I didn’t know what I would be as an adult, but I had acquired a better understanding of
my heritage during my preteen years and how that might influence my future. I was a
Russian-American and a Jew. It wasn’t until after the war that the atrocities committed
against Jews was fully known in what history now calls the Holocaust, but there were
plenty of rumors, and even as young girl I listened to those in my household talk about it.
My maternal grandparents were no strangers to the fear that comes from war and
prejudices. They left their homeland during the Russian Revolution. Both were from the
village of Minsk, Belarus, not terribly far from Kiev, Ukraine. My grandfather, Benjamin
Mitnickski, married Dora Kupson at a fairly young age. In the few photographs they
carried with them, I can see why he was enamored by her pretty face, smile and long,
heavy braids. When I first saw one particular photograph, I laughed at the ankle-high,
laced boots she wore, but now they’re back in style.
My grandfather looked like a dapper young man, with a rusty-red mustache and
blondish hair; his appearance spoke volumes for his deep sense of adventure, but not for
his willingness to work hard to become a productive and contributing American. As with
so many immigrants from this period of American history, it was only because of the
unspeakable hardship in their homeland that they were able to leave their other family
members and make such a long journey on nothing but a dream of a better life.
Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of my ancestral DNA through
information gleaned from my grandparents’ records and conversations with my mother.
My grandparents, who had two young daughters to think about (my aunts Celia and Ida),
made plans for Grandma Dora and the girls to remain behind in Minsk for a later journey
to London, before sailing for America. This would allow my grandfather time to find
work and provide a home for them somewhere in this new country. He said his heartfelt
goodbyes and left in the back of a wagon with his three brothers and a sister and traveled
for days to Bologne, France; they sailed from there on the S/S Maasdam Rotterdam, June
16th, 1899. It was a long arduous boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean arriving in New
York, two weeks later, June 30th, 1899. He and his sister, Esther, settled in Providence,
Rhode Island. The three brothers (Chane, Cibel and Leib) went on to South America,
where many other emigrating Russians were settling.
Benjamin Mitnickski was eager to blend into the melting pot of nationalities that made
up a rapidly growing America. Immigrants from many nations arrived in ships at the Ellis
Island port every week. It wasn’t unusual for those with difficult surnames of any
nationality to shorten them for easier spelling and pronunciation. Grandpa changed his to
Mitnick. Later, it was changed to Morton by my uncles, Jack (Jacob) and Moe (Morris),
who wanted to pass themselves off as heirs of the Morton Salt Company.
According to my mother, Grandma Dora stayed in London with some man whose
name and exact relationship to her remains unknown. She arrived in Providence a year
after Grandpa. I have wondered many times if my sweet little grandmother, who looked
A DIVINE ACCIDENT
like the caricature of Mrs. Santa Claus, might have had an indiscreet adventure with this
“stranger” while biding her time in London. It is more likely he was only another Russian
who enjoyed speaking with someone in his native tongue, until he, too, could venture
forth on his emigrant voyage.
Benjamin and Dora raised six children—four daughters (Celia, Ida, Martha and Selma,
my mother) and two sons (Jacob and Morris, who became Jack and Moe). Grandpa did a
little of this and a little of that in Providence, competing for business in a city that had
been growing nonstop because of the railroad network, turnpikes and the port. At the time
my grandparents arrived, history figures show that more than sixty percent of the 175,597
residents were foreign born. They came because of the need for both skilled and unskilled
labor; Providence was an industrial city that included cotton and worsted wool mills,
machine tool fabrication, rubber products, and jewelry and silver manufacturing.
The Benjamin Mitnick Family
Immigrants were willing to work hard, and Grandpa Mitnick was no exception. But
his labor was not producing the wealth he had envisioned would come when living in
America, the land of the free. It was still a dream.
Still a dream, until the 1920’s Prohibition, when bootlegging brought him all the
money he’d ever imagined having. There’s no way to write this delicately. Bootleggers
were smugglers and distributors of illegal alcohol. When the Eighteenth Amendment to
the Constitution went into effect in January of 1920, most of the public was opposed to it,
especially those from major port cities like New York and Providence, where many of the
immigrants were of German, Irish, Jewish, or Catholic backgrounds. Daily beer drinking
was a part of their culture. History shows that the Protestants—especially the women who
were often victims of domestic violence and economic deprivation because of their
alcoholic or perpetually drunken husbands—had pushed for a prohibition of alcohol.
They were joined in their efforts by many business or factory owners who wanted sober
workers on the job to produce quality products.
The Amendment, called the National Prohibition Act, and also known as the Volstead
Act, called for the restriction of the “production, sale, transportation, importation, and
exportation of alcoholic beverages,” but not the drinking of them. Laws rarely impede
those who can see how to work around them. This one was no exception. Thousands
horded alcohol or established ties with those who could buy it from foreign sources,
especially from Canadian bootleggers, and smuggle it into the States. Of course, those
with the most connections were mobsters. Grandpa Mitnick had his eyes and ears open
and made his connections. For the sake of the family, of course.
My grandfather was not the only one capitalizing on the illegal distribution of alcohol.
Several books and many other sources have documented that Joseph Kennedy, the father
of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, made his fortune in the same manner.
Drinking of spirits of any kind and quality, from beer to the finest scotch, whiskey,
rum or wine, continued to be big business. When we think of this period of history, we
often envision it through the early movies that depicted the secret clubs called
speakeasies, where drinks were served to those who knew the secret code to gain
entrance. Reports say that at least 30,000 such establishments existed in NYC, and drinks
that once cost patrons a nickel could be sold for 50 cents. The speakeasy owners grew
adept at disguising the quality and taste of their bootlegged liquor, usually of a cheaper
quality, by adding fruit juices or ginger ale or tonic; and thus, the “mixed drink” was
At a young age, by today’s standards, my uncles frequented these speakeasies. Mother
told me about her “spoiled brothers,” who, even in their teens, had new cars and many
girlfriends. Grandpa would buy Uncle Moe and Uncle Jack another car whenever they
crashed one and filled their palms with as much cash as they needed. While the girls in
the family were home tending to all the cleaning and laundry, bed linen changing,
grocery shopping and cooking, the boys were cruising the town. This pattern was set way
before I came along. Connections counted and secrecy worked. My uncles took their
“work” seriously and understood how Grandpa was supporting the family and what it
took to “keep a woman happy.” It wasn’t discussed in mixed company.
Perhaps that’s why the Morton Brothers, as they became known, never really worked
after the Twenties decade. They had money in abundance and thrived on the power and
influence it could buy. Money and the discussion of how to make more of it was their
reason for living. It’s no wonder, then, that they moved to Los Angeles, where
Hollywood glamour and show business captured their attention and added substantially to
their business and personal interests.
After my family moved to Los Angeles, it wasn’t unusual for me to see either uncle
with a beautiful starlet on his arm, especially Uncle Moe. He would stop by our house
long enough for a quick introduction and then be on his way. I usually tagged after him,
my eyes taking in everything. I couldn’t always follow the conversation. Once, when we
were alone, I asked him, “What did you do when you were a kid my age, Uncle Moe?”
“I worked in a local movie theatre as a candy butcher.”
“What’s a candy butcher?” I asked, wrinkling my nose while gazing up at him,
picturing the men in white aprons who worked behind a meat counter. “I don’t get it.”
“Do you know what a concessionaire is? No, of course you don’t. Why would you?
All you need to know is that when I was a boy I’d stroll up and down the aisles of a
movie theater selling candy before the movie started and during the intermission.” He
reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a candy bar. “Don’t I always give you
candy? I learned that little girls liked it way back when I was a candy butcher. And you
don’t even have to pay me for it, Carol. Just say thanks.”
“Thank you, Uncle Moe.” I never turned down anything made with chocolate.
