1 Backstory 1921-42
Joe was Peck's bad boy; from the start he was never around the house. He was always running, always in trouble with the school authorities about attendance and this and that. He was a leader, always full of vibrant ideas. You could see from the beginning there was something there, something special. "Let's go here, let's go there, let's form a club, let's try a trick on this guy." He was always in the forefront, and whoever was around him listened to him. Our sister was the one who was worried about keeping something on the table; I don't think the stuff of geniuses feeds on worrying about mundane things like bread and butter and milk. He was like a rebel with a cause, a lot of causes.
Joe was always out doing something. He was never around. He was very restless. I knew he was reaching for something that was different. I just felt it. He needed challenges all the time. It was hard to know, really, what went on in his mind. Nobody knew what he really felt. He'd run off somewhere, it would get late, and I used to go crazy, running and looking for him, and never telling my mother because I didn't want her to worry. He was different. I worried all the time that something was going to happen to him, because he had the type of personality that wouldn't take any nonsense. I felt he would get into trouble. But we should all get into the same kind of trouble he got into.
Our mother, Yetta Miritch, came from Lithuania; our father, Shmuel Papirofsky, from Kielce, Poland. His father was a famous teacher, known in the town as Moshe Melamed. Except for one of my father's brothers, who lived in Israel, the whole family was gassed by the Nazis. My mother came to New York by boat when she was eleven, alone, an orphan, and a frightened child. She never talked about her past.
She met my father in a park with rides in Brooklyn called Goldberg's Farm. Most of the marriages in those days were all arranged, people didn't even know each other. This was the real thing. My mother was beautifully dressed, always conscious of her clothes. She was always cleaning-she'd clean instead of thinking of having something to eat. It was more important to keep the house clean. She was so immersed in problems, she wasn't that demonstrative. Maybe because she was an orphan and hadn't been given that, she couldn't give it herself. My father was much more emotional, and Joe was very close with him. My father always had an accent and he spoke Yiddish most of the time. My mother spoke beautiful English. You'd never know she wasn't born here.
My ancestral roots are in Eastern Europe, and I'm very conscious of that, conscious that I'm in the tradition of the Holocaust. I was born at home, in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in 1921. Williamsburg was not what it is now, with a large Hasidic community. Our area was a mix of a lot of different ethnic groups, Italians in particular, and Jews were isolated there. You always felt that you were slightly embattled. You didn't have the emotional support and protection of other Jews in great numbers around you. I came from a certain kind of poverty level, which was really below that of most of New York's Jews. I've always felt that distinction, I've always felt slightly removed from, for instance, the world of Broadway and the Shuberts. I can talk to them, I'll walk with them, but, as Shylock would say, I won't eat with them.
My mother was a beautiful woman, very gracious with a great deal of her own kind of style. She was very poor, but she always had a kind of aristocracy about her. She was a determined woman, and her energy was amazing. My rhythm is like hers was, very rapid. I remember her going up and down five flights of stairs like a whiz with these grocery bags that weighed a ton, sometimes two. She played the role of a Jewish wife, which meant she took care of everything, made everything ready for the house and for the holidays. It was a very traditional relationship in that respect. Her hands, particularly in the bitter winters, would start to bleed because of the cold. They were extremely rough, but to me they felt as tender as the softest hands you can imagine, because they were a mother's hands.
My mother was not a typical Jewish mother; she didn't fit into that category. I didn't know what a Jewish mother was, except what I learned later on. She had a certain aloofness and a certain kind of elegance and pride. She was very conscious of her clothes; she was always impeccably clean, everything was starched and ironed and had to be beautiful, because when you're in poverty, you try and dress very well. My mother spoke very, very little. Her main communication was nonverbal, but I would do anything to make her happy because she had kind of a sad look in her eye. She was always setting goals for me, even though they were not clearly expressed. In the tenements where we lived, people would dry clothes on a rope hooked up to a pulley attached to a telephone pole. Once, I must have been about eleven, we moved into a fifth-floor apartment and the rope was worn out and had to be replaced. My mother said, "Well, how are we going to do this?" And I said I would take care of it. I had to first climb that pole, which must have been fifty or sixty feet in the air and looked awfully precarious. After I got up to the top-and it looked like a thousand miles down-I had to attach some hardware, climb down, and then climb up again to make sure the rope was aligned correctly. She smiled at me when I did it, and I felt I was her knight in shining armor. If she wanted me to, I'd do anything for her.
In a funny way, my mother represents the unfulfilled aspect of myself: you keep striving because you never feel you've really accomplished something; you never feel that it's over. That has its advantages, it creates a drive, but it has the disadvantage that you'll never be satisfied. She was an enigma, and I identified very much with her. She was an orphan, and I in some way hooked into her sense of isolation, her feeling disconnected from the world. I feel alienated wherever I go; it's natural for me to feel that way. My father was just the opposite. He gave me a strong connection because he was solidly of this earth. There was no enigma there, he was what he was: open, generous in love and spirit, and religious in the best sense of the word.
When he came here, my father was a trunk maker. He made a kind of trunk that was covered with tin, blekh in Yiddish. He worked in this small shop, no bigger than four telephone booths. Even when he was working full-time, which was rare, I don't think he ever made more than $30 a week, and that was considered amazing.
