Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reading The Forward Backward

In early 1924, Milton Summers, my grandfather, introduced Mary Erlach, Nana, to his mother.

For those joining us late, Nana is the grandmother I look like in drag, and I suspect when I am eighty and wearing a blond hairpiece and coke bottle glasses, the resemblance will be uncanny. I have seen the future, and it drinks Sanka, smokes Kent cigarettes, and eats at the Hot Shoppe every night, while saying “Oh my God” all the time. All in all, a very attractive package. Devon just threw up a little.

Where was I? I really need to have my meds adjusted.
Oh yes, picture it, Baltimore, 1924. Mary Erlach, in an effort to get as far away from her weird family (half of which I still have never met because of some drama that happened in the 1950s, which contrary to popular belief was before I was born), went to secretarial school in Baltimore. There, in Baltimore, not school, she met Milton Summers, a delivery boy for a pharmacy who was being followed by the FBI. Why you ask? The pharmacy was a front for a liquor distillery, and unbeknownst to him, he was delivering booze. That is the first time I have used unbeknownst in a sentence. The FBI recruited him, and his employers were caught. After that, he decided to become a shoe salesman. No chance of liquor being transported in a pair of emerald green pumps. Ironically, although my grandfather was a shoe salesman, Nana wore a size ten and had flat feet, my mother wore a nine and a half narrow, and I wear a size fourteen, also with flat feet, and none of us could buy shoes in a regular shoe store.

By now, you realize the point of this story is so far gone that I have to reel in this catfish, which by the way is not kosher, so getting catfished is so not kosher.

In 1924, Milton Summers, a skinny olive-skinned man, with black hair who looked very Jewish, introduced Mary Erlach, a tall, blonde blue-eyed woman with narrow shoulders and wide hips (see the resemblance) to his mother. And, his mother responded, “Oy another shiksa.”

The problem was he was the youngest of six brothers and two sisters. His older brother, Nat married Beulah, a Jewish woman who was apparently a fantastic cook. His other brothers, however, never married but lived with their gentile girlfriends (and you think shacking up was a new thing). Milton was her last hope for more Jewish grandchildren. Nat had two children. His son would never marry, play tennis all the time and keep a catalogue of dirty jokes. I suspect he was born with the Gay gene. None of the others would have children, and Milton and Mary would eventually have one child, my mother. While pregnant, the doctor told Nana, she had a heart murmur and should not have any more children, and he even performed a caesarian section at the Church Home of the Infirmary Hospital in Baltimore for $92 in 1927, followed by a tubal ligation (yes, some doctors did that then). Harriet Lane, subject of the book, Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady by Milton Stern (shameless plug), founded and left money in her will for the Church Home of the Infirmary. When Nana was going through menopause, she asked her doctor about the heart murmur, he wouldn’t look at her. It turns out she was misdiagnosed and could have had more children. With that decision, the Summers name did not carry on.

Anyway, back to the story at hand, and this does have a point … somewhere.

Mary, in order to convince her future mother-in-law and the neighbors in this orthodox Jewish, Baltimore neighborhood she was indeed a Jewess (my mother hated that term, but she embraced JAP), had to go door to door and read The Jewish Daily Forward backward. For the Semitically impaired, The Jewish Daily Forward is written in Yiddish, which uses Hebrew letters, so you read from right to left, hence, read the Forward backward. Get it?

I have always loved when someone would say to me, say something in Jewish. I can’t say something in Jewish, I can say something Jewish. For example, “With a buffet this big, would it have killed them to make a nice brisket?” or “With a nose like that, you will never get away with it” or “Never mind, I’ll sit in the dark.”

I always want to respond, “Say something in Baptist.” I only know three words in Baptist, “mayonnaise,” “Schlitz” and “F-150.” You’d think living in a trailer park I would have learned more Baptist.

Now, do you want me to say something in Yiddish? “Du zol zetsn dayn rosh arayn erd un vaksn lib hobn an tsibele.” That was my father’s favorite Yiddish saying. Funny, huh?

