My father was not the nicest person I have known. His temper was legendary, and despite his middling physical appearance and a bald pate that he had acquired in his thirties, he prided himself on his supposed good looks. He held grudges with extraordinary tenacity, and he never let us forget who had done him dirt.
One can, however, credit him with at least equally extraordinary qualities. He would have given his shirt away in a fit of generosity, and despite my mother’s stern warnings, he was always lavishing money on relatives. He displayed extraordinary talent in the applied sciences: he not only built and wired additions to the house in which I grew up when he was in his late sixties, he also designed apparatus for the Bridgeport Fire Department. For many years he served on the municipal Fire Commission and as an ex officio member of the Police Commission.
In his fiery courage, my father had nothing in common with today’s feminized and media-acceptable males. He had not distinguished himself as a soldier, but in his readiness to risk his life for a matter of honor, he did not much differ from the old exemplars of valor. Once, when he was already advanced in years and in visibly failing health, several local toughs, who had followed my parents back from a shopping mall, broke into their house and held them up at knifepoint. When they ordered my father to lie on the floor, he responded, “The hell I will.” Picking up a lamp, he smashed it over the head of one of the three robbers. Another one delivered a glancing punch, which my father mostly avoided before striking his assailant back. Thereupon the robbers ran out of the house with my father in frenzied pursuit. It seems that these malefactors had been arrested for other break-ins, but those who had evidence of their crimes had been too frightened to press charges. My father made sure they were rearrested and told his assailants that if he saw them prowling around, he’d be delighted to kill them with the gun he stored upstairs.
Needless to say, he suffered in no way from the politics of guilt. He refused to work with the Fire Commission when he learned that it had established lower standards for black applicants. He also urged the fire captain to stay out of certain minority-occupied projects, in which the inhabitants had a tendency to pelt firefighters with stones and trash. Although a refugee from the Nazis who probably lost family members in the Holocaust—he could never determine how his half-brother and his children perished during the war—Dad would go ballistic if someone tried to misapply the “lessons” of Nazi genocide. He never blamed American Christians for what had been done by European Nazis, and he grew particularly exasperated if someone tried to draw dishonest implications from what had befallen Nazi victims. He did not think that the American civil-rights revolution was “mandated” by events that unfolded in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, and he would go speechless with rage if someone suggested that Jews were morally required to support a porous border with Latin America because a ship of German Jews had not been allowed into the U.S. in 1940. In his view, such contrived parallels were utterly specious. They were made to fit a contemporary political agenda—one that he definitely did not support.
On one big issue we disagreed, but I never pushed my father to justify himself because I enjoyed the reasons for his predilection. He adored FDR and would take my brother and me to tour the Roosevelt estate at Hyde Park. There he would rhapsodize about the achievements of the president, who is buried behind his ancestral home, overlooking the Hudson, next to his Scottie Fala. Although “naïve about Stalin,” FDR had kept Hitler from overrunning Europe and killing all of my father’s relatives. Beyond his attainments in international affairs, FDR had done “some good things” at home, although the list of such accomplishments, even in Dad’s telling, was limited. They consisted of closing the banks when he took office and his bold decision to take derelicts off the street and to send them to work camps. My father viewed FDR as the American counterpart of a European strongman, an authoritarian leader who avoided the excesses of Hitler and Stalin but who meant business when addressing staggering economic problems. An American libertarian would have struck him as at least as strange as a feminist.
Born in Budapest on Dec. 24, 1911, my father felt comfortable in a world of fixed authorities, albeit one in which, as a boy, he had stood at the outer edge. His mother’s family had been affluent, assimilated Austrian Jews. My grandmother came from Graz, the capital of Styria. But she had abandoned her first husband and my Uncle Emil for a tailor she met in Vienna. The two had gone off to the Hungarian capital, which was then a largely German-speaking city, one in which my grandparents failed to prosper. The irregular relationship between them—both had forsaken their earlier households—resulted in poverty and social exclusion for their three children, of whom my father Andrew was the youngest. His concern with structures of authority might have been affected by the fact that he grew up as an outcast of his mother’s family and broader society. Most of his adult life was spent working his way into bourgeois respectability, first in Europe, and then, from the late ’30s on, in the United States.
His childhood was marred by memories of war, defeat, and popular turmoil. His first school became a hospital for wounded soldiers from the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. After his country had lost that struggle and suffered occupation, a Communist revolution broke out in 1919, resulting in the establishment of the ill-fated and inept Bela Kun regime. This disaster made way for a rightist regency under Admiral Miklos Horthy, which the Allies helped to install in a strife-ridden Hungary. Every change seemed in my father’s young mind to bring increased problems, from human loss to Communist violence to a dishonest and intermittently anti-Semitic government, pretending to stand for the defeated Hungarians but really shilling for Hungary’s enemies. Despite these circumstances, my father prospered as a master furrier. His family had had him apprenticed in this once lucrative trade, and he was able to rise through the ranks. By the time he had reached his mid-20s and had become the owner of a store in a plush sector of Pest, he was leading the life of a bon vivant.
