My Father’s Birthday
Celebrating the 100th Birthday
September 18, 2004
Richard J. Garfunkel
Since it is common to note the historical significance regarding the occasion of a 100th Birthday, I decided to mention some facts about the year 1904. The third Olympic Games were held in St. Louis Missouri, and since the western frontier was still pretty wild in those days, the Olympics were rather sparsely attended, and therefore dominated by the strong and large American team. Originally, it was supposed to be held in Chicago, but President Theodore Roosevelt suggested that the games be switched to St. Louis, where the Louisiana Purchase Exposition was being held. Only 11 countries participated, and of the 500 athletes most were Americans. The results were quite lopsided. In the 23 track and field events, the United States took 22 firsts, 22 seconds and 20 thirds. Ironically even some of the best American athletes did not show up. The large eastern universities did not bother to send teams to St. Louis. Also, that year, my father’s favorite baseball team, the old New York Giants won the pennant by 13 games with 106 victories and were led by pitchers Iron Man Joe McGinnity and Christy Mathewson with 35 and 33 victories respectively. The Giants, managed by the fiery John McGraw, who would remain with the team until 1932, refused to play in the World Series against the American League’s winning Red Sox team, who had defeated the Pirates in the inaugural event of the previous year. In 1904 Napoleon Lajoie and Honus Wagner led the American and National Leagues in batting, and a fellow named Davis of the A’s led the majors with 10 homeruns. Cy Young pitches a perfect game on May 5th. In college football the most famous team of that era was the University of Michigan and its great coach, Fielding “Point-a-Minute Yost,” who by 1904 was in the midst of a 55 game winning streak. But the game was so violent, and there were so many injuries and deaths in 1905, that again the great sportsman and President, Theodore Roosevelt intervened. He led a movement to re-organize and reform football, and the modern game emerged.
Along with sports, some of the important entertainers of that era were Maud Adams, who starred as Peter Pan, Ethel Barrymore, Maxine Elliot, Marie Dressler, WC Fields, Weber and Fields, Harry Lauder and Eva Tanguay. In 1904 automobiles were still play toys of the rich, and the leading cars were the Pierce Arrow, the Peerless and the Columbia. There were only 8000 cars in the United States in 1900, but by the end of the decade 400,000 had been produced. Money went a long way in those days with a pair of men’s shoes selling at $1.25, trousers at $1.25, blankets at 35 cents and eggs at 12 cents per dozen. In fact a four-course meal at many restaurants could easily cost less than a dollar! The airplane was only one year old in 1904, and passenger travel was still many years away! By the way, in 1904 Post Toasties were introduced, the first tea bag was sold, ice cream, hamburgers and iced tea were introduced at the St. Louis Exposition, Colgate brought out its toothpaste, Gillette patented its razor, Parker patented his fountain pen, Dr. Scholl patented his arch supports and Madam Curie discovered radium. Also Longacre Square was renamed Times Square, Helen Keller graduated magna cum laude from Radcliffe, and the IRT opened in NYC, while the Trans-Siberian RR opened in Russia.
Meanwhile back in 1904, the public became first aware of the economic effects of monopolistic business practices through Ida Tarbel’s muckraking classic “The History of Standard Oil.” Not long before that year, the first Nobel Prizes were given out, and though most of the winners in 1904 are long forgotten, we still can remember the prize for medicine which was won by Ivan Pavlov for his famous “responding” dog! In fact, the most famous name from all of the awards in that first decade of the 20th Century was that of Theodore Roosevelt, who was awarded the Nobel prize for peace in 1906. He was recognized for bringing an end to the Russo-Japanese War that had begun in 1904. In that war, the Japanese Admiral Togo, with his classic “crossing of the tee,” at the Tsushima Straits, routed the Russian Fleet. Of course, this inevitably led to the rise of Japanese militancy, and we are all old enough here to understand the consequence of that ascendancy. Of course 1904 was an election year, and the aforementioned Teddy Roosevelt was elected over his Democratic rival, Judge Alton Parker, of New York. He won with an overwhelming total of 7.6 to 5 million votes, which translated to a 336 to 140 margin in the Electoral College. Coincidently my father’s sister named her first son, who was born some twenty or so years later, Alton Parker Balder.
Speaking of 1904, Russia’s pre-revolution population was approximately 150,000,000 people, while in the United States our population had grown to over 83,000,000! In comparison, a century later, our population is probably hovering around 300,000,000 while post communist Russia’s shrunken population is barely half of that at 144,000,000. In fact in 1904, 812,870 people immigrated to the United States, and that was the second highest yearly number in our history to that time, and since 1904 that number has only been exceeded in the years leading up to the First World War and has never exceeded that number again.
Along with my father’s birth, the following more famous people born in that year a century ago, and I am sure that these names conjure up some fond and interesting memories: George Balanchine, Ralph Bellemy, Ray Bolger, George Brent, Bruce Cabot (King Kong), Elisha Cook Jr. (The Maltese Falcon), Mildred Dunnock, Clifton Fadiman, Jean Gabin, Greer Garson, John Gielgud, Phil Harris, Vladimir Horowitz, Peter Lorre, Ted Mack, Glenn Miller, Robert Montgomery, Jan Peerce, Duncan Renaldo (The Cisco Kid), Buddy Rogers, Milburn Stone (Gunsmoke), Johnny Weissmuller, Coleman Hawkins, Jimmy Dorsey, Fats Waller, James T. Farrell, Graham Greene, Moss Hart, Lillian Hellman, J. Robert Oppenheim, Deng Xiaoping, Ralph Bunche, Sheila Graham, Margaret Bourke White, Peter Arno (Esquire-cartoons), William de Kooning, William Shirer, AJ Liebling, and Count Basie.
