“The Early Years”

 

Once Upon a Time…

Newcomers, Belle Weiss and Harry Nagin

A bit of advice to young couples in love: Do your homework. Prospective in-laws usually come along with the package. The god or goddess of your choice doesn’t necessarily arrive baggage-free, unless you get lucky. Geoff Nate got lucky.

Elayne Nagin’s parents couldn’t have been a better fit as in-laws than if I had consulted a marriage broker. Their’s was the classic Jewish refugee story.  They both immigrated to New York from Eastern Europe when they were infants in the early 1900s.

Harry and Louie at sea

Harry and his little brother Lou lived with their parents in a small two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan on 110th Street, which they shared with three refugee boarders who slept on the living room floor. A new brother, Tully, and a sister, Dora, forced the family to move into larger accommodations, but the boarders came along. As a boy Harry and Lou, worked for their father’s small grocery, delivering fresh milk in large cans before dawn six mornings a week to customers living in multi-story walk-ups.

Bootlegger?

Over the years Harry and Lou did whatever they had to do to make an honest dollar. Well… not quite. There was a story involving the boys in their late teens. It seems that their father had gone broke in the Depression, so they went off to Detroit where they drove a truck back and forth to Canada for a bootlegger uncle. Harry was never one for details.

A serious beginning

He had met Belle on a blind date in New York. He went back, married her, and they moved to Los Angeles, where their daughters Corrine, and four years later Elayne, were born. The Depression of the 1930s were difficult years of course, but their parents never let the girls know it.

Harry and Lou took jobs with a wholesale grocery company owned by an uncle, but after a few years the ambitious brothers bought two markets of their own.

“Matzos yes… but to me it’s bread and butter.”

The Nagins proved to be successful entrepreneurs. The markets did well, however a few years later they were introduced to a young man from New York named Beryl Manischewitz , whose company needed a West Coast distributor. The boys sold their markets, took on the Manischewitz line, and established Nagin Brothers, Wholesale Distributors of Kosher-style Products in the Southwestern United States.

Harry cracks the big chains.

On the one occasion I met Beryl Manischewitz, he told me that he credits Harry and Lou for catapulting the growth of his business.

He maintained that the Nagin Brothers opened the door for his company’s Kosher style specialties in the United States when they convinced Ralph’s, Vons and other major California supermarket chains to carry Matzos as well as the Manischewitz line of related products.

“Hey,” Harry used to say… “It may be matzos to you, but to me it’s bread and butter.”

 

Harry’s Customer was Always Right

Harry’s customer was always right.

Harry was a superb salesman. He had the uncanny ability to establish instant rapport with the customer. If he sensed sales resistance, he immediately became the customer’s champion.

Harry: “I understand Sam… I understand… Don’t make a decision now… think it over. I’ll put a hold on your order and call you tomorrow. As a matter of fact, I’ll tell the warehouse to set the merchandise aside. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Regardless of how challenging an issue with a customer might be, Harry would be the first to step in and take charge. The other party’s problem immediately became his own. He became that person’s advocate in search of a solution.

“Better double my order.”

To a delinquent customer, Harry became a sympathetic ally.

Harry: “Our salesman had no business overloading you with gefilte fish, Abe. We’ll send someone over to pick it up tomorrow. We can use it; there’s a new ad breaking this weekend.”

Customer:  (Long pause) “Really? Maybe I’d better keep some in stock. In fact, can you get another couple dozen over tomorrow? I don’t want to run short. I’ll have a check ready for the driver when he gets here.”

matzos1

Harry’s “bread and butter.”

Harry: “Sure Abe, I’ll see what I can do. After all, you’re one of my best customers.”

 .

Only the Best for Harry’s Son-in-Law

Nothing’s too good for Elayne and her chosen.

Steve was Harry’s barber. He was a dignified gentleman who worked the number one chair in the Executive Men’s Shop at the Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills. He had a reputation and an ego to go with it. The rumor was that one of his clients was a multi-millionaire who he shaved and trimmed at the man’s Bel Air mansion every morning.

Harry could be seen once a week in Steve’s chair enjoying the works; a shampoo, haircut, shave, manicure and shoe shine. As barber shop customers go, Harry was right up there, certainly 50 dollars or more plus tips.

Boy finds “nice Jewish girl.”

At the time I was dating his daughter, Elayne, my hair was being cut in a traditional working man’s barber shop by a guy named Charley wherever there was an empty chair. I was a slam dunk for any barber. I still wore the same crew cut I had in the Air Force. I was a “15 minutes and out the door” customer. My haircut ran $2.00, and if I had some change in my pocket, maybe a quarter tip.

Though I didn’t think I needed a haircut, Harry took me over to the Hilton to meet his barber the day before the wedding.

“Steve, I want you to meet my son-in-law-to-be. He’s marrying my daughter Elayne tomorrow, and I want you should give him the works.” And the works is what I got in that hour I spent at the Hilton barber shop.

The “works”

Steve was a pro, no doubt about it. He looked at my crew cut, and without so much as a lifted eyebrow, replied in his very cultivated Viennese accent, “Certainly Harry we will take very good care of the young man.”

And that he did. A beautiful young woman took me over to a sink for a shampoo and scalp treatment, at the conclusion of which she led me back to Steve’s chair. He had just finished up with another customer. There was a shoe shine man and an attractive manicurist waiting. The girl lifted up each hand, studied them carefully, and then, whispering softly, asked me if I had ever before had a manicure. Though he made no comment, I’m sure the shoe shine guy wondered much the same about my old loafers.