“I wasn’t the only kid who hawked stuff for a living back in Providence, Carol. Ever
heard of Thomas Edison? No? I guess he died just before you were born. Well, he’s
famous. You’ll learn about him in school. He was an inventor of lots of stuff, but I just
remember the light bulb. When he was a kid, he sold candy and newspapers to people
who road on the railway trains back and forth to work. Don’t forget that. Your Uncle
Moe isn’t a famous inventor, but I’m pretty famous out here in Hollywood.”
“But why were you called a candy butcher?”
“So many questions.” Uncle Moe tousled my head of curls. “I don’t have a good
answer. Maybe it was because meat butchers would lay the chops and ribs and cutlets
they carved out of the cow or pig onto trays in the meat counter. We candy butchers
would carry the assortment of mints and fudge and bars on the trays we carried. See the
I nodded, no longer interested in anything but the taste of chocolate in my mouth.
I loved Uncle Moe. He often slept in the same room as my sister and I on a rollaway
bed, because he didn’t keep an apartment of his own. I especially enjoyed the Smith
Brothers licorice cough drops he kept on the night stand that I would occasionally sample
when he wasn’t around. I worried that he would catch me in the act or ask why some
were missing from the box and decided he was a little scary, even when he was smiling
and joking. Yet, when I was hospitalized to have my tonsils removed, he was waiting on
the porch steps the day I came home with a huge teddy bear in his arms.
Several times, I watched him cut newspapers into neat stacks of dollar-sized rectangles
and then wrap a few real bills around a wad of them, holding them in place with a rubber
band before stuffing them into his pants and suit jacket pockets. Little did I know then
that Uncle Moe would become one of the “major gambling figures in syndicated crimes.”
(Gus Russo, Supermob, Bloomsbury, USA, c2006, pp.337-343.)
My mother, Selma—or the more formalized Americanized form, Sarah—was the baby
of the family. She had five older siblings who quickly tagged her with the nickname
Babe, a name that stuck for the rest of her life.
I must admit that I called my mother Placenta throughout my adulthood, and believe it
or not, she would always answer, even from across a room. She was quite a character and
is the only woman I’ve ever known who donned a shower cap and a bathing suit to
defrost the freezer in the years before the automatic defrosting mechanism was invented.
Her oldest sister, my Auntie Celia, was married to a good man, according to my
mother, but he died shortly after I was born. Sam Rice and his family owned jewelry
stores in Providence, Rhode Island. Unfortunately, Auntie Celia and Sam had no
children, so she doted on my sister and me all our lives. A sweet and gentle soul, she was
the epitome of kindheartedness and always spoke to me in a soft voice. She moved to
California about the same time my family did and spent the rest of her life performing
electrolysis for the Hollywood crowd. Years later, when she suffered from an inoperable
brain tumor, she asked me for sleeping pills to end her life, but I had enough guilt in my
life at the time and knew I couldn’t live with such an additional burden. Euthanasia was
and still is illegal.
Auntie Celia’s nephew, Bob Rice, was one of the original investors in the Dunes Hotel
in Las Vegas, and that became my family’s “Vegas” connection. Bob’s son—my cousin
Jeffery Grant Rice, as he liked to be called—wrote the first “Night Stalker” television
show, which starred Darrin McGavin, and became a successful screenwriter.
Mother was close to all three of her sisters. Aunties Ida and Martha, as well as Auntie
Celia, mothered me whenever they visited. Sometimes it seemed as though I had four
mothers instructing me about manners, my posture, and what was important or not
important for women to have a satisfying life.
Auntie Ida was a Sophie Tucker lookalike. Her curly auburn hair and voluptuous
diminutive body made her irresistible to me. Although she had a “sailor’s” mouth, which
didn’t please my mother when she was around us children, she had the loving heart of a
Mother Theresa. Her home was open to anyone who needed a hug or a meal. It took
considerable eavesdropping on my part, but I eventually came to know that she never
wore underpants, a shocking discovery I have never forgotten.
Auntie Ida had never learned to drive. But her lack of driving skills, which meant she
was forced to stay at home on days when she’d rather be somewhere else, enhanced her
ability to listen. She encouraged every visitor to spew their endless tales of woe and
common gossip, and this uncommon trait eventually resulted in her becoming their
confidant. When she didn’t have a visitor, she watched the popular television soap opera
“The Guiding Light.
