Read an Excerpt
CHAPTER FIVE: To America
On August 3, 1956, I landed at New York's Idlewild (now JFK) Airport. The flight was long and exhausting and I was anxious. Once again, I was facing the unknown for I really did not know much about the United States. What little I knew was through the prism of Hollywood. My English, to be charitable, was shaky. I was afraid not only of embarrassing myself in America but also the Collège Arménien and its considerable investment in me. I was scared to let down Sir, not to mention the Armenian communities of Tabriz and Beirut indeed, the entire Armenian nation and my fatherland, Iran, and of course Mr. Vratzian. Like many shy, frightened immigrants, I was too proud to ask questions lest they unmask my ignorance. I pretended to know everything. Behind the façade of my self-assurance, there was a profound fear.
My first test came during my flight from Paris to New York. I was handed a U.S. Customs declaration form. Prior to the flight, I had been given an inventory form by Pan American Airways, to help me make a record of my belongings. I thought there must be a certain connection between the two forms, and therefore I listed everything in my possession in order to satisfy U.S. Customs. I wanted to be both accurate and thorough. After all, I was coming to the "land of laws," of "complete transparency" and "accountability."
After filling in the Customs form ("no purchases, nothing to declare") on a separate sheet of blank paper, I listed the number of socks, evening shirts (I thought any shirt you wore during the evenings was an evening shirt), T-shirts, underwear, handkerchiefs, as well as shoes, gloves, suits, and jackets. I had two or three silver frames. I did not know the word "frame." I asked a passenger across the aisle about it. She told me they were "frames." I heard her say "frabes." So I listed them as "frabes." I am sure the bewildered Customs officer must have thought I was a nut and threw my "inventory" into the garbage can.
As we approached America, my anxiety gained sadness as a companion. Upon the death of my mother, when I was six and a half years old, my younger sister and I were told by our relatives that our mother had gone to America: "a distant but beautiful land." As we were approaching that "beautiful land," my childhood fantasy that my mother was in America came to an abrupt and sad end. I had to catch up with the reality of death.
The dream of going to America had been a fantasy. For me, America itself was a fantasy built and rebuilt in my mind and psyche. I had lived it through scores of cowboy movies. My American heroes, who embodied courage, honor, loyalty, solidarity, integrity, self-sacrifice, patriotism, love of justice, and generosity, had prepared me for a fantasyland and sustained my dreams.
None of the movies prepared me for my first encounter with New York. I was stunned, overwhelmed, intoxicated, "blown away" by it. It was huge, massive, powerful. The varieties of sounds, colors, shades dazzled me. I had never seen or imagined so many cars, buses, ambulances, so many fire engines, police cars, taxis, or so many people in one city! The multitudes, their energy, their fast pace were incredible. All of a sudden, I felt I was in the presence of a microcosm of all humanity, the whole world. Every ethnic group, religion, race, continent was in New York. I had never seen so many tall buildings. Nor had I seen a concentration of so much cement, concrete and, especially, steel and iron. For the first time, I saw water towers and long fire escapes. They seemed to be everywhere. Elevators, escalators, and revolving doors impressed me, as did the number of shops and restaurants, not to mention the multitude of well-dressed people. I got lost in Central Park. It was so huge that I thought it contained all the trees and all the gardens of Tabriz, Tehran, and Beirut combined.
One Sunday, I visited Saint Patrick's Cathedral. It was imposing, majestic, yet open and welcoming. The burning candles, the beautiful music, interspersed with moments of silence and serenity, had a soothing effect on me. The altar boys reminded me of my childhood in Tabriz and my church, where I had spent so many Sundays hearing of and singing for the glory of God. All of a sudden, I felt very sad and nostalgic. My childhood seemed remote.
The sight of the Central Post Office of New York City on Eighth Avenue and 34th Street astonished me. It was a civic monument, rather than a mere post office. It symbolized stability, confidence, and durability. I read with great pride the words inscribed on the lofty entrance: Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds. The quotation, adapted from the Greek historian Herodotus, refers to couriers of the Persian Empire who, in the sixth century b.c., could travel some 1,600 miles in one week.
The Brooklyn Bridge fascinated me. I had never seen such a major, long bridge in my life. It was so powerful and graceful and beautiful! Speaking of beauty and grace, imagine my utter disbelief and enchantment when I saw María Félix, the actress, on Fifth Avenue. I became paralyzed. For a moment, I felt I was in Hollywood! I could not wait to write my friends that I had seen the personification of beauty.
The opulence of Fifth, Madison, and Park Avenues did justice to my Hollywood vision of America. Broadway and Times Square stunned me; I had never thought it was possible for a city not to sleep, or to have so much entertainment, so many bars, theaters, so many nightclubs, so much nudity, so many stations of sin and fantasy. But most impressive of all, I had never imagined seeing so much light and electricity in a single city. I felt as if the entire electric supply of the world was centered in New York, making it the City of Light. These firsthand, fast-moving impressions made me imagine New York as the City of Cities, the embodiment of power and sheer energy. I wrote to my sister that New York was a gigantic magnet. It attracted everything and everyone in the world, every source of power, energy, and scrap metal and every creative idea.
I had seen the Empire State Building in the movie King Kong, but nothing prepared me for the experience. I felt as if I were on the top of the world. After observing the range and the depth of the city, its architectural and engineering wonders, I wrote home that in New York I felt like an anonymous ant. If they stepped on me, I wrote, they would not even notice me. "This city will humble anyone and teach everyone humility," I wrote, adding that in New York, while you may be insignificant, at the same time you are just like anybody else, alone yet part of the multitude.
I had brought two letters of introduction from Mr. Vratzian. One was to Edward (Eddy) Sahakian, president of the Broadway-based Pictorial Engraving Company, Ltd., and the other to Martiros Zarifian, director of auxiliary services of the Taft Hotel. Eddy Sahakian was a benefactor of the Collège Arménien. I had lunch with Mr. Sahakian. Mr. Zarifian took me to his home on Long Island.
The reception accorded me by the two Armenian-Americans whom I had never met made me realize the range of all diasporas whether Jewish, Chinese, Indian, Greek, Lebanese, Irish, Egyptian, Nigerian, Italian, Portuguese, Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, or Pakistani. I had always thought of diasporas as limited and parochial. In New York, later in California, I discovered that I was utterly wrong. Diasporas tend to be cosmopolitan, international. In any distant region, country, or city, one has an instant link to one's diaspora through one's extended, dispersed family, one's religion, cultural institutions, language, press and, of course, commerce. An immigrant, a student, a visitor finds an easy foothold, a pathway, a bridge to a foreign country.
After bidding farewell to the Zarifians on Long Island, I went to Idlewild to catch my flight to San Francisco. I had sent a wire to those who were instructed by Mr. Vratzian to meet me at San Francisco Airport. I was placed on a waiting list. I did not know that there were more than one or two flights a day from New York to San Francisco, nor did I know that there were several other airlines that had scheduled flights. My message stated that I was arriving in San Francisco on such and such a date with Trans World Airlines.
Then the worst possible thing happened. I lost my airline ticket. I told the ticket agent who had wait-listed me about my "tragedy." "What can I do?" I asked. "Not much," he said. "You have to declare the loss, wait for a certain period of time, and file a claim." "I can't do that," I replied. "Don't you understand? I have to be in San Francisco tomorrow! I must register as a freshman at Stanford University this week. I am desperate, desperate, desperate!" I actually shouted at him. Tears of anger, self-pity, and shame and my horrified face must have touched him. He told me, "I have never done what I am about to do. I will stamp this empty envelope, marked New York to San Francisco, without a ticket in it. You can board the plane. But you must stay onboard all the way. Do not disembark. Stay on it until you get to San Francisco." Grateful, yet fearful, I boarded the midnight plane. The fourteen-hour flight stopped in Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, before arriving in San Francisco. At each stop, I told the stewardess that I did not feel well and would rather stay aboard. The generosity of the airline clerk had an impact on me. Even in New York, this massive metropolis, individuals mattered. After all, I was not an insignificant, anonymous ant.
I loved San Francisco. It was one of the most spectacular cities I had ever seen, even in the movies. It was beautiful, open, warm, hospitable, charming, and manageable. You were not overwhelmed by it, you were won over. I felt welcome. Once again, I could see the sky and the stars. In some ways, it reminded me of Beirut and its charm. If the Brooklyn Bridge fascinated me and the George Washington Bridge kept me in awe, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge was so beautiful that it sent chills up my spine. I loved to walk in San Francisco. Its steep hills were a great treat. I relished its fog. I found it romantic. Sitting at the Cliff House, my favorite weekend hangout, and watching the great waves of the Pacific Ocean, the clear skies, and the beautiful sunsets gave me joy, peace, even serenity. It was the best spot to reflect and meditate.
