At 73, Kate Simon is finding glory. It's not that she hasn't had good reviews before; her travel books have long been considered classics of the genre. But travel books rarely make the front page of The New York Times Book Review -- with a photo -- or occupy a page in Time magazine.
Her newest books are about travel of a different kind: journeys through her childhood and adolescence in the bustling Bronx of the Ellis Island years. She arrived there in 1917 from Warsaw at the age of 4, and "Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood," and the recently published sequel, "A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence," are startling and evocative memoirs of her New York immigrant community, working-class Jewish life in the century's early decades and the metamorphosis of a well-read urban tomboy into a Hunter College bohemian.
What makes them unusual is not merely Simon's densely layered memories and graceful prose, but her excruciating honesty. Although she eschews such facts as her family name (Simon was the name of a former husband), and specific dates, she tells a larger truth with her unsparing descriptions of her harsh and brutal father, the visiting relatives and neighbors who molested her, the neighborhood abortionist and the mysteries of sex and adults and learning.
Her childhood was spent somewhere between the cultures of the Old World and the New, dominated by parents for whom English was a foreign language, in a neighborhood where varied nationalities clung to their own kind in fierce clusters, where children grew up yearning to shed the restrictions, cultural and familial, of ethnicity.
On Wednesdays they bought chickens and live fish to swim in the bathtub until Friday, when they became gefilte fish. Most women plucked their own chickens. A few aristocrats, like my mother and Mrs. Horowitz (who spoke English perfectly, the only Jewish woman we knew who did), paid a little dark bundle in a dusty red wig ten cents to pluck fast, her hand like the needle of a sewing machine, up down, up down, as a red and black and white garden of feathers spread at her feet.
-- Bronx Primitive She arrived in New York after a month's journey from Poland, during which her mother frequently had been ill. Simon had had to care for her younger brother, so crippled by malnourishment he could not walk.
Instead of a city of silver rivers and golden bridges, America turned out to be Uncle David's flat on Avenue C in which my father had first lived when he came to America.
-- Bronx Primitive
Uncle David and her two aunts, one blind, one blind and deaf, spoke Yiddish. Simon and her brother spoke only Polish. They had never seen black people; for all intents and purposes they had never seen their father, who had been in the New World for more than two years.
Today Kate Simon lives in a modest Manhattan apartment where she settled about 10 years ago after a vagabond middle age in which she lived in "40 or 50" places, here and abroad, while writing her travel books. She is finishing a book about the Gonzaga family of Mantua, which she put aside to write the two memoirs, and plans to do more painting and to write a novel.
But there will be no more memoirs. The life that began where "A Wider World" ends, with her nearing the end of college, bleeding pitifully from a botched abortion, will not be chronicled. It would be too painful, she says.
In some way, that abortion signaled the end of her adolescence, and "passage into my mother's painful, gallant world" -- her "rebirth" as an adult who sought jobs and left the impractical affectations of youth behind. But she will not part with many of its details, preferring to keep a few secrets untold.
As Simon sees it, she became a writer because she was an immigrant child. The exotic and strange etches itself more keenly on the childish memory than the familiar and ordinary, and Simon clearly had an unusual sensitivity to sights, smells and sounds.
"That's when I began to notice and remember and record a great deal, from words to corners to shops to furniture," she said. "And then the whole experience of coming to a family who were all very odd . . . Everything was strange and everything was interesting . . . And always having to be aware, aware, aware, studying, studying. I think my first feeling about being a writer was that omnipotent sense . . . of going down stairs early in the morning and saying, 'They're mine, the cat's mine, the plants are mine, where's my Mr. Kaplan, where's my Mr. Petrides, where's my Mrs. Santini? And always the curiosity. What's going on on the roof, what's going on in the cellar? What are they not telling me that I almost know, that I suspect? That I will know sometime."
They lived on the top floor of 2029 Lafontaine St., the last house on the west side of the street from 178th to 179th, a row of five-story tenements that ended at a hat factory. In the summer they slept on the fire escapes, and Our suburbs, our summer country homes, our camps, our banks and braes, our America the Beautiful, our fields of gaming and dalliance and voyeurism, were in Crotona Park . . .
