- Author of Growing up at Grossinger’s
Interview conducted by Martha Mendelsohn
(Martha Mendelsohn is a New York-based freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times, Moment magazine, Tikkun magazine and The [New York] Jewish Week. She is currently writing a Young Adult novel)
[published on the Catskills Institute website at Brown University February 28, 2008]
Tania Grossinger and I met at a Starbucks near her Greenwich Village apartment, which is quite a distance, literally and figuratively, from the famed Catskills resort owned by her relatives, where she lived as a child. She was director of broadcast promotion for Playboy Magazine, and later became a freelance consultant and travel writer. Her articles have appeared in over 100 local and national publications, and she has been interviewed on the Today show, Good Morning America, and 20/20. She is currently a travel/lifestyle correspondent-at-large for Sally Jessy Raphael’s TalkNet. On the eve of the reissue in June 2008 of her 1975 memoir, Growing up at Grossinger’s, by Skyhorse Publishing, she reflects on the great and the not-so-great, her status as a “not very important Grossinger,” her mother Karla, who was the hotel’s hostess and social director, and the Catskills’ enduring resonance.
- Martha Mendelsohn: How are you related to the Grossinger family?
Tania Grossinger: Jennie Grossinger, who was the “face” of Grossinger’s, and Harry Grossinger, her husband, were cousins. When Harry’s seven brothers and sisters emigrated to America in the early 1900’s, half of them, including Harry, settled in New York City, the other half in Chicago. My father, Max, a cousin, met my mother, Karla, in Vienna, where she was studying at the university. After they married in 1924, they came to America and settled with the Chicago cousins.
- How did you come to live at Grossinger’s?
In 1938, when I was six months old, my father had a heart attack and died. There had been no other children. Shortly thereafter, my mother and I moved to Beverly Hills, CA, where she created a new life for herself as “Mme Savonier.” Jennie came to California and visited my mother in early 1945. Because of food rationing during World War II, I complained of not having enough food at the boarding school where my mother had sent me at the tender age of 5. When Jennie offered my mother a job as social hostess at G., it was the proverbial offer she couldn’t refuse.
- How did the reissue of Growing Up at Grossinger’s come about?
A friend mentioned that Skyhorse Publishing was looking to add to its line a certain number of books they called “contemporary classics.” I responded, laughingly, that I thought the term was an oxymoron. But apparently Tony Lyons, the publisher, was referring to certain books, published a number of years ago, that would have been more successful had more time and energy been put into their promotion.
- Why reissue a book about Grossinger’s in 2008, more than 30 years after the hotel’s demise? Who in this generation has even heard of the late, great resort?
I can’t begin to tell you how many younger people ask me what life at a Catskills resort hotel was like. The Jewish experience in the Catskills is part of Americana; the Jews are assimilated now. Phil Brown taught an undergraduate course on “Catskills Culture” at Brown University, and I was surprised that even one of the students was Asian. The generation immediately after the heyday of the Catskills in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was too involved with themselves, but now their children want to know, “What was it like, Grandma?” There’s nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time. Guests didn’t have BlackBerries, they had blueberries. The only time they got on line was to wait for the dining room to open.
- The 1987 movie Dirty Dancing has been credited with being one of the most watched films of all time. There’s even a computer game version. Does the Borscht Belt still inspire mass media interest?
A stage version of Dirty Dancing just completed successful runs in London and in Toronto, and is moving to Chicago, and then, probably, to Broadway. It’s a universal, timeless subject-a girl fights for the right to be with the boy she loves.
I was just interviewed for a documentary, “Where Comedy Went to School,” hosted/narrated by Larry King and to be distributed by Warner Bros. “The Jewish Americans,” a recent PBS series, included film footage from Grossinger’s. Also, Joan Micklin Silver, director of Hester Street, is working on a documentary about the history of the Catskills, which will include a segment on the Borscht Belt.
- In Growing Up….., long before “Dirty Dancing,” you tell of your own cross-cultural love story-about your romance with a Latino musician.
