Levittown, NY

Levittown, NY, was the first prefab housing development in suburbia built for returning vets and their families after WWII. These identical houses on Long Island included white picket fences, modern appliances, and green lawns.

Many people in the early postwar years wanted to get away from the crowded cities, and have their own houses with yards. Into this moment in time stepped the Levitt & Sons real estate development company.

Copyright Rcsprinter123

During the Great Depression, the Levitts sold 600 Tudor-style, upper-middle-class houses with six bedrooms and two bathrooms for $14,000 each ($200,000 today) within four years. They were designed in 1929 by 17-year-old Alfred Levitt, younger son of founder Abraham.

William Levitt, the older son, became known as the one to see about custom-made, high-end Long Island houses on the North Shore (a.k.a. the Gold Coast).

During the 1930s, the Levitts built many homes for communities in Westchester County; Manhasset, NY; and Great Neck, NY. They sold from $9,100 to $18,500, and attracted lawyers, doctors, businesspeople, and famous radio personalities and journalists.

Aerial shot of Levittown, PA

To try to do their part to help with an affordable housing crisis (caused by postwar prosperity for the privileged classes, and the baby boom), the Levitts selected an area called Island Trees. They planned 2,000 houses for it.

On 1 July 1947, they broke ground on their $50 million development ($548 million today). Ultimately, it contained 17,000 houses on 7.3 square miles. Alfred handled mass production and designed the houses and streets; William financed and promoted it; and Abraham directed landscaping.

Aerial shot of Levittown, NY, 1947

Appliances and building materials on unfinished foundation, 1948; photo by Tony Linck

Each front yard had two trees, planted the exact same distance apart. The houses were ranch and Cape Cod style, with 750 square feet (70 square meters). They had two bedrooms, a kitchen with modern appliances, a living room with a TV, an unfinished second floor, and no garage.

They were built assemblyline style, as a team of specialized workers moved from house to house. This was more efficient than other construction styles of the era. The Levitts also reduced costs by refusing union labor. This led to picket lines.

The Levitts directly purchased materials such as lumber, TVs, and appliances, instead of going through middlepeople. They also made their own factory to produce nails. To their credit, they paid their workers very well, and offered many incentives enabling them to earn twice as much money as they’d make elsewhere.

By July 1948, thirty houses per day were being constructed in a 26-step process. This mass-production enabled them to be sold for as cheap as $8,000 ($65,000 today). Since many buyers were vets helped by the G.I. Bill and other housing subsidies, the true cost was all of $400.

Within two days of the community being announced on 7 May 1947, half the 2,000 houses were already rented. In response to increased demand, they added 4,000 more houses, as well as services such as schools and mail delivery.

The Levitts switched the houses from rental to sales, with monthly 30-year mortgage payments the same as the rental price ($57), and no down payment. Even more houses were added when demand grew even further, and Island Trees was renamed Levittown.

Sadly, racial discrimination was written into the buying agreement. The Federal Housing Administration only offered mortgages to non-mixed developments, so no applications from African–Americans were accepted.

The Levitts also thought no whites would want to have African–American neighbors. Though they were Jewish themselves, they also initially refused to sell to co-religionists.

By 1960, Levittown was roughly a third Jewish, though it was still all-white.

My characters Fyodora Lebedeva-Godimova and Leontiy Godimov dream of moving from Manhattan to Levittown in 1949. They came to America when they were rather young, and so are much more Americanized than most of their family. Starting over in Long Island suburbia will be the perfect way to break free of the Russian–American world.

An exploratory visit leaves them very unsettled, as they learn about the racial discrimination. Their Russian ancestry and Orthodox Christianity are also looked upon with suspicion.

Their new chapter instead begins in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, a very spacious neighborhood with large, Victorian houses.

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The Crown Colony of Aden

Aden, Yemen and the surrounding area (including Perim, Kamaran, and Kuria Muria Islands) joined British India in 1858, and officially became a separate colony on 1 April 1937. This port city was very important to British trade, commerce, transportation, fuel, and naval warfare.

Education was provided to both sexes until at least junior high. High school (or its equivalent thereof) and university education was allotted to a select few who qualified for scholarships to study abroad.

