Roth Rewrites History with a 'Plot Against America'
In 1940, Franklin D. Roosevelt sought and won an unprecedented third presidential term. Britain was already under German attack and the U.S. had not entered the war. While in office, Roosevelt continued to support Great Britain, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's declaration of war, American neutrality was no longer sustainable.
In Philip Roth's new novel, things turn out very differently. The Plot Against America imagines what might have happened if flying ace and staunch isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeated Roosevelt in 1940. Instead of going to war, an anti-Semitic Lindbergh signs a peace pact with Germany and Japan, and his policies create an atmosphere of religious hatred.
As Roth tells NPR's Robert Siegel, the invented history of The Plot Against America is also "a kind of false memoir." He places his family and himself as a young boy in Newark in the middle of this fascist alter-America.
Book Excerpt: The Plot Against America
June 1940–October 1940
Vote for Lindbergh or Vote for War
Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of Jews.
When the first shock came in June of 1940—the nomination for the presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh, America's international aviation hero, by the Republican Convention at Philadelphia—my father was thirty-nine, an insurance agent with a grade school education, earning a little under fifty dollars a week, enough for the basic bills to be paid on time but for little more. My mother—who'd wanted to go to teachers' college but couldn't because of the expense, who'd lived at home working as an office secretary after finishing high school, who'd kept us from feeling poor during the worst of the Depression by budgeting the earnings my father turned over to her each Friday as efficiently as she ran the household—was thirty-six. My brother, Sandy, a seventh-grader with a prodigy's talent for drawing, was twelve, and I, a third-grader a term ahead of himself—and an embryonic stamp collector inspired like millions of kids by the country's foremost philatelist, President Roosevelt—was seven.
We lived in the second-floor flat of a small two-and-a-half-family house on a tree-lined street of frame wooden houses with redbrick stoops, each stoop topped with a gable roof and fronted by a tiny yard boxed in with a low-cut hedge. The Weequahic neighborhood had been built on farm lots at the undeveloped southwest edge of Newark just after World War One, some half dozen of the streets named, imperially, for victorious naval commanders in the Spanish-American War and the local movie house called, after FDR's fifth cousin—and the country's twenty-sixth president—the Roosevelt. Our street, Summit Avenue, sat at the crest of the neighborhood hill, an elevation as high as any in a port city that rarely rises a hundred feet above the level of the tidal salt marsh to the city's north and east and the deep bay due east of the airport that bends around the oil tanks of the Bayonne peninsula and merges there with New York Bay to flow past the Statue of Liberty and into the Atlantic. Looking west from our bedroom's rear window we could sometimes see inland as far as the dark treeline of the Watchungs, a low-lying mountain range fringed by great estates and affluent, sparsely populated suburbs, the extreme edge of the known world—and about eight miles from our house. A block to the south was the working-class town of Hillside, whose population was predominantly Gentile. The boundary with Hillside marked the beginning of Union County, another New Jersey entirely.
We were a happy family in 1940. My parents were outgoing, hospitable people, their friends culled from among my father's associates at the office and from the women who along with my mother had helped to organize the Parent-Teacher Association at newly built Chancellor Avenue School, where my brother and I were pupils. All were Jews. The neighborhood men either were in business for themselves—the owners of the local candy store, grocery store, jewelry store, dress shop, furniture shop, service station, and delicatessen, or the proprietors of tiny industrial job shops over by the Newark-Irvington line, or self-employed plumbers, electricians, housepainters, and boilermen—or were foot-soldier salesmen like my father, out every day in the city streets and in people's houses, peddling their wares on commission. The Jewish doctors and lawyers and the successful merchants who owned big stores downtown lived in one-family houses on streets branching off the eastern slope of the Chancellor Avenue hill, closer to grassy, wooded Weequahic Park, a landscaped three hundred acres whose boating lake, golf course, and harness-racing track separated the Weequahic section from the industrial plants and shipping terminals lining Route 27 and the Pennsylvania Railroad viaduct east of that and the burgeoning airport east of that and the very edge of America east of that—the depots and docks of Newark Bay, where they unloaded cargo from around the world. At the western end of the neighborhood, the parkless end where we lived, there resided an occasional schoolteacher or pharmacist but otherwise few professionals were among our immediate neighbors and certainly none of the prosperous entrepreneurial or manufacturing families. The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week; the women worked all the time, with little assistance from laborsaving devices, washing laundry, ironing shirts, mending socks, turning collars, sewing on buttons, mothproofing woolens, polishing furniture, sweeping and washing floors, washing windows, cleaning sinks, tubs, toilets, and stoves, vacuuming rugs, nursing he sick, shopping for food, cooking meals, feeding relatives, tidying closets and drawers, overseeing paint jobs and household repairs, arranging for religious observances, paying bills and keeping the family's books while simultaneously attending to their children's health, clothing, cleanliness, schooling, nutrition, conduct, birthdays, discipline, and morale. A few women labored alongside their husbands in the family-owned stores on the nearby shopping streets, assisted after school and on Saturdays by their older children, who delivered orders and tended stock and did the cleaning up.
It was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion. Nobody in the neighborhood had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap either outdoors or in the houses I routinely floated through with my boyhood friends. The adults were no longer observant in the outward, recognizable ways, if they were seriously observant at all, and aside from older shopkeepers like the tailor and the kosher butcher—and the ailing or decrepit grandparents living of necessity with their adult offspring—hardly anyone in the vicinity spoke with an accent. By 1940 Jewish parents and their children at the southwestern corner of New Jersey's largest city talked to one another in an American English that sounded more like the language spoken in Altoona or Binghamton than like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson by our Jewish counterparts in the five boroughs. Hebrew lettering was stenciled on the butcher shop window and engraved on the lintels of the small neighborhood synagogues, but nowhere else (other than at the cemetery) did one's eye chance to land on the alphabet of the prayer book rather than on the familiar letters of the native tongue employed all the time by practically everyone for every conceivable purpose, high or low. At the newsstand out front of the corner candy store, ten times more customers bought the Racing Form than the Yiddish daily, the Forvertz.
Israel didn't yet exist, six million European Jews hadn't yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine (under British mandate since the 1918 dissolution by the victorious Allies of the last far-flung provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire) was a mystery to me. When a stranger who did wear a beard and who never once was seen hatless appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, I, who wasn't an ignorant child, didn't quite know what he was doing on our landing.
My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box, largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we'd already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header. Our homeland was America.
Then the Republicans nominated Lindbergh and everything changed.
For nearly a decade Lindbergh was as great a hero in our neighborhood as he was everywhere else. The completion of his thirtythree-and-a-half-hour nonstop solo flight from Long Island to Paris in the tiny monoplane the Spirit of St. Louis even happened to coincide with the day in the spring of 1927 that my mother discovered herself to be pregnant with my older brother. As a consequence, the young aviator whose daring had thrilled America and the world and whose achievement bespoke a future of unimaginable aeronautical progress came to occupy a special niche in the gallery of family anecdotes that generate a child's first cohesive mythology. The mystery of pregnancy and the heroism of Lindbergh combined to give a distinction bordering on the divine to my very own mother, for whom nothing less than a global annunciation had accompanied the incarnation of her first child. Sandy would later record this moment with a drawing illustrating the juxtaposition of those two splendid events. In the drawing—completed at the age of nine and smacking inadvertently of Soviet poster art—Sandy envisioned her miles from our house, amid a joyous crowd on the corner of Broad and Market. A slender young woman of twenty-three with dark hair and a smile that is all robust delight, she is surprisingly on her own and wearing her floral-patterned kitchen apron at the intersection of the city's two busiest thoroughfares, one hand spread wide across the front of the apron, where the span of her hips is still deceptively girlish, while with the other she alone in the crowd is pointing skyward to the Spirit of St. Louis, passing visibly above downtown Newark at precisely the moment she comes to realize that, in a feat no less triumphant for a mortal than Lindbergh's, she has conceived Sanford Roth.
Sandy was four and I, Philip, wasn't yet born when in March 1932, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh's own first child, a boy whose arrival twenty months earlier had been an occasion for national rejoicing, was kidnapped from his family's secluded new house in rural Hopewell, New Jersey. Some ten weeks later the decomposing body of the baby was discovered by chance in woods a few miles away. The baby had been either murdered or killed accidentally after being snatched from his crib and, in the dark, still in bedclothes, carried out a window of the second-story nursery and down a makeshift ladder to the ground while the nurse and mother were occupied in their ordinary evening activities in another part of the house. By the time the kidnapping and murder trial in Flemington, New Jersey, concluded in February 1935 with the conviction of Bruno Hauptmann—a German ex-con of thirty-five living in the Bronx with his German wife—the boldness of the world's first transatlantic solo pilot had been permeated with a pathos that transformed him into a martyred titan comparable to Lincoln. Following the trial, the Lindberghs left America, hoping through a temporary expatriation to protect a new Lindbergh infant from harm and to recover some measure of the privacy they coveted. The family moved to a small village in England, and from there, as a private citizen, Lindbergh began taking the trips to Nazi Germany that would transform him into a villain for most American Jews. In the course of five visits, during which he was able to familiarize himself at first hand with the magnitude of the German war machine, he was ostentatiously entertained by Air Marshal Göring, he was ceremoniously decorated in the name of the Führer, and he expressed quite openly his high regard for Hitler, calling Germany the world's "most interesting nation" and its leader "a great man." And all this interest and admiration after Hitler's 1935 racial laws had denied Germany's Jews their civil, social, and property rights, nullified their citizenship, and forbidden intermarriage with Aryans.
