Uncle Joe, Uncle Norman, JFK and Me

Families with any luck whatsoever have a relative who is larger than life, a genuine character that leaves behind a trail of remarkable anecdotes that celebrate a life well lived. Mine was doubly blessed because we had two, Joe and Norman.

Supposedly, they were my great uncles but who the hell knows.

My dad’s mother believed that, somehow, in some way, everyone was related so when she summoned her very extended family to an annual “cousins club” gathering each August, everybody came to Milwaukee from wherever they lived, including Joe and Norman. Nobody said “no” to Caroline, a true matriarch in every sense of the word. As a very little boy at one sweltering gathering of the clan, I was told by grandma that Joe and Norman were my uncles, so my uncles they were.

I remember them as huge, gregarious men with rumpled, Matthau faces creased with permanent smiles, marshmallow stomachs, and thick sausages at the end of their hands where most people had fingers. They spoke with traces of the Old World dialect where they came from around the time of the Kerensky revolution, calling soup “zoup” and saying “tanks” to express appreciation. They’d lapse into Yiddish occasionally, usually when kids were nearby who were too young to hear a dirty joke. Their breath smelled of cigars but they were the only men on either side of my family at the time who wore after-shave lotion.

Even as a child, somehow I recognised Joe and Norman as snappy dressers, adding to their exotic mystique. Like everybody else at cousin’s club, my mother – who hadn’t yet blossomed into the well-coiffed fashionista that she became in her mid-30s and that lasted the rest of her life – wore shorts, sleeveless blouses, and sandals, and my dad donned “wash pants” with a faded pullover shirt. But Joe and Norman always arrived in crisply pressed, brightly patterned shirts and pastel pants that didn’t look like anything hanging in closets around our house. Their shoes were very shiny and I remember they wore gaily coloured, argyle socks. I’d never seen coloured socks before, only white or black.

They fascinated me for reasons only a pre-schooler could possibly understand: They were friendly, familiar, foreign, and glamorous all at the same time.

I saw them once every summer until grandma died suddenly of flu sometime in the mid-1950s. After the unyielding, unifying force in my dad’s family passed into memory, so did cousin’s club. Oh, it limped into one more summer but, without Caroline’s iron will enforcing the invitation, half the family didn’t show up. The following year, no one even bothered trying to organise the party.

Yet the Brothers Alperson continued to flutter in and out of my life over the next decade.

When I was about 11, a family vacation took us to Disneyland and Los Angeles, which, it turned out, is where Joe, Norman, their wives, and a handful of cousins – real cousins, not just members of grandma’s expansive definition of “family” – lived. I was dazzled, not only by the Magic Kingdom’s magical rides but by the entire experience. For one thing, I discovered that everybody in LA seemed to dress like Joe and Norman. For another, the two each lived in houses in Beverly Hills so massive I got lost wandering around – several times – with pools and manicured gardens and lemon trees and something called a racquetball court. When I asked for a soda, an actual maid in a uniform scurried off to fetch it. One of them had a Rolls Royce parked on the circular drive leading to the front door.

Huh? What’s going on here? My still-developing brain was registering a huge non-compute.

Back home, everybody I called a relative or neighbour or buddy lived in ordinary houses in ordinary neighbourhoods with Chevys or Fords in the driveway. So did friends of my parents, many of whom they’d known since high school. Certainly neither set of my grandparents lived like Joe and Norman. Yet here were these two relatives living in homes that were like, well, like pictures of where movie stars lived.

“They did well in business,” was my dad’s simple yet vague explanation that evening back at the motel. Phooey, I thought. I knew my father was “in business” too, so pop must have been doing something terribly wrong.

It was only years later that I learned how – and why – Joe and Norman “did well in business,” discovering luck is as important as smarts in the world in the process.

Peabody here. Sherman, set the wayback machine to the depths of the Great Depression.

It’s the mid-1930s in Milwaukee and everybody was struggling: My dad’s first job was hawking newspapers when he was eight, his father drove a laundry truck, and grandma would do some of the washing and ironing that didn’t quite make it to the plant before grandpa finished his daily route. When he returned clean clothes a few days later, he pocketed the money for the laundry grandma had done. They let an attic room in their rented duplex to “George mit der schlissel” – George with the keys, a guy who never worked but had so many keys my dad and his sisters figured the guy could open any door in town.

As for Joe and Norman, they hadn’t worked in two or three years. They lived in a rotating cycle of relative’s apartments, basements or attics, took odd jobs when they could find one, sponged a meal where they could get one, and probably looked like many of the urban sufferers captured in Dorothea Lange’s iconic photographs of the time.

Trying to change their luck, around 1935 or 1936 they scraped, borrowed, and maybe stole enough spare change to buy a jalopy, fill the tank, bid farewell to Milwaukee and – not unlike Dust Bowl Okies – set out for Los Angeles, their few possessions wrapped in cardboard suitcases held together with rope. The money and gas ran out in Springfield, Illinois.

Joe and Norman did what anyone on the skids, broke and hungry, might do when stranded in a strange town: They walked around looking for a brothel. Not because they wanted to get laid; they couldn’t afford a hooker if they did. But they figured that even during the Depression, brothels were making money, which meant they might have a job open, especially in a state capitol. Springfield was filled with crooked politicians, glad-handers – now called the more genteel “lobbyist” – who were eager to exchange cash or provide a prostitute for a vote to hangers-on and others who had money to spare.

Their hunch paid off and, by dinner, they found a whore house whose Madame hired them. Because Norman was bigger than Joe, he became a bouncer while his brother could sort-of bang out three jazz tunes on the piano – the only three he knew. During off hours, they cleaned rooms, carted out garbage and empty bottles, ran errands, and kept the girls amused. Whatever that meant.

It took them at least a month to earn enough to fill up the jalopy and hit the road again with a little cash in their pockets. By then, they’d decided it made sense to brothel hop from one state capital to another. Their trek west followed blue highways to Jefferson City, Lincoln, Denver, Carson City, and Sacramento before finally making Los Angeles – seven months after starting out.

There are different accounts floating around my family of what happened next, including several variations told by Joe and Norman themselves.

What is agreed upon is that, somehow, the brothers became swamis who hired out to Hollywood parties. Their qualification? They bought a few dish towels at Woolworth’s, wrapped them around their heads, got a couple of capes from a used costume shop and developed a patter. Entirely by happenstance, Joe and Norman began entertaining movie swells gathered for parties at the homes of “A” list stars. They called themselves Prince Oombah and Prince Boombah, the all-knowing seers of the exotic East.

Only if East Odessa is considered exotic.

The money wasn’t great yet the work was steady and a lot easier than dealing with drunks, druggies, and dishes in a bordello. They still lived in the same rundown rooming house they moved into when they arrived in LA but ate more-or-less regularly and had a roof over their heads.

Late one night in 1939, Joe was walking to the bus on Hollywood Boulevard after a gig – in those pre-war days, LA had superb public transit and Norman took the car to a different party in Pasadena – when a drunk stumbled out of a bar, fell down on the sidewalk, and began crawling to his auto. Knowing that the guy was in no shape to drive, Joe put him in the passenger seat, looked at the car registration hanging on the steering wheel to find his address, and drove the drunk home to Santa Monica. When a startled, half-asleep woman in a nightgown and robe opened the door of a very large house, Joe handed her his Prince Oombah card and a passed-out husband, then made his own way home.

Several days later the pay phone rang in the boys’ rooming house: Someone was calling Prince Oombah. When Joe grabbed the receiver, an efficient-sounding female voice on the other end asked if she was speaking to the man who helped Mr. Raymond home a few nights earlier. Joe didn’t remember the drunk’s name but said he had assisted a gentleman who wasn’t able to drive.

“Good. I’m Mr. Raymond’s secretary,” she explained, “and he would like to invite you to lunch to thank you.”

Joe accepted immediately and, thinking quickly, mentioned that his brother also helped. Could he come to lunch, too? Even though Norman was on the other side of Los Angeles, a free meal was hard to come by and the brothers took care of each other.

“Certainly,” the woman stated matter-of-factly before giving Joe the name of a swank restaurant in Beverly Hills and suggesting a time and date to meet.

When the boys arrived at the appointed hour, they were greeted by a man who introduced himself as A.E. Raymond. During the lunch in the fanciest restaurant either Joe or Norman had ever eaten in in their life, Raymond thanked them profusely for helping him out, admitting he wasn’t much of a drinker and probably would have killed himself if he tried driving home that night. Raymond said that he remembered very little of the evening. Then he asked a peculiar question: Did they like being swamis?

“It’s a living,” one of them said.

“Ever thought of doing something else?” Raymond asked.

“Like what?”

“Like going into the scrap metal business,” was the answer. Raymond explained that he was vice president of engineering at Douglas Aircraft so if Joe and Norman would open a junkyard, he’d tell them what kind of scrap to buy that Douglas needed and then purchase it from them.

“It’s the best way I can re-pay you,” Raymond said.

The two brothers looked at each other briefly and decided immediately: Being junk men wouldn’t be any worse than being swamis so they agreed on the spot. Raymond then lent them $100 – a fortune in those days – to find a suitable spot for their new business, and to buy the metal detailed on an initial list of the kinds of metals Raymond and his fellow engineers at Douglas required for the planes they were designing and building.

“Call me when you’re set up,” Raymond said, shaking each of the boy’s hands as they parted company after lunch.

Within a month, they were in business. They’d located a large, vacant lot on the southeastern edge of LA’s downtown that was already surrounded by a fence and had a small shack in a corner of the property. After paying the first month’s rent, they used the balance of Raymond’s $100 to begin buying scrap metal. To save money, they moved out of the rooming house, bought two Army surplus cots and moved into the shack. A second hand hot plate and ice box were found and, like many immigrants starting a new business, lived “above the store.”

With Raymond helping them, Joe and Norman began making money – not a lot but more than they made telling fortunes to movie stars – and were learning the scrap metal business. What they didn’t sell to Douglas, they sold to steel mills, other junkyards, and to people who wandered in looking for an old part or a piece of tin that they needed for whatever.

By mid-1941, they had a thriving business. Joe and Norman were making enough money to rent small homes; they each bought a car and met the girls they’d eventually marry. True to his word, A.E. Raymond kept telling the brothers what kind of metal to acquire and Douglas bought as much of it as they could lay their hands on.

Then, one Sunday morning, Pearl Harbor was bombed.

America was at war and, suddenly, every aircraft maker, ship builder, and munitions manufacturer in the country needed scrap metal. Telegrams, phone calls and letters ordering metal poured into the junk yard from the War Department as well as companies stretching across all 48 states.

For the next four years, the junkyard expanded as rapidly as the boy’s bank accounts. By 1945, the war had made them wealthy young men and they began looking for opportunities beyond selling scrap metal. They acquired a small steel mill sometime in the late Forties, turning their own scrap into finished products that help build the post-war boom of the 1950s. When they bought the mill, it was a non-union shop and, much to the amazement of a lot of people, invited in a steel worker’s union to represent their employees.

“We got lucky in the war,” Joe explained to me many years later, “and we wanted to be sure that our workers who were off fighting felt they were lucky, too, now that they were home.”

Over the next 25 years, there never was a strike at the mill.

It was this progressive attitude – some called it Communist at the time, and for a while the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated the pair but found nothing other than two generous men – that permeated their politics for the rest of their lives.

Joe attended the 1956 Democratic National Convention, not as a delegate but to watch the action. When Adlai Stevenson threw his vice presidential selection to the floor, Joe became fascinated by Jack Kennedy and the apparatus of family and loyalists he brought to the contest. Joe said he wanted Kennedy to win but, after Eisenhower was re-elected by a large percentage of Americans who simply wanted to go about their lives without a lot of ruckus from Washington, he concluded it was the best thing to happen to JFK’s political future.

Perhaps only Kennedy’s father was an earlier supporter and financial backer than Joe when Jack began thinking in 1958 about running for president. He convinced Norman to throw his money behind Kennedy, as well, and estimates that the two of them contributed roughly $50,000 to JFK’s primary and general election campaign. In 1960, that was a lot of money to give to a politician. And unlike today, they didn’t tie their contributions to a wish-list of legislative or regulatory desires or because they wanted to be ambassadors or receive a job in the New Frontier. All they wanted was Kennedy to be elected president.

The Democratic Convention was held in Los Angeles in 1960 and one morning Joe received a call from Bobby Kennedy. “Jack wants to get away from the (Ambassador) hotel for a while. Can he spend the afternoon at your place?”

By then, Joe and his wife Sadie were living in a little palace on Sunset Boulevard, just past the western end of the Strip. It was a 5,000-square foot home with just two humongous bedrooms and three nearly-as-large closets on the second floor, perfect for an almost-presidential nominee who wanted a bit of privacy. And so, shortly after lunch, a white Chrysler Imperial pulled into the driveway and Jack got out, alone. No aides, no press pool, no camp followers, no security, no Secret Service detail; in those days, the Secret Service didn’t establish a security bubble until final results were known on election night. Just John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his driver, who waited in the car.

The trio had lunch at the pool, chatting about politics, golf, sailing, kids – Jacquelyn was pregnant at the time and was having a difficult time; Joe and Sadie were unable to have children – and more politics. As they were finishing, a maid appeared in the garden to say that a visitor had arrived to see Senator Kennedy.

Joe later recounted that Jack flashed them his famous smile and, as he rose to follow the housekeeper, beckoned the couple to follow them.