Arabic was the language of instruction for elementary school and junior high, while high schools and independent schools taught in Arabic, English, Hebrew, Urdu, and Gujarati. Religious Muslim schools for girls weren’t officially recognized.The colony had three governmental bodies—the Aden municipality (Aden, Ma’alla, Tawali, Crater [Seera]), Sheikh Othman’s Township authority, and Little Aden (1955–67). In spite of having a Muslim majority, secular courts handled everything. There was no Sharia Law.

Unlike other British colonies, Aden was very slow to gain self-government and local participation. Until 1 December 1955, the Executive Council wasn’t elected.

Aden’s economy was largely based upon its role in East–West trade. By 1955, its port had become the next-busiest in the world after only New York’s. Many tourists also flocked to the colony, though tourism began declining in the colony’s final years.

Also during the colony’s final years, much civil unrest reigned. There were many strikes, riots, demonstrations, bombings, and attacks on British authorities, often spurred on by nationalism and politics instead of economic reasons.

On 18 January 1963, the colony was reconstituted as the State of Aden, part of the new Federation of South Arabia. However, most of the problems plaguing Aden didn’t magickally improve upon gaining independence.

The Radfan Uprising began 14 October 1963, when a grenade was thrown at British officials in Aden Airport. A state of emergency was declared immediately, and guerrilla violence reigned. Due to fighting among different rebel groups, more Yemenis than Brits were killed.

The British finally gave up their colony on 30 November 1967, and Aden became part of the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Like other Arab colonies who’d gained their independence, Aden refused to join the British Commonwealth.

South Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic united on 22 May 1990. It’s hard to believe I’m old enough to remember when there were two Yemens!

Aden’s historic Jewish community did much better for themselves than the rest of Yemen’s Jewish community. Most of Aden Jewry were craftspeople and artisans, and there were seven synagogues. Since they were under British rule, they didn’t have dhimmi status like the Jewish population in the rest of the Arab world.

During the Shoah, many people fleeing Europe for pre-State Israel wound up in Aden, where they were put in refugee camps. In 1942, there was an outbreak of typhus.

In December 1947, shortly after the miraculous U.N. vote approving the Partition Plan, anti-Semitic riots in Aden claimed the lives of 76–82 and wounded 76 more. Much of the Jewish Quarter was looted and burnt.

After this, almost everyone began fleeing to Israel. Between 1947–63, over 4,000 people left. A total of 12,000 people, from both Aden and Yemen, gathered in transit camps after Israel’s miraculous victory in the War of Independence and Egypt’s reopening the Suez Canal and Red Sea.

An average 300 people a day were airlifted in Operation Magic Carpet.

As of April 2017, a reported 50 Jews were left in Yemen, down from what had been 50,000.

During the partial relocation/defection of my character Mrs. Brezhneva’s Kyiv orphanage in 1937, there’s a pit stop in Aden, en route to Iran, to secure British asylum. That way, they’ll have a guarantee of safety, and official permission to enter and settle in Iran.

A representative of the British Consulate, Arkadiy Orlov, who’s there on business from Isfahan, Iran, is among the people sent onto their boat to conduct interviews. He’s assigned to Inna Zhirinovskaya, Mrs. Brezhneva’s second in command and a former orphanage child herself.

The next day at the Consulate, Arkasha (a former prince) gives everyone Nansen passports and gives Inna a parcel which she unwraps on the journey to Iran. It’s a silver necklace with coral beads and a dove pendant with a heart-shaped carnelian in the center, from one of Aden’s Jewish craftsmen.

Limelight at 65, Part II (Behind the scenes)

Though Chaplin had become enormously unpopular in the U.S. by 1952, Limelight was nevertheless filmed by Chaplin Studios in Hollywood. Calvero’s street was a Paramount set; the music hall scenes came from RKO; and some outdoor scenes used back-projected London images.

Chaplin spent over two years writing an unpublished, 100,000-word novel, Footlights, in which he created the story that became Limelight. This book includes biographies of Calvero and Terry before the actual story begins.

Footlights contains episodes from Chaplin’s own life, and his parents’ lives. There are a number of strong parallels between Calvero and Charles, Sr., while Terry was strongly based upon Hannah Chaplin and Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love.

There are shades of Dante’s love for Beatrice in Chaplin’s love for Hetty, since they only met five times, and most of their meetings didn’t last longer than twenty minutes. Those brief encounters were enough to leave a strong, long-lasting impact.

