My Grandfather and Alma Gluck

In a recent conversation with my mother about her father, my grandfather Isadore Goldschlager, she said that one of the things that my grandfather remembered fondly about Iasi was the music.  From the photograph of the house where he was born, you can see a cathedral towering in the background.  My mother wondered whether that was where her father heard the music he loved.

One of the other stories my mother recalled was that my grandfather used to say that he babysat for Alma Gluck.  I knew nothing in detail about Alma Gluck, except that she was a famous opera singer and recording star, so I decided to do some research and see if I could figure out a link between my grandfather and Alma Gluck.

Alma Gluck

Cover of Alma Gluck

In reading a number of biographies online, I first learned that Alma Gluck was born Reba Fiersohn, daughter of Leon and Zara Fiersohn in 1884 in Romania; some sources say she was born in Bucharest, but others say she was born in Iasi.  Perhaps her family and the Goldschlager family were friends or at least acquaintances.   Since my grandfather was born in 1888 in Iasi, he obviously did not literally babysit for Alma Gluck herself since she was four years older; he must have babysat for her child.

Reba Fiersohn arrived in the United States in 1890, brought to the United States by her older sister Cecile, according to a biography from the Jewish Women’s Archive.  They lived in the Lower East Side, where Reba went to school and then worked as an office clerk.  On May 25, 1902, she married Bernard Glick, with whom she had a daughter, Abigail Marcia, who was born on June 9, 1903.  In 1906, Reba was discovered by an associate of her husband and began training to become an opera singer.  She debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1909 and became a very successful concert performer and recording star under the name Alma Gluck.  She traveled throughout the United States and was considered the most successful recording star of the time.

Here is one of her best known recordings, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.  You can find several others online.

She divorced Bernard Glick in 1912 and subsequently in 1914 married Efrem Zimbalist, the violinist, with whom she traveled, performed and recorded.  She and Zimbalist had two children, Maria, born in 1915, and Efrem, Jr., the actor, director and writer.  Although she continued to tour and record for a few more years, her voice had become strained, and she retired in 1924.  Alma Gluck died in 1938 from cirrhosis of the liver.

English: Russian-born American composer, condu...

English: Russian-born American composer, conductor and violinist Efrem Zimbalist (1890-1985) with his wife American opera singer Alma Gluck (1884-1938) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So where in this story might my grandfather fit? My best guess is that he babysat for Abigail, Alma Gluck’s child with her first husband Bernard.  As noted above, Abigail was born in 1903; my grandfather arrived some time in 1903 or early 1904.  In 1905 he was living alone at 2213 Second Avenue in New York, working as a grocery store clerk.  He was seventeen years old at the time.  That same year, according to the 1905 New York State census, Bernard and Reba Glick were living with their two year old daughter Abigail at 2 St. Nicholas Terrace in New York.  Bernard was an insurance agent, and Reba, the future star, was doing housework.  Could Isadore have been babysitting for little Abigail? St. Nicholas Terrace is crosstown from where my grandfather was living, about a half hour walk according to Google Maps.  It does not seem likely that the Glicks knew Isadore from the neighborhood, unless the store where he was working was located in their neighborhood north of Morningside Park.  Unfortunately, that’s a fact I will not be able to determine.

In 1909, Isadore was living at 440 East (?) 147th Street, according to the ship manifest for his father Moritz.  Google Maps could not find such an address in Manhattan, only in the Bronx, so perhaps it was 440 West 147th Street, about a mile north of where the Glicks had been living in 1905 and on the same side of Manhattan.  In 1910, Isadore was living with his aunt Tillie Strolovitz and her children on East 109th Street, back on the East Side.  The Glick family was living at 325 West 93rd Street, two and half miles away crosstown from where Isadore was living.  Again, unless there was some other connection—from back in Iasi or some Romanian community connection, it is not obvious how Isadore would have ended up babysitting for Abigail.

By 1912, Reba Fiersohn Glick had become the famous Alma Gluck, divorced from Bernard and traveling around the country.  One source reported that she fought Bernard for custody of Abigail and prevailed after a bitter court battle.  I cannot find where Abigail or either of her parents were living in 1915, but since by that time her mother was famous, wealthy and remarried, Abigail herself was twelve, and Isadore was 27 and working full time as a milkman, I doubt very much that he was babysitting for Abigail in 1915 or thereafter.

So is there any truth to the story that my grandfather babysat for Alma Gluck?  I, of course, am inclined to believe my grandpa—who wouldn’t? And it is entirely possible that he had a connection through ties in Iasi to the family of Reba Fiersohn.  He was a new immigrant when Abigail was just a toddler and himself alone and just a teenager.  Perhaps there was some outreach from former residents of his home city who arranged for him to earn some money as a babysitter for the future Alma Gluck, even if he was living crosstown.  We will never know with any certainty, but I believe that my grandfather babysat for little Abigail.

If he did, I wonder whether he knew how famous Abigail herself became.  Abigail Glick grew up to become a well-known writer under the name Marcia Davenport.  Among other works, she wrote the novel East Side, West Side, which became the basis of the well-known movie by the same name.  She was on the staff of The New Yorker for several years and wrote a very well-regarded biography of Mozart.  She also wrote an autobiography entitled Too Strong for Fantasy.  I have just ordered a copy—maybe she will talk about the young teenage boy who babysat for her when she was a young child? Unlikely, given all the other much more glamorous and interesting things that happened to her in her life, but I will be reading it with an eye open for any such reference.

We may never know a lot of things with absolute certainty.  Sometimes we just have to accept the versions of the truth we have learned.

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