In the New York tenements where novelist-playwright Jerome Weidman grew up, you had to pay three cents to use the building's bathtub for a half-hour.
Weidman's Hungarian-born mother, "who learned English on the street" and never learned to read or write because she believed going to night school was a sign of ignorance, managed to get all three children clean in one three-cent session.
Weidman, who wrote "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" and won a drama Pulitzer Prize for "Fiorello!" appeared on a panel yesterday with producer Sylvia Fine, wife of Danny Kaye, and opera singer Jan Peerce as part of the American Jewish Committee's oral-history project marking its 75th anniversary.
Before a full house at the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium, the three celebrities, children of immigrant Jews, reminisced about the old days. Fine sang the patter song, "Ludwig von Stickwitz," which she wrote for Danny Kaye, and Peerce sang two numbers from "Fiddler on the Roof," in which he once played Tevye.
But it was Weidman's tales of the Bronx that came closest to the mark. The committee has already published 250 first-person accounts from Holocaust survivors and is about to bring out a book of memoirs by recent Soviet Jewish emigres.Yesterday's panel will become part of the committee's ongoing oral history project.
Prompted by NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman, Weidman told about his father, a champion pocket maker even at 90, who made pockets for the uniforms of the elite, and about how a nervy young singer forced her way into a rehearsal of a David Merrick musical based on "Wholesale," knocked everybody dead and made Weidman write a part for her as Miss Marmelsteen. She turned out to be Barbra Streisand.
His best story was about the time his mother met Somerset Maugham. Weidman, a dutiful son, had just palmed off on the old lady a "loathsome lemon cake that you could get for 49 cents at Cushman's, with a center of lemon goo." She loved the cakes so dearly that he used this one to buy himself off a supper date with her in her Bronx flat.
As young Weidman was walking her to the downtown subway so she could return home with her cake, Maugham popped up near the Astor Hotel, where he lived then. Weidman introduced his fellow writer to his mother, who insisted on knowing if this writing game was any way to make a living because she'd rather her son was a lawyer. Maugham -- "a superlative playwright, he knew when he was in a scene" -- bowed and said it certainly was, and young Jerome was quite good in fact.
In her gratitude, and to her son's horror, she presented the cake on the spot to Maugham, a famous gourmet.
An hour later Weidman got a phone call. It was Maugham. Picking up the receiver with shaking hands, he found Maugham ready on the other end. And the great man was delighted. "Best lemon tart I ever had!" he shouted. "Where do you get them?"