Moishe “Mace” Bugen stood at just 43 inches tall, but his life was much bigger than that.
Born with a form of achondroplastic dwarfism, Bugen led a full life before he passed away in 1982. He started his own business and became a self-made millionaire. He may also be credited with the idea of taking selfies with celebrities, as he’d often sneak under ropes and past security to snap photos with people like Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis.
His story is now detailed in The Little Gate-Crasher: The Life and Photos of Mace Bugen, written by his great-niece Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, director of Whole Community Inclusion at Jewish Learning Venture in Melrose Park.
Though she was only 11 when Bugen died, Kaplan-Mayer recalls growing up with Bugen — taking rides in Bugen’s specially equipped blue-and-white Jeep named Hadassah and visiting him in his apartment attached to the back of her grandparents’ house, its furniture reconfigured to suit his size.
“My sister and I would love to play in [his] house. It was kind of like Goldilocks to us,” she laughed.
The Little Gate-Crasher, released in October 2016 and recently chosen as a 2017 Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM) national book selection, came about after looking through the photos Bugen left behind.
The photos feature Bugen with people like Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Jane Russell, Isaac Stern, Richard Nixon and many others — and they’re reproduced in the book along with funny anecdotes and historical context.
Kaplan-Mayer recalled that as a family, “we always marveled at what an incredible human being he was and what an incredible spirit, and just felt like this is a story the world needed to hear.”
“It’s such a positive story,” she added, “and he was an unstoppable human being who was raised at a time when people with differences — I think even more so than today — were looked down on, were looked at as less than, and he never accepted that. That’s what the book is really about.”
After a year and a half of interviewing family members and digging up news articles and recordings, Kaplan-Mayer wrote the book to not only tell Bugen’s story, but also to raise awareness of how those with disabilities are treated.
“I wanted to write a book about him,” Kaplan-Mayer said, “because … I knew that even though attitudes toward people with disabilities have changed a lot since his life, there’s still a lot of way to go and a lot of awkwardness and people sort of just not knowing how to be around people who are different in whatever way.”
The book is a quick read but chock full of stories of Bugen’s professional and personal life, from running for town commissioner of Phillipsburg (his slogan: “I’m for the little guy”) to crashing a Knesset meeting and taking pictures while on a trip to Israel.
His selfie-snapping days began in 1934 when a 19-year-old Bugen convinced his older brother, Phil, to take him from their native Phillipsburg, N.J., to Chicago to see boxer Joe Louis in his first professional fight.
Bugen snuck under the ropes of the ring in Louis’ corner and kissed his gloves to wish the boxer “some Jewish luck.”
That luck indeed rubbed off on Louis. Amid the pandemonium following his victory, Bugen followed him into his locker room and took some photos.
From then on, he was hooked on snapping portraits with unsuspecting celebrities and, said Kaplan-Mayer, he had the chutzpah to do it.
“When you’re 43 inches tall, you get stared at wherever you go,” she said. “So he turned it around and it was like, ‘Well, if people are gonna look at me, I’ll give them something really amazing to look at.’”
The book details his upbringing, growing up in the Great Depression with Russian-Jewish immigrant parents who ran a corner store. The key was that his family treated him no differently because of his size.
“I’m also a mom of a 13-year-old son who has autism, and that was what really brought me into the awareness that as a Jewish educator that we really need to be doing more to raise awareness. … I grew up in a family where we valued Mace for who he was,” she said.
When Bugen was a child, “a lot of families sent children away who were different … and the fact that that was never a discussion for my great-grandparents is like discovering a really beautiful legacy,” Kaplan-Mayer said.
He went to school like his siblings and planned to become a lawyer. But Bugen realized the many law books would be too heavy for him to carry around a campus.
“He gives up the dream of becoming a lawyer because there was no accommodation back then,” Kaplan-Mayer said. “Now it sounds so crazy.”
Instead, he worked for years at his family’s corner store and later started his own real estate business in Easton. Before it became common to flip houses à la HGTV, Bugen bought old houses and fixed them up and flipped them to sell. He was also a notary public and insurance agent.
“So much of the world is just not acceptable when you’re 43 inches tall or smaller,” Kaplan-Mayer said, “so starting his own business was a really clever way to go.”
Kaplan-Mayer, who will appear at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in February, is humbled that Gate-Crasher was chosen as a JDAIM read.
“I hope that Mace’s spirit is catching,” she said. “This gives people a sense of historical perspective and also challenges us to say, ‘Look at these photos. Hear this story. How do you personally react when you see someone who’s different?’”
Bugen himself put it best: “When I was a kid,” he once said, “I’d ask myself, ‘Why is that guy on the football team? Why can’t I be on the team? Why didn’t God give me the height so I could be the hero?’ Then at some point I figured it out: I gotta do something special to let ’em know I’m me.”
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