Waiting in the front vestibule was Marilyn. As in Monroe. Introductions were made, the four made their way back out to the pool and small talk was made. Joe later told me that neither he nor Sadie knew quite what to say to the couple seated across the wrought iron table. “What do you say to the next President of the United States and the most famous movie star in America when they’re sitting in your yard?” he explained to me much later.

At one point, Kennedy leaned over and whispered something to Joe who nodded a “yes” and whispered back. With that, Jack and Marilyn walked into the house and disappeared for about an hour. When Kennedy rejoined his hosts, Monroe had left. The three shared a scotch, John and Joe smoked Cuban cigars that JFK had brought along, and an hour later Jack left.

About five or six months later, the man who spent a warm Los Angeles afternoon with Uncle Joe and Aunt Sadie stood in front of the Capitol and swore to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Meanwhile, I spent that summer and fall in Minneapolis, stuffing envelopes in an un-air conditioned campaign office volunteering for Kennedy.

Fast forward to February, 1962.

I was taking the obligatory junior high spring break trip to Washington in late March and my father called Joe to ask a favour: Could he possibly arrange for me to meet Kennedy while I was there?

A very long week passed before a return call came from LA. Yes, the president would meet me in the Oval Office. I was to report to the Northwest Gate of the White House on the Wednesday I’d be in DC at a specific time and ask for Kenneth O’Donnell, JFK’s appointment secretary. So nervous and excited was I that I walked back and forth in Lafayette Park across from The White House for at least an hour before my scheduled meeting ‘lest I be late. It occurred to me as I was writing this that if it my trip happened today, I’d probably arouse suspicion pacing in the park and quickly find myself surrounded by a heavily armed SWAT team and as many Secret Service agents.

At the appointed time, I approached the gate and gave my name to the policeman, said rather grandly that Mr. O’Donnell was expecting me and, after the cop made a phone call, was allowed to enter. I remember every one of the several dozen steps from inside the gate to the West Portico: Looking up at the mansion, wondering if Caroline or Jacquelyn was looking down at me from the second floor living quarters, realising how much larger the building is up close than it looked in photos. A Marine honor guard opened the door to the West Wing for me and I was inside. I realised my hands were sweaty and I hoped I wasn’t leaving a stain on a copy of a book Kennedy had written, The Strategy of Peace, that I’d brought along for the president to sign.

The receptionist in the waiting room – it was much smaller than I expected it would be – welcomed me by name as I stepped to her desk. Suddenly, there was O’Donnell shaking my hand and asking me about Uncle Joe. Then, he handed me off to a very large and very polite Secret Service agent who walked me through a maze of hallways, past three or four desks where secretaries were working, and knocked on a door. He opened it a crack and from inside I saw President Kennedy motion for us to come in.

The next 90 or so seconds passed in a blue. JFK walked towards me and shook my hand; as he did, I spotted the famous rocking chair from the corner of my eye. Somebody snapped a photo and the president was signing my book as he made some comment about Joe and Norman. I think I said something in reply but who-the-hell knows. Then, Kennedy shook my hand again and I was ushered out into a different hallway.

It was over.

I’ve no recollection of how I got there but suddenly I was back on Pennsylvania Avenue. I turned and glanced back, wondering if I’d ever enter the building again in my lifetime. I opened the book and looked at the scrawl Kennedy had made; only much later did I discover that, apparently, he started to sign it on the wrong flyleaf because at the back of the book is a small, aborted chicken scratch.

The book has accompanied me from city to- city, remaining one of my three or four most-prized possessions. Not wanting it to end up being sold for a dollar at a yard sale of the remains of my day after I’m gone, I donated it this year to a fundraising auction held by The Nation magazine, which doesn’t accept advertising; someone in Massachusetts paid nearly $1,000 for it in a spirited, on-line bidding war.

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Joe and Norman, and their wives, died many years ago. The last time I was in LA, I drove past the house on Sunset and wondered if the current occupants have any idea that their home is an asterisk in American political history.I hadn’t thought of the two brothers in a long time. But for most of my life, I always kept an eye open for a drunken businessman stumbling out of a bar late at night who may need help getting home. Turns out that lightening doesn’t strike twice.

Charley James
The Progressive Curmudgeon

A deeply appreciative h/t to the research librarians at the Library of Congress and the National Archives.
Published by the LA Progressive on December 29, 2009
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About Charley James

If you are born in Milwaukee, chances are you're born a Democrat. So, I gravitated naturally to liberal politics as an activist and a journalist. I've been writing since I was eight and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigtative jouralist. For much of the past year, I've been writing about homelessness - America's immorality play.