If there could be said to exist a certain look, a peculiar demeanor, which is ideal for journalists, then Marlin Levin chose the right vocation. Even as an octogenarian he is still a striking man, with a mane of white hair and a handshake whose firmness betrays nothing of the feebleness inflicted by the passing years. He is handsome, yet his looks belong to the nonthreatening variety, the kind possessed by generations of Hollywood supporting actors, pleasant enough to get people to open up and talk yet not overwhelming, the perfect equilibrium for someone dedicated to enticing others to tell their stories while himself remaining on the outside, a dispassionate observer of events. His thick-rimmed glasses seem to magnify his stare, a gaze so powerful that one feels almost compelled to reveal, instantly and without provocation, all the content of one’s soul. And should one do so, Levin would listen, keeping the stare strong throughout the confession, never once letting go, engulfing his conversational partner in attentiveness until the very end. When he finally responds, his parlance is expressive, weaving staccato one-liners with slow, almost arrested, pensive bouts. As are all seasoned journalists, he is a man who has had a lot of conversations over the years with a lot of different people, and he is able, in the most natural and unpretentious way, to alter his speech almost entirely to suit and seduce whomever he happens to be talking to. And it was this oratorical talent he was invoking on Saturday night, January 12, 1946, in a dismal little cafeteria in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, not to an interviewee but to a blue-eyed girl named Betty.
Recently released from the army, Marlin returned to Pennsylvania on New Year’s Day of 1946 after having served in the Intelligence Corps as a cryptographer, a position that allowed him to experience both the Pacific and European theaters. His return home, he thought, especially on such a symbolic date as January 1, marked the end of all that he had seen in combat, the horrors of war and the atrocities of the European death camps. In Europe, he had seen the sunken eyes of Jewish survivors, the ghostly encampments, the horrible order of destruction. It was a sight seared in his mind’s eye, an experience he rarely talked about yet would never forget, carrying the burden of memory like a medallion, close to his heart. He politely refused an offer to sign on to the army’s reserves, collected a 10 percent disability pension for an injury he had sustained during the war, pinned the six ribbons he had received to his chest, and returned home to small-town Harrisburg, to resume the life he had before the war, as a journalism major at Temple University. This, he thought, was what life would be about: complete his studies, get a job, and join the millions of his peers as they moved to the suburbs, started their own families, and basked in the warmth of the economic boom of the postwar years. Yet, two or three days after returning home, boredom descended on Marlin.
It was not that he, like some of his friends, missed the adrenaline rush of military life, the nearly anarchic excitement of battle, or the unique camaraderie among men who risk their lives for one another on a daily basis. It was just that, having fought a battle he conceived as being an Armageddon-like struggle between good and evil, adjusting to routine—any kind of routine—was an uneasy task. The war gave him meaning; he was fighting the Nazis and their allies, a well-defined mission with obvious stakes. Civilian life, on the other hand, offered nothing but self-advancement, a métier in which Marlin had never been steeped. He knew he wanted to be a journalist, a vocation he had always been committed to, but he needed—had always needed—a bigger reason, a common cause, something larger than his own self to strive for. And Harrisburg, or any other town for that matter, offered none of that, nothing but long careers and programmed lives.
Restless, Marlin wandered about. He passed his time with some of his childhood friends, also recent returnees from combat. His parents, though thrilled to spend time with their son after not having seen him for several years, sensed his ennui, and a gray cloud of discontent descended on the Levin household. Marlin sought to escape his home by spending as many hours as he could out of doors, going to movies, playing tennis, basketball, and baseball, driving around in his father’s Pontiac, and trading war stories with his friends—in short, trying to think about any subject other than himself. Which is why, on the Saturday night of January 12, 1946, he responded with quick enthusiasm when a friend offered an otherwise mundane plan to spend the evening together: again a movie, again dinner in the only cafeteria in town, again empty talk of the good old days followed by an anticlimactic return home to another sleepless night. The two met up early in the evening, chatted briefly, saw some forgettable film, and then headed up to the cafeteria, a bleak institution yet the only place of entertainment open at that time in a town where most businesses shut their doors at seven and most people were sound asleep by ten.
Entering the cafeteria, Marlin’s friend noticed two young women sitting at a nearby table. “I know the one to the right,” the friend said. “I’ll sit next to her. You take the one on the left.” The two men quickly injected themselves with a healthy dose of bravado and swaggered toward the two women, no longer dispassionate. Marlin didn’t wait long to start his conquest.
“I know a match trick,” he told the girl on the left as soon as he sat down beside her, uninvited. He took out a box of matches and arranged some of them on the table. “No one,” he said in his best macho voice, “no one has ever been able to figure out how I do this.” Certain that the blue-eyed young woman wouldn’t succeed where his hardened army comrades had failed, he proceeded to show her his trick, a riddle involving replacing one match in order to change the entire structure. She, in turn, smiled gently and solved the riddle effortlessly. His ego stricken, Marlin nonetheless looked at the woman with newfound admiration; suddenly, she was no longer just a girl in a cafeteria, a pickup for the night. She had suddenly become enveloped in an aura reserved for those few and far-between objects of mad infatuation.
