When you reach the age where there is more to look back at than forward to, what do you regret, if anything? One woman’s brave memoir about a life well lived.
It takes a certain kind of woman to have the courage t
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About the Author
Tania Grossinger was a freelance writer, public speaker, public relations consultant, and frequent talk show guest. She is the author of Growing Up at Grossinger’s as well as the children’s book Jackie and Me, about her friendship with the famous baseball player Jackie Robinson. Her travel articles have appeared in over one hundred newspapers and magazines. She passed away in 2015.
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Memoir of an Independent Woman
An Unconventional Life Well Lived
By Tania Grossinger
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2013 Tania Grossinger
All rights reserved.
It occurs to me that before our odyssey begins, you might want to know how I came upon your name. I could be melodramatic and say that it was in honor of a beloved relative or romantic literary heroine. But I named you Natasha because I've always loved the way it sounds. Natasha! Strong! Proud! I also believe you to be open, sensitive, bold, thoughtful, fearless, tolerant, decent, kind, loyal, proud, generous, slightly bawdy, trusting, and trustworthy. You have a delicious sense of humor.
How old are you as I write this? I'm not sure. Old enough, I hope, to have experienced enough of life to accept at least some of mine. The color of your hair escapes me. Are you short or tall? I have no idea. I don't know whether you are single, whether you have a family, or what kind of life you lead. You are the child I might have wished for, the daughter who, in another life, might have shared some degree of happiness with me.CHAPTER 2
Karla and Max
I was born in Evanston, Illinois, on February 17, 1937. My mother, Karla Seifer Grossinger, had, in her seventh month, been hospitalized for observation. The pregnancy, her first, was not going well. My father, Max, had been admitted to a separate wing ten days earlier with a second heart attack. She overheard two nurses speaking outside her door. "Isn't it a shame that Mr. Grossinger is dying." My mother told me this story when I was six years old; it was one of the rare times she ever mentioned my father. She begged the nurses to let her see him but was warned she might lose the baby if she left her bed. Two minutes later they picked her up from the floor. My heartbeat was undetectable, and a caesarean section was performed, ostensibly to bring out a dead fetus.
Such was my introduction to the world!
My father, who had just turned forty, died six months later.
A friend brought my mother a gift, a baby diary, which I discovered many years later. My birth certificate, Number 252, was filed at the county clerk's office in Chicago, where we then lived. I weighed 5 pounds, 1 ounce. Color of hair: blonde. Color of eyes: blue. I doubled my weight at three months. "Saw for the first time on Easter Sunday," my mother wrote, "while I listened to a radio concert of Parsifal. Later in the evening, her first tears. Smiled for the first time on March 31 when she was six weeks old."
Considering her husband was near death and she would soon be a thirty-eight-year-old widow with a baby and no family support, the fact that she kept a record of my early months was likely the most maternal gesture she ever made.
My father was the eldest of four children; he was born in 1896 in a small village called Balnicz on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border. His father, Solomon Grossinger, had a general store on the outskirts of town that sold a bit of everything — clothing, pig feed, tools, and groceries. His older brother, Herman, escaped the Holocaust, barely, and settled in Montreal with his wife, Binka, and young daughter, Rose. There were also two sisters, who I believe died with their families in the concentration camps.
I have a few frayed photos of my father together with my mother, and from all appearances, he was a snappy dresser and attractive man. Relatives who knew him say I bear a strong resemblance; those who never met him say I look more like my mom. They could all be correct. In each of the pictures, my parents look like twins.
I know nothing about his young life, what he studied in school, what sports he liked, what ambitions he might have had. My mother was always uncomfortable when I asked, and early on, not wanting to make her sad, I knew to keep such questions to myself.
At some point he left Balnicz for Vienna, where he met and became engaged to my mother, a philosophy major at the city's prestigious university. In one of the many journals she kept at various stages of her life, she describes what happened when she told her father of her desire to get married. "My father was very disappointed when I wrote him about Max. Max was a businessman, but he didn't have a college education, and because of that, my father was against the marriage. When I brought him home to Poland to meet my family, Max insisted on renting a big car so we could arrive in style. My father and mother, both unassuming people, were not impressed. But it did not take long for him to win them over, and they grew to adore him."
