by Mrs. Manicotti (ASC) It should happen more often than it does but once in a while you find brilliance when you’re not really looking for it. Take Suzanne Wasserman, Director of the Gotham History Center of New York City, for example. While the name sounded familiar, when Brian Berger first mentioned it to me, I couldn’t quite place it. Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river, that I knew, but the Gotham Center is on 5th Avenue, so she couldn’t the same lady. Since Berger was frantically trying to assemble his end of last November’s New York Calling event at the Gotham Center, I never did learn who Suzanne was. (Sewell Chan’s New York Times piece about the show, while enlightening on some issues, only furthered the mystery.) All I got out of Berger when I asked him about Suzanne again was “What? She’s big, Manicotti, big. Look, I gotta go, this reading I’m supposed to do up in the Bronx is totally falling apart.” Well… show business!
Slow Dissolve, five months later: I’d loaned Berger my copy of The Pawnbroker (1964), directed by Sidney Lumet, with the great Boris Kaufman on board as cinematographer and was curious what the legendary cineaste thought. Since Berger is one of those people who almost never answer their phone, I sent him an e-mail. “Ah crap, Manicotti— I’m sorry,” he replied from the small Gulf Coast town of Ozona, Florida, where he was then recuperating from undisclosed tsuris, perhaps the vapors. “Dude, I’ve got it right here, along with those two Suzanne Wasserman DVDs I haven’t watched yet either,” the beleaguered South Brooklyn writer replied. “I told you about her, right?” Barely, dude, but on April 17, 2008, somebody would. “Suzanne Wasserman’s Amazing Documentaries: Tonight!”
Jump Cut: I was flabbergasted. Then, after watching Suzanne’s films, Thunder In Guyana (2003), about the amazing, intertwined political lives of a radical Jewish woman from Chicago, Janet Rosenberg, and her Guyanese-native partner, Cheddi Jagan, and Brooklyn Among The Ruins (2005), about subway enthusiast Paul Kronenberg, of Sheepshead Bay, I was awed. Lots of people pretend to seek out swart strangeness and charm— a few even find it— but it’s a rare artist indeed who does so with such alacrity and enthusiasm, as well as what seems Suzanne’s utter lack of artifice. She’s not telling other people’s stories to make herself look anything except engaged. In a world of sham Authority (academia, journalism, the arts, you-name-it), this is a radical and infectious stance. Is modesty just a pose? How did Suzanne Wasserman make it to the top of her game? Where is Janet Jagan today? I told Berger if he ever wanted me do it for this website again— whatever it is— he’d better find out, and quickly. So the dude put on his Herodotus hat and did. Selah!
Brian Berger: For people who might not have had the pleasure of meeting you at the Gotham Center for NYC History, how did you come to New York? You’re a trained historian yourself, of course.
Suzanne Wasserman: I was born and raised in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. President-elect Barack Obama was a next door neighbor of my mother’s until he bought his house nearby.
I came to NYC for the first time as a teenager in the mid-1970s and immediately fell in love with the city. Although I loved growing up in Hyde Park – the 70s was a tough time. There was a lot of crime (a young man was shot to death in the hallway of my public high school) and racial tensions were rife. No one ever left the house in the evenings but in NYC everyone was out and about at all hours. I felt instinctively the Jane Jacobean life of NYC! Yes, there was crime in NYC, too, but I felt the eyes of local shopkeepers, vendors and folks sitting on their stoops on me. It certainly made me feel safer. I was captivated by the street life of the city – the peddlers, the performers in Washington Square Park, the crowds in midtown. I moved here after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and I’ve been here almost 30 years.
Brian: What are your impressions of New York when you moved here? Of course, you work with one of the great all-city minds, Mike Wallace, but what was the balance of boroughs in your mind?
Suzanne: I’ve loved living in NYC from the second I arrived. I’ve always been interested in the history of my immediate environs. (In Madison, my senior thesis was an oral history of Madison in the 1960s.) Living in the East Village in the 1980s, I became fascinated by the remaining Jewish informal and formal institutions and people. It morphed slowly into a 1990 dissertation about the Lower East Side during the Depression. I was interested in why certain people remain in certain neighborhoods instead of moving away and how those who move away feel about their neighborhood after they’ve gone. I’m an inherently nostalgic person, even for the bad stuff, (as is my mother) and that developed into an intellectual pursuit.
From the beginning, I’ve explored all of NYC. I’ve spent time for example, visiting Alice Austen House on Staten Island, eating on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, swimming in Coney Island and Brighton Beach and walking in Gateway National Park at in Jamaica Bay, Queens. I love exploring new neighborhoods. NYC is infinitely interesting.