When Claire Bloom rehearsed, Chaplin often recalled his mother’s and Hetty’s gestures and clothes.

In spite of all these strong parallels, Chaplin maintained the story was based upon U.S. blackface clown Frank Tinney and Spanish clown Marceline, both of whom he’d worked with as a boy.

Chaplin wanted very much to accurately recreate the London of his childhood. Towards this end, he hired Ukrainian-born designer Eugène Lourié, who decorated an RKO-Pathé theatre to look like London’s grand Empire Theatre. Lourié also remodelled a Paramount set to look like a Victorian-era London street.

Chaplin surrounded himself with his nearest and dearest during filming. His three oldest children from his fourth and final marriage, Geraldine, Michael, and Josephine, play the street children in the opening scene, while his second son from his second marriage, Sydney, plays secondary male lead Neville.

Chaplin’s younger halfbrother, Wheeler Dryden, plays Terry’s doctor, and his wife Oona doubles for Claire Bloom in two brief shots. His oldest son, Charles, Jr., plays a clown.

Sydney is on the far left

Chaplin was very happy and energetic during filming, due to having so many loved ones nearby and because the story gave him a chance to waltz down memory lane. At the time, he believed Limelight would be his final film.

Chaplin gave the role of Calvero’s former partner to Buster Keaton after learning about the hard times Buster had gone through. Though the role was rather small, Chaplin insisted on giving it to Buster. This was the only time they performed together on film.

According to rumour, Chaplin cut Buster’s scenes out of jealously at his superior performance, not wanting to be upstaged. In reality, Chaplin heavily edited the scene of their duet to elevate Buster. He also gave Buster free reign to do what he wanted, despite his notoriously rigid directorial style.

Buster was thrilled to be in this film. Since losing his MGM contract and having his career sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, he’d been reduced to mostly bit parts. Chaplin gave him the chance to shine like he deserved, even if it were only a secondary role near the end.

Sydney, who didn’t believe the rumours about his father cutting Buster’s scenes, said even if that had happened, it wouldn’t have made any sense for a secondary character to suddenly appear and upstage the protagonist by his own climactic comeback.

Chaplin composed all his own scores, with help from arrangers. He was relieved to be reassured by ballet partners Melissa Hayden (née Mildred Herman) (who doubled for Claire Bloom in dance scenes) and André Eglevsky that his music for the ballet could be choreographed.

In 1972, Chaplin, Larry Russell, and Raymond Rasch belatedly got an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score. This was Chaplin’s only competitive Oscar, as his previous two (1971 and 1928–29) were honorary. Chaplin was the only surviving awardee.

“Terry’s Theme” remains one of Chaplin’s most popular and belovèd compositions. As “Eternally,” with lyrics by Geoff Parsons and John Turner, it’s been covered multiple times.

Limelight was heavily boycotted in the U.S., and only made a million dollars. Outside of some East Coast cities, many theatres refused to play it. Chaplin was denied a re-entry visa to the U.S. while promoting the film in Britain.

In comparison, it was very successful in the rest of the world, and made seven million more dollars. Only in 1972 was it finally released properly in the U.S.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated its 60th anniversary with a screening, reception, and film panel by the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Claire Bloom and co-star Norman Lloyd shared their memories in a conversation moderated by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance.

Today, the film is highly regarded as one of Chaplin’s greatest and most personal works.

Limelight at 65, Part I (General overview)

Today is my English birthday. My Hebrew birthday was the fifth day of Chanukah, 16–17 December. I’m older than I’d prefer to admit to, but still young enough to have a baby.

Released 16 October 1952, Limelight was Chaplin’s penultimate starring role, and is a beautiful summing-up of his life and career. While I’m glad he made A King in New York (1957), Limelight would’ve been a great swan song.

In summer 1914 London, has-been clown Calvero drunkenly struggles to open his building’s front door, while three kids (Chaplin’s real-life kids Geraldine, Josephine, and Michael) talk to him.

Inside, Calvero smells gas. He breaks down a door and finds a young woman (Claire Bloom) passed out, the stove open, a bottle in her hand. He sets her on the stairs and runs for a doctor (Chaplin’s halfbrother Wheeler Dryden), though doesn’t remember to turn off the gas.

