Tuesday, June 20, 2006

MEMOIR: The benefits of a family connection

It's no secret that family connections can be very useful for one's career and for other favors that life can offer. It's highly unlikely, for example, that Sen. Ted Kennedy and his son, Rep.Patrick Kennedy, would have had their meteoric political success at such very young ages had they not been the close relatives of tycoon Joe Kennedy, President John Kennedy, and Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy.

Similarly, it's hard to believe that George W. Bush would have been a successful baseball club owner, Texas governor, and President of the United States had he not been the son of a previous President, George H.W. Bush, and a grandson of Prescott Bush, a powerful Connecticut Senator.

In countless corporations, including public companies, nepotism is commonplace. It is not unusual for the sons or other close relatives of CEOs to assume leadership roles at very early ages. For instance, this was the case with the Watsons of IBM, the Bronfmans of Seagram's, the Fords of Ford Motor Co., and the McGraws of The McGraw-Hill Companies.

I was also once the beneficiary of a family connection, but at a very trivial level. It happened when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and my prize was exceedingly modest. It was based on the marriage of my Aunt Lilly, my mother's younger sister. Her new husband, my Uncle Ike, had a younger brother. The younger brother was married to a sister of the famous Warner brothers, owners of the Hollywood movie studio and a national chain of movie theaters.

My uncle's younger brother became the manager of the Warner Brothers theaters. I don't recall whether he managed the national chain or only the Metropolitan New York theaters. But his territory did include a theater near Webster Avenue and 172nd Street in the Bronx, which was within walking distance of my home. I don't remember the movie house's name.

Through the courtesy of my Uncle Ike's younger brother, I was given a free pass to the theater. The pass entitled me to bring a guest. The result was that I became an extremely popular member of my gang of neighorhood friends as I carefully distributed invitations for guys to go with me to the movies.

The invitations were highly prized, particularly during the hot summer months. The Webster Avenue theater was air-conditioned. Of course, this was in an era when air-conditioning equipment was a rarity. Moreover, the programs were long enough to provide almost a half a day's entertainment with double features, the newsreels, and cartoons or a cowboy serial.

I don't recall how many seasons I was given the movie house pass. But the experience underscored the importance of family connections for me.

A decade later, another potential opportunity arose to gain the benefit of a family connection. But I decided not to take advantage of this one. It was a far more convoluted connection than my remote family contact with the Warner brothers.

My maternal grandmother had two older brothers who arrived in the U.S. many years before she did. They became prosperous men's clothing manufacturers, and both died before I was born. The widow of one of the brothers remarried. Her new husband's son was the legendary Lester Markel, one of the nation's most influential newspapermen for nearly four decades before his retirement in 1964.

Markel, who died in 1977, was the creator and editor of the Sunday edition of the New York Times. He was responsible for making the Sunday paper, with all its innovative features, a unique national publication.

Markel was an ill-tempered man with a volatile personality that led to scores of colorful stories about him. According to one apocryphal tale, like Idi Amin, he stocked his refrigerator with the severed heads of his many enemies. In an actual incident, a reporter wrote him a resignation letter, stating: "Mr. Markel, you are a son of bitch, but I respect you."

When I was about to graduate from college with a journalism degree in the early spring of 1948, I began to look for a newspaper job. My family knew that my deceased great-uncle's widow had married Markel's father and had thus become Markel's step-mother.

An uncle of mine, unaware of Markel's stormy reputation, encouraged me to visit Markel and ask for a job. Even though my uncle kept bugging me to see Markel, I kindly rejected his advice.

Unlike my uncle, I knew of Markel's hot-tempered reputation. It was common knowledge in New York City newspaper circles that he was an extremely difficult man to deal with. I tried to imagine myself going into his office to apply for a job, claiming as a credential the fact that my grandmother's former sister-in-law had become his new step-mother.

I have always considered myself a courageous person. But the scary prospect of confronting the formidable Mr. Markel on that basis destroyed any notion of capitalizing on this piddling family connection.


Blogger saz said...

Wow - A movie pass? Would have been a dream come true for me.

I'm sure Mr. Markel had relatives in high places at the phone company - I could swear I worked for a few people with similar tempers.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 12:03:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

I remember fondly summer Saturday movies in the air-conditioned theater. My friends and I would go and sit through the movie 2 or 3 times it was so blessedly cool in there. The Palace theater in Athens Georgia showed movies like "The Wizard of Oz", "Casablance" and "Gone With the Wind" and so many others. The news reels were our pictures of the war, and our leaders like FDR.

The other theater, the Strand, was a sort of ratty theater but it showed good films mostly Westerns with the serials and such.

Those good times seem like only yesterday.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Peggy said...

I was a legal secretary in Iowa for a few years. The offices were above a movie theater in downtown Iowa City and the building was owned by the father of one of the lawyers. Every Christmas we got a movie pass for the theater downstairs. The pass included the bearer (me) and two guests. This meant that I, as a single mother could take my two little boys to the movies for free at any time! I hated to leave that job. It still is my all time favourite job but I was moving to another country. We all miss that movie pass.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006 2:48:00 AM  
Blogger goldenlucyd said...

What memories. I never had a pass but when I could afford to go to the matinee I thought I'd gone to heaven. (How DID we live withou air conditioning at home?)

Re the Markel family connection: I'm glad to hear common sense prevailed.
Another great post, Mort.

Thursday, June 22, 2006 8:55:00 AM  
Anonymous Mary said...

I have been researching the history of our little town and it is amazing how many times the same surnames appear in local affairs, generation after generation.

Friday, June 23, 2006 6:21:00 AM  
Anonymous . said...

One of the first blogs i read on my computer---it is realy great---I especially love the personal stories.Much better than my playing bridge.Many thanks.

Friday, June 23, 2006 8:44:00 AM  
Anonymous joared said...

I love this story! Sounds like you had the good sense to realize there are even limits to nepotism's benefits -- relationships can only be stretched so far. From the sound of Markel's style, can imagine him trying to make mincemeat of you however unintentional.

Yes, how did we live without AC?

Recall my 35 cent weekly allowance; being allowed to spend 16 cents of that to see a movie matinee. Usually, I was only allowed to see musicals. No money for popcorn or drinks.

The cartoons were funny. Those newsreels that were shown from WWII are still burned into my memory.

Friday, June 30, 2006 9:44:00 PM  
Blogger Find Truth said...

Keep Writing.Great Story.Wish I had your talent.

Friday, July 07, 2006 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

I just want you to know how much I enjoy your wonderful stories here. I was a home health RN for 19 years and I have to say, the best part of the visit was always spending the extra time to chit chat with my patients....and hear these stories of days gone by. Now I see I can get those great stories right here, so thanks, Mort.

Friday, July 07, 2006 5:26:00 PM  
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Wednesday, September 20, 2006 10:28:00 PM  

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