Sweet and Low: A Family Story

Sweet and Low: A Family Story

4.1 13
by Rich Cohen
     
 

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The invention. The fortune. The payoffs. The convictions. The family.See more details below

Overview

The invention. The fortune. The payoffs. The convictions. The family.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Although Mr. Cohen is probably using this book to settle scores on some level, he has also managed to turn his family's rancorous history into a gripping memoir: a small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling — and often hilarious — parable about the pursuit and costs of the American Dream.
— The New York Times
John Barlow
So what made Rich Cohen write this book? His mother, daughter of the patriarch, was cruelly disinherited in the aftermath of the great man's death. Is it, then, about the money? Is Rich Cohen, the grandson who got squat from the Sweet'N Low millions, taking revenge? No; this book is about his mother, and the way that her family -- the whole saccharine-sticky lot of them -- were truly and unnaturally awful to her, a woman who makes but brief appearances in the narrative and is never eulogized. A woman who could have survived her vile relatives only through a tremendous inner strength. It is this strength which, subtly, gloriously, Rich Cohen celebrates.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Cohen’s unflinching and hilarious account of his family begins with his grandfather, a lawyer turned cafeteria counterman who “built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble.” Combining saccharin, a powder three hundred times as sweet as sugar, with lactose, he produced the sugar substitute Sweet’N Low, which went on sale in 1957, in its iconic pink packets. It was aimed at diabetics, but diet mania made it ubiquitous, and by 1975 the family factory, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was producing forty million packets a day. Cohen, whose branch of the family was disinherited in a power struggle, acidly narrates the gradual unravelling of the family and its fortune, and detours through the histories of sugar, Brooklyn, dieting, and packaged foods. The nadir came in 1993, when federal agents raided the factory; a reputed mafioso who had been put in charge of lobbying against a saccharin ban had funnelled illegal contributions to politicians and bilked the company of millions.
Publishers Weekly
Cohen's grandfather, Benjamin Eisenstadt, created the artificial sweetener saccharine and modified a tea-bagging machine to produce individual, sanitary packets of sugar substitute, calling it Sweet`N Low. Cohen expands the story beyond the family by incorporating truncated histories of Jews in New York, the saga of sugar alternatives and the rise and fall of Sen. Alfonse D'Amato. Nevertheless, internecine wars over the family fortune, ending with a legal battle over Grandma's will, dominates. Despite the abridgment, accounts of dead relatives tangentially connected to the story and FDA history are rambling and overlong. Fortunately, the tale is laced with enough humor and family shenanigans to keep the listener's attention. Cohen, the son of Eisenstadt's disinherited daughter, has a bit of an axe to grind. As reader, he keeps his voice even, perhaps too level, with the same monotonous emphasis on a noun or adjective in every sentence. A hint of smugness creeps in as Grandpa Ben and his son, Marvin, are convicted of misdeeds that are more low than sweet. Simultaneous release with the FSG hardcover (Reviews, Feb. 13). (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The history of the artificial sweetener giant-its humble beginnings, its rise to prominence, and the high-profile criminal doings that got into the mix-would be interesting enough. When the saga is written by the (disinherited) grandson of the inventor, who combines the product's history with his personal quest for the truth and his considerable skills at crafting compelling tableaux, you have one sweet read. Cohen (contributing editor, Rolling Stone; Tough Jews) doesn't just rely on family anecdotes; he digs through court records, interviews relatives (some won't talk with him), and peruses library microfilm to reveal various layers of truth. Everything from the origins of the name Sweet and Low and its packet design to his family's involvement in organized crime is up for investigation. Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics-the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York-much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized. Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. Recommended for all public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Jennifer Zarr, NYPL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the author's family invented Sweet'N Low, got rich, collapsed in scandal and set him free by disinheritance. The first and best section of this haphazard book by Cohen (Machers and Rockers, 2004, etc.) follows the rise of his grandfather, Ben Eisenstadt, born in New York in 1906 to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. Eisenstadt supplemented his slow-going law career by opening a diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It boomed with the war years, then went bust, so he opened a factory in which loose tea was packed into tea bags. Thinking the technique might be adapted to sugar, he suggested the idea to sugar companies, who thanked the naive, patent-less inventor and started making the packets themselves. Only later did Ben and his son Marvin turn saccharin into Sweet'N Low, the sugar substitute that would take the world by storm. mob-associated guys who liked to bill the company for the construction of their mansions. Cohen's wing of the family was disinherited after a dramatic and truly ugly fight about a will presided over by Aunt Gladys, a misanthropic shut-in who wielded frightening powers via telephone and fax. Cohen can't quite decide what kind of book he's writing: He offers a mini-history of sugar here, confusing family history there. But at its best, sardonically dissecting an unlikely success, it spins gold. A cracked family saga and an ode to Brooklyn, that incubator of immigrants and ideas.
From the Publisher
"A small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling—and often hilarious—parable about the pursuit and costs of the American dream . . . recounted with uncommon acuity and wit."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"How decadent to indulge in Rich Cohen's rollicking account of his family and the business it built. . . . Cohen has a terrific eye for detail, the little things that affix people and places in our memories, the gestures and miscues that shape family history. . . . It's a guilty pleasure—sort of like sugar without calories."—The New York Times Book Review