The cable car was my favorite pastime. I rode it back and forth, up and down, enjoying the happy sounds of its bell and the sights of San Francisco. In Fisherman's Wharf, I saw an incredible number of species of fish and numerous water creatures that I had neither heard of nor imagined. I thought the wharf was designed to give each visitor an introduction to the ocean and its wonders. I ate my first lobster roll and Shrimp Louis. Later, at Tommy's Joint, I ate the biggest hamburger ever. But what impressed me the most was the décor of the Joint. Its ceiling was full of pots and pans and other assorted utensils. There was even the cover of a toilet seat. I thought, what will they think of next?
Everything in the United States seemed to be very expensive. Hence, I chose to stay at the YMCA. I was mindful of my finances, so much so that I combined my breakfasts and luncheons and chose carefully what I ordered. Prices at restaurants were the most important items on the menu.
My first impressions of Americans during my first two months were many and varied. I wrote in my diary that Americans don't like to be bossed or told what to do by anyone, not their government or their clergy or their employers. They must believe that they are acting of their own volition. Americans are very individualistic. They work hard, they are open, kind, and generous. I wondered how the delicate equilibrium was kept between individual rights and societal interests. The first paperback book that I read in San Francisco was Elmer Davis's But We Were Born Free.
The sight of so many dogs in New York and San Francisco surprised me. I had not seen so many dogs and I was shocked to find out that dogs were allowed inside homes and resided there. In Iran and Lebanon they were kept outside in doghouses. Most of all, I was bewildered by the existence of dog food, cat food, animal hospitals, animal shelters, veterinary doctors, and even cemetery plots for animals! I read with great interest the posters of the SPCA offering a one-hundred-dollar reward for the arrest of those who poison dogs and cats or torture them! I had always thought that the expression a "dog's life" meant a wretched life full of hardships. But after seeing all the shelves of special dog foods, dog collars, and dog toys, doctors for dogs, even psychiatrists for dogs, I did not understand what was wrong with a dog's life.
The fundamental culinary challenge of my Americanization was my ability to drink American black coffee. It took me some time to get used to it and to learn that "regular" coffee meant coffee with cream. My first adventure with a cup of black coffee made me lose my appetite for days. At a Zimburger restaurant counter, I ordered a cup of coffee that tasted so bad that I asked for cream. "It is right in front of you," answered the waitress. I had never seen cream in plastic bottles. I saw somebody use it, so in a nonchalant manner, I used it, too. What I did not know, until I drank it, was that I had used the yellow plastic bottle. It was mustard. Having realized my blunder, and aware of the stares of some of the bewildered patrons and the waitress, I pretended that was what I intended to do. After several sips of the horrible stuff, I buried myself and the coffee under a newspaper.
I was under the impression that the United States was so rich that it did not and could not possibly have beggars. Imagine my surprise when someone approached me and said: "Please give me a quarter. I am hungry. I want to eat something." I gave him a coin instantly. I knew what it meant to be hungry.
I arrived in the United States two years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended legal segregation in America. Neither in Iran nor in Lebanon did I have any idea that the United States had a "color" or race problem, that the integration of black Americans, their unmet quests for political equality, dignity, the right to vote, to travel, to be educated, and to use public accommodations posed a major challenge to the democratic fabric of the United States.
As a young boy, I had read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and had empathized with the plight of "Negroes." I remembered vividly the slave driver who whipped Uncle Tom to death and how Uncle Tom had accepted his fate and by doing so had proved his dignity and humanity through Christian humility. The idea of "owning" human beings, and their humiliation and degradation created revulsion in me. But I had no idea of the present plight of the blacks in America. I had assumed that all their problems and inequities had been taken care of by Abraham Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation, that he had fought a costly, most tragic war to emancipate them. After all, I had seen the epic movie Gone With the Wind and its portrayal of the Civil War.
I had read that the United States had entered World War I "to make the world safe for democracy," and World War II to fight against a racist, totalitarian Nazi Germany and a racist, imperialist Japan. I never thought that while fighting for democracy and against racist regimes, the United States would tolerate racism at home. My impressions of U.S. racial and ethnic relations were influenced by World War II movies and their portrayal of how members of different ethnic groups (Italian, Native American, Jewish, Chinese, Polish, Irish, Japanese) had overcome their parochial conflicts and divisions, acted in harmony, and fought to defend the American people and democracy. They were hailed for their sacrifices on behalf of an America that was the champion of democracy and the embodiment of the principles of freedom and equality. They had fought for a country that was the land of immigrants, the land of opportunity for all, in which all citizens had inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I did not know that African-Americans were invisible Americans who did not enjoy equal rights and equal opportunity. I did not know that while fighting against Nazi Germany, African-Americans fought in segregated U.S. army units and that it was only in 1948 that President Truman integrated the U.S. armed forces.
The invisible Americans were not absent but were present in large numbers in New York, San Francisco, and all over the United States. The knowledge of their history, their struggles, their heritage, and their contributions to the United States became a major interest of mine. For me, the basic question was this: If immigrants can come to the United States to pursue their dreams, why could not African-Americans pursue theirs? Why could not the same opportunities afforded to immigrants be available to them? After all, they were U.S. citizens.
While I was aghast at my ignorance of U.S. history, I was surprised to find out that historical knowledge was not the forte of many Americans either, nor was geography. At several dinner parties, I was asked whether Beirut was in India or South Africa, whether Iran was in Ethiopia. I earnestly hoped to be asked about Armenia and the Armenians, for I had prepared a detailed reply:
The Armenians were the first nation to accept Christianity as a state religion in A.D. 301. We have a long and tragic history. We are three thousand years old. At the present, we have a small country, Soviet Armenia, and a large Diaspora. The first Armenians to travel to North America were a handful of individuals who settled in the Virginia Colony in the seventeenth century. Martin the Armenian, who worked as a butler for George Yardley, the governor of the colony, either from 1618 or 1619, is the first recorded Armenian in the New World. In 1653, two Armenians were brought to Virginia to begin silkworm cultivation in the settlements. Their efforts must have been successful, for one of them, George the Armenian, was awarded four thousand pounds of tobacco by the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1656. There is a statue dedicated to John Altoon, another Armenian, for his contribution to Virginia. In 1834, Khachatoor Oskanian was the first Armenian student from Constantinople to be sent to America by the American missionaries to attend New York University. He was followed by another student in 1837 who obtained a medical degree from Princeton. A third student enrolled in Union Theological School in 1841, and a fourth student enrolled in Yale University in 1848. During the Civil War, three Armenian medical students served in Union hospitals. Finally, the bulk of the Armenian population came in the nineteenth century. They came in three waves: the first one, before the 1890s, came for economic opportunity, the second and third waves came after the Armenian massacres of the 1890s during the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, and the third wave consisted of the remnants of the Armenian Genocide in the aftermath of World War I. They settled primarily in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California.
Alas, I was never able to give that narrative perhaps because it was more than anyone wished to hear. For my interlocutors the important thing was that I was a Christian and we shared a common bond. Some had heard of Armenians. Some knew the expression "Finish your meal, remember the starving Armenians." At Stanford, practically everybody had heard of the Armenians. After all, the Manoogian brothers, who were great football players for Stanford, were Armenian-Americans. The team was known as the "shish kebab team."
If the Manoogian brothers had made the name "Armenia" popular at Stanford, it was William Saroyan (1908-1981), the celebrated author, who made it part of the American literary mosaic through his writings: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze (1934), The Time of Your Life (1939), My Name Is Aram (1940), and The Human Comedy (1943). He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 but refused to accept it. Two other Armenian-Americans, Rouben Mamoulian, the Hollywood movie director responsible for so many major films, and Arlene Francis, the actress, even though they had neither Saroyan's maverick personality or his flamboyance, were well known in their respective fields.
Then, of course, in San Francisco, there was George Mardikian, an Armenian known as the Super American. The owner of Omar Khayyám Restaurant and author of Song of America was one of those individuals who was able to reinvent himself, not on occasion but continuously. An orphan who grew up in America, he was a proud Armenian, but a prouder American. He used to celebrate the day he came to America as his birthday. A staunch Republican and a great believer of the virtues of free enterprise, he promoted his restaurant as Armenian, yet it was named after the famous Persian poet Omar Khayyám. The décor consisted of scenes that depicted some poems from his classic Rubáiyát in the 1859 translation by Edward Fitzgerald. In one corner, you read on the wall one of the most celebrated passages of the Rubáiyát: The moving finger writes; and, having writ, moves on. Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
Mr. Mardikian was a great entrepreneur and showman. The windows of the Omar Khayyám Restaurant, as well as its interior, were adorned with pictures of Mr. Mardikian "breaking bread" with notable Americans or being greeted by him. The UN meeting in San Francisco had provided him with an ample pool of famous people: President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Charles Malik, the representative of Lebanon to the UN and president of the UN General Assembly, newsmen Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley, as well as other notables such as Nelson Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and scores of governors, senators, congressmen, generals, actors, and actresses.
