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Roger Rosenblatt Remembers His Father

Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

My father and I were seated next to each other in identical red chairs, watching the seven o’clock news, when George Wallace came on. This was in 1968, before Wallace became a man-to-be-reckoned-with in the Democratic Party. In those days he was simply a fear-monger with sweet talk. When he addressed the nation, as he did for a full three minutes that night, you knew that you were getting pure hate and death, unsullied by platform politics. My father, not taking his eyes from the screen, thought for a while, and said, “Good. A few years ago that man would not have been allowed out of his state. Now, thanks to you liberals, he’s a television star.”

When my father said things like that he sounded exactly like Edward G. Robinson. Until his last years he looked and carried himself like Edward G. Robinson as well—not Little Ricco, but a cross between Dr. Clitterhouse and the criminology professor of Woman in the Window. He was small and stately. For most of the year he wore three-piece suits with triangular handkerchiefs and black oxfords from Brooks Brothers with no tooling on the leather. He wore grey felt hats, from Cavanagh’s until they went out of business, and complained that he didn’t know where he would get hats as good in the future. For a few summers he sported a straw “skimmer,” but eventually gave it up as impractical. My father believed in hats as signs of civilization.

The sight of him sitting at the television set was at first preposterous, then commonplace. He had never wanted a set in our house, and resentfully accepted our hulking Motorola from a grateful patient when I was 13. He started out not watching at all, strictly limiting the viewing hours of my brother and me. Later he would emerge from his reading or writing to watch the late night talk shows: Jerry Lester, Steve Allen and Jack Paar. Sometimes we would watch the Knicks together, “Playhouse 90,” “Studio One” and “The Show of Shows.” By the time I was 17 and he, 50, he had narrowed his viewing to “Perry Mason,” which remained his favorite long after it, too, went out of business.

On Saturday nights, while my father watched “Perry Mason,” I ordinarily was at the bathroom mirror making an exquisite study of my face. The fact that the part in my hair, which took 15 minutes to find, might have been mislocated after all, troubled me. I wondered if my eyes were indeed blue, as I always believed, or did I not detect the finest sliver of green radiating from the pupils? I had no worry about the proportions of my face; the distances from the hairline to the top of the nose, from the top of the nose to the upper lip and from the upper lip to the bottom of the chin, were equal. Yet there was an undoubted bend in the nose. In a smile my lips appeared asymmetrical.

I was perversely happy to see my father enjoy “Perry Mason” because it established my critical faculties as superior to his. The gargantuan figures of Mason, his assistant Paul Drake, Lt. Tragg, Delia Street, Mason’s secretary and the district attorney, Hamilton Berger (a name from heaven) were ridiculous to me. The format, trivial. The fact that Mason could guess and intuit things for which we had no evidence, that he could point to the murderer like a compass needle at the last minute every week, that apparent guilt was always innocence and apparent innocence, always guilt—these things, I told my father, proved the show boring and inaccurate. My father ignored my analyses the way in later years he ignored my children’s television-inspired harassments against his smoking.

No one was more immovable than my father when he concentrated. One evening he yelled at my mother because she had said of course to cousins of his from Buffalo who had phoned to ask if they could drop over. Except for his parents, my father did not admit the existence of his relatives. Moreover nobody ever dropped over on my father. He vowed not to speak a word the entire evening, a vow he kept by sitting on a bench in the living room and whistling show tunes to himself in low and ghostly tones. My father’s cousin, his wife and two daughters sat like dolls on the couch, staring forward. My mother fluttered in an occasional question between the vast silences. My mind straddled embarrassment and hilarity. My father whistled “Embraceable You.”

The world of my father extended from 9th Street and Second Avenue where he was born, on November 29, 1907, to our home in Gramercy Park between 20th and 21st Streets, to Doctor’s Hospital, on 81st Street and East End Avenue, where he was president of the Medical Board, to his office on 85th Street and Fifth Avenue. He taught at New York Medical College; did clinical work at Metropolitan Hospital and before that at City Hospital. I believe that he did his residency at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Except for summers he never lived outside New York City. Except for Bruce Catton, Gibbon and The New York Times, which he despised, he read nothing unconnected with medicine. The few social events he attended were professional meetings or events. The few guests he and my mother entertained were doctors.

With all this he never liked the practice of medicine very much. He had a bent for research and wrote a good deal, including two books, on diseases of the chest. He preferred doing pieces that involved the history of medicine because they allowed more rhetorical flourishes. He would have preferred to become a journalist. As a kid he had been a copy boy on The New York Herald Tribune (at night; in the daytime he sold hot dogs in the polo grounds), but knew that there would be no money or safety in writing. Either he knew or his parents told him.

