In America, we have always been told that one can go from rags to riches but we have not been shown the opposite is also true. As a child, I learned both stories and lived with the thin line between the two. Woody Allen’s film, Blue Jasmine, reminded me of this traumatic experience which, for me and my family, was a reality long before Madoff.
In my last blog entry, I held back from expressing my personal reaction to Woody Allen’s film. To be sure, the film had deep resonance for me since I grew up in a family that lived in the shadow of lies, greed, financial ruin, and corruption. I had firsthand experience of what its like to go from rags to riches and riches to rags.
To be sure, one of the major reasons I started my blog on the schlemiel comes in the wake of all this madness. And seeing Woody Allen’s film reminded me that my father’s story (which is my story) is one that recurs.
My father grew up in Manhattan. His parents, both immigrants from Europe, climbed up the social ladder and moved from a nine bedroom flat in the Upper West Side to Central Park West. My grandfather, who I am named after, built one of the largest deerskin companies in the world and made Gloversville, New York his base of operation.
My father, the youngest of his family, had the best of it all. Along with the rest of his family, he lived a life of wealth and affluence. He was full of hope and his father encouraged him to excel in academia. He had no intentions of putting my dad in the family business as my father’s older brothers were more interested in that.
My father graduated the top of his class at Brooklyn Science and was the Valedictorian at Columbia University. He took the NASA fellowship at Johns Hopkins University and went on to work on major projects with the American military and in the military-industrial complex.
When my dad learned that his father was going to retire and wanted to give his children his large leather corporation, my father, strangely enough, dropped his career and his future to start a new life in Upstate New York. He would be the first in his family to move there and work.
What happened thereafter was a disaster. My father got in a major fight with his brothers who, after my grandfather died, apparently altered the will (this is the story I grew up with). My father taught himself the leather business and spent his lifetime in various lawsuits against his brothers.
While my father had periods that he did well financially, he never made his “first million.” And, unfortunately, my father’s inability to adjust to the business world led to his first nervous breakdown and subsequent psychosis (which, over the years, increased).
Growing up, my father always reminded me of his hopes and dreams and how they were ruined by lies and greed. His brothers turned on him. I was reminded of this on a daily basis. It drove him mad.
And all I could think about all this was how he went from Central Park West, a Valedictorian at Columbia University, and a great future as an Engineer to mental illness and economic depravity.
Today, he cannot work. We do our best to help him out.
All of this came back to me as I watched Blue Jasmine. I remembered how, as a child, I learned to hate money and the corruption that goes along with it. My father’s best friend, David Kaplan, a leather businessman would tell me, on a weekly basis, of the corruption in the leather industry. He would tell me of the contemptible things my uncles would do and my father would verify these things.
Like the children in Allen’s film, I felt exposed to a kind of evil that I could not understand. I would repeat what my father and his friend told me about corruption, but I didn’t get it. For this reason, my last blog focused on the children and their reaction to all this. I identified with them while, at the same time, I identified with Jasmine. Her story was much like my father’s: she went from riches to rags as a result of lies, bad money, and corruption. Her story ended with her in the streets alone and delirious.
Fortunately, my father, though he went through horrible times and occasioned many mental institutions, is still alive. He is a survivor. And I know, personally, what he survived. And I’m happy to say that unlike Jasmine in Allen’s film, he had children who loved him and helped him through it all. My mother, who ended up divorcing him, was always there for him (even after the divorce).
Money and lies touch us all in America, albeit in different ways. As a child I was constantly reminded of this, but I also learned that no matter how horrible it can get, there is hope. Without our love and support, in the aftermath of greed and lies, my father would probably have had the same ending as Jasmine. But, still, his history remains a part of my life. And that will not go away, just as Jasmine’s story is our story too.