It turned out that Mr. Vratzian knew George Mardikian very well. I accompanied Mr. Vratzian to Omar Khayyám for lunch with Mr. Mardikian. Exuberant as ever, overbearing yet gracious, he welcomed us and "broke bread" with us. He promised Mr. Vratzian to keep an eye on me and to assist me in any way he could.
After I graduated from Stanford University, imagine my great surprise to learn that during one of his visits to the president of Stanford, he announced that he had been my benefactor, paying my tuition, room, and board. It was not true, but it must have made him feel great to say so.
After five days in San Francisco's YMCA, I spent a week at the home of yet another set of great friends of Mr. Vratzian: Mr. and Mrs. Avedis Karageuzian. Anahit Karageuzian was a vivacious, gracious, energetic, driven, middle-aged woman, a pillar of the Armenian community of San Francisco. She was involved in myriad Armenian and American social and educational causes: she was president of the Armenian Relief Society and active in the affairs of the Armenian Church and many cultural institutions and organizations. Her husband had a major grocery market. They had not had any children of their own but had adopted one.
Whenever Mr. Vratzian visited San Francisco he stayed with the Karageuzian family. They were always thrilled to see him. Mrs. Karageuzian greeted me with open arms. She told me that since I had no mother, and was an orphan like her, she was going to be my mother and adopt me. Unfortunately, my newfound second "mother" died unexpectedly. It was a shock to all of us and Mr. Vratzian was crushed. I had to move on. I rented a room for a month at 125 19th Avenue. It was located on the second floor, and was spacious and light, with lace curtains, a great bed with two huge pillows, a chest of drawers, a large closet, a small desk, and a beautiful lamp. I shared a bathroom and shower with two other tenants.
Mrs. Maxwell, my landlady, was an eighty-year-old widow. With great pride, enthusiasm, and a touch of sadness, she informed me that her daughter had been stricken with polio at a young age; nevertheless, with great determination and hard work, she had managed to finish school, attend and graduate from a university, and earn a law degree. Unfortunately, she had not lived long enough to enjoy the benefits of her hard work and courage. I admired Mrs. Maxwell. She was self-sufficient. She cooked, drove her own car, supervised the repairs of her house, did her own accounting, and acted as her own real estate agent. After spending a month as her tenant, I realized that I had never seen any Hollywood movie that depicted the lives, solitude, boredom, struggles, problems, anxieties, and aspirations of elderly Americans.
It was in San Francisco that for the first time I also learned about the evolving structure of America's nuclear family. I was surprised that parents, instead of living with their children and grandchildren, were often placed in retirement communities, nursing homes, or "old age" establishments. I could not understand it. It appeared to me to be a callous and insensitive act. I thought all grandchildren had to be with their grandparents and vice versa; they had to be given an opportunity to enjoy their extended families. I had no idea of the socioeconomic forces that had brought about the fragmentation of extended families.
Mrs. Maxwell had a good heart and a good mind but loneliness oppressed her. I felt sorry for her. I am sure she felt sorry for my loneliness as well. Since I was a good listener, Mrs. Maxwell latched on to me. She loved to talk. She reminisced about "the good old days." My sympathy was boundless. I was only annoyed when she began to repeat herself, over and over again. I should not have told her that I was staying in San Francisco to practice my English. She thought she was helping me do just that.
In San Francisco, I felt free, liberated, and independent for the first time in my life. I came to cherish privacy and even seclusion. No one supervised me, there were no curfews, no peer pressures. I was in charge of my own time. I could sleep as late as I wished and return to my room whenever I desired. I could see several movies a day, or none at all. I could go to nightclubs, I could dance, I could eat an "unbalanced" or a "balanced" meal.
It was at Mrs. Maxwell's that I performed one of the most stupid deeds of my life. I knew I had total freedom and I knew I had strong willpower and discipline. But there were so many attractions, so many distractions, so many temptations, and yet so little time that I wanted to invent an insurance, actually a reinsurance, policy to back up my willpower so that I would not socialize. I had to read and to study. I had to practice my English. There was only one month left before the beginning of classes at Stanford. So I decided to shave my head. I went to a barber. I was shocked by the price tag. With that kind of money, I could have had two or three haircuts in Beirut. (In Beirut it was cheaper to shave one's head than get a haircut.)
I decided that my solution to the temptations of the city was to shave my own head. I had very thick and tough hair. It did not occur to me that to begin with, I must cut my hair, then shave off the stubble. Instead, I put my shaving cream all over my head and started shaving my hair with a regular razor. It was a disaster. I cut myself in many places. I was bleeding and I did not know what to do. By then, I had two alternatives: to cover my head, go to the barbershop, and ask the barber to end my agony, or finish the miserable task. I was too ashamed to go to a barbershop, so I chose the alternative. It took me many hours to finish. In the process I ruined several towels and made a mess of my head. I did not know how to stop the bleeding. Suddenly I remembered, rightly or wrongly, that in Tabriz, during the Ashura, when Shiite Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Ali (Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and his grandchildren Hasan and Hussein), occasionally, self-flagellation resulted in profusely bleeding scalp wounds. To stop it, they used egg yolk. I used several of them. For whatever reason, the bleeding stopped. I had to apply many cotton balls to cover my wounds, along with a beret, to hide my stupidity. For days, I smelled of egg yolk and for some time I could not bear the sight of eggs.
My head prevented me from attending any public events, including church service. I could not and would not remove my beret. It would have revealed a great disaster. So I spent most of my time reading English newspapers, listening to the radio, reading books, and watching television. I watched both the Democratic and the Republican conventions. They were extraordinary, bewildering and loud. I did not understand the speeches. Nor did I figure out the differences between the platforms of the two parties. My favorite part of both conventions was the roll call of the states for nominating their presidential candidates. I loved the self-promotion of each state by their delegates. They did it with so much joy, emotion, and self-importance. They were simply amazing.
What astonished me more than anything were the symbols of the two parties. The Republicans had chosen the elephant. I understood this because the elephant stood for power. But why had the Democrats chosen the donkey? What did they see in the donkey? What did the donkey represent? (So many Middle Eastern stories feature a donkey as a metaphor for the lowest common denominator that this was inexplicable to me.) One outcome of the 1956 convention was that I became addicted to conventions. Since then, I have never missed a single one.
I bade an emotional farewell to Mr. Vratzian who left for Beirut. He had rescued me, taught me, and protected me. Now I was on my own. I had to fly with my own wings and at my own speed. Vratzian's parting words were: "Study hard, but don't be a monk. Have a social life, take advantage of the cultural, educational, and intellectual richness of the United States. Get involved in the life of the community."
I was on my way to Stanford.
Copyright © 2003 by Vartan Gregorian
From Chapter One: My Family
Both my maternal and paternal grandparents migrated to Tabriz from the Armenian villages of Karadagh (Black Mountain). Whether they were the remnants of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Armenian deportees of the Safavid shahs of Iran, or earlier thirteenth- and fourteenth-century deportees of the Seljuks and Mongols, or early inhabitants of the region, is hard to determine. When I was born, many of the peasants of the villages of Karadagh had moved to Tabriz, including my paternal grandfather, Balabeg, and his brother, Tevan, and their families. They owned a caravanserai, a bakery, and a dairy business. Ours was an extended family, and a wall separated the two branches of the Gregorian clan. My grandfather had two children: my aunt Nvart (Rose) and my father, Samuel. Tevan had one son, Grigor, and four grandsons. By the time I was born, my paternal grandmother, Anna, had died, as well as my aunt Nvart, who had married an Armenian notable in Tiflis and left her orphaned son, Bobken, with us.
My grandfather valued education enough to send my father to the American Memorial High School. The same opportunity was not afforded to my cousin Bobken, who worked in the caravanserai and the milk business. He was only able to finish elementary school and later had a terrible accident that burned half his face and body. He became a successful tailor.
My father was very young when he got married. My mother, Shooshanik (Shooshik for short), was very beautiful, with a gentle smile, soft skin, and tender, smiling eyes. She wore practically no makeup. She had married at eighteen. My older brother, Aram, died when he was only a year old. My sister, Ojik (Eugenie), was born sixteen months after me. Our father's ambition had been to continue his education in the United States, but my grandfather had vetoed his wishes. Instead, because of his excellent English and expertise in accounting, he took a middle-management administrative position with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Abadan. My sister and I were brought up by my mother and maternal grandmother.