By the time I began school in 1938, Lindbergh's was a name that provoked the same sort of indignation in our house as did the weekly Sunday radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, the Detroit-area priest who edited a right-wing weekly called Social Justice and whose anti-Semitic virulence aroused the passions of a sizable audience during the country's hard times. It was in November 1938—the darkest, most ominous year for the Jews of Europe in eighteen centuries—that the worst pogrom in modern history, Kristallnacht, was instigated by the Nazis all across Germany: synagogues incinerated, the residences and businesses of Jews destroyed, and, throughout a night presaging the monstrous future, Jews by the thousands forcibly taken from their homes and transported to concentration camps.When it was suggested to Lindbergh that in response to this unprecedented savagery, perpetrated by a state on its own native-born, he might consider returning the gold cross decorated with four swastikas bestowed on him in behalf of the Führer by Air Marshal Göring, he declined on the grounds that for him to publicly surrender the Service Cross of the German Eagle would constitute "an unnecessary insult" to the Nazi leadership. Lindbergh was the first famous living American whom I learned to hate—just as President Roosevelt was the first famous living American whom I was taught to love—and so his nomination by the Republicans to run against Roosevelt in 1940 assaulted, as nothing ever had before, that huge endowment of personal security that I had taken for granted as an American child of American parents in an American school in an American city in an America at peace with the world.
The only comparable threat had come some thirteen months earlier when, on the basis of consistently high sales through the worst of the Depression as an agent with the Newark office of Metropolitan Life, my father had been offered a promotion to assistant manager in charge of agents at the company's office six miles west of our house in Union, a town whose only distinction I knew of was a drive-in theater where movies were shown even when it rained, and where the company expected my father and his family to live if he took the job. As an assistant manager, my father could soon be making seventy-five dollars a week and over the coming years as much as a hundred a week, a fortune in 1939 to people with our expectations. And since there were one-family houses selling in Union for a Depression low of a few thousand dollars, he would be able to realize an ambition he had nurtured growing up penniless in a Newark tenement flat: to become an American homeowner. "Pride of ownership" was a favorite phrase of my father's, embodying an idea real as bread to a man of his background, one having to do not with social competitiveness or conspicuous consumption but with his standing as a manly provider. The single drawback was that because Union, like Hillside, was a Gentile working-class town, my father would most likely be the only Jew in an office of some thirty-five people, my mother the only Jewish woman on our street, and Sandy and I the only Jewish kids in our school.
On the Saturday after my father was offered the promotion—a promotion that, above all, would answer a Depression family's yearning for a tiny margin of financial security—the four of us headed off after lunch to look around Union. But once we were there and driving up and down the residential streets peering out at the two-story houses—not quite identical but each, nonetheless, with a screened front porch and a mown lawn and a piece of shrubbery and a cinder drive leading to a one-car garage, very modest houses but still roomier than our two-bedroom flat and looking a lot like the little white houses in the movies about smalltown salt-of-the-earth America—once we were there our innocent buoyancy about the family ascent into the home-owning class was supplanted, predictably enough, by our anxieties about the scope of Christian charity. My ordinarily energetic mother responded to my father's "What do you think, Bess?" with enthusiasm that even a child understood to be feigned. And young as I was, I was able to surmise why: because she was thinking, "Ours will be the house ‘where the Jews live.' It'll be Elizabeth all over again." Elizabeth, New Jersey, when my mother was being raised there in a flat over her father's grocery store, was an industrial port a quarter the size of Newark, dominated by the Irish working class and their politicians and the tightly knit parish life that revolved around the town's many churches, and though I never heard her complain of having been pointedly ill-treated in Elizabeth as a girl, it was not until she married and moved to Newark's new Jewish neighborhood that she discovered the confidence that led her to become first a PTA "grade mother," then a PTA vice president in charge of establishing a Kindergarten Mothers' Club, and finally the PTA president, who, after attending a conference in Trenton on infantile paralysis, proposed an annual March of Dimes dance on January 30—President Roosevelt's birthday—that was accepted by most Newark schools. In the spring of 1939 she was in her second successful year as a leader with progressive ideas—already supporting a young social studies teacher keen on bringing "visual education" into Chancellor's classrooms—and now she couldn't help but envision herself bereft of all that had been achieved by her becoming a wife and a mother on Summit Avenue. Should we have the good fortune to buy and move into a house on any of the Union streets we were seeing at their springtime best, not only would her status slip back to what it had been when she was growing up the daughter of a Jewish immigrant grocer in Irish Catholic Elizabeth, but, worse than that, Sandy and I would be obliged to relive her own circumscribed youth as a neighborhood outsider.
Despite my mother's mood, my father did everything he could to keep up our spirits, remarking on how clean and well-kept everything looked, reminding Sandy and me that living in one of these houses the two of us would no longer have to share a small bedroom and a single closet, and explaining the benefits to be derived from paying off a mortgage rather than paying rent, a lesson in elementary economics that abruptly ended when it was necessary for him to stop the car at a red light beside a parklike drinking establishment dominating one corner of the intersection.
There were green picnic tables set out beneath the shade trees full with foliage, and on this sunny weekend afternoon there were waiters in braided white coats moving swiftly about, balancing trays laden with bottles and pitchers and plates, and men of every age gathered at each of the tables, smoking cigarettes and pipes and cigars and drinking deeply from tall beakers and earthenware mugs. There was music, too—an accordion being played by a stout little man in short pants and high socks who wore a hat ornamented with a long feather. "Sons of bitches!" my father said. "Fascist bastards!" and then the light changed and we drove on in silence to look at the office building where he was about to get his chance to earn more than fifty dollars a week.
It was my brother who, when we went to bed that night, explained why my father had lost control and cursed aloud in front of his children: the homey acre of open-air merriment smack in the middle of town was called a beer garden, the beer garden had something to do with the German-American Bund, the German-American Bund had something to do with Hitler, and Hitler, as I hadn't to be told, had everything to do with persecuting Jews. The intoxicant of anti-Semitism. That's what I came to imagine them all so cheerfully drinking in their beer garden that day—like all the Nazis everywhere, downing pint after pint of anti-Semitism as though imbibing the universal remedy. My father had to take off a morning of work to go over to the home office in New York—to the tall building whose uppermost tower was crowned with the beacon his company proudly designated "The Light That Never Fails"—and inform the superintendent of agencies that he couldn't accept the promotion he longed for.
"It's my fault," announced my mother as soon as he began to recount at the dinner table what had transpired there on the eighteenth floor of 1 Madison Avenue.
"It's nobody's fault," my father said. "I explained before I left what I was going to tell him, and I went over and I told him, and that's it. We're not moving to Union, boys. We're staying right here."
"What did he do?" my mother asked.
"He heard me out."
"And then?" she asked.
"He stood up and he shook my hand."
"He didn't say anything?"
"He said, ‘Good luck, Roth.'"
"He was angry with you."
"Hatcher is a gentleman of the old school. Big six-foot goy.
Looks like a movie star. Sixty years old and fit as a fiddle. These are the people who run things, Bess—they don't waste their time getting angry at someone like me."
"So now what?" she asked, implying that whatever happened as a result of his meeting with Hatcher was not going to be good and could be dire. And I thought I understood why. Apply yourself and you can do it—that was the axiom in which we had been schooled by both parents. At the dinner table, my father would reiterate to his young sons time and again, "If anybody asks 'Can you do this job? Can you handle it?' you tell 'em 'Absolutely.' By the time they find out that you can't, you'll already have learned, and the job'll be yours. And who knows, it just might turn out to be the opportunity of a lifetime." Yet over in New York he had done nothing like that.
"What did the Boss say?" she asked him. The Boss was how the four of us referred to the manager of my father's Newark office, Sam Peterfreund. In those days of unadvertised quotas to keep Jewish admissions to a minimum in colleges and professional schools and of unchallenged discrimination that denied Jews significant promotions in the big corporations and of rigid restrictions against Jewish membership in thousands of social organizations and communal institutions, Peterfreund was one of the first of the small handful of Jews ever to achieve a managerial position with Metropolitan Life. "He's the one who put you up for it," my mother said. "How must he feel?"
"Know what he said to me when I got back? Know what he told me about the Union office? It's full of drunks. Famous for drunks. Beforehand he didn't want to influence my decision. He didn't want to stand in my way if this was what I wanted. Famous for agents who work two hours in the morning and spend the rest of their time in the tavern or worse. And I was supposed to go in there, the new Jew, the big new sheeny boss the goyim are all dying to work for, and I was supposed to go in there and pick 'em up off the barroom floor. I was supposed to go in there and remind them of their obligation to their wives and their children. Oh, how they would have loved me, boys, for doing them the favor. You can imagine what they would have called me behind my back. No, I'm better off where I am. We're all better off."
