by Michael Elihu Colby
Part 7: A Mazel Tov from Robert F. Kennedy
People are surprised when I tell them my bar mitzvah celebration did NOT take place at the Algonquin. But let’s be honest. The first words that jump to mind after you say “bar mitzvah” aren’t “The Algonquin Hotel.” So please accept the first of several apologies in this chapter when I admit I’ll be focusing on other matters than the Algonquin as I describe the details of my bar mitzvah (albeit the hotel plays a major role).
The date of my bar mitzvah was October 24, 1964 at the Conservative Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst, Long Island. This was a great time for the event, a month after Fiddler On the Roof had opened on Broadway (September 22), when having your band playing “Sunrise Sunset” was still a fresh novelty.
Frankly, I feared that few of my friends (who were few to begin with) would attend. You see, I was not part of our class’s in-crowd. I was part of a B-circle of less popular and prominent students. Even within that B-circle, I faced a major problem. A classmate with many of the same friends as me, Robert Finkel, was having his bar mitzvah on the very day of mine. Moreover, Robert Finkel was comparatively cool and athletic, plus an expert on sports (he wanted to be a sports broadcaster). He bordered on the A-circle.
How could I compete with Robert in coaxing people to attend my event? I was the last kid chosen on a sports team (classmates would say “Can’t we just skip him?”). I was teased for being physically immature (my voice wouldn’t change for a few years, and even then you’d hardly notice). I was a target of bullying on the lunch line (by no less than John Burstein—who grew up to be the jolly “Slim Goodbody” on the Captain Kangaroo TV show).
Despite having attended Woodmere Academy since kindergarten, I had NEVER been one of the in-crowd at the school. There weren’t that many kids at Woodmere Academy who shared my main interests: Broadway musicals and DC comic books. The comic book fixation may have made me seem extra geeky. By the age of 12, I subscribed to Variety (the show biz trade paper) and various DC comic books. My most prized bar mitzvah gift was a copy of the first issue of Batman, not exactly what you imagine in terms of Jewish studies, even if its creator Bob Kane was a member of the tribe.
Stilll, my love of comic books did result in one abiding friendship: with my classmate Peter Meyer. Peter often visited my house to peruse my voluminous comic collection. I visited his house too, bringing along a batch of my latest editions. Peter had a very serene home—and compared to mine (where my parents were fighting again), a comforting one—with exceptionally calm parents and a cheerleader sister. Unfortunately, I botched even that friendship the day Peter insisted on playing a game he’d invented, a William Tell-style type of darts. Peter had us take turns throwing tiny metal darts at a target right over our heads. After he’d successfully missed my head, I begged Peter, “Please don’t make me do it, don’t make me do it, I’m a klutz!” He said, “Oh just try it once—you can do it from up close where the dart will have to miss me.” Peter was wrong—I threw the dart smack into the middle of his forehead: a mishap for which no apologies would suffice. Fortunately, it was a superficial wound and Peter recovered to brave it to my bar mitzvah. But we weren’t as likely to get together after that—especially with sharp objects around. And I refused to try archery with anyone!
Flash forward decades later: Peter’s cheerleader sister became recognized by her married name, Elizabeth Glaser. This heroic woman founded the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation after she and her daughter terminally contracted AIDS during a hospital transfusion when she was pregnant with Ariel. She achieved milestones in her short life. Today I feel deeply privileged to have known the family. But no one could have envisioned this bittersweet future when, as I child, I visited the Meyer home.
Back in 1964, one could only hope my bar mitzvah skills surpassed my expertise at darts. I had been slow in learning my particularly long haftarah (the portion of the bible I’d be chanting). I didn’t want to be an embarrassment to my family who were inviting relatives from Charleston, friends from Beverly Hills, and many regulars from the Algonquin. The invitation list included jazz greats, Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, as well as Charleston’s former Governor Ernest (Fritz) Hollings. A Monsignor from Charleston, a friend of my grandparents, would be attending—the first bar mitzvah he’d witness in his many decades of religious ceremonies. Also on the list was Jane Wyman, the Oscar winner and ex-wife of Ronald Reagan who was staying at the hotel at the time.