“It’s been a long time.” I replied to the manicurist. I didn’t have the nerve to tell the woman that this was my first.

Steve returned, and shared some of his “important” customer stories, while with flying comb and scissors finished me off in about thirty minutes.

Having had a taste of the good life, I returned to Steve for my next three or four haircuts. It was usually during my lunch break, so I never had time for the shampoo, manicure or shoe shine, which I couldn’t afford anyway. Nevertheless, my bill still ran over $10 with tip, a big number for a guy making $50 a week.

One day while driving from Hollywood to Beverly Hills for a haircut appointment, I got stuck in traffic and arrived ten minutes late to find another customer in Steve’s chair. After about five minutes, Steve came over to me and quietly explained that he had a busy afternoon ahead of him, I was late, and he couldn’t fit me in.

Two buck Chuck’s

“Well how about tomorrow?” I suggested. He shook his head. “Can we do it the next day?” I asked. Then, taking me by the elbow, he walked me to the door and outside in the hall explained that the “Shop” could no longer afford to cut my hair… that he only accepted me as a client as a favor to my father-in-law. Also, he added that I was “not getting manicures or shoe shines and my tips were inadequate.”

I walked out of the Hilton, went back to my old barber, Charley, had another of my traditional buzz cuts, paid my $2.00, left my quarter tip, and managed to get on with my life.

P.S. Always a class act, Harry Nagin never mentioned the subject.

 .

The Big Wedding

Only the best for Harry’s daughter

Harry could never said no to his daughters. In fact, I never heard him say no to anyone. When Elayne wanted a big wedding, that’s what she got. Always the sport, Harry took over the ballroom at the Brentwood Country Club. There must have been 300 guests, most of whom I had never met and would probably never meet again.

Elayne had been a bridesmaid sixteen times and felt obligated to reciprocate. That would have been OK; however, as a newcomer to LA, I didn’t know anybody. Where was I going to find sixteen groomsmen to walk all those bridesmaids down the aisle?

Harry suggested I “try Central Casting.”

Dad ties the first knot.

Elayne drafted her sister Corrine as Matron of Honor. My brother Gary (Butsy) was in the Army in Germany at the time my, so my father stood up for me. My kid sister, Nancy, was the ring bearer.

My buddies Sam Goldenberg and Fred Tankel served as ushers along with Elayne’s cousin Jerry Nagin. Harry rented tuxedos for the four of us. One problem however, Fred, my roommate at the time, and I had only one pair of black shoes between us. Harry Nagin, as always had the answer. Fred should wear the shoes while seating the guests and exchange them with me in time for the nuptials. It worked.

Geoff Nate scores.

The ceremony was followed by the biggest buffet dinner I had ever seen. Though many of the wedding guests filled their plates more than once, they didn’t seem to make a dent.

I’d been to a few Jewish wedding dinners as a boy in Minneapolis, but I had never seen anything like this.

“What do they do with the leftovers?” I asked Harry.

Not exactly tortillas and beans

“Not to worry,” assured my new father-in-law. “Those aren’t exactly tortillas and beans on that buffet. The Brentwood kitchen staff may work for peanuts, but their families are learning to love pickled herring, gefilte fish, chopped liver and brisket.”

 .

Harry and Gilbert

Geoff Nate’s “superstars”

Geoff Nate is the son and son-in-law of the two finest men I have ever known. How about that? It was the luck of the draw, and I drew aces.

Apart from the fact that they were both great salesmen, wonderful fathers, and upstanding human beings, Harry and Gilbert had very little in common. Harry Nagin was born in Eastern Europe, emigrated to the U.S. as a kid, and lived in a two-bedroom six-floor walk-up in New York City. Gilbert Nathanson was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the second of six boys from a large well-off family and raised in an upscale neighborhood.

Straight shooter

While Harry and his younger brother Lou were delivering milk to their father’s customers in six-story walk-ups at 5:00 in the morning, Gilbert and his brothers were boy scouts, athletes and college graduates. They worked in the family business and spent their summer vacations at the family lake house.

While Harry and Lou smuggled Canadian Whiskey for their bootlegger uncle in Detroit, Gilbert attended the University of Minnesota Law School.

Gilbert Nathanson was an outstanding athlete close to six feet in height, a high school football player, competitive swimmer, tennis champion, and low handicap golfer. Harry, on the other hand, was a spectator sportsman. His physical activity was limited to a rub down at his health club. However, you name the game; he may not have understood the rules, but he was always ready to cheer for the home team. His favorite sport was professional wrestling, but he never passed up an opportunity to see the Dodgers, or go to a UCLA, SC or Raiders football game with his grandchildren.

“Have you heard this one?”

That’s where their differences ended. Both men were superstars in my book. Each of them were outgoing and had a host of friends, Harry should have been a Borscht Belt comedian. He had a million gags, and his accent and timing were perfect. I don’t remember my father ever telling a joke, but he sure enjoyed Harry’s stories.

The important attributes the men shared however, were personal integrity and a genuine love of people. Both were completely non-judgmental, though Gilbert had a little trouble getting used to the long hair his grandsons sported during the “Age of Aquarius.” It took an adjustment on his part, but ultimately his love of family triumphed.

I used to tell people I got lucky. Elayne just happened to come along with the package.

“The Wives Pull the Plug”   [Open]

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