I never wanted to be born in Los Angeles. My childhood, I suspected, was misplaced. My mother and father were both New Yorkers. Thanks to a trove of correspondence that I discovered after my parents passed away within months of each other, I can pinpoint the exact date—August 1, 1941—that determined my destiny as a native Angeleno. On that morning, my young father stepped off the passenger train at L.A.’s Union Station. In the letter to my mother he wrote later that day: “Now I shall commence to tell you of my Gulliver’s Travels thru this fairyland of California.”
It was Norman Steinman’s first-ever westward crossing of the North American continent, where he’d arrived as a six-year-old in 1921 with his mother and sister, refugees from Ukraine during a period of profound upheaval. The entire country was a battlefield. For three years, per historian Timothy Snyder, five different armies had converged in Ukraine: Reds, Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, anarchists, and Poles. Bands of Cossacks rampaged through the countryside. All of it, of course, was bad for the Jews.
My father forgot his native Russian, but claimed he sometimes dreamed in his native tongue. He often referred to himself as a “Melancholy Slav.”
A visit to his parents, Rebecca (Becky) and Herschel (Harry) Steinman, who’d moved west just six months earlier, was the impetus for my father’s 1941 trip to California. My grandparents, then in their mid-forties—having made one epic migration from Ukraine embroiled in revolution and civil war—decided twenty years later to undertake a second, albeit less arduous migration, from New York to Los Angeles.
It was an adventurous geographic and cultural leap. A few of my grandfather’s cousins from Zhytomyr, in Ukraine, had already relocated to the west coast. Harry was entrepreneurial. Opportunity beckoned.
Within months, my grandparents invested the savings from their dry goods store on East 103rd Street in East Harlem. They bought an eight-unit apartment building in Los Angeles at 152 North Sycamore Avenue—Streamline Moderne with curved cornices and circular portholes, a style taking cues from the Bauhaus, stripping away the unnecessary. They lived in one flat, rented out the rest.
The building was north of the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard, that great spine of the growing city, known as Miracle Mile. It was located a few blocks from the La Brea Tar Pits, that repository of dire wolf and mastodon bones that have been seeping tar for thirty-eight thousand years. Just last week, I brought home blobs of that tar on the soles of my sandals.
My father’s 1941 letters to his wife chronicle the first real separation for the newly married couple. Within hours of their tender goodbyes at Penn Station, my father caught the blues: “I’m terribly lonely. I miss you so … the thought that I am traveling farther away.”
At the time of his trip, my father was nearly twenty-five; my mother, twenty-two. They’d known each other seven years, ever since he, a math major at NYU, first spied fifteen year-old Annie Weiskopf at a Socialist meeting in the Bronx. Perhaps he’d snapped the photo of her at the workers’ street rally the next day, standing in the crowd. She has the soft round face of a girl and the blooming body of a woman.
Growing up impoverished in a Lower East Side tenement, the daughter of Polish-Jewish immigrants, she knew the cat-calls of construction workers and the prying hands of a great-uncle. She was smart, playful, the star of her high school play. She had moxie. He was besotted.
They waited to marry until my mother was two months out of her teens, celebrated with a honeymoon in the Catskills. I’ve seen one snap of the two of them in baggy snowsuits, lying prone outdoors, four arms outstretched, grinning snow angels. In another, they sit on the ledge of a stone fireplace. My father sports his NYU letterman’s sweater (varsity basketball, though he was only 5’4”). His black hair waves upwards in ridges like the pianist Van Cliburn’s. They stare into each other’s eyes with soulful intensity.
From New York to Chicago, my father rode “The Pacemaker,” a moniker of some irony, since his heart would have benefitted from such a device later in life. He would suffer his first heart attack at fifty and refuse any surgical intervention. If he had to climb stairs, or if the temperature dropped below 70, he popped nitroglycerin pills kept in a vial in his pocket to ease the pain of angina. He would not be able to throw a basketball or to play tennis with his fourth, and youngest, child.
Walter Winchell’s broadcasts boomed through the observation car as the Hudson Valley rolled by out the window. “I hate his voice but have no choice to turn him off.” Winchell, who invented celebrity gossip, had not yet become the arch-conservative who’d support Joe McCarthy, but my father was already wary of him:
Winchell’s slogan 3 dots and a dash. (he’ll be back in a flash). However, Jergens is being advertised. I hope it sells while I’m gone. Every now and then I have a queer smile on my face thinking of you, naturally.
