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The Life of Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre
by Martin Boris

Chapter Thirty-Six: “I Had Planned For a Longtime.”
Chapter Thirty-Seven: “The Greatest Thing We’ve Done to Save Our Lives.”  
Chapter Thirty-Eight:
“We Will After All Still Do Great Things.”
Chapter Thirty-Nine: "Our Enemies, Burning Like a Fire."

Chapter Thirty-Six: “I Had Planned For a Long Time”

                        An event of monumental importance in the private life of Maurice Schwartz (who all but proclaimed the lack of one) took place in 1947. The year began routinely enough with his tour of Europe, the first he made since the war’s end. Not to the usual and familiar playhouses of the past, but alone, presenting monologues and songs, in the jerry-built social halls of the Displaced Persons camps, entertaining the remnants of Europe’s Jewish population, who’d somehow survived all attempts to erase it from the earth. A quarter of a million barely alive, homeless, rootless Jews were housed in makeshift barracks, waiting to be transported to Palestine (soon to become Israel), America, or, in a few rare cases, back to where they once lived, as if not quite convinced that Europe had been turned into the world’s largest Jewish cemetery, and that their once richly-populated lives would be there waiting for them.

                        The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the overall dispersing agency for monies gathered by a consortium of Jewish-American organizations for foreign relief, had its busiest period after the Second World War, helping to rebuild the lives of the death camp survivors, sending food, clothing, teachers, medical personnel and social workers to the temporary shelters. Entertainment soon followed for those who yearned to hear a familiar song, a klezmer tune, or passages from a Yiddish play they’d once seen.

                        Maurice was one of the many Yiddish performers to make this very special errand of mercy, his tour confined to France and Belgium. While there, for some inexplicable reason, the Schwartzes were taken to a combination old age home and orphanage outside of Brussels, run by the Christian Brothers, where about 30 Jewish homeless and parentless boys resided. During the war, it had been the only one permitted by the Nazis, as part of the deal worked out with King Leopold in his surrender agreement. Schwartz had planned for quite a while to adopt two children while overseas, and at the orphanage he asked to see some of their charges. “The boys were brought to me, and while I was there, looking over their charts, a third boy insisted that the attendant show his chart. He was blond-haired and so excited and eager to please that I took all three out to the nearest candy store”  (Lehane 12 Nov. 1947).

                        Schwartz decided to adopt the three, even if the blond boy was slightly cross-eyed. He learned however that since this poor child had a sister still alive and living closeby, adoption was impossible, unless of course the Schwartzes also took the little girl, too. Anna’s heart at once went out to the nine-year old waif, whose name was Moses, the same as Maurice’s before he changed it. In Yiddish, Maurice raised his objections, which Anna quickly refuted: “What’s the matter?” she asked reproachfully. “You can’t stand to look at him? You have lots of pity for everyone else. I want this boy”  (Chafran 30 Nov. 1999).

                        And so Anna won out. After all, it would be she doing most of the parenting, while Maurice was off on tour, away for months at a time. Anna wanted the cross-eyed boy and the younger sister he hadn’t seen in six years and probably had forgotten entirely. Their parents, Abraham and Chava Englander, Polish Jews, had been deported in 1940 to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Whatever possessed the Schwartzes to consider adoption in the first place, a childless couple approaching the age of 60, theatre people constantly on the go, is one of the great mysteries of this story. In a way, being responsible for two young lives, with no prior experience or training in raising children, is even more daunting than raising the Art Theatre from birth to old age. At least Maurice had been an experienced actor, with 15 years of seasoning behind him, before he opened the Irving Place theatre. Being a father is an immense undertaking that is learned only on the job by flexible youngsters, and punctuated by lots of mistakes that might be even more costly than producing the most expensive flop.

                       About the sister, the Schwartzes were told only that Fanny was two years younger than her brother, and lived about 35 miles south of the orphanage, having been placed there by the Belgian underground for her safety with a Christian family, to be reared as one of their own. For the child, it was a most extraordinary and traumatic day when she was reunited with the brother she no longer remembered. She was living in the tiny village of Quaregnon, presumably the daughter of Maurice and Denise Vandervoordt, and speaking only French. Until the visit of a well-dressed woman from Brussels, who informed them that it was time to let go of Fanny. The Vandervoordts in turn let her know that she wasn’t their real daughter, and that her parents had perished in the Holocaust.

                       Denise Vandervoordt dressed Fanny in her best clothes and allowed the woman from Brussels to take away her child of four years, to the orphanage in Wezembeck, where she was introduced to a nine-year-old boy named Moses, her true brother. Here, she would remain for weeks, until her departure for the United States, where her third set of parents lived.

                         With the adoption process for Fanny and Moses Englander begun, and the round of appearances at the DP camps completed, the Schwartzes returned to America on July 16th, to sweat out the balance of the necessary paperwork and bide their time. And to make preparations for the new season.

                        On the evening of October 16th, brother and sister were place aboard a Sabena DC-6, due to arrive the next day at LaGuardia Airport on Flushing Bay in Queens, New York. The plane was three hours late because of turbulence over the Atlantic, and a fog that covered New York like a quilt. Maurice and Anna had been up since dawn, listening to the weather reports, and eager to get to the airport. At LaGuardia, a nervous and sweaty Maurice had paced like a caged tiger, as if the airport were a theatre and this was opening night. More than 100 interested parties were also there, waiting to greet the new arrivals: friends, family, members of the Art Theatre, and of course, a cadre of reporters and photographers to capture this most newsworthy happening, which certainly wouldn’t hurt ticket sales for the recently opened Shylock and His Daughter.

