A Woman of Uncertain Character
The amorous and radical adventures of my mother Jennie (who always wanted to be a respectable Jewish mom) by her bastard son
A hard sleety snow buffeted the four of us as we trudged up a slushy sidewalk in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan. We—that is, Jennie, my fellow Rocket Nate Manoff in a Sad Sackish 85th Division private’s uniform, his girlfriend Louise, and me in my George Raft velvet collar topcoat—(I was awaiting draft papers)—approached the only house on the block without Yule trimmings, a plain wood two-story with a snowed-in front porch. In a small nervous voice Louise whispered, “There’s my dad. Oh, God help me.”
Royal Oak was the home of America’s most notorious anti-Semite, the radio priest. Father Coughlin, who’d been so wildly popular that the Pope himself had to slap a lock on his mouth. By some wretched coincidence Nate, on his last furlough before shipping overseas, had met Louise Whittacre, daughter of a Ford foreman and a Christian Fronter from Royal Oak, at a serviceman’s canteen in Detroit. Nate, with his large nose, small stature, and hunched shoulders, looked unmistakably like some bigot’s idea of a Jew, while Louise, with her uptilted prom-queen nose and long dark straight hair, was Miss Gentile America. Both sets of parents— Jewish and anti-Jewish—freaked out beyond reason on learning of the liaison. The young unnerved couple had begged my mother to intervene and use her negotiating skill to save them from the wrath of their rampaging hormones.
Louise’s father, Mr. Whittacre —it had to be him—stood on his porch in blue overalls holding a short-barrel 12-gauge shotgun on us. He leveled the gun and yelled, “Go back where you came from— and take that Jewish-loving whore with you!” He meant his only daughter Louise. Except for us, leaning into the driving snow, the street was deserted. I liked the formality of his “Jewish,” not kike, sheenie, or Hebe. How has it come to this? Nate is nineteen, she is seventeen. He has a three-day pass from nearby Camp Custer, she is serving doughnuts to the GIs, and somehow in the jam-packed city they find a motel room for the night. Nate goes on to Chicago where his mother screams bloody murder when she finds in his pants pocket the motel bill for “Mr. & Mrs. Nathan Manoff.” Nate makes the mistake of his life by confessing all to his mom which brings on a threat—not to be taken altogether lightly on the west side—of suicide; Mrs. Manoff, devoutly Orthodox, phones the Whittacres in Detroit, Mr. Whittacre locks Louise in her room, Louise escapes out a back window to plead with Nate to rescue her; Nate panics and calls in my mother, who grabs a train for Detroit in the middle of a wartime winter. Now watch:
With a sawed-off aimed squarely at us, Louise begins shaking uncontrollably, trying to wriggle free of Jennie’s iron grip but held firmly on the sidewalk in front of her father’s shotgun. Mr. Whittacre is a dead ringer for Walter Brennan as a very angry Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner. Nate places his arm around Louise, which Jennie smartly slaps away. Whittacre twitches with the effort not to pull the trigger. Now Nate, too, attempts unsuccessfully to escape my mother’s grip but Jennie won’t let go of him either. “Don’t you two dare move,” Jennie commands them in her strike-captain voice. Then she ventures one foot on the lower step of the porch, fishes a Pall Mall from her purse, and politely asks Dad Whittacre for a match. He stares down at her: “Don’t smoke.”
As we near freeze to death on the sidewalk, Jennie launches her pitch. Oh, I knew that tone, the soft soap. Tranquilized and tranquilizing, calming, steady, soothing, no hint of argument or provocation, burbling about the weather, how pretty Mr. Whittacre’s street looks in the snow, just like a picture postcard, the hardship of wartime travel—all without a word from Whittacre or his wife peering at us through her front window curtains. I am pissing in my pants with cold. Jennie flashes her Little-Eva-on-the-ice-floe smile. “Sir, I am a little chilled down here. A hot cup of tea?”
I think she is crazy.
Whittacre looks uncertain what to do with his shotgun. Jennie, little step at a time, eases up next to him on the porch and implores. “Or even a small glass of water?” I like that “small.” What an actress! How can he shoot a shivering Chicago Jewess over a little water?
I can’t recall how, but moments later we are all tensely seated in their living room with Dad Whittacre, having parked the shotgun in a corner, proudly showing off Louise’s baby photos. Jennie commiserates. “Tell me, tell me, what happens?” she laments. “Such darling children when they’re little.” She stares disapprovingly at Louise and Nate—and me. “Now look at them.” She shakes her head. “Stubborn. Stubborn as mules. My son over there. I could tell you stories. What is he doing in Detroit in the dead of winter when he should be home with me?” Whittacre relaxes in a wicker chair. “Oh, I don’t know,” he allows, “Detroit isn’t as bad as they say. Would be fine if not for the niggers and Jews, beg-gin’ your pardon, missus.” Jennie just sits there nodding agreeably. I suspect Mrs. Whittacre knows Ma’s game but is too paralyzed by having a Jewess in her house—three Jews!—to call her on it.
All through the early evening, talking soothing conceding sympathizing—by some magical alchemy of the negotiating process, Jennie parleys a settlement of sorts with the Whittacres. Even though I am there in the room, I don’t exactly know how she does it. In the end, Whittacre and his wife, step by painstaking step, agree to (a) forgive Louise this one time (b) keep her at home but not locked in her room (c) loan her money to enroll for a freshman year at Wayne State college and (d) let Louise reimburse him by working part time (“The wage I sweat for is not going to pay for her defiling the Lord Jesus,” Mr. W says affably.) In return Nate agrees to stay away from Louise until the following summer, during which he may phone but not visit. While she is grounded Louise must faithfully attend church, but she will not be compelled to appear in front of the congregation to confess her sin as Mr. W at first demanded. In six months there will be a second family conference to decide Louise’s long-term future. “You see,” my mother sweetly concludes, “nobody gets anything their own way in this life. We all give up something. Your daughter has stumbled, but as good Christians you have your obligation to redeem, to lift her up. In God’s good time, that is. Don’t you agree?” Aghast, I stare at her. The Whittacres are mesmerized. Buying it.
Of course, Nate Manoff broke the pact by sneaking back to Detroit to see Louise Whittacre while her parents were away on a religious retreat and found Louise in bed with a sailor whom she later married but not before she brought the sailor to Chicago for my mother’s blessing. Nate came back from the war, having landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-one, missing two of his clarinet fingers, then, like most Rockets, he married a local Lawndale girl. On his wedding day he rang up my mother and me, cohabiting again in our usual one-room flat, this time in Los Angeles. Nate said, “Thank God for Jennie. Louise’s father was right. She was a whore. Your mother saved my life.”
After hanging up I turned to Jennie. “Ma,” I asked, “did you believe any of that stuff in Whittacre’s house?” She lit another Pall Mall before replying.
“Whittacre wanted to make a deal,” she said. “Any fool could see that. But there was nobody to make a deal with. He was helpless. I just made it easy for him.”