Monday, April 4, 2011

1185 Park Avenue by Anne Roiphe 1999

"[B]y focusing more on the other characters -- on what they do and say -- than on her own thoughts and feelings, Roiphe gives her memoir the dramatic vividness of a novel." from a review in the New York Times by Karen Lehrman, June 6, 1999

Anne Roiphe’s mother, Blanche, inherited wealth. Blanche’s grandfather, Moses Phillips, a Polish immigrant, and his son Isaac, her father, had started out peddling shirts. Before long they were making the shirts they sold. The Phillips-Van Heusen Company was established through their efforts and eventually provided both careers and income to family members.

Blanche Phillips married Eugene Frederick Roth in 1931 and they moved into an apartment at 1185 Park Avenue on the East Side of New York City when they returned from their honeymoon. It was one of the few Park Avenue buildings to accept Jews, and Blanche’s brother and his family lived in the same building. Her two sisters and their families lived in two other hospitable buildings elsewhere on Park Avenue. Blanche’s husband was a lawyer who was quickly absorbed into the family business. The author was born in 1935; her brother in 1939.

This memoir is an engrossing but sad story of a wealthy Jewish family grappling with their newly acquired wealth and status. When Roiphe became old enough to make sense of arguments and behavior, she realized that her father married her mother for her money. Her mother constantly talked about divorce but was emotionally paralyzed despite years of psychoanalysis. In addition, her mother’s sisters, concerned about scandal, suggested she grin and bear it. Her father, always close to exploding, paid little attention to his children; when he did, he was often cruel.

In their great need to be accepted, to be considered full-fledged “Americans,” family members in Roiphe’s parents’ generation had a typically ambivalent relationship to their Jewish roots which included what they perceived as their Jewish looks. For example, Roiphe’s mother took her to get her black curly hair straightened. Her mother said she was at least lucky that she had an acceptable nose.

And of course this ambivalence extended to religious observance or non-observance.  Roiphe’s family had a Christmas tree. They belonged to the Park Avenue Synagogue where Blanche, her children and her siblings and their families put in an appearance on the High Holy Days, but not Blanche’s husband who refused to attend. When Anne Roiphe’s brother was getting close to bar mitzvah age his mother hired a tutor who became a surrogate father to her brother;  her brother even started to dress like his tutor which included wearing a black hat. This was the final straw for his father who angrily remarked that his son looked like he had "just got off the boat."  This obviously reflected Roiphe's father’s own discomfort with his Jewish identity and how close he was to his family's immigrant past.

Anne Roiphe traveled in a rarified atmosphere far from her grandparents’ Polish and Hungarian Jewish roots and it connected her with others who traveled in those kinds of circles. Her cousin Howard Gilman was one. Vladimir Horowitz who played canasta with her mother was another. Roy Cohn was a relative of a relative whom she saw frequently at family gatherings. Through him she met David Schine. Judge Irving Kaufman lived in her building.

As Anne Roiphe entered her teens she was more able to evaluate critically what she observed and experienced. For example, she learned that Roy Cohn sent some legal cases her father’s way, and she had long arguments with her father, goading him about his fierce anti-communist stance. But it took her many years to carve out her own life. In this memoir Roiphe takes us on a journey through the first half of the twentieth century as her family established itself in America.

author's maternal side of the family
Moses Phillips
    Isaac Phillips - son of Moses; married Anne 
        Blanche Phillips – daughter of Isaac and Anne; married (Fritz) Eugene Frederick Roth
            Anne Roth – daughter of Blanche and Eugene; author
            Eugene Frederick Roth, Jr. – son of Blanche and Eugene
        Sy Phillips – son of Isaac and Anne
        Libby Phillips – daughter of Isaac  and Anne
        Sylvia Phillips – daughter of Isaac and Anne; married to Charles Gilman
            Howard and Christie Gilman– sons of Sylvia and Charles

author's paternal side of the family
    Isadore and Sophie Roth
        Bea Roth – daughter of Isadore and Sophie; married to Daniel Kreisberg
        Eugene Frederick Roth – son of Isadore and Sophie; wife of Blanche Phillips (see above)
        Edward Roth – son of Isadore and Sophie
    Minnie Roth – Isadore Roth’s sister
        Dora Cohn – sister of Libby Phillips’ husband; married to Al Cohn
            Roy Cohn – son of Dora and Al Cohn

            David Schine
        Vladimir Horowitz
            Sonia Horowitz

Sulvalki, Poland
Camp Songowood, Maine
Camp Wigwam, Maine
New York City, NY



  1. Thank you so much for posting all your wonderful discoveries about famous Jews for us. I look forward to many hours reading the treasure trove of Info you have so graciously shared. And thanks to you and the Amazon link posted, I just ordered one of the books profiled, about the rich Jewish family that had a place on Park Street. Thanks so much!!