                       The tardy DC-6 at last touched down and taxied to the tarmac. The photographers, determined to get it right, positioned themselves to catch the poignant moment: the two orphans meeting their adoptive parents. Fanny and Moses, descending the plane’s staircase, were instructed by the oddly gesticulating men with cameras to go back up the steps then down again, many times, until the angle was perfect. The shot that made the dailies shows the Sabena in the background, with two decidedly foreign children, halfway down the steps. The boy, tall and fair-haired, is sporting a dark, Danish sailor’s cap, short pants supported by suspenders, matching jacket, and white shirt. He is peering down. Carefully measuring his descent, probably because of his eye condition. He is not wearing his glasses.

                        The girl is obviously Semitic, with huge, dark, lively eyes. Intensely pretty, she’s dressed in a domed, wide-brimmed, peasant hat, dark dress fringed with a white scalloped collar, and white knee-high socks. Fanny glances directly at the parents she’s never seen before and appears about to laugh or cry. Maurice stands alongside the staircase, to the right, the best side for the camera shots, his arms thrown out to embrace his new daughter, though she was being adopted only because Belgian regulations demanded it. A foot behind, at her usual place on the periphery, is a more reserved Anna, dressed in a conservative suit that is partially covered with a fox stole.

                        Fanny and Moses were then spirited away to the apartment on E. 10th Street. Its only bedroom was ceded to the children, while the parents-in-training moved to the living room couch, a discomfort they willingly, happily accepted. Almost immediately, Maurice changed their names to Frances and Marvin, hoping perhaps to end one existence and begin another. He hired two tutors, one in English, one in Yiddish, though being Maurice Schwartz, he closely supervised their education.

                        Maurice threw himself into parenting like one possessed, the idea of filling these empty vessels driving him, as had every other project he undertook. During mealtimes, he also instructed them in English and Yiddish, pointing to a container of milk, a slice of bread, an orange, naming it twice, once in each language. And, as their comprehension grew, he’d read Yiddish stories to them and act out all the parts, in voices from deep bass to quivering falsetto. The happiness he derived performing for them was immeasurable. It seemed that besides his dramatic talents, he had a penchant for fatherhood.

                       Their first Saturday evening in America, Maurice took the kids to the Public to see what Papushka—their name for Schwartz—did for a living. After a performance of  Shylock and His Daughter, he threw a party in the playhouse to officially welcome them to America. They were placed on top of a large table center stage and Maurice’s entire crew circled the children in warmth and curiosity. At first, Marvin and Frances were enchanted with the world of make believe and their father’s place in its middle. As the glossy patina wore off, they discovered the seamier side of fame. Maurice would have to devote inordinate amounts of time to keep his image before the public. He’d drop in at cafes after a performance; there were endless rehearsals for the next production; he’d have lengthy sessions with those arranging his tours after the regular season was over. And he would never avoid the chance to appear on radio and TV to promote, always to promote. As the audiences dwindled, he’d work all the harder to remain in the forefront. And above all, there was the constant and pervasive concern about covering payroll and meeting other expenses.

                       Coming of age in the art theatre, at its tail end, the children saw Maurice as no one else could: not the constant optimist, the sanguine tower of strength, but as an all too human and vulnerable individual, who would repeatedly grumble about inadequate actors, thieving theatre managers, money-hungry playwrights, and critics, more concerned with building their own reputations than honestly assessing what he was trying to do. And finally, the union, for its tendency to foist more actors and stagehands on him than he needed, thus inflating the costs of productions prohibitively. Yet, despite these and other restrictions, he had to maintain a calm and dignity, never daring to risk his reputation by disclosing what was eating at his composure, his very soul.

                       While preparing himself for fatherhood, after his return from Europe, Maurice was working on Shylock and His Daughter, the only scheduled production for the 1947-1948 season. He’d done Shylock before of course, in 1930, as part of a nine-act vaudeville bill. But after he read a new novel with its sympathetic treatment of the moneylender, written by Ari Ibn-Zahav, a literature professor at Hebrew University in Palestine, and translated by Julian Meltzer, Jerusalem correspondent of the New York Times, he became interested. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice had as its basis, an original tale told by the 16th Century Italian priest Giovanni Fiorentino. A work of fiction, for there wasn’t a single incident recorded of a Jewish moneylender demanding a pound of flesh as security on a loan.

                       What Ibn-Zahav also determine after five years of scouring the Vatican library and other sources, was that no Christian court of law would have permitted such a contract to be written, much less enforced. Moreover, “as Shakespeare made no special effort to understand or familiarize himself with Jews of his age [. . .] he made use of material essentially strange to him. There had at the time been no Jews in England for over 300 years”  (Ibn-Zahav Oct. 1947). The Palestinian professor’s Shylock, as the center of his novel, is fully sketched out, with ample evidence of his humanity, his high standing in the Ghetto, a charitable and loving individual incapable of demanding human flesh as security. Here, it is Antonio who sarcastically proposes the bargain and Shylock who reluctantly accepts it.

                        The play opened on September 29th, while the Schwartzes were engaged in the final details of overseas adoption. Lester Bernstein, back reviewing Yiddish Theatre for the Times, was most favorably impressed: “What the new Yiddish play has done is to give Shylock something of the goading provocation that Shakespeare gave Hamlet. As enacted by Mr. Schwartz, in one of his most eloquent portraits, the character achieves a real measure of tragic status”  (Bernstein 30 Sept. 1947). Every mainstream critic reported basically the same impressions. Reported the New York-Journal American: “In his impersonation of the new Shylock, Mr. Schwartz is at the peak of his illustrious powers. By lowering his fulsome voice and restricting his generous gestures, his Jew of Venice is the most impressive on-stage portrait he has drawn”  (Garland 7 Oct. 1947).