They married in 1924 and shortly after that came to America and settled in Chicago, where my father had family who had emigrated earlier. They rented a small apartment on the city's north side. My dad worked for cousins who owned a car dealership, while my mother pursued her studies at Northwestern University. At some point my father went off on his own to start a small automobile oil company. It had just begun to turn a profit when, twelve years after they were married, my mother became pregnant. He died shortly after I was born.
A few years ago I met a professional handwriting analyst who agreed to look at the one letter from him I found in my mother's papers after she died. "Your father," she relayed in part, "was bright, elegant, showy, precise, and self-conscious over the fact that he wasn't a finished product. Circumstances prevented him from doing what he could have been doing very well. He was in awe of your mother, always tried to live up to her, very loyal, wanted very much to be seen as a go-getter, very persevering, very unforgiving of dishonesty, consumed with doing the right thing."
And, so, you now know almost as much about him as I do.
My mother was a most complicated woman.
There were a number of different Karlas, I was to discover. Somehow she managed to keep each separate from the other, which made it very confusing for me as a daughter; I still struggle to figure it out.
Here is how she describes her early life:
I was born in a little town called Horodenka in eastern Poland. It was my father, of course, who was the handsomest, proudest, most dignified man I knew. He came from a well-to-do family who owned a lot of land, which went to the oldest son. My father was director of the only bank in town, which was a very special honor because he was an Orthodox Jew, and no Jew had been appointed a director of the bank before. My mother was small, kind, sweet, very intelligent. She read a lot, mostly about medicine, as she had five children. I was the oldest.
I could never play with the children in the neighborhood; they did not belong to the aristocracy. I was very proud in my childhood not to belong to a family of business people, shopkeepers. There was a caste system among the Jews in Poland. Family meant more than money; the most important thing was learning.
My father adored me; he was proud, as I was to him the most beautiful, the most intelligent child in town with A grades always. I was supposed to go to a girl's school, but I rebelled. I wanted to attend a university later on, to prepare for a profession, which was an unheard of thing for a girl at the time (the early 1900s). In order to be admitted, one had to attend the Gymnasium, a combination of high school and college with an eight-year foundation of Latin and five years of Greek. It was a classical education.
There was one school of this type for boys, but none for girls. It was a private school and very expensive. The family was against my being educated as a boy, so I went on a hunger strike. My mother helped with food in secrecy. And I won! (You didn't know your mother was a suffragette, an organizer!) I went to the home of some wealthy people who had girls of my age and sounded so convincingly that they agreed. We were finally ten girls, we had our class, wonderful professors, and I got my first taste of learning, of exploring the beauty of literature, of thought.
Speaking of her adolescence she writes:
I never liked boys my own age; they did not interest me. There were quite a few in love with me; they used to throw flowers and letters unsigned through the window. I used to be very vain and sit for the longest time in front of a mirror, trying to copy the hairdo of some heroine I read about and admired. I was always very romantic and dreamt a lot about a wonderful man whom I would meet someday and love forever. I never wanted to compromise. I did always the most and best I could in my work, but I would not compromise with my soul. I never gave up my ideals. I wanted to be an ideal woman, and I was that to many wonderful men who loved and idolized me and have never forgotten me.
I would have liked to be a famous courtesan, a beautiful, brilliant woman having around her the most distinguished men of the time. When I read French history about the life at the court of the French kings, about their brilliant mistresses, about famous French women who had "salons" where the greatest minds would meet at that time, I am sorry I did not live in that period.
This was not the Karla I knew; it was certainly not the mother I grew up with. I read this as if I were reading the diary of a stranger. Something must have happened along the way.CHAPTER 3
Beverly Hills, 1939 to 1945
My mother had never been close to my father's family in Chicago, even though they lived in the same neighborhood. She loved the opera, had a subscription to the Chicago Symphony, and led a weekly book club. She was much more comfortable with her non-Jewish friends from Northwestern, where she was studying for her Ph.D., than at family gatherings, where conversations revolved around the automobile business and memories of the "old country."
My father, it seems, shared few, if any, of her cultural interests, and it's still hard for me to get a sense of what they had in common. "He always looked up to me," my mother once said. Maybe the handwriting analyst was on the right track?
Everything changed that terrible day in August 1937, when my father succumbed to his third and fatal heart attack. The reasons my mother left Chicago aren't clear, but two years after my father's death, after sorting out his business affairs and paying off his debts, she did. So that's how, in 1939, we ended up in Southern California — a forty-year-old single woman with limited funds and her two-year-old toddler. What she lacked in contacts she made up for in confidence.