Brian: Do you have any favorite historians as writers? I’ve started to appreciate Lawrence Levine a lot lately, and also an Australian who writes a lot about slave-era New York, Shane White.
Suzanne: I have a Ph.D. in American History from NYU. I’ve always been most interested in how to present history interestingly for a public audience. Over the years, I’ve done that through film making, writing, lecturing, curating and creating public programs. It follows that my favorite historians are wonderful writers. First on my list is Mike Wallace. He writes beautifully and his prose appears effortless. I know that’s not the case. He is one of the hardest working historians around. I predict that Gotham, Part II, which brings the story of our city through World War II, will win him another Pulitzer Prize!
My favorite historians include Lawrence Levine, also Natalie Zemon Davis, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Roy Rosenzweig, Eric Foner, Christine Stansell, E. P. Thompson, Herbert Gutman and many, many more. When I was trained as a social historian, biography was looked down upon but since then it’s had a huge renaissance. Personal favorites include Deborah Solomon’s Utopia Parkway about Joseph Cornell, Robert Caro’s Power Broker about Robert Moses, Hayden Herrera’s Frida on Frida Kahlo. Other biographers I admire are Tom Kessner (LaGuardia), David Nasaw (Hearst and Carnegie), Blanche Cook (Eleanor Roosevelt), David Reynolds (Walt Whitman) (all faculty at The CUNY Graduate Center!) I also read a lot of historical fiction which is mostly pretty bad. Russell Banks’ fantastic novel Cloudsplitter on John Brown is an exception. I also appreciate good memoirs like Joseph Berger’s Displaced Persons. Finally, I love non-fiction essays. My absolutely favorite writer is Joseph Mitchell. His profile “Joe Gould’s Secret” is one of the greatest pieces of non-fiction ever written. I also love Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief. My new favorite non-fiction writer is Tony Horwitz. Blue Latitudes is brilliant and so is Confederates in the Attic.
Brian: Who are some of the historians who most influenced or inspired you?
Suzanne: I started out as a freshman at Brandeis University and was lucky to take classes with two wonderful professors – Steve Whitfield and John Demos. John Demos taught a class in family history and almost three decades later I made my first feature film, Thunder in Guyana (2003), based on a family story. After a year at Brandeis, I transferred to University of Wisconsin. When I arrived in Madison, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I took gigantic lecture classes with superstar historians Harvey Goldberg and George Mosse. The classes were fantastic, in part because every day, gathering with friends before and after class, was like a party. I had no idea what a powerhouse Madison was for the study of history. I began to take classes with a young historian named Daniel T. Rogers. He taught American cultural history and over the next three years I took seminars, independent studies and did a senior thesis with him. It was the most satisfying and eye-opening intellectual experience of my life. I realized I had a passion for history. He’s now a superstar at Princeton.
Brian: Who has had an influence on your own research and thinking?
Suzanne: I’ve been influenced by many historians but also by anthropologists (Clifford Geertz and Barbara Myerhoff), folklorists (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett – another inspiring teacher), sociologists (Herbert Gans), and political scientists (Marshall Berman). Fiction has also played a big role in my research, particularly the fiction of Anzia Yezierska . She wrote at the beginning of the 20th century about life on the Lower East Side. The title of my dissertation “The Good Old Days of Poverty,” is a line from her award-winning 1919 short story “The Fat of the Land.” More on Anzia later…
Brian: Even a lot of natives sort of take the subway system for granted, although NYC is where all the (known) foamers are; what was your experience and perception of the subways before becoming aware of Paul Kronenberg? I sort of think people who ride elevated lines have an advantage, which isn’t to deny the many hardcore tunnel rats, especially graffiti writers, who love the underground.
Suzanne: Actually, I hated the subways! I am a bit claustrophobic and when I arrived in NYC in the 1980s the subways were a lot different than they are now. I loved the graffiti on the outside of the trains but the tagging inside was depressing. The subways were hot and crowded and broke down a lot. Paul Kronenberg, the subject of my 2nd film, Brooklyn: Among the Ruins (2005), and I are both inherently nervous people. But the subway is comforting to Paul, not scary. So oddly, I felt very safe with him on the subways. While riding around with the rail fans, I thought, “Well, if the train breaks down, who better to be with than the rail fans??”
Brian: You and Paul go out to Coney Island, which is one of his other great enthusiasms, including collecting Coney memorabilia; I confess to having similar affinities to Paul, which is to say the more deserted and decaying Coney—even funky Mermaid Avenue, with African, Mexican and Puerto Rican shops next to each other, the Peurto Rican community garden with little coqui figures in it, etc— are more beautiful. Anyway, how did your exploration of those areas effect your view of what you knew already and what insight did it give you into Paul? You suggest that, despite Paul’s denial, he is something of an artist, and I agree—he’s created an ‘environment’ or ‘installation’ that’s really quite remarkable.