In the book, I call him “Berto.” He was Puerto Rican. He was well-read, he had graduated college. He was also 10 years older than me. I was all of 15.
- How did you come to write Growing Up….. in the first place?
In 1974, I wrote an article for the New York Times Sunday Travel section about what it was like for me to grow up at Grossinger’s. By the end of the week, I had received eight offers to expand it into a book. David McKay published it the year after. Unfortunately for me, shortly after its publication, McKay was sold to an English conglomerate. My editor, the publicity director, the advertising director and subsidiary rights director all left. There was no one to take up the cudgel and make the book the success they all originally believed it would have become.
- What are some of the life lessons you learned at Grossinger’s?
I learned never to envy money. I saw the way some of the rich people I met there conducted themselves. I never bought into the myth that you had to be rich to be happy. I disliked those who were condescending and treated the staff as servants. I always understood that money, in and of itself, did not seem to make the rich any happier than were many of the people I knew on staff. I also grew up with a working mother. I saw how hard she had to work. Many of the people on staff at Grossinger’s were women and it never occurred to me that there was something negative about women having careers.
- You and your mother, Karla, were the “poor relatives” and treated as such. Jennie’s pitch to get the two of you to move to the hotel had been, “Tania will have a family. She will be surrounded by people who love her.” She didn’t exactly treat you like family, did she?
Guests came first. Most of the time, Jennie didn’t know I was alive. And I can tell you that she never even had a cup of coffee with my mother. Her attitude was that she had been kind enough to us by offering my mother a job and a place for the two of us to live so wasn’t she a wonderful person.
Besides, my mother and Jennie had little in common. My mother was educated, spoke 13 languages, and had pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Northwestern when she first came from Vienna to Chicago. My mother never tried to compete with Jennie even when reporters wanted to interview her. She knew it would not be appreciated.
- There was a group of kids your own age, children of family members as well as people on staff, whom you were close to…
One of these was my cousin Mary Ann. She was a Grossinger Grossinger–Jennie’s brother’s daughter. Another, Pat Kreindler, was the daughter of the manager of the hotel. The Kreindlers went way back to when the Grossinger and Kreindler families lived on the Lower East Side. These were very important people, and their children, Pat and Mary Ann, were treated as very important kids. They could invite outsiders to the hotel. I couldn’t. They could charge ice cream cones and malteds at the canteen. I couldn’t. They could call for the house car to pick them up if they stayed late for an after school activity. I couldn’t. They were my best friends, but they had certain privileges and I had none.
- One thing you had in common was a resentment of the L.P.G.’s, as you called the “lousy paying guests.”
Yes, because we were sometimes forced to play with them even when we didn’t like them. It was our job to see that paying guests had a good time!
- Are you and the “kids” still in touch?
We are dear friends to this day. We just celebrated my last birthday together.
- As an adult, you became a public relations specialist. Did you learn a lesson or two about promotion and marketing from Milton Blackstone, Grossinger’s once-legendary PR maven?
I learned what not to do from watching how he operated! That’s not to say his tactics weren’t effective. He was the power behind the throne. He made Grossinger’s what it was. I saw that you didn’t always have to tell the press the truth and that everything that one read in the press wasn’t true. He created fictions, such as Eddie Cantor’s “discovery” of Eddie Fisher on the Playhouse stage in 1949. That was a total fabrication. The deal had already been made by Blackstone to have Eddie Cantor ‘adopt’ Fisher and take him on tour. Cantor’s offer was not dependent on how much the Grossinger audience loved the younger Eddie even though Milton had us kids clap and squeal wildly when Eddie made his “debut.”
- Were you ever used to promote the hotel?
I don’t think Blackstone even knew I existed unless something came up where he felt I could. For example, Neil, my husband-to-be, flew into the Grossinger Airport from Detroit in 1958, Milton made up a story for a book someone was ghostwriting for Jennie that “Grossinger Airport Fosters Grossinger Romance.” I had in fact met Neil in Detroit and Grossinger’s had nothing to do with it. I also relate in Growing Up………” Milton’s anger when my marriage broke up because he would have to take that paragraph out of the book. No problem. The book was never finished anyway.
