Memoir — From the September 2013 issue
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Fred Morton, who died this week in Vienna, at the age of 90, was a longtime contributor to Harper’s Magazine and a good friend. Among his contributions to the magazine were memoirs of his life in both pre-World War I Vienna and New York City, to which his family emigrated in 1939 to escape the Nazi takeover of Europe. The memoir below, “Othello’s Son,” which was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013, appeared in our September 2013 issue. Read Morton’s obituary in the New York Times.
It was on some early excursion from our backwater district in Vienna to the elegant center of the city that I saw him. I was about seven, reaching up to hold the hand of my tall father, but much taller still was he, this magnificent shape looming up before us: a fairy-tale giant with a silver feather topping a sky-blue cap and a sky-blue tunic that had diamonds for buttons and epaulettes flaming golden on heroic shoulders. But what made the apparition truly fabulous was his face. It gleamed as black as his hand, which held two white gloves.
And like a magic-lantern slide there flashed into my mind the illustration I’d glimpsed not long before in an open book at my friend Karly’s house. I didn’t know what kind of book, but I remembered the words under that gorgeous portrait now become flesh before my eyes — General Othello.
“A general!” I whispered to my father.
“Not exactly,” Papa whispered back.
He led me around the corner so that we could talk freely. “This is the Hotel Imperial,” he said. “It was built for visiting kings. He’s the doorman.”
The doorman? I insisted we go back around the corner again for another peek. Whatever a doorman might be, he looked exactly like a general.
I was little Fritz Mandelbaum then, in the mid-1930s. A few years later, history exploded. It blasted us from our bright art-deco rooms in Nazi-occupied Vienna clear across the Atlantic to drop us down in front of a chipped façade on West l5lst Street in Manhattan, over whose entrance rusting letters spelled out the beaumont arms.
And there, meeting us, was another military black man, also not exactly a general. He wore some sort of greenish, wrinkled army overcoat with a torn lapel, apparently the uniform of the Beaumont Arms janitor. He helped carry our steamer trunk up to our fourth-floor apartment because, he told us, “Elevator’s broke.”
When Papa handed him a quarter tip, he gave an almost smart salute. Then Papa asked me to ask him (I was the family translator thanks to my English lessons in Vienna) for his name.
“Name’s Elwood,” he said.
“This is nice to meet you, Mr. Elwood,” I said.
“No, ain’t my last name,” he said. “It’s my baptism name.”
“Then what is your last name, mister?”
Elwood straightened up out of his stoop, tensed. “Something wrong?” he said.
“What?” I said, baffled.
“Only time they ask my last name is police,” he said.
“No, no, mister,” I said. “Nothing is wrong.”
“Ja zerr,” Elwood said, or something sounding like that, and left.
“Ja zerr,” he said next morning when I asked why there was no hot water. “ ’Sbroke. Goin’ to look into it.”
Though “Ja zerr” sounded vaguely German, it took us a while to decipher it. On the other hand, the significance of “Goin’ to look into it” emerged quickly. It didn’t mean “Fixing it,” for the broken elevator, like the broken boiler, was part of the basic character of the Beaumont Arms, which expressed itself through so many brokennesses that the only way one single Elwood could deal with them was through deferential indefinite postponement.
And deferential was his “Ja zerr,” which translated into “Yes, sir,” as I gradually realized. The white Broadway grocer from whom we bought our food never addressed us refugees like that, certainly never with Elwood’s intonation. Not that the grocer was rude. But his patience sounded more like charity than sympathy. Elwood’s “Ja zerr” came very much from below, and shaped my initial experience of the Negro in 1940s America.
More from Frederic Morton: