(By E.L. Doctorow)
I was born on Clinton Street in the Lower East Side. I was the next to youngest of six children, two boys, four girls. The two boys, Harry and Willy, were the oldest. My father was a musician, a violinist. He always made a good living. He and my mother had met in Russia and they married there, and then emigrated. My mother came from a family of musicians as well; that is how, in the course of things, she and my father had met. Some of her cousins were very well known in Russia; one, a cellist, had even played for the Tsar. My mother was a very beautiful woman, petite, with long golden hair and the palest, blue eyes. My father used to say to us, ‘You think, you girls, you’re beautiful? You should have seen your mother when she and her sisters walked down the street in our village. Every head turned, they were so slim, their bearing so elegant.’ I suppose he did not want us to get conceited.
I was four when we moved up to the Bronx, a big apartment near Claremont Park. I was a good student, I went to primary school on Washington Avenue; when I was graduated from there I went to Morris High School. I completed all my courses and graduated, and reenrolled to take the program of commercial courses there and got enough credits to graduate all over again if I chose. I knew now how to type, how to keep books, I knew shorthand. I was very ambitious. I had paid for my own piano lessons by playing for silent movies. I watched the screen and improvised. My brother Harry or my father used to sit right behind me to see that nobody bothered me; movie houses were still primitive and they attracted a bad element. After my courses, I found a job as private secretary to a well-known businessman and philanthropist named Sigmund Unterberg. He had made his money in the shirt business and now spent a good deal of his time doing work for Jewish organizations, social welfare, that kind of thing.
I was a good secretary, Mr Unterberg would dictate a letter to me and I could take it right on the typewriter, without an error, and so when he was finished I was finished and the letter was ready for him to sign. He thought I was wonderful. His wife was a lovely woman and used to invite me to tea with them, to socialize with them. I suppose I was by now nineteen or twenty. They introduced me to one or two young men, but I never liked them.
I by now was interested in my future husband. We had known each other since high school. He was extremely handsome, dashing, he was a good athlete; in fact, that’s how I met him, on the tennis courts, there were clay courts on Morris Avenue and 170th Street and we were each playing there.
You played tennis in long skirts in those days. I was a good tennis player, I loved sports, and that’s how we met. He walked me home. My mother did not like Dave. She thought he was too wild. If I went out with another boy he would ruin the date. He would hang around outside our house even if we hadn’t arranged to do anything together and when he saw another boy coming to pick me up he’d do terrible things, he’d pick a fight, or stop us and talk when I was with this other boy. He would warn the other boys to treat me with respect or he would come after them.
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After school the author earned money.
- keeping books
- doing shorthand
- playing for silent movies
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