Brooklyn Heights author Geraldine Gross
began her writing career when she was just 10 years old.
"I wrote a weekly newspaper for which I charged a penny
and a monthly magazine that cost a nickel. My brother did most
of the typing," she tells GO Brooklyn in an interview from
her Brooklyn Heights apartment.
Now 74, Gross, whose "The Persecution of Tante Chava and
Other Stories" (Jay Street Publishers, $12.95) was recently
released, recalled that as she grew, her inclination leaned toward
"My intention was to go to school and become a teacher,"
she says. "But that never happened."
Instead Gross got her first job with a company that produced
"There were two writers – one was 80; the other was me.
I was 16, but I lied and said I was 18. I was 18 for three years,"
When Gross was still in her 20s, she wrote her first novel, "The
Door Between," published by Dodd Mead. It helped her get
her foot in the door for better jobs: although she still couldn’t
show prospective employers a college degree, she could show them
her published novel.
Gross worked in the communications departments of Chemical Bank
and J.P. Morgan, but she never published another novel. Her endeavors
were forever plagued by bad luck.
Her second novel, based on the life of the famous Russian ballet
dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, was stymied when her
publisher discovered that Nijinsky’s wife was still alive, and
vindictive, and decided not to publish and risk a lawsuit, says
Her third novel was a mystery that died on the vine when, after
extensive rewrites, her editor was fired and his replacement
wasn’t interested in her book.
"I was so disgusted I threw the whole thing in the garbage,"
Her fourth novel, a fictionalization of the civil rights movement
based on the life of James Meredith, the first black student
at Mississippi State University, and Harlem congressman Adam
Clayton Powell Jr., was held by her publisher so long that by
the time it might have been released, blacks in southern colleges
were not so unusual.
"After that, I got involved in more demanding jobs and wrote
short pieces," says Gross.
From 1990 to 1996, she wrote a weekly column for The Brooklyn
Papers. "I enjoyed doing them," she says. "And
they got me off jury duty."
She explains that when she was asked what she did and she replied
that she wrote "columns on whatever made me angry the week
before, they threw me off the jury."
"The Persecution of Tante Chava" is her first book
of short fiction. Although it is not autobiographical, the stories
are based on "what I’ve seen or heard," she says.
They are mostly about Jews living in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods
during World War II – which is pretty much the kind of environment
Gross grew up in.
Perhaps to compensate her lack of toys as a child, she is an
inveterate collector – mostly of music boxes and dolls. The dolls,
displayed on her abundant bookshelves, are handcrafted and come
from all over the world. Her favorite is a Shirley Temple doll
her husband, George, bought for her at the former Altman’s department
store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan several years ago.
"When I was a child I entered every contest to win that
doll. But I never did," Gross remembers.
Echoes of that disappointment can be found in the story, "Rachel
and God," in which a second-grader fails to win three oversized
crayons in her teacher’s lottery.
Rachel’s disappointment causes her to lose faith in God. Like
Rachel, Gross says she didn’t believe in God for a while.
"George brought me back to religion," she says. "I
came to see the relationship between God and me as a partnership."
The title story, "The Persecution of Tante Chava,"
is based on people whom Gross has known who "called everything
bad that happened to them a product of anti-Semitism."
The last story in the book, "The Last Jew in Holzburg"
is the only one based on a true event. One day Gross read a small
item in The New York Times about a man who, after the Holocaust,
returned to the town where he was born and raised, lived there
for a while, and thanks to his prickly character, became known
as the town’s "Jewish Problem." The Times related that
he eventually committed suicide and reported the lines from Psalm
129 that were recited at his funeral.
"I clipped the item. Every once in a while I would look
at it. I felt I had to do something with it, but I didn’t know
what. About a year ago, I pulled it out again, and suddenly I
knew what to do with it," Gross says. She ends her story
with the very same lines quoted in the Times article.
Gross’ stories evoke a time and place that no longer exist. But
her vivid depiction of human beings with all their faults, frailty
and wisdom gives the reader an insightful and enduring picture
"The Persecution of Tante Chava
and Other Stories" (Jay Street Publishers, $12.95) by Geraldine
Gross is available through Jay Street Publishers, 155 West 72nd
St., NY, NY, 10023. Call (212) 580-9700 for more information.