A funny thing happened on the way to filming a documentary on the Borscht Belt: it became the most comprehensive book in decades on the Catskills – all five counties of the Catskills, from Henry Hudson to Henny Youngman to high volume hydraulic fracturing – with personally sweet and bittersweet sidebars.
Alfred A. Knopf recently released the 449-page tome, “The Catskills: Its History and How it Changed America” by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver.
Bluestone quarrying, “Boss” Tweed and Jay Gould blackmailing John Fletcher Kilgour (“The Bluestone King”) into a “partnership” to build New York City sidewalks, monuments and mansions? It’s in there!
The “odd couple” friendship (and public relations coup) that blossomed when John Burroughs, the naturalist/essayist, was gifted on New Year’s Day, 1913, a Model T by Henry Ford, the industrialist, and they tooled around the area with Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone? It’s in there!
It is, as the introduction predicts, a history that demonstrates “the color, charm and even lunacy that for the past four hundred years have characterized the Catskill Mountains and the people attracted to them.”
Silverman’s and Silver’s characterizations begin in 1609 with Hudson’s “rogue voyage” that failed to discover the long-sought northern passage to the Asian markets only to chance upon The Catskill Mountains; Johannes Hardenbergh’s official development of those mountains when in 1708, he acquired a grant from England for a 2 million acre tract of land for roughly 60 pounds, the modern equivalent of $1500; and Washington Irving and James Fennimore Cooper, who decades after New York declared its political independence from England (on July 9, 1776,) spearheaded the literary and cultural emancipation.
Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Frederic Edwin Church painted breathtaking mountain vistas that drew America’s new aristocrats up the Hudson – first by stage, then by steamboat, later by railroad – to view firsthand the actual landscapes, resting up for the return trip at European-style spas in Saratoga, the Aldridge House in Ballston Spa and the unparalleled splendor of The Mountain House in Catskill.
The word “vacation” wouldn’t become common parlance or even an acceptable concept until the middle of the 19th century. (Idleness was the devil’s playground, preachers said, a sign of financial and spiritual decay.) Yet, Silverman’s and Silver’s multi-hued yarns about the Catskills’ role through the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and cultural evolution, have a common thread: it all leads to the uniquely American brand of vacationland known internationally as the Borscht Belt, the sliver of time and geography (only in parts of Eastern Sullivan and Western Ulster Counties) that catered to vacation habits of the upwardly mobile Jewish population who were shamelessly excluded elsewhere.
Here is where history geeks and nostalgia buffs tend to part ways. And Silverman’s and Silver’s account should clarify the confusion about tourism in the “The Catskills.” “The Jews don’t even show up until page 215,’’ he recently quipped to my husband, Sullivan County Historian John Conway – meaning there was an earlier, long-standing robust recreational industry – mostly fishermen – who travelled the railroads to enjoy the outdoor opportunities and stay at well-established hotels that made their restrictions shamelessly known: “Hebrews will knock vainly for admission” read one Catskills hotel sign, circa 1880.
So when “the Jews did show up,” roughly around the turn of the 19th-20thcentury, there evolved two parallel summer worlds of boardinghouses, bungalow colonies and hotels, each making it clear in their advertisements which clientele they sought. Offensive wording in publications such as the O&W’s “Summer Homes” softened over the years to code phrases such as “Near Christian Churches” or “Dietary Laws Observed,” which, strictly speaking, was where borscht was served, giving rise to that network of hotels and entertainers.
But those phrases seemed to disappear from ads following World War II, when – either from an enlightened camaraderie gained from fighting a common enemy or from sheer economics – hotels tended to be more welcoming and inclusive. Yet, even into the 1950s – the heyday of the hotel era when the New York Times reported in 1953 there were 538 hotels, 1000 rooming houses and 50,000 bungalows – nostalgia buffs, especially those who participated in some capacity, still refer to all Sullivan County hotels of all eras as the “Borscht Belt,” or “The Catskills.”
Although the book’s narrative continues through the 1969 Woodstock Festival, the decline, further decline, and final demise of the hotel era despite desperate attempts to introduce gambling, and touches on current and potential forms of development that might forever change the face and destiny of the Catskills – and I highly recommend you buy and read about it – this is where I step off the timeline account, and where the book got personal.
My Story Behind the Story
About ten years ago, Raphael D. (Ray) Silver and his wife John Micklin Silver contacted John for an interview on a documentary they were planning, roughly covering the rise and fall of the Borscht Belt. Our first reaction was “Here we go again,” having gone through a series of film makers trying to recapture the phenomenon. Such attempts involved us traipsing through the abandoned airport hangar at Grossinger’s to film an interview at the location of heavyweight boxing champ Rocky Marciano’s training camp or standing in drizzle on the shore of Swan Lake to recount the mid-summer floating to the surface of Walter Sage’s body, strapped to a slot machine.
