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Ocean Ave, Lenox Road. A Brooklyn Tale. Who Was Uncle Willie?

September 1, 2020

1. Walking into personal history

The picture is of the entrance to an apartment building just off of Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. 50 Lenox Road. It was the summer of 2009. Our mother, whose last name (of several – Beatrice Magaziner, Beatrice Magazine, Beatrice Prensky, Beatrice Prince) was Beatrice Kaye, had just died and was buried at Montefiore Cemetery out on Long Island where she lay at rest with most of her siblings in a Magzine family plot

With my younger sister, Laurie Aronstein, I visited the old neighborhood in Brooklyn where so much of the family’s history on my mother’s side had transpired. First we went to 305-325 Ocean Ave., “the Belvedere” right next to the Parkside Ave. Subway Station. It sits on the corner of Ocean Ave and Parkside Ave. directly across the street to the entrance of Prospect Park where the arc stands. If the address sounds a bit off it is because it is really two apartment buildings connected by a lobby, 305 Ocean Ave and 325 Ocean Ave.

It appeared that the Belvedere had been renovated, the entrance was clean and fresh, as was the lobby which we entered as the front door was open. I had not stepped foot in the building for sixty years and yet memories of it, of visiting the playground and small zoo in Prospect Park across the street, came flooding back. For myself, this is where “it” all started. There were two young boys, nine or ten, kicking a soccer ball just inside the entrance. They were speaking Arabic, a language not particularly common in Flatbush in the 1940s. But the world had changed, hadn’t it.

I spent the first five years of my life in a spacious apartment on the fifth floor of the 325 Ocean Ave. side of the building listening to “The Shadow” on Sunday afternoons with Uncle Sam in his bedroom.

From the kitchen window I could see subway trains emerging from the underground as they did many times a day. I never tired of seeing them go by. There was a family a floor above, the mother’s name was “Goldie”. Goldie used to slip a copy of the Communist Party USA newspaper, the Daily World, under our door each week although I don’t think that either my parents or my Aunt Mal and Uncle Sam who lived with us, ever read it. My parents were not “political” and although Uncle Sam was a member of the CPUSA in the 1930s, along with his brother, he had quite in 1939 in protest to the Hitler-Stalin Pact. My mother was fond of Goldie although she didn’t share her politics.

Laurie and I stood before the Ocean Ave. building for a while.

She was not yet born when the two families – ours along with Aunt Mal and Uncle Sam – moved to Jamaica, Queens. I took a number of pictures of the building and the street. We walked across Ocean Ave. into Prospect Park. Looking one way, east, there was a lovely idyllic view of the lake in the park, rich with greenery on all sides. Closer at hand, on a park bench, a homeless man lay sprawled out catching a nap. We left and stopped at the Parkside Subway Station. It was still there and pretty much as I remembered it, however vague my memory was.

Then we walked along Flatbush Ave.

Still a main thoroughfare, busying with activity and life, but one whose character had changed rather dramatically. What used to be an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood was no longer – except for a few pockets further down, around Nostrand Ave and Ave. K where our grandmother had a dry goods store for twenty years just after Grandpa Julius died of drinking prohibition era alcohol in 1924. Erasmus High School is still there, right at 911 Flatbush Ave. a few blocks down the street; Bernie Sanders had gone there and graduated from the place I would guess in 1957 or 8. But today, Flatbush Ave. has a distinctly Caribbean flavor and the neighborhood is populated with dark-skinned folk from the islands. We strolled through the Flatbush-Caton Caribbean Market and then stopped at the West Indian and American Grocery at the corner of Flatbush Ave. and Lenox Rd.

Lenox Road!

I hadn’t thought about Lenox Rd. for who knows how long. But what’s left of that little bell in my head went off.

Uncle Willie and Aunt Thelma Magazine lived on Lenox Rd. We walked down that street and somewhere from deep in my fading memory bank I was rather certain that I could identify the apartment building where they lived, 50 Lenox Rd. Only four or five blocks from our apartment on Ocean Ave., of course Uncle Willie would have located there to be close to Grandma Sarah. She lived with us in the Ocean Ave. apartment until she died of a stroke in June 1947. When she died, Aunt Rose, Aunt Ray and Mom were all pregnant. Soon after, they all gave birth to girls. All wanted to name the girls after Grandma Sarah. The result: Sarrea, Sarabeth and Sarabelle – three cousins in whom Grandma Sarah lives on.

Corner of Flatbush Ave and Lenox Ave. Brooklyn, 2009

Uncle Willie and Aunt Thelma. “Up on the Roof” series, Spring, 1945

2. Aunt Thelma

Aunt Thelma died in Florida, I think in the late 1990s. The year escapes me but a sister thinks it was sometime between 1999 and 2002 which sounds about right.