                        Needless to say, the Yiddish press was as well high on the piece, pleased to promote a work that so earnestly attempted to correct the hideous libel that made of Shakespeare, in their eyes, an antisemite. But of greater importance than the critics’ bouquets, the audience adored the play. It ran for 147 performances before closing in January, to take to the road with bookings across Eastern America and at His Majesty’s Theatre in Montreal, Canada. The Art Theatre was doing the hit in Chicago when the telegram from Buenos Aires came, inviting them once again to the Soleil. His reputation never greater, Maurice packed up Anna and the children, and left for Argentina. From his troupe, he took only Charlotte Goldstein, knowing he would have little trouble putting together an adequate local company to do the Ibn-Zahav play.

Chapter Thirty-Seven: “The Greatest Thing We’ve Done To Save Our Lives”

                        For the season of the Art Theatre’s 30th anniversary, Schwartz announced a modest agenda. There would be four productions, six weeks each, beginning in late October  with The Voice of Israel, concluding the middle of April with Sholem Aleichem’s Yosele Solowey. The full schedule would re-institute the old end-of-season to around Passover. His publicity staff sent out a three-page circular to the assorted Jewish organizations of Greater New York and New Jersey, shamelessly appealing for box office support by tying the Art Theatre to the embattled State of Israel. Maurice strongly urged the many labor, social, religious and fraternal groups to use his theatre for fundraising campaigns to financially bolster the political entity that had been created in November, 1947, by the United Nations in its temporary home in Lake Success on Long Island.

                        American Zionists, who took a vital interest in the tiny besieged nation, would surely be interested in a play about Israel’s intense labor pains and subsequent birth. On October 25th, The Voice of Israel opened, even as the battle for Jerusalem was raging. The work was written by Elias Gilner, himself one of the founders of the Haganah, the Israeli resistance army. This timely and stirring drama begins during the British occupation, but after the UN has voted for partition. The Haganah is waging a war on two fronts—against the English, soon to depart, and against the Arabs, chafing to strangle the newborn state. In addition to directing the work, Maurice took for himself the heroic role of Nathan Ometz, a former American, who’d sold his textile business and moved the entire family of four sons to Palestine. Two sons have already paid the ultimate price, fighting for nationhood, but Ometz is prepared to sacrifice the other two and himself, in the noble cause.

                        Months earlier, the play had been tried out by Schwartz in Buenos Aires, following Shylock and His Daughter, and simultaneous with the British withdrawal from Israel. The Gilner  piece was not favorably accepted by the Soleil audiences. Perhaps they hadn’t the same Zionist convictions as American Jews, who’d poured millions into the new state and sent their children to fight in the war.

                            Brooks Atkinson, though sympathetic to the Israeli cause and an ardent Schwartzite, was disappointed: “The Voice of Israel is less exhilarating than the plushier dramas more common to the Art Theatre”  (Times 26 Oct. 1948). He confessed to doting on the old Yiddish classics rich in folklore and religious rites. Other mainstream critics were more favorably inclined. Thomas Dash of Women’s Wear Daily declared it “a stirring and blistering battle cry and a paean to those fighters of Haganah, pioneers and defenders of the settlements, who are ready to lay down their lives for the cause of independence”  (26 Oct. 1948). None of the positive reviewers were foolish enough to label Voice a work of art, though none condemned it as purely propaganda. Whatever the play was however “large sections of the first-night audience were stirred to tears”  (Biancolli 26 Oct. 1948).

                        As advertised, The Voice of Israel ran its six weeks, followed on December 6th by the second heralded offering, Hershel the Jester, the brand of Yiddish Theatre strongly favored by Atkinson. Its larger-than-life (and most fiction) hero Hershel Ostropoler, was based on a legendary character who supposedly lived at the end of the 18th Century. Penniless, he roamed from town to town in the Russian Ukraine, telling his stories in the marketplace and the tavern—wildly comic stories, some with the sharp edge of satire, that poked fun at the rich and well-situated Jews in the small towns and shtetls, many of them rabbis. The subtext of these stories was the refreshing disregard and disrespect for authority in all its manifestations, both religious and secular, an attitude Jews the world over could appreciate.

                        In the Moshe Livshitz reincarnation, Hershel is the court jester to an extremely dour rabbi, his prime task to make the religious leader laugh from time to time. An exhaustive search of the references has turned up no such writer as Moshe Livshitz, and it can be reasonably assumed that he was none other than Maurice Schwartz up to his old tricks, creating non-existent playwrights along with their plays.

                        The title role in this bit of good-natured buffoonery was aptly suited to Maurice, and a salutary change for the Art Theatre after the strident contemporaneity of The Voice of Israel. John P. Shanley, who reviewed it for the Times (and eventually rose to assistant editor of the paper’s drama department) thoroughly enjoyed himself despite the language barrier: “There is little subtlety in the humor of Hershel. But it is composed of ingredients that make for unrestrained merriment”  (14 Dec. 1948).

                       Regardless of Schwartz’s stated policy of running a work for six weeks, to make room for four plays, Hershel the Jester continued for two weeks longer than planned, closing on January 30th, 1949. The season ended as well, with Harry Kalmanowich’s Our Neighbors and Sholem Aleichem’s Yosele Solowey left in the lurch. As usual, lack of money was the deciding factor in the abrupt termination of the season.

                        One extra bit of theatre did take place that season before the Public closed until next fall. For the 30th anniversary of the Art Theatre, Schwartz presented a special event, two performances only, of the first acts from a quartet of his favorites: The Great Fortune, The Golden Chain, The Blacksmith’s Daughter, and The Dybbuk. Held on January 10th and 11th, the presentations interrupted the regular run of Hershel the Jester. Charlotte Goldstein recalls the occasion’s bittersweetness, how she’d always leave a single red rose in Maurice’s dressing room before each opening night, but on this special evening she’d been running late and couldn’t stop at the florist. “Somehow, no one else did either. Later he complained morosely to me: ‘Thirty years in the Art Theatre and no one brought a single flower.’ It was a terrible blow to his ego. He launched into a lament about how ungrateful the audience was. How quickly it forgot”  (Chafran 24 Dec. 1999).