The first two or three years were the most normal we would ever have. It was just the two of us. We had a series of apartments in Los Angeles, each nicer than the last as my mother's various jobs became more responsible and remunerative. We spent all of our weekends together — sightseeing, going to the beach, visiting neighbors. We were a real, albeit small, family.
Then my mother got a position as managing director of the John-Frederics millinery salon on North Rodeo Drive. Mr. John and Mr. Fred were the two most famous hat designers in Beverly Hills at a time when elegant "chapeaux" were the height of fashion. Their boutique catered to more society women, film stars, and celebrities than most of the well-known restaurants did.
We immediately found a new place to live at 121 South Elm Drive, just off Wilshire Boulevard, within walking distance of where my mother worked. It was a studio apartment, smaller than what we were used to, in a three-story, Spanish-style stucco building with a garden in the back. It had a modest kitchen with room for a round dining table, a slightly larger living room, and a Murphy bed that came out of a wall, which the two of us shared.
The changes in the beginning were subtle. She began to wear colorful turbans and hats and dressed up even at home. She made herself smell sweet and flowery when she went out at night — and she went out almost every night of the week. She bought gooey creams to put on her face, which she said would make her look prettier.
Then she took a new name, Madame Savonier, French, she said, for the name she was born with (it wasn't), and she rarely found time to be with me. She began, for the first time, to invite people to dinner, usually slim young men who didn't have wives or girlfriends and who gossiped about movie stars and said lots of naughty things I was instructed never to repeat. She referred to these conversations as her "education." I had to curtsy when meeting someone for the first time and wasn't supposed to speak unless I was spoken to. I was also told to say, "I don't know," if anyone asked how old she was, where she was born, or whether she had any boyfriends (not that I knew anyway!). "What I do and where I come from is nobody's business," she warned. "There are certain things that are private and meant to be kept secret. You are too young, darling, I know, to understand this, but someday when you grow up...."
Shortly thereafter I was shipped off to boarding school. I must be careful here; it is too easy to misappropriate motives. "Shipped off" is how I felt. My mother, who as you may remember went on a hunger strike in Poland to get her parents to send her to a better school, had always placed high value on education. There was a prominent boarding school in the Hollywood Hills named Monsieur Hugo's, whose headmistress, Madame Hugo, was a new customer at John-Frederics. My mother, who by then had learned how business was conducted in Beverly Hills, paid her special attention. Madame returned the compliment, I was told later, by offering my mother the perfect financial arrangement. My tuition and room and board would be free; in return, Madame and her husband would be invited to all of the salon's star-studded events.
My being away during the week also afforded my mother privacy and a social life; sharing a Murphy bed with me could not possibly be what she had in mind. I'm sure this made sense at the time, but all I knew was that I was six years old and didn't want to sleep away from home, and, after all, wasn't I supposed to come first?
There were about thirty-five children in the first through sixth grades at Monsieur Hugo's, a number of them with fathers who'd been drafted to fight against Hitler's army overseas. The boys and girls lived in separate dormitories on the first floor and ate cafeteria-style on the second, and the third floor was set up as a one-room schoolhouse, something I imagined children from villages in the early nineteenth-century Midwest had attended. We sat around large tables, instruction was given in both English and French, and whatever any one child was taught, the youngster sitting next to that child learned as a matter of course. Academically we were permitted to progress at our own speed. By the time I was eight years old, I was already in the sixth grade. Also, for the first time, I was encouraged to ask questions and speak out. After following my mother's admonition to not speak unless I was spoken to, it was as if I had just discovered the English language.
I never complained. I didn't want to get myself or anybody else in trouble. So what if I cried myself to sleep when they called me teacher's pet or smarty pants, hid my clothes, dowsed water on my bed sheets, or stole the Hershey bars my mother gave me? I concentrated on learning how to speak French and memorizing my multiplication tables, learned how to play piano, and wrote down whatever came to my mind. "Once Upon a Time" was my favorite topic. I still have a copy of what I wrote when I was seven years old:
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a little girl who lived very far away from everyplace else. She lived on an island with trees and cherries and the trees had long gnarled branches and she had long snow-white hair that sometimes got tangled.
Nobody else lived on the island but she didn't care because she didn't know there was such a thing as anybody else.
She ran across the island lots of times skipping and singing and shouting and she was never hungry.
