by Michael Elihu Colby
(click on photo to enlarge)
There were the many talks Harpo Marx shared with my Grandpa Ben. There was the time Marilyn Monroe flashed Grandma Mary. There was the afternoon Lerner and Loewe promised a role—to eight-year old me—in their new musical Camelot.
Through the years, I collected a trove of treasured stories, while growing up around the Algonquin Hotel, as a real-life counterpart to Eloise of the Plaza.
New York’s landmark Algonquin Hotel was bought in 1946 by my grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, Southern Jews atypical of the hotel’s literary types and stage folk. They lived there for the rest of their lives even after selling the hotel in 1987 to a Brazilian subsidiary of a Tokyo corporation (an odd mix leading to a succession of other owners).
According to family legend, my grandparents first fell in love with the Algonquin while honeymooning there in the 1920s. They were dazzled to be hobnobbing with guests like Mary Pickford, Gertrude Lawrence, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Beatrice Lillie, Sinclair Lewis, and Will Rogers, whom they’d just seen in the Ziegfeld Follies.
The Manhattan hotel already had a multifaceted history. Rather than globetrotters, horse stables once occupied the address—59 West 44th Street—where the Algonquin opened in 1902. Noted architect Goldwyn Starrett designed this 174-room, Edwardian style hotel. The place became a Mecca for rising New York luminaries through the guidance of Frank Case, who’d worked there since its inception and who became its owner-manager in 1927. It was he who suggested that the original owner name the hotel the Algonquin (rather than “The Puritan”). A strong advocate for the Arts, Frank Case offered special rates to actors, writers, and artists. He established the Algonquin Round Table, where the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Alexander Wollcott, and Robert Benchley regularly lunched—exchanging quips and quotes that proved exceptional p.r. for the hotel.
My grandparents came from a very different background than the urbane Frank Case. Both of Russian Jewish ancestry, Grandpa Ben and Grandma Mary also had large families in common: Grandpa had three sisters and three brothers, Grandma seven sisters and two brothers. Their homes were already like hotels. Grandpa Ben was born in Shamokin PA, but his Orthodox family eventually moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee—as unlikely as it may be to use Tennessee and Torah in the same sentence. His father Michael Bodne (after whom I’m named) was a junk dealer, and his mother Molly cooked food that reportedly tasted like junk (albeit Kosher). They were so poor, young Ben supplemented their family income as a paperboy (Grandpa Ben claimed he once sold a newspaper to Helen Keller; this is not a joke—though it may stretch the imagination). He never finished school, though he told some funny school stories. He’d relate how, when he was in ninth grade, the teacher called in Grandpa’s dad for a special meeting—saying “You have to do something about your son. He’s a real Smart Alec. Last week I asked Ben ‘Who wrote Hamlet?’ and Ben replied, ‘Well, it wasn’t me!’ To that, Grandpa’s father said, “Listen, Ma’am. My Benny’s a good boy. If he told you he didn’t write Hamlet, he didn’t write Hamlet.” Grandpa also recounted how he quit school out of embarrassment—when he got to the eighth grade and caught up with his father. Where Grandpa Ben excelled were athletics and business. He was a champion athlete at the local YMHA, considered becoming a professional baseball player, and later became promoter for such greats as world boxing champ Marcel Cerdan. In fact, Grandpa’s ultimate business decision was choosing between buying the Algonquin Hotel and the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Grandma Mary was born in Odessa, Russia (now the Ukraine), the daughter of Elihu and Anastasia (aka Essie) Mazo. When she was an infant, her family hid with other Jews in an attic while Cossacks plundered their village. She started to cry and the terrified fugitives thought they’d have to suffocate her if she continued to endanger them. Then, with precocious insight, she hushed up till it was safe for them to escape. It’s said her later outspokenness was compensation for that momentary silence.