Calvero and the doctor carry her upstairs to his room, where she regains consciousness. The doctor gives Calvero instructions on how to nurse her back to health. If she goes to hospital, she’ll be arrested for attempting suicide.

Calvero’s busybody landlady, Mrs. Alsop, sees the broken-down door, and decides not to let this woman back. She’s convinced this is a woman of ill repute. Mrs. Alsop is even more outraged when she discovers her in Calvero’s room.

Calvero says it’ll cause a scandal if word gets out she allows unmarried opposite-sex roommates, and rented to an attempted suicide. And for all anyone knows, they might be married.

Calvero then goes onstage, in very animated form. It ends in every performer’s worse nightmare, as he gazes out into an empty audience. It was all a dream.

That evening, Calvero and his guest finally get acquainted. The young lady introduces herself as Thereza Ambrose, called Terry. She’s a ballerina who’s all alone in the world, and deep in depression since having rheumatic fever. Calvero assures her she only has to pretend to be his wife in name, and that he’ll take good care of her as a platonic friend.

Calvero has another dream of performing onstage, this time with Terry. It ends in applause instead of an empty audience.

In the morning, Terry says she tried to get up, but collapsed. She’s convinced she’s paralyzed, and doesn’t want to bother with a doctor, for fear of wasting his time. Terry remains deep in depression, and doesn’t think she has any future.

Calvero says he was given up for dead six months ago, but now has a new outlook. He tries desperately to convince Terry life is worth living, and that someone her age should have more hope and desire for survival than someone his age.

He admits he lost contact with his audience as he got older, and thus became less funny. He turned to drink, had a heart attack, and almost died.

Calvero’s mood lifts when he gets a telegram from his agent. When they meet, the agent promises a week by the Middlesex Music Hall. If Calvero’s name is poison to the audience, he’ll use another one.

When Calvero comes home, he bumps into the doctor, who says he couldn’t find anything wrong with Terry. He believes her paralysis is all in her head. She either invented it or convinced herself she has it for some deep-seated psychological reason.

Trying to get to the bottom of things, Calvero talks to Terry about her past.

Terry says she was in love with a customer at her music shop, Mr. Neville (Chaplin’s son Sydney). She often gave him extra change and music sheets, and came to listen to his music.

Neville fell on hard times, and Terry got fired for giving him extra change.

Calvero urges Terry to find him and admit her feelings, spinning a beautiful, romantic story about their reunion, but that still isn’t enough. No matter what he says, she’s convinced her life is hopeless and that she’ll never dance again.

Calvero says life is just as inevitable as Death, if only she has courage and the will to use it.

Calvero says since he’s begun preaching and moralizing to her, he’s begun to believe it himself. His mood is on the upswing.

Calvero’s comeback performance isn’t a success. The only person who doesn’t walk out early is someone who’s sleeping. His contract is terminated.

This time, Terry is the optimistic one trying to cheer him up. While she lectures him, she realizes in jubilation she’s walking.

Six months later, Terry is dancing by the Empire Theatre, and uses her influence to get Calvero a position as a ballet clown. By this point, Mrs. Alsop’s attitude has completely turned around, and Calvero has gone back to drinking.

Neville plays the music by Terry’s audition for prima ballerina. Afterwards, Calvero says she’s a true artist, and Terry confesses her love. She asks him to marry her.

When Terry and Neville become friends, Calvero leaves, feeling they’re a much better match. He starts performing on the streets, while Terry goes from strength to strength in the ballet.

Terry tracks Calvero down and begs him to return to the stage. With his former partner (Buster Keaton), he gives a triumphant performance with a bittersweet, poignant ending.

I highly recommend this beautiful, personal film. The mature roles in his sound films wouldn’t have worked with the Tramp, but were perfect for who he grew into as an elder actor.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part III (The life of Al Jolson)

It was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that George Jessel demanded too much salary from Warner Bros. for the lead role of The Jazz Singer. As talented and popular as Jessel was, Al Jolson was the only one with the charisma, star power, voice, and raw personal authenticity to carry the film and make it the first successful sound on film experiment.

Asa Yoelson was born 26 May 1886 in Sredniki, Russia (now Seredžius, Lithuania). Its Yiddish name was Srednik. Thankfully, he was spared the fate of the rest of Srednik’s Jewish community. On 4 September 1941, the Nazis murdered 193 people near Skrebėnai.