She remembered the screech of clotheslines, the music from other people's Victrolas and the loud quarrels and fights that "were almost literally the spice of daily life, deliciously, lightly menacing, grotesque and entertaining." A few startling curses lived on in her memory:
Her neighbor, Fannie Herman, enraged at a rebellious daughter who refused to practice the piano in favor of a ride in her father's car: "May the piankele be buried in the earth! May the machinkele be swallowed by the earth! May black cholera carry off both the piankele and the machinkele! May they suffer of boils! May they succumb to a dark fate!"
Or this from Mrs. Stavicz, asked by a whiny child what there was to do: "Scratch your ass on a broken bottle." Simon was gifted with a mother different from the other downtrodden, overworked mothers in her neighborhood. Hers had supported herself as a shopkeeper in Poland, and once in America was one of the few women in her neighborhood to attend English class. Later she also studied the mandolin. She fought to have her daughter complete her education, and while other mothers thought early marriage the only desirable daughterly route, Simon's urged her to earn her own living and perhaps never marry. It was a suggestion so shocking Simon did not even respond when she heard it.
Her relationship with her father was less felicitous. A self-centered man, the only son in a family of daughters, he seemed burdened and embittered by having children. To him, I was disobedient and careless; I didn't do my homework when I should, I didn't practice enough, my head was always in a book, I was always in the street running wild with the Italian and Polish beasts. I climbed with boys, I ran with boys, I skated with them on far streets. Mrs. Kaplan had seen me and told him. And how would this life, this playing with boys, end? I would surely become a street girl, a prostitute, and wind up being shipped to a filthy diseased brothel crawling with hairy tropical bugs, in Buenos Aires . . .
If our father hated us so, why didn't he go away? I didn't examine the consequences, who would feed us and pay the rent. I just wanted him out, out, dead.
bat10 One of her earliest memories of her father was of an evening walk, in an autumn twilight, when she was 5 1/2. She and her brother stopped at an enticing window display in a toy store, and while they were fantasizing over the dolls, boats and trains, their parents walked off and left them.
bat10 There was no mother, no father, on the dark street and I didn't know where we were. Feeling my fear, my brother turned, too, and began to cry heartbreakingly . . . -the sorrow of the lost and abandoned. I felt, too . . . the utter helplessness, the sickness of betrayal. As in the heavy rooms of my later dreams, as on the ship when we were separated from our sick mother, I told him not to worry, I would take care of him. Look -- I wasn't afraid, I wasn't crying. By the time -- and I cannot possibly estimate its length because the overwhelming fear and the effort to control it filled all dimensions -- my mother burst out of a doorway to run to us, I had become, in some corner of my being, an old woman. It didn't matter that she hugged and kissed us and that my father carefully explained that it was merely a lesson to teach us to walk with him and not linger. I held them to be bad strangers and would not talk to either for days.
-- Bronx Primitive bat10 But their primary battleground became the piano. He envisoned himself the father of a child prodigy earning money and fame. To achieve this goal she was expected to leave school and devote herself to practicing; on Sundays she had to spend four hours practicing with only one break to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom. Later in the day she would be dragged by him to recitals by other promising students. He bought a reconditioned piano at what for them was enormous expense, but in a burst of desperate independence she refused to play it.
As the years went on their relationship deteriorated even further; she left home at 15 and made every effort to avoid him when she visited her mother. In adulthood she lost some of her anger toward him, and felt, she says now, "kind of rueful that he was so crazy that nobody could live with him."
After her mother died, her father married again, once to a woman very much like her mother, who also died, and then to a woman who was rather more emancipated, who left him.
"You know what his first sentence when his third wife left him was? 'Who will take care of me?' That's why he died. He died of chagrin because his wife left him."
He wanted her to attend commercial high school for one year, to study bookkeeping and typing and then get a job. But, as she would later write, "Came an extraordinary event, a miracle worked by exalted personages": Two of her teachers and the principal of the school wrote her father a letter saying she was too gifted to be denied the broader education offered by the general high school.
