West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 13 | Aug. 29- Sep.04, 2007

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel

Lee Joseph at home in Greenwich Village

Dissidence and drama have filled up her life

By Jerry Tallmer

Her name, which started out as Amy Taft in Bridgeport, Connecticut, 91 years ago — “I was born at home!” she throws in helpfully — has, thanks to one of several marriages, been Lee Joseph for a good many decades now. The Lee is a shortened form of her lifelong nickname, Leepee. Joseph we’ll get to presently.

The silky white hair, hazel-brown eyes and fine-boned features bespeak the raving beauty she must have been. She’s still pretty damn beautiful. Saucy, too. Sassy. And no bigger than a minute, in hip-hugging bluejeans that not many 91-year-olds would dare to wear.

“I was considered to be a very pretty young lady,” she says. “That always works for you in life.”

We’re in her apartment in a prewar building not far from the Jefferson Market Library, and at the moment she’s telling me about how, as a 17-year-old “doing secretarial work, I guess you’d call it, for the New York Drama Department” — before the onset of the New Deal’s Federal Theater Project — she’d changed her name from Amy Taft to Amy Toft to protect her parents, who were on home relief, and would have lost it had the snoops known of their daughter’s pittance in gainful employment.

“That office was in that big old building on Eighth Avenue at 16th Street” — the old Port Authority of New York and New Jersey headquarters. “I passed it twice this morning,” she says. “I walked home from 27th Street” — no little hike, regardless of age.

I told her I’d heard she used to hang out with Group Theater playwright Clifford Odets.

“No, no,” she says with emphasis. “I never knew Odets. I knew J. Edward Bromberg and John Garfield” — both also of the Group. “I took acting classes with Garfield. Progressive acting classes. I talked to him [by telephone] the night before he died.” May 20, 1952, that would have been, the night before Garfield was to have to face the House Committee on Un-American Activities. “He sounded just terrible,” she says. “I tried to convince him to come over, but he didn’t.”

(Garfield, under enormous stress, died of coronary thrombosis in a bed that was not his own. J. Edward Bromberg, also a target of HUAC, had died of heart attack in London in 1951.)
Them that’s got shall get.
Them that’s not shall lose.
So the Bible said and it still is news.
Mama may have, Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own,
That’s got his own.
“I was always a rebel,” says Lee Joseph. “My first time of protest was when I was 4 or 5. I knew how to read, so they put me in first grade. But it turned out there was no room in first grade, so they put me back in kindergarten. I refused to go to kindergarten. That was my first protest.”

There would be more of them, many, many more.

She was born July 24, 1916.

“My father’s Russian name was Bruskin or Tapua, either one. Can’t be verified. He was from Vilna, I think. My mother’s name was Rebecca. I have a bunch of his love letters to her — in English, yet. His favorite author was — who wrote ‘The Call of the Wild’? … Yes, Jack London.

“I had three sisters — Espera, Vera and Jessie. My mother wanted to name me Libby, but my father said: ‘That’s not an American name,’ so I became Amy. He had worked in a bullets factory during World War I. They asked him to buy Liberty Bonds. My father refused, and got kicked out.

“When I was 9, we moved from Bridgeport to the Bronx. My father worked for Singer Sewing Machines, and also did labor organizing. He organized a strike of garment workers. I was 13, I guess. I joined a progressive youth group called The Pioneers. I gave out leaflets asking for hot lunches for kids in school, and got arrested during a May Day protest. When I refused to take a test, a vice principal shouted: ‘Charge her with insubordination!’ I was put in the hands of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and when I wouldn’t eat their hot cereal I was dosed with castor oil.

“Finally after five days I was brought before a judge. There was a lawyer, Jacques B____, who liked me, wanted to adopt me. When I got to be around 16 he wanted to marry me. He gave my mother flowers and candy and used to take me to theater . … ”


She shrugs, lets it go. Instead, she counts off the people in show business for whom she’s worked: Josh Logan, David Merrick, Irene Selznick, Gilbert Miller (“… the only time I was fired — he knew I didn’t like him”), Perry Como, Mary Martin and, most especially, Group Theater and Actors Studio cofounder Cheryl Crawford.