Oh, you want it translated. “You should put your head in the ground and grow like an onion.”

It sounded better in Yiddish.

Anyway, Mary passed the test, dyed her hair reddish brown and married Milton. When she started wearing wigs full time in the early sixties, she went back to blonde. All Jewish women over seventy go blonde.

When this was all in my head, the above was supposed to be a one paragraph introduction!

This past weekend, I flew to Houston again to see “Avis Frank Gallery presents ProjeXion: Tim Gonzalez, Devon Britt-Darby and Alexandre Rosa.” It will be open until February 20, so if you are in Houston, go see it!

On the plane out there, which was United Flight 646 with the flight crew that worked the Lido Deck on Noah’s Ark (read prior blog entry), they showed a movie, The Words, starring Bradley Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Jeremy Irons, Nora Arnezeder, and Dennis Quaid. I have never been a huge fan of Dennis Quaid. I am still not over his chewing up the scenery when he played Jerry Lee Lewis.

I enjoyed the movie very much, but for a writer, it was quite disturbing. The premise is a writer writes a book about a writer who can’t get published until he finds a seventy-year-old manuscript in a satchel his wife buys from an antique shop in Paris. He copies the manuscript word for word, including typos, and it gets published, wins awards and earns him the recognition his own writing never would. Then Jeremy Irons finds him in a park and tells him a story. No spoiler alert; you have to see it.

In the beginning of the movie, you see the writer’s file of rejection letters, and anyone who has tried to get something published, has a file of rejection letters. After your first dozen, you don’t even open the envelopes.

If I had a nickel for every time I read, “Mr. Stern, we are sorry to inform you ...” I would not be sitting at this desk I bought from Walmart in a mobile home in a trailer park in Jessup. And you would be doing your jobs, rather than reading it.

A little history. In 1985, I wrote a screenplay titled, “The Girls” or “Never a Second without a Third.” I still have the original type written pages from my Brother Student Writer XL-1. It was rejected by some of the finest agents in Hollywood. Over the years, I continued to try peddling it, and the title eventually changed to “On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg.” No one was interested. I entered it in contests, where it was derided for its ethnic and Yiddish content. I was convinced the judges were usually Gentile college kids from the Midwest. I even tried to hire a group of drag queens to star in a homemade movie. I was determined to sell this story. But alas, only I was interested in it. The problem was I didn’t know my audience.

I had given up and wrote a book about President James Buchanan, and while researching that book, the James Buchanan Foundation for the Preservation of Wheatland asked me to write a book about Harriet Lane, mentioned above. While proofing Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady on a mismarked Metro bus in Fairfax, Virginia (a twenty minute ride turned into two hours, complete with a riot and police intervention), I got a call from my editor, Sharon Gillespie. I had given her the screenplay to read for shits and giggles, having pretty much given up on it after twenty years. I was a published author with his second book coming out, and I figured I would be remembered as a biographer and historian not a comedy writer.

She wanted me to turn the screenplay into a book. I told her she was crazy. But that bus ride was really long and violent, so I got to thinking. If I created a story around the original screenplay, it might work.

For the next three months I wrote On Tuesdays, They Played Mah Jongg, the novel, and submitted it to Sharon. Meanwhile, Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady, actually took off, for a small book from a small publisher that is, and I gave a few lectures in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, did a couple of radio and magazine interviews, gave a tour to the Pennsylvania Historical Society of Meridian Hill Park in Washington, DC, and came off as a serious writer and historian – not how I had planned my life. My dream was always to be a comedy writer like Carl Reiner. But, being perceived as intelligent is not a bad thing. Apparently, I wasn’t just another pretty face.

Sharon read my manuscript then called me requesting a meeting outside. For some reason, when people don’t know what my reaction will be, they want to talk outside. I am known for being moody, and even at work, they check with each other on my mood before asking me a question. “What’s Milton like today?” It isn’t easy having multiple personalities.

She then proceeded to tell me I needed to turn the book upside down and inside out and eliminate one of the subplots altogether. I didn’t even get upset. I figured she was the editor, and as I said to her, “I have been trying to sell this piece of shit for twenty years. If you want it re-written, I’ll rewrite it.”