Suzanne: I was interested in Paul as a character because he has a very particular relationship to the past and I wanted to make a film not about the past per se, but about people’s relationship to it. I’m interested in what gives meaning to people’s lives. At The Gotham Center for NYC History, at The CUNY Graduate Center, our forums attract a lot of history buffs. Because 2004 was the 100th anniversary of the subway, I thought I’d start by looking at the rail fans.
At first I thought that Paul was a deeply nostalgic person. He took me to the skee ball alley on Surf Avenue and showed me the old skee ball machines that are analog, not digital. When I learned that those machines had been discarded, I thought Paul would be sad; but quite the contrary. He’s an amazingly upbeat, forward –looking person for someone who cares deeply about the past. He’s always finding new interests and passions.
Brian: In the credits to Ruins, you note your father lived in Brooklyn 1933-1937, do you know where exactly and did you hear any stories? Those were still the years of great Yiddish culture in Brooklyn, among other things.
Suzanne: My father was born in Chicago in 1928. His first language was Yiddish. In 1933, my grandmother left my grandfather and moved with my father to Brooklyn. They lived in Bensonhurst with my grandmother’s sister and her family. My grandmother was an ardent Communist and so was her sister’s family. My father’s uncle Isadore made my father a wooden sword inscribed with the words “Death to the Capitalists! To the Last Drop of Blood!” Later my grandmother’s politics caused my father untold problems during the McCarthy Era. In fact, I’ve written an essay about my father’s few years of childhood in Brooklyn. The essay is going to appear in the City Section of the New York Times very soon. So I won’t say much more about it here.
Brian: The next family turn is a doozy, your cousin Janet Jagan, born Rosenberg, of Chicago. You note your mother was a great inspiration for your interest in history, do you recall how the Janet stories first struck you and how your appreciation evolved as you became more learned?
Suzanne: My mother is a deeply nostalgic person and loved telling stories about the past. She was born in South Shore on the south side of Chicago and lived near her glamorous older cousin, Janet Rosenberg. When she was five, my grandfather deserted my grandmother due to his compulsive gambling. It was the midst of the Depression and my mother and grandmother had to move to the west side of the city where all the poor Jews lived. They moved in with my grandmother’s brother and wife and two kids. I used to love listening to stories my mother told about living on the west side during the Depression. Recently, she and another friend were reminiscing about the local candy store that doubled as a house of prostitution! (I’ve written about candy stores on the Lower East Side.)
My mother had many, many memories of Janet and she also had a red photo album filled with photos, magazine and newspaper articles, telegrams and letters about Janet and Cheddi. I was fascinated by it and used to take the album out of the hall closet and rifle through it.
Brian: I understand why it wasn’t in the film but do you have an idea who some of Janet’s political influences were as a young woman? It’s amazing Cheddi Jagan, the son of Guyanese sugar plantation workers, was even at Northwestern University, let alone that he and Janet had this great intellectual and personal relationship.
Suzanne: Janet met Cheddi at a party at International House at the University of Chicago in 1943. She was a nursing student at Cook County hospital and he was a dental student at Northwestern University. They fell in love at first sight and were married for 54 years. I think Janet was very much a product of her time. She came of age during the Depression and was inspired by the radicalism on the campus of Wayne State University where she had been an undergraduate. My mother claims that their grandfather, Adolph Kronberg, was also an influence. He was a Romanian-Jewish immigrant who came to this country in the late 19th century and settled in Chicago. He never joined any political parties but was a great humanist and progressive thinker.
Brian: Janet and Cheddi return to Guyana in 1943, and become very involved in the British Colonial politics there and the founding of the People’s Progressive Party. The clips of Cheddi on American tv you found were amazing; they reminded a little of the accounts of (to be blacklisted lefty) Lionel Stander testifying before HUAC. What was you feeling when you first watched those appearances?
Suzanne: Yes, the archival material I found is amazing. I wish I could have used more but stock footage houses charge $2500 a minute. It’s prohibitively expensive for truly independent film makers like me. Even more amazing was the archival footage I found of Janet. As soon as I saw that footage, I knew I had to make a film, even though I’d never made one before.
Brian: You need not agree but I will say publicly I’ve never been a fan, at any distance, of Arthur Schlesinger, either as a historian or Kennedy clan courtesan. Am I scapegoating Schlesinger or would anyone in his position done the same thing, i.e. encourage the CIA meddling in Guyanese affairs to discredit Cheddi and his anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist rhetoric?
Suzanne: I’m not a fan of Schlesinger’s, either. I think his description of what they did in British Guiana in A Thousand Days is incredibly flippant. I tried to interview him for the film; he wrote me a note saying he had never met Janet! As if that had anything to do with it! But he did apologize to Cheddi . The apology was arranged with the help of Victor Navasky of The Nation. And thanks to the screen writer Zac Sklar, I did find C-Span footage of him apologizing publicly at an historical convention. He said it was a stupid policy they instigated in British Guiana. I couldn’t find a good place to work it into the film but it is kind of amazing.
Brian: For us on the outside, it’s easy to be charmed by the beauties of Guyana and Guyanese people but the schism between the Afro-Guyanese and Indian-Guyanese is significant—we see this in NYC, of course, where the Afro are mostly intermingled with the West Indian (Carribean) diaspora of Brooklyn, while the Indians have reinvented Richmond Hill, Queens in their image. Janet could try to be outside that—and likewise yourself as filmmaker—but it’s a very difficult thing to do, isn’t it?
Suzanne: The racial schism is the most horrendous legacy of colonialism. I don’t think Janet is outside the schism between Afro and Indo-Guyanese and I don’t think I was either. As soon as people heard I was her cousin (even a 1st cousin, once removed!), they hesitated to talk to me. I totally understood their reaction but because of that I could not make an objective film. I tried to wear as much of my “historian” cap as I could, but the story is definitely told from an outsider’s perspective and an outsider who happens to be related to the subject and frankly, admires her. I tried to make that as transparent as I could in the film.
Brian: Guyana finally achieves independence from Britain in 1966 and goes into a civic funk of rigged elections decline, before bursting on the international scene again in 1978, with Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple madness. Were you old enough then to hear that news and think—aside from the awesome tragedy— like whoa… I know Guyana.
Suzanne: Most people know absolutely nothing about Guyana except for Jonestown. In fact, I had librarians ask me if it was in Africa or an island! In 1978, Cheddi had already been out of office for 15 years. He and Janet stayed and tried to fight for the return of democracy but it would still be another 14 years before that took place. Their perseverance was remarkable. Jonestown took place at an absolute nadir in Guyanese history. The 70s and 80s were years of massive emigration.
Brian: Throughout the ‘80s, Cheddi is sort of a freelance diplomat, trying to bring international attention to the Guyanese electoral system, which leads, via Jimmy Carter, to Cheddi’s 1992 election. How important was international supervision then and what took so long?
Suzanne: I think that once that Forbes Burnham was firmly entrenched and became dictatorial, the U.S. just threw their hands up and walked away. Absolutely no one in the world community cared what happened there – until Jimmy Carter intervened in 1992. We were there for the second free and fair election ever. It was absolutely incredible to see people so excited about democracy even though the election was fraught with difficulties. It was even more amazing to awake the day after the 2000 election was stolen here and think, “Where am I? Guyana in the 1970s?”
Brian: I’m always wary to ask about very elderly people because I’m afraid of bad news but how’s Janet today? Is she still Guyana, I presume? I know from reading the Caribbean press here in New York that things are still a great struggle there.
Suzanne: Janet has been in Guyana since 1943. At screenings, audience members assumed she now lives in the States. She gave up her American citizenship the first time she ran for office which was in the 1940s. She is a Guyanese citizen and is as devoted as ever to her adopted homeland. She is closing in on 90 and still goes to work at her party office every day. The film can be ordered through my distributor, Women Make Movies.
Brian: I know you have a wide range of historical interests and among them is the Lower East Side, which here in Brooklyn we know foremost as the birthplace of the great poet Louis Zukofsky (first language Yiddish). What sort of things have you been digging into? Also, do you have a sense when the LES as center of New York’s Jewish culture declined? I believe Brooklyn’s Jewish population surpassed Manhattan’s in the 1920s and for a time in the 1930s and ‘40s, Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville and East New York, Brooklyn was quite a significant cultural thoroughfare. (Of course, the radical history there goes back further, to Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger both.)
Suzanne: I’ve been writing about the Lower East Side for the past twenty-five years. One point of my 1990 dissertation was that developers and planners tried to re-make the neighborhood into a community for the wealthy and that those plans were stymied by the Depression. Also, that the neighborhood became a locus of Jewish nostalgia and cultural tourism as soon as Jews started moving out – in the 1920s. I wrote the dissertation in the 1980s when it seemed that the Lower East side would continue forever to be a place of first settlement for immigrant New Yorkers. What’s happened down there is exactly what developers predicted in the 1920s. If only I could have predicted that, I’d be rich!
Brian: How did you get involved with the photographs of Rebecca Lepkoff and where does her work fit in with other documentary photographers of both the LES specifically and NYC during those years generally?
Suzanne: I met Rebecca Lepkoff through Susan Fleminger at Henry Street Settlement. I loved her photographs the moment I saw them. They document the Lower East Side during the 1930s and 40s – exactly the years I wrote about.
Brian: What’s next for Suzanne Wasserman, filmmaker? Even with digital technology, I know movies are a very substantial investment of time and resources but I hope you and others can persist in doing work that’s unsullied by the cliches and tropes of the Big Documentary racket.
Suzanne: I’m working on a short film called The Sweatshop Cinderella about the writer Anzia Yezierska. Not only is her work invaluable for its depiction of life on the Lower East Side but she had an amazing life! She came to NYC as a 10 year old immigrant, earned as BA at Columbia, fell in and out of love with John Dewey, wrote and published award-winning short stories and novels and in 1922 was wooed to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. She hated it and turned down a $100,000, three-year contract to return to NY and labor away in increasing obscurity.
I’m also starting work on a new book with Nancy Ralph at the New York Food Museum about NYC history and food and a short film might come out of that.
I’m very interested in food culture in NYC – not food per se, I am not a good cook, but in restaurants, candy stores, cafes etc. But I am not, as the Times recently noted, a food historian. I wrote an essay on the history of peddling in NYC for a new book from Columbia University Press called Gastropolis: Food and New York City, edited by Annie-Hauck Lawson and Jonathan Deutsch.
Brian: Your day job is as the Director of the Gotham Center for NYC History at the CUNY Graduate Center. Can you talk about that a bit?
Suzanne: I have the best job! In the winter of 1999, I got a call from the historian Mike Wallace. He was going to open a public history center for NYC history at the new location of the CUNY Graduate Center on 34th and Fifth Avenue. I’d known Mike Wallace for many years and always admired his work and mission as an historian. He’d been able to raise some funds, in no small part thanks to his newly awarded Pulitzer Prize, and he could hire me on a part-time basis as a consultant. I jumped at the chance!
Almost a decade later, I am now the Director of the Gotham Center. Mike continues to offer wisdom and time to the Center but is also busily teaching and writing. We spent the past almost ten years producing hundreds of public programs, conferences, festivals, trained thousands of public school teachers, served millions on our website, collaborated with almost every history-related cultural institutions in NYC, been quoted in dozens of newspaper articles around the world, given advice to film makers, academics and buffs.
Our mission, too, is simple but important — to examine and explore the city’s rich history, and to make it accessible to citizens and scholars, teachers and students, locals and out-of-towners. We bring together – in both real and virtual spaces – an array of talented academics and buffs, curators and archivists, librarians and teachers, filmmakers and preservationists, all of whom study, preserve and present the city’s rich and fascinating past. We also boost the visibility of New York’s vast historical assets – history museums, historical societies, historic sites and landmarked buildings – through collaborations and promotion.
Gotham Forums draw audiences of more than 3000 annually. Over the past eight seasons we’ve brought a diverse and spectacular array of guests to The Gotham Center. We’ve screened sneak peeks from films by Martin Scorsese and Ric Burns. We’ve listened to and examined the Latin music of Nelson Gonzalez, the Broadway music of Yip Harburg and the origins of hip hop in the South Bronx. We’ve featured historians such as Christine Stansell and David Levering Lewis, architectural critics Herbert Muschamp and Nicolai Ouroussoff, city officials Richard Ravitch and Amanda Burden, punk legends Lenny Kaye and Legs McNeil, jazz critic Gary Giddins, graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy, cartoonist Harvey Pekar, writers Tom Wolfe and Claude Brown, as well as political scientists, anthropologists and sociologists to name just a few, and all for FREE. Gotham also connects people to resources, events, and each other via our website drawing over six million hits per year. We have participated in numerous U.S. Department of Education Teaching American History grants in the past two years serving over 2000 teachers, providing history content and arts workshops. Check out www.gothamcenter.org for further information.
Mrs. Manicotti (ASC) grew up on Mill Street, Red Hook & wishes more than anything she’d been with László Kovács in Peru during the filming of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie. A former President of the South Brooklyn Camera Club, she divides her time between Marine Park and Rockaway Beach. Like Suzanne Wasserman, she’s a big Carole King fan.
NOTE: The Youtube clips are from Blast of Silence (1961), a little crime picture by Jewish kid from East New York named Allen Baron. Read all about it!