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Frieda Tannenbaum -- The Toughest Broad in New York
By Laurel Ollstein

There was a time in my life where I felt I was hanging on by my fingernails. Tragedies in my family and personal life had piled up so high that I couldn't even talk about it anymore. I actually made my therapist cry. Really -- at any moment I could have let go and fell into the abyss. I knew it. But if I had let go, what I didn't know was how I would get back again. Or if. So, I went to the only place I could think of -- to the only woman who I thought could help -- my grandmother -- Frieda Tannenbaum, the toughest broad in New York.

We grandkids called her Nanny, although she was no cookie dough Grandma. Papa was the one whose lap you'd sit on; she would come in and scold him about keeping us up too late past bedtime, or making us giggle too much. Papa would grab your fingers and squish the ends -- he called it "sipping your fingers." It kind of hurt, but I would laugh anyway. And if there was too much laughter Nanny would yell from the other room -- "there's going to be crying in Israel." I have no idea what that meant, then or now. But you get the idea.

Nanny was a lawyer, one of the only women in her class at NYU law school, class of 1928 -- a law partner for 60 years with Sam Tannenbaum, Papa. Together they were Johnson and Tannenbaum, Copyright Law Firm, New York, New York, since Johnson had died soon after the partnership was made. Papa kept the name out of honor to the man, also kept paying his widow a percentage of the firm's earnings long after anyone thought necessary or even reasonable. Certainly my mother brought it up during any discussion of money. According to her there were so many ways that she should have been rich.

Nanny and Papa had their offices in the old Brill building, 1916 Broadway, in the heart of the old music district, on the 7th floor. There was a main reception area where my grandmother's desk was. She could keep an eye on everything from there. One door led to the file room -- packed with rows and rows of tinny gray file cabinets that were stuffed with books and songs and scripts and other brilliant, and not so brilliant, pieces of art. It was before computers. It was the real thing -- when you could hold an original genius in your hand. They had clients like Tallulah Bankhead. My grandmother didn't approve of actresses. They would sweep into the office with their bejeweled hands and wrists, with bright red lipsticked lips and high heels clicking on the tile floor. Nanny dressed in tweed suits that fit loosely around her chest. She had rather large breasts as a young woman, but because she had bound them for so many years, they now laid almost flat against her stomach -- a horrifying sight to me at a young age. She must have seen the look on my face when I had accidentally happened upon her naked. That's when she told me that she had bound her chest, so that she would be taken more seriously as a lawyer. I made a note not to bind my chest. She also didn't believe in wearing jewelry. When I wanted to get my ears pierced, my mother quoted her, "Only prostitutes and actresses pierce their ears." Since I wanted to be an actress I ran out and did it as fast as I could.

Papa had the corner office with windows looking out to Broadway. He'd be behind the big mahogany desk, fast asleep in his red worn leather chair, head titled back, mouth slightly opened -- a purring snore coming from his throat accompanied by some sudden loud snorts. Papa could fall asleep during a five minute cab ride. I used to think he was narcoleptic, but I think now he was just a good napper. He was also old by the time I really knew him. He was ten years older than Nanny. I thought of him as a Jewish Abraham Lincoln. He had a beak of a nose with a large mole on the right side of it, soft hazel eyes, and a kind smile. He was a hat man -- never went out without one. The hall closet was full of those classic New Yorker old man hats from the '40s. I inherited all of them when he died. Apparently we had the same head size, much to my brother's dismay.

When Papa died I was living in San Francisco. I was working as a voiceover actress for a local kids TV show. The characters were huge Muppet-like puppets, and I did all the female voices. It was a blast, by far the best job I ever had on TV.

I was sharing a house with two roommates on Potrero Hill. One of my roommates also worked on the show; the other was a serious Buddhist, always chanting -- always. One day I came home from the studio to find a note. The Buddhist had taken the message, and for all her chanting and great understanding of life and karma, she left a note on my pillow saying, "Your mother called -- your grandfather's dead."

I stared at the note for a long time before it sunk in. My father had died six months earlier, and I was busy trying to pretend I was okay about that, and now Papa. Of course the difference was that my father had been a 56-year-old man who took his own life, and Papa was 95, and died naturally.

Several days later I arrived at 430 East 86th St., the apartment that Nanny and Papa had lived in for over 40 years. Downstairs there had been a used bookstore, now just a storage area for the apartments. But when I was young and we'd visit from Los Angeles, Papa would say to my brother and me, "Go down to the bookstore and pick out any book you like." And we'd run down and comb through the stacks of dusty leather-bound books looking for just the right one. And then we'd show the old man behind the little cramped desk -- he'd nod and we'd run through the marble floored lobby to the tiny elevator to take us back up to the 14th floor. I always found my book first. My brother took forever. For everything. He could make opening a present an hour long activity. I'm a rip and forage present opener.

Papa's funeral was surreal -- the funeral workers were on strike. We had to cross a picket line to get into the Manhattan mortuary. They were on strike for, of all things, decent sick leave. The casket was open, and since all the trained workers were out on strike, no one was there to prepare him properly. He looked dead. No rouge or pancake, his skin was grey. Nanny kept saying how nice he looked. She also became concerned with the amount of chairs in the hall. Were there enough? We should get more chairs, she kept saying. The only people attending the funeral were our family. My mother said that he had outlived all of his friends. Nanny and Papa were never social beings; they worked and went home. So no one was there. But Nanny was still concerned that there weren't enough chairs. I started feeling like I was in an Ionesco play.

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