No one knows this, but that wasn’t the first screenplay I had written. I wrote one when I was fifteen and sent it to Lucille Ball Productions. I got a letter from her lawyer telling me they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and here is a nice autographed picture. That screenplay was called “Troubles.” Wow, that is the first time I have mentioned that to anyone since 1977.

For the next seventy-two hours, I re-wrote the novel, and the first thing I did was delete the first scene I had ever written when it was a screenplay; it didn't work anymore. She loved it, but we couldn’t find a publisher, so I published it myself. One week after I released it, a publisher, STARbooks Press, the last independently owned Gay publishing house, wrote me and wanted to pick it up. I took it down from the self-publishing site, and my publisher re-released it two months later with a much better cover – exactly twenty years after I had submitted it for the first time to an agent! I eventually went to work for STARbooks Press, and I am now the vice president.

It was then that the boy, whose mother had him late in life, making him the youngest child of all her friends, taking him with her on all her errands and meetings and exposing him to the wonderful world of middle-aged Jewish women, found his audience. All those years, I was writing for Gay men. What a dumb ass! Gay men don’t read books unless you tape one to a mirror! My real audience was right in front of me the whole time. My friend Ed and I traveled to New Jersey where I was greeted by a room filled with seventy Hadassah members, waiting to meet the nice Jewish boy who wrote this book about five Jewish women, the one Gay son, and the year that changed everything. The book was a hit in Texas, where three Hadassah book clubs picked it up as one of their selections. Where the Winds Blow, a Mah Jongg store in Katy, Texas, requested one-hundred autographed copies for their shelves, and they still place orders. The highlight was when a local actress in Las Vegas read it during a production of the Vaginal Monologues.

Now don’t misunderstand. This was no best seller, but I didn’t care. After two decades, people were reading this story I wrote when I was twenty-two. I didn’t care if they liked it or not. They were reading it. It was followed by a sequel, Michael’s Secrets, Men, Muscle & Mayhem, and of course the book based on this blog, The Gay Jew in the Trailer Park.

Anyone in publishing knows a book has a shelf life of six months max, so imagine my surprise when I was approached last spring to write a chapter for a coffee table book about Jewish women and Mah Jongg by a couple of authors who had discovered my book. I wrote the chapter, and like most things in the literary world, heard nothing for a long time. I emailed them and would get updates then a few months would go by.

I have always wondered when a writer realizes he has made it. Is it national recognition? Is it when he finds his audience and they want more? 

After reading The Secret two years ago, I decided that when people ask me what I do for a living to no longer mention my day jobs. For the last year, the answer has been, “I am a writer.” Then they ask what I have written. “Grocery lists.” I hate being taken seriously.

Saturday night, I got an email, after sundown of course, from one of the authors of the coffee table book about Jewish women and Mah Jongg, which went something like this:

“Dear Milton

“We have secured an agent and a publisher, and we have decided not to include your chapter in our book …”

Oh, I had been down this road before. Rejection. But they had written something in all caps in the next sentence, so rather than delete, I kept reading …


I about shit my pants, which happened on a fishing trip in 1971. Don’t they ask famous writers to write forewords? Steve Allen wrote many forewords for Hollywood biographies – I know because that is all I read. And he was a prolific writer.

Then I did something I rarely do, and only my brother has witnessed. I made the pig noise and did the flapping dance all over my mobile home!

In 1924, Nana had to convince people she was legitimate by reading The Forward backward. Today, I have to look a little backward to write a foreword, cementing my legitimacy.

Another bit of history. In college, I was the president of the English Honor Society (big surprise being a number eleven and all), and we published a literary magazine featuring student writing every semester. The editors always rejected my submissions, claiming they weren’t “mainstream” enough. Did I mention I was the president!?!

Hey, you two, miserable [fill in the blank] editors! How many forewords have you written lately!?!

My name is Milton Stern, and I am a writer.

If you look forward while reading backward, follow me, join me, buy my books!

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