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Fay was interviewed by one of her sons, Michael, in 1992,
and here are some excerpts from that interview.
I was born in 1907 in New York City. I haven’t lived there in so long ... My maiden name is Lasky, but my birth certificate is Fay Cohen. Why I don’t know. It may be a funny thing. Years ago, we use to have a midwife, and the same midwife [delivered] every child that my mother had. But one day I looked up on the wall, I noticed that my birth certificate said, “Fay Cohen.” And every one of them was Lasky, and I didn’t know why.
I asked my mother if I was a stepchild, if I was adopted or what. What happened? She started to tell me a story that the midwife -- the man who came to take -- to give us a birth certificate. He asked the midwife what my father did. She said, “He’s a Cohen.” In the Jewish language, the Jewish world, a “Cohen” is a very educated Jewish child … He was called a “Cohain,” but when she said “Cohen,” they put down “Cohen.” That’s why my name is Cohen. If you look for me in the office of the Health Department …
I wanted my mother to change it, but my mother never had time to change it. But, that was the beginning of my life.
I am eighty-five years old today. I am one of six children. I had four brothers and one sister. And we all grew up as fine, good people. Every one of us. No dope, not in my generation. My sister’s name was Jean. I had a brother by the name of Al. He was the oldest. I had a brother by the name of Izzy. I had a brother by the name of Sammy and Leo. Izzy died at the age of thirty-seven of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was a wonderful boy.
I went to school on Dumont Avenue and Grafton Street. The funny part is that the man that I married lived on that corner. He went to the same school. He never graduated. He went as far as seventh grade. That’s all ... He was a brilliant guy. He was a furrier. He learned to be a furrier, and he was a wonderful husband to me.
FAY'S PARENTS AND HOME LIFE
My mother’s name was Ida ... We called her Chaika ... She spoke English very well. My father never learned to speak English. He was a very simple man. He davened every morning at four o’clock. Put on the t’fillin and screamed, and -- he was simple. He was just a tailor that made eighteen dollars a week and had six children to feed.
So my mother had to go out to work. She sold everything and anything. And I’ll tell you something, I don’t think there’s another woman like her in the world. She was really something. To me, [I’m] proud of her. We’re proud of her anyway.
Both my parents were from Poland ... Of course she didn’t pick him [to be her husband]. Years ago, the parents picked their husband. They didn’t pick. He was nothing like my mother, nothing. My mother was full of fire. Wanted to do everything and go everywhere. My father didn’t want to do a thing. Just sit and daven, and that was his life. The only thing he did for us -- I remember from my childhood days, is Saturday night it was his job to give us food. So he used to boil potatoes in the skin, and cut up a couple of herrings, ‘cause we had potatoes and herring every Saturday night. And my mother never changed her menu either. All she knew was to cook a chicken with a load of potatoes, and feed us chicken and potatoes and soup. She never knew about lettuce or tomatoes. (laughs) We never knew about those things. We didn’t know these things. But we all grew up to be fine, and my mother never had time to watch us. Everybody watched us -- the superintendent, the tenants. She left us with anybody that would take care of us to go out and make some money. But she made money. She used to be an auctioneer, an auctioneer going through an apartment. Like I remember she was in her ninth month with her last child. She got up on the table in the condo, the doctor’s office, their place, and she sold things to all the people from the building. We got parrots, we got a bowl, a silver bowl with all the silver. The silver cups ... big silver bowls, punch bowls. We got some … We had a beautiful dining room, but God forbid we couldn’t go into it … She had a Victrola, she had a piano ... But there’s one thing my mother never gave us is love (sighs). Never had time for it.
I also remember having a nice home. My mother always had a nice home. But we were poor. But [when] she used to go away, she used to tell the people downstairs that there was a what do you call it again, a -- there was a candy store. You know, one of these stands that sells papers and things, that gets added to the building. She used to tell them that anything my children want, see that they get it. So we used to go to school, and we used to take malteds, and candy, and charlotte russes, you know, all these things. And at the end of the month my mother had some bill, six kids. But that’s how she left us. That we shouldn’t feel like there was nobody around.