                       The incident was proof positive to Maurice that Yiddish Theatre, his kind anyway, was deteriorating through loss of interest and/or ingratitude. Was his resentment justified? He was after all, offering less and less to fewer and fewer, and there were no longer any enamoured rich patriotten inclined to put hard- earned cash into his show, especially with Skulnik, Yablokoff and Molly Picon gobbling up most of the shrinking audience.

                        But if the handwriting was on the wall, writ large, Maurice chose to ignore it, continuing in the same old manner, as if the world hadn’t moved on, as if times and tastes hadn’t changed. Early in February, he took the company on the road, its usual circuitry over Eastern America and up into Canada. It was taken without Anna and the children—Frances and Marvin were attending public school in Manhattan--, the first extended period of separation from his freshly minted family. Maurice missed them terribly, an emotion once foreign to him. On February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, he wrote a pair of letters from the Statler Hotel in Boston, the first in English to his children, the other in Yiddish to Anna.

                        To 10-year old Marvin and his sister, younger by two years, he told of how much he missed them and couldn’t wait to see them again. He implored them to be kind and helpful to Anna. “She works so hard every minute of the day, and when you both do not practice the piano or make your Hebrew lessons, she suffers because she knows how hard I work to earn the money to pay the teachers”  (Schwartz letter 14 Feb. 1949).

                        This is Maurice Schwartz, behaving like any other middle-class father urging his kids to do well, even as he instills guilt over what it costs to educate them. Maurice hustling to make a living and take care of his family, is indeed a reborn person, who’d heretofore cared only about feeding the Art Theatre. But responsibility for one’s young is a powerful stimulus, and this most unfatherly of men is marching to the same humdrum drummer as legions of other wage earners.

                        Though not completely in lockstep, as he also urged Frances and Marvin to “think of the honor paid to me by so many thousands of people. You can get the same when you’ll be worthy of being Maurice and Anna Schwartz’s children”  (Schwartz letter 14 Feb. 1949). He’d pricked them to strive and achieve, not for riches and fame, but in an unguarded moment of pure egoism, to uphold his name.

                        To Anna, he revealed a more human vulnerability, a soft underbelly kept from everyone but her: “My dear Annie: I came home tired, broken, alone in my room. Your departure

With the children left me in a bad mood. I watched as the taxi drove away and thought that my one bit of happiness is leaving me, my reason for living in this world”  (Schwartz letter 14 Feb. 1949). He’d been wound tight because of financial woes. The day before, the family had come to Boston to see him, and he and Anna had quarreled bitterly, probably over some particularly flagrant infidelity of the moment. Perhaps she’d had enough of his romantic entanglements, especially with the children in their lives. And now, the painful separation, so he might make up the Art Theatre’s deficits of the past season.

                         Anna had questioned his love for her during the bickering, and it bothered him greatly that she thought he’d stopped loving her.. On the contrary, he wrote, he loved her even more, especially after she’d accepted so willingly the obligations of motherhood at both their advanced years. “But when I look at you and your face beams with joy and serenity because of the children, I feel it’s the greatest thing we’ve done to save our lives, because we have a reason to live and work—and hope. In our old age, we will surely have joy from them [. . .] and we must thank God each minute for the happiness with which he has blessed us”  (Schwartz letter 14 Feb. 1949).

                        By Passover, Maurice was thrilled to be back in New York, and with his family. At the Parkway theatre in Brooklyn, he performed Hershel the Jester. That summer he packed up the three Schwartzes and took them to South America, where he played the Mitre Theatre in Buenos Aires. As an indication of the state of Yiddish Theatre worldwide, the Mitre was but one of the two remaining Yiddish playhouses in the Argentine capital.

                Chapter Thirty-Eight: “We Will After All Still Do Great Things.”

                        The 1949-1950 season kicked off reasonably enough with the Sholem Aleichem work omitted from last year’s proposed agenda. Yosele, the Nightingale, supposedly based on the life of a remarkable artist from the Russian province of Mazepevke, is from a novel of the writer’s first creative period (1883-1890). Titled Yosele Solowey, it concerns a talented 16-year-old cantorial singer from a small village, who is inveigled into deserting his roots and his sweetheart for fame and wealth. But neither satisfies Yosele, and he returns home to marry his Esther. There, he succumbs instead to the charms of a rich, enticing widow, quickly marrying her and leaving Esther at the altar As the widow’s pampered new husband, he no longer cares to sing, becoming instead, indolent and idle. After a short period of disillusion, during which his voice vanishes, he returns to Mazepevke to find Esther married. The sheer waste of his life drives Yosele mad.

                        The plot’s skeleton resembles Stempenyu, another early Sholem Aleichem work. Both novels have the same Jewish bohemian hero and run-of-the-mill heroine, set against a background of rigid small town Jewish existence. For the folk comedy, Schwartz once again blended the time-tested Art Theatre veterans with a handful of newcomers. In the first category was Sholem Secunda, who wrote the music. (Rumshinsky had already been engaged by Molly Picon and her husband Jacob Kalich, to prepare the score for their runaway hit Abi Gezunt.) Bertha Gersten took a major role, as did Lucy German, Charlotte Goldstein, Vinogradoff, Mestel, Yudel Dubinsky, Julius Adler, Gustav Berger, and Ola Shlifko (as the seductive widow).

                        Among the freshmen were Bella Didja, formerly of the Metropolitan Opera House ballet company, who did the choreography, and in the title role, Moshe Zamar, a singer/actor from Paris, whom Maurice had hired sight unseen, over the telephone. Meeting him in New York for the first time, Schwartz sorely regretted his hastiness, as Zamar was short, slight, and without stage presence. It would be the Parisian’s only engagement in Yiddish or any other Theatre.

