Tony Curtis: “If Only My Dad Could Have Lived To See You”
Out of the blue it came, the day they told him would come, the day he would cry.
The April sky was starless, with the first glow of dawn, a rosepink radiance, rising out of the shadowy California foothills. A light wind carried the scent of wet earth from last night’s spring rain in its trail.
Standing by the wide bedroom window with the ruffled drawback curtains, Tony Curtis, in his striped pajamas, stared blankly at the gnarled willow trees on the front lawn. He couldn’t sleep. Looking over at Janet in the big bed, her curly, spaniel-like hair framing her soft face, the shiny satin coverlet rising with her every draw of breath, Tony decided not to wake her. Much as he loved her, much as he wanted to share everything with her, he knew this was something he had to face alone, something only he could make his peace with.
He closed his eyes, and low sobs choked his throat. They were dry sobs, more like a:rasping. There were no tears; yet it was crying, a man’s crying. Tony, weary from sleepless tossing, dressed in a bulky wool sweater and a worn pair of khakis. In the long hallway of their new home, he passed the first nursery, and was drawn into it. There she was, round-faced and their first daughter, Kelly, all huddled in a heap on the bed. In the dawn shadows, he could see a sleepy smile of contentment on her face.
The sobs choked him again, but he walked into the second nursery where Jamie lay curled up in a white, rosebud-trimmed crib. Jamie all pink and beautiful, only five months old, born during the week of Thanksgiving, seven days after his father had died so suddenly.
In his throat a dry, throbbing lump made it hard for him to swallow, and he went downstairs for some orange juice. But he didn’t drink it. He didn’t want anything; yet he wanted something . . . some comfort, some understanding from God. What would silence the weeping in his heart?
I must go off all alone, he told himself, to the little place Janet and I found, the hideaway in the hills only a few miles away, the quiet glen with the tall trees and the big boulder rocks. I’ll sit there, Tony told himself. And cry . and try with all my heart . . . to talk with God.
Tony wrote Janet a note in the kitchen. Going for a drive. Be back soon.
Sobbing, he went to his car, asking God to help him, asking God “Why? Why did my father have to die?”
But in his heart, deep down, Tony knew death wasn’t easy for anyone. Death, with all its finality, was the hardest thing in the world for anyone to understand.
Sitting there in the chilly glen, Tony drew deeply from his cigarette. There was no one here. He was alone. Blackbirds rustled through the treetops, their forlorn calls like echoes in the April wind. Sitting there on the cold rock, with the heavy ache of death tight in his throat, Tony peered up through the dark branches of the trees—their thin, spidery twigs looking like pencil strokes across the morning sky, and he asked the Lord for help, for comfort. What was he to do? For four months now his father had been dead; and all the wishing and hoping and praying couldn’t bring him back. He was dead, buried in this red-brown California earth, entombed in the blackness of a narrow coffin—no longer breathing, no longer able to smile and say, “My boy, take it easy. Don’t take everything so hard. Give yourself time!”
He had been a short, dark-haired man with warm brown eyes, a thick nose and a kind, patient smile. Never demanding. Never harsh. Yet he’d always managed to make himself firmly understood.
There was a day, a lazy afternoon during a summer of long ago, when Tony—he was Bernie Schwartz then—was bored and hankering for a piece of candy. That was the day he stole a licorice stick from the corner candy store in New York. How old was he? Nine or ten. Tony remembered that the old, bent storekeeper hadn’t been looking; he had been busy frying frankfurters on the grill. Tony’s mouth watered for some licorice, but he didn’t have a penny. So, making sure the old man wasn’t looking, he snatched a stick from the counter.
Those were the poor, starving days of the depression, the days when Tony and his mom and dad and brother would move from apartment to apartment because they couldn’t pay the rent. Then, that year, they moved into a condemned building, all boarded up with wooden planks scribbled with swear words. No one was really allowed to live there. But his father fixed up the front for his tailor work, and Tony’s mom fixed up the back into a comfortable room for all of them to live in.
That day, when Tony went home to their condemned rooms chewing his licorice stick, his father was sitting in the front room, sewing a pair of trousers, a yellow tape measure hanging around his neck. Tony stood in the doorway, looking at his father working with his patterns, a needle and scissors. His father glanced up, smiled, then continued with his work.