He decided to come to the United States for two reasons. After the assassination of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in July 1934 at the hands of Nazi agents, he assumed that it was only a matter of time before Hitler “liberated” the Alpine Republic and integrated Austria into the German Reich. Paramilitary groups that imitated the German Nazis were already operating in Hungary, a problem that the authoritarian regime of Horthy became increasingly powerless to handle. There was also a large underground Communist Party, which was subservient to Moscow and looked back on the expropriations and summary executions of the Kun interlude with undisguised nostalgia. My father surmised that Hungary would soon be the plaything of rival tyrannies. It was best to get out while he had time.
The second reason was that my father’s sister Regina was married to a Hungarian Jewish sharecropper who apparently had struck it rich in the New World. As luck would have it, he had been born in the U.S. while his parents were briefly sojourning there at the beginning of the 20th century. Somehow this American-born brother-in-law had managed to bring my grandmother to New York, a fate she bitterly lamented. She had been uprooted twice, she complained, and having left Austria for Hungary, where the people spoke some weird Turkic language, she now found herself among the “ungezogene Kinder [badly behaved children]” of Anglophone America.
Unlike his mother, my father adjusted quickly. He mastered English except for his tendency to substitute German possessive pronouns. He also obtained employment, again as a furrier, repairing coats for large dealers. But he had to change jobs periodically because of his lack of a “red book.” Apparently only Communist Party members were supposed to work in these shops. My father, who found the Communists vulgar, refused to join their movement. At one point, he had to hide on a fire escape when the Communist organizer came to check on the party membership of employees. Dad was warned that party thugs had a way of punishing nonmembers who presumed to work in a “party shop.” He left to work for a large fur business in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and once he had collected enough capital, opened his own shop.
This loner who read Hungarian literature and did complicated home repairs during his leisure hours somehow found time to meet and marry my mother. My maternal grandfather, the uncle of Regina’s husband, showed himself to be extremely hospitable to my father. Papa (my grandfather) was hard-working and frugal to a fault: he would walk from his apartment to the fur dye factory he owned in Greenpoint, near the Brooklyn Naval Yards, rather than spend a few cents on a streetcar. He believed that that the pennies added up—especially if one had to work at least six days a week. My grandmother would wake no later than 3:00 a.m. to prepare her husband’s breakfast and lunch, and Papa would be off to work before sunrise. During the day, he would do the heavy lifting in his factory because didn’t want to deal with unionized workers. Better, he thought, to drag around heavy barrels of chemicals at age 75, with fingernails disfigured by dyes, than rely on whiny union men.
Papa took instantly to my father, who came to visit a few weeks after he had arrived in New York and bedazzled his distant relative through marriage with Old World savoir-faire. My mother likewise fell for this visitor, although he was “much older,” by seven and a half years, and was imagined to have led a perhaps “questionable” social life in Europe. The couple was married about five years later, after what was considered a proper courtship.
The home my parents set up would include some of my father’s immigrant relatives and, most disturbingly, my paternal grandmother, who ruled like a Chinese matriarch. I respect my mother deeply for having put up with this forbidding lady and above all with the unpleasantness of having to listen to her rail against American social immorality. Although herself no paradigm of bourgeois virtues, she condemned those in whose country she had taken refuge for being self-indulgent.
My father became a constant companion to his father-in-law, who survived two wives and eventually came to live with us. I have never known a more dutiful son-in-law than my father was in looking after my ailing and eventually senile grandfather. It was as if he felt a deep debt of gratitude to this man who had given him his daughter when he was but a newly arrived immigrant.
My father always included Papa when he took my brother and me on Sunday outings in his early-1950s Pontiac. These trips involved visiting some nearby Connecticut town or chugging along Route 7, which hugged the New York state line. On special occasions, we would travel as far as Boston or Philadelphia, but would always come back the same day. And we would usually bring along a basket full of sandwiches, consisting of roast beef or turkey from Friday evening’s meal. My father’s first major trip after many decades in the U.S. was back to his native city in the mid-1960s. He was not especially impressed. Budapest under Communist rule, he told us, looked much shabbier than Paris, Vienna, Jerusalem, or any of the other foreign cities he thereafter visited.
It may behoove me to protect my father from a charge leveled against him by my mother. Dad was considered to be a spendthrift who would have left his family with little had he died in his 40s or 50s. Here a distinction may be in order between the generosity that Aristotle thought worthy of a free man (eleutheroprepes) and the habits of a wastrel. My father’s giving fell into the first category, one that the philosopher famously praised as an aristocratic trait in the Nicomachean Ethics. Dad hastened to help out the family of his older brother when my uncle fell ill with terminal lung cancer. He would also receive houseguests with effusive hospitality, and when I was a graduate student at Yale, he would invite home my classmates and their spouses for dinner. My father was particularly kind to one of my older classmates, who could never muster the energy to finish his dissertation on the Assyrian concept of time. Laszlo came from a distinguished Hungarian family that had held high positions in the Horthy government. Unfortunately, this offspring of gentry was a nervous, diminutive man who chain-smoked and could never put his life in order. Each time he tried to describe his puzzling dissertation topic, Laszlo would plunge into a state of nervous exhaustion.
