The story of Grossinger’s Catskill Resort Hotel, an American landmark where generations of New Yorkers beat the summer heat—and the fun never ended.
From 1919 to 1986, if you were Jewish and lived in New York City, there was one word that could make you sigh with longing: Grossinger’s. Founded as a simple backwoods retreat, the resort grew to cover twelve hundred acres and become the premier summer destination for the great and the not-so-great to mingle, drink, dance, and romance the summers away. A true melting pot of the Borscht Belt, sports, and show-biz worlds, its loyal visitors included Rocky Marciano, Mel Brooks, and Jackie Robinson. And it’s where Tania Grossinger grew up.
In this fascinating insider’s account, Grossinger sheds light on what it was like to live in the place where everyone else wanted to be—from thousands of strangers coming into your home expecting to be treated like royalty, finding clever ways to have fun and just be a kid while staying out of everyone else’s way, coming to grips with the daunting world outside of Grossinger’s, and stumbling onto startling discoveries like adults who drink, curse, fight, and have actual sex.
Growing Up at Grossinger’s is both a wonderful coming-of-age story and “a delightful look at how America, especially Jewish America, enjoyed itself before the airplane took us in different directions” (Publishers Weekly).
“To be devoured in one non-stop gulp . . . fascinating reading.” —The New York Post
“Tania Grossinger’s childhood was the stuff of modern fairytales. Like a version of Kay Thomson’s Plaza Hotel-dwelling Eloise by way of ‘Dirty Dancing.’” —Jewish Daily Forward
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About the Author
Tania Grossinger is a freelance writer, public speaker, public relations consultant, and frequent talk show guest. She is the author of Growing Up At Grossingers, co author of the novel Weekend, and author of the children’s book Jackie and Me, about her friendship with the famous baseball player Jackie Robinson. Her travel articles have appeared in over 100 newspapers and magazines. She lives in Manhattan.
Read an Excerpt
I WAS apprehensive, to say the least. I was eight years old and had absolutely no idea what to expect.
The automobile ride from New York City, via Route 17, took close to four hours, most of which I spent trying to imagine what a big resort hotel looked like. I had seen postcards, naturally, but deep down I had trouble construing them as pictures of my new home.
As we finally approached the top of the hill on which stood the Grossinger Hotel, I made the first contact with my new life. We were stopped at "the Policeman's Booth" and asked to identify ourselves. I was to learn later that this was a security precaution taken to guarantee that no "outsiders" would be allowed on the grounds to take advantage of the facilities for which the guests were paying so dearly. I was introduced to the guard and he reacted in a way that was to become all too familiar the first two weeks ... but only the first two weeks. He reacted with an air of deference. This lasted only as long as it took people to learn that my mother was a Grossinger, yes ... but "an owner Grossinger," no.
Off we went to our assigned room in "the Baby Annex." I'm at a loss as to how to describe this tiny room ... more so because since there was only one lamp, it was so dark I never got to see very much of it. Because it had no heating facilities, the Baby Annex was used by guests only in the summer. And this was a rather chilly spring.
I became upset immediately, realizing that my mother would be working in the evenings and I would be alone in that ugly place. I had been at the hotel only five minutes and already I hated it. I wanted to be back in California in our beautiful apartment. Even boarding school seemed like heaven. Grossinger's frightened me.
My mother was sorry I was upset but was too busy unpacking to calm my anxieties. She chalked up my tears to a tiring trip and assured me that after I had had dinner and met the two girls a year younger than I who also lived at the hotel, I would be the happiest girl in the world. So, dutifully, I put on my party dress and we proceeded to the Main House, a block away.
We joined a group of people on the steps to the Main Entrance and were admitted into a warm, very crowded room. On one side was a big desk with a sign "Service" on it. Surrounding the desk were a number of young men, all wearing blue uniforms. The desk was covered with car keys, slips of paper, and newspapers ... the floor with suitcases of all sizes. All I could hear were shouts of "front," "page," and "last" ... all words that before this particular moment I thought I understood. For example, until then, "last" was what I thought I was when there was no one in line behind me. My mother sensed my confusion and explained that these were code instructions to the various bellhops. To me, it just seemed like a lot of people were running around not knowing what they were doing.
