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I Stooged to Conquer
The Autobiography of the Leader of the Three Stooges
By Moe Howard
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1977 Moe Howard
All rights reserved.
CHILDHOOD AND THE EARLY YEARS
There was little to recall about baby Moses Harry Horwitz. Only that his dad intimated that he was an ugly infant, a sort of shriveled monkey. Dad should have kept that to himself, for he was reminded sharply and often by the tot's mother that he was no bargain either.
After three brothers (Irving, Jack, and Sam), I was to have been a girl, or so Jessup the butcher prophesied. And for the prediction I avoided his shop for years. Anyway, my mother conceded that if I wasn't a beautiful baby, then at least I'd turn out to be the smartest.
These memories were gleaned from bedtime stories my mother and father told me. Late at night I listened, enthralled, storing them all in my mind forever. And now, how easy for me to recall them in every detail.
When I was a little older I would stare into the mirror. Seeing my face covered with large, jagged freckles, I realized my dad was right. I would end up the ugly duckling of the Horwitz family. I soon discovered that those jagged freckles would stand me in good stead in the early 1900s.
When I was an infant I was always falling out of bed, over chairs, and off tables. I never cried, never broke any bones, never even had a black-and-blue mark. My parents and friends thought it was uncanny. I think it may have been an omen. I was about two when I did have my first real accident. My father had taken my brother Sam (who always was known as Shemp) and me for a walk down Cropsey Street in Ulmer Park, Brooklyn, near the picnic grounds. Shemp kept stopping to look into the penny picture machines. He seemed to always have pennies; I had my suspicion where he got them. I kept begging him for a peek, and he finally boosted me up to the viewer and onto the metal footrest provided so that small boys like me could be held up to watch the pictures flip by on cards. While Father had walked off to talk to another man, I was happily watching the peek-a-boo machine when a horse-drawn fire engine came roaring up the road, belching steam and clanging its bell. Shemp turned to watch and let go of me, leaving me hanging there. It seemed that I turned to take a look, too, lost my grip, and fell, hitting my nose on the corner of the footrest. After over two years of falling off of everything without a scratch, I lay there on the ground, my face a bloody smear. My father saw me, ran up, and picked me up in his arms, tears streaming from his eyes down his fiery red mustache and into my face.
A crowd had gathered around us by then. Someone directed my father to a nearby doctor. Shemp followed close behind, yelping so loud you would have thought he was the one who was hurt. I could never forget sitting on the doctor's lap. He had a mustache and a Van Dyke beard, and although I had gone through so much, the shock could not equal the terrible breath that doctor kept blowing into my face as he mopped up the blood, took a needle out of a little brown jar, and began stitching my nose back on.
When my mother saw me she figured the worst had happened. She started to cry, and that started Shemp yelping all over again. My brothers Irving and Jack had to yank him into another room with their hands clapped over his mouth. No one ever thought to ask how it had all happened, and Shemp certainly wasn't going to tell. My mother finally calmed down and began taking things into her own efficient hands. Several days later I was smiling again. Taking a good look at me and noticing that my nose, which had been cut from one side to the other, was stitched on quite crooked, she was wild! She phoned the doctor, who rushed over and took the bandage off, cleaned up my nose a little, and prepared to put on another bandage. My mother came up alongside him and, before he knew what had happened, belted him twice over the head with a broom and kept swatting him, as she would a horsefly, all the way down the steps, yelling, "You ruined my son's face. You ruined him. You gave him a crooked nose."
No one in our family or, for that matter, in our neighborhood, ever saw that doctor again. Later, we found out that he had been practicing in several areas without a license. My mother began looking all over for doctors. She was checking with everyone in the area when she found out about a Professor Beck who specialized in cases such as mine. His fee was fifteen dollars a visit, and my mother figured she'd try one visit and test him out. How far a mother will go for the love of a son! Over the years my mother proved that there was no limit.
At this time my family had financial problems. How could my mother pay Professor Beck? I can see her now, taking her shiny copper frying pan from the kitchen wall and wrapping it in a piece of brown paper; then with the pan and me in her arms, she took the elevated train and streetcar up to Dr. Beck's office, where he put me on a little table and took off my bandage. He looked at my nose and clicked his tongue several times, explaining to my mother that he would have to take out the stitches and redo the whole job. I'm sure she expected as much.
After a few minutes of conversation, my mother had full confidence in Professor Beck. I was to come back every ten days for a reexamination. During the operation, which lasted about twenty minutes, my mother's head was bowed across my ankles; she was holding my legs and sobbing.