Asa was the baby of five children born to Moses Rubin Yoelson (1858–23 December 1945) and Nechama (Naomi) Cantor (1858–6 February 1895). His older siblings were Rose, Etta, a sister who died in infancy, and Hirsch (Harry).

Like many people in that era, he didn’t know when he was born, and chose 26 May 1886. His sister-in-law Margaret Weatherwax, however, claimed he was the same age as her father, born in 1881, and that he was 46 when he married her 18-year-old sister Ruby Keeler in 1928.

In 1891, Asa’s father immigrated to the U.S., and by 1894, he’d saved up enough money to bring his wife and children over. When they arrived, he was working as a cantor at Talmud Torah Congregation (now Ohev Sholom – The National Synagogue) in Washington, D.C.

Sadly, Asa’s mother died in 1895, aged only 37. This sent him into a deep depression and withdrawal, and deeply affected him for the rest of his life. Later, his father remarried a woman named Ida, shown in the previous picture.

Asa was taken in by St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys (now Cardinal Gibbons School), a progressive orphanage in Baltimore. Another famous alum was Babe Ruth, who enrolled in 1902.

Asa and Hirsch were introduced to show business by entertainer Al Reeves in 1897, and began singing for money on street corners as Al and Harry. They often used the money for National Theatre shows.

In 1900, he moved to New York, where his first show was Children of the Ghetto. Then, in 1902, he began working for Walter L. Main’s Circus as an usher. Main was so impressed by his voice, he hired Asa as a singer in the Indian Medicine Side Show.

The circus folded that same year, leaving Asa unemployed. In 1903, he was hired for one show of Dainty Duchess Burlesquers. His rendition of “Be My Baby Bumble Bee” was so strong, he was kept for future shows.

This show too folded within the year, and Asa joined Hirsch, now a vaudeville performer called Harry. Though they gained nationwide bookings, live performances were no longer so popular, thanks to the rise of movies.

In 1904, the renamed Al began performing in blackface, which was a huge boost to his career. Harry left Al and their partner Joe Palmer following an argument, and the duo wasn’t as successful as the trio.

In 1906, Al was left solo. He soon became a nationally successful vaudeville singer. For awhile, he lived in San Francisco (wanting to cheer up earthquake survivors), then moved to New York in 1908 with his new wife Henrietta.

His singing career began growing by leaps and bounds after this move. By 1914, he was a huge star, and by 1920, he was Broadway’s biggest star.

Al went from strength to strength, becoming more popular and beloved with each new show and song. At 35, he became the youngest person to have a theatre named for him, Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre (later renamed the New Century Theatre, and razed in 1962).

In spite of how many modern people don’t understand the historical context and intent of blackface, this method of performing gave him a freedom to step into an alternate persona, disguise his true origins, express the Jewish liturgical tradition and cry of suffering, introduce jazz, blues, and ragtime to white audiences.

His blackface stage persona, Gus, was also smarter than his white masters, often helping them out of problems they’d made themselves. There was no bigotry or racism intended.

Al had many African–American friends, and promoted their careers at a time when Broadway barred them. He also demanded equal treatment for African–American co-stars, and was the only white person allowed into an all-Black Harlem nightclub.

When he learnt Eubie Blake and Noble Sissie, musicians he’d never met, had been denied service by a Connecticut restaurant, he tracked them down and took them to dinner himself. He and Blake became great friends.

The African–American community saw Al as a great friend and ally.

Over the course of his life, Al starred in many live shows and films, entertained the troops, recorded many songs, and starred on the radio many times.

He was married four times, to Henrietta Keller, Alma Osborne (professionally known as Ethel Delmar), Ruby Keeler, and Erie Galbraith. He adopted a child with Ruby in 1935, Al, Jr. He and Erie adopted Asa, Jr., in 1948, and Alicia in 1949.

With Ruby in 1934

With Erie and Asa, Jr., in 1948

While entertaining troops in the Pacific during WWII, Al got malaria and had to get his left lung removed. In Korea in 1950, the dust and dirt of the front clogged his remaining lung and sapped his health.

On 23 October 1950, he collapsed of a massive heart attack. His funeral was one of the largest in show business history.