Day 4 Full Stop – the series – Part I

The only losses this child was trained to fixate on were fat and inches. In that category, loss seemed elusive, distant and always required more discipline and endurance than I had. By now, at almost seventy, I have lost the weight, the way, my youth and several fortunes.

But, my first and most serious loss was announced in a rather benign telegram.


I had no image for this event until my sainted mother reported -after her visit to the mortuary – that my father had been “decapitated. ” She said this so flat out and plainly that I had to ask what the word meant. Her explanation included how she could see the stitches peeking over his tie. So this image branded the horrible event.

In the Chicago hotel, she smoked and breathed whiskey for comfort as I sat there obsessing on the dreadful vision she had provided – so gratuitously. I did not have the mind to wonder about the permanence of death as I was waiting for the “seriously slurring” part of the evening. Finally, my sister signaled we could cross the street to Granny’s.

It was Granny, who really needed the whiskey but it was not her way. She paced her bedroom mumbling about how none of this would have happened if he had not taken up with the shicksah. She circled a subtile Nain. Grandfather’s eyes followed her from the Baroque Gold frame and she continued her bitter monologue.

This was my first view of despair. somehow, I could see but not feel her depth of emotion. I was frankly numb except for a vague dread of what would happen when she saw my mother. Most certainly, they would not embrace graveside.

There was red anger and black misgivings on both sides of Astor street. That night seemed impermanent and cold as the wind gusting through the open transoms to vent the radiators. The starched sheets rustled all ice and brittle and my sister whimpered on the bathroom floor as she had all during the kidnappings and long divorce. It seemed more home than any place had in a long while.

Breakfast with the maids in the kitchen was hyper normal. They were from Norway, so, were always solemn and orderly. We chewed our old person flavored bran in the usual silence.

They told us that the family would receive guests all day and the funeral would follow on the next morning. There were no plans for anything beyond these mysterious rituals. And, we were expected to be present for all of this while my mother was excluded. This was the endless familiar tension.

It was most pleasant without her around. I could slather butter my popovers and eat all the Frangipanni mints I wanted. And not be pestered by her cosmetic concerns. So what if I would need to wear a dresses like tents or came down with diabetes? Back at Granny’s I was free.. Grief or no this was stern comfort I did not know that I missed it until this dark reunion.

I wondered if I could just stay.
You know, not go back to L.A.?

During the reception, my sister sat listlessly on the other brocaded chair in front of the fire place. I maintained my focus on a hoard of canapés, when, Uncle Sam glided to my side. I was the youngest and female so, it was not like any of the very grey men to engage me beyond a greeting. But, somehow, Uncle Sam stood next to me, said “condolences” and fervently pressed a twenty dollar bill into my hand.

“Huh?” I thought and thanked him.

Having given me this gift, he slithered away into the Minion. My mind went wild: Did my sister also get a surprising handshake? Would I have to share it? What was that about?

I would find out soon enough.

Samuel R. Rosenthal Chair at Harvard Law

My uncle Sam Rosenthal  could  never have scratched together as many honors as he bought with my grandfather’s money.   The lawyer was certainly celebrated for his inventive Trusts and Estate management and he was very able to amass plenty for self agrandiasment.  Somehow, he always appeared obscenely charitable – Even while he wrangled enough cash from Widows and Orphans (myself included) to buy a chair at Harvard and continue Grandfather Dreyfus’ legacy under this pseudonym Rosenthal-Glasser .

Uncle made a strategic marriage to my blood aunt that gained him eternal access to the Inland Steel fortune. That’s how he financed undue respect in perpetuum.  Rosenthal crafted  “irrevocable trusts” for his rich in-laws and their connections. Just crafting an array of Wills for the Dreyfus’ familyalone eventually earned him partnership status at Sonnenschein, Lautman Carlin & Nath.

It must have looked like sunshine and lollipops until  my mother came along prickling him with her own brand of West Coast greed.  Their individual ambitions and mutually exclusive needs made them perfect enemies.  But, she must have seemed easy enough to dispose of … She wasn’t Jewish and she failed to bear a male.  Those grounds were more than the Family Attorney needed to eject this annoying interloper and to capture the remainder of the Dreyfus’ millions — in one swift hit.

In a style common before no-fault divorces, my mother would be removed from the family on a charge of adultery.  On such shameful grounds, no alimony would be granted.   The custody would take months and become abusive.  The children of this marriage were subjected to retaliatory kidnappings — another artifact of the age .

Sam’s reach was costing her status and cash and she did not take any loss well. Sam’s brutal efficiencies ensured their very personal hate story. The game of  “family” was  played out by two mismatched contenders.  The two of them would slug away at each other for decades.

Unlike Sam with his fancy Harvard education,  my mother had only a few courses in Law.  Still, she was gifted with nothing to lose and cursed by an inconvenient idea of justice.  She believed that her minor daughters could not be excluded from an irrevocable trust because they were born after the testator had expressed the intent to support his unborn grandchildren.  She was technically “right” but, alas, she had no favors to call in and no cash to pass along to the right judges like he did.

The case was finally decided by a group of judges from the Seventh Circuit.  These men were seated in the  remotest possible venue, downstate, at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.  Justice John Paul Stevens and the later disgraced Otto Kerner were part of the group of judges, who were empaneled to hear two cases at the University every year –one criminal and one civil case.  While the city papers dispatched reporters to cover the Richard Speck (criminal) case in the morning, by the afternoon session, the press had gone back to Chicago.

For this final big round, my mother had managed to contest on the grounds that my father’s Will had been distributed before probate.  So, the last standing Defendant was the First National Bank of Chicago.  Along the way, she had delivered evidence that the first page of Philip S. Dreyfus’  Will – the one giving the money to Michael Reese Hospital – had been substituted.  Earlier, her contention that a hospital charted for “charitable purposes” should not accept a bequest for “research” was mooted when Mrs. Samuel Rosenthal simply endowed a research facility allowing the money to flow into that shell.)

Unrelenting  plaintiff  that she was,  my mother must have appeared to the Sonnenschein battleship like some pesky pirate.  To me, that hideous persistence meant that she would never settle, even when my grandmother’s Will included a codicil that offered a bequest on the condition.

Mother scoured those papers every night looking for the way to win.  And,  in the end, her personal victory of keeping the battleship occupied cost us everything.  She would never give up trying to get grandfather’s money to support us through high school, her way.  Fighting her own battle for a “matter of principal” blinded her to compromise in the face of long odds.

She was right but there was no Erin Brocavich moment — It was hardly “cold comfort,” that  long after my sister and I spent the $1,000 we each got — from that $31 million dollar estate — several Judges from the downstate tribunal were removed.  Oh, yes, that was   for accepting bribes.

And, my Uncle? Of course, he got a seat on the Board of the Hospital. And, he continued to manage a secret “D&R Fund.” He would only have to endure the death of my cousin, Marty in a fatal crash not far from where my father died instantly. Samuel R. Rosenthal was considered a “Very Charitable Man.” That is if you overlook his maltreatment of widows and female orphans in his own family.