As we walked around the grounds, I learned other words too. I was shown the Playhouse (where, I was warned, I was never to play) and even met the editor of the Grossinger Tattler (did he do something bad to people who tattled?).
My mother had been to the hotel before, without me, and it seemed to me that everybody there knew her. All kinds of people kept coming over to say "Good Evening, Karla" (she was never to be referred to as Mrs. Grossinger, my "Aunt" Jennie had instructed. There was only one Mrs. Grossinger), "so this is your lovely daughter," and they shook my hand, patted my head, or pinched my cheek.
Suddenly I felt better. I loved the attention and smiled as prettily as I could. Once I even tried to curtsy, the way my mother had taught me in California, but I overheard one bellhop tell another what a shame it was that I had a crooked leg and couldn't keep my balance. I never curtseyed again.
After a few minutes of saying hello, we walked up another flight of stairs and I found myself in the largest living room I had ever seen ... with wood-paneled walls, leather chairs, thick rugs, a fireplace, and a piano, too. This, I was told, was called a "lobby."
Finally we reached the dining room where I was to meet The Kids. The Kids ... Pat and Mary Ann. I had heard so much about them, first, from Jennie, when she was in California trying to impress upon me what fun I would have at Grossinger's, and, more recently, from my mother, who assured me that they were both lovely girls and we would all get along very well. Pat Kreindler, a year younger than I, was the daughter of Dave Kreindler, the manager of the hotel. Dave had a very important job and, as a result, Pat and her eleven-year-old brother, Herbie, were treated as very important children. Mary Ann, who was my new cousin and the first I had ever met, was the daughter of Jennie's brother Harry. Her father owned part of the hotel. She, too, was a very important child.
My mother beckoned to their table and asked them to join us. The minute spent waiting for them to finish their french fried potatoes was the longest I could ever remember. At last we were formally introduced, and Mary Ann piped up, "You're the new girl Aunt Jennie told us we had to be nice to because you have no father so I guess we have to. We'll meet you at ten tomorrow morning in the Canteen. [what was a canteen?]," and back to their table they skipped.
My mother and I ate dinner at a table by ourselves and returned to the Baby Annex, where the last thing I saw before falling asleep was an ashtray with the words "Grossinger's Has Everything" emblazoned on it.
It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
When I was born in Chicago early in 1937, my father had already suffered his second heart attack and was not expected to live through a third. He didn't. He died when I was six months old.
My parents had met in Vienna sixteen years earlier, had married three years later, and immigrated to Chicago where my father became involved with an automobile oil business and my mother pursued her doctor of philosophy degree at Northwestern University. They chose Chicago because three of my father's first cousins were already living there. My parents' relationship with the Chicago branch of the Grossinger family was not particularly close, however.
A fourth cousin, Harry, had moved to New York where he married a first cousin, Jennie, and subsequently moved with her and her parents to the Catskill Mountains where they ended up starting the Grossinger Hotel. But they visited Chicago often and my mother and father were favorites of theirs. I've been told that my father was a charming bon vivant who believed that the good life began when the working day ended, not when it began. He and my mother had a good marriage for thirteen years. There were no other children. With both of their immediate families still in Europe, my mother was left totally alone at the time of his death.
It took her two years to clear up the business affairs, pay my father's debts (the business was just beginning to make a go of it but the miracle hadn't quite happened at his passing), let the shock wear off, and face the fact that she was a widow — alone — with an infant to raise.
In 1939, hearing how easy it was to get jobs and apartments there, she left for southern California. We had a series of apartments, each more lovely as her jobs became more demanding. She ended up as the manager of the famous John Frederick's millinery salon in Beverly Hills. Here she perfected the charm and the chic that were to be her saving grace in the years to come.