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, a great calamity befell our family. My seventy-five-year-old grandfather was arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges that he was smuggling arms to Iran. Police searched the caravanserai, the Armenian schools, and other locations and reportedly found one or two weapons. It was not clear to whom they belonged or whether enemies or business rivals of my grandfather had planted them. He died in jail. I am sure he was tortured since there was evidently a great deal of reluctance to release his body to the family. The effort to retrieve his body was left entirely to my mother, including procuring and taking a coffin in a horse-drawn carriage to the central jail. I am told that my mother, in tears, pleaded with Fatullah Khan, chief of the Tabriz police department, for the release of my grandfather's body, so that he could be given a proper Christian burial. According to my grandmother, my mother donated all her exquisite needlework to the police chief's wife.
The imprisonment and death of my grandfather brought an end to the family business. The caravanserai and the milk business were sold. In my father's absence, my mother purchased a house near the Armenian church with the proceeds of the sale. I still remember the number: 1699 Church Street. My grandmother, mother, sister, uncle, cousin, and I moved to our new house.
I have a handful of memories of my mother: being held in her arms, being sung lullabies, being with her in an open-air movie performance in the Arg (Citadel) of the city. I remember only that it was dark, the screen far away, the images blurred, and that I was scared and shut my eyes. I remember a reception at the home of my godfather. I was instructed to behave, "to be a good boy," to take one cookie, not two, above all to be sure to thank our host. I remember following the gaze of my mother and declining seconds. Most important, my sister and I had been told to leave a small portion of whatever we were eating on the plate as a "sign of politeness." This was required etiquette, otherwise we would exhibit signs of being gyormamish, a Turkish adjective that describes someone who is a hick, has not "seen anything," is easily impressed and greedy, is nouveau riche, and has no savoir faire.
I remember our family's trip to Tehran and from there, by train to Abadan, to visit my father. The weather in Abadan was atrocious, very hot and humid. There were big fans on the ceiling of our bedroom but they did not seem to make much difference. I gather the journey was an attempt by my mother to save her marriage and to reconnect us with our absentee father. There were whispers of "another woman" in Abadan. The trip was memorable for another reason: I contracted malaria. After several months in Abadan, we returned to Tabriz.
My last glimpse of my mother was when my sister and I were ushered to a room where she lay motionless. She was very pale and cold. Her long black hair covered her shoulders. Her beautiful eyes were shut. She did not hug us, she did not greet us. Everyone was crying. We began crying, too. Something was strange. Something was very wrong. Everyone was extremely nice to us but wanted us to leave as soon as possible. We were told to bid good-bye to our mother because she was undertaking a long journey: she was leaving for America, a beautiful faraway land....I did not know she had died. I had no clear ideas about death. I had been told people die when they are very old. But my mother was not old. She was so young, so beautiful, so tender, so warm....I did not even know she had been ill.
Only a few years ago, I learned that on the way back from Abadan my mother miscarried twins, lost a lot of blood, developed pneumonia, and died without doctors or appropriate medicine. She was twenty-six. All of a sudden, my sister and I were essentially orphaned. In retrospect, it is both sad and strange that my sister and I never addressed her as Mother or Mama or our father as Father or Papa. Instead, we called them by their given names: Shooshik and Samuel. This was because we lived in an extended family where the authority was vested in my paternal grandfather, Balabeg, a widower, and my maternal grandmother, Voski (Gold). We called them Papa and Mama.
Following the death of my mother, her brother, my uncle Harootiun, age twenty-nine, died. He was devoted to his sister and had traveled with great difficulty from Tehran to Tabriz to be with her. His car had been confiscated sixty miles from Tabriz and he had to walk for some time before he was able to hitch a ride and attend my mother's funeral. He contracted pneumonia, too, and, again in the absence of proper medical care, succumbed. Within the span of less than two years, I lost my grandfather, mother, and uncle.
On August 25, 1941, military forces of the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran following Allied accusations that Iran was collaborating with the Axis and harboring pro-German sympathizers. The Soviet Army entered Iran in three columns: the first occupied Tabriz, the second occupied the northeastern border province of Khorasan, and the third occupied the Caspian coastal towns. I remember the Soviet propaganda leaflets that showered over Tabriz. The British forces occupied Iran's oilfields. Reza Shah was forced to abdicate. The Allies gave assurances that they had no designs on Iran's territorial integrity, independence, or oil, and expressed the hope that Iran would not resist the Allied advance. They did not have to worry as the Iranian opposition proved negligible. Despite the Iranian army's communiqués that boasted of the army's excellent morale and its successful resistance, the Iranian military resistance crumbled. Many officers deserted their units; many units abandoned their arms and melted away. The Allied occupation of Iran was accomplished within a few days.
My father was in the Iranian cavalry regiment dispatched to the north to face a Soviet mechanized division. I remember his departure, on a white horse. As he was getting ready to bid farewell to us, we were asked to sit down and then to get up together as one. This was to prevent the evil spirits from knowing who was leaving our home to journey to the unknown. As my father left on his horse with his rifle on his shoulder, he was asked not to look back. To ensure his safety we poured buckets of water after him. This was to cover his tracks in order to prevent the evil spirits from being able to follow him.
A few weeks later, as war broke out, panic spread throughout Tabriz over Iranian military losses. Rumors were rampant about Iranian soldiers, including Armenian ones, who had died fighting or were captured. My grandmother was told that my father was possibly a dassaleek, a fancy word in Armenian meaning someone who had deserted. We did not know what it meant, except that it was not good news. We all started crying. We thought our father was dead, too.
A week or so later two peasants with their donkeys were passing through our narrow street when one surprised my grandmother, who was on her way to stand in the bread line, by addressing her in Armenian and calling her Mama. Evidently my father had traded his horse and rifle and uniform for peasant's clothes and a donkey ride to town, following the decimation of his cavalry unit by Soviet mechanized forces. We were happy that he was alive but I was ashamed that he had fled. For the next month or so, my father stayed in bed or at home trying to "recover" from a "wound" caused by his rifle. People came to visit him and expressed their sympathy for his being wounded at the front.
My maternal grandmother was an extraordinary person. She was of medium height, with big, dark brown eyes. Her broad forehead accentuated her fierce, penetrating eyes and eyebrows. Her hair and neck were always covered with a black scarf. She wore several layers of cloth, covered with a long outer dress, which reached her ankles. Under these layers, she carried a flat bag holding keys, money, safety pins, needles and thread, and, occasionally, candy. She was an illiterate peasant who spoke a vernacular Karadagh dialect of Armenian, as well as Turkish.
My grandmother and her sister knew which day, week, month, and hour they were born, but, oddly, not the year. We were only told of an extraordinary event that occurred during the year of grandmother's birth: a red cow had been born in their village in Karadagh. She and her sister quarreled occasionally as to who was the younger. It was only when she died, in 1964, that we found out that she had been born in 1882. I gather she married early and had seven children. Four of her children died when they were very young, victims of epidemics.
Following the outbreak of World War I and Ottoman and Russian invasions into northern Iran, Kurdish and Turkish fighters and brigands had looted the Armenian and Assyrian villages of Karadagh and elsewhere. Thousands of Armenians and Assyrians left their villages for Tabriz. My grandmother was among those who fled with her three remaining children. Her two sisters, Manooshag (Violet) and Sophia, were part of the exodus. My grandmother and her sisters never spoke about their husbands and their fate. Were they killed? Had they abandoned them?
I remember, however, that my grandmother was very proud of her family name, Melik Mirzaian. She told me that her husband's family was part of the elite of the village hence the title Melik, but more important, she took special pleasure in the fact that Mirza stood for "scribe" in Persian and that although she was illiterate, her family came from a tradition of literacy. It was a sore point for her that while she came from a well-known family, she had no schooling. She made sure, however, that her three remaining children would be educated. My uncle Harootiun graduated from the American Memorial High School, and my mother from the Armenian Diocesan High School. Armenag, my second uncle and an epileptic, received only a fifth-grade education, to the great chagrin of my grandmother. To raise her family and send her children to school, my grandmother worked for many well-to-do Armenian households, cleaning, baking bread, cooking, washing, and knitting.
Even though she was a churchgoing, fervent Christian, my grandmother seemed dazed by the calamities visited upon her by the loss of her husband, loss of six of her seven children, loss of her home and village, loss of a grandson. I had the impression, as I grew up, that she was angry at God or mystified by His actions, and that she lived to protest against Him. Her rudimentary argument with God was that since He is the Author, or at least it is with His consent that events take place in this world, He could have preserved at least some of her children, since she was not so sinful to deserve such a severe punishment. Her grief was private. She never complained; she cried for her sorrow, she cried for her children only in private. Her plight broke my heart.
