Tania Grossinger, right, with her mother, Karla, at Grossinger’s during the famed Catskill resort’s heyday.
Second helping of Grossinger’s hits the spot; From ping-pong with Jackie to La Liz’s wedding
By JERRY TALLMER
There are dozens of celebrities and celebrity anecdotes scattered through the 187 (paperback) pages of the newly reissued “Growing Up at Grossinger’s,” but Tania Grossinger, the Greenwich Villager who wrote the book, and who in fact had as a kid grown up at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort hotel where her glamorous mother was the social director, says that she, Tania, “couldn’t have cared less, was never celebrity-driven, never star-struck.”
There was, however, one famous person whom she loved as a kid and loves to this day. His name was Jackie Robinson.
In the early 1950s, some five or six years after he had been brought up to the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey, Robinson arrived with his wife Rachel and their children for a weekend at Grossinger’s. Somehow, he found out that young Tania was a self-styled “terrific ping-pong player,” even if “a little chubby,” and as they shook hands he said: “How about meeting me in the ping-pong room at 4 o’clock?”
Skeptical Tania dismissed it as a pleasantry, but when 4 o’clock rolled round, the telephone in her room rang; It was Jackie. He was in the ping-pong room, where was she?
“I think he let me win. He bought me an ice cream soda and said: ‘You’re too young to be so cynical.’ ”
A few years later, when Tania was a freshman at Brandeis, the radio brought news of a tragedy at Grossinger’s, a fire in a staff cottage — “someone was smoking in bed” — that killed half a dozen employees, two or three of whom Tania had loved.
A couple of days later there arrived in the mail a letter from Pensacola, Florida. It read, in part:
“Dear Tania, I was so shocked about the tragedy, and I can only imagine how terrible you must feel. I immediately interrupted spring training to write to you and tell you how much you are in my thoughts.
“At least we can thank God that there were others who were lucky. Tania, I hope nothing ever changes your ideas about God and his doing. I know how horrible it was, and sometimes when disaster strikes near we want to question, but, Tania dear, we must always understand. Please, for my sake, try. Jackie Robinson.”
When Jackie Robinson lost his son, Jackie Robinson, Jr., in 1969, Tania sent that letter back to her onetime ping-pong opponent, along with one of her own.
“Jackie Robinson was a Republican,” she says now. “A liberal Republican, a Rockefeller Republican. But he was a good man, Jerry.”
A photo of Jackie and Rachel Robinson with Karla Grossinger, Tania’s mother, is on one corner of the cover of Tania’s book; in another corner are, guess who, Grossinger guests Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor on the day of their short-lived marriage — one matched in brevity by Tania’s own to a Detroit, Michigan, podiatrist (who’d fulfilled Tania’s mother’s gratification that her daughter was at last linking up with a “white Jewish professional” instead of, say, a Puerto Rican trumpet player or a prizefighter of any color).
Speaking of which, one night in 1959, Tania was at Yankee Stadium for the championship bout between Floyd Patterson and her friend Ingemar Johansson. A few rows in front of her sat the same Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, From the book, pp. 173-174:
“Crazy things happened … [Elizabeth Taylor was wearing] a revealing low-cut blouse that left nothing to the imagination. Suddenly out of nowhere a gentleman walked over, picked a breast out of her top, held it up for all to see, and shouted: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you. Isn’t this a beautiful sight?’ All agreed it was that, and Elizabeth, completely nonplused, majestically put it back where it belonged and Round Six began.”
Karla Grossinger would not have approved, much less the resort’s truly majestic Jennie Grossinger.
“Grossinger’s was always very generous to performers, singers, comics, athletes,” says Karla Grossinger’s daughter. “Remember, this was the day of seven daily newspapers” — and their columnists — “in this city.” (By the time Grossinger’s closed its doors for good in 1986, with Jennie Grossinger dead, and Karla Grossinger dead, most of those newspapers had also bitten the dust. So have many of Tania Grossinger’s haunts in the Village, notably the Lion’s Head, Trudy Heller’s and, most recently, the Grand Ticino and Minetta Tavern).
Tania and mama Karla were Grossingers, yes, but they were not “owner Grossingers.” They were cousins of boss lady Jennie Grossinger, who was indeed an owner Grossinger, her immigrant parents, Selig and Malke Grossinger, having moved circa 1904 from the Lower East Side to a farm on a hilltop at Ferndale in the Catskills because of his breathing problems.
Jennie and Karla had an ultimate, irreparable falling out, but before that Jennie sent for cousin Karla whenever she felt the place — the hotel, not the farm — needed pepping up.
Karla Grossinger must have been a piece of work, certainly so in the eyes of her adoring — yet hemmed-in — daughter.
“She was born in Vienna,” says that daughter. “She was cultured, talented, beautiful. Spoke 13 languages. Had a Ph.D. in philosophy.” And many other attributes, but not much money in a life that seesawed between Chicago, Beverly Hills and Grossinger’s. “I don’t think I ever had a meal with my mother until I was in college.” Late in life, Karla Grossinger fell in love with Italy, moved there, died there — “having reinvented herself as Madame Savonier, and I have no idea where that comes from.”
Tania Grossinger, herself, despite some interesting years in P.R. and as promotions director for Playboy magazine and Playboy clubs, has more than once felt herself “at the crossroads of nowhere.” She moved to the Village in 1959, and has lived alone on Christopher St. ever since a roommate moved out in 1962.
Is Grossinger’s all over your apartment’s walls, or not?
It was in 1975 that Tania Grossinger turned herself into a writer, thanks to the late, lamented Lion’s Head, that journalistic booze joint also on Christopher St., or more exactly to a certain bartender at the Lion’s Head who went by the name of Schrank.
“This book might never have been written except for the Lion’s Head!” she exclaims. “I used to hang out there, talking of how I wanted to write, and one day this bartender, Schrank, pulled a dime out of his pocket and handed it to me. ‘Stop hanging around here,’ he said. ‘Go home and write. But first take this dime over to that telephone and call Bill Honan at The New York Times. Tell him Schrank told you to call to ask for an appointment.’ ”
She got the appointment. She had this idea, she told travel editor Honan, for a piece about women traveling alone. Honan said: “We’ve done that. What else can you write?” And when she said: “Well. I grew up at Grossinger’s,” mild, self-contained Bill Honan virtually jumped down her throat. When the article came out, under the headline “Growing up at Grosinger’s,” or “Raised Without Reservations,” on Jan. 13, 1974 — she remembers date and headline exactly — Honan took her to lunch at Sardi’s.
“Five days later, I had eight book offers.” The one she accepted was David McKay, Inc. The book was first published in 1975.
There were, in sum, good things, bad things about growing up at Grossinger’s. “No privacy. Always be a good little girl The guests always come first; well, sometimes I wanted to come first.”
Now she does.
“Growing up at Grossinger’s,” by Tania Grossinger, 187 pages, paperback, some illustrations, Skyhorse Publishing, New York, $14.95.