Her last years were “not pretty.”

Living alone after the 1986 death of Uncle Willie her life went increasingly downhill. Always high strung, demanding, a touch paranoid – all those tendencies became more pronounced during those last years. A self-centered narcissist she and Uncle Willie never had children. I can’t speak for sisters and cousins, but I can say of all my aunts and uncles that I liked her the least during her life time and avoided contact. I still hear my mother and aunt insisting, “call Aunt Thelma” or thrusting a phone into my face when speaking to her, insisting I say “hello.” I did once or twice but when in Florida visiting always made a point of avoiding to visit her. The thought of it was just more than I could deal with. As is often the case, after her death, I regretted my own immaturity and while not changing my overall opinion of her – she was a hard case – as hints of what her life had been – I felt a wave of sympathy for her predicament.

Difficult and demanding till the end, for human contact she relied upon Aunt Mal and Mom, ever faithful to their deceased brother. The sisters visited their sister-in-law, Thelma, dutifully and frequently in her upscale apartment north of Miami; they took her to lunch and food shopping, softening the deepening all-embracing loneliness that characterized Aunt Thelma’s last decade. Thelma was a “shopping terrorist.”She couldn’t shop by herself with both her vision failing and her body in pain. Mom would accompany her to shop for food. She’d take four items, put three back, argue with the store managers and cashiers over prices “making a scene.”

Mom took pictures of her in her last years. I have saved a few but could not find the ones I was looking for. But I remember them well. A physically stately and beautiful woman in her youth, “classy” and from Chicago, her appearance deteriorated as she stopped taking care of herself. On several occasions she was found fainted on the floor of her apartment, the apartment itself looking like it was ransacked, although she denied that anything like that had happened, or that anything had been stolen. She looked liked she had been beaten up with black eyes and a swollen face, but she said that it was the result of a fall.

Terribly sad photos.

Bitterness occasionally surfaced – “Bill was not around much even when he was alive” I heard her once say, a sense of betrayal.

Who would ransake her apartment and beat her up, not so much interested in money or jewelry? What was that about? Papers? Documents? Maybe she did fall? Her life is an enigma in a way, someone a part of my life from birth but whom I really didn’t know because, in retrospect, she never really let anyone else in – not even my mother and Aunt Mal.

But then Uncle Willie was even more private, if not secretive.

The sisters, sisters-in-law, Grandma Sarah and cousin Joel Magazine. From left to right. My mom, then Beatrice Prensky, Aunt Pearl, Grandma Sararh, Aunt Thelma, Aunt Mal, Aunt Ray and sitting on a bench, cousin Joel. Late 1944. Mom is pregnant with me at the time. Note the hairdos.

3. Uncle Willie – William Magazine

Sometime in 1979, my mother and her husband, Nat Kaye, sold the house in Jamaica, Queens where my sisters and I had spent our early years after the family moved from Flatbush, and moved to a condominium community in Hollywood, Florida, Carriage Hills. For years before the move, Uncle Willie would come north from Florida – he and Thelma had moved there earlier – and spend a month with my Mom, living in our house in Jamaica. He came uninvited and just camped out at 84-20.(1)

I was already gone from the house, to college, France, Tunisia and by 1979 had been living in Colorado for ten years. I never witnessed Uncle Willie’s visits, just heard about him. (2) He had come to New York City, ostensibly, to do people’s taxes. He did do Mom’s taxes, but they were, frankly, not particularly complicated. What he did the rest of the time, frankly we had no idea because he never explained. In fact we never really knew what Uncle Willie did for a living because at least in my presence, no one ever talked about it. Who knows, perhaps he really was “a tax accountant.” I doubt I’ll ever know.

What I did know about Uncle Willie, besides the fact that he was, his whole life, a dedicated son and brother as befit the Magazine family tradition, is that he lived very well. In the 1950s and 1960s when I knew him best, he always drove a nice car – Buicks if I remember correctly. He was often off to Chicago from whence came Aunt Thelma. Aunt Thelma and Uncle Willie took more vacations than the rest of the family – road trips to the West, South and on into Canada.

Nice cars, often on vacation and then the pair moved to Florida sometime in the late 1960’s, early 1970s. Nothing unusual about that. A number of cousins, aunt and uncles did likewise, as did my mother and father – although separately. But while most of the rest of the family found housing in more middle class – working class housing complexes, Aunt Thelma and Uncle Willie lived in a decidedly the (then) more decidedly more upscale Hallendale neighborhood just north of Miami in more of a luxury apartment.

