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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Wild and Precious Life

A Memoir

Edie Windsor with Joshua Lyon

St. Martin's Press

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

One


In 1932, a polio epidemic swept through Philadelphia, with 728 reported cases that resulted in eighty-four deaths. The virus found its way inside me, and my older brother, Blackie, caught it soon after. We were hospitalized for weeks in an infectious disease ward, and despite rules that strictly forbade parental presence, our mother stayed with us every single night. I’m not sure how she convinced the nurses to let her, but I know she was there.

I was three years old, and this is my earliest memory. Stuck behind the metal bars of an industrial crib, acutely aware of the fear in the air, with my mother’s constant fretting and doctors hurrying by our ward’s open door, grim looks on their faces.

None of this bothered me one bit.

I turned the parade of doctors into a game. I’d stand in my bed, steadied by the rails, and wave at each white coat in an attempt to see how many I could get to wave back. My track record was strong.

* * *

My mother’s name was Celia, but everyone called her Cele, pronounced like the animal. She slept on a small cot by our hospital beds, and our father would relieve her every other day so she could return home to freshen up. She’d be back within a matter of hours.

This level of devotion to her children continued throughout her life. She refused to speak much about her past, but as I grew older, I gathered bits and pieces of it together through stories told by my aunts and learned that she’d accepted the responsibility of ensuring the future of her entire family at a very a young age.

Born in Korostyshiv, a Jewish slum roughly seventy miles west of Kiev, she immigrated alone to Philadelphia in 1907, when she was just thirteen. Her older brother had already left for America several years earlier to try to establish a new life, but he hadn’t succeeded in building a foundation that could support the rest of the family.

Cele was considered the smartest and most beautiful of her four sisters, and my grandparents decided she had the best chance of finding a husband in America. The financial stability of a good marriage would pave the way for the rest of the family to join her and leave poverty behind—a heavy responsibility for anyone, much more so for a girl barely a teenager.

My grandfather took her to Lisbon and booked passage on a ship in the lowest class. She made herself useful among the other Jews journeying to America by caring for their young children, but she began to worry after some of the passengers learned just how young she was.

“They’ll turn you away,” she was told. “You have to be sixteen to get into the country alone unless there’s a special circumstance, like your whole family has been killed.”

When the boat arrived and Cele exited the plank, she spotted her older brother through the crowd, waiting from behind a large gate, jumping and waving.

“Welcome! Welcome!” he shouted. “How is the family?”

“Dead!” she yelled as loud as she could, making sure everyone could hear. “They’re all dead!”

By the time she made it through processing and got to the other side of the gate, her brother was weeping inconsolably, and he grabbed Cele, hugging her tightly.

“Everyone’s fine,” she whispered. “But keep it up.”

* * *

Cele didn’t find a husband right away, but she and her brother got settled enough with new jobs and the rental of a small one-bedroom flat that they were able to send for the rest of their sisters and my grandmother. The six of them lived squished into an apartment in South Philadelphia, an area deeply concentrated with other Jewish immigrants. My mother and aunts found part-time jobs while attending an all-girls high school and wore whatever hand-me-down clothes they could scrounge from charities, including boys’ coats in the winter.

Teased relentlessly in the streets, taunted by calls of “greenies,” a catchall slur for anyone new to the county, they kept their heads down and worked hard, and each graduated and found jobs as secretaries or in childcare.

Cele eventually met and fell in love with a man named Jack Schlain, who had a younger brother who was sweet on Cele’s youngest sister, my aunt Naomi. The two brothers married the two sisters, and our already large family quickly began to multiply and expand, as my other aunts married as well and everyone began having children.

In my immediate family, my sister, Delphina (she was quickly nicknamed Dolly), eleven years my senior, came first. She was feminine from the start, known for her beauty and love of fashion. Social and outgoing, she always had a close circle of girlfriends.

Dolly was followed by my beloved brother and sometimes tormenter, Edmond, who we all called Blackie due to his inky hair and dark eyes that sparkled like onyx. That trickster gleam perfectly matched his personality: independent, outspoken, and utterly charming. Four years later, I came along.