There was a series of college girls to take care of me while mother was working. I led a fairly normal life until I was five. Then it was time to begin school. My mother was a firm believer in a good education, convinced that with a good mind, one could survive anything. So I was sent to a boarding school in Hollywood from which I returned home each Sunday.
I recall few things about the school. I know I cried the first day because I thought I would never see my mother again. I remember being quarantined with measles. I remember having trouble making my bed with hospital corners. And I remember learning the piano, reading comic books, writing poetry — and trying to run away.
One week I returned to school to find that none of my friends would talk to me, much less play with me. When I asked my closest girl friend, she told me that no one liked me anymore "because you're Jewish. It's because of you that our daddies are being killed in the war and that's why we hate you." I didn't quite understand. I wasn't even sure what being Jewish was. My mother had told me I was, but, in fact, when I came home each Sunday my mother would send me to the Christian Science Sunday School across the street so that I would absorb some feeling for God. My mother had no close Jewish friends to speak of and though she had very deep feelings about her religion, they hadn't yet been transferred to me.
That weekend when I came home hysterical because I was making my friends' fathers die was a turning point for us. Coupled with this was the fact that food rations were hard to come by during the war and I often came home complaining of not getting enough to eat at school.
It was time for my mother to make a decision.
Grossinger's was at the height of its popularity toward the end of World War II. Jennie, who was, in effect, the national symbol of the hotel, visited the West Coast periodically and had renewed her friendship with my mother. She was almost in awe at the kind of woman my mother had become. My mother had elegance and style, could speak thirteen languages, was on a first-name basis, as Mme Savonier, with Hollywood stars and top society, and had a great instinct for dealing with people. She chose the title "Mme Savonier," a loosely translated French version of her maiden name, Seifer, because she felt that in the heady circles she was traveling in "Mme S" would be much more impressive than just plain "Mrs. G." It was. Jennie, too, was impressed.
From time to time Jennie had made conversational offers to my mother about coming east to Grossinger's and taking on the job of social hostess. In this post, representing the family, she would meet the guests and do whatever she could to make them feel "at home away from home." Mother, who was delighted with her life in California, listened with half an ear — until the Sunday I came home hungry ... and ashamed of being a Jew.
Coincidentally, Jennie happened to be on the Coast and made her offer once again. This time her words seeped in: "And Tania will have a family. She will have roots. She will be surrounded by people who love her. She will learn to appreciate her Jewish heritage. She will eat well. She will have all the facilities you can't possibly provide for her." Mother said she would think about Jennie's proposal.
When we first arrived in California in 1939, Harry had suggested that she look up a fellow landsman from Poland, Sam Golter, who had created the City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California. Mother did so immediately and she and Sam and his wife, Rose, became close friends, while their daughter, Irma, my age, became mine. Through the Golters, my mother met Alice and Jan Peerce, who were also friends of the Grossinger family. She kept in touch with them regularly and it happened that that particular week the Peerces were in California because Jan was doing a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. My mother joined them for dinner and explained her dilemma. Being parents themselves, they understood what she was going through — not wanting to give up the good life she had carved out for herself, yet feeling guilty that perhaps she was living her own life at the expense of her daughter's happiness. They counseled her to leave California.
Two months later we moved to Grossinger's.
The first thing I tried to do during our first days at the hotel was to match the names of the people I had heard about with the faces I was meeting.
When we were still in California, my mother had explained to me how the hotel began. She told me that at the turn of the century, my father's uncle, Selig Grossinger (affectionately known as Pop Grossinger), and his wife, Malke (known as Mom), had come to America from Baligrod, which was in Austria-Hungary. In 1914, as a retreat from the sweatshops of New York's teeming Lower East Side where they lived with their children, Jennie, Lottie, and Harry, they bought a small farm called Long Brook House in the Catskill Mountain town of Ferndale, a hundred miles north of New York City. For them, it was more like a hundred light years away. They loved it. Jennie was by then married to her first cousin, Harry (to avoid confusion, her brother, Harry, who was born deaf, was thereafter referred to as Harry, Jr.). They soon found that they not only enjoyed taking in boarders but they could make a profit as well, so five years later they moved to a larger site, the Terrace Hill House, which is where the hotel remains to this day.