Winchell’s pitch for Jergens might help motivate sales of soap in my parents’ small dry goods store. In my father’s absence, my mother—better known for dramatic flair than business acumen—was left to manage the Buckingham Variety Store in West Hempstead, Long Island. She fretted about ornery sales reps, how to price hosiery. She chatted with housewives who needed thread, scouring pads, shoelaces, underpants, safety pins.
Another black and white: my mother poses behind a bin of socks, next to an advertisement for a line of dress patterns, featuring three fashionable slouching women with pencil skirts and slim hips, plus an array of threads. Her scrawny arms are visible under the puffed sleeves of a cotton gingham adorned with eleven front buttons. Her wavy blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail. She beams mischievously from the midst of her wares. My siblings and I are the beneficiaries of that grin, her optimism.
That first night on “The Pacemaker,” my father walked the narrow corridors, imagining himself a character in a film noir. He read the magazine Look, then Reader’s Digest. He stared out the window into the dark. The rocking motion of the train did not allow for smooth writing, but he wrote anyway.
He described the magnificent sunrise and the train ride itself, recalled how he kept raving to his seatmate about his “Lil Annie.” He regretted spending a quarter for a pillow and not using it. “A few soldiers and a few nice girls” made the all-nighter lively. He watched a pinochle game until the sun came up, smokestacks came into view, and “a wealth of industry unfolded itself” on the outskirts of Gary, Indiana. Onwards to the Windy City where, since the train was air-cooled, the sticky heat was a shock. He overnighted in a single room at Chicago’s Lawson YMCA at 30 West Chicago Avenue on the Near North Side. Tossed and turned all night, sweaty in his bed.
In the morning, he refreshed himself with a shave. None of the home teams were playing; he couldn’t watch a ballgame. In the stifling humidity of downtown Chicago, he boarded “The Scout,” bound for L.A. As the train rolled across Oklahoma, he climbed up to the observation car, joining a group of eighteen boys who’d all just signed up with the Marines. He bored his new companions by talking constantly about his wife.
He wrote her next from Winslow, Arizona, long before the Eagles made the tiny town semi-famous. The brief stop merited only one word: “desolate.” The train passed within eighteen miles of Meteor Crater, created some 50,000 years earlier by a massive explosion caused by an iron asteroid, but Norman Steinman did not get off the train to see it. He had only California on his mind.
At 10 p.m., the train stopped somewhere in the Mojave. Even late at night, it was still hot. Seven hours later, he lifted the window shade:
I saw the desert with all the cacti and sand … then just around the corner at San Bernardino the desert disappeared and the beautiful country of California began. While having breakfast, I passed hundreds of thousands of acres of vineyards and orange trees. Finally at 8:30 a.m. I arrived in L.A.
On August 1, 1941, he disembarked sleepy-eyed and sore into the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (now Union Station), a Spanish revival masterpiece, then three years old. The pleasurable dry heat of a Southern California summer morning tingled his skin. The scent of orange blossoms tickled his nostrils. “It was a fitting introduction of Southern California to the stranger,” wrote one historian about the effect of that heady fragrance on those just arrived from a sleepless night chugging west across the barren desert, “and a pleasant last memory of its beauty to the ones going away.”
My father descended to the long tiled tunnel leading from the tracks toward the vaulted, wood-beamed Arrivals Hall, across from the stylish Fred Harvey Restaurant where Fred Harvey Girls served waffles and hot coffee to sleepy customers in red Naugahyde booths.
There were his parents, Harry and Becky Steinman, first in line, his mother overcome with tears. They embraced and, after a slight delay retrieving his trunk, departed for the car. Norman took the front seat in the gray Buick Sedanette, next to his father, as both his parents insisted. Harry drove slowly, proceeding west on Sunset Boulevard, old Highway 66. South on Highland, right on Beverly. Another right onto North Sycamore.
For lunch, my grandmother prepared sardines on toast with sliced tomatoes, 7-Up in tall glasses, schnapps for Grandpa Harry. My grandmother could not take her eyes off her son, who was her only surviving child.
She’d left her other child, her daughter, in a cemetery in Queens. Ruth had died at fourteen from a tiny hole in her heart, just two years after they arrived from Ukraine. Today this tear would have been easily repaired. My grandparents were inconsolable. A cousin told me how, at the burial, my grandfather threw himself on the grave.