When Grandma was six months old, the Mazos (including older sister Betty) immigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, which had a sizable Jewish population. It’s there that Elihu Mazo opened Mazo’s Grocery (“Mazo’s”), which evolved into the first Jewish deli in the South – serving Kosher sandwiches. Essie kept busy creating eight more children, enough to tend the deli and each other. Growing up, it was at Mazo’s that Grandma cultivated her Southern hospitality, filling the knish list of Carolina’s Kleiners and Feiners. It was also where so got her first taste not only of pickles, but of show business. Both Elihu Mazo and his brother Dave—who owned an even bigger, if generic, grocery store—became good friends of a prominent Charlestonian, writer DuBose Heyward. Heyward was best known for his 1925 novel Porgy, based on life in Charleston’s Cabbage Row (renamed Catfish Row) and later adopted into a hit play by Heyward’s wife Dorothy. DuBose would soon be collaborating with George and Ira Gershwin on a musical version of that play.
Around 1934, when George Gershwin was researching in Charleston for Porgy and Bess, it was the Mazo deli that became one of Gershwin’s favorite hangouts. He developed a strong friendship with all the Mazos. At Mazo family dinners, he’d play his newest songs on their piano. He even dated Grandma Mary’s beautiful younger sister Syd (born Sadie). The Mazos had high hopes of a celebrity in the family until a courtship date when Gershwin bought Aunt Syd a chocolate ice cream cone. She complained—she wanted vanilla. Bad move! The romance soon broke up, possibly over a flavor.
By the time Aunt Syd was dating Gershwin, Grandpa Ben had already moved to Charleston, eventually marrying Mary Mazo. He believed there were greater work opportunities in Charleston—and a wider choice of Jewish women—than in Chattanooga. Grandma Mary had charms Grandpa couldn’t resist: she was a dynamo and a much better cook than Molly Bodne. Mary was also quite a dancer—her specialty, the Charleston—entering competitions including one where she befriended guest performer Ginger Rogers. Moreover, she was the first in the family accepted at a college. However, she gave up attending Baltimore’s Goucher College when Grandpa Ben proposed, driving to meet her in his Model-T Ford. She thought that her best option: after growing up with seven sisters, the prospect of marrying a sporty Kosher catch seemed more appealing than four years at an all-female college. By the way, another show business connection was Grandma’s cousin, Charlestonian Frances Mazo Butwin, who’d write the original Yiddish-to-English translation of Shalom Aleichem’s “Tevye’s Daughters”, source of Fiddler on the Roof.
After Grandpa set himself up in business, Ben and Mary worked side by side like a tag-team. While Grandpa Ben was building his fortune selling coal, then recycling oil cylinders during World War II, Grandma Mary tended his office and drove his trucks with enough stamina to deliver through a tsunami. Add to the work burden, Grandma tended to their two daughters, Renee* Mae (*pronounced “REE-knee”) and Barbara Ann.
But it all paid off. By 1946, Grandpa Ben had become a millionaire via various oil ventures. The time came when he decided to parlay his fortune into a new business. There were two major choices. 1946 was the year Frank Case died and the Algonquin was up for resale, as were the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pittsburgh Pirates would be a dream-come-true for Grandpa, who craved being part of professional sports. I suspect Grandma had a different preference than being taken out to the ballgame and selling peanuts and Crackerjack. The Algonquin was a setting where she could mingle with people like George Gershwin and Ginger Rogers. Just the kind of place where she could display the Southern hospitality she cultivated offering salami, lox, and other delicacies at her father’s place.
The choice became moot when a group headed by Bing Crosby pitched a bid on the Pittsburgh Pirates that was a homerun. Grandpa struck out, but Grandma was swinging on a star, as her husband clinched the remaining deal. The Bodnes picked up their suitcases and daughters and headed to their new address, the venerable Algonquin Hotel. But, of course, there was a hitch to their new hitching post. In the aftermath of World War II, the place was in terrible disrepair, with antiquated plumbing, faded decor and worn-out furniture—the ghost of a past golden age. Advisors had warned the Bodnes that the hotel’s glamour and vitality had died with Frank Case. How could a Southern oilman and his wife restore the former glory of this cultural invalid? The daunting task ahead was just another challenge for Grandma, who’d survived the Cossacks; and Grandpa, who’d survived poverty and his mother’s cooking. They somehow knew—as would often be sung years later at the Algonquin cabaret—“The Best Is Yet to Come.” Times with Lord Olivier, Jacqueline Kennedy, Ella Fitzgerald, and countless others were in the offing. As was I, “The Algonquin Kid.” But, for now, the adventure had just begun.
Next part: Algonquin Renaissance.