Greedily, Tony took another bite from his licorice stick and chewed it loudly.
“What tastes so good, my boy?” his father asked, not looking up.
“Licorice,” Tony mumbled between chews.
“Candy?” his father asked softly.
“Uh-huh,” Tony said.
“Where’d you get it?”
“Over . . . over . . .” Tony said, a little wary, “over at the candy store.”
“At the candy store?” his father repeated. Then, he stopped working and looked up. “But who gave you the money . . . ?”
Tony shivered. “I . . . I . . .” Tony, couldn’t answer him.
“Tell me,” his father said gently but emphatically. “How did you get it?”
“I. . . I . . . I found it on the street,” Tony said, turning away from his father’s staring eyes.
“My son,” his father said. “Look me in the eyes and tell me that.”
Then Tony, frightened and nervous, blurted out, “I . . . I stole it. I wanted it so much!”
“Who taught you to steal?” his father asked.
“Nobody,” Tony said. “I just took it. I was hungry, and I wanted a licorice stick.”
“Then why didn’t you come and ask me for a penny?” his father said.
“Because you don’t have it. You never give me any money. You can’t. I know you can’t because we’re poor!” Tony yelled.
His father looked Tony directly in the eyes, then said, “Come. Come with me.” He took Tony to the candy store and told the candy store man his son had stolen a licorice stick. “Here is the penny for it,” he said, and Tony’s father placed a tarnished coin on the marble counter.
“If ever,” Tony’s father told the white-haired storekeeper, “my son steals anything again, I want you to let me know!”
They started walking home in the waning light of the afternoon, and Tony was embarrassed, ashamed of himself. “Why . . . why did you bring me back like that ?” Tony said. “You made me feel so funny.”
“Because I wanted to disgrace you,” his father said softly. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself for stealing.” Then, outside their home, his father took him by the shoulder and said, “Our name is Schwartz. It’s our family name, and I don’t want it ruined by you or your brother. We may be poor, but we’re honest. And the next time you do this I won’t be so easy with you. The next time, my son . . .” but he never finished his sentence.
They walked into the back room where his mother had prepared a dinner of boiled potatoes and salami. His father never mentioned the incident again—never told his mother or anyone.
And Tony never stole again.
Tony rubbed his cigarette butt in the moist earth and flicked it past a tall tree trunk. The sun rose in the white April sky, a strange, cold ghost of a sun. God, Tony’s heart cried out, help me . . . help me understand this mystery of life and death.
Sobbing spasmodically, Tony recalled the day when he came home from school, his nose bleeding, his stomach hurting from the fight he’d had with the new boy who came to town. The blond kid was tall, heavily built, and he talked out of the side of his mouth.
After school, Tony had been speaking with a couple of his friends about playing a game of volley ball in the gym. The new boy had been standing in the hallway listening to them taunt Tony about volley ball being a sissy’s game. Then, pointing to Tony, he said, “You. You over there. Is it true you’re a Jew boy?”
Tony didn’t answer him.
“What’s the matter?” the new kid continued in a surly voice. “Where I come from those are fighting words! Or are you yellow? Maybe the little Jew boy’s afraid to fight!”
“I’m an American,” Tony said. “I was born here. In this city. So go pick a fight elsewhere!”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he screamed. And he swung out at Tony, hitting him on the jaw. Tony was stunned. The new kid hit out again.
“Come on, Tony,” the other fellows yelled, egging him on. “Don’t let him get away with it. Fight him!”
Tony lunged at the new kid with tight, trembling fists.
“He called me a Jew,” Tony told his dad that night. “He said I was a sissy Jew.”
Tony’s mother washed his face with a damp washcloth. She said soothingly, “Don’t let someone like that scare you! He’s so stupid he’s not worth fighting with!”
“But I had to fight him,” Tony said. “He said all these terrible things. He had it in for me. And the other guys rooted for me. They wanted me to win. But I lost.”
Tony’s dad sat across the oilcloth-covered kitchen table from Tony. “You are a Jew,” he said, “and you have nothing to be ashamed of. Your heritage has deep roots. We are good, God-fearing people. We—our ancestors—have given the world the Bible. We believe in the word of God. Why should we throw away something that has given us a way of life rich in beauty and love for our fellow man? Look at Moses and David and Solomon! Aren’t you proud of them? Their blood has come down into you!”
