
Eventually, as I reached my middle teens, I had trouble finding competition. Some of the waiters and busboys challenged me at handball. I remember Leo, who was a Bronx title-holder who would charge me 25 cents per “lesson”, and it was worth every penny. I proved to be a good student. So much so that when I was an Aviation Cadet at Pensacola, I became the base handball champ, and it paid for my wedding some 60 years ago…but that is another story!
My baseball skills became known in the town, and I was invited to join the Kauneonga Lake town team. I had the pleasure of playing with the Vassmer boys, among others, against other towns in Sullivan County. Those days of fun, fun, fun were about to come to an end because I graduated from Townsend Harris H.S., the depression had deepened, and to save the West Shore C.C. it was necessary for all of us to go to work during the winters. Our love affair with “the Catskills” was under a severe strain, and we accepted the challenge with firmness.
With the help of a sympathetic Sullivan County National Bank we managed to make the payments largely because the Bank did not need any more real estate on their books! However, we needed more help than that. A fire, which started in the kitchen that summer threatened to spread rapidly. Almost miraculously, the Kauneonga Lake Volunteer Fire Company responded within minutes and saved the two main buildings.
Pop was thrilled and a few weeks later invited all the members of the Fire Company and their families to a “gala dinner and show” at the West Shore C.C. At the dinner, as Pop stood up to say a few words, there was a spontaneous burst of applause from the mostly young firefighters. Pop waited and then expressed his gratitude and promised to turn the evening into an annual affair, a promise he kept for more than 20 year. In addition to the friends he made, he made his family very proud of our Pop!
Now that I had graduated from Townsend Harris Hall, a prep school for C.C., N.Y., the facts of economic life became stark reality. At age 16 (minus 5 months) I had to face the news that our Bronx, N.Y. house now belonged to a bank, and our family was no longer intact. I was a Freshman at that prestigious institution (CCNY), but with some very painful restrictions.
Although I was physically and intellectually ready for college courses, I found that from the emotional and social standpoint, I was inadequate in the extreme. However, since this is a story of a love affair with the Catskills, I’ll skip the seamy struggle to survive the deep Great Depression and take you back to the shore of Kauneonga Lake in May.
It was a happy time because West Shore Country Club was getting ready to reopen for Decoration Day, the family was back where there was food, shelter and a reason for hope! In addition, there was ready employment,…or so I thought!
The dining room was my choice and since brother Ben was in charge, I told him of my interest. To my shocked surprise, he turned me down, thinking it was bad for a member of the “family” to work for tips. However, with the help of the Jupiter Employment agency, I was hired as a bus-boy at the Hotel Glass located across the street from the Flagler in South Fallsburg. So I reported there ready for duty in the dining room with clean white shirts, black trousers, bow tie and freshly polished black shoes.
The staff consisted of college students, mostly Jewish, who were profession bound, happy to be making money but unwilling to be treated with less “kovod” than they were at home ! We all slept in a dorm replete with cots, thin mattresses, sheets and a thin blanket, not effective vs the cold evenings of May in the Catskills. Food for the staff was mainly leftovers but edible. For me, it was all familiar fare, but for those members of the staff who were uninitiated, it was unacceptable. At the end of the weekend, with tips and a meager paycheck in hand, they revolted and walked out without clearing the tables!
For me, this represented a moral and professional problem. As a member of the staff, I sympathized with their view of how they had been treated. However, as a member of a hotel family, I knew that the profit margins were thinner than the blankets under which we had slept the last three nights. Moreover, I had actually earned a fair amount of money for the weekend, and it was my first real shot at employment in the Depression. So, I took off my jacket and tackled the task of taking the dishes to the waiting washers. Fortunately, there was one other young bus-boy whose family was in the catering business and he felt the same way I did. Well, two out of twenty (10 stations) did the job in about 2 hours. My memory of the response by Mr. Glass, the hotelier, is positive. He gave each of us a tip and called our parents to tell them what fine young men we were!
There was another positive response. When I got home, Pop called me into his office, told me of the phone call and uttered the words I will never forget,…”If you are such a good boy and a fine worker,…I need you to work here, not someplace else”.