My father was what I would call a very personal, natural Jew. His religiosity is the strongest thing that stays with me today, because it was never ideological. His Jewishness, his relation to God, was as natural to him as eating and drinking. He never tried to push it on anybody, not even on the oldest son. I would see him get up early in the morning, five or even four thirty sometimes, to daven, to pray. He told me that when he was about to be drafted into the Polish army-and they treated Jews like dogs there-he escaped and traveled through forests so he could get to a ship and come to America. On the way he used to daven in the forest, without any display, just like he did at home. Most of the time my father would daven in a very poor storefront shul on our block and he would take me with him. It was very rustic and small, unlike some of the grander and much more beautiful synagogues that were several blocks away. Nothing was sentimentalized or cutesy here; these were serious working people who prayed every day. I used to feel very good there, being with my father as he was communicating with God.
If anything at all played a role in what I finally ended up doing-and a lot of it is pure accident-it would be music. Music to me is the source of all art: I don't see how anybody can call himself an artist without appreciating music. We were a singing family; my sisters, my brother, and myself would sit around in the evenings and make music. In all that poverty, music was so important to my father. My parents bought a beautiful RCA Victor console record player. It cost $150 and it took a hundred years to pay the thing off. We had numbers of Yiddish records, but my father loved American songs as well. One time we found a haul of old 78 records. Someone had thrown them out, I couldn't understand why. They were all scratched up, but there was a great variety, and that's a key to my taste now. The singers we had ranged from the great Russian basso Chaliapin to Caruso to the Irish tenor John McCormack. My father loved it all, no one made a distinction between classical music and popular music, no one told me, "This is good, this is bad." I began collecting records, a series you could get by mailing in coupons. They weren't made of the kind of flexible material they use now; they were very large, very rigid 78s. We had just played Schubert's "Unfinished" Symphony, I'd put it on a chair, and my father, not realizing what he was doing, sat right on the record and broke it. I was destroyed; just because it was the "Unfinished" Symphony didn't mean he had to finish it off! My father almost cried. I never saw a more grief-stricken look on a man's face. I felt so terrible about that. Finally, years later, I got another copy, but the look on his face, what it meant to him, always stuck in my mind.
When I was about twelve years old, this dapper little guy with a bristling mustache went through my neighborhood scouting for poor Jewish boys he could train to sing in a synagogue choir for the High Holidays. He came up to our apartment on the fifth floor, the family was there, and he said, "Will you sing something for me?" I had a lovely, high, soprano voice, and he seemed to be impressed. He said he'd teach me the songs, but I'd have to come every day after school for three months, and he lived way the hell up in the Bronx. But when he said to my father, "We'll pay him $35," everybody went, "Aaahh." The shul I sang in was a gorgeous old Portuguese-Jewish synagogue on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. My father was poor; he'd never been in such an enormous, elaborate place. There was some dispute about whether to charge him to watch me sing because we didn't have the money for High Holidays tickets; a big fuss was made about that. They finally allowed him in, but he felt very nervous and out of place. I saw him sitting on one side kind of by himself. He was wearing his old prayer shawl, he didn't have any of his friends there, and I felt a little sorry.
We had a lot of deprivations, if you look at it now. I remember a lot of times walking around for months with the soles of my shoes flapping. Joe, too. Fruit boxes for furniture. We never had birthday gifts or parties. Pictures? I think I had one picture taken until high school. We never had any kind of luxuries in life, but we were never starving. All our friends were poor, we didn't know any better, so what the heck? You just rolled with it. And I knew our parents were doing the best they could to keep us together and keep us fed.
You looked forward to certain holidays when you had nuts and special kinds of food. Food was very important to a poor family. Except for Friday night, when my mother would find the best chicken we could afford, it was very rare that we'd have a full meal. We were always hungry, there was always an edge of hunger, though when you're young, unless it's to the point of starvation, you're unconscious of it. We weren't bone poor, but there were times when we felt like there was nothing. One of the effects on me now is when I invite people over, the horn of plenty is a symbol at my table. I always want to have more than less. If you have three people, you get twelve bagels. And there should be plenty of cream cheese and lox. I remember walking to school when the weather was bad and having to put cardboard in my shoes because the soles were gone. I'd get drenched, my socks were all wet, and one time, the teacher had to send me home. Yet I wasn't intimidated by poverty. And in terms of having it rough financially because I came out of a poor family, I don't think there've been any scars. Poverty with good family support doesn't have to be that destroying. In fact, it could make you stronger.
What I've always experienced more intensely than poverty, more intensely than anything, is anti-Semitism. I always feel it's just below the surface: scratch in some way and a lot of it will come out. I feel, "Don't get too comfortable. You're a Jew and your fortunes can change tomorrow." That makes me fight for things, for any aspect of minority rights, black, Hispanic, and so on. To me, intolerance is a greater threat than poverty. We moved three or four times while I was growing up, often in the middle of the night because we owed a lot of rent and couldn't pay. Except for the last move, to Brownsville and our first steam heat when I was about fourteen, we stayed in cold-water flats in Williamsburg. They were mostly two-bedroom apartments, heated by a coal stove in the kitchen. We would buy a ton of coal at the beginning of winter and would have to hand-carry it up to the fifth floor, where the cheapest apartments were. We lived for a while on Boerum Street, where I published a little one-page newspaper called "The Boerum Eavesdropper" or "Boerum Through a Keyhole." I'd seen all these movies starring Lee Tracy as a tough reporter and that was my first love.