"But can the company fire you for turning them down?"
"Honey, I did what I did. That's the end of it."
But she didn't believe what he'd told her the Boss had said; she believed that he was making up what the Boss had said to get her to stop blaming herself for refusing to move her children to a Gentile town that was a haven for the German-American Bund and by doing so denying him the opportunity of his lifetime.
The Lindberghs returned to resume their family life in America in April 1939. Only months later, in September, having already annexed Austria and overrun Czechoslovakia, Hitler invaded and conquered Poland, and France and Great Britain responded by declaring war on Germany. Lindbergh had by then been activated as a colonel in the Army Air Corps, and he now began traveling around the country for the U.S. government, lobbying for the development of American aviation and for expanding and modernizing the air wing of the armed forces. When Hitler quickly occupied Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium, and all but defeated France, and the second great European war of the century was well under way, the Air Corps colonel made himself the idol of the isolationists—and the enemy of FDR—by adding to his mission the goal of preventing America from being drawn into the war or offering any aid to the British or the French. There was already strong animosity between him and Roosevelt, but now that he was declaring openly at large public meetings and on network radio and in popular magazines that the president was misleading the country with promises of peace while secretly agitating and planning for our entry into the armed struggle, some in the Republican Party began to talk up Lindbergh as the man with the magic to beat "the warmonger in the White House" out of a third term. The more pressure Roosevelt put on Congress to repeal the arms embargo and loosen the strictures on the country's neutrality so as to prevent the British from being defeated, the more forthright Lindbergh became, until finally he made the famous radio speech before a hall full of cheering supporters in Des Moines that named among the "most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war" a group constituting less than three percent of the population and referred to alternately as "the Jewish people" and "the Jewish race."
"No person of honesty and vision," Lindbergh said, "can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy both for us and for them." And then, with remarkable candor, he added:
A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not . . . We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we must also look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction. The next day the very accusations that had elicited roars of approval from Lindbergh's Iowa audience were vigorously denounced by liberal journalists, by Roosevelt's press secretary, by Jewish agencies and organizations, even from within the Republican Party by New York's District Attorney Dewey and the Wall Street utilities lawyer Wendell Willkie, both potential presidential nominees. So severe was the criticism from Democratic cabinet members like Interior Secretary Harold Ickes that Lindbergh resigned his reserve commission as an Army colonel rather than serve under FDR as his commander in chief. But the America First Committee, the broadest-based organization leading the battle against intervention, continued to support him, and he remained the most popular proselytizer of its argument for neutrality. For many America Firsters there was no debating (even with the facts)
Lindbergh's contention that the Jews'"greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government."When Lindbergh wrote proudly of "our inheritance of European blood," when he warned against "dilution by foreign races" and "the infiltration of inferior blood" (all phrases that turn up in diary entries from those years), he was recording personal convictions shared by a sizable portion of America First's rank-and-file membership as well as by a rabid constituency even more extensive than a Jew like my father, with his bitter hatred of anti-Semitism—or like my mother, with her deeply ingrained mistrust of Christians—could ever imagine to be flourishing all across America.
The 1940 Republican Convention. My brother and I went to sleep that night—Thursday, June 27—while the radio was on in the living room, and our father, our mother, and our older cousin Alvin sat listening together to the live coverage from Philadelphia. After six ballots, the Republicans still hadn't selected a candidate. Lindbergh's name was yet to be uttered by a single delegate, and because of an engineering conclave at a midwestern factory where he'd been advising on the design of a new fighter plane, he wasn't present or expected to be.When Sandy and I went to bed the convention remained divided among Dewey, Willkie, and two powerful Republican senators, Vandenberg of Michigan and Taft of Ohio, and it didn't look as though a backroom deal was about to be brokered anytime soon by party bigwigs like former president Hoover, who'd been ousted from office by FDR's overwhelming 1932 victory, or by Governor Alf Landon, whom FDR had defeated even more ignominiously four years later in the biggest landslide in history.
Because it was the first muggy evening of the summer, the windows were open in every room and Sandy and I couldn't help but continue to follow from bed the proceedings being aired over our own living room radio and the radio playing in the flat downstairs and—since an alleyway only barely wide enough for a single car separated one house from the next—the radios of our neighbors to either side and across the way. As this was long before window air conditioners bested the noises of a neighborhood's tropical nights, the broadcast blanketed the block from Keer to Chancellor—a block on which not a single Republican lived in any of the thirtyodd two-and-a-half-family houses or in the small new apartment building at the Chancellor Avenue corner. On streets like ours the Jews voted straight Democratic for as long as FDR was at the top of the ticket.
But we were two kids and fell asleep despite everything and probably wouldn't have awakened till morning had not Lindbergh—with the Republicans deadlocked on the twentieth ballot—made his unanticipated entrance onto the convention floor at 3:18 a.m. The lean, tall, handsome hero, a lithe, athletic-looking man not yet forty years old, arrived in his flying attire, having landed his own plane at the Philadelphia airport only minutes earlier, and at the sight of him, a surge of redemptive excitement brought the wilted conventioneers up onto their feet to cry "Lindy! Lindy! Lindy!" for thirty glorious minutes, and without interruption from the chair. Behind the successful execution of this spontaneous pseudoreligious drama lay the machinations of Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota, a right-wing isolationist who quickly placed in nomination the name of Charles A. Lindbergh of Little Falls, Minnesota, whereupon two of the most reactionary members of Congress—Congressman Thorkelson of Montana and Congressman Mundt of South Dakota—seconded the nomination, and at precisely four a.m. on Friday, June 28, the Republican Party, by acclamation, chose as its candidate the bigot who had denounced Jews over the airwaves to a national audience as "other peoples" employing their enormous "influence . . . to lead our country to destruction," rather than truthfully acknowledging us to be a small minority of citizens vastly outnumbered by our Christian countrymen, by and large obstructed by religious prejudice from attaining public power, and surely no less loyal to the principles of American democracy than an admirer of Adolf Hitler.
"No!" was the word that awakened us, "No!" being shouted in a man's loud voice from every house on the block. It can't be. No. Not for president of the United States.
Within seconds, my brother and I were once more at the radio with the rest of the family, and nobody bothered telling us to go back to bed. Hot as it was, my decorous mother had pulled a robe over her thin nightdress—she too had been asleep and roused by the noise—and she sat now on the sofa beside my father, her fingers over her mouth as though she were trying to keep from being sick. Meanwhile my cousin Alvin, able no longer to remain in his seat, set about pacing a room eighteen-by-twelve with a force in his gait befitting an avenger out searching the city to dispose of his nemesis. The anger that night was the real roaring forge, the furnace that takes you and twists you like steel. And it didn't subside—not while Lindbergh stood silently at the Philadelphia rostrum and heard himself being cheered once again as the nation's savior, nor when he gave the speech accepting his party's nomination and with it the mandate to keep America out of the European war. We all waited in terror to hear him repeat to the convention his malicious vilification of the Jews, but that he didn't made no difference to the mood that carried every last family on the block out into the street at nearly five in the morning. Entire families known to me previously only fully dressed in daytime clothing were wearing pajamas and nightdresses under their bathrobes and milling around in their slippers at dawn as if driven from their homes by an earthquake. But what shocked a child most was the anger, the anger of men whom I knew as lighthearted kibbitzers or silent, dutiful breadwinners who all day long unclogged drainpipes or serviced furnaces or sold apples by the pound and then in the evening looked at the paper and listened to the radio and fell asleep in the living room chair, plain people who happened to be Jews now storming about the street and cursing with no concern for propriety, abruptly thrust back into the miserable struggle from which they had believed their families extricated by the providential migration of the generation before. I would have imagined Lindbergh's not mentioning the Jews in his acceptance speech to be a promising omen, an indication that he had been chastened by the outcry that had caused him to relinquish his Army commission or that he had changed his mind since the Des Moines speech or that he had already forgotten about us or that secretly he knew full well that we were committed irrevocably to America—that though Ireland still mattered to the Irish and Poland to the Poles and Italy to the Italians, we retained no allegiance, sentimental or otherwise, to those Old World countries that we had never been welcome in and that we had no intention of ever returning to. If I could have thought through the meaning of the moment in so many words, this is probably what I would have been thinking. But the men out on the street thought differently. Lindbergh's not mentioning the Jews was to them a trick and no more, the initiation of a campaign of deceit intended both to shut us up and to catch us off guard.
"Hitler in America!" the neighbors cried. "Fascism in America! Storm troopers in America!" After their having gone without sleep all night long, there was nothing that these bewildered elders of ours didn't think and nothing that they didn't say aloud, within our hearing, before they started to drift back to their houses (where all the radios still blared away), the men to shave and dress and grab a cup of coffee before heading for work and the women to get their children clothed and fed and ready for the day.
