My father, Jack Reeder, was born 107 years ago today, on April 9, 1913. He lived most of the 59 years of his life on Chicago’s West Side. Many of those years were at 4108 W. Grenshaw Street in Lawndale. We lived in a greystone two-flat that my parents and my sister Anne and I shared with our grandparents, Gussie and David Schlan, until we moved to West Rogers Park in 1955, when I was 9 years old.
In 1970, I moved back to my parents’ apartment on Lunt Avenue for a few months after an extended stay in Europe and Israel. There I found a thick Avon paperback that my father had just read. It was called The Old Bunch, written by Meyer Levin. I decided to read it as well.
It was an amazing book. The Old Bunch, originally published in 1937, is Chicago’s great Jewish novel. It follows a group of Jewish young people living in Lawndale in the 1920s and the 1930s. They are the sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrant Jews who are aspiring to live “the American Dream,” even when they are hard hit by the Great Depression.
The Old Bunch especially resonated with me because I saw so much of my mother and father, uncles and aunts, and their friends in Levin’s characters. These were people who had the grit and determination to overcome adversities to make a better life for themselves and families.
The “old bunch” in Levin’s book established lifelong friendships growing up in Lawndale, which were very similar to my parents’ experiences with their friends from the “Old Neighborhood.” These friendships were kept and treasured for as long as they lived.
I will be teaching a seminar at the Newberry Library entitled “Crime and Punishment in Chicago: Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” and Meyer Levin’s “Compulsion.” Both novels have been listed among the 101 publications that most shaped Chicago’s image. Five Wednesday evening sessions from 5:45 until 7:45 will be held beginning September 25 and ending October 30. Registration is now open at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 312-255-3700.
Bookends & Beginnings, one of my favorite independent book stores in the area, located in an alley in downtown Evanston, has a wonderful collection of used books. One of the treasures that I found on the shelves there recently was a signed first edition of The Fanatic, by Meyer Levin. Inside was a bookmark that read “Autographed by the Author”…….Kroch’s & Brentano’s.”
Seeing those hallowed names of Chicago’s literary past, Kroch’s and Brentano’s, brought out a flood of precious memories for me. I remember the scores of times, over two decades or so, when I would spend truly enjoyable time searching the Wabash Avenue store’s shelves and tables for good things to read. The staff was always knowledgeable, professional and friendly. Looking around was perfectly alright; no one was pressuring you to buy. Do any of you have Kroch’s and Brentano’s memories that you wish to share?
Meyer Levin had an amazing career as a journalist, novelist and documentary film maker. He covered the Leopold-Loeb murder trial, the opening of the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University, and the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. Levin was the first film critic for Esquire Magazine. His novel, The Old Bunch, is viewed as a classic of American naturalism, compared favorably with his friend James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy. Compulsion, a docu-novel about Leopold and Loeb is considered the template for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Levin made two remarkable documentary films, one about the plight of the Jews in European refugee camps after the Holocaust, and the other about the courageous effort of Jews to resettle in British-controlled Palestine.
Yet, thirty-five years after his death, Levin’s legacy remains relatively obscure. His fervent Zionism was not appreciated by the Literary Left. Levin’s personal behavior was often viewed as abrasive and unyielding. Ultimately it was his thirty year litigation with Otto Frank and the producers of the The Diary of Anne Frank that finally turned the creative community firmly against him. Self-admittedly, Levin was obsessed with The Diary, and he truly felt that Otto Frank reneged with a verbal agreement that he had with him on the adapting of the book to the stage.
I will be presenting on the life and times of Meyer Levin at the Chicago Jewish Authors Literary Series at Max and Benny’s Restaurant, 461 Waukegan Road, in Northbrook, on Monday evening, April 11, starting at 7:00 pm. If you plan to attend email me at email@example.com so that we can get an accurate count of the room.