Harry Bernstein

Harry Bernstein

Fellow: Awarded 2008
Field of Study: General Nonfiction

Competition: US & Canada

 I am 98 years old,  and looking back over all these years I can see quite clearly that my life was divided into three distinct parts.  The first part began in a dreary mill town in the north of England where I was born. The exact date of my birth has been in dispute for as long as I can remember, my mother, with an eye on the Jewish calendar, claiming that it was a week before Passover and therefore on or about April 17, 1910, but the birth certificate states that it was May 30, 1910. I am more inclinded to go by what my mother has said, especially since I know that births in those early days were registered by the father at the registry office, and I cannot picture my father being sober enough or willing enough to want to go all the trouble of traipsing to that office to acknowledge the birth of still another unwelcome member of his family unless absolutely forced to do so by the law.

Regardless of the discrepancy (which is of a little importance to me other than that for legal reasons I am compelled to use the date on the birth certificate, May 30, 1910),  I was definitely born around that time and into somewhat sad circumstances that I described fully in my first book, The Invisible Wall, published by Random House in 2007.  In the mill town where I grew up, I lived on a street where Jews lived on one side and Christians on the other, and an "invisible wall" kept the two sides apart.  It was a very unhappy period in my life, principally because of my father.  As I revealed in my book, "He was like a boarder in the family.  He came and went.  In the early morning he would eat his breakfast alone, not speaking to my mother or to any of us.  He went off to the tailoring shop where he worked and came home again in the evening and ate his dinner rapidly, once more alone, once more never speaking to any of us.  Then he would wipe his mouth with the back of his hand and push his chair back with a scraping sound and put on his coat, and he was in such a hurry to leave that he was still struggling to get his coat on with one sleeve dangling behind him.  Then we would hear the front door shut with a bang, and he was gone and we would all breathe easier.  Sometimes we would be awakened by the sound of his return home, his drunken voice roaring at our mother, frightening all of us so that we would hide our heads under the covers."

In addition to contending with all this inside the house, outside was that strange world across the street, the Christian world, and the terrible thing that happened when my older sister and a boy across the street began a secret romance that ended in their equally secret marriage.  There was bigotry on both sides, and the marriage came as a shock to everyone on the street and a blow to my mother, but she got over it.

In The Dream (Random House, 2008), I recounted how for the first time in my mother’s life something wonderful happened: the dream she had set aside for so long came true, bringing with it the one thing she’s never expected—happiness.  To my mother, America was a panacea for all her miseries and poverrty and unhappiness.  Steamship tickets to take us all there arrived out of the blue, from some mysterious unknown donor. (We would find out someday who our benefactor was, and when we did, we’d wish we hadn’t known.)

This was the start of the second part of our lives, the good part, especially for me, as it turned out. And for a while, for all the others.  Times were good.  There were jobs, there was money coming into the house, and for me there was school and a continuing of my education that would not have been possible in England.  We had come to Chicago first, where our relatives lived, and we considered ourselves quite well off in comparison to the life in England.  I graduated from high school.  I was planning on going to college.  But then our world collapsed.  The Depression.  The only one in the family who had a job was my grandfather. I found out what that job was when I stumbled on him one day while he was at "work": He was wearing blue glasses as if he were blind, carrying a cane in one hand, a tin cup in the other.  And he was singing.  This was how he made his living, and a good one too.  And he was the one who had sent us the tickets to America.

I had to give up the idea of going to college.  We tried New York.  We all went there, thinking perhaps things would be better in that city.  But the Depression only deepened and we were worse off than we had been in England. For my mother the dream ended when she died one cold winter day in a dark basement flat in the Bronx. 

But for me there was something bettter in store.  I went to a dance one night and there I met Ruby, and fell in love with her.  I had no job, and I was absolutely penniless, but that didn’t stop us from getting married a year later, and then began the most wonderful years of my life.  Ruby was the breadwinner for a while, working in the office of Brentano’s bookstore, and I sat home and tried to become a writer.  I wrote a good many short stories that were published in little magazines such as The Anvil, Story Magazine, Manuscript and others that reached a small literary audience.  One of my stories in one of these magazines, however, managed to reach the desk of Clifton Fadiman, a well-known lecturer and book critic and editor of Simon & Schuster: He was sufficiently impressed to write me a letter and invite me to submit the novel that the magazines said I was writing.

I was always writing a novel that never got published, and I wrote this one rapidly and with a great  deal of hope.  However, he turned it down. But it was through him that I got a job as a reader in the story office of MGM, where his brother Robert was a story editor.  And so began a career that lasted fifteen years.

They were all wonderful years.  I don’t know of any marriage that succeeded as well as ours.  With my first job, we had been able to move from a furnished room to an apartment in Greenwich Village, and when our first child, Charles, was born, to a still larger apartment in Knickerbocker Village.  When Adraenne was born four years later we bought a house in Laurelton, Long Island, and that was our home for the next thirty-five years.  During that time I gave up reading for movie companies to become editor of a group of trade magazines, and during that time also I continued to write novels without any success, and finally as I entered my nineties and was retired, I gave up writing altogether.

The years had passed all too swiftly.  Our two children were grown, out of the house and married, and we had grandchildren.  Through all those years Ruby lost none of her attractiveness to me.  She was only a year younger than I was, but she was still beautiful in my eyes, and the two of us were as much in love as ever, and gave no thought to our mortality.  Life would go on like this forever, we believed.

It was then, however, when we were both in our nineties, she 91, I 92 , that it all ended.  Ruby died of leukemia.  I thought I had died too.  Perhaps I wished I had.  And thus began the third part of my life, that extraordinary period when it seemed that nothing more of significance could happen to me other than my death.

Little did I know that it would prove to be the most exciting and productive part of my life.  In order to forget the terrible loss I had suffered, I turned back to my writing and began my memoir The Invisible Wall.  I completed it in a year, and after some difficulty found a publisher in England, Random House of London.  When it was published, it was an instant literary success. The New York Times said, "The setting, beautifully rendered, recalls early D.H. Lawrence."  Publishers Weekly applauded it in a starred review: "Affecting…The conversational account takes on the heft of a historical novel with stirring success." And USA Today raved, "Both the book and the author are remarkable stories." The book won the Christopher Award, the Times voted it one of the best ten books of the year, the New York Public Library said it was one of the ten best books of the year for teenagers, and it earned me a Guggenheim Fellowship.  There wasn’t a dissenting voice among all the critics.  And soon I was at work on its sequel, The Dream, and then on to my third book, The Golden Willow, which will appear next year.

I have been very busy not only with writing my books, but with interviews, book signings, and book talks.  I have proven with all this that age need not be a barrier to a useful and creative life.  I hope to be able to reach one hundred.  I hope to write more books.  But with all of this I will never lose the memory of the one thing that gave me the strength and inspiration to accomplish what I have done thus far, my wife Ruby.  Memories are supposed to dim with the passing of years.  But my memory of her grows richer and deeper each year.  I can still see her as vividly as I always did, her lovely, oval face with the smile always on it, her soft, dark eyes looking up at me with such love in them.  Her presence will always be there with me until I too am no longer here.

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