My father had been the only son, then the only child. With the exception of the three and a half years he spent overseas in the Army, he would live near his parents for the rest of his life. In one of his letters from the Pacific, he explicitly reminded his wife of his intention: should one of his parents die, the survivor would live with them, with their children, in their home. She agreed, no debate recorded.
He was dazed by the warmth, by the brilliant scarlet of bougainvillea that flourished in the most humdrum apartment driveways. The miraculous curative qualities attributed to the Southern California climate had long been touted by boosters. Not only was it a healthful land, there were no tornados, no cyclones, no ice or sleet. No snow. No hail. No mud. Enough water. Whether my grandparents or my father were aware of the 7.0 earthquake that had struck the Imperial Valley on May 19, 1940, I do not know.
August 1, 1941 Friday noon … “Now I shall commence to tell you of my Gulliver’s Travels thru this fairyland of California. This place is like a dream. It seems like vacationland when dad drove me to his house. I was the most thrilled boy.
It will be difficult for me to describe this apartment house. It is brand new, only about 3 months old. You know how those new apartments are on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx—all windows. Well, this is like that only one-story high and sixteen apts. They are all unfurnished except for four, one-room bachelor apts. The rents range from 4 dollars bottom to 75 dollars for a five-room apartment. Each apartment here is worth about twice as much if it were in our town. They are gorgeous.
Please understand I am not bitten by any L.A. bug, that I love you and will be home on time as I promised but I must keep raving.
The folks really live in Hollywood. That is North Los Angeles. The sun is hot but very comfortable. There is no humidity causing you to perspire. I still love you.
Mr. Schimmel of the Blue Heaven Hosiery Co. who had dinner with the folks last year stopped off to say goodbye and to see me. Well he took pictures of the house, moving pictures. When we look him up in B’lyn, he’ll run them for us. He certainly is having a grand vacation. He and his wife have been everywhere. You see how I miss my wife. Mrs. Schimmel says she‘ll call you when she gets back.
Waking up on Sycamore the next morning, he planned to drive “aimlessly through the streets of L.A,” a phrase to savor from the perspective of the gridlocked city I navigate in 2023.
Driving thru the streets is so enjoyable that if I do nothing else it will be worth it. The folks do look a little tired. It is because of their real estate venture. It took a lot of courage. I hope it will work out for them because they have a piece of property that is beautiful and the latest in style, architecture, period design and so on. I truly was impressed. I’ll take some pictures and show you.
My grandfather, dapper in a three-piece suit, steered the Buick past the guest bungalows of the swank Beverly Hills Hotel. They drove east on Wilshire, past the Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire department store, the top of its tower sheathed in copper tarnished green. They drove east and they drove west.
They wound up the narrow Hollywood streets abutting the Hollywood Bowl, where they parked the Buick. Through the back gates, sounds of an orchestra tuning: the Philharmonic in rehearsal. To my father’s delight, the great conductor Bruno Walter held the baton. To add to his amazement: “they played our waltz from Mayerling, I nearly cried because you weren’t here. Please write Love Norman”
Their “waltz” was part of the score for the 1935 film Mayerling, directed by the leftist émigré Anatole Litvak, who was—like my father—a Jew from Ukraine. Bruno Walter (born a Jew in Berlin, Bruno Walter Schlesinger) escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, becoming part of a burgeoning community of European émigré artists in Los Angeles. This group included Thomas and Katia Mann, Heinrich and Nelly Mann, Leon and Marta Feuchwanger, Alma Mahler and Frans Werfel, Berthold Brecht, Salka Viertel. Mayerling tells the tragic tale of Prince Rudolf, Emperor Franz Joseph’s only son and heir. Rudolf’s suicide-murder pact with his young mistress shifted succession to his more conservative cousin, Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist was a flashpoint for the start of World War I.
Shadows of a previous war, foreshadowing of the next.
The next morning, my father went swimming in the blue Pacific off the expansive beach in Santa Monica. What he didn’t know or couldn’t see that day was how swimming and sunbathing for Black beachgoers was restricted to a two-block area of oceanfront, known derogatorily as “The Inkwell.”
He could not stop raving about the California weather, the state’s great commodity, its big lure in the decades before climate change.
It isn’t just talking about any old weather, just for the sake of conversation— because that is the most important thing about this country— the climate. Since I have been here I have not perspired once. Even when the sun is at its hottest you just don’t feel clammy. It is pleasant warmth. And in the evenings it starts at sundown and gets so deliciously cool. I keep thinking how we could use such cool nights back home.