Rather than being intimidated, I utilized this motley list like a showman touting marquee names to entice people to my event. In retrospect, it was somewhat gauche to act like P.T. Barnum, promoting my bar mitzvah to my classmates. And I apologize to Robert Finkel for such a sneaky strategy. But ultimately our turnouts were quite evenly divided (from a class of approximately 25 students). The Lord had worked in beneficent ways.
My reception would be not at the Algonquin, but at the Middle Bay Country Club—Oceanside, Long Island—where the Colbys were members. But the Algonquin Hotel too teemed with relatives and out-of-town guests.
Grandma Mary, something of a one-woman ticket agency, had her hands full since out-of-towners wanted tickets to the current Broadway hits. Shows included Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Hello, Dolly! (whose scenic designer Oliver Smith had redecorated the Algonquin’s lobby and Rose Room), A Case of Libel (based on family friend Louis Nizer’s My Life In Court), and especially the newly opened Fiddler On the Roof. Most of our family history mirrored the Jews in “Fiddler” who’d fled Cossacks and European shtetls in the early 20th Century heading for America. Someone with an even closer association to the musical was a guest from Washington DC, Grandma’s cousin Earl Mazo. Earl Mazo’s sister, Frances Mazo Butwin, wrote the English translations of the works of Sholem Alecheim, including the story “Tevye’s Daughters”—the basis of Fiddler On the Roof. Earl was equally well known as a biographer of Richard Nixon and political correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times. He wrote articles attempting to prove that Nixon had beaten John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, detailing how the election “was stolen [by Democrats] in Chicago and in Texas.” 1 Nixon himself interceded, asking Mazo “to stop writing his series because the country couldn’t afford a constitutional crisis at the height of the Cold War.” 2 Mazo told the Washington Post, “I thought he was kidding, but he was serious. … I looked at him and thought, ‘He’s a goddamn fool.’” 3 Earl was devastated, years later, when it was Nixon who was exposed—during Watergate—as the less than honorable President. Nixon would be forced to flee his quarters faster than Tevye and his daughters.
In years ahead, I—like Earl Mazo—would have my own personal connections to Fiddler On the Roof. Amusingly, in my 1969 Woodmere Academy graduation yearbook, it’s predicted that at a hypothetical 10-year class reunion: “Maida [our class’s outstanding singer and actress] is presently starring in Fiddler on the Roof which Michael C., who reviewed the show for Variety, thinks is a real smash.” 4 Maida Horn and I did reunite after high school when I asked her to appear in a reading of my musicalization of Jean Anouilh’s Time Remembered (a play I first read in my French class at Woodmere Academy). And who was our star? Maria Karnilova, the great original leading lady (“Golde”) of Fiddler On the Roof. I, likewise, had the honor of writing speeches—at two New York benefits—for Sheldon Harnick, lyricist of “Fiddler.”
But let’s return to this chapter’s main subject. The day of the Bar Mitzvah finally arrived on a beautiful October morning in 1964. Anxious and extra early, I crept up the steps of Temple Beth El where a Southern relative or two greeted me with a “Shalom, y’all.” The Colbys and Bodnes and Mazos and Cohens and even a Monsignor gathered at shul to watch me make the transition to Jewish adulthood, regardless of my baby face, braces, and unchanged voice. My rabbi was the distinguished Edward T. Sandrow, whose daughter Nahma Sandrow became a chronicler of Yiddish Theatre and who co-wrote the musicals Kuni-Leml and Vagabond Stars. All I remember about Cantor Dubrow is that he would huff and puff and turn red as borsht trying to teach me my tropes. Of our invitees, Ella Fitzgerald and Jane Wyman canceled out at the last minute. Ella was ill (but sent me a wonderful paint kit), while Jane Wyman—according to Grandma—“wasn’t in the habit of going to bar mitzvahs.” Still, the shul was filled with the likes of best-selling writer/attorney Louis Nizer and former Governor Ernest Hollings, who was also in New York for political reasons.
