Tannenbaum -- The Toughest Broad in New York
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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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