In a softer, more respectful tone, Marlin asked the woman question after question about herself. He wanted to know everything, he said. She told him that her name was Betty. She said that she was top of her class in math at high school, which is why his riddle was no real challenge for her. He smiled humbly, pushing for more details, more information. She was a Brooklyn girl, she said, who had ended up in Harrisburg almost by mistake. A friend of hers was invited by a local rabbi to teach Hebrew at his day school, and Betty joined her, thinking that someone needed to teach Hebrew to those hicks in small-town Pennsylvania. On that Saturday night, she and her friend were sitting, having coffee, reminiscing about how exciting life was in New York, the life they had left behind to come to Harrisburg.
As she spoke, Marlin looked at her intently, half listening, transfixed by her eyes; for the first time in many days, he was genuinely excited. He remembered an old dictum of his grandmother’s, who used to tell him that a good woman needed only three things: clear eyes, straight teeth, and strong legs. Applying his grandmother’s wisdom to Betty, Marlin was secretly pleased: Her legs were strong and slender, the result of many years of dancing, some of them under the tutelage of the famous Martha Graham. Her teeth were white, well aligned, and glistening. And her eyes, her eyes were what had attracted Marlin in the first place, soft blue pools that exuded warmth, attractive yet soothing. The conversation carried on for a little while, then dwindled and died. That night, Marlin returned home and went right to sleep, no longer haunted by indecision and anxiety, full with the promise of that evening’s chance encounter. The next morning, he went down to the breakfast table with a grin. Meekly, and with a mouth full of toast, he said to his mother, “Last night I met the girl I’m going to marry.” His mother, accustomed as she was to her son’s impetuousness, just smiled.
Armed with a new cause, Marlin was now more energetic, better prepared to carry on with life. He informed his university of his intention to resume his studies, and was offered his old position as the editor of the school’s newspaper. Most of the writing he did, however, was directed at one reader: Betty. He wrote her long letters, trying his best to overcome his inclination toward wisecracking and bad punning, desperate to prove to her that despite being a self-proclaimed puny farm boy from nowhere, despite having none of her worldly charm and big-city sensibilities, despite being quick with a joke or a prank, he was a suitable spouse. A year later, he was graduated with honors, distinguished as one of the university’s ten most outstanding students. Unlike some college graduates, he had no doubts concerning the future: he knew that he wanted to be a journalist, and he knew that he wanted Betty by his side. He channeled most of his energy into wooing her, often using his way with words to one-up one of Betty’s other suitors. Still, he could no longer postpone the inevitable; the time had come for him to join—as he was fond of saying yet terrified of thinking—the rat race.
One day soon after graduation, Robert L. Johnson, president of Temple University, summoned Marlin to his office. He liked Marlin’s writing and the way he edited the school’s paper, and wanted him to pay a visit to his friend in New York, Henry Luce, who was looking for young talent to come and work for his magazine, Time. Yet, Marlin respectfully refused. He told Johnson that he preferred learning the trade not in a revered institution such as Time, where reporters were called upon to cast their wide lens and present a weekly summary of the world, but at a daily of some sort, where one had the chance to witness everyday life in all its glory. Leaving behind a baffled Johnson, Marlin exited the president’s office, still himself uncertain whether turning down an offer considered to be the Golden Fleece of his profession was a liberating act or sheer foolishness. He was offered a job as news editor of the local radio station, WFIL, and prepared to settle down. Several months later, however, he resigned, as Betty announced that she was going back to New York. Still determined to win her over, Marlin followed her there in December 1946. Shortly after his arrival, he accepted a position as an associate editor of the trade paper Women’s Wear Daily, writing about the retail fur market.
The job was all Marlin could hope for. Every morning he arrived at the office, located on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, at around nine. Some coffee, some discussion of the day that lay ahead, and he was off to Fifth Avenue, interviewing fur buyers at such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue or Bergdorf Goodman. Then, at 3:30 p.m., when Betty got off from her job teaching Hebrew at the elite Ramaz day school, the two would meet for a nonalcoholic drink, after which Betty would go to classes at the Teachers Institute or to dance rehearsals, and Marlin back to the office to write his stories for another several hours. Marlin found this routine rewarding. First, it allowed him the time and energy to pursue Betty with even more zeal then before, wooing and charming her as best he could; her defenses, he could sense, were giving in. Second, the job allowed Marlin ample opportunities for the type of creative mischief he was so fond of. One time, for example, bored beyond relief, he deliberately sparked a controversy between those of New York’s leading fur buyers who preferred stoles and those who preferred fur capes. His uneventful beat also provided Marlin with an opportunity to hone his skills of observation: interviewing a fur buyer at the upscale Bergdorf Goodman one day, he witnessed a raggedy-looking middle-aged woman with straggly hair, no makeup, and a cheap, well-worn cloth coat walk into the store and, after seeing cheaper alternatives, insist on a $40,000 fur coat. To the utter astonishment of both Marlin and the store’s salesman, the woman’s check was honored; it was only a week later that Marlin learned that the woman was the wife of a local New York mafia don. Such moments filled him with joy; he reported these stories like a Damon Runyon in a department store, making his articles for the seemingly mundane trade publication teem with observation and insight.