It was personal for Ray, too. An American history major at Harvard, he had stopped at Grossinger’s on his way home to Cleveland – where his father was a rabbi – andwas enthralled by all things Grossinger’s: the food, the activities, the camaraderie with fellow Jews probably sometime around the early 1950s. He always wanted to revisit.
Yet these two held much better promise of making a movie happen. Ray, who had become a successful real estate developer, produced (among others) Joan’s films “Hester Street” and “Crossing Delancey,” which won a Golden Globe for actress Amy Irving.
We met for dinner in Rock Hill so they could pick John’s brain. Little did they know just how much his extra ordinary brain holds, nearly everything he has ever read or researched on any topic. We lingered for hours over coffee and dessert. On the way home John lamented he thought he’d gone too far. Weeks went by without hearing anything further from them, and he was sure of it.
But finally, he heard from Ray who said, after meeting and talking with others, he saw exactly what John had been saying: the story of the Borscht Belt extended much, much further and he decided to write a companion book to the documentary.
“The book was very much his thing,” Joan told me a few weeks ago. “He loved American History and really digging into subjects and events.”
In between other projects, Ray and Joan came up to Sullivan County a number of times to film interviews with John and others. They emailed questions, and holiday greetings, then concerns for when our house got flooded by the Delaware. They became friends and we shared their excitement when funding and a book deal came through.
Unbeknownst to us, they had enlisted the help of Stephen M. Silverman to write the book. “Ray’s novel, ‘Congregation’ was taking up most of his time,” Joan said. “And we’d known and liked Stephen for years. So the deal was, Ray would lay out all the research work and Stephen would write the words.”
An accomplished author of a number of biographies and other works, Stephen is a 20 year veteran of Time, Inc. and editor of People.com. He was up to his elbows in 400 photographs and piles of notes and film when tragedy struck in March, 2013. At the age of 83, Ray died as the result of a skiing accident in Utah.
“I just abandoned the documentary,” Joan said. “I just couldn’t bring myself to work on it without Ray.”
Not knowing about the deal with Stephen, we thought the entire project was dead, too.
Then I took a phone message for John last month from a woman whose part time neighbor, Victoria Wilson, is senior editor at Knopf. She had a handful of copies of a new book by Stephen M. Silverman and Raphael D. Silver about the Catskills she was sharing and hoped to give John one to review. I never knew Ray as Raphael, so nothing clicked. She offered to send it and I promised John would read it.
When I looked it up on Amazon, the bulb finally went on and I was excited. When the book arrived, I was thrilled. Not only was this the immense and fabulous culmination of years of work, but John was mentioned in the lengthy Acknowledgements. “That was nice of them,” I thought, as so many have come and gone and not acknowledged.
But then as I started to read closely, and noticed John is quoted profusely throughout on topics I know that no one else has researched, written about or, in some cases, would even know about if not for his labor of love, being Sullivan County’s longest serving official Historian. Showing up first in the introduction, (well before the Jews, Stephen might say,) his words appear about: Bethel Woods Center for the Arts; fly fishing; fracking; Henry Inman; Jewish tourism and resorts; the Liberty Highway; Prohibition, the bootleggers and Murder Inc.; Loomis and tuberculosis; and more.
Knowing he often ponders if he’ll ever live up to the legacy left by previous Sullivan County Historians” – Manville B. Wakefield’s invaluable “To the Mountains by Rail,” James Burbank’s writings on Cushetunk and the literal building of Fort Delaware – it hit me that this book, is alone already John’s legacy. Being able to offer so much information on such diverse subjects that were collected and woven together so masterfully with other voices, is a testament to his 22+ years of research and writing and fabulous recall when called upon. Usually his toughest critic, I’m profoundly proud John gets to say he contributed to and participated in Ray and Joan’s and Stephen’s triumphant work that should take its place on every local historian’s or nostalgia buff’s shelf.
Although the closing words of “The Catskills: It’s History and How It Changed the World” were written about someone else trying to save Callicoon’s historic Western Hotel, they equally apply to John Conway and all his Sullivan County history, historic preservation, and heritage tourism endeavors.
“And while aiding in the rescue of the historically colorful hotel might prove as elusive for the town as finding the Northwest Passage was for Henry Hudson, Hartwell’s determination and the potential for the Western, along with other cherished regional institution like it, show, in the words of “Making Mountains” author David Stradling, that American romanticism is alive and well, and that Americans have a very strong connection to the natural landscape and the increasingly historical landscape of the United States.’
“ Or as John Burroughs so bluntly, and no doubt contentedly, put it, “Where the cow is, there is Arcadia.”
Tune in to “The Black Dog Tavern” show on public radio station WJFF (90.5 FM, streaming online at wjffradio.org) at 10:00 AM, November 28th to hear Stephen M. Silverman and Sullivan County Historian discuss “The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America.”