Since my grandmother did not know how to read, she had no access to the Bible. She knew only a couple of short prayers by heart. She did not know the names of the twelve apostles, nor did she understand the lengthy Sunday sermons of the priests. She went to church to listen to the choir, observe the ceremony, receive communion, and pray. She used to light a candle and stand in front of the picture of Saint Mary, the Mother of Christ. One day after gazing at Saint Mary's picture, she shook her head. Probably they did not understand each other. Eventually she stopped her regular church attendance. Only once a year, on the eve of Good Friday, when the Church had the late-night service Khavaroom (Darkness, the Eclipse), when everyone came to mourn the death of Christ and that of their loved ones, did my grandmother attend the service, weeping in the darkness with scores of others over the loss of her children. She thought she was a "marked sinner."
After the deaths of her children, my grandmother never left Tabriz. She was fearful that she might die somewhere else and not be buried near her children. To be buried next to one's family members is a great blessing, she told us, because during Judgment Day and Resurrection, one must be near one's relatives. My grandmother believed in eternal life. Every Saturday night, she told us, belonged to departed souls. Saturday nights she kept a light on in our room and burned incense to invite departed souls to enter and rest for a while.
Thanks to my grandmother, I was acquainted with a world full of mythology, magic, and fantasy, where everything was simple, meaningful, and often beautiful. Since she could not read books to me and my sister, she spun tales. I learned that the stars were human souls, living in the sky, and that each of us could choose an exclusive star. (Naturally, I chose the North Star as mine.) These stars were our guardians. They not only protected us but had us under constant watch to see that we did the right thing. They were gifts of God, given to each of us upon our births. They served as lamps to light our inner world, enabling us to see its richness. They were the seats of our conscience. They gave us a sense of goodness, love, compassion, tolerance, and justice. The soul lived in the heart in an indefinite shape, as a body of light. The soul was also conceived to be air or breath. It was believed that when somebody died, the soul left the body through the mouth. The individual expired like a candle.
Departed souls could appear as good or bad ghosts. Good ghosts were associated with angels and holy beings; bad ghosts were souls of sinners. If someone had lived a good life, he would die with a smile. If, on the other hand, someone had not lived a virtuous life, one's death was painful, one struggled with Grogh (the writer of fate), and with the Hok-eh-ar, the taker of souls. Good and bad angels prepared their records of the dead for the ultimate Judge. If the good deeds weighed heavier, the soul went to Heaven. The bridge to Heaven (mazer, made of hair) was so fragile that it would break if the sins of the soul weighed it down.
During the summer nights when my sister and I slept on the roof, flanking our grandmother, we watched with awe the sky full of shining stars and an imposing moon. If we wanted to know how many people lived in the world, my grandmother would tell us, all we had to do was count their stars. When a comet streaked across the sky, it was a sign that somebody had been killed or passed away. On nights when the sky turned pitch black and the stars disappeared, my grandmother explained: "Probably somewhere in the world or here at home people have acted unfairly, unjustly, or are fighting each other like animals. That is why the stars are hurt and ashamed and have decided not to shine tonight."
The moon and the sun were brother and sister. The sun was a very beautiful girl, but shy and modest. Since she was naked, she was ashamed to appear before human beings who did not respect her privacy and stared at her constantly. She cried for many long hours. Then one day, God, pitying her, gave her needles to help her protect herself. It is since that day that we cannot look at her: she would not only blush but would also send needles into our eyes to avert our gaze. Her brother, the moon, on the other hand, was a naughty boy who constantly annoyed his sister. One day, their mother, the Heaven, who was kneading bread, could not take it anymore. She slapped him with a hand full of flour. The white spots that we see on the face of the moon are the consequences of that punishment. From that time on, it has been impossible to see the moon and the sun together the moon is chasing his sister to punish her for having reproached him before their mother. It is, however, a futile effort. He is running after her but to this day has not been able to catch her.
In the autumn, when it stormed, we watched from our window and listened with trepidation to the violent commotion overhead. Rain lashed down and jagged lines of lightning ran across the sky, followed by bellowing, tearing thunder. The windows shook from the sound. We wondered what caused it and were afraid. On those occasions my grandmother spoke to us of the realm of spirits. There were dragons who lived high on the mountains; it is they who personified thunder, whirlwinds, and thunder clouds. The thunder was actually the scream of dragons. When the clouds gathered, my sister and I saw in the clouds giants, chariots, horses, and armies advancing and retreating, fighting and destroying each other.
My grandmother believed these spirits were everywhere and ever present. We had to follow certain rules to prevent evil spirits from harming us or interfering in our daily lives. I remember some of the prescribed precautions: boiling hot water must not be poured on the ground because it sinks into the earth and may burn the feet of the children of the evil spirits. In the evenings, you must pour no water at all on the ground because you may disturb the peace of evil spirits. Once disturbed, they may resort to vengeance or retribution. For the same reason, by night you should not sweep out the house, for you may hit the evil spirits. But if you are compelled to sweep by night, you should singe the tip of the broom so as to frighten the evil ones away in plenty of time.
Then there was a prescription for how to protect an expectant mother from the ever-present danger of evil spirits. It was recommended that something made of iron be placed under the pillow of the pregnant woman to ward off the evil spirits, since they were unable to touch iron. My grandmother believed in the evil eye. She was certain that, influenced by envy, it cast a spell that caused misfortune or illness. You had to protect beautiful babies and children from exposure to certain individuals who "possessed the evil eye." To do so, you either kept your children away from them or you used "evil eye repellents" in the form of deep-blue beads, glass or ceramic. They served as antidotes to the evil eye. As a grown-up, if you were the subject of excessive praise or flattery, you or a close friend or a relative pinched you as a precaution against the spell of the evil eye.
There were also the spirits of disease. They are small in stature and wear triangular hats and hold in their hands white, red, and black branches. If they strike with the white one, you will become ill but soon recover. If with the red, you will have to spend much recovery time in bed. If one is struck with the black branch, there is no cure. That is why parents, while talking about their children, expressing their joy that their child is healthy and cheerful, or is gaining weight, must always knock at a table of any kind of wood to frighten the evil spirits and not let them hear that the baby is healthy, because they may strike with one of their branches. It is to protect their children from such spirits that each child, from the moment of his or her birth, is given a personal guardian angel.
My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller. There were moralistic tales to teach children and youth about virtue, duty, and wisdom. These tales always started with the phrase "Once upon a time, there was," or "Once upon a time, there was not," or "There was, there was not, there was." The stories concluded that from Heaven fell three apples: "one for you, one for the storyteller, and one for the person who has entertained." The tales usually dealt with light and darkness, evil and good, selfish villains and generous souls, angels and demons, gardens, waterfalls, water fountains, treasures, cunning, greed, flattery, avarice, wicked stepmothers, actions that appeased or outwitted evil and relied on or prayed to God, human beings or animals who talked, married, had offspring, and had magical ability and imparted wisdom.
My grandmother was a disciplinarian. I remember two punishments. When I was eight or nine, I had uttered newly acquired Turkish obscenities in her presence. She washed my mouth with soap. "Your mouth will remain clean," she said. And when I was ten years old, she hit me very hard for stealing the equivalent of ten cents. As I was crying, she cried along with me. The fact that she was crying while attempting to punish me I perceived to be the sign of ultimate affection and concern for me. Her admonition was that those who are capable of stealing an egg are capable also of stealing a horse.
Copyright © 2003 by Vartan Gregorian
From Chapter 12: A Rendezvous with the New York Public Library
On December 8, 1981, Mrs. Vincent Astor gave a black tie party in honor of Clare and me to introduce us to New York society. Three or four weeks before, she had given a party in honor of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan. What amazed me was that the list of invitees to our dinner was substantially the same as that for the president of the United States. When I expressed my surprise and awe, Mrs. Astor told me, "The president of the New York Public Library is an important citizen of New York and the nation. He represents one of New York's and the nation's major institutions...."
I felt as if Clare and I were at a debutante party in Mrs. Astor's magnificent Park Avenue apartment. It was decorated with great care and taste; the library was lined on three walls with handsomely bound editions of classic English, French, and Russian literature, including Shakespeare, Pushkin, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, George Eliot, et al. The library and living room were decorated with rare drawings and nineteenth- and twentieth-century European paintings, and mementos and gifts from all over the world. The library was painted deep red; the dining room was green with pink curtains. It seemed as if the entire apartment was filled with books, chintz, clocks, and flowers. The cocktail napkins and shiny silver matchboxes bore the initials of Vincent Astor.