From the majestic Art Deco Griffith Park Observatory, he took in the larger view:
You get a gorgeous view of L.A. You see the whole city is surrounded by mountains. So that the view of both the mountains and valley is beautiful. The Observatory is very high up. Out here you feel as though you are in a thousand resorts at the same time. Darling I haven’t gotten any L.A. bug—I still love you and long for you.
It’s still possible to connect with my father’s ecstasy about the physical beauty of Los Angeles. When afternoon light shimmers off stucco storefronts on Temple Street during my drive home from downtown; when I catch a glimpse of winter snow aglow on the steep façade of the San Gabriels from a trail high in Griffith Park—it can and does take my breath away.
August 7. Darling. As president of the Buckingham Variety Store, Inc. I wish to acknowledge receipt of your recent card in remembrance of the first anniversary of our store. I wish to state that it made me very happy indeed.
Darling. I’m glad you had such a good time this Sunday. I’m glad your day was full. When I come back, I will be full and complete. I know how you miss me because I feel that way out here. I feel that just half of me is here. How is the other half right now?
Don’t worry about the hosiery problem. Just keep selling. When I get back we’ll raise prices. Meanwhile I’m glad that you have discontinued the hosiery club. That’s using your head. Keep up the good work and I’ll give you a raise and promote you to assistant manager and buyer. love, Norman
My father and his parents drove up the coast to Santa Barbara for the Fiesta Days where there were people who “sang for a few coppers.” They attended the Moon Festival in downtown L.A. (raising funds for Chinese relief) in what was left of Chinatown, much of which had been plowed under to provide land for Union Station, displacing hundreds. He found nothing to buy in Tijuana for his sweet wife, who was still fretting about the price of shoelaces. “Jack up the price from 89 cents to $1.09,” my father advised.
August 8, Thursday morning. Darling I’ve just rec’d your desperate letter of Tues. Darling, your rise in prices of the low end of stockings is good. Our business does not depend on hosiery more than 5 or 6% so please don’t be alarmed. Don’t let business upset you. Take it in your stride. You can do it. Please don’t let Buddy run you. Tell him that if you don’t want him to use the register that it is my instructions. Please be firm in anything that you do. You can mail in your order to Blue Heaven if you want to.
Darling I’m sure you are doing all right and please don’t worry. Darling I haven’t gotten that L.A. bug—I still love you and long for you I love you very much.
August 9, Friday morning Dearest, I wish I were back at the store and solving all the problems that are confronting you. However you and I will just have to be patient another week. I’m very angry with Buddy but I’m glad that you fired him.
I’ll try to describe the fiesta. Almost all the people come in costumes. Caballeros, senoritas, toreadors, cowboys, all in gay colors. Very many came up on horseback. Two on a horse. The Lady in the Saddle and the man behind her. Even the horses are beautiful. The streets are roped off and everyone walks in the gutter. There are numerous dances in the different streets. There are quite a lot of troubadours playing in the streets for a few coppers. Then at the courthouse, which is a beautiful Spanish architecture—there is a tremendous courtyard where there is entertainment. Everything is done in Old Spanish style—In fact the fiesta is to typify “Old Spanish Days.”
In the afternoon when we arrived we visited the Santa Barbara Mission and were shown through by a Franciscan monk who explained all the historical events and folklore of the Indians.
Of course, the friendly Franciscan did not explain the terrible toll the California padres had exacted on indigenous Californians: forced labor, transmission of pathogens for which they had no immunity. Nor would my father’s children learn this history in Los Angeles schools, as we built scale models of those Franciscan missions out of popsicle sticks and paper mache.
But the most enjoyable feature of the trip was the ride. You see we took the coastal highway. This is the same highway that went to Mexico but in the opposite way. On one side was the ocean and it is beautiful and on the other side are gorgeous mountains. And coming home at night the moon shone on the ocean. Just picture that.
On December 7, 1941, four months after my father returned to New York from his summer trip to Los Angeles, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Two years later, in August 1943, newly drafted Private Norman Steinman arrived at Camp Fannin in Tyler, Texas, to report for infantry training. In January 1944, he shipped out from San Francisco on a troop ship crossing the Pacific to join the Twenty-Fifth “Tropic Lightning” Infantry Division; in his letters, he wrote in the upper right hand corner: “Somewhere At Sea.”