- So you didn’t use Blackstone’s strategies when you went into the PR field…>/dt>
Absolutely not. I worked for “Playboy,” doing broadcast promotion, and did freelance PR for Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique at the same time. I handled accounts, ranging from the Village Gate to the Israel Ministry of Tourism. With every client, I was a stickler for the truth.
- What were you impressions of the true glitterati, the celebrities?
Many entertainers and athletes–Jackie Robinson, Jan Peerce, Rocky Marciano, Joel Grey and Henny Youngman–were wonderful people and great to be with. Milton Berle was always “on,” very pleasant with anyone who came over to greet him. Eddie Fisher had started at Grossinger’s on staff as a boat boy at the lake, and when he came back as a star, he was still just “Eddie”–he never acted stuck-up with us. He was three years older than me. We were close enough that I could ask him if he was sure he was not making a mistake the day before he married Debbie Reynolds, at Grossinger’s and he asked me the same before I married. (Neither of those marriages lasted!) Some celebrities, like Zero Mostel, preferred to keep their own company and not mix with the guests, which now, looking back, I can understand. They were entitled to their privacy as was anyone else, but then again some of them were guests of the Grossinger family…
- Speaking of privacy, it was in short supply for you and your mother. You not only shared your room, you had to share the bathroom with whoever stayed across the hall. That can’t have been much fun.
And we lived in 5 different rooms before we settled into Pop’s Cottage, our last stop. I would lay out my clothes for school the night before on the toilet seat so as not to put on the light early in the morning and awaken my mother. For a long time, we didn’t even have a phone because my mother didn’t want guests calling her at all hours.
- And you sometimes had a guest crashing with you if the hotel was overbooked.
Yes. It wasn’t until later that I realized my mother didn’t have any privacy either. Over the years, I came to understand a lot. She didn’t stand up for me, but she didn’t stand up for herself either. She was afraid. I’m not trying to turn her into “Saint Karla,” but she was a woman of a certain age (48 in 1944 and a widow and single parent, when we came to the hotel), and she didn’t want to have to face the possibility of being let go for being confrontational, and having to start all over again at that stage in her life.
- Would it be safe to say that Karla wasn’t a typical Jewish mother?
That’s an understatement! My mother wasn’t what I would call maternal. She thought “Tania’s smart, she has friends, she can take care of herself.” All of this was true, but Tania still needed a mother.
- In the book, and even now as we talk, you always refer to your mother as “my mother.” What did you call her to her face?
Mother, Mom-or to get her upset in front of guests, Maaaaa!
- So whom did you go to for advice?
I always found someone on the staff to latch on to. I got to choose my own family.
- Forgive me for harping on “Ma,” but I found myself getting angry. In the book, you give an example of a typical day in the life of Tania Grossinger, and it doesn’t include a single second with your mother.
I must have had my own anger–I released my frustrations by blowing my brains out into a trumpet and banging away with a Ping-Pong paddle! After school, I did my homework in the Tap Room where the dance teachers, Tony and Lucille, gave group dance lessons–one, two, cha cha cha–and still hadn’t seen my mother. We ate in the Dining Room at separate times at separate tables. The first time my mother and I actually had a meal together was in New York after I graduated college.
- Yet you dedicate Growing Up…. to your mother.
I wouldn’t be the person I am today if she hadn’t made the sacrifices in her own life in order to bring me to Grossinger’s.
- As social hostess for the hotel, your mother found matches for so many men and women, but never for herself? Why do you think that is?
She told me she wouldn’t be able to keep her job if women guests thought she was only looking out for herself. If she had remarried we could have left the hotel and had a real home. But then I wouldn’t have gotten to grow up at Grossinger’s.
- You’re in the middle of writing another memoir, aren’t you?
It’s titled Letters to the Child I Never Had. As I write it, I realize, among other things, that I wouldn’t want to be the kind of mother I had.