Waiters served on nineteenth-century fine china with crystal glasses. Mrs. Astor looked splendid in her black velvet dress and her emerald necklace and earrings. She gave a fabulous toast to the New York Public Library and its new "educator guardian." The entire evening, Mrs. Astor, her guests, and her apartment seemed unreal. I had read about or seen most of the guests on TV but never thought I would be in one room with all of them, and that the occasion would be a dinner in our honor. Even in my wildest dreams, I would never have imagined that one day I would be honored by Mrs. Astor and, thanks to her, become part of New York society. But there it was! I sat at Mrs. Astor's right, I looked at all the dignitaries and glamorous people, the elegant apartment, and reflected on the distance between 1699 Church Street, Tabriz, Iran, and 778 Park Avenue, New York.
Mrs. Astor was both smart and shrewd. She sensed instantly that Clare and I, coming from another world, the world of academe, would take time to get accustomed to, not to mention accept, the high society of New York, its glitzy parties, its opulence. In her interview with Philip Hamburger of the New Yorker, she said: "One thing did worry me about Vartan and Clare Gregorian when they came here from Philadelphia. After all, they were part of the grove of academe down there. A quiet life. And suddenly they are thrown in with a ritzy crowd and money. I worried about Clare. It wasn't her style. The pace worried me. The different dinners every night. The fund-raising. But it has quieted down now, and they have settled in."
Mrs. Astor was right of course. Clare, whose lineage on both sides is the Mayflower, had always shied away from glitzy, ostentatious, nonintimate parties. In my case, throughout my academic careers at San Francisco State College, the University of Texas at Austin, and even the University of Pennsylvania, my range of activities was confined to the academic, cultural, and educational realms. While I was outgoing, my sociability was confined to university campuses, their constituents, and their formal affairs.
I first met Mrs. Vincent Astor in one of the conference rooms of Time, Inc. She asked me about my family and made me feel at ease by simply telling me that "my friends in Philadelphia like you, respect you, and think highly of you." That was it. As she was getting ready to leave, she said: "I like you and I'll help you any way I can." As the saying goes, it was love at first sight. Thus began a more than two-decade, very close, wonderful friendship. She became a vigorous supporter, a mentor, and a major benefactor of the Library. We danced, dined, drank, had tea, and had wonderful conversations about the Library, New York, history, and literature. My wife once told me that if Mrs. Astor were just five years younger, she would not have left me alone with her, for Brooke was a big flirt.
Since Brooke Astor was the honorary chairman of the Library's Board of Trustees, I read everything I could in order to get to know her, including her two-volume autobiography, Patchwork Child and Footprints, her poems, her novel, The Bluebird Is at Home, her many articles, and scores of articles about her. In 1959, when her third (and last) husband, Vincent Astor, died, Mrs. Astor inherited his fortune: $2 million in cash, some $65 million in investments, and, of course, the Vincent Astor Foundation with $67 million in assets. The mission of the foundation was a broad one: "the alleviation of human misery." By the end of 1997, when the foundation closed its doors and went out of business, having spent its entire capital, it had donated $193,317,406 to New York's cultural, educational, scientific, and social organizations and major institutions, primarily to the city's "crown jewels": the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Morgan Library, the Metropolitan Opera, the Brooklyn Museum, the Rockefeller University, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Botanical Garden, the Bronx Zoo, the Museum of Natural History, and Carnegie Hall.
In charting the course of her philanthropy, Mrs. Astor had two fundamental guidelines: first, since Vincent Astor's fortune was made in New York, her efforts would be concentrated in New York. "The money came from New York and therefore it should be invested in New York."
And she was determined to give away the entire assets of the foundation and her entire fortune while she was alive. She was adamant that no grants would be made unless she had first-hand knowledge of the needs, aspirations, record, reputation, and integrity of a given organization, association, or institution.
By 1997, her foundation's 2,698 grants had rescued museums, libraries, churches, and settlements. In the process, she had come to know the City of New York, all its boroughs and segments of its society very well, crisscrossing from Harlem to SoHo, assisting underprivileged young people and struggling institutions, as well as serving as a trustee of many of the city's major educational and cultural institutions, including the New York Public Library, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Rockefeller University. There is not a single sector of New York that has not been touched by her generosity. In dispensing the assets of the foundation and her fortune, Mrs. Astor told everyone that she had "a lot of fun." The three institutions that received the largest grants from Mrs. Astor were the New York Public Library ($24,600,000), the Metropolitan Museum of Art ($21,000,000), and the Bronx Zoo ($11,800,000).
Mrs. Astor was already a legendary figure when I came to New York in 1981. She was hailed as an "anchor of New York Society and Philanthropy," as "the Social Arbiter of New York Society," as "New York's Unofficial First Lady." It was not the size of the Astor Foundation, nor her largesse that had won her that status. It was her irrepressible personality, her style, her spirit, her manners, her sense of humor, and the fact that she embodied grace of mind, body, and movement, and that she was highly disciplined and always in charge that set her apart. Along with her philanthropy came her interest, compassion, and promises of hope and continuity coupled with class without condescension or noblesse oblige. She was comfortable with everyone. She had genuine interest in people and their plight. She was an avid reader and writer. She was a good listener. She did not engage in gossip, she was not afflicted with envy. She loved life and people and had mastered the art of conversation. She sent thank-you letters, letters of condolence and congratulations to the famous and the ordinary alike. She believed that she had to dress well, not for some occasions but for all occasions, as a sign of respect for New Yorkers.
Once, when a thief attempted to rob her on Fifth Avenue, she turned to him, extended her hand, and said, "I'm sorry, but I don't believe we've been introduced. I am Mrs. Astor." He must have been dumbstruck for he left her alone....She loved to dance until she got tired and she loved to flirt even at the age of eighty (and even now at the age of 101!). She had a wicked sense of humor. She told me a journalist once asked her whether she was a lesbian. No, my dear, I am an Episcopalian, she replied. She once addressed a gathering of proud philanthropists, quoting Thomas Wilder: "Money is like manure. So what we have done is spread around manure. And I have been raking it."
One day in the mid-80s I received a phone call. Mrs. Astor asked me if I was standing or sitting. I told her I was standing. "Sit down," she said. I sat. "I have decided to resign from all other boards and dedicate myself to the Library and you." I was speechless. Her decision sent shock waves in the nonprofit sector. Newspapers gave it wide coverage. It was a heaven-sent gift to the Library.
Mrs. Astor is one of the few people I know who still pens her own letters. In 1986, on her birthday, I gave her a copy of The Education of Henry Adams. Her thank-you note read:
As you well know, it brings back the one visit I had with him in Washington Square when I was eleven years old.
Mother said I would never forget that visit, and I never have.
Also, another link is with Henry Cabot Lodge. If it was the old senator, I did not know him. But if it was his grandson, Henry Cabot Lodge at the United Nations, I knew him very well. When I was thirteen years old, dancing around a Christmas tree with a lighted candle at the house on DuPont Circle in Washington, Henry Cabot Lodge, then about nineteen and very good-looking, was standing at one side, and I fell instantly in love to no avail.
Thank you for sending such a glorious gift it will have a treasured place in my library.
I asked her one evening about the secret of her longevity. She responded: Be an optimist, be curious, read every night, don't meet the same people all the time (sooner or later they become lazy, boring, and repeat themselves), don't be a cynic, don't envy or be jealous (these sentiments are corrosive and they diminish you), spend some time in solitude in order to reflect, meet different people, young people, travel, and, if you are rich, adhere to the Gospel of "the Joy of Giving."
When I was a sophomore at Stanford, I heard an interview with Marlene Dietrich on the radio. If I am not mistaken the interviewer was Mike Wallace and he asked her: What is the most important thing in life? Her answer had astonished me: "How to overcome the routine in order to do the essential." Brooke Astor managed to conquer the routine; she was engaged in the essential business of New York and all of its citizens. I had never met anybody like her before and I am sure I never will again.
Richard B. Salomon was an extraordinary man, a born leader, a great entrepreneur, and a philanthropist par excellence. He was a highly cultured person, well read and curious, with refined taste. He was a passionate man. He was recruited by Mrs. Astor and served as chairman of the Library's Board of Trustees for four years (1977-1981), during very trying times. It was his appointment that kept Mrs. Astor's interest in the Library. Otherwise discouraged, she was ready to walk away. Dick Salomon held the
Library together, thanks to a $5 million gift from Mrs. Astor. He began the recruitment of new trustees. One of his recruits was Andrew Heiskell.
Richard Salomon, Andrew Heiskell, and Brooke Astor worked as a wonderful team. Richard Salomon paved the way for individual giving and business and Jewish philanthropy; Andrew Heiskell went after individuals and major corporations, his former pals; Mrs. Astor opened the doors of New York society and its philanthropy. They helped me make the case for the New York Public Library, making it a civic project that was both honorable and glamorous.