When it came time to pay the fee, my mother told Professor Beck that she had no money and asked him if he would accept the beautiful copper pan as payment. His eyes lit up. How was my mother to know that all the copper utensils that Dr. Beck's mother had left him and which he loved so much had been destroyed in a fire? He accepted it graciously, with the understanding that in exchange for every copper pot that my mother gave him for payment he would give her an enameled one so that she would have some kitchenware.
Seven visits and seven copper pots later, Dr. Beck told my mother the bad news. Due to ruptured eye nerves, I would temporarily lose my eyesight. My mother's face went pale and, after a speechless moment, she said, "So long as God has guided me to this office, things must turn out right." And they did, although I was blind for eleven months.
During this period, Shemp was at his mischievous worst, telling our parents that I was faking the loss of my sight and using it as a cover to spy on him. This was really laughable, as it was around this time that Shemp had taken a liking to stuffing things into toilets and stopping them up.
By the time I was almost four I had perfect vision again. My nose was straight but scarred, and my hair had grown into a mass of beautiful long curls. They were to become the cause of most of my battles as a young boy.
Shemp was now five and a half, Jack was seven, and Irving was nine. Mother had won the battle with the school to let Shemp into kindergarten, and I was left at home. Being somewhat self- sufficient, I didn't mind making my own breakfast, washing dishes, or even helping my mother scrub floors. Shemp would tease me by saying, "Mother, where's the maid?" referring to me, of course. My mother would ask naively, "What maid?" Whereupon Shemp would reply, "The little maid with the curls." Knowing that I had heard his comments, Mother would give him a halfhearted whack for his insults and he would laugh and run downstairs. I was hurt but not mad. Mother would kiss me and tell me not to mind Shemp, that Pa would fix him. But Pa never fixed anybody. He didn't have the heart to swat a mosquito — and there were plenty of them — let alone strike one of his sons.
So it was Mother who made all the financial plans, did all the managing, made all the clothes and meals. She did the laundry and cleaning with what little help I, as a four-year-old kid, could give. And she did all the punishing — what little there was of it. Pa was the bogeyman that Ma created, a bogeyman who scared nobody.
* * *
Jack and Irving were model children — good students who did little odd jobs in the neighborhood to help with the family finances. Shemp, on the other hand, was an impossible crybaby, a stocking and pants destroyer, a general creator of disturbances. When chore time came he would develop a stomachache, a headache, a toothache, or any old ache that would get him out of his share of work.
The school in Ulmer Park, where we lived, went only to the fifth grade. A student would have to go either to Coney Island (five miles away) or to Bensonhurst (four miles away) to continue school. My mother learned of a little section called Bath Beach in the Bensonhurst area, which housed the upper crust. She decided to scout around, making daily trips to Bath Beach and looking at different parts of the neighborhood each day. She found there were only six Jewish families in the area and no synagogue, but there was a streetcar line to Coney Island and an elevated structure which ran throughout Bath Beach. Mother would come home each afternoon exhausted from these scouting expeditions, but not too tired to make our evening meal. Then she would stay up until all hours of the night washing, ironing, knitting, and making lunches for school the next day.
Many times while lying on my mattress on the floor, I could see my mother nodding during her work. Shemp would be sleeping alongside my father, snoring louder than anyone I've ever heard. Often I would tiptoe in the room and touch my mother on the arm when she started to doze. She would look up and smile and carry me back to bed. She had terrific stamina for a woman only slightly over five feet tall. It was incredible, for she never complained. She would make all the decisions concerning the family without consulting anyone, and one day, without a word spoken, we found ourselves moving to Bath Beach.
It cost us eleven dollars to move our things to our new home. On moving day I came down with a very special variety of mumps, the kind that swell inward. The type that required an operation by Dr. Beck in New York. This time my mother paid twelve dollars, cash!
Sitting by an open window one summer's day in 1901, we Horwitz brothers were at the mercy of the mosquitoes. Like everyone else, we were burning punk, a concoction on a little red stick that smoked like old rags. Punk was a Chinese invention for lighting firecrackers, and its smell made the one who was burning it as sick as it made the mosquitoes. The swamps in the area bred thousands of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. It wasn't until years later that they finally filled the swamps in. This year Mother, who had begun dabbling in real estate, had made several good commissions, and Dad was still bringing in a little as a clothing cutter. That day we all decided to go out on our first picnic to a place called West Farms in New York. We were preparing to eat lunch when Shemp, who already had eaten, scooped up a handful of my tomatoes and disappeared. A short time later, a man from a nearby family gathering came over to our group dragging a screaming Shemp by the ear. The man, with tomatoes dripping over face and clothes, was shaking Shemp like a rag doll. Infuriated, my mother jumped up and hit the man with her sun umbrella, and a free-for-all resulted. It was madness! When it was over, my father was lying against a tree with a bloody nose, my mother was swinging the closed umbrella in every direction, Irving was crying in the grass, and Shemp sat there screaming like a person being strangled, although there was no one within ten feet of him. I had been hit by assorted chinaware and sat there wondering what it was all about. None of us had a clean spot left on our previously clean suits. When all the confusion died down, Shemp got the beating of his life in front of the stranger. The man, Mr. Mitchell, apologized for shaking Shemp. My mother apologized for hitting Mr. Mitchell. We found out later that my father's bloody nose came from my mother's umbrella. Our adventure led to Mr. Mitchell's becoming our friend, eventually moving into the Bath Beach neighborhood and becoming a partner with my mother in many of her real estate ventures.