Ida was always on a diet and talking about her growing waistline, even while she was
indulging in daily teatime treats. My sister Sandra and I decided to play a naughty trick
on her. “We helped Mother make homemade fudge yesterday,” I declared, handing her a
small square chunk on a napkin. Watching with widened eyes, Sandra vigorously nodded.
“Oh, my goodness, homemade fudge, girls? I adore chocolate, so I’m officially off my
diet as of right this minute!” Ida used two fingers to carefully transfer the entire piece to
her mouth. Bless her heart, she kept chewing and chewing on it, and our eyes
threatened to pop out of their sockets. Finally, we had to confess. “Spit it out, Auntie Ida!
It’s chocolate-covered rubber! We played a trick on you! We’re so, so sorry. Please don’t
Auntie Ida’s husband, Samuel Diskin, could pass for Woody Allen’s father. A rather
short and well turned-out man, he was rarely without a cigar in his mouth. Ida, Sam, and
their two sons, Jerome and Francis, designed home furnishings and ran a successful
furniture store in Los Angeles called Diskin Art. Their daughter, Gloria, eventually
became the designated driver for her mother.
As long as I knew her, Auntie Ida shopped, visited friends, indulged in several
lunches, teas parties, and outings at the theater each week without ever getting behind a
wheel. She’d ask anyone she knew with a driver’s license for a ride to an event; most
were more than willing to accommodate her request, as she’d generously treat them in
some way for their services.
Uncle Sam was an impeccable dresser and Auntie Ida put on whatever fit her that day.
While she struggled with weight throughout her entire life, Uncle Sam never gained or
lost an ounce. Any night of the year, his dinner consisted of a T-bone or sirloin steak and
a baked potato with all the trimmings. It certainly didn’t affect his cholesterol, because he
lived a long, fun-filled life, well into his nineties. He also had a passion for the ponies, as
did several others in both the Mitnick and Sorkin families, and that kept his mind sharp.
Auntie Martha and my mother looked more like sisters than they did with their other
two sisters, which had always raised questions in my mind after I learned about the birds
and bees. In those days, Auntie Martha was gorgeous as a young woman, and counted
Eddie Duchin, the famous pianist and band leader, as one of her suitors. Her heart,
however, was captured by the wonderful and quite handsome Sol Hiller.
***One of the most memorable and frightening sights to me as a young girl was seeing
Grandpa Mitnick’s teeth soaking in a glass of water. It made such an impression on me
that, in the later years when he lived with us, I would make excuses about having to go to
his room to deliver his laundry or fresh towels. I never asked him why he had “fake”
teeth, but when I asked my dentist about it, he adamantly declared it was from eating too
much “sugar.” Unfortunately, that message never kept me from using anything sweet and
sugary as a panacea for unhappiness, disillusionment, disappointment or loneliness and,
eventually, more than my teeth would suffer the consequences.
Grandpa Mitnick enjoyed drinking strong hot tea, and it didn’t take being in the room
with him to know when he was indulging in his daily habit. I could hear the clanking of
his spoon against the side of the cup even from the piano bench in the living room when I
paused between songs during practice sessions. Years later, when my husband Ian and I
visited St. Petersburg, I noticed other Russians doing the same thing. What once seemed
annoying to me, I now find endearing and a happy memory.
As children, we’re so quick to judge. We live on our emotions and form many
inaccurate perceptions of people and events based upon our limited knowledge and
experiences. We’re fanciful and have the ability to stretch the truth if reality is too hard to
understand or too difficult to accept. Although we know the difference between the truth
and lies, we’re all too willing to fabricate a reply that will please the ones we love . . . or
who we want to love us. We grow up wanting to provide the ‘right’ answers.
I wonder now, in the waning days of my life, how much truth was spoken among my
Mitnick family members during the Twenties decade of bootlegging that brought enough
wealth to see them through the Depression of the Thirties and the war years of the forties.
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