- Despite the bucolic surroundings, Grossinger’s was not always the most wholesome milieu. Did your precocious awareness of guests’ sexual shenanigans and extramarital affairs have an effect?
Marital relations were very confusing to me as a child. I saw so much infidelity. It took me a long time to get over my mistrust of men. I must add that the infidelity I saw around me wasn’t limited to men. I remember once, when I was around 10 years old, I heard about a woman I knew who was getting married. My mother asked me why I was so excited about it. “Because then she can go to sleep with the lifeguards. That’s what all ladies do when they get married, don’t they?” Of course, today, they’d be sitting on the terrace with their laptops.
- You co-authored a novel in 1980 with Andrew Neiderman titled “Weekend,” in which vacationers come up to the “Hotel Congress” over a Fourth of July weekend looking for easy sex, but find themselves in the midst of a possible deadly cholera epidemic instead. Was the book inspired by a true incident?
2Sort of, but not exactly. I came to Grossinger’s with my mother once when I was five years old, in 1942, to visit the family. It was on a July 4th weekend and I came down with a terrible fever and was throwing up all over. I remember someone telling my mother he didn’t want her to carry me through the main lobby so they brought the house car to the back fire escape of the main building and wrapped me up in a blanket to get me to a doctor in the nearby town of Liberty. It turned out I had scarlet fever and German measles and had to be quarantined in a rooming house in Liberty. I took that experience and turned it into a “What if….?” premise for “Weekend.” What if there was a possible epidemic of something contagious at a famous resort hotel on the July 4th holiday?
- If gambling comes to the mountains, what will the new Catskill hotels be like?
You’ll have Las Vegas-styles entertainment, luxury suites, big-name chefs and maybe even healthy food. The new resorts won’t be primarily Jewish. They won’t be Grossinger’s. That’s gone. There won’t be separate kitchens for meat and dairy. The jokes of Jewish comics won’t have Yiddish punch lines. That’s why Growing Up at Grossinger’s has been republished. It feeds into the sense of nostalgia so many people still have for a much beloved period of their lives.
- At a Catskills Institute conference, you said there were many things you left unsaid. Will the reissue serve up new revelations?
No. It was a publishing decision to leave it as it originally was. And I had learned how to keep a secret at Grossinger’s! Anyone can read between the lines. I haven’t added anything, but I’m not taking anything back, either.
- There is one episode you probably would have included, had it happened by the time you wrote the book: the end of Grossinger’s. What was the grand finale like?
It ended with a whimper. A PR agency I knew represented Choice Hotels which was the first business operation to buy the property a year or two after the hotel closed in 1986. I had lunch with the man who handled the Grossinger’s account. He said they were planning a promotion that would get Choice and Grossinger’s in all the papers. They were going to blow up the Playhouse on the first night of Rosh Hashanah. I told him I thought it was a lousy idea-blowing up the building where holiday services had been conducted. Ignoring my objections, he said they were looking for a celebrity who would do it. “Why don’t you get Eddie Fisher? He got his start on stage at the Grossinger Playhouse,” I suggested. I meant it as a joke, but they actually got Eddie to do it! I was fuming. I got an invitation to take part in the blowing-up in the form of a fake firecracker. I still have it. I went down to the Lion’s Head bar in Greenwich Village, where reporters from the News, Post, Newsday and the Times hung out-they had all gotten invitations-and told them it was the worst publicity stunt I ever heard of. The Newsday reporter wanted me to come with him to give a first-person account. I told him, “I may be a masochist, but I’m not that big of a masochist.” Then, on Rosh Hashanah Eve, I turned on the news, and-kaboom! But not right away. Eddie had to push down the dynamite plunger three times to get it to go off.
- In the last chapter of Growing Up….., you write, “I’ve never quite agreed with those who say you can’t go home again. On the contrary, I spend more time wondering, if you can ever really leave.” Did you ever leave the “G?”
I’ve lived in the same apartment in Greenwich Village for over 40 years, but when I think of home, it was and will always be Grossinger’s.
For more information about Tania Grossinger, visit www.taniagrossinger.com