“It was her dream, my mother’s.” Harry Bernstein is bedridden with pneumonia, congestive heart failure, a blood disorder, bad kidneys, and age — 99 years, eight months. I haven’t seen Harry in weeks. He is failing.
His voice rattles with phlegm. “‘Harry,’ she said, ‘you are going to be somebody when you grow up … somebody important … a doctor or lawyer … maybe a famous writer with your name on a book. Something, Something by Harry Bernstein. Only in America can it happen. We are going to America.’”
It was 1919. The Bernstein family was nearly destitute. What few pence his mother earned selling bruised fruit pulled and cleaned from the gutters kept her children alive. Steamship tickets to Ellis Island cost plenty: one adult and child $52.50 — with five little ones along it cost three times the price.
“My mother had no schooling. Writing letters to relatives in America asking them to send tickets was my first real writing job. ‘Write nicely,’ she said. ‘Don’t sound pushy. Everybody in America has money, but nobody likes pushy.’”
These are Harry Bernstein’s words for the most part. I do my best to remember, since I never took notes during my visits. I wanted no invisible wall (borrowing from the title of his first book) separating America’s oldest-working writer from his struggling 60-something student.
“Harry, she would tell me, in America dreams happen. Not like soap bubbles from a clay pipe … bubbles that burst when you grab them. The streets are paved with gold, mansions left and right.” The tickets came eventually. “After nine days at sea, we arrived to find no gold, no mansions … just shoddy tenements like we left in England. But my mother’s dream for me never faded. We were in America after all.”
In his twenties, Harry sold two short stories to small literary magazines — The Anvil and Liberty. “After that I hit a dry spell that lasted 70 years. Forty novels. Not a one of them published. I wrote every day after spending 14 hours as a reader for Twentieth Century Fox; Grapes of Wrath got the go-ahead based on my recommendation. You’re welcome, Henry Fonda.”
On the flip side, he said no to a historical romance — Southern trash, he called it. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. “I barely skimmed it … in too much of a rush. Ruby [his wife] and I had plans for the weekend. A cottage at the beach. Monday morning was my deadline. I deserved to be fired.”
His mother’s words echoed through the years. Today, a tenement, tomorrow a home in the Bronx or Queens. Today, homemade bread smeared with lard, sprinkled with sugar. Tomorrow, meat and potatoes. America rewards. Not like Poland, which she fled as an orphan at 16 … or the soot-washed mill town in England where Jews and Christians were divided by a cobblestone street — nothing in common other than hunger, foul weather and prejudice.
“My mother’s dream kept me going. If I lapsed during those years, Ruby got after me. “Remember what your mother said. ‘This is America. Keep writing. It will happen.’”
Ruby died of leukemia in 2003. Harry wished to follow her to whatever it is that comes next — if there is such a place. He was going to end his life until Adraenne, his daughter, a nurse practitioner, caught on and refused to allow him to give up.
“Harry, I said to myself, start writing again … no more fiction … write what I know … my childhood and all that went with it. Even if no publisher wants it, I still have something to leave my kids, so they’ll know what kind of stock they come from.”
But somebody did want Harry’s work: Random House. His memoir — The Invisible Wall — was published when he was 96. His follow-up memoir — The Dream — came out when he was 98. At 99, The Golden Willow was released. Harry completed his fourth and final memoir What Happened to Rose? a few weeks before he died at 101. Rose was released in 2012.
This is America, after all.
Pat Fagan is a former creative director/writer at New York and Midwest ad agencies, and the author of many human interest articles that celebrate the American spirit.