"A wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch. . . . He moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get."—The Washington Post

"It is Cohen's good fortune to be on the side of the family that was disinherited. Sweet revenge is the energy behind this glorious book."—Time

"Cohen tells a fascinating story about family bonds in his quest to discover why his mother was cast out. His skewering of his relatives is merciless. . . . Plenty of writers have dissected their less-than-perfect families.Dealing with the issue with this much heart, though—that's extraordinary."—People

"Hilarious."—Newsweek

"This book is an absolute pleasure: expansive, fascinating, funny and full of historical tidbits to read aloud to anyone around."—Salon.com

"Never less than fascinating . . . Sweet and Low might as well be a Balzacian nineteenth-century novel complete with a crisis, a contested will, and a tragic resolution."—Los Angeles Times

"Unfailingly entertaining . . . Echoes the cadences of such literary antecedents as Saul Bellow."—The Wall Street Journal

"Cohen writes entertainingly, lining up characters like objects in a curio cabinet. . . . He is an unusually nimble writer, capable of casually broaching grander themes. By balancing his more ambitious material with Eisenstadt family lore, and moving the drama away from the money he'll never see, he makes the story of Sweet'N Low something more than just a pleasant taste that lingers in the mouth."—The New York Observer

"Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. . . . Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics—the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York—much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized."—Library Journal

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780792739364
Publisher:
AudioGO
Publication date:
04/28/2006
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 8.88(h) x 1.27(d)

Read an Excerpt

Everyone in my family tells this story, but everyone starts it in a different way. My mother starts it in the diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, a short-order cook, invented the sugar packet and Sweet'N Low, and with them built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble. My sister starts it with his wife, Betty, the power behind the throne, the woman who, in this version, found in Ben a vehicle for her dreams. Whenever anyone asks what Betty was like, I say, "Betty had her name legally changed to Betty from Bessie."

My father starts the story in downtown Brooklyn, in the courtroom where my Uncle Marvin, the first son of the patriarch, a handsome, curly-haired man who insists on being called Uncle Marvelous, is facing off against federal prosecutors. After assuming control of the Cumberland Packing Company, which makes Sweet'N Low, Sugar in the Raw, Nu-Salt, and Butter Buds, Marvin, among other things that caused a scandal, put a criminal on the payroll, a reputed associate of the Bonanno crime family. That criminal made illegal campaign contributions to Senator Alfonse D'Amato, who sponsored legislation that kept saccharin on the market. Saccharin, a key ingredient of Sweet'N Low, had been found to cause cancer. In the end, Marvin cut a deal with prosecutors, testifying for the government and keeping himself out of prison.

In other words, Uncle Marvelous turned rat.

I start this story at the Metropolitan Club, on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where my cousin Jeffrey, the oldest son of the oldest son, the scion of the third generation, is getting married for the second time. Jeffrey, a burned-out surfer, a bloodshot member of the high school class of '78 whose yearbook picture still tells the story, is earmarked to inherit the empire. If Jeffrey read more widely, he would know that he is fated to screw the pooch, lose his grip, open his hands and let the money blast back into the whirlwind.

Or I start with Uncle Ira, the youngest son of Ben and Betty, a vice president of the company, who controls 49 percent of the stock. Ira, who has always struck me as an extreme eccentric, is years younger than his siblings, a pampered, interesting kid who grew into a genuine nut, a man who carries a purse, wears sandals, follows whims, sports an unruly red beard, and lives in an East Side town house with his wife and many cats. Ira has been to his office at the factory just twice in the last ten years. (Though he says he works many hours a day from home via phone and fax.) He is the trick that fate played on empire, the inscrutable brother who has to be watched.

At Jeff's wedding, he approached me in the bathroom. Standing next to me at the urinal, he said, "What is the last thing you want your crazy uncle to say to you in the bathroom?"

"What?"

"Nice dick."

My brother starts the story in Flatbush, in the icebox chill room of my aunt Gladys, a woman who, for mysterious reasons, had not been out of the house-her childhood home, where she still lived with Ben and Betty-in almost thirty years. I once heard a politician describe a rival's tax scheme as "the crazy aunt hiding in the attic," and I said to myself, "She actually lives on the ground floor." Whenever I asked what was wrong with Aunt Gladys, why she never left her room, words were muttered about arthritis, psoriasis, lack of confidence. Even though she is the least physically active of the Eisenstadt siblings, Gladys, with her telephone, drives the action of this story. In a way I am still trying to fathom, Gladys is its protagonist. When I was briefing my brother-in-law on his new family and told him that Gladys had not left the house since the Nixon administration, he said, "You mean mostly she stays in the house but now and then she leaves the house to go to the store?" I said, "I mean mostly she stays in her room but now and then she leaves her room to go to the bathroom."