I don't know if she ever slept.
ONCE UPON A TIME when I was a little girl, I was big and strong and smiled all over.
ONCE UPON A TIME I ate glue. I ate it and ate it and ate it ... until I got unstuck.
ONCE UPON A TIME I dreamt I was. But I wasn't.
ONCE UPON A TIME I made doughnuts and gave my mother the hole.
ONCE UPON A TIME I was free.
ONCE UPON A TIME I was dead.
As you can see, I was turning into your run-of-the-mill, well-adjusted child.
On Saturdays my mother would take the bus to Hollywood and pick me up, then take me to work with her at John-Frederics. There she charmed the customers in the front of the store while I watched the women in the back cut patterns out of felt, which they then fashioned into fancy hats. Sometimes they would make little ones for me, but I always felt they made me look stupid, especially compared to how elegant my mother looked when she was photographed wearing hats with film stars like Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn in Silver Screen magazine and Photoplay.
Once in a while we went to a movie. Ingrid Bergman in Song of Bernadette was my favorite. I must have seen it three times. Otherwise we stayed home and listened to classical music. I remember only the names Beethoven and Mozart, which were the two composers I loved most. My mother rarely spoke of what she did during the week. Sometimes I overheard snippets of phone conversations about someone who had taken a "shine" to her, but I had no idea what that meant.
Excerpted from Memoir of an Independent Woman by Tania Grossinger. Copyright © 2013 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.
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Table of Contents
1 Natasha 1
2 Karla and Max 3
3 Beverly Hills, 1939 to 1945 9
4 Introduction to Grossinger's 17
5 Adolescence 27
6 Life ac the "G" 37
7 The Brandeis Years 41
8 My Year with the City of Hope 59
9 Not a Good Time in My Life 73
10 The Man I Was to Marry 77
11 Marriage and Its Finale 89
12 Getting My Life Together, Bits and Pieces 97
13 Love in the Early 1960s 105
14 Finding My Professional Niche 109
15 Betty Friedan: Up Close and Personal 113
16 The Playboy Years 125
17 Playboy Highlights: Ayn Rand, Tim Leary, Jean Shepherd, Hugh Hefner, and the Playboy Mansion 135
18 Puerto Vallarta: A Fantasy Come True 149
19 Christy Brown's Down All the Days and Malachy McCourt 163
20 Mother's Last Decade: Montecatini, Italy 171
21 Death Takes Its Toll 177
22 After My Mother Died 183
23 Running Away from It All 191
24 Karla's Letters Discovered 195
25 Seeking Professional Help 203
26 Growing Up at Grossinger's 205
27 Publication 213
28 The Literary Years 219
29 Psychics, Seers, and the Supernatural 225
30 Life as a Travel Writer 237
31 Travel Writer Disappears in Jamaica 245
32 Israel 251
33 Love with a Married Man 261
34 Art's Death and Aftermath 273
35 Post-Art 279
36 Trying to Reconcile with Mother 283
37 Looking Back: Childless by Choice 287
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
MEMOIR OF AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN: AN UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE WELL LIVED by Tania Grossinger I loved this book – on so many levels. You really get to know the author. Yes, she is an independent woman, and yes she has lived an unconventional life. It’s a brave book, as Tania Grossinger reveals both the upside and the downside of growing up at Grossinger’s, the famous Catskills resort; as she reveals her long-term love affair with a married man; as she acknowledges her sadness at not having a daughter – and her reasons for never having children; as she owns up to her sexually free lifestyle as a single adventuresome woman; as she confesses the failure of her only marriage and accepts her own partial responsibility for that failure. It’s also a dishy book, as Tania names names and tells tales out of school – often very funny -- about feminist Betty Friedan, philosopher Ayn Rand, LSD guru Timothy Leary, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, athlete Jackie Robinson, and other 20th century luminaries. It’s a testament to Tania's ability to keep recreating herself as she achieves professional respect, first as a crackerjack public relations representative, and then as an author. And it’s a mystery. Who was her mother really? Why had she kept so many secrets about her own life? What happened to Tania's colleague who disappeared on a trip to Jamaica? What can explain the pronouncements by psychics the author consulted? I couldn’t put this book down until I came to the last page and the very moving sign-off of a letter to the child she never had, “With love, Tania.” This sign-off could have been to a letter to her readers also, with whom she was so generous.
Enjoyed the author's reflections and insights