Much 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.