                        Schwartz dramatized and staged the novel, and took the plum part of Gedalye Bass, the Nightingale’s unscrupulous mentor. Staged in two parts and 16 scenes, the play opened on October 20, 1949. Reviewing it the next day, Atkinson declared Yosele the Nightingale to be “the freshest item Mr. Schwartz has staged in recent years. Both he and it manage to have a sense of humor [. . .] Yosele is a sound piece of comic theatre by an experienced craftsman”  (Times 21 Oct. 1949). For his efforts, Maurice received some of his best notices ever from both sets of critics, and the play ran for two months.

                         Competition that fecund season was stronger than ever, composed of an outstanding number of instant classics such as Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Mr. Roberts and South Pacific. The Art Theatre’s strongest rival however was Molly Picon, directly across the street at the Second Avenue Theatre. Ridiculed to the same extent by the anti-shundist Yiddish press and Schwartz, Abi Gezunt incorporated the Broadway musical into the Yiddish operetta, and used a good deal of American idioms. Picon and Kalich—their fingers on the Yiddish pulse—had known for years that they’d have to bastardize the language of their fathers to keep their audiences. Not that much later, even the Picon addicts stopped coming to see her, because no matter what she tried, the material was simply too passe, the left-overs of a world that was no more.

                        The fourth year after the war’s end would be the Art Theatre’s last at the Public, its lease expiring, with neither side interested enough in discussing a renewal. By January 1, 1950, Maurice was at His Majesty’s theatre in Montreal, performing Yosele and other favorites. After an unspectacular cross-country tour, drawn like a flower to sunshine, they arrived in California, at the Biltmore Theatre on Grand Street in downtown Los Angeles. The troupe settled in for a month’s stay, beginning on May 8th, with Shylock and His Daughter, moving on to Hershel the Jester on the 16th, concluding with a week of Riverside Drive. The core of his company had made the tour with Maurice, as did the managerial staff of Relkin, Mercur and Morris Strassberg, who was Stage Manager as well as a performer.

                        Riverside Drive marked the debut of Marvin Schwartz, at the age of 12, as Mortimer, the wisecracking grandchild, who, by play’s end, comes to respect his European grandfather. In it, according to Charlotte Goldstein “he was quite charming and showed great promise”  (Chafran 24 Dec. 1999). Both Marvin and Frances were gradually absorbed into the Art Theatre, first one, than the other. Besides the usual American education, the children were instructed in Hebrew, the Old Testament, and the piano. Frances learned all the ingenue roles, as an understudy. She began her career gradually, without Maurice’s consent of knowledge, encouraged by the Art Theatre troupe, each of whom secretly knew that Schwartz would be delighted. Maurice had probably dreamed of a dynasty like the one sired by Jacob Adler, and for years it seemed as if such a result was possible with the tiny lives entrusted to him and Anna. In the end, part of that dream would turn to vinegar.

                        On the road, wherever the company stopped for a night, a week, the major topic of discussion (besides the usual shoptalk) was the Holocaust. Its full impact had descended on Yiddish communities throughout the nation, as the refugees came to America burdened with their horrific experiences, and as reporters visited the death camps and wrote their stories. There wasn’t a Jew in America with friends or family who’d not been imprisoned, tortured and starved by the Nazis. Many of the actors had lost loved ones. At each stop on the circuit, the wondrous, beautiful story of the adoption of those two darling orphans would find its way into the press, or into the general mix of conversation.

                       Of course, it’s a given that Maurice would utilize this most personal of private matters as the hook for his planted news items, as he’d done so blatantly in the past, in order to nourish that other cherished child of his: the Yiddish Art Theatre. The two flesh and blood children, Frances and Marvin, might with ample reason, have resented being used in this manner, but they adored their adoptive parents in spite of it, especially Maurice, because of his creative nature, his unique sense of humor, and his sensitivity to their condition. After all, he too had been parentless during a critical time in his youth. Maurice had taken them from the hopelessness and sterility of an orphanage, from the colorless life in a middle class Belgian home, into a world of culture, beauty, art, travel, music, and a coterie of actors who were adored by thousands.

                        After the final performance of Riverside Drive, Maurice announced to the company very dramatically that he was disbanding it, and wouldn’t be returning to New York in the fall. After 32 years, the Yiddish Art Theatre as an institution was no more. Though the king would surely survive, his kingdom was gone. “Time and circumstance,” he told an interviewer, “make a man’s decisions for him. Young people don’t speak Yiddish anymore [and] production costs rose to such heights that putting on an artistic play becomes almost impossible”  (Jameson 6 Aug. 1950). For all intent and purpose, the Second Golden Age of Yiddish theatre was now history.

                        But Schwartz was not. Transplanted in California soil, if only for a month, he was entranced again about becoming a movie star like his former employee, Paul Muni. Twice before, he’d tried and failed. The third opportunity and temptation arrived in the form of Delmar Daves, a writer/director/producer at 20th-Century-Fox, who’d come to a performance of Shylock and His Daughter, then went backstage to offer Schwartz a role in a film soon to be shot in Hawaii. Daves, whom film critics never considered among the better directors, made over 50 films between 1944 and 1963, only one of them exceptional, Dark Passage (1947), and only becaue its stars were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. An experienced technician, Daves had recently completed Broken Arrow with James Stewart, a western about the Apache chief Cochise.