With respect to the consequence of age, I found these remarks which I am sure you will find charming. On his 90th birthday in 1931, the famous Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Young man, the secret of my success is that at an early age I discovered I was not G-d!” He is also credited with saying upon seeing a beautiful young woman, “Oh to be 70 again!” On his 85th birthday in 1955, the financial sage Bernard Baruch remarked, “To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am!” Jack Benny, one of my father’s favorites, stated in 1974, “Age is strictly a case of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!” The playwright, Tom Stoppard said in 1967, “Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.” And of course, that French bon vivant, Maurice Chevalier made (at the young age of 72 in 1960) the ultimate philosophical observation when he said, “Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.” One of the great personalities of the 20th century, Casey Stengel and a man known affectionately as the “Old Perfessor,” stated “There comes a time in every man’s life and I’ve had many of them.”
My father was last child of Abraham and Kate Korn Garfunkel. His older siblings were Larry, Mike and Mack, and a sister Syd. I had the opportunity to meet them all. Some were musical, some were very humorous, and they all enjoyed long life. Larry lived much of his later life in Baltimore and had one daughter named Muriel. He loved postage stamps and passed that interest along to yours truly. He liked to juggle; he had a marvelous sense of humor and enjoyed the game of baseball. I can recall distinctively how excited he was when the Orioles moved to Baltimore from St. Louis is 1953. Quite often he would come up to Mount Vernon and stay with us for long weekends. Larry went to France with the AEF in World War I and served with distinction. My uncle Mack spent his long life in Brooklyn, NY with his lovely wife Helen Winick. They were a handsome couple and loved to spend time at the beach. I have great memories of going out to their summerhouse in Belle Harbor, which was a stone’s throw from the ocean and spending time with my second cousins, Marjorie and Susan. Mack and Helen had two beautiful daughters Adrienne and Francine who were married to wonderful guys Buddy Wolman and Sam Haber. Mack loved the NY Giants and always kidded me about my interest in the Yankees. He also had a wonderful sense of humor and never seemed to get angry over anything! The third brother Mike was an adventurous soul, who joined the US Navy between the wars and sailed across the Pacific to points west including; China and French Indo-China. He was well known for playing the piano, and had the honor and pleasure of entertaining the “the Brass” aboard some of our large capital ships of those days. Mike developed asthma while in the service and therefore settled in Arizona in 1941, where he married and raised two sons Reule and Joel. I saw Mike a couple of times in his later years, and he could still play a great piano. Joel gave my father and me a wonderful collection of his music on compact discs. Mike loved to play in the Veterans’ Hospitals for our disabled vets! My father’s sister Syd, was married to a lawyer from Philadelphia named Charles Balder, and they spent most of their lives in Baltimore. They had three children, Jim, John and Gloria. Syd was a real grande dame, who visited our home in Mount Vernon quite often. She lived a long and happy life until the ripe old age of 102!
My father, he grew up on Kelly Street in the Bronx, commuted to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and played baseball there against the great Lou Gehrig, when he was at Commerce High School. He later went off to CCNY. When his father died in 1923 he started to work in his father’s dress business and took care of his mother. My father loved to play handball at Manhattan Beach, was an excellent swimmer, loved the ocean and in 1935 met my mother Ethel (Peggy) Kivo. My mother was the daughter of John and Leah Alexander Kivo and had a younger brother Aaron, who was tall, handsome and athletic. Aaron was a dentist, distinguished himself as an officer in World War II in France, married Blanche Goldberg and had two sons Steven and Robert, who have raised wonderful families in California. Peggy and Milton were married, and lived in Brooklyn and summered in Long Beach before and during the War. My sister, Kaaren was born when they lived at 707 Beverly Road. Kaaren married Charles Hale, and they have two lovely daughters; Melissa and Amanda, I was also born in Brooklyn, and when I was 6 months old, my parents moved to Mt. Vernon, where my sister and I grew up. Many years later, it was in the parking lot of Mt. Vernon High School that Linda and I met. As you know we married not long after that and have two children Dana and Jon, who are with us today.
After a few years of marriage and during the war, my father joined my grandfather’s artificial flower business in 1941, My parents liked to dance, went to the theater and my father loved playing cards and golfing. I have fond memories of watching my father and grandfather play pinochle and gin rummy. My grandfather loved cigars and introduced my father to that controversial pleasure. My father was a big sport’s fan, and loved the NY Giant baseball team. He took me to the old Madison Garden once or twice and that is where I saw the great Bob Cousy and became a Boston Celtic fan. Dad has always loved show music and especially was a fan of the late great George Gershwin. My earliest memories of music are listening to old long-play 78 rpm recordings of the Concerto in F and the Rhapsody in Blue. We always had those fragile 78’s in the house and I can remember playing the old Decca 78’s of Al Jolson and Bing Crosby time and time again until they broke. I sort of remember my father liking Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Sylvia Sidney, Greer Garson, Victor Borge, Oscar Levant, Frank Sinatra, Phil Silvers, Hitchcock movies, and Clark Gable In my father’s later years he continued to play golf, and he had the good fortune to sink two holes-in-one within a few days of each other. My son Jon and I also were able to get onto the golf course with him a few times. Only his weak knees stop him from playing today!! My father, as well as my mother, was an open-minded political and social believer, and I attribute my interest in history and politics to their vocal perspectives on those issues.