My father’s father had been a professor of romance languages in Heidelberg and continued as a teacher at Columbia when he came from Germany in the 1890s. Grandpa had an unusual mind. Because he was suited only for contemplation, he decided to become a businessman, first founding a school for secretaries and when that failed, turning the rooms he held into meeting places for various and curious clubs. My first summer job was working for grandpa, where nothing ever happened. I killed time by writing poems, doing the Times crossword puzzle and shooting chalk out the fifth-story window. My grandfather would spend the day going from borough to borough to interview candidates for janitorial positions, and would phone me at two or three hour intervals. “Hello, Rog. Anything new?” “No, Grandpa. Nothing new.” Then he would hang up without saying goodbye; too busy.

My father said little when his father died. He attended to everything, as he always did, including the 16 years back taxes that grandpa had neglected to pay. Then he seemed merely to let his father pass into inconsequential history, just as he had let pass his childhood, poverty, the old neighborhood, Judaism and most things. For God-knows-what reason I used to loiter in his old neighborhood and insisted on a bar mitzvah in the oldest orthodox synagogue in New York. I laid tefillin, tying the little black boxes to my arm and heart with straps that traversed my body like black snakes. But formal religion was insincere on my part. My father knew it was insincere and let it pass as well.

He made no sudden moves, my father; his intimacies, because infrequent, were surprising. There was the time he and I were lolling on one side of a swimming pool watching my mother read story after story to my four-year-old brother on the opposite side of the pool. “She has remarkable patience,” my father said with sudden tenderness and admiration. There was the time we were riding in his car together a few months after his first heart attack, when he confided to me that he was afraid of physical pain.

But most of his thoughts were not shared with anybody. He was in no way taciturn and often talked a blue streak, particularly on his pet hates of Mayor Lindsay, Ramsey Clark, Mark Antonio and medicare; yet I rarely believed that he was thinking seriously about these things as he talked. At the same time I never knew anyone more precise with details. When my wife and I were planning to visit one of the summer homes he rented on Long Island, my father called three or four times with explicit driving directions. He mailed us a map. Even so when we drove down from Cambridge at dusk he was standing in the driveway with a flashlight to make sure that we had the right house.

Here are some aphorisms and habitual phrases associated with my father:

1) Never go out with anyone from the Bronx. (This became Brooklyn if I was considering taking out a Brooklyn girl, and, in that variant, was originally and most heatedly applied to my father’s brother’s wife.)

2) If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. (Used usually as a forewarning concerning other kids, but occasionally as a maxim after the fact.)

3) The person who knows what he wants is way ahead of all others.

4) Never trust a Hungarian. (A reference to the Gabor sisters.)

5) I will, in a pig’s eye. (Or, “you will, in a pig’s eye.” Said with more finality than nightfall.)

6) Now you’re cooking with gas. (An exhortation used not to indicate that I had actually achieved something, but that I had rounded the bend, was at long last headed in the right direction.)

7) Nothing good ever came out of New Jersey. (Different from #1 by degree; there were no exceptions.)

Were it not for one boy, who almost never came to school, I would have ranked dead last in each of my high school classes. My father concealed his rage in disgust, or sometimes vice versa. Because of indolence, a word I learned from my report cards, television periodically was forbidden me. Pretending to study, I spent most nights playing silent basketball in my room or kneeling on the window seat, staring at the lights in other buildings. On Sundays I walked the city. Sundays were terrible for television, anyway. I could not bear the politeness of Alistair Cooke and his “Omnibus”: the Rodeo ballets, dramatic readings in tuxedos and other chitchat of the dead.

On Sundays when 1 was very young my father would take me up to the hospital with him in his Lincoln Zephyr. I would sit idly in the hospital waiting room, furnished by Sloane’s, for over an hour (although in the joke between us, my father always promised 20 minutes at the outs). Afterwards we would go to a drugstore uptown and have sandwiches at the counter. Once on the way home we stopped at Grand Central Station—it must have been 1944—to watch the troop trains. I confuse that day with the movie Grand Central Station, its swirling crowds and missed appointments.

Sometimes on those early Sundays we all would go to movies in the afternoon. The Maltese Falcon (re-released). The Asphalt Jungle. My father liked mysteries, but loved musicals and musical comedy. These later became the bases of his singing and dancing spasms which could be triggered by anything by Cole Porter. One year he got hold of a Lester Lanin record of Cole Porter favorites which he foisted on the phonograph nearly every night. To “Night and Day” or “Silk Stockings” or “You’re the Top” my father would dance like a center pivoting, occasionally do an arm-flap at some private signal, and, since he knew no lyrics beyond the first three words of any song, sang da da da to everything.