... I’m at the stage right now where I can’t remember too many things. But a lot of things come back to me … We lived on the fourth floor on Douglass Street, near Pitkin Avenue.
I was in Brownsville. And my mother had canaries in -- ten of them in the ceiling, ya hear? Because the cat that we had always wanted to eat them. She kept them in the ceiling. I had -- as a child I had a big collie, a gorgeous collie. My sister had a poodle. My mother had a parrot. We had a house full of animals. We loved them, every one of them, and we were happy. And we lived on the fourth floor. We had to run up and down, take them out from the fourth floor. It wasn’t easy. But we took care of them. And we lived in the kitchen and in a bedroom. My mother had six rooms. The other rooms were closed off. It was too damn cold. We couldn’t use it. And in the summertime, she didn’t let us go in there, ‘cause she was afraid. I remember my mother had a big safe. She used to keep things in the safe. Don’t you think that somebody came and robbed it? In my apartment? It was a friend that robbed her. You wouldn’t believe it.
I never knew my grandparents, no. I heard they came from Poland. Once they—my mother got a letter from them. That’s all. Once. Never saw a picture of them or anything.
I never knew why [my parents] they left [Poland]. My father came here first and then two years later he sent for her. Jean was born there. My sister Jean was born there. All of us were born in the United States except Jean.
My father had a brother. A very nice guy. He was my uncle, but he wasn’t very close to me. We were close when we were eight years old. After that, we lost the whole family. I don’t know anybody -- I only knew Katie. Katie was the oldest child. She was a redhead. I knew her. My family had two children who were red-heads. My brother Al and I were red [headed]. My father’s brother had two children. They were also born redheads. His wife is a lovely woman, too.
My mother had one brother. Lazar. His name was Lazar. He used to run junk stores. He used to buy all the junk. Years ago there were a lot of places where you could buy a lot of junk. You used to bring all your old clothes there, your junk. You used to weigh it and they’d give you a certain amount of money. He made a living at it.
I can’t remember my mother’s second name. You know, I knew it but my memory isn’t as good anymore … [It was Bornstein/Bernstein.]
[When] my sister got married, she was twenty-one
years old. She married a man who was going to college to be a doctor. He
became a dentist. And my mother had no money, but the fact that she was
marrying a doctor, she had to show that she’s a big shot too. Where she
got the money, I’ll never know. Although, I worked for a few years. I
started to work when I was fourteen years old. I remember laying on the
bed after I graduated high -- public school. [In] that era, the girls
were going to high school. At one time, girls didn’t go to high school,
they went to public school. [In] that era, I told my mother I wanted to
go to high school. She said, “No, you can’t. You got to go to work.” I
was fourteen years old. My sister was four years older than me … Sure
she went to work …. But she didn’t do anything. My mother gave her piano
lessons, she made nothing of it. My mother sent her to business school,
she made nothing of it. The fact that she made nothing of it, my mother
wouldn’t let me go to college -- to high school. She said, “Jean did
nothing with it, and you’re not going to do anything. You go to work.”
So I worked … one year in a millinery place. I worked there in a
millinery place. I worked there, I think, two months, where I paid to
learn how to be a milliner. But my sister was a very slow person. She
wasn’t too fast. When I began to run the business, we sold hats with
cherries all around the head. It went for twenty-four and twenty-five
dollars in that time. That was the style. I said to my sister one day,
“You know something? Let’s go to New York. I was never in New York in my
life. I never went on a train. And I decided I would like to go to New
York. We’ll go to a show. Somehow it was slow, it was a holiday, I don’t
remember. But before we went to the show we decided to take a walk in
the millinery district. And as we’re walking around, we see a big sign,
“Milliner Wanted.” She wouldn’t go in. “Let’s go up and see what kind of
job they have.” Well, we went up. They were looking for milliners. And
we went up and we sat down. I said, “Forget about the show. Let’s try
and see what they pay you.” They brought us over a basket of hats to put
the band on it, and you had to make your own trimming before. They gave
us twelve hats and they paid you $1.50 for twelve hats! Took you all day
to make $1.50. Well, I didn’t like the idea, and I told the woman there
that we’re going to walk out. We don’t work for $1.50. She says, “Don’t
worry. Come in tomorrow, and I’ll tell you you’ll make money.” So we
came back the next day. She gave us a box of hats, but all we had to do
is put one stitch in it and line it and stick a flower on it, not make
the trimming. And before we turned around, we made twelve dollars that
day. Well, that was a different story already. See, my sister wasn’t a
go-getter. And do you know, at the age of sixteen years old, I came home
with a hundred dollars a week. I used to make the hat. My sister used to
put the lining in. My mother got all the money. She gave me a dollar a
day to ... for lunch. But if she saved the money, or what she did with
it, I don’t know.
