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In the Beginning...


By Larry Eisenberg

    Phil Spitalny would have had a few tough moments handling the all-girl combo that faced me in September 1944--the first time I ever walked into the Vanguard office. Females of all sizes, shapes and fashions sat and milled around a long table, spouting wit, political rants and dirty words in combinations I hadn’t  heard before. 

     Here and there, vaguely visible, was a young, quiet boy—not unlike me: I was 17. All the MEN were off fighting World War II. So, ensconced in the basement of Boylan Hall, we had elegant editor-in-chief Thelma Rosenberg, who always seemed to be dressed as a fashion runway commentator (She and I never exchanged one word because I didn’t have a clue as to what to say to her), and managing editor Shirley Sirota. I first heard the latter’s name on my second day, when an older staffer named Larry Jaeger poked his head into the room and demanded, “Where’s Shirley Sirota? “ in the tone of Balboa landing in California and shouting, “Where’s the friggin’ ocean?” Sirota turned out to be a good person--though my first impression of  her was an angry face and rant at some staff member’s screwup. I may have exchanged a few words with her after that, though only in fearful response to a question.

    Another memory: An English class assignment was to write a story appropriate for a newspaper. After collecting our papers, the teacher announced that a Vanguard editor, “Miss Vicki Werosub,” would judge our work. The door opened and (MUSIC UP: “There she is….”) Vicki, in suit, high heels and hat (with veil) strolled in, perched on the edge of the teacher’s desk, crossed her legs, lit a cigarette, grabbed a pencil and forcefully made a paragraph sign at the beginning of the first story. I think I blacked out.

    Yet, despite my initial fears, I survived—quietly, at first. Being a cub was an honor. I mean, after four miserable years in Brooklyn Tech, I was free, my name was on a masthead, I was a contendahAnd, as weeks went by,  I absorbed many of the proclamations I overheard--for instance, from the lips of Edie Becker: "They eat lotsa curries in India." (I tried that on a blind date and she said, "So  what?")  Eventually,  I blended into this oddball family, almost matching the wiseassiness of anyone in the room.

    Though my memories of that first semester are hazy—give me a break, it’s more than 61 years--what sticks is that much of the time Vanguardites were screaming. As I learned early, it was because nearly everyone was talking at the same time, so it wasn’t easy to be heard. 

    At the beginning of 1945, having finished one BC semester, I registered for a second, but decided, a few days later, that I might as well enlist in the Navy to avoid being drafted into the Army. So I took a leave. On April 11, 1945, the day before I was to head for boot camp, I paid a final visit to the Vanguard office--the place, I didn't immediately realize, that I would miss most. The only other person in the room was Ethel Spevack and, while we were talking, music drifted in from the lounge across the hall. After listening for a few seconds, I said,  "What a sad song." 

    Ethel stared incredulously at me and replied, "That's Don't Fence Me In!"

             When I returned, in September 1946, the Vanguard office was in room 2154, on the second floor of Boylan Hall, with a dramatic change. WW II was over and the warriors were back—and in charge--including such biggies (in alphabetical order) as: George Auerbach, Harry Baron, Norm Erdos, Sid Frigand, Ralph Gasarch, Irv Goldaber, Irv Goodman, Josh Greenfeld, Bert Hochman, Marvin Karpatkin, Lenny Kolleeny, Jack Panes. Most were funny, all were opinionated, and a few behaved as though they were on the Supreme Court.

    The guys got most of the important jobs, though I don’t remember any females  acting like second-class citizens. They just yelled louder. Among them, over the years--with occasional nicknames: Gloria Barach, Rita Boskin, Geri Cohen, Edie Garson, Joan Genell, Esther Gold, Fanny Kaiser, Jewel Kurtz, Ann Lane, Norma Lieberman, Sandy Marks (“Is Good In Parks”), Shelly Mehlman, Dolly Newfield, Trudy Novina, Irene Pachanik, June (“Cherry”) Perry, Hilda Polak, Edith (“Pebble”) Seidlitz, Pearl Shaine, Goody Solomon, Sheila Solomon, Bea Stahl (“Bestial”) and Martha Wechsler.

     These were matched along the way by such stalwarts as Charlie Binder, Gene Bluestein, Herb Dorfman, Norm Gelb, Ray Goldberg, Stan Isaacs, Joel Isaacson, Mike Kandel, Artie Lack, Jack Leavitt, Mike Levitas, Phil Rosler, Artieschatz (spoken as one word, swiftly), Bill Taylor and Jack Zanger. Plus one Ordover of each sex.  (If I’ve left your name out: [a] we never met or [b] I don’t remember you. So sue me, shoot bullets through me).