I was an accident. Later in life, I used this phrase while talking to a psychiatrist, who was quick to point out that even if I were, I must have been a welcome one because it meant my parents were still making love after being together for so long. I thought this was a very good point—and an important lesson. If they hadn’t kept things hot, I might never have existed.

* * *

Blackie and I were both released from the polio ward unscathed, with no lasting effects except for the massive hospital bills that hit my family. My father had to borrow a lot of money from some cousins, and to help pay off the debt, he began working for them selling wholesale stationery and toys to department stores.

We lived on top of a small store that my mother operated on the busy corner of Fifty-first and Baltimore Avenue, close to the trolley tracks. We had a soda and ice cream counter and loads of candy, and we were the only members of our entire extended family with a telephone. My sister and brother and I were constantly running from house to house to deliver messages or fetch someone who had a call. A bell over the front door rang out anytime someone entered, and if it was only a family member there to use the phone, he or she would shout “Never mind!” to let Cele know that a paying customer hadn’t walked in.

Between having a father with constant access to the latest toys before they hit the shelves and a mother who ran a sweets shop, I was in child heaven. The store was my playground. A boy from my kindergarten class visited one day with his mother, and he scrambled up on a stool and insisted I be the one to pour his drink from behind the counter. I had to use a stepstool to reach the syrup pumps. My cousins would come by and invent their own soda flavors, like cherry-vanilla root beer.

Dolly and Blackie were both responsible for watching over me, but Blackie more so when it came to keeping me entertained because we were closer in age. I have him to thank for my love of movies, since his method of childcare was to drag me along with him to either of our two neighborhood theaters.

They were close to our house: three blocks away was the Sherwood, with a large screen housed inside a gothic building. A few blocks beyond that was the Ambassador Theatre, which had an enormous light-up marquee and could seat up to one thousand people. When I began accompanying him to the movies while I was in first grade, he was mortified at the thought of anyone seeing him walk down the street alone with a little girl. Many of our neighbors weren’t particularly fond of Jews; he had a hard enough time getting anywhere on his own without being teased for being a sissy babysitter. He’d force me to run ahead of him so no one would suspect we were together. Just before I’d reach each curb and the stream of oncoming traffic, he’d shout “Heel!”

Initially, I loved the game and would pretend I was his puppy. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize he was literally treating me like a dog, so I put a firm end to it and instead walked three steps behind him to keep him happy.

Weekend matinees were double features with cartoons, a serial, and newsreels. Blackie loved the twenty-minute adventures of The Lost Jungle and Flash Gordon. I was mesmerized by Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies like The Goddess of Spring, the story of beautiful, floppy-armed Persephone, who’s kidnapped by Hades to be his bride and dragged to his underworld lair, causing ice to spread across the land. She’s only allowed to return to the world above if she agrees to spend half the year back in hell with him for eternity.

It was the feature-length musicals that imprinted on me the deepest and kicked off a lifelong love of musicals and theater. I was so enthralled with Shirley Temple in films like Poor Little Rich Girl and Captain January that I thought nothing of bringing my harmonica to the theater and playing along with her songs. It never occurred to me that others might not want to hear it, and after several evictions from the Ambassador, I was banned for a week. Blackie worked around this by making me kneel down and shuffle through the door ahead of him, below the sight line of the woman in the windowed box office.

I earned a tiny allowance from helping out around the store and spent it all on going to the movies. If I ran out of coins, I’d swipe pennies off the stacks of newspapers that lined the little stands around our neighborhood, wrap them in silver foil from inside my father’s cigarette boxes, and try to pass the counterfeits off as dimes. My con never worked, and an exasperated Blackie would avoid eye contact with the fed-up ticket taker as he paid my way in.

Because I was constantly surrounded by so many treats, it was lost on me that our family was barely scraping by. A seemingly never-ending stream of dolls from my father’s work and unlimited sweets from the store made effective blinders. Little clues escaped me, like having to watch over the cash register one Thanksgiving with Dolly, waiting until it filled up with enough money so that we could run down the street to buy a pot that our mother needed to finish cooking the holiday dinner.