THE THREE LASKY MARRIAGES
... But when it came to my sister to get married, they made a wedding that cost them about five-thousand dollars, a big wedding that would cost you twenty today, she made one for five. And she bought Barney [Jean's husband] two offices, not one but two offices. Where she got the money I’ll never know. But she did that all for my sister. Ya hear? Then when my sister got married, my brother Al got married to Fay three months later. Fay got married, she had my name, Fay Lasky. My brother got married and my mother had to pay for the band. That’s it. Three months later, I got married. Three children married in one year. She had no money. When it came to me, she had no money.
First she said she was going to make a wedding. Then she came up to Lou’s house [Lou was Fay Z.'s husband] and she saw how poor it was too. Poor, with a coal stove and everything else. Six rooms, you know? She says, “I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry.” Comes to the week before my wedding, I said to my mother, “Since we got married, I’m going to have …” When my sister got married, my brother got married. I broke off with my boyfriend that I was going with for four years. And when I started going with Lou, my mother said, “He’s too old for you.” He was seven years older than me. “He knows too much, Fay. Don’t go with him. You’re going to be in trouble.” She was only afraid that he was going to rape me or something. And my husband, when I told him about it, he says to me, “I’ll be here tomorrow if you’ll only want to.” I said, “I don’t want to get married.” But what happens, I told my mother he would marry me tomorrow, she says, “Go and get married.” Would you believe that?
So we went to court. My mother went with me to court to get married. She got a daughter off her hands with no money. With no money. Honey, she got a daughter off her hands. She didn’t give me a nightgown. Nothing! ‘Cause I had a fight with her. So we went to court, got married. He went to his home, I went to my home ‘cause I didn’t know him. I only knew him six weeks. You know, I didn’t ... I got married because I wanted to get out of the house more than anything else. And Lou knew that I didn’t love him when I married him. He said, “ You’re gonna love me ... I’ll make you love me.” And he did. This is what happened to me. So what happened? We had to have a Jewish wedding. This was a court wedding. I had to have a Jewish wedding. So my mother says, “She’ll take care of everything.” And I told her, it’s only a week before, and she says to me, “Let him make it. Why should I make you the wedding? After all, look what a beautiful girl I’m giving him. He don’t deserve you.” After she broke the …. off, this is later, six weeks later. I couldn’t get married because there was the holiday. My mother treated me like I was really a stepchild. I’m not kidding you. Well ... Don’t worry about it. I’ll never forget the wedding I had. My mother didn’t come to my Jewish wedding. And my sister didn’t come either to my Jewish wedding. She knew that I was fighting with my mother. Why didn’t she stick with me? She didn’t come to my Jewish wedding. I’ll never forget it. They lived on Grafton Street, a very poor neighborhood with a six-room flat--Lou -- with a coal stove. Anyway, we decided, being his mother was paralyzed -- his mother was paralyzed for eight years -- she couldn’t talk …
His mother's name was Hannah. Lou loved his mother so good -- he was really a very [family] oriented boy -- using his money to help in the house and everything else -- even though I was married. So he says, “Darling, don’t worry. We’ll (?) get married for my mother’s sake, and in my house. So we invited all our friends that we knew, and we put up one of those chupahs, you know, to hold on your hand, and we had a fiddler you should never know, who fiddled away (laughs). You couldn’t stop him. He was awful. I’ll never forget him (laughs). And we had the wedding in the house, and I’m not the worse for it, Honey. The wedding wasn’t important. Nothing was important. We were important. Lou and I were important. And we had no money, even to open up a home or anything. He was making sixty-five dollars a week as furrier.