             For the remainder of my stay at Brooklyn College, I spent a lot of time in the office, where wisecracks, political rampages and dirty words mingled with  clouds of cigarette smoke, card playing and, on the nights we stayed late to put the paper to bed, a fair amount of alcohol consumption.  One night, after finishing a bottle of rye or whatever, I walked down the hall to Gideonse’s door and deposited the bottle outside, with a note: “Leave one quart, two pints.”

   I’ve heard that sexual activity also took place in the office, but I neither saw nor participated. More’s the pity, yea and forsooth, as Professor Grebanier might have said.

             What follows is a random collection of thoughts and events:   

    DISSING (Long before we knew the word) TEACHERS AND SUBJECTS:
The aforementioned Bernard Grebanier’s middle initials were “D.N.” Somebody decided that they stood for “Derriere Negotiator.” Though he was a brilliant teacher of Shakespeare--and creative writing--he regularly tended to drift away from the subject being studied with long, personal observations.  One day,  after smoking at least four cigarettes, he concluded a typical philosophical rant with, “Well, I must confess that my sex is the weaker one.” The immortal Sid Frigand called out, “Which one is that?”
     Harry Slochower was a constant, and his book, “No Voice Is Wholly Lost” was retitled, ”No Horse Is Lowly Voiced”…. and a few others. We also regularly mimicked his serious, symbolic, mystical references to events and characters in “The Magic Mountain” –Did troubled Hans Castorp really love Clavdia (Cough-cough) Chauchat? Did Clavdia have feelings for Settembrini (“Whose rod was “teeny”)? When we got to “Remembrance of Things Past,” Geri Cohen and I, after reading (scanning?)  “Swann’s Way” and “Guermantes Way,” decided: There’s such a thing as a swan--but what kind of animal is a Guermante?
     One semester, an attractive, sexily dressed philosophy teacher named Thelma Lavine--who spoke like a young Mae West--joined the faculty and those of us who rushed to take her class immediately nicknamed her “Too-Too Lavine.” 

    Sudden  memory: On the first day of a fall semester,  Hilda Polak greeted Bea Stahl, with, “You should see Professor (Name  Withheld).  He must have lost 50 pounds over the summer.”
    Bea Stahl: “He should have lost 100 and died.”
    Some teachers didn’t need to be caricatured: Robert Fitzhugh (the last name says it all) taught a course in humorous literature, during which he frequently asked “What makes ya laff?”  (For an annual Vanguard party, Norma Lieberman, Ralph Gasarch and I wrote a song: ”Fitzhugh screw’s handy/ Fitzhugh screw’s dandy/ Oh, oh, oh what a screw/ If you need screwin’/ Says Frederick Ewen/ Fitzhugh’s the screw/ For you to do your screwin.’")     
    Then there was Julius Portnoy, a cartoon character much before his time.        
    And I can’t leave out El Presidente Harry D. Giddyap (the kindest of many nicknames).

      POLITICAL WARFARE: Political concerns—collegiate and international-- were an important part of our lives, and most of us supported a variety of causes, though some staffers seemed incapable of balancing their oratory with Vanguard’s characteristic wit and humor. Urgency, (self-) importance and verbosity took over with such force as to make the less voluble among us—me, for instance--want to crawl into a hole and puke. One day, Shelly Mehlman, in the tone of a governor explaining why my death sentence wasn’t being commuted, proclaimed, “Well, you’re apolitical.”
    The majority of staffers were liberal (during the 1948 Presidential campaign, somebody shouted, “I’d give my tallis for Henry Wallace!”), but a few hovered around conservatism, causing a certain amount of disagreement, AKA, fighting and cursing:At one staff meeting, Hilda Polak, attacking Editor-in-Chief Irv Goldaber over a conservative stance he had taken, yelled so loudly that it seemed the paint was peeling off the walls—and she continued her rant after he left the room—assuming, I guess, that he’d still hear her out in the hall.  But this was nothing compared to each semester’s elections for the executive board, with speeches and pressures and name-calling. Memory : Marvin Karpatkin—acting as though the future of the world depended on it—making me swear that I would vote for Rhoda Hendrick

    THE DIGNIFIED EXECUTIVES: The executive board met once a week in an empty classroom—assigned by the administration---to discuss the following week’s issue. One day in 1948, Norma Lieberman (Managing Editor), Karpatkin (Associate Managing Editor), Ralph Gasarch (News Editor) and I (Features Editor) approached the room assigned to us. Norma and Marvin were arguing about something and Marvin shouted, “Don’t give me that…SHIT!”  as he flung open the classroom door. A teacher and a roomful of students faced us. From their viewpoint, a wild-eyed maniac had opened the door and screamed, “SHIT!” But by the time they could do anything about it, we had scurried, like roaches, into hiding. When the coast was clear and we found another classroom, Marvin opened the door slowly, made sure the room was empty, then shouted, “SHIT!…Okay, it’s safe.” 

    A MAN’S A MAN FOR ALL THAT-Using Robert Burns as a starting point,  the aforementioned Karpatkin wrote a very liberal editorial, which got him into piles of trouble with the administration. Editor-in-chief Norm Erdos had to face a tribunal of HDG’s puppets, Dean Maroney and somebody named Glicksberg, who was probably Vanguard’s faculty advisor. This inspired a set of lyrics  (written by Ralph Gasarch?) to be sung to the tune of “Let My People Go”:
    When Erdos was in Glicksberg’s hands
    Let Karpatkin Go.
   Because he wrote “A Man’s a Man”
   Maroney called him “shmo.”

    MOTHERS &FATHERS: Every new cub was assigned a “mother” or “father” to make the early days easier. My mother was Lucille Valenti, who did some part-time work for Grebanier (Somebody nicknamed her “B.O. Plenty” Valenti).  My daughters, over the years, included Helen Goldberg and Sandy Sadownick

    VANGUARD GROUPIE: A girl named Sadonya Antebi turned up one day, introducing herself to staffers and displaying her socks, on which she had embroidered, “G.E.M.” (“Gene’s Estranged Mistress”; she had dated Gene Levitt). Although she was never a Vanguardite, for years afterward, she hung out in the office and attended our parties, creating fun and mayhem. At some point she left for West Africa, though I don’t remember why.  But she was never forgotten: Soon after Sandy Sadownick joined the staff, Geri Cohen and I decided that it would be really neat if Sandy had a brother who married Sadonya. Then she’d become Sadonya Sadownick (Another pairing: If Joan Genell had a brother who married Geri, she’d be Giselle Genell).  

           SEE WHAT THE BOYS IN THE BACK ROOM WANT-Uta Gorki, a glamorous émigré from some European country, joined the staff (in 1948?), overwhelming some of us with her continental wit and a soupcon of superiority about (puff-puff) our American naivete. Occasionally she sang a song, morphing into Vanguard’s Marlene Dietrich. 

    DANGLING PART-A-SOMETHING -A story written by Jewel Kurtz about the B.C. library being christened LaGuardia Hall, stated, “Now all the buildings in Brooklyn College are named after men prominent when they were erected.”
    BUYING AD SPACE: A young, newly appointed teacher dropped into the office one evening, saying he wanted to buy an ad in the following week’s issue. Somebody asked him what he had in mind and he said, “I’ve got an inch.” Can you imagine the avalanche of comments in Wiseasstown?
    MY SHOCKING REVELATION: In the May 7, 1948 issue I wrote a story headlined: BOY REPORTER FLUSHES ON ENTRY TO MEN INSTRUCTORS’ SANCTUARY, in which, after months of wondering what was in a room mysteriously labeled, “Men Instructors,” I sneaked in, discovering that the place was “a plain, stinkin’ old washroom,” adding that it might start a BC trend for unlimited specific washrooms (“Ph.D’s”…”Tutors”…”Instructors In 19th Century Prose...”).  Ultimately, I wrote, the college might have no more classrooms, only washrooms. The story caused a small furor, with one staff member proclaiming importantly that it was “in bad taste.” Frigand insisted that it wasn’t. Another person commented that if Shakespeare had read it he would have named his play: “Toilet and Cressida.”

    THE LITTLE DUTCH GIRLS: One summer, Norma Lieberman and Sheila Solomon went to Europe together and sent a postcard from Amsterdam, featuring them in Dutch girl outfits. I still have the picture somewhere.


    ACH DU….WHAT? Tall, red-haired Honey Silverman announced one day, with a touch of triumph, that the father of her new boyfriend, Gerhard, had been a German storm trooper. Liebe  uber alles, I guess.            

    THE WORLD WAS ONLY A PHONE CALL AWAY: The office had a public telephone and, at the beginning of one summer, the front of the phone’s coin box disappeared, meaning that whatever coins were inserted would fall out, so those who hung around during July and August called other states, countries and planets. 

      MY POST-GRADUATE VISIT: One day, in September 1949 (I had graduated in June), I told a Vanguard pal that I would drop by the office that evening. When I opened the door, facing me was a roomful of “dead” bodies, slumped on tables, chairs, lying on the floor, and, the piece du crazistanceJerry Lovesky—tongue out, eyes closed, hanging from a hook on the wall. I don’t know how this game started, but it continued until the end of Vanguard. 


               TO BE REALISTIC: Like any large, long-term organization, Vanguard had its share of self-important/ stupid/ arrogant/ pseudo-intellectual/ bullshitters (As my beloved Norma once said about another staffer: “Not only is she fantastically ugly, but she’s a horrible person”).  Naming names is pointless, because many have gone to the Big Vanguard Down Below and survivors won’t recognize themselves, anyway.

    Yet, as Sidney Skolsky used to say: “But don’t get me wrong…..”
I treasure memories of the majority of my brilliant, funny, endearing associates, some of whom I happily see pretty often. 

P.S. Check out my Web site at


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