                        Schwartz claimed that he insisted on being tested for the part of the Kahuna in Bird of Paradise, a remake of the 1933 King Vidor film that starred Joel McCrea and Dolores Del Rio. If  Maurice truly believed he had a future in the motion picture business, an ingenue at 62, after almost half a century in another art form, then he certainly had to realize that he’d made a horrendous mistake in playing a South Seas shaman, who parades around half-naked and spews cartoonish dialogue. But his back was against the wall, with no plans for the future and four mouths to feed. And so, like many a Hollywood hopeful, Schwartz rented an apartment in town to concentrate on becoming a movie star. It was a measure of his desperation (and the lowly state of Yiddish theatre) that Schwartz felt blessed at another chance at the brass ring. His vivid and fertile imagination conjured up parlaying his role of the Kahuna into a shot at adapting King Lear for the screen, followed in short order by a big budget treatment of Moses, thus predating Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments by six years.

                        The shooting on Bird of Paradise would start the first week of August on the island of Hilo, Hawaii. Until then, Maurice bided his time, enjoying family life and keeping abreast of Second Avenue doings through William Mercur. To him, Maurice floated the possibility of perhaps going east in the fall, should—God forbid—Delmar change his mind or the powers in charge cancel the film. “I’m ready to give a season in Yiddish,” he wrote Mercur. “The plan [. . .] must be for Yiddish Theatre in our style, with a new dramatization, or an original play, not just to work the National”  (Schwartz letter 29 May 1950).

                        Waiting, adjusting to his apartment on North Whitley Avenue in Hollywood, he read manuscripts, dozens of them by unknowns and some by the most respected playwrights in America, and dreamed of past glories. At the beginning of August, he half-heartedly parted from Anna and the children and left for Hilo, to join a cast that included the charming Frenchman Louis Jourdan, the Brooklyn-born Jeff Chandler, the darkly exotic Debra Paget, and that outstanding character actor Everett Sloane, who’d once been part of Orson Welles’s Mercury theatre, and a key player in the 1941 movie gem Citizen Kane.

                        The inane plot of Bird of Paradise involves the unlikely marriage of Paget (as a saronged native beauty) to the Gallic sophisticate Jourdan, and the dire consequences that result. Schwartz, who would receive cast credit in the reviews, played a tribal elder statesman. If Maurice didn’t know how rigorous an art filmmaking can be, he swiftly found out. Daves would have them working at five or six in the morning. Schwartz and Jeff Chandler would wrap themselves in blankets, and Debra Paget piled on sweater on top of sweater in the bracing  frigidity of early morning. Good soldiers all, no one complained.

                        After the long days of shooting, there was little to do on Hilo but retire to the bar of the Hotel Naniloa and drink. Not one of Maurice’s pastimes, he’d tell the bartender to pour him ginger ale from a liquor bottle, and, applying his thespian skills, he’d pretend to get so plastered that he had to be helped each night to his room. Consuming large quantities of alcohol was the ticket into the movie brotherhood, and soon he was treated like one of the boys.

                        Schwartz’s umbilical cord to Yiddish Theatre remained intact through his correspondence with William Mercur. The news from Second Avenue was hard for him to digest: “At a time when the director and the actors here are showing me such friendship and respect for my work at the Art Theatre, my own friends, alas, stand ready with sharp knives. But what can they slash at now? They’ve already cut up everything”  (Schwartz letter 17 Aug. 1950). Nevertheless, he implored Mercur to send along every scrap written about him and about the current season. “It’s important for me to know anything that happens. We will after all still do great things, and I mean in Yiddish theatre”  (Schwartz letter 17 Aug. 1950).

                        By mid-September, Daves had finished shooting. Bird of Paradise opened six months later at the Roxy theatre in New York to scathing reviews that neglected to mention Schwartz’s name. Bosley Crowther labeled it “a rambling mishmosh of South Sea romance and travesty, of solemn high-priesting and low clowning, of never-never spectacle and sport”  (Times 15 Mar. 1951).

                        Back in New York by October 14th, Maurice did a round of promotional interviews for the film, while observing first hand what was happening in Yiddish Theatre. Two weeks later, he hurried back to Hollywood, prepared to take on a role completely foreign to him: that of mother. Anna had completely worn herself out, tending to the children alone, while he was away on location. She’d always suffered from a chronic sinus condition, and had developed a serious cough in the raw, wet Los Angeles autumn. Schwartz immediately sent her for rest and recuperation to a hotel in Arizona, where the sun was omnipresent and therapeutic, where she could be, above all, free from the daily cares of child- rearing.

                       The returned father became father became mother and father to the children. Writing almost daily to Anna, he told her: “I prepare big glasses of orange juice for them. Pack their lunches with pleasure. I put my soul and heart into those sandwiches. It’s a strange joy, exactly like feeding baby birds”  (Schwartz letter 26 Oct. 1950). The children became the sum total of his days and nights, with so much time at his disposal, and no one interested in doing Yiddish theatre of a certain high quality. And as often happens to such parents, the children were beginning to resent being hovered over. Maurice would show up at school and Marvin would see him and hide. He was no longer a baby, he’d tearfully inform the man who’d become his father.

                        Maurice learned not to do that again. Instead, he’d wander downtown Los Angeles, looking for a theatre. And found one “with 385 seats, a good stage and all the amenities. Naturally I told the landlord that it would have to be repainted, new carpets laid, and softer seats installed. And he’s ready to make the investment. But I’m afraid the neighborhood isn’t such a good one [. . .]. A wonderful theatre though. It could be a real home”  (Schwartz letter 27 Oct. 1950).

                          Whether he was serious or just going through the motions, Maurice asked for a lease. The landlord obliged, and Maurice sent the document off to Anna in Arizona, for her approval, she being the business half of the partnership. He asked her to write her instructions clearly so he’d know how to handle the negotiations. He reminded Anna that here was nothing for them in New York, and that, except for looking after the children, he had little to do in Los Angeles either. Whatever money the Schwartzes may have had was being rapidly depleted from keeping up the apartment on E. 10th Street and the one on North Whitley. Then there was the hotel room in Arizona, where Anna continued to slowly improve. Of course, he’d arrange to do something, even the strong possibility of yet another sweep of Europe or South America, though if every year it was getting more and more grinding to pack up and go gallivanting, especially now, with two children to raise properly.

