My Uncle’s best friend died two weeks ago. A famous artist, whose paintings sold for thousands. A man I never actually met. But a larger than life figure ,for as long as I can remember. A piece of my childhood died with him.
To this day my 84-year-old mother idolizes her 85-year-old brother, Gene. My mother loves to recall the days in the 1940s when her brother went to the High School of Performing Arts in NYC . That’s where he met his best friend, Charlie Bragg.
My mother and my uncle love to tell stories about when my uncle and his “deviant” buddies would cut school, my mother would be the one to write them notes and get them out of trouble.
All our lives we heard how “bad” this gang of performing art school boys were. How all my mother’s friends had a crush on her brother. They would all clamor to come over mom’s just to catch a glimpse of her beautiful, artist, brother.
My mother and my uncle grew up in a one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. My grandparents, of course, had the bedroom, and my mom and her brother each slept on a separate couch, one in the living room, one in the hallway. It was small but it was a house filled with great love.
My grandparents lived in that apartment for more than fifty years. Every Sunday, after my sisters and I were born, my mother would make the trek from Long Island to Brooklyn with all three of her young girls in tow. We loved visiting Grandma Sophie and Grandpa Barney. As is tradition, with a Jewish Grandma, she always had something cooking on the stove. Matzo Balls, or chicken, cooked in the chicken fat she saved. She saved pennies in a jar and we would count them and split them three ways. It never split evenly, one of us would get an extra. Grandpa was always sitting in his chair smoking a cigar and reading The New York Times. He would hug us so hard we couldn’t breathe. We loved it.
Grandpa was the original Archie Bunker. Opinionated, and yes, a little bigoted. My older sister would add on to her boyfriend’s last names to make them sound Jewish, Levitan-ski, I kid you not.
Grandma’s was a quieter love. We kids never saw evidence of it, as they had her medications perfected by the time we came along, but she was manic-depressive in the days before Lithium. In fact she was one of the first patients to receive the miracle drug that saved her life.
My grandpa, small of stature, a cigar always in hand, had a belly laugh that was contagious. His days as a butcher in Brooklyn always sounded like something out of The Godfather.
Grandpa was a butcher his entire adult life. He emigrated from Russia when he was only 12 years old. Born in 1899 that would make the year 1911. He came over by himself, and I believe his mother and siblings followed later
He and Grandma met when he showed up at her brother’s butcher shop as a temporary butcher. She was the cashier.
While Grandpa was working there he cut off his index finger from the first knuckle. The story he loved to tell was that Sophie was so beautiful he couldn’t take his eyes off her. So, while he was directing the meat over the meat cutter, he was staring at her and not paying attention, and cut his finger off. He put the cut off tip on ice and brought it to the hospital hoping they could sew it back on. Being the 1920s this was not possible. It became his badge of honor. And his emblem of an undying love.
Grandpa had his own butcher shop for a while It didn’t work out because he would give meat to whoever needed it, never expecting to be paid.
In 1930s Brooklyn, butchers and other small businesses had to pay “protection” money to the Mafia to ensure “nothing bad would happen to their shops.” Grandpa was no exception. A cousin of the head of the Gambino family was at Grandpa’s shop collecting when he suffered a heart attack. Grandpa would never let a man suffer on his watch. Instead of waiting for the ambulance to arrive, he collected the Gambino cousin into his car and rushed to him the hospital, with those few minutes saving the man’s life.
From then on, Grandpa was in the Gambinos’ good graces. He never had to pay protection money again. Not only that, Gambino himself offered Grandpa, a man who was raising his family in a one bedroom apartment, a mansion. Family legend has it that Grandpa didn’t want to be controlled by the mafia, so he respectfully refused Gambino’s offer. But Gambino never forgot what Grandpa did. Grandma and Grandpa attended Gambino’s daughter’s wedding. And in later years, when Grandpa fell ill and was hospitalized many times, he always had a 24 hour nurse by his side.
And throughout all this family Brooklyn folklore, was the relationship between Uncle Gene and Charlie. Mom likes to remember how Charlie could make her brother belly laugh.
These two “deviants” in high school came out on top. My uncle went on to be Art Director of Life Magazine in the 70s, working in Manhattan and living in Westchester. Charlie moved to Los Angeles and lived the high life. My uncle had his Charlie’s paintings throughout his house and gave one or two to my sisters and me.
My older sister likes to tell the story of when she and our cousin made it out to LA in 1976, at the tender age of 18. Our uncle told her to look Charlie up. Charlie invited her and all the cousins to a lavish Christmas party in his mansion. He had a choir and butler service and a gigantic house. My sister said he was gregarious and charming. She never forgot that night.
My uncle is a very loving man, and of course felt the loss of his friend deeply. But today is my uncle’s son’s 60th birthday and my uncle’s love and pride shows through!
Love to all!