But first we needed a plan, a strategy, and a timetable.
My basic plans for the Library, approved by the chairman and the Board of Trustees, consisted of seven steps:
1. Get a firsthand knowledge of the institution, its history, and its constituencies
2. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Library's central administration
3. Recruit a strong management team
4. Make an institution-wide needs assessment
5. Strengthen the Library's Board of Trustees
6. Publicize the centrality of the Library in the life of New York and the nation
7. Launch a major capital campaign
Copyright © 2003 by Vartan Gregorian
From Chapter 12: A Rendezvous with the New York Public Library
Relations between Cardinal O'Connor, who was Cardinal Cooke's successor, and Governor Mario Cuomo were not cordial. We needed the cardinal's support to secure from the State of New York a $16 million Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I went to see him. We had a good relationship. The cardinal wrote a letter to the governor. It was my hope that this request would provide an opportunity for building a new relationship between them. Months passed and the cardinal's letter remained unanswered. One day I interceded with Mrs. Cuomo, gently, that the cardinal was not an ordinary person: in addition to God, he had a large archdiocese in New York on his side. The governor approved our request. We got our library.
On the day when Mrs. Astor, Richard Salomon, and I were to request a major gift from David Rockefeller, the two of them, who were to make the solicitation, at the last minute, demurred. I was very nervous. I told Mr. Rockefeller, "Don't worry, we're only asking for three million dollars rather than ten million." I was elated when he gave us the three million. Weeks later, at a Rockefeller University event, David, in a very good mood, put his arm on my shoulder and said, "Thank you, Greg, for saving me seven million...."
Mrs. Astor and I failed miserably with Donald Trump. We visited him in his office in Trump Towers. He was gracious but took two or three telephone calls as we were making our case. Mrs. Astor winked at me; we were not going to get anything. She was wrong, however: we got twenty-five thousand dollars. Then there were the three Gottesman sisters Joy, Miriam, and Celeste whose generosity overwhelmed me. They endowed the Gottesman Exhibition Hall, the Celeste Bartos Forum, the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Librarian for Art, Prints, and Photographs, and the Jewish Division, thanks to Joy Ungerleider-Mayerson. One day I joked with them that if their generosity continued unabated, pretty soon the whole library would be named after the Gottesman sisters.
There were some maverick benefactors. One name in particular comes to my mind: Alan (Ace) Greenberg, chairman of Bear Stearns. He once told me, "I'll join your board, but I won't come to the meetings. If you need anything, just let me know." One day, at a reception at Gracie Mansion, he saw a limping Mrs. Astor, who had sprained her ankle, and a tired Gregorian. The very next day a messenger brought to my home a twenty-five-thousand-dollar check, with a note from Ace, saying that he'd seen many performances that advertised the Library's needs but that by putting on such a sad show we had crossed the line. Another day he sent a $385,000 check, saying he didn't know what to do with it and asking me if I would mind taking it and putting it to good use for the Library. On yet another Saturday, a messenger came to our apartment with a note from him, saying, "My children are very open and tolerant, I hope yours are too. Why don't we get married?" Later, after I announced my resignation from the Library, he announced that he would pay for the restoration of the Trustees Room, as a parting gift in my honor....
Throughout my term at the Library, I developed a good relationship with Victor Gotbaum, president of the Municipal Workers Union District 37. I went to see him once because I wanted the union's permission to accommodate and recruit several retirees as volunteers. Mr. Gotbaum told me that I was "lucky" because the library union was the most radical union, even Trotskyite in nature, and that they would never be willing to allow recruitment of volunteers because they would cost jobs. "But there were no jobs," I said. "And volunteers would be giving directions and maybe tours so that professional librarians could do their own work." He was not convinced. So I said, Okay, what does it require to be a union member? He said, Union dues. I told him I was willing to pay union dues on behalf of all the volunteers. This would be the first unionized volunteer group. He was astonished. "You're crazy! You'll ruin the labor movement."
At the end, I was able to get at first twenty and eventually two hundred volunteers to give their time, devotion, and even money to the Library. But Mr. Gotbaum was correct in one respect: during my first year, I received petitions from librarians concerning the humidity, the heat, and the unbearable working conditions in the labor-intensive Cataloging Room. I used the first $300,000 private gift that I raised to air-condition the Cataloging Room. I received a letter from a union member accusing me of being a Stalinist: he charged I was air-conditioning the room to make workers work harder. I got an apology from a union district representative.
I pointed out these facts to the late Jim Fox, the head of New York's FBI field office. In addition, I drew his attention to the obvious fact that any government, agency, or individual who wanted to read our scientific journals could certainly afford to subscribe to them rather than send a spy to read and copy them. In the end, what impressed Mr. Fox was when I said, Suppose we agreed to be "monitors" or "lookouts" for our government I am afraid if I walked into the Library, if I were not its president, the librarians would have to report me. Mr. Fox laughed. My point, he said, was well taken.
In the middle of the eighties, we decided to do something on behalf of the New York City public schools. There were many outstanding public schools that were respected nationally and internationally (Bronx Science, Stuyvesant, Hunter College High School, etc.), but the overall quality of the school system was uneven and weak. A national commission report issued in 1983, A Nation at Risk, described the terrible state of our public school system and how it affected our nation's future, even our national security and international standing. We decided to focus on the valedictorians of New York's schools and, through them, the school system. With a gift of a thousand dollars a year from the Merchant's Bank of New York, we decided to hold an annual Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom, the Library's emblem) Awards Ceremony in honor of the city's valedictorians.
The annual event was held at the Central Research Library. We invited prominent public figures (Mayor Ed Koch; Barbara Walters; I. M. Pei; the actor Ben Vereen; Harrison "Jay" Goldin, the comptroller; and many others), preferably former valedictorians themselves, to address the honorees. We asked publishing houses in New York to provide the valedictorians with "meaningful gifts": dictionaries, anthologies, encyclopedias, and other reference books. We invited teachers, the chancellor of the school system, principals, superintendents, and most important, all of the parents. They all came.
The Merchant's Bank gift bought punch and cookies. Ever since, the annual Minerva Awards Ceremony has become a major event, a must for politicians to attend. Encouraged by its success, we persuaded the mayor and the late Richard R. Green, the chancellor of the school system, to join us in issuing one million library cards to all the students of the New York City public schools. In addition, we participated in the "corridor plan" to develop a partnership between the city's libraries, museums, major performing arts centers, and the school system to benefit the curricular needs of the public schools.
My first Christmas and holiday season at the Library was not a pleasant one. The façade of the Library was dark and dirty. The two giant wreaths that graced the necks of our two venerable lions were stolen. New Yorkers helped pay for their replacement. I did not want the Grinch to steal the holiday season, so I contacted Gordon Davis, then the parks commissioner, and he agreed to have guards posted to protect the wreaths.
We decided that the best way to celebrate the holiday season was to decorate the Library's Astor Hall, to open the entire Central Research Library and its divisions, to provide music, choral and brass, to provide mime, magic, storytelling, and to encourage grandparents, parents, and their children and grandchildren to attend an annual family gathering at the Library. We invited all of our patrons, friends, and sponsors to come and celebrate the holiday season with us. Mrs. Astor, the president of the Library, many trustees, and librarians all lined up to greet some eight to twelve thousand individuals.
I told the trustees that the citizens of New York are our true stockholders. The holiday parties not only conveyed goodwill and joy and hope but also bonded thousands of individuals and their families to the Library. I remember all those I welcomed at the door, who handed me envelopes full of dollar bills and big checks. It was as if they were coming to a wedding, christening, or bar mitzvah. The one that touched me most was a social security check from a nursing home resident.
There were also moments of anxiety and pride. One day the president of Brazil got stuck in the elevator. The visit of the defense minister of France, François Leotard, was nerve-wracking because I bragged to him that we had something on practically any subject. Let us see, he said, whether you have my wife's dissertation on a certain region of France in your Genealogy Division. With trepidation I asked our librarian. We had it. It was a Gallic victory for me.
Saint Patrick's Day, a great day for New York, used to be one of the worst days for the Library. Hundreds of boisterous young men, most of them underage high school students, would stream to the Central Research Library to use its public bathrooms. They bothered the patrons and jostled with our unarmed security guards. We came up with a solution. I invited the New York Police to make the Library its central command headquarters for Saint Patrick's Day. We offered them free doughnuts and coffee. The sight of hundreds of blue-uniformed officers provided the best deterrent.
Occasionally, the Library's Astor Hall would be used for major social events. One of these was the fashion industry's Lifetime Achievement Award, one of the most important events in the world of fashion designers. Ordinarily one would not associate the Library with the fashion industry, nor fashion with Katharine Hepburn. Imagine my surprise when the great actress Katharine Hepburn was invited to receive this award! Ms. Hepburn had accepted the award, but she had declined to attend the luncheon itself. Instead, she asked to dine with me alone in my office. Naturally, I was thrilled. I was sitting with several great fashion designers in Astor Hall. I apologized to them I am sure I will see you all again, but Katharine Hepburn? Only once in a lifetime does one get an invitation to dine with her. So I left the company of designers for her.
As I entered my office I saw an unbelievable sight. The legendary actress was standing on my table surveying the wood-covered panels in my office, including the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraits of John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Franklin, and Shelley's parents by George Romney. We had a wonderful lunch. Her self-confidence and independence, that she had arrived in plain black slacks and shirt to receive the fashion industry's high award, seemed to me a signature mark of her stubbornness and independence. When the time came to receive her award, we walked down to the hall. She said a few nice words and left.
Another memorable woman I met was Her Majesty Farah Diba, the ex-empress of Iran. The occasion was a great birthday bash given by John Kluge for his then-wife, Patricia Kluge. I had never met Mr. Kluge, and my colleagues at the Library were eager for me to make his acquaintance. My wife and I went to the event at the Waldorf-Astoria. To my great surprise, I was seated at Table 1. I told the manager of the event that there must be some mistake. Not at all, she answered. Her Majesty Farah Diba has specifically asked that you sit next to her. It was an unbelievable evening. We had a wonderful talk. Then she said, "Let us dance." I was petrified. Me dancing with the former queen of Iran? I was nervous. She made me feel at ease. Then I said, "Your Majesty, if my grandmother were alive, she would be shocked beyond belief. I am sure she would tell me, 'Hey, you, little Vartan. Who do you think you are, dancing with the queen?'" She responded, "If my grandmother was alive, she would have said the same thing!" (Years later, in 1988, when I assumed the presidency of Brown University, the ranks of its student body included the sons and daughters of many prominent American and international parents. I was amazed to find out that the late Leila Pahlavi, the daughter of the late Shah and Farah Diba, and Bahram Pahlavi, the son of Prince Gholam Reza Pahlavi, the Shah's brother, were students at Brown. What a historical coincidence, an Iranian-born president of an Ivy League university was in charge of the education of the Shah's daughter and nephew. That would have really impressed not only my grandmother, father, and stepmother but also my elementary and middle school teachers and friends in Tabriz!)
My life at the Library wasn't all movie stars and royalty! There was, for example, the nagging problem of Bryant Park. For eight years, Heiskell, Marshall Rose, Dan Biederman, and I sought to take over the management of Bryant Park, restore it, secure the perimeter of the Library, and make the park safe. These eight years included hundreds of visits to different constituencies, to interested parties, to donors, to restaurants, to municipal authorities, to City Council members, to the Board of Estimate, to mayoral agencies, to the Municipal Arts Society, Parks Council, Arts Commission, and on and on. I remember one time when Heiskell and I waited in a church basement until eleven p.m., trying to convince a community board to rescind their opposition and approve our plans. We tried to persuade them that as a nonprofit organization, we were not privatizing the park for profit but rather for the use of the public. It was a rough meeting. I was, however, armed with two editorials. One was Lenin's 1913 Pravda editorial about the Library (he had just read the first annual report of the Library), wherein he praises the Library and suggests, albeit briefly, that what Russia needed was a similar institution where citizens would have free access to information and knowledge.
The second one was an article in Literaturnaya Gazeta, a Soviet periodical, which stated that they understood perfectly why the Library was the venue or setting for a conference on Soviet dissidents. After all, they noted, the entire wall of the back of the Library, facing Bryant Park, was a long urinal, where pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers were purveying their wares and that, therefore, the Library, Bryant Park, and the dissidents were in the right company. That left a great impression on the community board leaders and they came onboard.
As we restored and renovated the Library, the masterpiece of architects Carrère and Hastings, cleaned its brass lamps, chandeliers, marble, and façade, I got only one major criticism. The Village Voice stated that the Library was looking too luxurious and that we were wasting money on nonessentials. To my delight, Howard Fast, the former Communist writer, wrote in my defense. He said something like "He's doing everything to rescue and regain the majesty of the Library and its centrality, so they should keep quiet and mind their own business. Otherwise they should provide alternatives." It was during this period that I described the Library as the "People's Palace," a term that Norman Mailer and many other writers subsequently popularized. One evening when Clare and I were having a quiet dinner at Parma, an Italian restaurant, a rich, middle-aged woman approached us and practically shouted at me, "What's wrong with me?" We were perplexed. "How come," she said, "you never ask me for money?"
The trustees of the New York Public Library, particularly its leadership, were very worried about the range of my activities, my pace, my workload, and the interminable hours that I spent at the Library or in activities related to the Library, including on the weekend. They noticed how frantic I was to keep so many public and private commitments without displaying signs of fatigue or exhaustion and to project perennial confidence and optimism. So Bill Dietel, Richard Salomon, Andrew Heiskell, and several other trustees organized a surprise party for me at one of the private rooms at "21." To boost my morale, they gave me pep talks, a needlepoint pillow with a lion on it (courtesy of Edna Salomon), and an amazing drawing: I was sitting on a throne, bearing a crown (adorned with New York landmarks guarded by Patience and Fortitude). Underneath this huge framed drawing was written: "Greg XI." I was crowned King of the Library and New York. They needed a song, however, and they sang in unison, to the tune of "From the Halls of Montezuma," the following lines: "To the stacks of the New York Li-bra-ry, From the halls of the U. of P." That did it. It replenished my batteries.
I have been asked many times what the source of the stamina was that enabled me to endure and overcome a myriad of political, administrative, and bureaucratic hurdles. The answer is simple. I considered the presidency of the Library a mission, not a job. I believed in the Library's role as the cradle of democracy and knowledge. I considered myself the guardian of some 30 million items millions of memories and stories, the cultural legacy of our nation and humanity. I was always in awe in the presence of such a great and endless source of knowledge. I was proud and gratified that a boy who used to borrow and rent books in Tabriz was given an opportunity to acquire and lend books to hundreds of thousands of citizens and noncitizens. I felt privileged to defend the rules of privacy and the First Amendment of our Constitution. Whenever I felt discouraged or lonely, all I had to do was go to the main reading room of the Central Research Library and take a look at the eight-hundred-seat reading room, with its ornate 1911 tables, Tiffany lamps, and hundreds of individuals, reading, writing, reflecting. Or else I would visit a branch library and witness firsthand how it affects the lives of children as well as grown-ups, native Americans and thousands of immigrants. I always returned to my office full of inspiration, stamina, high morale, and determination. My work and the work of my dedicated colleagues had meaning and immediate impact. Also, I was born energetic.
After eight and a half years at the helm of the Library and a successful capital campaign, I had seen the reemergence of the New York Public Library as the intellectual, scholarly, and cultural repository of New York and the nation, with a robust public education outreach agenda in the form of exhibitions, lectures, and publications. Most important of all, the Library was able to provide millions of New Yorkers and Americans across our land with free access to information and knowledge. My mission was accomplished. Once again the citizens of New York had reclaimed the Library as their library.
In 1987, the ever-active Bill Bowen of Heidrick & Struggles began once again to hover over the Library, trying to interest me in the presidencies of several universities and foundations. I told him and the trustees that I was not ready to leave. I still had unfinished business. We needed to secure the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped and Bryant Park, as well as secure the renewal of our NEH funding. I did not want to give excuses to city, state, or federal officials to delay or defer their commitments using the transition of leadership at the Library as a convenient rationale. On July 20, 1987, Mrs. Astor wrote: "Thank Heavens you turned Bill Bowen down! Every day I pray to God that you will have the strength to stay at the Library. If you left it, it would be as though an earthquake, a tornado, and a thousand bulldozers had touched the Library. I don't think we could ever recover from it."
Mrs. Astor was most generous but wrong. A year later, once we had secured the Library for the Blind, the NEH funding, and the legal and financial instruments for Bryant Park, I decided it was time to relinquish my post to new leadership. The Library did not collapse. The late Tim Healy, the president of Georgetown University, succeeded me. Upon his premature and unfortunate death, Paul LeClerc, the president of Hunter College, assumed the Library's helm. It continues to thrive.
The sign on Henry Rosovsky's desk, when he was the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, read: "Cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people." I knew that the success of a leadership can be measured by what kind of talent and structure one leaves behind. With that in mind, I knew I could leave the New York Public Library in good conscience.
Copyright © 2003 by Vartan Gregorian