Roosevelt raised everyone's spirits by his robust response on learning that his opponent was to be Lindbergh rather than a senator of the stature of Taft or a prosecutor as aggressive as Dewey or a bigtime lawyer as smooth and handsome as Willkie. When awakened at four a.m. to be told the news, he was said to have predicted from his White House bed, "By the time this is over, the young man will be sorry not only that he entered politics but that he ever learned to fly." Whereupon he fell immediately back into a sound sleep—or so went the story that brought us such solace the next day. Out on the street, when all anyone could think about was the menace posed to our safety by this transparently unjust affront, people had oddly forgotten about FDR and the bulwark he was against oppression. The sheer surprise of the Lindbergh nomination had activated an atavistic sense of being undefended that had more to do with Kishinev and the pogroms of 1903 than with New Jersey thirty-seven years later, and as a consequence, they had forgotten about Roosevelt's appointment to the Supreme Court of Felix Frankfurter and his selection as Treasury secretary of Henry Morgenthau, and about the close presidential adviser, financier Bernard Baruch, and about Mrs. Roosevelt and Ickes and Agriculture Secretary Wallace, all three of whom, like the president were known to be friends of the Jews. There was Roosevelt, there was the U.S. Constitution, there was the Bill of Rights, and there were the papers, America's free press. Even the Republican Newark Evening News published an editorial reminding readers of the Des Moines speech and openly challenging the wisdom of Lindbergh's nomination, and PM, the new left-wing New York tabloid that cost a nickel and that my father had begun bringing home with him after work along with the Newark News—and whose slogan read, "PM is against people who push other people around"—leveled its assault on the Republicans in a lengthy editorial as well as in news stories and columns on virtually every one of its thirty-two pages, including anti-Lindbergh columns in the sports section by Tom Meany and Joe Cummiskey. On the front page the paper featured a large photo of Lindbergh's Nazi medal and, in its Daily Picture Magazine, where it claimed to run photographs that other papers suppressed—controversial photos of lynch mobs and chain gangs, of strikebreakers wielding clubs, of inhuman conditions in America's penitentiaries—there was page after page showing the Republican candidate touring Nazi Germany in 1938, culminating in the full-page picture of him, the notorious medal around his neck, shaking the hand of Hermann Göring, the Nazi leader second only to Hitler.
On Sunday night we waited through the lineup of comedy programs for Walter Winchell to come on at nine. And when he did and proceeded to say what we had hoped he would say just as contemptuously as we wanted him to say it, applause erupted from across the alleyway, as though the famous newsman weren't walled off in a radio studio on the far side of the great divide that was the Hudson but were here among us and fighting mad, his tie pulled down, his collar unbuttoned, his gray fedora angled back on his head, lambasting Lindbergh from a microphone atop the oilcloth covering on the kitchen table of our next-door neighbor.
It was the last night of June 1940. After a warm day, it had grown cool enough to sit comfortably indoors without perspiring, but when Winchell signed off at nine-fifteen, our parents were moved to go outside for the four of us to take in the lovely evening together. We were just going to walk to the corner and back—after which my brother and I would go to sleep—but it was nearly midnight before we got to bed and by then sleep was out of the question for kids so overcome by their parents' excitement. Because Winchell's fearless bellicosity had propelled all of our neighbors outdoors as well, what had begun for us as a cheerful little evening stroll ended as an impromptu block party for everyone. The men dragged beach chairs from the garages and unfolded them at the foot of the alleyways, the women carried pitchers of lemonade from the houses, the youngest of the children ran wildly from stoop to stoop, and the older ones sat laughing and talking off by themselves, and all because war had been declared on Lindbergh by America's best-known Jew after Albert Einstein. It was Winchell, after all, whose column had famously ushered in the three dots separating—and somehow magically validating—each hot news item ever so tenuously grounded in fact, and it was Winchell who'd more or less originated the idea of firing into the face of the credulous masses buckshot pellets of insinuating gossip—ruining reputations, compromising celebrities, bestowing fame, making and breaking showbiz careers. It was his column alone that was syndicated in hundreds of papers all across the country and his Sunday-night quarter of an hour that was the country's most popular news program, the rapid-fire Winchell delivery and the pugnacious Winchell cynicism lending every scoop the sensational air of an exposé. We admired him as a fearless outsider and a cunning insider, a pal of J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, as well as a neighbor of the mobster Frank Costello and a confidant of Roosevelt's inner circle, even a sometimes guest invited to the White House to amuse the president over a drink—the in-the-know street fighter and hardboiled man about town whom his enemies feared and who was on our side. Manhattan-born Walter Winschel (a.k.a.Weinschel) had transformed himself from a New York vaudeville dancer into a callow Broadway columnist earning big money by embodying the passions of the cheesiest of the new subliterate dailies, though ever since the rise of Hitler, and long before anyone else in the press had the foresight or the wrath to take them on, fascists and anti-Semites had become his number one enemy. He'd already labeled as "ratzis" the German-American Bund and hounded its leader, Fritz Kuhn, over the air and in print as a secret foreign agent, and now—after FDR's joke, the Newark News editorial, and the thoroughgoing denunciation by PM—Walter Winchell had only to disclose Lindbergh's "pro-Nazi philosophy" to his thirty million Sunday-evening listeners and to call Lindbergh's presidential candidacy the greatest threat ever to American democracy for all the Jewish families on block-long little Summit Avenue to resemble once again Americans enjoying the vitality and high spirits of a secure, free, protected citizenry instead of casting themselves about outdoors in their nightclothes like inmates escaped from a lunatic asylum.
My brother was known throughout the neighborhood for being able to draw "anything"—a bike, a tree, a dog, a chair, a cartoon character like Li'l Abner—though his interest of late was in real faces. Kids were always gathering around to watch him wherever he would park himself after school with his large spiral pad and his mechanical pencil and begin to sketch the people nearby. Inevitably the onlookers would start to shout, "Draw him, draw her, draw me," and Sandy would take up the exhortation, if only to stop them from screaming in his ear. All the while his hand was working away, he'd look up, down, up, down—and behold, there lived so-and-so on a sheet of paper.What's the trick, they all asked him, how'd you do it, as if tracing—as if outright magic—might have played some part in the feat. Sandy's answer to all this pestering was a shrug or a smile: the trick to doing it was his being the quiet, serious, unostentatious boy that he was. Compelling attention wherever he went by turning out the likenesses people requested had seemingly no effect on the impersonal element at the core of his strength, the inborn modesty that was his toughness and that he later sidestepped at his peril.
At home, he was no longer copying illustrations from Collier's or photos from Look but studying from an art manual on the figure. He'd won the book in an Arbor Day poster contest for schoolkids that had coincided with a citywide tree-planting program administered by the Department of Parks and Public Property. There'd even been a ceremony where he'd shaken the hand of a Mr. Bannwart, who was superintendent of the Bureau of Shade Trees. The design of his winning poster was based on a red two-cent stamp in my collection commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Arbor Day. The stamp seemed to me especially beautiful because visible within each of its narrow, vertical white borders was a slender tree whose branches arched at the top to meet and form an arbor—and until the stamp became mine and I was able to examine through my magnifying glass its distinguishing marks, the meaning of "arbor" had been swallowed up in the familiar name of the holiday. (The small magnifying glass—along with an album for twenty-five hundred stamps, a stamp tweezers, a perforation gauge, gummed stamp hinges, and a black rubber dish called a watermark detector—had been a gift from my parents for my seventh birthday. For an additional ten cents they'd also bought me a small book of ninety-odd pages called The Stamp Collector's Handbook, where, under "How to Start a Stamp Collection," I'd read with fascination this sentence: "Old business files or private correspondence often contain stamps of discontinued issues which are of great value, so if you have any friends living in old houses who have accumulated material of this sort in their attics, try to obtain their old stamped envelopes and wrappers." We didn't have an attic, none of our friends living in flats and apartments had attics, but there'd been attics just beneath the roofs of the one-family houses in Union—from my seat in the back of the car I could see little attic windows at either end of each of the houses as we'd driven around the town on that terrible Saturday the year before, and so all I could think of when we got home in the afternoon were the old stamped envelopes and the embossed stamps on the prepaid newspaper wrappers secreted up in those attics and how I would now have no chance "to obtain" them because I was a Jew.)
The appeal of the Arbor Day commemorative stamp was greatly enhanced by its representing a human activity as opposed to a famous person's portrait or a picture of an important place—an activity, what's more, being performed by children: in the center of the stamp, a boy and a girl looking to be about ten or eleven are planting a young tree, the boy digging with a spade while the girl, supporting the trunk of the tree with one hand, holds it steadily in place over the hole. In Sandy's poster the boy and the girl are repositioned and stand on opposite sides of the tree, the boy is pictured as right-handed rather than left-handed, he wears long pants instead of knickers, and one of his feet is atop the blade pressing it into the ground. There is also a third child in Sandy's poster, a boy about my age, who is now the one wearing the knickers. He stands back and to the side of the sapling and holds ready a watering can—as I held one when I modeled for Sandy, clad in my best school knickers and high socks. Adding this child was my mother's idea, to help distinguish Sandy's artwork from that on the Arbor Day stamp—and protect him from the charge of "copying"—but also to provide the poster with a social content that implied a theme by no means common in 1940, not in poster art or anywhere else either, and that for reasons of "taste" might even have proved unacceptable to the judges.