We lost the store the summer before I was supposed to enter the fourth grade. Taxes were owed that were too steep to cover, and the business was sold, along with the building it was housed in—our home.

Despite the fact that we were nonpracticing Jews, it was extremely important to Cele that we move to a solidly upper-middle-class Jewish enclave on the west side of town. Essentially, Cele wanted us to live somewhere Dolly and I could find good husbands. Marriage was crucial to her. Just like she had been taught, she thought it was the only chance my sister and I had for future economic security. Being Jewish, however, had everything to do with the culture around family, not God or the Torah. Cele knew Yiddish but didn’t speak it very often—mostly with her mother-in-law and sometimes with her sister if they were talking about her mother-in-law in the presence of others. She also liked to place her hands on family members’ cheeks and say shayna punim—“beautiful face.”

In the right company, Cele would loudly proclaim that religion was nothing but a bunch of hocus-pocus and told all of us children that if anyone ever asked our religion, we should reply “Atheist.”

Deciding where to move resulted in the one and only fight I ever heard my parents have. (Jack had a temper and often yelled at us kids, but he was never allowed to hit any of us—Cele forbade it.) I’d never heard the two of them raise their voices at each other, and Blackie and I were terrified; we huddled in the living room as Cele and Jack screamed in the kitchen. Jack didn’t want to spend too much on rent, but Cele insisted on a better neighborhood. Cele won, and I don’t know how they managed to do it—I suspect my father borrowed more money from his cousins—but we ended up in a very nice rental house on Sixty-second and Washington Avenue, in the exact area my mother wanted. Not long after, we moved four blocks north to an even better place, on Sixty-second and Christian Street.

Our new neighborhood was made up of block after block of tree-lined streets with three-story, two-family homes, each side a mirror image of the other. The structures all had slight architectural differences, a bay window here or enclosed front porch there, to keep the area from looking dull and too uniform. It was much quieter without the constant din of traffic and the trolley shuttling back and forth, but the sounds of children playing in the street made up for it. I was shy around others my age and preferred to spend my time with Blackie. He still took me to the movies; we rode our bikes together back to the theaters in our old neighborhood.

While we were first getting settled, everyone pitched in to help make money. Dolly and Blackie each had jobs, and my mother found all sorts of little ways to make ends meet while figuring out her next career move. My favorite, and the one I was old enough to help with, came during springtime. Since my mother hadn’t been able to get enough people to come to the candy store to support it, she decided to bring candy to the people. Every Easter, she’d make chocolate eggs with a hinged mold that could produce eight at a time. These weren’t feather-light little Cadbury eggs—each one was solid and about the size of my two fists pressed together. We’d pipe bright pink and yellow icing onto the surfaces once they cooled and hardened, decorating them with flowers and vines, and then we’d drive to the predominantly Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods and sell them door-to-door. Our eggs were a hit, and we began receiving custom orders—lists of names to add in swirly, candy cursive writing. Eventually, a few stores began to place wholesale orders as well.

I loved the time spent with Cele preparing these confections, the smell of chocolate wafting through the kitchen, and dabbing my pinkie onto the end of the piping bag for a tiny sugar rush.

I could do no wrong in my mother’s eyes—none of her children could. I know now that I was spoiled, but it wasn’t the material sort of spoiled. The gifts I was showered with and held on to were self-esteem and a belief that I could do anything. I think it could have gone disastrously wrong if I hadn’t also been book smart in a way that backed up Cele’s constant praise. There’s nothing worse than a know-it-all that doesn’t really know a thing. She also kept us in place with gentle teasing—anytime we drove by the zoo, she’d yell “Duck!” so the zookeepers wouldn’t come after us and lock us in with the rest of the monkeys.

We were in a new school district, and when I’d first enrolled, the administration discovered that I was far more advanced in reading and math than the other children, so I skipped the fourth grade. On the one hand, it made me feel special, but on the other, it meant I was a year younger then everyone in my new classroom, which didn’t do much to encourage socializing.