Still, for all the fun there was to be had and all the freedom that Fairchild, the parent company of Women’s Wear Daily, was willing to grant Marlin in choosing his own subjects, something fundamental was missing. In his mind, Marlin could not resist accelerating his progression, asking questions as he went along: he could see that his current job would lead to a better one, and from there, perhaps, to an editorial position, to serious pay and professional credit, to a marriage with Betty and a house in the suburbs and . . . But that was enough. He knew enough to realize that this was not the life he desired, not the future he was willing to sacrifice his time and energy for. Again, he became restless. This time, however, it was not vague ennui haunting him, but a singular, clear plan.
Throughout 1946 and 1947, Marlin read with great interest as events in Palestine rapidly unfolded. Because he had had a modicum of Jewish education as a young boy, and the memory of witnessing the smoldering ashes of European Jewry was still fresh, he became increasingly interested in the fate of the Jewish community vying for independence in Palestine. He eagerly consumed every news story of the Jewish underground movements, the Haganah and the Irgun and the Lehi, all fighting both the British, who by force of a UN mandate were the legal custodians of Palestine, and the Arabs, the land’s other inhabitants, who were rapidly organizing and increasingly belligerent. He was fascinated by every bit of information about the ongoing events in Palestine, followed the UN’s fervent discussions regarding the future of the much-contested swath of land just west of Jordan, hoped for some sort of swift resolution which would birth the first independent Jewish state in millennia. As 1947 rolled in, the pace of developments increased dramatically, and Marlin listened intently as the radio spat out an allegro non tropo of breaking news: the British government announcing that it would terminate its mandate in Palestine, the British government referring what it called the “problem of Palestine” to the UN, the UN forming an eleven-member committee to decide the fate of Palestine. Especially captivating were the reports by the famed newspaperman Homer Bigart, writing in the New York Herald-Tribune, the first reporter to witness the secret induction of Jewish youth into the underground movements fighting for independence.
Learning of these developments, Marlin was struck by a series of small epiphanies. The Second World War, he realized, had been a fight between good and evil on a global scale, and he had participated, had fought on the side of good, had helped deliver the world from malice. The struggle for a Jewish homeland, on the other hand, was also a seminal event on a global scale, albeit one for which he was gradually beginning to feel personally responsible. How could he, he thought, throw off his life, study, prospects, to go to war with Germany and Japan, to fight for an ephemeral and enticing idea, freedom, yet not budge when his own people were standing trial? How could he who had listened to his grandmother haltingly tell stories of pogroms in her native Russia, he who had witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust, not join the struggle to ensure that such atrocities were never again committed against the Jewish people? In his heart, the cause was growing bigger every day.
And possibly it was a new adventure, one as removed from the suburbs as could be. Staying in the army reserves and fighting a war that had already been won was futile, but joining the one about to begin was not. He could be a journalist anywhere, he thought, only instead of furriers and haute couture he would cover bombings and shootings and moonlit raids, finally fulfilling his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. This appealed to the romantic in him, inspired him to put behind the safety of stateside life. There was only one matter he had to attend to prior to boarding the boat to Palestine: his blue-eyed love.
A Hebrew teacher by profession, Betty was even more immersed than Marlin in the constant concern over the progression of events in Palestine. She, too, felt drawn to the Jewish cause, having herself emigrated from Estonia to Latvia and from there to the freedom offered by the United States. Her father had traveled to the United States in 1923 with his oldest son, with the intention of bringing the rest of the family with him shortly thereafter. Just then, however, Congress passed a law requiring immigrants to become citizens before granting them the right to bring over their families, which meant that Betty, her mother, and her three siblings had to wait for five years, fatherless, every day asking their mother if the shif’s carta, Yiddish for ship ticket, had arrived. Palestine, then, represented the promise of an independent Jewish state, a state where Jews would never again have to wait for others to decide their fate. She realized the risks, of course—when reading the news one was burdened with images of carnage—yet thought them all trivial compared to the goal at stake. She also had Marlin, at that point already rather adamant about going, and she trusted his good judgment, his amicable ways, and his savvy character. When he proposed, in June of 1947, she accepted. Whether out of awareness of her future husband’s modest means or out of a spartan upbringing, she refused his offer of a traditional diamond-studded engagement ring. Instead, he bought her a gold watch, on the back of which he had engraved, in Hebrew, “She whom my soul loved, I found,” a variation of a traditional canticle. Betty told him she couldn’t have been happier. They both decided not to wait too long; they would celebrate their honeymoon, they agreed, on a ship en route to the port of Haifa, Palestine.
Copyright © 2006 by Liel Leibovitz. All rights reserved.