The third child planting the tree was a Negro, and what encouraged my mother to suggest including him—aside from the desire to instill in her children the civic virtue of tolerance—was another stamp of mine, a brand-new ten-cent issue in the "educators group," five stamps that I'd purchased at the post office for a total
of twenty-one cents and paid for over the month of March out of my weekly allowance of a nickel. Above the central portrait, each stamp featured a picture of a lamp that the U.S. Post Office Department identified as the "Lamp of Knowledge" but that I thought of as Aladdin's lamp because of the boy in the Arabian Nights with the magic lamp and the ring and the two genies who give him whatever he asks for. What I would have asked for from a genie were the most coveted of all American stamps: first, the celebrated 1918 twenty-four-cent airmail, a stamp said to be worth $3,400, where the plane pictured at the center, the Army's Flying Jenny, is inverted; and after that, the three famous stamps in the Pan-American Exposition issue of 1901 that had also been mistakenly printed with inverted centers and were worth over a thousand dollars apiece.
On the green one-cent stamp in the educators group, just above the picture of the Lamp of Knowledge, was Horace Mann; on the red two-cent, Mark Hopkins; on the purple three-cent, Charles W. Eliot; on the blue four-cent, Frances E.Willard; on the brown ten-cent was Booker T. Washington, the first Negro to appear on an American stamp. I remember that after placing the Booker T. Washington in my album and showing my mother how it completed the set of five, I had asked her, "Do you think there'll ever be a Jew on a stamp?" and she replied, "Probably—someday, yes. I hope so, anyway." In fact, another twenty-six years had to pass, and it took Einstein to do it.
Sandy saved his weekly allowance of twenty-five cents—and what change he earned shoveling snow and raking leaves and washing the family car—until he had enough to bicycle to the stationery store on Clinton Avenue that carried art supplies and, over a period of months, to buy a charcoal pencil, then sandpaper blocks to sharpen the pencil, then charcoal paper, then the little tubular metal contraption he blew into to apply the fine fixative mist that prevented the charcoal from smudging. He had big bulldog clips, a masonite board, yellow Ticonderoga pencils, erasers, sketchpads, drawing paper—equipment that he stored in a grocery carton at the bottom of our bedroom closet and that my mother, when she was cleaning, wasn't permitted to disturb. His energetic meticulousness (passed on from our mother) and his breathtaking perseverance (passed on from our father) served only to magnify my awe of an older brother who everyone agreed was intended for great things, while most boys his age didn't look as though they were intended even to eat at a table with another human being. I was then the good child, obedient both at home and at school—the willfulness largely inactive and the attack set to go off at a later date—as yet altogether too young to know the potential of a rage of one's own. And nowhere was I less intransigent than with him.
For his twelfth birthday, Sandy had gotten a large, flat black portfolio made of hard cardboard that folded along a sewn seam and was secured at the top edge with two attached lengths of ribbon that he tied in a bow in order to fasten the leaves. The portfolio measured about two feet by a foot and a half, too big to fit into the drawers of our bedroom dresser or to be stacked upright against the wall in the crowded bedroom closet he and I shared. He was allowed to store it—along with his spiral sketchpads—laid out flat beneath his bed, and in it he saved the drawings he considered his best, beginning with his compositional masterwork of 1936, the ambitious picture of our mother pointing overhead at the Parisbound Spirit of St. Louis. Sandy had several large portraits of the heroic aviator, in both pencil and charcoal, stowed away in his portfolio. They were part of a series he was assembling of prominent Americans that concentrated primarily on those living eminences most revered by our parents, such as President and Mrs. Roosevelt, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, and the novelist Pearl Buck, who'd won the Nobel Prize in 1938 and whose picture he copied from the jacket of one of her bestsellers. A number of drawings in the portfolio were of family members, and of those at least half were of our sole surviving grandparent, our paternal grandmother, who, on the Sundays when my uncle Monty brought her around to visit, would sometimes serve Sandy as a model. Under the sway of the word "venerable," he drew every wrinkle he could find in her face and every gnarl in her arthritic fingers while—as dutifully as she'd scrubbed floors on her knees all her life and cooked for a family of nine on a coal stove—tiny, sturdy Grandma sat in the kitchen and "posed."
We were alone together in the house only a few days after the Winchell broadcast when Sandy removed the portfolio from under his bed and carried it into the dining room. There he opened it out on the table (reserved for entertaining the Boss and celebrating special family occasions) and carefully lifted the Lindbergh portraits from the tracing paper protecting each drawing and lined them up on the tabletop. In the first, Lindbergh was wearing his leather flying cap with the loose straps dangling over each ear; in the second, the cap was partially hidden beneath large heavy goggles pushed up from his eyes and onto his forehead; in the third, he was bareheaded, nothing to mark him as an aviator other than the uncompromising gaze out to the distant horizon. To gauge the value of this man, as Sandy had rendered him, wasn't difficult. A virile hero. A courageous adventurer. A natural person of gigantic strength and rectitude combined with a powerful blandness. Anything but a frightening villain or a menace to mankind.
"He's going to be president," Sandy told me. "Alvin says Lindbergh's going to win."
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
"Alvin's going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army," he said. "He's going to fight for the British against Hitler."
"But nobody can beat Roosevelt," I said.
"Lindbergh's going to. America's going to go fascist."
Then we just stood there together under the intimidating spell of the three portraits. Never before had being seven felt like such a serious deficiency.
"Don't tell anybody I've got these," he said.
"But Mom and Dad saw them already," I said. "They've seen them all. Everybody has."
"I told them I tore them up."
There was nobody more truthful than my brother. He wasn't quiet because he was secretive and deceitful but because he never bothered to behave badly and so had nothing to hide. But now something external had transformed the meaning of these drawings, making them into what they were not, and so he'd told our parents that he'd destroyed them, making himself into what he was not.
"Suppose they find them," I said.
"How will they do that?" he asked.
"I don't know."
"Right," he said. "You don't. Just keep your little trap shut and
nobody'll find anything."
I did as he told me for many reasons, one being that the thirdoldest U.S. postage stamp I owned—which I couldn't possibly tear up and throw away—was a ten-cent airmail issued in 1927 to commemorate Lindbergh's transatlantic flight. It was a blue stamp, about twice as long as it was high, whose central design, a picture of the Spirit of St. Louis flying eastward over the ocean, had provided Sandy with the model for the plane in the drawing celebrating his conception. Adjacent to the white border at the left of the stamp is the coastline of North America, with the words "New York" jutting out into the Atlantic, and adjacent to the border at the right the coastlines of Ireland, Great Britain, and France, with the word "Paris" at the end of a dotted arc that charts the flight path between the two cities. At the top of the stamp, directly beneath the white letters that boldly spell out united states postage are the words lindbergh–air mail in slightly smaller type but large enough certainly to be read by a seven-year-old with perfect vision. The stamp was already valued at twenty cents by Scott's Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue, and what I immediately realized was that its worth would only continue increasing (and so rapidly as to become my single most valuable possession) if Alvin was right and the worst happened.
On the sidewalk during the long vacation months we played a new game called "I Declare War," using a cheap rubber ball and a piece of chalk. With the chalk you drew a circle some five or six feet in diameter, partitioned it into as many pielike segments as there were players, and chalked into each the name of one of various foreign countries that had been in the news throughout the year. Next, each player picked "his" country and stood straddling the edge of the circle, one foot inside and one out, so that when the time came he could flee in a hurry. Meanwhile a designated player, holding the ball aloft in his hand, announced slowly, in an ominous cadence, "I—declare—war—on—" There was a suspenseful pause, and then the kid declaring war would slam the ball down, in the same instant shouting "Germany!" or "Japan!" or "Holland!" or "Italy!" or "Belgium!" or "England!" or "China!"—sometimes even shouting "America!"—and everybody would take off except the one on whom the surprise attack had been launched. His job was to catch the ball on the bounce as quickly as he could and call "Stop!" Everybody now allied against him would have to freeze in place, and the victim country would begin the counterattack, trying to eliminate one aggressor country at a time by walloping each as hard as he could with the ball, beginning by throwing at those closest to him and advancing his position with each murderous thwack.
We played this game incessantly. Until it rained and temporarily the names of the countries were washed away, people had to either step on them or step over them when they made their way down the street. In our neighborhood there was no other graffiti to speak of in those days, just this, the remnants of the hieroglyphics of our simple street games. Harmless enough, and yet it drove some of the mothers crazy who had to hear us at it for hours on end through their open windows. "Can't you kids do something else? Can't you find another game to play?" But we couldn't—declaring war was all we thought about too.