I got married in 1926. When he made sixty-five
dollars a week, it was a lot of money in those years. Anyway, we didn’t
have a place to stay, so we decided that we were going to stay in
Fannie’s home. Fannie [Lou's sister] had a home. Fannie was operated on
her appendix, and she came to her mother to recuperate when her mother
had a stroke. And her mother weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. You
couldn’t even lift her. She couldn’t talk. Lost her speech. Her whole
left side was paralyzed. So the poor thing came to recuperate, and she
had to take care of her mother. And she had a nice place on St. Johns
Street in Brooklyn. St. Johns Place. So she said -- we decided we’ll go
up there and pay the rent and stay in her place. So while I was up
there, I changed the stove, and I fixed up the place quite a bit,
figuring my sister-in-laws would come up to see me, but they never came
up. But we were so closely [family] oriented; we all met every single
day in his mother’s house. And Fannie was a cook. You know Fanny.
WHERE FAY LIVED AFTER SHE GOT MARRIED
When I was first married, I lived on St. Johns Place. Then I moved to 94th Street and Kings Highway, into a new, two-family house. They just built those homes. It was beautiful. Beautiful. Then from there I moved to Lefferts Avenue and Kingston Street. I moved to the fourth floor. No, no, I didn’t move from that one. Then I moved to Bensonhurst. I had Stanford in Bensonhurst Maternity. I lived there on Bay Parkway and Cropsey Avenue. From there, I went to Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn and Empire Boulevard. I used to—I lived on the fourth floor in an elevated apartment, and I wouldn’t move in unless I had a doorman. The rooms were small, but I had to have a doorman. I said the first impression is what counts when people come into the house…then they see a doorman, an elevator … Years ago, you never --you were a rich woman. But that’s how I had to live. I lived always very nicely. From there, I used to live out of the windmill (?) and I used to see they had a baseball field and I used to see all the games.
We had a big, what do you call it again, the Depression in 1929. When Wall Street dropped. Wall Street -- people were throwing themselves out of the windows.
... My mother says to me, “Don’t worry, Fay. I’ll
show you how to make money. So she went to Fulton Street amongst the
groups -- the colored people, and she took a store. Lou took whatever
coats he had [he was a furrier], you know, and he tried to sell it. Your
father stood on the side and he watched me sell all of a sudden. I had
to get a maid to take care of my two children. He watches me sell. My
mother sells. And we’re selling his coats. My mother started to bring in
clothes ... and she used to buy clothes for people, you know? And she
used to be … She wanted a lot of things. But when my mother saw that I
needed so much money -- I needed money for a car, I needed money for a
maid, had an elevated apartment, my mother said, “I can’t support you.”
What do you think she did? She walked out on me. He didn’t know the
first thing about it, Honey. We didn’t know anything about that business
or what to do. But I had a landlady upstairs. She [learned] what
happened, and she came over to me, and she says, “Fay, don’t worry. I’ll
show you how to make money. A stranger! A plain stranger. It’s
unbelievable. She was the landlady upstairs. She says to me, “You go.
You drive. You go to all the rummage stores that the charities run, you
hear, and when they get finished, after two weeks they either makes rags
out of it or they give it away. They give it away, they throw it out.
Well, I went down. I tried it once. I had a small store. A store the
size like this. I tried it once. I walked in, I looked at all the
clothes that were sent over. I said, “I’ll give you twenty-five dollars
just for charity’s sake, and I’ll take it all away.” They said, “Fine.”
And I began to lug all that clothes and the shoes and whatever they had
there. Think about that load in my car. Honey, I worked so hard when I
was young. I had vitality, and I used to take it into my store and sort
it. And I was making money. Then I opened up a store across the street
on the next corner. Two stores. ‘Cause I was between the Salvation Army
and a Goodwill Shop. And I was in between. They got it for nothing. I
paid for it. But what I paid was really nothing. Twenty-five dollars for
a whole -- everything they had left over. I went to three, four stores.