Something didn’t add up. Still doesn’t.

I suppose there are worse things than not knowing the details of an uncle’s life. Nor was I particularly curious until my later years long after he had died. Then a series of incidents, each small in their own right, made me wonder.

Herb Prensky – Back row, second from the right.
Willie Magazine – back row next to Herb Prensky on the far right

First – admittedly it was more than thirty years ago – a relative warned me, without elaborating, “to stay away from” Uncle Willie. Had no idea why. Never asked, was never told. What could he have possibly done to merit that warning?

Secondly – I accidentally caught him in a compromised position once. Just walked in on him. Neither of us ever mentioned the incident, but it weighed on me.

Then there was my father’s remark. He didn’t trust him.

He and Uncle Willie had served in the same unit on a military base in New Jersey during the war and… on the same bowling team! The only person my father, Herb Prince, ever criticized from the Magazine side of the family was, Uncle Willie whom he viewed as some kind of sneaky operater, but at what, he never said, and frankly, not being that interested in the first place, I never asked for an elaboration.

My mother who trusted her older brother, still, once commented that she couldn’t understand how Uncle Willie made such a good living from doing a few friends and family members’ taxes a month a year.

It was vaguely unsettling, but that was all.

I’ve heard worse, not particularly serious (Willie somehow got my father, who was a lieutenant, to somehow insure that Willie remained stateside during the World War II. After the war, Uncle Willie applied for and got disability for war-time physical ailments. Without saying too much, my father made it clear that Willie was pretty healthy and that his application was some kind of scam.

A Lansky Connection? 

And then I read Little Man” by Robert Lacey.

And all of a sudden, Uncle Willie’s life started to make sense – although I could never prove – nor can I today – that anything which follows is no more than speculation based on slight hints of a life that just didn’t add up – with a nice neat explanation that at least to my mind fills in the dots. Still…

Little Man is a biography of Meyer Lansky, the early 20th century Jewish gangster from Brooklyn; the book is well-researched, Lansky’s life honestly told, probably the most authoritative book on the man. It reads like a piece of investigative journalism. I was drawn to the book – and Lansky’s story – from the first page. In fact it was the early description of Lansky’s life the streets of Brooklyn in the early 20th century between World War 1 and 2 that kept me riveted from the outset. The parallels with both the Prensky and the Magaziner family jumped out at me.

A poor Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn whose family hailed from Grodno (then a part of Poland, now in western Belarus), Lansky grew up in the same neighborhood and at the same time as my Magaziner (3) uncles whose family also came from the Grodno Gubernia (Grodno Province). It was common place for Jewish immigrants from the same regions to find one another and cling together once stateside; Bialystok and Grodno associations of descendants of these regions continue to function a century later.

And so it was with youth gangs.

Lansky, a man who had some kind of extraordinary memory for numbers, was a part of a Brooklyn Grodno gang and very soon came to lead its operations. It was no different occupation-wise than Italian, Irish or Chinese gangs of the same era: into drugs, prostitution, gambling, extortin rackets. Besides his statistical abililties, Lansky was from the very outset a shrewder operator than many. Although he was not adverse to physical violence, bullying, assassination and the like, he used such tactics throughout his career, as a last resort. Although pretty much all his activities began in the realm of the illegal he was one who was looking to make the jump from the illegal to legitimate enterprise – and largely did so, especially with his gambling casinos and hotels.

Uncle Willile and Aunt Thelma with their friends. They are the couple on the left. 1940, the same year as their wedding.

He was nothing short of an outstanding negotiator with other organized crime elements – the Italians, in particular. Greedy, power hungry and ambitious, still, he was careful to cut deals with other criminal syndicates, the boundaries of which he respected. The “pie” was large enough for there to be room for others. Within the realm of U.S. organized crime, he was “principled” and I am rather certain that is why he lived much longer than many of his associates. When necessary, he knew how to defend his interests from interlopers, of which there were many.

Same with Lansky’s personal habits.

A light drinker, to my knowledge he did not personally indulge in drugs nor prostitution. A natty dresser and someone sensitive to his personal appearance, but who preferred not being in the lime light, it is said of Lansky that if he had “gone straight” he could have become the C.E.O. of General Motors. I think there is truth in that. The more I read of Lansky I was struck that he was not that different from – and was very much like – my uncles, my father and those of that generation. They were, as are many, if not most, immigrant youth from immigrant communities, hungry to make it out of poverty. There were two ways to it more or less: legally or illegally. Those taking the legal route were educated, benefitted from the explosion of free public higher education of the 1920s and 1930s, went into the professions, business or government and took the legitimate path to success. Lansky “did it his way” starting out with gangs and crime syndicats but in the end, I am convinced there wasn’t much difference between the two.

I was in fact so impressed with Lacy’s Lansky biography that I wrote the author thanking him. He wrote me back and we had a brief exchange. In Lansky, Lacy had provided a model, or to use a more modern word, “a template” for the world of “Jews Without Money” in New York in the early 20th century. William Magazine – Uncle Willie fit the template although I have not be able to find any mention of his name in association with Lansky. Still…

There were other parallels, or possible ones.

What was most striking was the way that the lives of Meyer Lansky and William Magazine dove-tailed.

Uncle Willie move to Florida at about the same time that Lansky did. He lived the same neighborhoods and at the same time as Lansky. One interesting fact about Lansky has to do with the casino business he started in Florida. He learned early on that to be successful in the casio business, he had to offer a quality product, ie as little cheating as necessary, a safe casino environment that people in large numbers would feel comfortable, a need to cater to people of different classes – not only the rich – and that it was far more profitable to run a “respectable,” legitimate casino thank some underhanded operation shaking people down. Gambling became far more dominant in his portfolio than drugs; shaking down, strong-arming gambling and drug money debtors was nowhere near as profitable – or as easy – as buying politicians and local police forces.

If the road to success had begun a crooked one, goal had been achieving legitimacy and legality. How different is that from those 19th century merchants – the Cabots, the Lodges, the ones have given their names to libraries and dormitories at Harvard or Yale – who made their fortunes in the slave trade or piggybacking the British by forcing opium on the Chinese in the 19th century?

Not very much at all, from where I am sitting.

Uncle Lou Magazine, my mother’s older brother, became a stock broker whose stock recommendations to siblings led the latter to lose a great deal of money. If I am right – and I am not sure that I am – Uncle Willie took a  different tact. What does it all add up to? That Willie was some kind of accountant in the Lansky organization.

In Lansky’s casino business, accountants – who could create two, three sets of books – were more important than hit men, although the latter were always needed “for special occasions.” Dealing with such large amounts of cash, it is not that difficult to hide earnings through various means – shell organizations, creative accounting, whatever. It is very possible that this is what Uncle Willie did for a living and if I am right, he was good enough at it to have become both indispensible to Lansky and well off financially in the process. In fact, Lansky was something of a tax avoidance pioneer for which he needed highly skilled legal and accounting advice.

Is this what Uncle Willie did as a living?

Much of what Lansky did in this regard – like his casino business – would also become mainstream and legal through the Reagan, Bush and now Trump continued tax code revisions. Now the ultra-rich can steal legally through tax havens, complex shell companies and the like.

Was the Nostrand Ave. candy store my three uncles ran for a number of years little more than a front for numbers,gambling and who knows what else? Or did the uncles actually make a living on sellling cokes, malteds and candy to increasingly non-white kids, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the main who were moving in and replacing the Jewish, Italians, Irish and Poles, many of whom had found their way out to Queens, Nassau County and parts east of the city.

Was Aunt Thelma’s battered face, in the photos my mother took of her the year before her death the result of “a fall?” – (Please!), or some kind of threat that she remain silent about what she knew… and to my knowledge, never revealed about her husband.

 

Willie Magazine “a top Leo’s (?) roof”. 1927

___________________________

  1. 84-20 Chapin Parkway, Jamaica, New York, family home from 1949-1979
  2. From my mother and Aunt Mal
  3. While family changed their name from Magaziner, the name of the immigrant family, to “Magazine”, dropping the “r”, sometime in the 1930s as a way to Americanize the name.

 

 

 

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    September 1, 2020 2:13 pm

    Are you any relation to Ira Magaziner, who came from somewhere in the Brooklyn-Queens part of NYC to Brown U and led undergrad students in a successful move to change the entire curriculum of the school while he was still an undergrduate? He graduated in ’69, became a famous business and health consultant, and eventually the architect of Hillary & Bill Clinton’s health care plan in the early ’90s. Which, as we all know, was stopped cold by Republicans in Congress who claimed that the bill was too long to read.

    • September 1, 2020 2:17 pm

      It is possible, but I am not certain. Could not connected the dots… but was told that the people with the name “Magaziner” are somehow related. I believe one of my cousins inquired but got no answer.

  2. Tom Moore permalink
    September 1, 2020 10:13 pm

    I was friend;y with a Beatrice Kaye who lived on 9th street here in Bldr. She said that she came from a little town down along Rt 85 south of Denver. Tom

    >

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