Family reaction to the singing and dancing spasms poised between delight (shown by expressions of dismay) and impatience, the latter increasing as my father would insist on completing every number. What was funny for 10 or 15 seconds became outrageously tedious at the end of four minutes, but no amount of disapproval would stop him. Puffing and wheezing my father would finish his last da, bow and turn off the machine to an assault of booing and razzberries.

The Gramercy Park Association plants tulips in hedge squares every April. The old park trees, in their deliberate variety, bloom like huge broccoli. The bird- houses are repainted. The aged scions of the neighborhood take walks again and comment loudly on the pleasantness of the air. Here my parents settled 35 years ago. My father had his first office here, and his first patient, an Indian with a stomachache who happened to notice my father’s shingle.

Neighborhood merchants treated my father reverently. His manner with them, a mixture of the officious and confidential, seemed to encourage a military attitude toward him. They mentioned him to me as if he were of another age, as if we all were discussing the master of the house. My father’s sense of privacy was the key; deeply uninterested in most of the life about him, he walked and spoke as if he had been authorized to run that life. He berated traffic cops with such ferocity that they apologized to him for tie-ups.

Seeking total privacy in the summers, my father rented Southampton “cottages” for family vacations. These cottages, on three or four acres, had 20 bedrooms, 40 rooms in all, and backed on the Atlantic. The cost of the rentals was astounding, but worth it to him; both the quiet and absurdity were worth it. He spent the days sitting on vast lawns, reading and dozing, or arranging a project such as getting the car washed. In the past few years my children provided the whoops and giggles which my brother and I had supplied in earlier summers. From a distance we looked like the Roosevelts at play: the stately fun of great, rich families.

My father never was rich, yet never conveyed the impression of being anything else. I once overheard him complain to my mother that he had been forced to sell a movie camera given him in order to pay the cleaning lady. His extravagances were masterfully well-timed. Hired chauffeurs drove my parents to us on visits to Massachusetts and Washington. Occasionally hired chauffeurs were also used to transport my father’s luggage. Yet these were not extravagances in the gaudy sense. My father knew the exact limits of his energy, as if by land survey, and knew that a livelihood depended on his energy. He saw to it that this was so.

He was a genius at the art of leverage. As I grew to be a bigger and stronger kid, I kept wanting to test my physical strength against his. His one expressed concern was how long he could afford to be hospitalized if I hit him with my full weight; so when I lunged at him, he simply grabbed my fingers and bent them back. He got so good at this eventually that he didn’t have to stir from his chair to bring me to my knees.

My son takes great pleasure in this story. He likes the image of me brought to my knees and the image of my father triumphant. My father could not stop doing things for my son and daughter. Last year he arranged a trade of baseball cards between my son and the son of one of his colleagues. For my daughter he bought a gold bracelet when she was three, a nightgown from Dior when she was five. He talked to them both for long periods. When we visited New York, he fixed toast for them.

I have a photograph of my father as a new father holding me, two weeks old, on a level with his eyes. His face is serious and scientific, the stare of a man trying to read the watermark in a stamp. They named me Roger, but my father never sounded comfortable with that name, and, like his father, called me Rog. Although I never would have addressed him by it, his name, Milton, made me uncomfortable as well. These were not the names of people, but of eras.

I have a photograph of my mother and father on their honeymoon in December 1932. They are standing on the Atlantic Gity boardwalk, my mother smiling, dressed in a slim sable coat and a close fitting cloth hat, arm in arm with my father, not smiling, in a dark overcoat, gloves and a derby. I have a later photograph of my father in whites, holding a tennis racket, again not smiling. I have one with him smiling: on a fishing trip off Stonybrook, Long Island, with his doctor cronies, in 1948. The last photo of him I have has him standing in his dining room between the television set and my daughter’s toy rabbit. The rabbit has on a green tam-o’-shanter, and my father is not smiling.

That photograph was taken this past Christmas, one month before he died. I see in it now the deep creases of his face, sunken and pulled down, no longer the face of Edward G. Robinson. I see in it, too, or read into it, the toll of his fear. He himself pointed out to me the diseases of the aged one can spot in Rembrandt’s paintings. Shortly after New Y ear’s he was hospitalized for congestive heart failure, the third attack in eight years. We talked long distance in the evenings once he was out of the intensive care unit, about the advisability of his retirement and a book he might do on the history of medicine.

The fourth heart attack, which killed him, happened a few days after he had been released from the hospital and was on his way to his cardiologist. His heart stopped as he entered the hired car. My mother and the chauffeur brought him to the nearest hospital where he lived, technically, for another 50 hours. His tie, suit and all his clothes were cut from his body. Tubes arced from his arms and mouth. Only his eyes moved, from corner to corner.

Image via shutterstock.