On July 18, 1940, the Democratic Convention meeting in Chicago overwhelmingly nominated FDR for a third term on the first ballot. We listened on the radio to his acceptance speech, delivered with the confidently intoned upper-class enunciation that, for close to eight years now, had inspired millions of ordinary families like ours to remain hopeful in the midst of hardship. There was something about the inherent decorum of the delivery that, alien though it was, not only calmed our anxiety but bestowed on our family a historical significance, authoritatively merging our lives with his as well as with that of the entire nation when he addressed us in our living room as his "fellow citizens." That Americans could choose Lindbergh—that Americans could choose anybody —rather than the two-term president whose voice alone conveyed mastery over the tumult of human affairs . . . well, that was unthinkable, and certainly so for a little American like me who'd never known a presidential voice other than his. Some six weeks later, on the Saturday before Labor Day, Lindbergh surprised the country by failing to appear at the Detroit Labor Day parade, where he had been scheduled to launch his campaign with a motorcade through the working-class heartland of isolationist America (and the anti-Semitic stronghold of Father Coughlin and Henry Ford), and by arriving unannounced instead at the Long Island airfield from which his spectacular transatlantic flight had begun thirteen years before. The Spirit of St. Louis had been secretly trucked in under a tarp and stored overnight in a remote hangar, though by the time Lindbergh taxied the plane onto the field the next morning, every wire service in America and every radio station and newspaper in New York had a reporter on hand to witness the takeoff, westward this time across America to California rather than eastward across the Atlantic to Europe.
Of course, by 1940, commercial air service had been hauling transcontinental freight, passengers, and mail for more than a decade, and doing so largely as a result of the incentive of Lindbergh's solo feat and his industrious efforts as a million-dollar-a-year consultant to the newly organized airlines. But it wasn't the wealthy advocate of commercial aviation who was launching his campaign that day, nor was it the Lindbergh who had been decorated in Berlin by the Nazis, nor the Lindbergh who, in a nationwide radio broadcast, had blamed overly influential Jews for attempting to drive the country into war, nor was it even the stoical father of the infant kidnapped and killed by Bruno Hauptmann in 1932. It was rather the unknown airmail pilot who'd dared to do what had never been done by any aviator before him, the adored Lone Eagle, boyish and unspoiled still, despite the years of phenomenal fame. On the holiday weekend that closed out the summer of 1940, Lindbergh came nowhere near besting the record time for a coast-to-coast nonstop flight that he'd himself set a decade back with an aircraft more advanced than the old Spirit of St. Louis. Nonetheless, when he arrived at Los Angeles Airport, a crowd consisting largely of aircraft workers—tens of thousands of them, employed by the big new manufacturers in and around L.A.—was as overcome with enthusiasm as any ever to greet him anywhere.
The Democrats called the flight a publicity gimmick stage-managed by Lindbergh's staff, when in fact the decision to fly to California had been made only hours earlier by Lindbergh alone and not by the professionals who had been assigned by the Republican Party to steer the political novice through his first political campaign and who, like everyone else, had been expecting him to turn up in Detroit.
His speech was unadorned and to the point, delivered in a highpitched, flat, midwestern, decidedly un-Rooseveltian American voice. His flight outfit of high boots and jodhpurs and a lightweight jumper worn over a shirt and tie was a replica of the one in which he'd crossed the Atlantic, and he spoke without removing his leather headgear or flight goggles, which were pushed up onto his forehead exactly as Sandy had them positioned in the charcoal drawing hidden beneath his bed.
"My intention in running for the presidency," he told the raucous crowd, once they had stopped chanting his name, "is to preserve American democracy by preventing America from taking part in another world war. Your choice is simple. It's not between Charles A. Lindbergh and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's between Lindbergh and war."
That was the whole of it—forty-one words, if you included the A for Augustus.
After a shower and a snack and an hour's nap there at the L.A. airport, the candidate climbed back into the Spirit of St. Louis and flew to San Francisco. By nightfall he was in Sacramento. And wherever he landed in California that day, it was as though the country hadn't known the stock market crash and the miseries of the Depression (or the triumphs of FDR, for that matter), as though even the war he was there to prevent us from entering hadn't so much as crossed anyone's mind. Lindy flew down out of the sky in his famous plane, and it was 1927 all over again. It was Lindy all over again, straight-talking Lindy, who had never to look or to sound superior, who simply was superior—fearless Lindy, at once youthful and gravely mature, the rugged individualist, the legendary American man's man who gets the impossible done by relying solely on himself.
Over the next month and a half he proceeded to spend one full day in each of the forty-eight states, until in late October he made his way back to the Long Island runway from which he'd taken off on Labor Day weekend. Throughout the daylight hours he would hop from one city, town, or village to the next, landing on highways if there was no nearby airstrip and setting down and taking off from a stretch of pasture when he flew to talk with farmers and their families in the remotest of America's rural counties. His airfield remarks were broadcast over local and regional radio stations, and several times a week, from the state capital where he was spending the night, he broadcast a message to the nation. It was always succinct and went like this: To prevent a war in Europe is now too late. But it is not too late to prevent America from taking part in that war. FDR is misleading the nation. America will be carried to war by a president who falsely promises peace. The choice is simple. Vote for Lindbergh or vote for war. As a young pilot in aviation's early, novelty days, Lindbergh, along with an older, more experienced sidekick, had entertained crowds throughout the Midwest by skydiving in a parachute or walking out parachuteless onto the plane's wing, and the Democrats were now quick to belittle his barnstorming in the Spirit of St. Louis by likening it to these stunts. At press conferences, Roosevelt no longer bothered to make a derisive quip when questioned by newsmen about the unorthodox Lindbergh campaign, but simply moved on to discuss Churchill's fear of an imminent German invasion of Britain or to announce that he would be asking Congress to fund the first American peacetime draft or to remind Hitler that the United States would not tolerate any interference with the transatlantic aid our merchant vessels were supplying to the British war effort.
It was clear from the start that the president's campaign was to consist of remaining in the White House, where, in contrast to what Secretary Ickes labeled Lindbergh's "carnival antics," he planned to address the hazards of the international situation with all the authority at his command, working round the clock if necessary. Twice during the state-by-state tour, Lindbergh was lost in bad weather and each time several hours passed before radio contact with him was reestablished and he was able to let the country know that all was well. But then in October, on the very day Americans were stunned to learn that in the latest of the destructive night raids on London the Germans had bombed St. Paul's Cathedral, a news flash at dinnertime reported that the Spirit of St. Louis had been seen to explode in the air over the Alleghenies and plummet to the earth in flames. This time it was six long hours before a second flash corrected the first with the news that it was engine trouble and not a midair explosion that had forced Lindbergh to make an emergency landing on treacherous terrain in the mountains of western Pennsylvania. Before the emendation was aired, however, our phone rang continuously—friends and relatives calling to speculate with our parents on the initial account of the fiery and probably fatal accident. In front of Sandy and me our parents said nothing to indicate relief at the prospect of Lindbergh's death, though neither did they say that they hoped it wasn't so nor were they among the jubilant when, around eleven that night, word came through that, far from having gone down in flames, the Lone Eagle had emerged safely from the undamaged plane and was waiting only for a replacement part so as to take off and resume his campaign.
On the October morning that Lindbergh landed at Newark Airport, among the entourage waiting to welcome him to New Jersey was Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf of B'nai Moshe, the first of the city's Conservative temples, organized by Polish Jews. B'nai Moshe was a few blocks from the heart of the old pushcart ghetto, still the city's poorest district though home no longer to B'nai Moshe's congregants but to a community of impoverished Negroes, recent migrants from the South. For years B'nai Moshe had been losing out in the competition for the well-to-do; by 1940, these families had either left Conservatism and affiliated themselves to the Reform congregations of B'nai Jeshurun and Oheb Shalom—each planted impressively amid the old mansions on High Street—or joined the other long-established Conservative temple, B'nai Abraham, located several miles west of where it had been originally housed in a former Baptist church and adjacent now to the homes of the Jewish doctors and lawyers living in Clinton Hill. The new B'nai Abraham was the most splendid of the city's temples, a circular building austerely designed in what was called "the Greek style" and vast enough to hold a thousand worshipers on the High Holidays.
Joachim Prinz, an émigré expelled from Berlin by Hitler's Gestapo, had replaced the retiring Julius Silberfeld as the temple's rabbi the year before and was already emerging as a forceful man with a broad social outlook who offered his prosperous congregants a perspective on Jewish history marked strongly by his own recent experience at the bloody scene of the Nazi crime. Rabbi Bengelsdorf's sermons were broadcast weekly over station WNJR to the hoi polloi he called his "radio congregation," and he was the author of several books of inspirational poetry routinely given as gifts to bar mitzvah boys and newlyweds. He'd been born in South Carolina in 1879, the son of an immigrant dry goods merchant, and whenever he addressed a Jewish audience, whether from the pulpit or over the air, his courtly southern accent, along with his sonorous cadences—and the cadences of his own multisyllabic name—left an impression of dignified profundity. On the subject, for instance, of his friendship with Rabbi Silberfeld of B'nai Abraham and Rabbi Foster of B'nai Jeshurun, he once told his radio audience, "It was fated: just as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle belonged together in the ancient world, so we belong together in the religious world." And the homily on selflessness that he proffered to explain to radio listeners why a rabbi of his standing was content to stay on at the head of a waning congregation, he introduced by saying, "Perhaps you will be interested in my answer to questions that have been asked of me by literally thousands of people.