                        First of all, Anna had to get better, no matter the cost. “You should stay as long as possible—even if the children come to stay with you, because your health comes before everything in the world. It hurts me to see you in that condition, especially your coughing. Remember: you have only one life, the children have only one mother, and I only one wife who is more than a wife, my only friend and companion in life”  (Schwartz letter 28 Oct. 1950).

                        Schwartz did strike a deal, not to run the shabby playhouse in downtown Los Angeles, but to play the Walnut Theatre in Philadelphia from December 29th through January 6th, eleven performances only. Maurice contacted and contracted many of his old compatriots for a reunion of sorts, to do Riverside Drive. No longer did he have a place to call his own, even on a fleeting basis. The Art Theatre from here on would exist only as a makeshift caravan, journeying from oasis to oasis over the world, even if he’d strenuously objected to so tentative an arrangement. No matter: he’d be doing theatre, except not on his terms or turf.

Chapter Thirty-Nine: “Our Enemies, Burning Like a Fire.”

                        It must have been disorienting and more than a little sad for Maurice to return to the East Coast in the winter of 1951, without the usual excitement a new season would always provide. No stimulating play to introduce or revive, to digest, master, comprehend, deconstruct then reassemble. No landlord to haggle with over lease terms. No menagerie of actors to browbeat into shape. Neither composer nor set designer to bend to his will. No benefit managers to hustle or pander to, trying to convince them that their organization’s dollars would be best spent with the Art Theatre. No unions to cross swords with. No newspaper critics to answer to, those haughty purists he could never appease, since adhering to their impossible standards would only be a form of box office suicide. He loved all this, and he hated it, but more to the point—it was gone forever.

                        Almost shorn of the hectic whirlwind pace he’d known for 32 years, Maurice began 1951 by completing his short engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia on January 6th, and opening the very next evening at the Gayety in Washington, DC, on 9th Street, in the same Riverside Drive, a relatively inexpensive piece to mount, requiring only a dozen characters and no musicians. Touring the Eastern seaboard for the remainder of the winter, he made all the time-worn stops, among them the Plymouth in Boston, where he presented his modernized version of another Kobrin work, the post-First World War One opus, Back to His People, under its updated title The Return to His Nation.

                        Come March, he returned to New York (to his nation of sorts) doing Riverside Drive at Brooklyn’s Parkway Theatre. His publicists touted the play as “a bilingual Yiddish-English comedy,” to attract a younger crowd, indirectly acknowledging the loss of their past audiences  (Times 2 Mar. 1951). Featured as the grandson, was Marvin Schwartz. The publicity shot for the dailies, shows Maurice as the Old World grandfather, garbed in funereal black, including the wide-brimmed Chassidic hat and window-shade beard. Marvin is in a fashionably American suit and bright two-toned tie. His face too is very American: apple-cheeked, smiling, confident. Gone is the haggard, pitiful mien of but four years earlier.

                       With the boy approaching 13, the Jewish male’s age of confirmation, plans were joyfully made to have Marvin called to the Torah, in Israel, at the Yeshurim Temple in Jerusalem. It would be the culmination of his private tutoring in Hebrew. If Maurice had given up the Art Theatre and its enthrallments, there were other consolations and compensations, Marvin’s Bar Mitzvah in Eretz Israel being one of them. While there, who could blame him for also arranging 21 solo concerts at the Ohel, as well as Hirshbein’s A Secluded Nook, done with local talent and in Yiddish and Hebrew?

                        No mention is made of the celebrating family’s experiences in the fledgling state that had won an armistice in its baptismal war against the Arabs, but the Schwartzes must have visited Isaac’s grave on the Mount of Olives. It would have been the first time for Maurice, a visit fraught with profound emotion.

                        The ancient right of passage observed in the Jerusalem temple, and his theatrical obligations satisfied, Schwartz spent the next five months performing in Europe and South America. He made one stop only on the Continent because the Iron Curtain had come crashing down, sealing off Poland and the Slavic States from the rest of Europe. Then it was off to his beloved Argentina for more of the same concerts and plays, using a full contingent of Buenos Aires performers. All the while, Maurice and William Mercur kept a dialogue going via airmail letters. Gone from Second Avenue for half a year, even if shorn of his Art Theatre, Maurice had to know nevertheless what was going on. He was preparing for a sort of return, in early December, and told Mercur to get together with Eddie Relkin, and map out another winter’s tour of the regular places. The publicity campaign, he informed them, like a general to his colonels, must be done logistically perfect to succeed. Nothing must be left to chance. This was all he had, the only source of his income—his and his family’s.

                       Schwartz didn’t return to America empty-handed. While in Rio de Janeiro he’d met 37-year-old Pedro Bloch, a medical doctor, who was as well the country’s most respected playwright. From him, Schwartz bought the rights to two plays: Silver Rain in the Night, and The Hands of Eurydice, the latter earning Bloch wide acclaim throughout South America and Europe, running for two smash years at the Teatre Regina in Rio.

                        Mercur and Relkin prepared a satisfactory schedule of appearances for the winter of 1952, and Maurice dutifully honored it, doing his songs and monologues, while at the same time preparing The Hands of Eurydice for the stage. Claude Vincent had translated the piece for him from Portuguese, and Maurice gave it a more serviceable title: Conscience. A single character play, it would be done entirely in English. Schwartz’s account of the work’s pre-premiere history seems highly perfumed for the unsuspecting theatre-goer, who seldom knows how a work proceeds from author to stage, the many unexpected twists and turns, the petty and major disasters along the way. He distributed to the public the story about bringing the translation one evening in March to Lee Shubert, who ordered Maurice then and there to sit and read the entire piece to him, engrossed from the first sentence to the last. The redoubtable Shubert whose previous experiences with Schwartz were not the most rewarding, exclaimed, according to Maurice, that he intended to produce Conscience immediately, and phoned his managers Joe Kipness and Jack Small, to take the play to his Booth Theatre on W.45th Street. Kipness and Small were no lightweights, having helped to bring High Button Shoes and La Plume de Ma Tante to Broadway.