I had a store full of clothes already. And I stayed to make money. What
happens if they didn’t buy anything, they went on the other… Izzy? I
think it was Izzy. No, it was Leo [her youngest brother], Leo. Leo. My
mother used to give him such a hard time. She used to fight with him and
everything, ‘cause Leo tried to live with me. My mother was very
bad-tempered to her children. Never gave ‘em a drop of love. All she
knew was to hit, yell and scream. And my father, the terrible ... he
said ... Whatever happened, I had these two stores. If they didn’t buy
in my place, they bought in Leo’s place, which was my money, ‘cause I
was paying Leo to run it. Then a furniture store moved out across the
street. I took both stores. Put it into the furniture store. It was so
big that I had to cut it in half. You needed roller skates. You never
saw anything like it. You know, I was a businesswoman. Dad used to stand
on the side and just look at me. He hated to do business with anyone.
Here was pennies, quarters, nickels and dollars. He didn’t want to be
bothered. So I went and made bins, all the way down, Honey. You know,
section bins? And I had a girl work for me. Had a girl. I didn’t want
anybody to work for me. I was doing it all myself, until my mother sent
Ann over. Ann comes over and says, “Your mother sent me,” she says,
“maybe you can give me a job.” My mother didn’t send her. My mother sent
her, she told me later, that she should learn the business and she
should go and open a store herself. That’s how it was with my mother.
But she wouldn’t leave me and Lou for nothing. She told me the story
that my mother had said that. Oooh, that conniving son-of-a-gun. I’m
telling you. She used to make trouble between the children. Tell the
children about this and then go back and tell about that. We never
really got together on account of her. But you’re never going to find
another woman like her.
MORE ON FAY'S PARENTS ...
My father was on the sidelines. Never said a word, quiet ... I even told him once, “I don’t even think I have a father.” He says, “What do you mean you don’t think you have a father? I work every day. I … work and bring the pay home.” (laughs) I remember I told him once, “What kind of father? You don’t do anything. But, listen to this. I used to go out and buy this stuff. A guy comes into my store one day, for a button … While I’m working with -- I use it -- they used to come into my store, and they used to -- we didn’t have a cash register. And every time I sold something, like it was a man or a woman, I’d pick up my dress and stick it in my sock. And I waited for them to go out and then I’d take it out and hide it, you know. All my money went … Then they used to get a kick out of the way I used to pick up my dress. I wore high heels. I was really a sharp kid. And they used to get a kick … I’ll never forget them. And every time they saw me like this ... I used to be quite sharp at the time. What was I talking about, the money … Yeah, one day, a boy comes into my place and he’s freezing. There’s snow outside. He said, “Can I do anything? Can I sweep this floor, or do anything?” He said, “I’m so cold, I’m dying. Snow is out there and I haven’t got an overcoat. I come from the South.” Do ya hear? I said to him, “But why didn’t you go into the Salvation Army, or the Goodwill Shop? They’re right here, they’re a half-a-block away.” He says, “I was there. They wouldn’t give it to me.” I said, “Why not?” “They said I have to go down to DeKalb Avenue on the bus. They didn’t ask you if you had bus fare or anything. They just asked me to go. And they had no privilege to give you anything.” He came into me. I gave him money. I gave him an overcoat. I said, “My floor doesn’t need any washing.” And he went away. Now, it got around, I was there ten years, it got around that I was very charitable to him.
People used to come into see me. The cops used to bring in people that didn’t have anything and asked me to give the kid shoes. Ya hear? Because at that time you needed a ticket for shoes. And I had new shoes and old. I used to go to auction sales and buy new shoes. An old guy walks in. He must have been about eighty years old, with a cane, a button, a flower in his buttonhole. And he comes in and says, “Hello. You know you got a pretty good business here.” I said, “I don’t know. It’s all right, you know?” He says, “I can help you a lot.” I said, “How?” He says, “I go around …” He’s been in the millinery business. “I go around …” He had ten children, imagine? “I go around,” he says, “from one store and one factory, and I ask them what they have left over. And I get ten percent if somebody buys it.” And I said it was a very good idea, and I said, “I’ll give you ten percent.” You know, he used to take me to Lane Bryant after a sale. He used to kiss my hand. He was a good, old guy. I made so much money through that old guy, you have no idea ...
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