Irving was seven and entered P.S. 101 in Bath Beach. He always attended and was average at everything. Jack was quite bright and took his studies in stride. At that time there were no junior high schools. You spent eight years in grade school, and if you graduated you went directly on to high school. Both Irving and Jack graduated and went on. Shemp started school in 1901 at the age of six. In his first few years at school he barely squeezed his way through each level.
My school career began in September 1903, when I was six. Whenever I attended school — which in later years wasn't very often — I was constantly fighting. I fought on my way to school, in school, and on my way home. As I said before, my hair had grown very long, and every school day I would awaken a half hour before everyone else so my mother could wind finger curls through my hair; they reached almost to my shoulders. There were about twenty of them in all, and they resembled a bunch of cigars stuck on my head. Knowing that it was my mother's greatest delight to spend that half hour arranging my curls, I didn't complain. But soon it became the battle of my school career. (A short time later, my youngest brother Jerome, better known as "Curly," was born — I called him "Babe" — another boy who was to have been a girl. I kept hoping he'd have curly hair so that much of my mother's attention would fall on him. No such luck, though; he had long, straight brown hair.) From the first days of walking to school with Shemp, I would have to grit my teeth and take the teasing remarks from both boys and girls, but I believe that I started planning my revenge on the very first day. I remember the look on the face of Mrs. Lynch, the principal, when she first saw me. She called to her assistant and said smilingly — I'm certain they were both holding back hysterical laughter —"Meet Moses Horwitz, our new student with the beautiful hair."
As she played with one of my curls, she instructed her assistant to take me to the kindergarten to meet Mrs. Warner. I think she wanted to call me "girl" but chose "child" instead. If she had, I might never have gone to school at all. Even at my tender age I was a stubborn kid. Fortunately for me the schools were coeducational, and Mrs. Warner was kind and intelligent. She sat me in the first row of boys adjoining the last row of girls, right next to a girl who had curls longer than mine. I was grateful for her consideration, but my fighting began early in kindergarten, and I fought from then until I was eleven. I sported more black eyes and bloody noses than any youngster alive ... anywhere. My mother never knew the real cause of my shiners and bloody noses, for I told her I had gotten them from accidents at play, and Mrs. Warner could never convince her that I should have a regular boy's haircut. I knew I must give my mother her half hour of pleasure even if it meant that I had to throw punches at everyone, no matter what the result — and most of the time I gave a pretty good account of myself.
Kindergarten was just not for me. I raised hell from the start. Sometimes I fought about my curls, sometimes I just raised hell. One of my worst offenses was dipping little spitballs into the inkwell and blowing them at different kids in the room. One time I put red ink in my mouth, laid my head on the desk, and let the blood-colored ink ooze out. I must have been convincing, for it really scared the teacher and the students. Finally the principal was called in — my parents, too. The kids and I had a good time of it, but I paid for it later.
It seemed my school-days fighting career was endless. Finally the principal could stand it no longer and moved me from P.S. 101 to P.S. 128. The change made no difference except that there I met a freckle-faced redhead appropriately named Rusty. His red hair had eyebrows to match and his freckles were not at all like mine, which he called "gingersnaps." I was the only boy, I think, who had black hair, black eyebrows, blue eyes, and a face full of freckles. Rusty and I became inseparable friends. He would wait for me after school and we would walk home together — he believed there was safety in numbers. Now when the other boys would call me sissy or "girly-girly," he would feel sorry for me, and whenever my opponent was too big to handle, he'd join in. We would stand back to back fighting three boys at a time, and soon Rusty was getting his share of black eyes and bloody noses. When I got my boxing gloves, Rusty and I practiced together every day, preparing for our daily fights at school. Rusty liked me ... curls and all.
Excerpted from I Stooged to Conquer by Moe Howard. Copyright © 1977 Moe Howard. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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