A play produced by Cheryl Crawford during that era was “Camino Real,” by Tennessee Williams, directed by Elia Kazan. It opened on Broadway in the spring of 1953. A year earlier, Kazan had gone before HUAC and named names of old leftist comrades.

“Now he hired some leftwing actors for this show. I never understood it.” (Simple guilt maybe?) “And I remember when Lee J. Cobb called a lot of his friends to tell them he was going to name them.” (Ditto.)

She herself was very much a part of those times.

“I don’t believe in belonging to an organization, but I participated.”

A place thronged with dissidents and high talents in the 1930s and early ’40s was Barney Josephson’s Café Society Downtown at 1 Sheridan Square. One of the jobs that Lee Joseph had that was not theater oriented was in the New York office of a Minnesota construction company “that was building bases up north — and one of the things I had to do was get dates for the boys [construction workers] who came to town [New York City] without their wives. For entertainment, I took the boys from Minnesota to the jazz clubs on 54th [she means 52nd] Street and Café Society Downtown.”

Café Society Downtown is where songwriter Arthur Herzog., Jr., also hung out, mostly to hear Billie Holiday. Lee had met Herzog through mutual friends — “and I’d actually been in a show he’d written music and lyrics for. … ”

At what theater, Ms. Joseph?

“If I knew that, I’d know the name of the show. Forgetting is the worst part of getting old.”

Long story short, at age 23, Lee (formerly Amy) Toft marries Arthur Herzog, Jr., and one night in what must have been that same 1939 this happens:

“Arthur and Billie would fool around a lot at the piano, and this one night Billie says something like: ‘God bless the child,’ and Arthur says: ‘What did you say?’ and Billie says: ‘It’s from the Bible,’ and Arthur starts writing it down.”

Where was all this?

“At our apartment, Arthur’s and mine, at 244 Waverly Place … or … well, I won’t swear to it, because it might have been at 129 West 12th Street … I guess she — Billie — was in both places.”

Yes the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade.
Empty pockets don’t ever make the grade.
Mama may have, Papa may have,
But God bless the child that’s got his own,
That’s got his own.
— by Billie Holiday
and Arthur Herzog, Jr.
“Arthur Herzog,” she says. “Even though he screwed around and all that, and we got divorced in 1957, I liked him till the day he died [at 83, in 1983]. Our son, Gregory, who was born in 1944, is a professor of chemistry at Rutgers. He does research up in the sky — meteorites and all that — and his two children [her grandchildren] are Christopher, a physicist at Princeton, and Amy, a young playwright and teacher of playwriting.

“After I divorced Arthur, I married Joe Joseph, an economist who was from — what’s that state that has Philadelphia? — yes, Pennsylvania — a town called Northhampton, in Pennsylvania — and Joe died 10 years ago. Arthur, you know, was married five times, and has three other children, who with their 10 children are all part of our family, and we’re all going to a big get-together this weekend in Rhode Island.”

She may not believe “in belonging to an organization,” but in point of fact she is active at this very moment in the Greenwich Village Society for Peaceful Priorities — “We’re working on something about impeachment” — and has been “to zillions of demonstrations and to Washington, D.C., dozens of times — you leave at 4 or 5 in the morning and don’t get home until that night.” She was there when Martin Luther King, Jr., awakened the whole world to his dream; she’s been to antinuclear rallies in Central Park; she’s done research — “very exciting” — for C.D.I., the U.N.’s Center for Defense Information; she campaigned tirelessly for Bella Abzug for many years.

“I read. I see my family. I saw ‘Sicko.’ I sometimes go to the theater, but I don’t like to go to anything alone. I play tennis once a week. I’m playing tomorrow.”

And keeps in touch with everybody, including the worshipful niece, concert pianist Shirley Kirsten, of Fresno, California, who sat down and spent several days recording the special 91st birthday present Aunt Leepee had requested. Chopin’s “Revolutionary” étude.

Of course.

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