As the Grossingers' reputation grew, so did the hotel, and by the time I arrived, that sixth of June in 1945, Grossinger's, probably the most famous resort hotel in America, covered over eight hundred and fifty acres and, in season, served as a substitute home to close to a thousand guests each week.
I set about meeting my family. It was confusing at first but finally I had a pretty good idea of who was who. Harry and Jennie had a son, Paul, who was thirty years old at the time and active in the hotel management. Their daughter, Elaine, eight years my senior, was still in high school. Harry, Jr., and his wife, Flo, were the parents of Mary Ann, who was to become one of my best friends, and Sandy, four years older than I. Because Sandy had been born deaf, he went to a special boarding school away from the hotel but was home, and a member of our group, during weekends, holidays, and summers. Jennie's sister, Lottie, and her husband, Lou Grau, were not part of the hotel operation as such. They lived in Forest Hills, New York, but spent most holidays and summers with their children Ruth and Seymour and their families at the hotel.
Harry had three brothers who were settled in Chicago and four sisters who were not. Rose, the director of housekeeping, was married to Abe Friedman, the maître d' of the dining room, and they had a son, Arthur, in high school. Anna had married Hymie Hoffer, a dining room captain. They had four children of which the oldest, Irwin and Seymour, three years older than I, were twins. Minnie Krupka and her family were not involved with the hotel. Regina, who had been active in the operation until she and her lawyer husband, Meyer Pesin, became the parents of Cherie and Lenore, lived in Jersey City. But they, too, spent a great deal of time at the "G."
But for all the brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, and cousins who were involved either full time or peripherally in the operation of the hotel, it was still Jennie and Harry who actually ran things. Harry was what was called "the inside man." Shy, uncomfortable in crowds, he much preferred to work behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the guests. He was responsible for the marketing, the expansion, the building. An unassuming man, as friends he preferred people who worked with their hands as opposed to those who worked with their minds.
Jennie, on the other hand, was just the opposite. She loved people and craved their attention. A grade-school dropout, she had an amazing capacity for growth and a thirst for knowledge she pursued all her life. She wanted to get to know everybody, to learn how they got to be who they were, to dress in the very latest styles, and to bask in important people's limelight. She was the hotel's "outside person," the one who, before my mother joined the staff, greeted each guest personally, tried to see that their every whim was catered to, and was the focal point of all the publicity the hotel received.
When I first arrived, she and Harry shared a small suite of rooms in the Joy Cottage, named after their daughter, Elaine Joy. But it was far from a posh private residence. Guests were boarded in a separate wing of the building even many years later when major kitchen facilities, a library and living room were added for the family's comfort.
Neither Harry or Jennie had their own offices, which I thought strange until one day I asked Jennie about it and she told me, "Of course I have an office. The whole hotel is my office!"
My first adjustment at my new home concerned school. My mother wanted to unpack all our trunks in peace, so she communicated with the principal of the local school, Liberty High School, which encompassed first grade through twelfth, and asked if I might be allowed to attend for the last two weeks of the semester. When questioned, she replied that I was eight years old and in the sixth grade. She was met with silence. They weren't used to eight-year- olds being in the sixth grade in Liberty.
Excerpted from "Growing Up At Grossinger's"
Copyright © 2008 Tania Grossinger.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Expected a history of the hotel spiced with stories of people who stayed or entertained there. Instead it was a tedious recital of dull rehash of authors life.
I was interested in reading this book because Ihad been to Grossinger's a couple of times when I was young and had good memories of it. This book brought back some great ones. It was filled with fascinating gossip about celebrities like Jackie Robinson, Eddie Fisher and Rocky Marciano , tales of family intrigue and true stories of what really happened here('Dirty Dancing' was based on a true story of one of the dance teachers at Grossinger's!). It's told from the perspective of a young girl who grew up there, and you really get to feel that you know her and like her when you're finished.