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'A Substitute Home'

August 7, 2008 By:
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Visiting the Catskills these days -- that swath of greenery and deep shade where the great Jewish-owned resorts once reigned supreme -- is a depressing journey back into the recent past. The region is not just economically depressed; it's like touring a string of ever more deserted ghost towns. And as is the nature of most ghost towns, you can see in everything still standing the traces of a more prosperous age. Any of the old hotels that have managed to hang on, like Kutscher's, are faint memories of what they once were. They've been hanging on by their fingernails in the hope that gambling might come to the mountains and give the area the revenue kick it needs. But that scenario has yet to materialize.

That's why it's nice to have Tania Grossinger's book Growing Up at Grossinger's back in print. Not only is it a quick, fun read, but it also provides a fairly detailed account of how one of the grandest of the hotels operated, all of it provided by an insider who was not always so comfortable about having been let in. This slightly jaundiced view of the proceedings has just the right tone -- far from reverential, yet not so dispirited as to ignore the atmospherics.

Tania Grossinger was 8 years old when, in 1945, she was taken from her home in California and whisked off to the Catskills, where her mother, Karla, had been made the hotel's new social hostess. Tania and her mother were related to the owners through marriage, and so the connection to this grand institution, and to those who ran it, was tenuous at best. (The author's father, an authentic Grossinger who'd always suffered from heart issues, died when his daughter was only 6 months old.)

According to Tania, she had been brought there for a very specific reason -- and not solely because her mother had accepted a new job. In fact, her mother had a perfectly wonderful position in Beverly Hills; Karla was the manager of the John Frederick millinery salon, where her daughter notes "she perfected the charm and the chic that were to be her saving grace in the years to come."

As the author tells it, her mother believed in getting a good eduction, and so sent her daughter to a boarding school in Hollywood, from which Tania returned home each Sunday. But one week, upon returning to school, the young girl found that none of her friends would talk to her.

"When I asked my closest girl friend, she told me that no one liked me anymore 'because you're Jewish. It's because of you that our daddies are being killed in the war and that's why we hate you.' I didn't quite understand. I wasn't even sure what being Jewish was. ... My mother had no close Jewish friends to speak of and though she had very deep feelings about her religion, they hadn't yet been transferred to me."

The next Sunday, Tania came home in hysterics, and Karla sprang into action. She'd take the job at Grossinger's that had been offered to her by the famous Jenny Grossinger herself, and it would be at this undeniably Jewish resort that Tania would learn about her roots.

Inside the Operation

Grossinger's was then at the height of its popularity and might even have been, says Tania, "the most famous resort hotel in America." Spread over 850 acres, in season, it provided "a substitute home to close to 1,000 guests each week." Tania soon learned that a variety of Grossinger family members were involved either full-time or just peripherally in the running of the hotel. But she also learned fairly quickly that it was the nationally famous Jennie Grossinger and her husband Harry who were the ones who really ran things.

"Harry was what was called 'the inside man.' Shy, uncomfortable in crowds, he much preferred to work behind the scenes, away from the prying eyes of the guests. He was responsible for the marketing, the expansion, the building. An unassuming man, as friends he preferred people who worked with their hands as opposed to those who worked with their minds.

"Jennie, on the other hand, was just the opposite. She loved people and craved their attention. A grade-school dropout, she had an amazing capacity for growth and a thirst for knowledge she pursued all her life. She wanted to get to know everybody, to learn how they got to be who they were, to dress in the very latest styles, and to bask in important people's limelight. She was the hotel's 'outside person,' the one who, before my mother joined the staff, greeted each guest personally, tried to see that their every whim was catered to, and was the focal point of all the publicity the hotel received."

Growing Up at Grossinger's is a wonderful combination of personal anecdotes -- exactly what it means to grow up as a hotel kid, and not a particularly favored one -- along with extended peeks into just how a resort works, especially the complex routines the staff at Grossinger's followed to make their customers feel welcome and pampered. (And for those who like to indulge in show-biz nostalgia, there are lots of passages about the entertainers who once graced the stage -- or tried out a room -- at Grossinger's.)

As the author points out, people made their way to Grossinger's "for any combination of reasons," as Tania learned over the seasons. "They came to meet someone of the opposite sex, to get away from the hot city in the summer, to make business contacts, to eat, to take advantage of the athletic facilities, to meet new people, to be entertained, to honeymoon, to be able to drop into cocktail-party conversations the fact that they had spent their vacation at Grossinger's and, primarily, to have fun -- however and wherever they could find it. The staff, facilities and family were at their disposal."

Summer was the busiest season, and as soon as the staff managed to figure out where they stood vis-à-vis their temporary charges, guests could be divided into three basic categories: families, who generally came up for one- or two-week stays; singles, who came up for the weekend; and the 100 or so summer seasonals, who returned year after year, and spent the whole eight weeks in the mountains. Kids came along; as for husbands, they generally left each Monday morning to return to the garment district or to whatever office building happened to house them, then returned as the weekend drew near.

Food at Grossinger's was really at the heart of the proceedings, and its abundance was the immigrant generation's great joy -- they could actually send back food they didn't want, which was unheard of at home -- and probably was part of what caused the demise of these places once the weight-conscious baby-boomers arrived on the scene. Tania reprints the voluminous menus provided for each meal each day (you could also request food at any time) and also profiles Dave Geiver, the man in the dining room who did the seating -- and could, thus, make or break a young single woman's weekend, depending on where he placed her in the sea of vacationing people.

All of this is wonderfully nostalgic to read about -- and, in addition, you get to follow the author as she struggles with the Grossinger legacy. By the end of the book, Tania does come to understand that the childhood she had -- admittedly, growing up in odd confines -- was not nearly as bad as she'd always believed it to be.


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