“But what is a Jew?” Tony asked, lean- ing across the table and looking into his father’s tired, lined face.
“A Jew is like any man,” he said. “He is a human being with a heart, someone with feelings, someone who wants to love and be loved—just like anyone else. A Jew’s no different than a Greek or an Italian or the Polish man who runs the butcher’s shop across the street. And yet each man is different for what he is. Wouldn’t it be a dull world if everybody was the same?”
His mother, standing beside his father, cried. Dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief, she said, “Manny . . . oh, Manny . . . that was beautiful!”
Then she lighted a fire under the kettle on the big iron stove, and they all sat around the covered table in the warm kitchen and drank tea.
Tony, after he had had his tea, went over to his father and put his arm around him and said, “Dad . . . I . . . I love you,” and he hugged him. Then, he ran into the bedroom, a little ashamed for being so full of love, for being so proud of his father who, even if he were only a tailor, seemed to know so much . . .
This is what I must teach my children, Tony told himself as he sat on the wide rock in the shadowy glen. They must never be afraid of what they are . . . or ashamed of it. And they must know I am not ashamed, that I am proud to be my father’s first born in America. . . .
Tony lighted another cigarette, inhaling its heat, and he remembered the day of his Bar Mitzvah, his formal coming of age when he was in his early teens. After a Jewish boy is Bar Mitzvahed, he is considered a man. His father made him a green checked suit to wear on this eventful day, and Tony memorized long solemn prayers. He recited them at the Temple on his Bar Mitzvah day.
“My boy,” his father said afterward, kissing him on the cheek, “you are now a man!” And all the apple-cheeked aunts and dark-eyed uncles came to visit and feast on chicken and dumplings, briny pickles and black olives. They gave him gifts—fountain pens and neckties and a pigskin football which he wanted more than anything in the world.
Later his father took him aside and said, “See how beautiful this is. This is what makes me happy, all of us being together as a family, all of us holding on to our customs and loving each other. This is all I ask from life. To see us together.
“Maybe you don’t understand this now,” his father said, “but the day will come when you will, when you have a family of your own. Tonight, my son,” he added, “we will say our prayers together. Tonight you are a man!”
This richness of life, this love of family . . . his father had given it to him. Didn’t he and Janet celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and holy days? This was living . . . and loving together until the end of life.
Now the end had come. It had come for Emanuel Schwartz, buried deep in dark cemetery soil.
Sitting on the cold stone in the quiet glen, Tony put his hands up to his face and prayed silently to God. He thanked. Him for these moments, these memories of tenderness, of understanding, of love.
Yes, God, I must teach these things to my children. I must teach them gentleness and patience, a kindness for strangers, and the beauty in family ritual. Rising, Tony looked up to the ghostly morning sky, and the sobs quickened in his throat. Tony, hoping tears would come—all the tears he had held in his heart through all these months, stepped into his car and drove to the cemetery where Emmanuel Schwartz was buried. He walked to the new grave, the dapple of white sunlight gilding the spaded mounds of earth.
As long as his spirit lives on in me, Tony told himself, he can never die. And I will pass on his spirit into the hearts of my loved ones, and they in turn will pass it on.
Oh, Father, Tony’s heart cried out, if only, if only you could have lived to see our baby Jamie . . . !
Finally, the tears that had been held back for days, the tears that ached for months to be released, the tears that gripped his heart from the moment he heard of his father’s unexpected heart attack welled up in him, and he began to cry softly, whimpering at first like an animal. The hot tears streamed down his cheeks, and Tony closed his eyes and he knew that for a moment, fleeting and rending, he had made a peace with death. Like a sudden falling star, a flash, pinprick in the sky, there was a burst of light within his heart, a divine radiance from God.
Crying, Tony bowed his head and whispered a soft prayer over his father’s grave, the prayer he remembered from the days of his Bar Mitzvah. Then, with the burning tears falling down his cheeks, he stepped into his car and drove home.
JANET AND TONY ARE IN U-I’S “THE PERFECT FURLOUGH.” TONY’S LATEST ARE U-I’S “OPERATION PETTICOAT” AND U-A’S “SOME LIKE IT HOT.”
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1959