She spent her fourteenth summer working as a mother's helper for a family of Greenwich Village bohemians who would have a great influence on her, and not just because they gave her the castoff gray raincoat and dark-gold Borsalino hat that formed the basis of her emerging eccentric persona. With gold hoop earrings and black stockings and sneakers, and the cigarettes she smokes constantly even today, Simon "created of myself a distinctive, conspicuous character."
bat10 While she was growing up there were also darker, more furtive discomforts. There was the barber who stroked her breast under the cloth as he dexterously cut her unusual blond hair with his other hand, and the neighbor man who took her to the movies and then tried to reach beneath her underwear. Even worse were the newly arrived relatives, one male cousin and one a female, who used her to relieve their sexual tensions while she lay, confused and furious, in the bedroom. She later believed her father was aware of these molestations and did nothing about them so as not to roil the family waters.
"I think child abuse probably started when the first hairy body walked out of the cave and saw something little, pink and unhairy and went for it ," she says. "But I didn't know of anyone used the way kids are used today. Prostitution, pornography . . . I think there is a terrible, wider world of child abuse today. Why do our kids take drugs? What does that say about the society we have shaped for them?
*"Many of my contemporaries had my type of experience," she says, and while it was "a furtive, terrible thing . . . most of us agreed we weren't really harmed because we knew it happened to everybody. Everybody knew about the barber, and everybody had a story to tell about somebody."
In her day, the very facts of life were secret and sordid, learned in snippets of frightening folklore and overheard gossip, or, in Simon's case, glimpsed once through an open skylight. She was told by an older girl that each month, with the onset of menstruation, the thighs separate from the lower belly, held only by a thin thread of skin. From these immense gashes, which I saw as the deep wide cuts made by a butcher's cleaver . . . flowed blood, rivers of blood for days . . . I thought that Debby might be wrong . . . anyone so hideously butchered must surely die after one monthly -- but I had to trust her because she knew and told, which no one else would.
Her notions of childbirth were equally gruesome. Also mysterious was the tall, thin, black-coated doctor who sometimes visited the mothers while the children were at school. member of a patrician family who dedicated his later years to performing abortions on poor women who would otherwise have turned to "knitting needles, hat pins, lengths of wire, the drinking of noxious mixtures while they sat in scalding baths." Her mother, she ultimately learned, had 13 abortions before James refused to perform any more (and thus Simon had a little sister) -- and she did not hold the neighborhood record.
Birth control was still forbidden territory; people were being arrested and jailed for teaching it. "I could learn everything about Anglo-Saxon English in Hunter College, but nothing about birth control," she says.
And so Simon, too, had abortions, and of all the memories that walked across her mental stage as she wrote the books, none kindled anger as strongly as those abortions: "I wrote those scenes with such a fury I could hardly type."
It was the doctors who performed them with whom she was -- and is -- angry, not the young men who "made the same mistake I did."
Her first was in a sparsely furnished house in New Jersey and cost $100. Her second cost $200 and took place in a ritzy doctor's office. He fondled her while she was under anesthesia -- he thought -- and sent her home still hemorrhaging. She is angry at the doctors partly because they profited from performing abortions while refusing to prescribe birth control or even tell their patients anything about it. Marriage was rarely an option, at least not for her.
"I sometimes think my life would have been a fairy dream if I'd had the pill!" she says. "I was damn mad at all the young women when the pill came out . . . .
"The boys we went out with -- if you could call going out riding on a bus and walking for a couple of hours going out -- were poor. And we wanted to experience everything before we got married . . . We were all so convinced that if and when we saved the world after the Depression we could get jobs. We were not necessarily interested in careers, but in the independence of earning a living."
Meanwhile, she studied German, Latin and literature, learned something about art and a little about politics, and held a series of menial jobs to pay her rent in a variety of miserable lodgings. For a while she lived with a boy -- platonically, to their surprise. Then her mother became ill and died, and Simon shed her adolescence, gradually, like a skin.
bat16 precede The girl who was to be immortal, the bright fantasist and loony wanderer, was lost in the struggles of the second birthing . . . Like Sam Rubenstein's dreadful twin who sapped his embryo companion, she, too, carried an envelope of earlier shapes: of the me as I would never again be and of my friends and mentors -- puzzling, kindly, brutal, narcissistic, stimulating, and destructive people who were washed away in the second amniotic flood. Not altogether washed away, as the girl was not altogether lost. Like an old string of beads slipped from their broken thread, like a loose pile of fading snapshots, they rattle around with the golden Borsalino hat and the volume of Heine verse in a box rarely opened but palpably there; not transferable, not inheritable, immutably mine as testaments of once-upon-a-time me.
