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I am a rather unusual specimen in that not only I but all four of my grandparents and both of my parents were born on the island of Manhattan. My father’s family were of Alsatian extraction and my mother’s family were Germans named Wise. My father’s father, Marcel Cerf, was a jeweler. The Cerf family was loaded with charm but little money, while the Wise family had very little charm but a lot of money. My grandfather, Nathan Wise, owned a tobacco-distributing business called the Metropolitan Tobacco Company and in his very conservative way amassed a fortune of over a million dollars. The way that money was eventually divided was very important in the beginning of my career.
Everybody kowtowed to my Grandfather Wise, a rather stern man with a beard—he looked like one of the Smith Brothers then pictured on cough-drop boxes. I saw him mainly on Sundays, the day reserved for having dinner with him and the rest of the family. My mother was one of six children, three boys and three girls. Grandfather had a private house and lived in some elegance, and he had the first automobile I ever saw. He also had a great backhand. At the dinner table he’d reach across and wallop you so fast, you couldn’t see it coming. So the object was to sit as far as possible from Grandpa at Sunday dinners. In the afternoon when he would take a nap, the house had to be silent as a church. I never was quiet in my life, and I was usually the one who woke him up and got the back of his hand.
My father, Gustave Cerf, was a very handsome, charming, wonderful man—I absolutely adored him and so did everyone else. He was a lithographer by profession, gave elocution lessons on the side, and at one time even contemplated being a professional ballplayer. He had been a semi-pro catcher on weekends, and in 1892 he even got a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. For the rest of his life we teased him about not being able to hit Big League pitching, and no matter how many times we kidded him, he’d always give a long explanation as to why he hadn’t made it.
My father and mother met each other in a rather curious way. Not too many girls went to college then, not in the circles my family moved in, anyway. But when my parents were young, it was considered quite the thing for respectable young ladies to take elocution lessons and recite things like “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck.” So a teacher was hired for my mother, Frederika Wise, and the gentleman who gave her those elocution lessons was my father. The teacher and pupil fell madly in love, and eloped—to the outrage of my grandfather, who looked upon my father as a charming fly-by-night. And these two people were gloriously in love for their entire life together. So I was born into a very happy family.
The house I was born in is now in one of the most run-down sections of New York—118th Street, just off Seventh Avenue—but at the time it was mostly a prosperous Jewish neighborhood. Then, very early in my life, we moved to a nearby apartment house called the Douglas, which was at 201 West 121st Street.
My father was a very proud man and we lived only on what he made himself. I was brought up as a city child, playing stickball in the streets with a bunch of tough little kids, a lot of whom became very famous. Playing in the streets wasn’t as dangerous then as it is today; automobiles were just beginning to appear. We used to roller-skate all over the town, hitching onto ice wagons. It was great to reach in and grab little pieces of ice. And you could also play “punch the ball” out in the middle of the street and not have to run to the sidewalk too often.
We kids were great baseball fans. (I was initiated by my father, who started taking me to games when I was five years old.) In those days the New York Herald had a branch office at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, and out front was a baseball scoreboard. A boy used to come out every once in a while with a rubber pad and stamp the scores on that board. Since there was no radio then and, of course, no television, we would stand there after school and wait for that boy to post the scores. When he’d come out, we’d yell, “What happened?” But he always played God and wouldn’t answer us; he just stamped those numbers up. We were great N.Y. Giant fans and always hated the Brooklyn Dodgers, even though Pop had once come close to playing with them. They were the enemy.
I went to Public School 10, which was at 117th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. On my first day my mother dressed me in a Buster Brown outfit, and when I appeared with that big collar and flowing bow, I became the center of attention of the Irish kids from down around Manhattan Avenue and Eighth Avenue. I came home with the collar ripped and my nose bleeding, screaming with rage. I wasn’t angry at the boys who jumped me; I was furious with my mother for dressing me in such a manner. I was her pride and joy, her only child, and I am told that though I wasn’t exactly spoiled, on suitable occasions I sometimes resorted to holding my breath to get my own way. I have no memory of whether this was one of those times or not, but I do know that I never wore a Buster Brown collar and tie to school again. P.S. 10 was a great school. We considered it a privilege to be students there. We were proud of it, and there were a lot of smart kids in P.S. 10. Some of them became my lifelong friends. One of the boys was Howard Dietz, who became a well-known playwright. He wrote The Bandwagon. When he was head of the MGM publicity department, he changed the name of a little actress from Lucille Le Sueur to Joan Crawford.
One of the other graduates of that school was Morty Rodgers, who became a great gynecologist and delivered my two sons. His kid brother, whom we used to kick around the house and tell to “get out of here,” became reasonably well known, too. His name is Richard Rodgers, whose hit shows—Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The Sound of Music—have enriched him and the world of music. The principal of P.S. 10 was a man named Dr. Birkens, whom everybody adored. One of the teachers, Abe Greenberg, was also the coach of the athletic teams, and he was so good that P.S. 10 won the interscholastic championship year after year after year. I have always been near-sighted, but I could run, so I was on the relay team.
A love of reading came when I was very young. At first it was magazines, and those that I remember with particular affection were called Popular and Top-notch. They had baseball stories and football stories and adventure stories—very tame by present-day standards, but I liked them. The Saturday Evening Post was a popular magazine then, and all of us used to peddle it. We’d put a white bag filled with copies of the magazine over our shoulders, then park ourselves at the entrance of a subway station or some other busy location. A copy of the magazine cost five cents, and we got prizes according to the number we sold.
The first books I remember were the Rover Boys and the Motor Boys and the Putnam Hall Cadets. And then I found there was a branch of the public library at 123rd Street and Lenox Avenue; my friends and I joined it and discovered together an author named Ralph Henry Barbour. I still recall the titles of some of his books: The Crimson Sweater, For the Honor of the School and Four in Camp and Four Afloat. This was a step up from Top-notch—a first step. My mother always liked books. She saw to it that I read the children’s stories of the day, like Black Beauty and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But as to the really good books, my parents didn’t know much about them. My Uncle Herbert was the greatest influence on my young life. He was my mother’s brother—only five years older than I was and never terribly strong. He was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met—absolutely brilliant. I felt he knew everything.
In 1911 we moved up to Riverside Drive and 157th Street, just about the time I graduated from P.S. 10, salutatorian of my class. Our new home was in an apartment house called the Riviera, and I remember we were on the twelfth floor. We looked right out over Audubon Park on the Hudson River.
Back then, Washington Heights was not yet built up. Just south of where the George Washington Bridge is, the first of the big apartment buildings were beginning to go up, like the Riviera, which is still standing. You could look out our windows and see the trains go by on the West Side tracks of the New York Central, and another great pleasure was watching the river traffic, especially the night boat to Albany, with the searchlights playing from one side of the Hudson to the other. A lot of people took it to go to the Adirondacks. They’d go by boat to Albany, and then take a train. I remember going to camp that way, and the thrill of actually being on the boat instead of watching it from a window. From the time I was twelve till about fifteen, I went to camp every summer with Morty Rodgers, and when his brother Dick started to grow up, with Dick and his future collaborator, Larry Hart.
I was almost thirteen at the time we moved to Washington Heights. Though both my mother and father were Jewish, I had never even been inside a temple. A lot of the kids my age in the neighborhood started announcing they were going to be bar-mitzvahed. When they all got bicycles after going through the ceremony, I demanded to be bar-mitzvahed too, to the absolute amazement of my parents. I got my bicycle, all right, but I wasn’t allowed to ride it in the city streets because my mother thought it was too dangerous.