Looking at my parents, I devised the theory of “aesthetic equivalence.” Most couples are roughly equivalent in terms of physical attractiveness. Young people develop an intuitive sense of their relative marketability in appealing to the opposite sex. When one encounters a highly attractive man or woman married to a less physically appealing mate, one looks for special factors that might have affected this unusual selection.
In my parents’ case, there was a degree of aesthetic disparity that I noticed even as a pre-adolescent. My mother, quite simply, was much better looking than my father. She had a delicate bone structure and a sweet, girlish face. But Dad had presence and loads of Old World charm, an intoxicant that my Greek friend Taki Theodoracopulos exudes. My late wife Dana commented on this magnetic quality when she first met my father in 1968. She found him initially far more pleasing than my mother because of his attentiveness to women, particularly those whom he was encountering for the first time. He was also a splendid ballroom dancer, unlike his two sons, who have drawn whispers on the dance floor by being flat-footed embarrassments.
It was this sense of command, what the Romans called auctoritas, that stood out among his positive qualities. Bridgeport had a large Hungarian-speaking community, and one of the reasons that my father and his family had settled there was the possibility of conducting business in Hungarian while working to pick up English. Dad developed extensive social and commercial contacts there, and although he only attended religious services on special occasions, he joined the synagogue on the west side of our then bustling industrial hub, in what was called “Hunkeytown.” The congregation had been founded in 1909 by “young men from Hungary,” as the charter explained. The founders had almost all gone back to Europe afterwards and had fought in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Many returned to Bridgeport years later, after odysseys in South America and Europe.
Within this community, my father was accorded respect as a man of standing, and people would come to our house seeking his advice about personal and business matters alike. Although largely self-educated, he seemed by the standards of a transplanted peasant culture to be someone who truly stood apart. Years later, when my brother drew a distinction between our immigrant father and my brother’s wife’s parents, who had attended prestigious American universities generations ago, I could not grasp how our father had occupied a lower social level. He seemed in my view to have done better than I had. His name is on the cornerstones of the firehouses in Bridgeport. In the Hungarian community he was always respectfully addressed as Gottfried Úr, a term that suggested something more exalted than “Mister.”
My father’s auctoritas was on display when the mayor asked him for a particular favor. His district was about to hold an election for alderman, and since the Republican Party would likely pick up the seat on the city council, it was imperative to find a candidate who would vote with the Republican mayor. Nick asked Dad to come up with someone whom he thought might fit the bill. My father settled on a young, recently married fellow whose parents he had known well and told him to come by the house to speak to him. When Burton arrived and my father asked if he would like to be alderman, his young guest began to get chummy, calling his host “Andy” then launching into a speech about how he would “improve this place.” My father scowled and proceeded to lay down the law. He was Commissioner Gottfried, and if Burton wanted the nod, he would have to promise not “to yap about naïve programs” but to vote with Mayor Panuzio.
This auctoritas became less impressive as my father aged. In his mid-sixties he fell into an unseemly quarrel with my wife Dana’s father while both were visiting us. Dana and I understood what was taking place: our fathers had been hard, resourceful men whose self-worth was growing brittle as they became older. They had also drunk more Scotch than they should have. While working to set up a swing set for our youngsters in the backyard, they began to raise their voices. By late afternoon, they were insulting one another, and only by separating them did we avoid a further escalation of hostilities. By evening, the storm had passed, but I don’t remember seeing Dad and my father-in-law show much in the way of friendship toward each other again. By then both were exhibiting the effects of too much drinking and of noticeable arterial deterioration. What had angered Dana’s father, a dignified physician with vast humanistic learning, were my father’s boastful expressions of self-importance. Ten years earlier, I could not have imagined him acting in this manner. As a younger man, he had taken his talents in stride and would have been irritated by the behavior for which my father-in-law berated him.
By the time he died in 1987 it was only by virtue of my age that I could remember him as someone who had once been an authority figure who soared above his companions. I recall my sense of disbelief when he visited me for the last time, after we had moved to a Washington suburb. By then Dad was doddering and quite deaf, and it was hard for me to associate him with the titan I had once relied on. Then the unexpected happened. Our basement began to fill up with water when one of the spring downpours wrought havoc on our property. My father ran down to the basement and found a sump pump, which he got to work. Before long he had my five children and me lugging pails of muddy water up to the front door. Within an hour, my father had the problem under control.
The water would return the following week, when the next downpour occurred. But the beautiful part of the incident was that it allowed my family and me to see my father one last time as he had once been—obviously in command. Even in his final months, as his energy ebbed, his old and truest self shined through.
Paul E. Gottfried is professor of humanities at Elizabethtown College. This essay is adapted from Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and other Friends and Teachers. (Copyright ISI Books 2009.)
The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
Send letters to: email@example.com