* And so ends "A Wider World," and the part of her life that Simon is prepared to discuss in any detail. There was also an early marriage and early widowhood. Her first writing job was a secretarial one, with the Book-of-the-Month Club writing letters to members on matters that could not be handled with a form reply. "There would be situations like someone asking 'Why don't all the members of the club meet in Central Park for a picnic?' and there was a group of us who explained why we couldn't."
Her first "real" writing was book reviews, first for PM magazine, later for The Nation and The New Republic. "One of my proudest achievements was to get very excited about C.P. Snow, who in his beginnings was a wonderful writer." She was paid all of $14 for a review, which she could afford because by then she was married to Bob Simon, a partner of Crown Publishing Co. But she became disenchanted with reviewing.
"You know what stopped me? I got a really lousy book. And I thought, 'This guy has probably spent five years of his life, and what is more innocent than writing a book? He's kept out of all sorts of troubles, assaulted nobody, probably insulted nobody. The only dangerous book I can think of is 'Mein Kampf.' Why for $14 should I break his life up?' "
Her own writing was sporadic. "I would find some way of interfering with myself. I think some of it goes back to a family atmosphere. Although my mother was independently, militantly feminist in many ways, when they got into discussions about Jews, then everything was terrible. My father would say the Jewish worker could get nowhere. My mother would say a Jewish woman could get nowhere . . . I think a lot of women -- Jewish, Arab, anything -- have that in them for centuries and centuries: 'You're just not going to make it.' "
What changed her was the suggestion of a publisher friend that she write a guidebook to New York. Simon, of course, knew the city as only an impecunious and adventurous native can. She wrote about the small butcher shops and inexpensive restaurants, groceries, great buildings and the character of "the New Yorker."
The book was a best seller and went into several printings. After that she heard the words from a publisher that for a writer are the loveliest in the English language: "Here's a contract -- what would you like to do?"
At that point in her life, Simon had gone through "a lot of illusions and disillusions, the marriage thing and so on, and I was quite free. I was responsible to no one, and no one was responsible for me." She moved to Mexico to write another book and began what she now calls "the happiest period of my life."
After Mexico, there were London, Paris and Rome. Each time she moved to a new city knowing almost no one, content with a $10,000 contract that allowed her to live quite luxuriously abroad. "I was so enthusiastic about what I was doing I had very little time or emotional energy to be lonely. One met neighbors, and shopkeepers. It wasn't a question of being totally silent and isolated . . . I would get on a bus in London, say, with a pack of cigarettes, and some coins. You develop in time a kind of sixth sense about a place. I would see a corner, or smell a smell, or see a person or shop, and make a note to go back. And I would do that all day and come back fulfilled, tired, I'd learned a lot . . . It is a form of being in love; you don't have other needs . . . Were I to run the world I would tell every lady of 40 or 45 to take 10 years off and go."
Her travels resulted in eight more books, each a classic. She is a painstaking writer, rewriting several times and polishing until the sentence is as good as she can get it. She is rarely satisfied.
Her memoirs came out of an editor's suggestion. Others had urged her to write down the stories she told about her childhood, but no one else had offered a contract. She found the work difficult, but not traumatic.
"I did not write them to purge myself of my childhood . . . The curtain went up and there were all these immortals standing on the stage . . . The second volume was very interesting to me because of the city around me: the newspapers I read, the theater I saw, the personalities, the streets. The village as it was when I was baby-sitting there."
But one trip home is enough, she said: "I'm not sure my youth interests me that much anymore."
The things that happened to her later may end up in a novel. Her first.
But she will continue to live in "good old stinky New York." Barcelona and Rome always beckon seductively, she said, but loving Gotham "is like an old marriage to a feeble old drunk. The worse it gets the more devoted you are."