My only real friend was my cousin Sonya, whose nickname was Sunnie. She was only fourteen months younger than I was, but everyone referred to her as Sunnie Baby, because she was extremely asthmatic and therefore raised to be rather timid, discouraged from doing anything too exciting that might trigger an attack.

Every summer, Sunnie’s parents rented a small one-bedroom apartment in nearby Atlantic City. Say what you will about the place now, but in the 1930s, it was the East Coast vacation destination and well earned its self-appointed nickname of “the World’s Playground.” I’d go on to discover its hedonism as I grew older, but as a child, it was all innocence and magic. Cousins, aunts, and uncles would come and go from the apartment, and the kids would crash on the floor and take turns sleeping in the bathtub.

Sunnie and I built our share of sandcastles on the beach, and when the sun grew too hot, we’d stake out a cool, shady spot under the boardwalk and spy on the never-ending parade of feet crossing the slats above us, popcorn and saltwater taffy wrappers raining down like parade confetti. At night, we’d stay outside on our own until 9:00 or 10:00 p.m., our skin lit up by the flashing lights of marquees and billboards. We’d watch enviously as teenagers and adults emerged from fancy hotels in evening wear, out for a night of dinner and dancing at any number of jazz clubs.

My parents and siblings didn’t join me on these extended summer trips with Sunnie; they were too busy working to pay the rent on our new home. Little by little, my father began making a name selling stationery. At the time, every department store had a stationery department on the ground floor along with the perfume counter, so there was a constant market. Luckily for me, he also maintained his contacts with toy wholesalers and often brought home board games and dolls that had yet to be released.

All of this childhood bliss initially made it easy to block out the start of World War II, after I turned ten. I remember picking up on bits and pieces from newspaper headlines and hushed conversations between my parents and siblings, but it was really nothing more than a sense that something bad was happening to other people somewhere far away.

I had more important things to focus my attention on—my first real friend outside the family, a girl from school named Frances. She’d come to the house and we’d play with dolls or go to the movies, where we’d talk over the newsreels, unable to absorb the horror of marching soldiers and bomb smoke. We were riveted instead by The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms, released within a month of each other in 1939 and starring my new favorite matinee idol, Judy Garland. Her voice and eyes hypnotized me, and they’d stay burned in my mind for days any time I saw her on-screen.

At school, I was doing so well in math class that one of my aunts on my father’s side hired me to handle the payroll for her window-washing company. It was a successful enterprise, and I enjoyed the work. She employed over fifty men, but even as a child, I found it easy to keep the books balanced; the numbers easily fell into place for me.

* * *

In 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered the war, but I was too distracted by a much smaller scale of bloodshed to grasp the significance: I got my first period.

I was at school when I felt it happen. Cele was working, so the nurse allowed Frances to take me home to her mother, who walked me though all the necessary steps. Frances had already been menstruating for about a year, so despite the discomfort, I was proud to have finally caught up to her. It meant I was a woman, which meant I’d soon be able to go on dates, a prospect that excited me, but only because it was what was done. It meant I was on the right track in life.

I liked boys, I really did. I found them interesting to look at and fun to be around, and I certainly liked the attention they paid me, but I was much more obsessed with spending time with Frances. It’s clear looking back now that I had a crush on her, but I had no understanding of how the deep affection I felt could mean anything but true friendship.

I planned to model my forthcoming dating life after Dolly. She was elegant, obsessed with her hair, and left a trail of the latest perfume in her wake whenever she walked by. She was a student at Temple University by then and could have had any boy, but she only had eyes for one—a handsome, intelligent gentleman named Rick, who came from a nice Jewish family.

Cele approved of the match. Rick was exactly the type of man she thought her daughters should marry. Dashing, ambitious, sociable, and to boot, he was also a big fan of Cele’s cooking, particularly her meat cakes, an artery-clogging specialty that was really nothing more than a flattened, fried meatball.