Why do you renounce the commercial benefits of a peripatetic ministry? Why do you choose to remain in Newark, at Temple B'nai Moshe, as your only pulpit, when you have six opportunities every day to leave it for other congregations?" He had studied at the great institutions of learning in Europe as well as at American universities and was reputed to speak ten languages; to be versed in classical philosophy, theology, art history, and ancient and modern history; to never compromise on questions of principle; to never refer to notes at the lectern or on a lecture platform; to never be without a set of index cards pertaining to the topics most engaging him at the moment, to which he added new reflections and impressions every day. He was also an excellent equestrian, known to bring his horse to a halt so as to jot down a thought, employing his saddle as a makeshift desk. Early each morning, he exercised by riding out along the bridle paths of Weequahic Park, accompanied—until her death from cancer in 1936—by his wife, the heiress to Newark's wealthiest jewelry manufacturer. Her family mansion on Elizabeth Avenue, where the couple had been living just across from the park since their marriage in 1907, housed a treasury of
Judaica said to be among the most valuable private collections in the world.
By 1940 Lionel Bengelsdorf claimed the longest record of service at his own temple of any rabbi in America. The newspapers referred to him as the religious leader of New Jersey Jewry and, in reporting on his numerous public appearances, invariably mentioned his "gift for oratory" along with the ten languages. In 1915, at the 250th anniversary celebration of the founding of Newark, he had sat at the side of Mayor Raymond and delivered the invocation just as he delivered invocations annually at the parades for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July: rabbi exalts declaration of independence was a headline that appeared annually in the Star-Ledger every July fifth. In his sermons and talks calling "the development of American ideals" the first priority of Jews and "the Americanization of Americans" the best means to preserve our democracy against "Bolshevism, radicalism, and anarchism, "he frequently quoted from Theodore Roosevelt's final message to the nation, in which the late president said, "There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag."
Rabbi Bengelsdorf had spoken on the Americanization of Americans in every Newark church and public school, before most every fraternal, civic, historical, and cultural group in the state, and news articles in the Newark papers about his speeches were datelined with the names of scores of cities around the country to which he'd been called to address conferences and conventions on that theme as well as on issues ranging from crime and the prison reform movement—"The prison reform movement is saturated with the highest ethical principles and religious ideals"—to the causes of the World War—"The war is the result of the worldly ambitions of the European peoples and their effort to reach the goals of military greatness, power, and wealth"—to the importance of day nurseries—"The nurseries are life gardens of human flowers in which each child is helped to grow in an atmosphere of joy and gladness"—to the evils of the industrial age—"We believe that the worth of the workingman is not to be computed by the material value of his production"—to the suffrage movement, whose proposal to extend to women the franchise to vote he strongly opposed, arguing that "if men are not capable of handling the business of the state, why not help them become so. No evil has ever been cured by doubling it." My uncle Monty, who hated all rabbis but had an especially venomous loathing of Bengelsdorf dating back to his childhood as a charity student in the B'nai Moshe religious school, liked to say of him, "The pompous son of a bitch knows everything—it's too bad he doesn't know anything else."
Rabbi Bengelsdorf's appearance at the airport—where, according to the caption beneath the photograph on the front page of the Newark News, he stood first in line to shake Lindbergh's hand when he emerged from the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis—was a source of consternation to great numbers of the city's Jews, my parents among them, as was the quotation attributed to him in the paper's account of Lindbergh's brief visit. "I am here," Rabbi Bengelsdorf told the News, "to crush all doubt of the unadulterated loyalty of the American Jews to the United States of America. I offer my support to the candidacy of Colonel Lindbergh because the political objectives of my people are identical with his. America is our beloved homeland. America is our only homeland. Our religion is independent of any piece of land other than this great country, to which, now as always, we commit our total devotion and allegiance as the proudest of citizens. I want Charles Lindbergh to be my president not in spite of my being a Jew but because I am a Jew—an American Jew."
Three days later, Bengelsdorf participated in the huge rally held at Madison Square Garden to mark the end of Lindbergh's flying tour. By then the election was but two weeks away, and though there appeared to be growing Lindbergh support among voters throughout the traditionally Democratic South, and close contests were predicted in the most conservative midwestern states, national polls showed the president comfortably ahead in the popular vote and well ahead in electoral votes. Republican Party leaders were reported to be in despair over their candidate's stubborn refusal to allow anyone other than himself to determine the strategy of his campaign, and so, to draw him out of the repetitious austerity of his interminable barnstorming and envelop him in an atmosphere more like that of the boisterous Philadelphia nominating convention, the Madison Square Garden rally was organized and broadcast nationwide on the evening of the second Monday in October.
The fifteen speakers introducing Lindbergh that night were described as "prominent Americans from all walks of life." Among them was a farm leader to talk about the harm a war would do to American farming, which was in crisis still from the First World War and the Depression; a labor leader to talk about the disaster a war would represent for American workers, whose lives would be regimented by government agencies; a manufacturer to talk about the catastrophic long-term consequences for American industry of wartime overexpansion and onerous taxation; a Protestant clergyman to talk about the brutalizing effect of modern warfare on the young men who would be doing the fighting; and a Catholic priest to talk about the inevitable deterioration of the spiritual life of a peace-loving nation like our own and the destruction of decency and kindness because of the hatred bred by war. Lastly there was a rabbi, New Jersey's Lionel Bengelsdorf, who received an especially hearty welcome from the full house of Lindbergh supporters when his turn came to take the lectern and who was there to expatiate on how Lindbergh's association with the Nazis was anything but complicitous.
"Yep," Alvin said, "they bought him. The fix is in. They slipped a gold ring through his big Jew nose, and now they can lead him anywhere."
"You don't know that, "my father said, but not because he wasn't himself steamed up by Bengelsdorf 's behavior. "Listen to the man," he told Alvin, "give the man a hearing. It's only fair"—words uttered largely for Sandy's benefit and mine, to keep the startling turn of events from seeming as terrible to the two of us as it did to the adults. The night before, I had fallen onto the floor in my sleep, something that hadn't happened since I'd first graduated from a crib to a bed and to prevent me from rolling out of it my parents had to set a pair of kitchen chairs at the side of the mattress. When it was assumed automatically that my falling like that after all these years could only have had to do with Lindbergh's showing up at Newark Airport, I insisted that I didn't remember a bad dream about Lindbergh, that I just remembered waking up on the floor between my brother's bed and mine, even though I happened to know that I virtually never got to sleep any longer without envisioning the Lindbergh drawings stashed away in my brother's portfolio. I kept wanting to ask Sandy if he couldn't hide them in our cellar storage bin instead of under the bed beside mine, but because I'd sworn not to speak about the drawings to anyone—and because I couldn't bring myself to part with my own Lindbergh stamp—I didn't dare to raise them as an issue, though they were indeed haunting me and rendering unapproachable the brother whose reassurance I'd never needed more. It was a cold evening. The heat was on and the windows were closed, but even without being able to hear them you knew that radios were playing up and down the block and that families who wouldn't otherwise consider listening to a Lindbergh rally were tuned in because of the scheduled appearance there of Rabbi Bengelsdorf. Among his own congregants, a few important people had already begun to call for his resignation, if not for his immediate removal by the temple's board of trustees, while the majority continuing to support him tried to believe that their rabbi was merely exercising his democratic right of free speech and that, horrified though they were by his public endorsement of Lindbergh, to attempt to silence a conscience as renowned as his did not fall within their rights.
That night Rabbi Bengelsdorf disclosed to America what he claimed to be the true motive behind Lindbergh's personal flying missions to Germany in the 1930s. "Contrary to the propaganda disseminated by his critics," the rabbi informed us, "he did not once visit Germany as a sympathizer or a supporter of Hitler's but rather he traveled each and every time as a secret adviser to the U.S. government. Far from his betraying America, as the misguided and the ill-intentioned continue to charge, Colonel Lindbergh has almost single-handedly served to strengthen America's military preparedness by imparting his knowledge to our own military and by doing everything within his power to advance the cause of American aviation and to expand America's air defenses."
"Jesus!" cried my father. "Everybody knows—"
"Shhh," whispered Alvin, "shhh—let the great orator speak."
"Yes, in 1936, long before the beginning of the European hostilities, the Nazis awarded Colonel Lindbergh a medal, and, yes," continued Bengelsdorf, "yes, the colonel accepted their medal. But all the while, my friends, all the while secretly exploiting their admiration in order better to protect and preserve our democracy and to preserve our neutrality through strength."
"I cannot believe—"my father began.