His whereabouts remained censored after he landed. He and my mother agreed on certain codes to clue her into his whereabouts, including the phrase: “I’m where the monkeys have no tails.” I now know that, after combat training in New Caledonia and Guadalcanal, my father landed at Lingayen Gulf, northern Luzon, part of MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. The phrase “I’m nowhere near the gift for Hal Rubin,” referred to his proximity to the front lines, to combat. Within months however, he would indeed “get the gift.” The Twenty-Fifth slogged it out in the Battle of Balete Pass, enduring one hundred and sixty-five consecutive days of brutal combat against General Yamashita’s troops in the rugged Caraballo Mountains.
I’ve seen sights and lived through things that have left an indelible impression on my mind.
In the almost five hundred letters he wrote to my mother during their three and a half years apart (“… in the middle of the night in Stygian darkness where you couldn’t see your hand in front of your eyes, I had to creep out of my hole in a downpour and sit behind a machine gun whose field of fire was a trail—and all I could do was sit and listen—and my body was shaking with cold…”), my father repeatedly reminded her that, if he made it through, he wanted to join his parents in California. He wanted to start a new life there with my mother, with their daughter Ruth (born while my father was away in combat) and the four other children he hoped they would have.
He wanted them to raise their family in Los Angeles.
He was critical of those among his circle of friends in New York who’d stayed behind and prospered during the war: those who hadn’t served while he ate cold chow in a foxhole, those who’d gone about their business while he’d watched his comrades die. My father needed, he wanted—a new outlook, a new address, a new profession.
New York was not New World enough. He would not look back. Start over start over start over. Go west go west go west.
In the fall of 1981, I was living in limbo in New York in a succession of sublets, working as a receptionist in a Soho art space called The Kitchen, shielding curators from irate artists trying to retrieve their misplaced video submissions. I was trying to figure out my own future as a performance artist, to figure out what to do next as my first marriage fatally fractured.
By December, my temporary digs were a fifth-floor East Village walk-up sublet from a Magnum photographer who kept only packets of Tri-X film in his fridge. His studio apartment featured a box spring, no mattress.
My mother took vicarious pleasure in my unhemmed life, flying out from L.A. to visit, buying me warm wool socks, showing me her old haunts, sleeping beside me on the box spring, stocking the refrigerator. She loved and missed her native city; she was thrilled that her daughter was navigating its mysteries. My father, by contrast, found my eastward move bewildering. “What are you doing living on the Lower East Side? We worked so hard to leave New York.”
Forty years earlier, on his last summer night in Los Angeles, my father and his parents sat rapt under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl listening to Brahms’ Double Concerto, performed by the twentieth century’s greatest violinist, another exiled Eastern European Jew. His enthusiasm was undimmed:
August 10, 1941
Darling, This place is like the dream in the Wizard of Oz. Last night I heard Jascha Heifetz. It was thrilling. The Hollywood Bowl is so much more beautiful than Lewisohn Stadium. It was so cold everyone brings their coats and blankets. Mr. Heifetz was superb.
Please understand also and very important that I want to be back at the store not only to be in business again but because I want to be near you and buzzing you right now. Gosh Darling I miss you so.
He was coming home, he promised. “I want to be near you.” In this, his last letter from Los Angeles, he did, however, confess to one slight complication:
Darling, I have been terribly upset. I lost my return ticket. I wanted to wait and write to you after I had made my reservation. But when I started looking for the tickets, they were nowhere to be found. We spent the whole day Monday turning the house upside down. So today I’m buying a one way ticket. If no one uses my lost ticket at the end of 3 months the railway auditors will send me a refund. I’m trying to forget that extra $61.29. I’m trying not to let this incident spoil my vacation but it certainly has dampened my spirits. I’ll cheer up and forget it.
Darling, I can hardly wait to be with you. Please don’t cry. It won’t be long now. Please try to look as pretty as when I left you, only a little more cheerful. I’m arriving at Penn Station on “The Pacemaker.” That’s the same train as when I left. Where can I take you on Sunday? Of course I’ll want to get home very early. Darling please take care of yourself until I get back. Please. Norman.
As promised, my father did return to New York from that trip to Oz. Years of war and separation were to follow: Luzon; Hiroshima; the Occupation.
To my mind, that mislaid return ticket for “The Pacemaker” was the telltale sign of his future, my mother’s, my siblings, my own. With all its contradictions, its hidden history, its charms and its illusions, Los Angeles had already captured my father’s heart.