As I mentioned, my aunt's room, for reasons I still do not understand, is kept as cold as a meat locker. To this day, if we are in a movie theater or a mall where the AC is really cranking, my brother will say, "It's like Aunt Gladys's room, it's so cold in here." By which we know him to mean more than just the temperature: Gladys's room is where my brother, Steven, learned the nature of things. Once a week, before I was born, my brother and sister were taken to Flatbush to visit their grandparents, aunt, and cousins.

There was an ancient form of primogeniture at play in the family; as the son of the oldest son, Cousin Jeffrey was golden. One week, Grandma Betty decided that a grandchild would, for no particular reason, have a party thrown in his or her honor, complete with cake and gifts. While standing in my aunt's room, Betty wrote the names on a slip of paper and dropped the slips in a hat. A winner was drawn: Jeffrey. Since Jeffrey seemed to win many such contests, my brother grew suspicious. When he picked up the hat, Betty said, "Don't look!" Unfolding the slips, he had the great early shock of his life. Every ballot was marked "Jeffrey." Later, when my brother refused to follow some instruction, Ben led him upstairs and spanked him-a grandfather who spanks!-ending, for my brother, the sweet ignorance of childhood.

In 1995, when my grandfather collapsed in the hospital, the first relative on the scene was my brother. In a nice twist of fate, Steven found himself charged with making life-and-death decisions for the man who had helped him recognize the unfairness of the world. And the winner is? Jeffrey! In the months following Ben's collapse, the family battle moved into its titanic phase, with Ben shuffling from doctor to doctor and everything up for grabs: the money, the legacy, and the story itself. When Grandma Betty died, I found out that my mother had lost this battle and that she and all of her children had been written out of the will-the factory and assets of the company are worth an estimated several hundred million dollars. Betty's last words came in a legal document: "I hereby record that I have made no provision under this WILL for my daughter ELLEN and any of ELLEN'S issue for reasons I deem sufficient." Her issue? It was like being called discharge, or refuse, or excrement. She swallowed a dime but it came out in the issue. So fate has placed me in the ideal storytelling position: the youngest son of the once-favorite daughter. Outside but inside, with just enough of a grudge to sharpen my sensibility. I am Napoleon staring at Paris from Corsica. All they have left me is this story. To be disinherited is to be set free.

Excerpted from Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2006 by Rich Cohen. Published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A small classic of familial triumph, travail and strife, and a telling—and often hilarious—parable about the pursuit and costs of the American dream . . . recounted with uncommon acuity and wit."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"How decadent to indulge in Rich Cohen's rollicking account of his family and the business it built. . . . Cohen has a terrific eye for detail, the little things that affix people and places in our memories, the gestures and miscues that shape family history. . . . It's a guilty pleasure—sort of like sugar without calories."—The New York Times Book Review

"A wildly addictive, high-octane narrative. Cohen sashays with boisterous panache from the history of the sugar trade to grandmother Betty's brooch. . . . He moves from journalistic objectivity to the intensely personal with ease, enjoying the kind of access that historians almost never get."—The Washington Post

"It is Cohen's good fortune to be on the side of the family that was disinherited. Sweet revenge is the energy behind this glorious book."—Time

"Cohen tells a fascinating story about family bonds in his quest to discover why his mother was cast out. His skewering of his relatives is merciless. . . . Plenty of writers have dissected their less-than-perfect families.Dealing with the issue with this much heart, though—that's extraordinary."—People

"Hilarious."—Newsweek

"This book is an absolute pleasure: expansive, fascinating, funny and full of historical tidbits to read aloud to anyone around."—Salon.com

"Never less than fascinating . . . Sweet and Low might as well be a Balzacian nineteenth-century novel complete with a crisis, a contested will, and a tragic resolution."—Los Angeles Times

"Unfailingly entertaining . . . Echoes the cadences of such literary antecedents as Saul Bellow."—The Wall Street Journal "Cohen writes entertainingly, lining up characters like objects in a curio cabinet. . . . He is an unusually nimble writer, capable of casually broaching grander themes. By balancing his more ambitious material with Eisenstadt family lore, and moving the drama away from the money he'll never see, he makes the story of Sweet'N Low something more than just a pleasant taste that lingers in the mouth."—The New York Observer

"Cohen is one talented storyteller, and Sweet and Low is a great read. . . . Cohen also offers good servings of history on related topics—the sugar trade, the diet craze, the migration of Jews to New York—much of which provides a helpful backdrop to the story. At the heart of this tale is his family, a cast of characters who, owing to Cohen's gifts as a writer, are neither lionized nor demonized."—Library Journal

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