                        Schwartz was well aware that with the Bloch play he’d be giving his foes in the Yiddish world even more ammunition. If its rigid fanatics had never forgiven him for straying into spectacle, they’d certainly condemn his defection to do an English-language work. But Maurice had little choice in the matter. There no longer was an Art Theatre, and he’d never stoop to shund, never try and compete with Picon and Skulnik, who’d been dubbed by the Yiddish press as the ‘king of comedy,’ a title that irritated the former king no end. To make matters worse, the tours (both home and abroad) were no longer viable, nor even profitable. Perhaps English-language theatre was indeed a Hobson’s choice, but at least it was an honorable option. Regardless, he did hope to work again in the future with the steely Shuberts.

                        Gearing up his publicity machine, Maurice urged Mercur to go over the heads of the critics in the Yiddish newspapers “who are our enemies, burning like a fire when things aren’t done to their liking” and go directly to the public  (Schwartz letter 11 Apr. 1952). The critics, he was certain, would never understand the piece anyhow, even if it were presented in their mother tongue.

                        A playhouse assured, Maurice set about absorbing the script, all 72 pages. He studied day and night to learn the part, an impossible task, but one that gave him enormous pleasure because of the high quality of Bloch’s prose and ideas. The only other creative talent involved in Conscience was Ralph Alswang, who did the scenery and lighting, conjuring up the illusion on stage of an opulent home. Alswang had studied with the famous Robert Edmund Jones, and had worked on Home of the Brave (1945). He would remain on Broadway well into the 1960’s.

                        The 90-minute tale Schwartz strenuously wove, centers on Robert Burgos, a failed writer married to the daughter of a noted Egyptologist. Burgos has deserted his wife and two children, to run off with another, less shrewish woman, who then gambles away his few dollars. The play opens with the chastened writer returning home to seek forgiveness, only to discover that his family is gone and the house is empty. What follows for an hour and a half, is Burgos bearing his soul to the audience, even trying to involve it in his travails.

                        As was the Broadway custom, Conscience opened out of town, on April 28th, at the Plymouth Theatre in Boston, then on May 5th, for a week at the Locust Street Theatre in Philadelphia, both Shubert houses. The Boston critics were of one mind: interesting Schwartz, poor vehicle. Wrote one reviewer: “Since Maurice Schwartz comprises the entire cast, he plays with the skill of a dozen mummers. But his talents cannot raise the script above the tedious personality of its lone figure”  (Taylor 28 April 1952).

                        Word must have spread south about the Boston turkey, because at its New York premiere only Brooks Atkinson, of all the local critics showed up at the Booth. His report confirmed the opinion of the out-of-town reviewers: “There ought to be some more social way of making use of Mr. Schwartz’s considerable talents”  (Times 16 May 1952).

                        Little wonder that Conscience closed after four New York performances.

                       That spring, Maurice’s film agent Ted Wilk lined him up for a role in Columbia Pictures’s Salome, a biblical epic about King Herod’s lively stepdaughter. Schwartz was greatly impressed with its outstanding cast of Rita Hayworth, Stewart Granger, Charles Laughton and Judith Anderson. The very sketchy reference in Mark and Matthew of the New Testament was transformed into a script unlike the scenario created by Oscar Wilde in his play. This piece of revisionist pap absolves Salome of any blame for John the Baptist’s beheading. Its director would be William Dieterle, one of Hollywood’s busiest, most respected professionals, who’d worked with Max Reinhardt on the ethereal Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), and with Paul Muni in Juarez (1939). Listed eighth in the cast credits, Schwartz would portray Ezra, the nagging conscience of Herod. He would appear in only four scenes, but was the moral underpinning of the film.

                        No one in Hollywood doubted that the movie, released in March, 1953, was strictly a showcase for the abundant charms of Miss Hayworth. Crowther called the ouevre “a flamboyant, Technicolored romance [. . .] a lush conglomeration of historical pretense and make-believe, pseudo-religious ostentation and just plain insinuated sex”  (Times 25 Mar. 1953).

                       Over the summer, with Anna and the children, Schwartz made his first appearances in Mexico. He played the Iris Theatre in Mexico City, presenting his word concerts and the Jonas Rosenfeld play Competitors, which was so ahead of its time in 1922. Its new title Velvel the Housewife, hardly did justice to the work.

                       The Schwartzes returned to Los Angeles on September 26th, and a week later Maurice was involved in another film for Columbia, a second biblical farrago called Slaves of Babylon. Directed by schlockmeister William Castle, with dozens of low grade, low budget films to his credit, the flick starred Richard Conte and Linda Christian. Schwartz was given the minor role of Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar and received third billing, but not much else. Variety deemed it “a plodding programmer for routine playdates. Other than Technicolor, there’s not much in the way of marquee help”  (17 Sept. 1953).

                        Maurice could not have been the least proud of his three demeaning attempts to break into the movies. It must have rankled the director of the famed Art Theatre to look back and measure his decline since first setting up shop at the Irving Place theatre. Involved of late in employing the Bible, no matter how disgracefully, he might have recalled a passage from the Second Book of Samuel, the one beginning with “How the mighty have fallen.” Undoubtedly, he had past glories, a multitude of them, to sustain him, but for a man like Maurice Schwartz, they would be woefully insufficient.


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