Ernest Hollings had grown up in Charleston, socializing with all the Bodnes. A politically active Democrat to this day, he served as Senator from South Carolina from 1959-1963. The year of my bar mitzvah was a transitional one for Hollings. He’d lost a bid for a seat in the Senate, then eventually won in 1966, serving as U.S. Senator for 36 years (through 2003). The Hollings and the Bodne families remained close, attending each other’s major family events through the years. In a Congressional Record testimony to my grandfather, Hollings called him “White Knight of the Algonquin Round Table. … As fine a man and gentleman as you will ever meet. A wonderful friend.” 5 Further, Hollings arranged for a very special present at the end of my bar mitzvah day.
Somehow I made it through the service sounding like I knew what I was doing. Then everyone made the exodus from Beth El to the reception at Middle Bay Country Club. My parents decided my bar mitzvah theme would be “Around the World,” with decorations from countries like England, France, and Italy. I have no idea why that theme was chosen. At the age of 13, I had never traveled outside of the U.S. and was deeply frightened of flying thanks to Grandma Mary’s warnings about horrific plane crashes.
The reception was capped by the snazzy jazz performance of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Classmates on the dais were given autograph books as gifts. Everyone was impressed by the entertainment, even observers who weren’t invited. Hara Kestenbaum, my girlfriend at the time, pointed out someone peeking in, whom we both knew from summer camp. Even though he wasn’t invited, that someone not only attended the same camp but was a member of Woodmere Academy (a grade ahead of me), Temple Beth El, and Middle Bay Country Club. His name was Jack Feldman, and he went on to write the song “Copacabana” (with Barry Manilow) and the Tony-winning lyrics of Broadway’s Newsies.
After Middle Bay, people convened for a concluding night nosh at the Colby house back in Hewlett. That’s when Mom, Dad, Douglas, and I pulled a Houdini finale. While guests were meeting and eating, the Colbys disappeared from our home to join Senator Hollings elsewhere. We didn’t even have a chance to say anything to our guests (so, for anyone that night who might be reading this, my belated apologies!). Still, our bar mitzbehaviour reaped as great a DC thrill as any comic book. It was time for Hollings’ special bar mitzvah present. We joined Hollings in the campaign bus of a famous politician running for—and about to become—the latest Senator of New York. The location was right across from the firehouse in Woodmere, the town neighboring Hewlett. The streets were jam-packed with this politician’s followers, as the Colbys boarded the campaign bus of Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy. Kennedy had been attorney general during the “Camelot” years of his late brother President John F. Kennedy (the president who’d once said, “When I was growing up, I had three wishes—I wanted to be a Lindbergh-type hero, learn Chinese and become a member of the Algonquin Round Table” 6). Robert F. Kennedy was also a vital force against organized crime and major crusader for Civil Rights.
The Colbys sat alongside Ernest Hollings in a row of fold-out chairs right behind RFK, as he gave an electrifying speech. From the bus, I saw two girls from my class in the crowd (one who’d been at Robert Finkel’s bar mitzvah and one from mine); they eagerly waved to me, far more impressed I was on that bus than by anything I could have done at my bar mitzvah. When RFK finished his enthusiastically received speech, he turned around to greet visitors on his bus. Ernest Hollings introduced me to him, mentioning it was my bar mitzvah day, to which RFK replied, “Mazel Tov.” He then stated he would have liked to have attended but was preoccupied elsewhere. I didn’t believe for a second that he would have attended, but those were exhilarating words to hear. I could just imagine the clamor of my classmates to offer their new autograph books for his signature.
My bar mitzvah may not have been at the Algonquin, but it was a doozy of a day!
Next part: As William Faulkner Wrote at the Algonquin…
1 Sullivan, Patricia. “Earl Mazo obituary” for The Washington Post. Washington DC. February 18, 2007.
2 Sullivan, Patricia. Ibid.
3 Sullivan, Patricia. Ibid.
4 Portfolio, 1969. Woodmere, NY. June, 1969.
5 Hollings, Ernest. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 102d Congress, Second Session, Vol. 138, No. 83. Washington DC. June 11, 1992
6 Sharland, Elizabeth. The British on Broadway: Backstage and Beyond—The Early Years. Lancaster England: Barbican Press. 1999.
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
Click Below for Parts 1 thru 6: