REVIEW: Midwest Book Review……….. The Biography Shelf

He Could Make Words Sing

Synopsis: In “He Could Make Words Sing: An Ordinary Man During Extraordinary Times”, Greene presents the biography of Harry Greissman. His life story recounts the issues so many Americans faced both in the turbulent years of the 20th Century as what is impacting well into the 21st century: Immigration; Economic deprivation; Lost Love; War; Discrimination at work; The transition from urban to suburban life; A working couple raising a family. Harry Greissman life story will resonate with his fellow Americans who lived through those same times, and give insight to the new generation of what their parents and their grandparents experienced, lived through, and survived.

Critique: Aptly subtitled ‘An Ordinary man During Extraordinary Times’, “He Could Make Words Sing” is an extraordinary and compelling biography that is unreservedly recommended for both community and academic library 20th Century American Biography & Memoir collections. It should be noted for personal reading lists that “He Could Make Words Sing” is also available in a digital book format ($9.99).

It is interesting to note that Harry Greissman’s biographer David Greene was raised and went to public schools in the Bronx. After graduating from Fordham University, he went taught social studies and coached football for 38 years. After retiring he was an adjunct and field supervisor for Fordham University, was former treasurer of Save Our Schools, and a program consultant for WISE Services, a 501c3 devoted to helping high schools start and maintain experiential learning programs for their seniors. More recently he is still working in high schools via the Bigs Project and Walkabout, both extensions of his work with WISE.




cropped-greene-cover1.jpgMuch of 50’s life was either shaped or depicted by the newest must have gadget in everyone’s home, the TV. Television both reflected and altered American lives. The early 50’s birthed TV, as we know it. Maybe TV also birthed the 50’s.


Did “Father know Best”?  Why would anyone “Leave It to Beaver”? “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” gave you a sanitized peek at the Nelson family, semi celebrities whose sons, David and especially Ricky, gained fame as actors and Rock and Roll crooners. “The Danny Thomas Show” and “The Donna Reed Show” as well as others created an idyllic view of what American life should be, although that was tough to accomplish for most Americans.


The Greissmans were that family. Harry was the briefcase toting, fedora wearing, and pipe smoking commuting father. Iris was, while in Brooklyn until 1957, that pearl (probably costume) wearing housewife and nurturing mother.  Richard was clearly the fairly obedient son and Jamie, born almost two years after Richard, was the mischievous younger daughter. There were, however, subtle differences. Iris went off to work about the time Jamie went to Kindergarten and worked throughout their suburban lives. That was very different from most middle class white suburban American families.


This story might have been written for any of those TV family sit-coms, yet was true. When Iris was pregnant with Jamie, Harry turned to his sister-in-law Ruth and said, “I don’t understand what’s going on. Every time I turn around, Iris is pregnant.” Ruth turned to him and replied, “That’s the problem Harry. Stop turning around.


Saturday morning children’s shows were the baby sitters. Howdy Doody, Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and Bozo the Clown fascinated kids as they learned through the characters’ antics.  What father would take his young three-year old son to the Howdy Doody Show dressed as Howdy Doody and sit in the Peanut Gallery with the other kids and their parents? Harry.

Harry took Richard to the circus and to a local amusement park in Rye NY where the two of them went on a mini roller coaster called the “Wild Mouse”. Scared as he was and clinging to the bar – Richard looked over at his dad and they were laughing together. Together they strolled through the park, holding hands while Richard would look up and see Harry’s sweet smile. Yet, as was the manly style of those from Harry’s generation, there was not much hugging.


Harry also took Richard into Manhattan to go the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium. Looking up at the manufactured night sky awed them both. They felt lost in the universe because the room was so big. Richard had brought a camera with him and was so awe struck he left it behind. When they went back to get it Harry seemed more bemused than angry. But that seemed to be the Harry way. When Richard would, as he often did, pick something up off the floor and try to chew it, Harry, who looked so big to a small child, simply took it away and told him not to. No anger. No punishments. No yelling.


When the family moved to Ardsley, Iris became a suburban oddity, a working mom. Although TV scenes usually depicted the suburban American family eating breakfast and dinner together, that was not the case in many American families, or the Greissman household. Harry was off to work before the kids had breakfast. Iris would be sure the children and she all ate dinner together early enough for them to do homework and left a plate for Harry to eat when he returned home. Sometimes she sat with him, but most times he ate alone, catching up in the newspaper, with a Dewars on the rocks. Those scenes were definitely not part of sitcom America.


Ten Kenneth Road cost Harry and Iris the ungodly sum of $17,000 in 1957, approximately $145,000 in 2016 dollars. It was a huge investment for the family. We sold it in September 2016 for $769,000. The Greissmans traveled up to “the country” to see the house while it was being built. It was a very typical new 1950’s suburban development filled with young families who established the neighborhood together and grew as friends as a result, so it became easy to meet many couples through their kids meeting other kids on the streets. These peers shared the same sets of 1950’s norms and values. Harry became a suburban commuter. He met Marty Conrad, a neighbor up the street, and together they would go to the train station. When Harry became best friends with fellow tennis player Marty, Jamie became lifelong friends with their daughter Donna. Either Iris or Marty would drive to the station fairly early. No one allowed Harry to drive. Harry and Marty loved playing cards – they had a bridge game with some fellow daily travelers. The train had benches that could be shifted so you could have two adjoining seats facing each other and they’d play fourhanded bridge. The Greissmans, Fagins, Kagels, Charnins, Rosens, Nassaus, and Friedmans shared long lasting bonds even when they moved, as became the custom, to Florida later in life.  When the Friedman’s son Randy fell to his death from Yosemite Falls on a teen tour the families pulled even closer. Tennis was a constant with Edgar Finsmith, who lived two doors down.


Just as in those TV sitcoms, Ten Kenneth became a place for friends and family. Harry and Iris, mostly Iris, would entertain in their small dining room. The kids, as kids then and now did, retreated to their rooms, once permitted, to play with each other or with friends. Ruth’s children, cousins Arnie and June, were so much older that they baby-sat until Richard and Jamie went to bed and then went back with the adults.


Harry and Iris’s social life revolved around card playing. Iris loved to cook and entertain, Harry was charming but could be an inconsistent conversationalist in social situations. There were some dinner parties with long silences because he didn’t participate a great deal, yet there were others where he would dominate the conversations.


The old Brooklyn visited each other on a rotating basis. Work friends would sometimes, but less often come around. Paul Zangas, the creative art director at Richardson-Merrell, was Harry’s closest work friend with whom Harry played tennis together and sometimes went out.


Harry would, on occasion invite other work friends like Ben McClure, a “big boss” Vice President, a very cosmopolitan guy, who had lived in France.  Ben and Harry sometimes went out with the wives but their friendship was out of sight in the work place. Was it because Harry was an underling or Jewish?  We don’t know. It was another “50’s” thing.


They were one of the first families to move in. Luckily for six-year old Richard and 4-year old Jamie, there were to be many children with whom to grow up and become longtime friends.  Richard became best friends, and still is, with Bobby Alter who lived right next door. He and Jamie would go there to play while Iris and Harry went to the construction site feet away. The house sat in the middle of a steep slope, rendering the back and front yards relatively unplayable for the kids. It was the only house in the development with the garage in the back, producing a large asphalt “playground” and a terraced back yard. Note that back then there were no mandatory railings for decks. The kids would play up there and in the warmer weather play tetherball with nothing to prevent a fall to the hard surface below. Imagine that now? The doors at 10 Kenneth were never locked. Richard and Jamie came home from school and did their homework. Richard played with Bobby Alter from next door. Jamie put on a bathrobe and called Iris at work to see what chores needed to be done. Ok, that was a bit strange….


An added bonus of moving to Ardsley is that it put Harry nearer to the brother he would spend the most time with. Lou and his wife, Anita lived in upper Westchester, along Lake Mahopac where Harry, Iris and the kids would often go. Their daughter, Susan, was one year younger than Richard, and one year older than Jamie, so they took turns playing together. Louis was fairly affluent. His house was very modern, with very manicured lawn and gardens, a large back yard, and a dock with a boat on the lake. They had a garage with two cars. Lou was very fond of Cadillacs and always had at least one. Visits there were always difficult because it was clear that Harry and Iris did not like Anita. It was especially hard on Iris because Anita was cold and often condescending. Iris would talk about how uncomfortable she was around her. Anita could be harsh, condescending, and opinionated.  She was somewhat cold, and austere. This was unfortunate, because Lou was Harry’s closest relative, both emotionally and geographically.


Regardless, Lou and Harry were inseparable. The speedboat was a great attraction for the kids that always gave young Richard a thrill to ride and even drive the boat. Harry was not much of a water person. He didn’t water ski, but the kids did. Iris would get in the water to wade but was not a swimmer. There was a lovely, well-positioned, slate deck where the parents could sit, play cards together, yet watch the kids playing in the water. When Lou had a stroke, and lost his speech Harry was devastated. He shared Lou’s frustration when he struggled with words and slurred his speech. Harry was the very attentive, caring brother who saw a lot of Lou during that time, visiting him in the hospital and later when he was recovering. It must have been a crushing blow to have his closest and most worshipped sibling so debilitated.

Life had to go on none the less.




David Greene, teacher of teachers, author, and photographer, offers these thoughts and reflections in this time of anxiety. He says this is a “mashup” of the last chapter of his new book, He Could Make Words Sing: An Ordinary Man During Extraordinary Times.

He writes:

Relax. We are just ordinary people living in our own ordinary times. As my friend Harris sarcastically says, “We all think our times are the most extraordinary ‘evvvvverrrr’.” However bad things might seem as we read this today, they are really rather ordinary historically. Our times do not compare with the extraordinary times Harry Greissman’s generation faced.

Yes, we face economic inequality and loss of jobs, but the unemployment rate is under 5%, not hovering at 25% as it did in the GREAT Depression. Yes, we face racial issues and de facto segregation, but de jure segregation is pretty much gone. Black Lives Matters would have had a far more difficult task then, when lynching was rampant and whole neighborhoods in cities like Tulsa Oklahoma were burned down by whites. Watch the new movie, “Mudbound” as a reminder of Black Lives in the south in the 1940s.

Broken Healthcare system? Then, there was none to break. Medicare and Medicaid were mid 1960s inventions. The numbers of veterans with wartime injuries, both physical and emotional during World War 2 was in the millions, not thousands. The environment? Coal fired furnaces were everywhere. I played in a coal chute as a kid in the Bronx. Whole cities were covered in clouds of grey smoke and soot. Choose a domestic problem, any problem, and it was worse when they grew up. What rights did women have then? For the first fifth of the 20th century, they couldn’t even vote. I know that Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” had it far worse than my privileged Boomer generation, Generation X or today’s Millenials.

Of course, today’s new stories and cable shouting matches called newscasts scare the living shit out of many of us. We are still stuck in the longest war in our history, and face terrorist threats daily, these are nowhere as horrific as the death and destruction of World War 1 (when poison gas bombing was used as a weapon de jure), the Armenian Genocide (before Syria even existed as a country), World War 2, the Holocaust, the Korean “conflict” and the Vietnam War. North Korea is not exactly the same nuclear threat the Russians were, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. We sat at the edge of our chairs watching Kennedy square off with Khrushchev.
Refugees refused? Border walls? How about turning away victims of the Holocaust? Poison gas in Syria? NO comparison to the Nazi poison gas chambers relatives of American families died in.

The Red Scare? McCarthyism? The Civil Rights struggles? Selma? Birmingham? Mississippi murders? Kent and Jackson State? The assassinations of MLK and RFK? Battles in the streets of NYC between hardhats and hippies? The whole world WAS watching. The Pentagon Papers? NIXON?

Relax. This is not to disparage those in duress today. God know our world faces too many serious man-made problems. We have Trump and his reality-TV version of the world that is becoming all too scarily real. Environmentally, like the Wicked Witch of the West, the world is mellllllting. The immediacy and verbal violence in social media’s, divisiveness and fear mongering stresses us to no end.

Are we as bad as Orwell’s1984 or Asimov’s Fahrenheit 451 predicted? No. We aren’t even as bad off as what was “predicted” in “The Man In The High Castle”, Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel and the TV series based on it…All we have is “alternative facts”.

But if we take the long historical view of human endeavors, how special is our time? Even the “Jetsons” predicted we would be farther along technologically than we actually are. Where are our flying cars and personal robots? Alexa doesn’t compare to Rosie.

Relax. There is a monologue in Steven Levenson’s play, “If I Forget”, spoken by the patriarch of the family, Lou Fischer, who in the year 2000, is a 75-year-old World War 2 Veteran. In it he describes the horrors of being one of the American soldiers who liberated Dachau. After a long sigh, he says as I believe many of his generation would have said, “For you, history is an abstraction, but for us, the ones who survived this century, this long, long, century, there are no abstractions anymore.”


SAN DIEGO – History teacher David Greene has written a combination social history and biography of his father-in-law, Harry Greissman, an advertising man.

We come to know Greissman as a child of immigrant parents who scrimped and saved so that Harry could go to college. He later went off to World War II, thinking he’d remain an enlisted man, but was made into an officer who could teach others the vagaries of artillery targeting.  He fought in Germany, and because of his facility with languages, stayed after the war to assist in the research necessary to prosecute Nazi war criminals.

After coming home, he joined the advertising profession—a trade in which he would advance to the security of middle ranks, but never to the top, as the pinnacle of the profession, then, was guarded jealously by Gentiles.  Harry nevertheless was happy.  He moved with his wife Iris from Brooklyn to the Westchester suburbs, where they raised three children—the youngest, Allan, a surprise, who came ten years after the second child.

As the book title suggests, Harry had a way with words, and he could use them effectively not only for his advertising agency, but in helping a Westchester county politician rise to town office, and in aiding daughter Jamie (whom author Greene married) to submit the best idea for naming a school project.

Harry’s memories of the Depression made him tight with money, but Iris often got around his frugality.  His true love was tennis, and the heirs who played it with him, felt a strong sense of camaraderie.  But, at other times, he was reserved, unlikely to say “I love you” out loud, and when he played tennis with others, his children sometimes would feel jealous of his time.

World War II must have had an impact on him, but it was not something he would readily talk about.  Clearly, he had felt a sense of duty to his country, and was dismayed when his children’s generation did not respond during the Vietnam War to their nation’s call to arms with the same sense of patriotism.  Perhaps the fact that his oldest son, Richard, had a fairly high draft number secretly relieved him.  Who wants a son to go off to war?

We can sense the impact on Harry of these two cataclysmic events—the Great Depression and World War II – but afterwards, as the 50’s Cold War, 60’s protests and assassinations, 70’s Watergate scandal and OPEC-spawned price inflation; 80’s Reaganomics; and 90’s Dismantling of the Soviet bloc, pass by, it is harder to see the nexus between these events and Harry’s life.  Harry read about all of them in the newspaper, preferably on a porch, while smoking his beloved pipe, but did they really impact his life?

Greene doesn’t attempt to prove any connection; these events go by like a newsreel at the movies.  Something to watch, and maybe consider, before the main feature.

I dare say that without Greene’s tender recollection of his wife’s father, few people outside of his family and circle of friends would today have heard of Harry or noted that he passed away at age 82 on December 18, 1997.  Greene has left us far more than a family memoir—although He Could Make Words Sing certainly is a superlative example of that genre.

What Greene does in this book is to prompt us to remember some of the events in our parents’ lives, and our own, with some nostalgia; to reflect on the comparisons between the generations of Harry’s family, and our own; and to wonder how our parents’ lives, our own, our children’s, and our grandchildren’s have been influenced by international events, domestic social movements, and changes in the economy.

Isn’t that the role of a teacher after all?  To help us crystallize relevant questions, and to provide us with the tools to seek their answers?


Richard, Jamie, and even Allan, as “Baby Boomers” were becoming part of a new generation, more and more split from Harry’s. When Richard and Jamie were both in high school Harry was 50 plus. There had always been growing pains for teens, but in the 60’s this pain became a calling. Sixties teens weren’t supposed to “trust anyone over 30”. Like many 60’s families with teens becoming adults during this time, this “generation gap” became more pronounced.

As a young adult coming back from the war Harry had made a series of fateful decisions similar to many men of his “Greatest Generation”. Forty years later was he, like so many others, looking back and thinking what if?

Harry became the “everyman” suburban commuter. His daily train schedule, his 1 or 2 nights per week teaching, and his tennis routinized his life. He didn’t help clean up after dinner, never cooked, never did laundry (except for the tennis clothes or jock he urgently needed), and was generally removed from what was going on in the household. Weekdays he woke up, went to work, returned home, ate dinner, read, and watched some TV. On the weekends he played as much tennis as he could and maintained the lawn and flowers. He weeded. He watered. He planted “Packasandra” and fussed over it regularly. He enjoyed being outside, secretively smoking there.

He was loving, but not emotional.  He would hug and kiss the kids, but rarely say “I love you”.

He was patient at times, but could be extremely intolerant and inpatient, depending on his mood and what they were doing.  He hated when the kids would argue, or fight, and would raise his voice in exasperation.  He never cursed (other than the famous Broccoli joke – which made it all the more funny –until it was overdone!).  He would just say, “Damn it” when really mad.  But did he want more? Was he happy or was he disappointed in himself? How typical was he of the men of his times?

As in in many other families Harry’s weekend sport led to some strains. He did try to get the kids and Iris to share his passion for tennis, but perhaps too hard. Jamie recalls his being very hard on her while giving her lessons. While a great teacher of strangers, he was not very patient with family members. He would wince, raise his voice, and seem quite irritated when Jamie or Richard made errors. They soon learned to hate tennis.

On the other hand, Jamie would turn to Harry for occasional help with homework, particularly English assignments. He had an incredible amount of knowledge about classics, poetry, and authors. He was a walking literary encyclopedia. When he was asked to help with writing, he was a virtual thesaurus, yet he, too impatient to help with rewrites; he tended to just rewrite. Now, Jamie admits submitting his work because, “It was just so much better.” He did not usually initiate conversation, or ask her about her life, friends, boyfriends, and interests, but she knew that if she told him something, he usually listened, might ask some questions, and might even give an opinion.

The 60’s “counter revolution”, the feminist movement, and its music also brought about a revolution in fashion.  Blue jeans replaced dress pants or chinos. Facial hair grew.  Then again so did the length men’s hair. Women became freer in expressing their sexuality. They even went braless. Harry looked askew at how Richard and Jamie were being transformed by the new era. He hated rock and roll, but other than asking them to lower the volume, never made a fuss… usually.

Harry hated much of the music Richard listened to…. “I remember we watched Ed Sullivan together – the Doors came on to perform their song “Touch Me” and when I asked him what he thought, he said that at least there was “some music” in the segment (the interlude with strings).” He hated the Doors and those “damn” Beatles!!

“That confounded music” and “hideous and revealing” clothing became areas of contention between generations as the new generation strove for more independence. Dress and skirt hems grew higher and higher to the point of many a dad saying, “You will not leave my house dressed like that.”

Jamie was allowed to wear short mini dresses. She doesn’t remember Harry commenting on her clothing as a teenager. He never seemed to mind, but as she said, “I do think he noticed.” Richard was not an issue. He never wore skirts.

Mischievous Jamie, who finally developed good impulse control, was a school “leader” working with administrators, not protesting against them. One of her big adventures was to try smoking cigarettes with her friend Donna by sticking their heads out the bathroom window as to not leave the telltale smell indoors. Yeah, that worked. Richard looked and acted as the proverbial middle of the road middle class successful high school student. Neither seemed that interested or involved in the politics of the time, outside of high school. They were admitted to Colgate and Skidmore Colleges.

When Richard came home or when he took a year off after graduating from Colgate with his bachelor’s degree, he and Harry would watch “Kung-Fu” on TV and black and white silent films (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin). “Dad would laugh so hard that Mom would stop her work in the kitchen to come to the head of the stairs and watch the two of us together.” That Harry shared something from his era with Richard was one of Richard’s fondest memories.

Richard and Harry would watch Shakespearian productions on TV and enjoy them together. They shared a love of Alfred Hitchcock. They both enjoyed Amos and Andy on TV, odd, given Richard’s hatred of racism. Harry would tell Richard how important radio was for him growing up. Laurel and Hardy was a favorite, but Richard enjoyed the Three Stooges more. Harry loved Westerns. They were a mainstay of 50’s and early 60’s movie making.

They talked about how much they enjoyed the Magnificent Seven; the theme of courage, of righting a wrong, standing up to bullies – but also that it was a mixture of toughness and tenderness. That 1960 movie adapted from an earlier Japanese film about seven samurai is a great metaphor for Americas role in the cold war, coming to the aid of “innocent” foreigners controlled by an evil dictatorship.

During Richard’s first year at Colgate, he had a full year requirement of taking two courses involving Philosophy Religion and Drama. The first semester was thematically organized around the Old Testament and the 2nd semester around the New Testament. Richard steeped himself not only in the five books of Moses, but also in some of the great philosophers of Jewish thought, including Maimonides and Martin Buber.

Harry was thrilled when at Thanksgiving and at December holidays Richard shared his studies in Jewish thought and the somewhat playful paper he wrote about Job whom he characterized as a reluctant existentialist. Harry would listen, and didn’t so much advance the conversation as he signaled how proud he was of Richard’s intellectual work. Maybe as a reward, Harry introduced Richard to one of his favorite pastimes – a tumbler of Johnny Walker Red after dinner.  Richard admits he even dabbled with pipe smoking as more homage to his dad.

In thinking back on Harry’s love of literature, particularly poetry, and how it influenced his own intellectual development, Richard remembers the time that Harry and he had a particularly ugly fight about the truthfulness of some claim. They disagreed, argued, even yelled vehemently. It was a sign of a new time. As was Harry’s habit in times like this, he stormed off to sulk. Richard felt really badly and struggled to think of a way to make things right.  He grabbed a notecard and wrote the words “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye need to know on earth. That is all ye need to know”, the last few lines of Keats’ poem on seeing the Elgin Marble. Harry understood the purpose of the card and they hugged.