As the war escalated, Rick began spending more and more time at our house, until he eventually moved in, which seemed somewhat scandalous until I realized why—they’d secretly gotten married.

* * *

Edie’s cousin Sunnie still lives in Philadelphia, in an immaculate apartment in a downtown high-rise just around the corner from Rittenhouse Square. She’s eighty-seven years old, and talking about Edie is enough to move her to tears, even when recalling some of their sillier childhood adventures.

“We did devilish things,” she says. “I’d threaten people all the time if they did something mean. ‘I’m going to get my big cousin after you!’”

She remembers the two of them playing pranks on both sets of parents, like short-sheeting their beds. “She even taught me how to curse,” she says. “It was a chant, and it went, ‘Highty Tighty, Christ Almighty, Ra Ra Shit!’”

When they were children, Sunnie’s mother would host all of her siblings and their families at her house for the Jewish high holidays, but none of the kids had any idea that the occasions held a religious significance, and it seems that the source of the family’s ambivalence about their religion stemmed from a collective reaction to their grandfather’s faith.

He was the last to arrive in America after his children and wife got set up in Philadelphia, and while they lived in a Jewish neighborhood connected by tradition and heritage, his family members were no longer practicing, which he viewed as a crisis.

Back in Korostyshiv, he had been a very respected man, known in the family as what Sunnie calls a “hereditary rabbi,” but it’s unclear if that meant he was the actual son of a rabbi or if the word was just used as a title of respect, meaning he was considered to have valuable knowledge on spiritual matters and people sought his counsel. Whichever the case, there’s no questioning the devotion he inspired back home—his grandchildren were often told a story of how whenever he was ill, the villagers would carry him in a chair to the synagogue.

When he arrived in Philadelphia and saw that his wife and children weren’t properly observing the holidays and hadn’t even joined a temple, he took it upon himself to get the family back in order, but they weren’t having it. “It was shoved down their throats, and they wanted nothing to do with it,” Sunnie says.

Their grandfather attempted to involve himself in the community but found that his former revered status held no value in America. He was eligible to become a mashgiach, someone who supervises food to make sure it’s kosher, but it was hands-on work in a slaughterhouse, and he was greatly offended by the job offer. There are vague suggestions from some surviving family members that he began to drink heavily, and the only thing Edie ever said about him was that Cele once told her she felt bad for her mother, because she once admitted to Cele that she had “misread the man I married.”

His spiritual leanings did benefit them all in the end, though. Even if there were no religious attachments, strong familial bonds formed because of the tradition of gathering for holidays, and they all remained close.

In the summers, when not in Atlantic City, the extended families would gather on weekends for long days in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The mothers supervised enormous picnic spreads and took turns reading serial romances in a single copy of a magazine shared between all. The men played cards, mostly pinochle, while the kids rode bikes and played baseball.

Their regular meeting spot in the park fell in the shadow of the Belmont Mansion, built in 1745 and located on a high plateau with spectacular views of the city. The grand house was once a frequently used stop on the Underground Railroad, but in the 1930s, the home was abandoned and falling into ruin, the pillars on its wraparound porch buckling and threatening to crumble. Today, the house has been restored to all its Palladian architectural glory and operates as a museum dedicated to its historical significance, but when Edie spent time there, the house was locked up tightly to discourage vandals; however, the home’s large, empty horse stables were easy to sneak into and investigate.

Sunnie remembers being terrified whenever Edie dragged her along to poke around the ruins, pestering her older cousin with squeaks of “I’m scared!” and “Watch out for ghosts!”

Edie would tell her to be brave, assuring her there were no ghosts there, and besides, there were no such things to begin with. Still, Edie insisted on inspecting every hidden corner and door, unknowingly roaming through a pivotal, but at the time forgotten, location crucial to the dawn of the fight for civil rights in America. More than seventy years later, Sunnie again found herself looking up to her older cousin for her bravery. “Whenever I’d see her on TV or in the papers, I’d tell everyone, ‘That’s my cousin!’ I was so proud of her.”


Copyright © 2019 by The Judith M. Kasen-Windsor Revocable Trust

Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears