Home Culture Books & Authors History of Catskills detailed in engrossing book

History of Catskills detailed in engrossing book

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Mel Brooks FILE PHOTO
Mel Brooks FILE PHOTO

You would expect a book on the Catskills to be funny.

“I know that,” says Stephen Silverman, author of The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America. “When people asked what I am working on – ‘a book on the Catskills’ – they’d say, ‘Oh, that must be so funny.’ And I would say, ‘I’m really dealing with more than that.’”

“Sure,” Silverman continues, “The Catskills was the training ground for all the names we know: Jackie Mason, Billy Crystal, Shecky Green, Jerry Seinfeld (he’s basically one of the last), and a lot of names no one knows any more, like Myron Cohen. They knew their audience, and the audience knew them. Alan King – the quintessential product of the Catskills – and Mel Brooks – who cannot say anything that’s not funny: these comedians and the audience spoke the same language, and I’m not talking about Yiddish or English.” Silverman certainly delivers funny, laugh-out-loud moments as his meticulously researched opus sets the stage for Borscht Belt humour, but the book deals with more than that.

Pure history is rarely an easy read.  “I’m informing the reader, but it’s gotta be entertaining.” He engages interest in the history of America’s first frontier and first vacation land with literary aplomb, portraying fascinating vignettes peppered with idiosyncratic characters who ultimately shaped the modern American experience.

From Henry Hudson – whose 1609 voyage up the “Great River of Mountains” led to the naming of Hudson River – to the Civil War, the introduction of steamboat and train travel, the creation of the automobile, and the rise of New York City, to La Kvell Epoch – the glory days of the Jewish resorts – Silverman gives each era in this brilliantly illustrated book historic context, ultimately depicting the Catskills as an incubator of American culture. 

Silverman honed his journalistic acumen as a journalism professor at Columbia University, working more than 10 years as chief entertainment writer of the New York Post, and spending the past 20 years as the founding editor of people.com and working with Time.

The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver (Alfred A. Knopf)
The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America
by Stephen M. Silverman
and Raphael D. Silver
(Alfred A. Knopf)

With painstaking detail, the author notes how works by America’s first literary greats – Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and James Fennimore Cooper’s fictitious frontiersmen and his The Last of the Mohicans – gave the Catskills enticing cachet as North America’s first getaway destination. Besides people wishing to tread in the character’s footsteps, artists – including Thomas Cole and Asher Durand – flocked to capture the light of romantic landscapes on canvas, giving birth to America’s first art movement – the Hudson River School – prompting the rise of hotels to accommodate them.

Over time, development in the Catskills provoked legal wrangles with land grants and tenants’ rights, while burgeoning industries – namely mining, leather tanning, and damming of Catskill rivers to provide fresh water for a growing New York City – exposed dire slavery issues. Meanwhile, as robber barons gained notoriety, so did undertones of anti-Semitism. Compelling details describe scenarios of business tycoon Jason “Jay” Gould – a Christian who fought rumours of being Jewish – and author John Burroughs, who argued with automobile king Henry Ford and inventor Thomas Edison over their anti-Semitic actions. In conversation, Silverman relates that Henry Ford was virulently bigoted to such an extent that – when the Ford Motor Company singly sponsored Schindler’s List on NBC – the movie critic, Judith Crist (who, incidentally, had a house in the Catskills) wrote the company to say: “Now I think I could consider buying a Ford.”

As interest in the Catskills percolated, the area became a rich man’s playground, though not for Jews. In conversation, Silverman explains, “What’s fascinating is that as soon as you say ‘Catskills’ people think that’s where the Jews went. But they didn’t. The Catskills themselves were restricted. Jews really didn’t start going there until 1914. No hotels would accept them. What happened was the tuberculosis sanitarium opened there, and – when it was discovered that tuberculosis was highly contagious – the rich ‘WASPs’ who filled the hotels and had homes there, fled. Real estate prices plummeted. So who moved in? Jews from the Lower East Side. At first they wanted to farm, but the soil was no good. So they opened boarding houses and fed everybody: they had chickens and cows, so they served milk and eggs. And lots of it.”

Indeed. Jews – among them Selig Grossinger – started renting out rooms, offering meals, and setting standards for America’s hospitality industry that blossomed from the kuchalayn – where summer renters schlepped everything, from their own bedding to food – to the growth of swank resorts including Grossinger’s, the Nevele and the Concord, among others.

The stories of the resorts and entertainers abound with funny shticks.  “While writing, I was laughing out loud to myself – telling myself, ‘don’t overdo it,’ especially about the resorts, the reactions to all the food, the overeating, the counting the minutes to the next meal.” Hilarious, too, are descriptions of the matchmaking zealots.

With so much documented material – covering comedians to politicians to celebrity love scandals involving the glitterati Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor – Silverman admittedly edited his text frugally, leaving “words on the cutting room floor. I had to focus. The profile of Sid Cesar is tied to the fact that he started in the Catskills at a hotel owned by his wife’s family. Then I showed his place in television history. Gertrude Berg – Molly Goldberg – started in the Catskills and based all her characters on the people she saw at the hotel her father managed.” 

Engrossing, too, are the tales of Prohibition-era gangsters and bootleggers who retreated to the remote Catskills terrain “by hook or by crook.” Arnold Rothstein, aka “Moses of the Mafia,” who – besides being credited with bribing some Chicago White Sox players to allow the Cincinnati Reds to win the 1919 World Series – supposedly inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby and Damon Runyon’s character Nathan Detroit in the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls.

“Those who get it, will get it. To be like Jackie Mason, this book will appeal to both Jews and gentiles. The Jews will laugh about the food. The gentiles may not get it, but at least they will be informed.”