"Try,"muttered Alvin evilly.
"This is not America's war," Bengelsdorf announced, and the crowd at Madison Square Garden responded with a full minute of applause. "This," the rabbi told them, "is Europe's war." Again sustained applause. "It is one of a thousand-year-long sequence of European wars dating back to the time of Charlemagne. It is their second devastating war in less than half a century. And can anyone forget the tragic cost to America of their last great war? Forty thousand Americans killed in action. A hundred and ninety-two thousand Americans wounded. Seventy-six thousand Americans dead of disease. Three hundred and fifty thousand Americans on disability today because of their participation in that war. And just how astronomical will the price be this time? The number of our dead—tell me, President Roosevelt, will it be merely doubled or tripled or will it perhaps be quadrupled? Tell me, Mr. President, what sort of America will the massive slaughter of innocent American boys leave in its wake? Of course, the Nazi harassment and persecution of its German Jewish population is a cause of enormous anguish to me as it is to every Jew. During the years I was studying theology with the faculties of the great German universities in Heidelberg and in Bonn, I made many distinguished friends there, great men of learning who, today, simply because they are Germans of Jewish extraction, have been dismissed from long-held scholarly positions and are being ruthlessly persecuted by the Nazi hoodlums who have taken command of their homeland. I oppose their treatment with every ounce of my strength, and so too does Colonel Lindbergh oppose their treatment. But how will this cruel fate that has befallen them in their own land be alleviated by our great country going to war with their tormentors? If anything, the predicament of all of Germany's Jews would only worsen immeasurably —worsen, I fear, tragically. Yes, I am a Jew, and as a Jew feel their suffering with a familial sharpness. But I am an American citizen, my friends"—again the applause—"I am an American born and raised, and so I ask you, how would my pain be lessened if America were now to enter the war and, along with the sons of our Protestant families and the sons of our Catholic families, the sons of our Jewish families were to fight and die by the tens of thousands on a blood-soaked European battleground? How would my pain be diminished by my having to console my very own congregants—"
It was my mother, usually the least ardent member of our family, the one ordinarily quieting the rest of us when we turned demonstrative, who all at once found the sound of Bengelsdorf 's southern accent so intolerable that she had to leave the room. But until he finished his speech and was loudly cheered off the stage by the Garden audience, no one else moved or said another word. I wouldn't dare to, and my brother was preoccupied—as he often was in such a setting—with sketching what we all looked like, now while listening to the radio. Alvin's was the silence of murderous loathing, and my father—divested for perhaps the first time in his life of that relentless passion he brought to the struggle against setback and disappointment—was too stirred up to speak. Pandemonium. Unspeakable delight. Lindbergh had at last stepped onto the Garden stage, and like someone half demented, my father leaped from the sofa and snapped off the radio just as my mother came back into the living room and asked, "Who would like something? Alvin," she said, with tears in her eyes, "a cup of tea?"
Her job was to hold our world together as calmly and as sensibly as she could; that was what gave her life fullness and that was all she was trying to do, and yet never had any of us seen her rendered so ridiculous by this commonplace maternal ambition.
"What the hell is going on!"my father began to shout. "What the hell did he do that for? That stupid speech! Does he think that one single Jew is now going to go out and vote for this anti-Semite because of that stupid, lying speech? Has he completely lost his mind? What does this man think he is doing?"
"Koshering Lindbergh," Alvin said. "Koshering Lindbergh for the goyim."
"Koshering what?" my father said, exasperated with Alvin's seemingly speaking sarcastic nonsense at a moment of so much confusion. "Doing what?"
"They didn't get him up there to talk to Jews. They didn't buy him off for that. Don't you understand?" Alvin asked, fiery now with what he took to be the underlying truth. "He's up there talking to the goyim—he's giving the goyim all over the country his personal rabbi's permission to vote for Lindy on Election Day. Don't you see, Uncle Herman, what they got the great Bengelsdorf to do? He just guaranteed Roosevelt's defeat!"
At about two a.m. that night, while soundly asleep, I again rolled out of my bed, but this time I remembered afterward what I'd been dreaming before I hit the floor. It was a nightmare all right, and it was about my stamp collection. Something had happened to it. The design on two sets of my stamps had changed in a dreadful way without my knowing when or how. In the dream, I'd gotten the album out of my dresser drawer to take with me to my friend Earl's and I was walking with it toward his house as I'd done dozens of times before.
Earl Axman was ten and in the fifth grade. He lived with his mother in the new four-story yellow-brick apartment house built three years earlier on the large empty lot near the corner of Chancellor and Summit, diagonally across from the grade school. Before that he'd lived in New York. His father was a musician with the Glen Gray Casa Loma Orchestra—Sy Axman, who played tenor saxophone beside Glen Gray's alto. Mr. Axman was divorced from Earl's mother, a theatrically good-looking blonde who'd briefly been a singer with the band before Earl was born and, according to my parents, was originally from Newark and a brunette, a Jewish girl named Louise Swig who'd gone to South Side and became famous locally in musical revues at the YMHA. Among all the boys I knew, Earl was the only child with divorced parents, and the only one whose mother wore heavy makeup and off-the-shoulder blouses and billowing ruffled skirts with a big petticoat underneath. She'd also made a record of the song "Gotta Be This or That" when she was with Glen Gray, and Earl played it for me often. I never came upon another mother like her. Earl didn't call her Ma or Mom—he called her, scandalously, Louise. She had a closet in her bedroom full of those petticoats, and when Earl and I were alone together at his house, he'd show them to me. He even let me touch one once, whispering, while I waited to decide whether to do it, "Wherever you want." Then he opened a drawer and showed me her brassieres and offered to let me touch one of those, but that I declined. I was still young enough to admire a brassiere from afar. His parents each gave him a full dollar a week to spend on stamps, and when the Casa Loma Orchestra wasn't playing in New York and was out touring, Mr. Axman sent Earl envelopes with airmail stamps postmarked from cities everywhere. There was even one from "Honolulu, Oahu," where Earl, who wasn't above cloaking his absent father in splendor—as though to the son of an insurance agent having a saxophonist with a famous swing band for a father (and a peroxideblond singer for a mother) weren't amazing enough—claimed that Mr. Axman had been taken to a "private home" to see the canceled two-cent Hawaiian "Missionary" stamp of 1851, issued forty-seven full years before Hawaii was annexed to the United States as a territory, an unimaginable treasure valued at $100,000 whose central design was just the numeral 2.
Earl owned the best stamp collection around. He taught me everything practical and everything esoteric that I learned as a small kid about stamps—about their history, about collecting mint versus used, about technical matters like paper, printing, color, gum, overprints, grills, and special printing, about the great forgeries and design errors—and, prodigious pedant that he was, had begun my education by telling me about the French collector Monsieur Herpin, who coined the word "philately," explaining its derivation from two Greek words, the second of which, ateleia, meaning freedom from tax, never quite made sense to me. And whenever we'd finished up in his kitchen with our stamps and he was momentarily done with his domineering, he'd giggle and say, "Now let's do something awful," which was how I got to see his mother's underwear.
In the dream, I was walking to Earl's with my stamp album clutched to my chest when someone shouted my name and began chasing me. I ducked into an alleyway and scurried back into one of the garages to hide and to check the album for stamps that might have come loose from their hinges when, while fleeing my pursuer, I'd stumbled and dropped the album at the very spot on the sidewalk where we regularly played "I Declare War." When I opened to my 1932 Washington Bicentennials—twelve stamps ranging in denomination from the half-cent dark brown to the ten-cent yellow—I was stunned. Washington wasn't on the stamps anymore. Unchanged at the top of each stamp—lettered in what I'd learned to recognize as white-faced roman and spaced out on either one or two lines—was the legend "United States Postage." The colors of the stamps were unchanged as well—the two-cent red, the five-cent blue, the eight-cent olive green, and so on—all the stamps were the same regulation size, and the frames for the portraits remained individually designed as they were in the original set, but instead of a different portrait of Washington on each of the twelve stamps, the portraits were now the same and no longer of Washington but of Hitler. And on the ribbon beneath each portrait, there was no longer the name "Washington" either. Whether the ribbon was curved downward as on the one-half-cent stamp and the six, or curved upward as on the four, the five, the seven, and the ten, or straight with raised ends as on the one, the one and a half, the two, the three, the eight, and the nine, the name lettered across the ribbon was "Hitler."
It was when I looked next at the album's facing page to see what, if anything, had happened to my 1934 National Parks set of ten that I fell out of the bed and woke up on the floor, this time screaming. Yosemite in California, Grand Canyon in Arizona, Mesa Verde in Colorado, Crater Lake in Oregon, Acadia in Maine, Mount Rainier
in Washington, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Zion in Utah, Glacier in Montana, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee—and across the face of each, across the cliffs, the woods, the rivers, the peaks, the geyser, the gorges, the granite coastline, across the deep blue water and the high waterfalls, across everything in America that was the bluest and the greenest and the whitest and to be preserved forever in these pristine reservations, was printed a black swastika.
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