‘Everybody loved Jake Rosenheim, except his son Jimmy, who hated him’

Joseph Epstein

Everybody loved Jake Rosenheim, except his son Jimmy, who hated him. Jake — Jakey, to his friends, and everyone seemed to be his friend — had this completely irresistible smile, large white teeth flashing out at you like the grill of a new Cadillac. In the 1930s, Jakey had, as they say, a cup of coffee with the Chicago White Sox. He was a shortstop and, as he’d quickly tell you if you ever brought the subject up, though he never did, his problem was that he couldn’t hit the curve. He was also a scratch golfer, who, only if you asked him, gave out advice that was almost certain to improve your game. Five or six people have told me that Jakey essentially taught them how to putt.

Jakey Rosenheim was also a bookie, but a bookie with a difference. There was no hint of the Syndicate, as we called the Mafia in Chicago, about him, no sense of muscle or menance lurking behind betting with Jakey. Betting with him felt more like betting with an old friend. My guess is that most of his — what were we? — clients felt this way. I know I did. Sometimes Jakey would even put me off some of my wilder ventures in this realm. “Sure you want to do that, Harry?” I recall him once telling me. “Taking the Bengals giving ten points, that’s a stretch, kiddo, you might want to give it a bit more thought.”

Jake came into maturity with the onset of the Depression. His father, Meyer Rosenheim, who worked as a presser in the garment industry, died of tuberculosis in 1928, and so Jakey had to take a pass on college and go to work to help support his mother and two younger sisters. He worked in a scrap iron yard, was a flunky toting sample cases for a clothing salesman named Red Sternberg, drove a dry-cleaning truck, and had his try-out with the White Sox. Always a good athlete, his sports connection must have put him in touch with gamblers and from there with the Mob, who recognised Jake’s affability and backed his book. The Syndicate was not a subject that ever came up in my discussions with Jakey.

I was Jake Rosenheim’s lawyer. I handled his real-estate dealings, wrote his will, helped get him through the complexities of paying his taxes (no easy trick for someone in an illegal business). We lived only two blocks apart in West Rogers Park, but we didn’t socialise much. We both belonged to Tam O’Shanter, the country club just west of the city, and I met his wife, Babe, on four or five occasions. Babe wasn’t, technically speaking, a babe, a knock-out beauty, but there was nonetheless something very attractive about her, a high note of liveliness, a sense of the pleasure she took in life. She had dark hair and what seemed a permanent suntan, and was herself an excellent golfer. The Rosenheims had two kids, Lindy and Jimmy, and both seemed in line for good lives.

Jake was as far as possible from being a braggart, but he was proud of and didn’t mind talking about his son. The kid was not only a good athlete but had scientific talent. “Where he got it from,” Jakey said, “God knows.” On one of the few times I was in the Rosenheims’ modest bungalow on Coyle Avenue, Jake took me down to the basement to show me his son’s laboratory. He kept rabbits and mice and frogs, had Bunsen burners, chemical flasks bubbling away, and all sorts of other paraphernalia for chemical and biological experiments. And he wasn’t even in high school. When Jimmy was old enough, Jake sent him outside the city, to Evanston Township High School, which cost $600 a year, in those days a big ticket.

Jimmy, a shortstop like his father, played on the baseball team at ETHS. Jake claimed that, if he wanted to, he could have made it to the majors; unlike his old man, he could hit curve balls and, as Jake added, the kid was physically fearless. Early in his senior year at Evanston Jimmy won the Westinghouse Science Prize for something to do with enzymes. Jake couldn’t explain it,  and  I wouldn’t have been able to understand it if he could. Jimmy meanwhile won a scholarship to Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania. The future looked bright.

Then, not long after, Jimmy, in Jake’s infrequently-used Yiddish, went mechula, which Jake translated for me as meaning belly-up, failure, utter disaster. At Swarthmore, near the end of his freshman year, Jimmy dynamited a 300-year-old oak, at that time one of the school’s sacred, traditional landmarks. He acquired a plunger apparatus, and from a hundred or so yards away blew the thing to smithereens. Nor did he hide that it was he who did it. He was expelled from Swarthmore that same day.

“When I asked the kid why he did it,” Jake told me, “he said that the whole thing was phony. I told him that he must have realised his doing so would result in his being tossed out of school. ‘No big deal,’ he said. ‘The math and chemistry departments at the place were strictly bush-league and didn’t have much to teach me anyway,’ he said.”

Jimmy enrolled that autumn at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. So far as Jake knew, he was doing fine, until one afternoon he got a call from the Urbana police department that they had his son in custody for grand theft, larceny. Along with two town girls, who had fingered the jobs for him, Jimmy had robbed a series of well-to-do homes in the city. They found his loot — paintings, jewellery, odd bits of furniture — in a garage he had rented. Jake called me, his lawyer, and we drove down to Urbana to bail the kid out.

I defended Jimmy at his trial, pled him temporary insanity, and, because nearly all the stolen goods were returned and he had no previous record, got him off with two years’ probation and the agreement that he would go into psychotherapy for the same period. Jimmy agreed — what choice did he have? No one ever knew what his motive was in staging those robberies. At the time all he said to me was, “I didn’t take anything these people really needed,” which I thought odd. Back in Chicago, he took menial jobs, at places in the neighbourhood, mostly restaurants and take-out joints, Brown’s Chicken, Dairy Queen, Kofield’s, Peter Pan. Jimmy lived at home, continued to do experiments in the basement of his parents’ house, studied math on his own. Jake tried to get his son to explain what was going on, why he had changed so suddenly and radically, but Jimmy didn’t want to talk about it. Jake was frankly baffled, and so, for that matter, was I.

At the end of his two-year probation, Jimmy told his father that he wanted to go to Africa to work with Albert Schweitzer, at his hospital at Labarene, in Gabon. He had written to Schweitzer, who wrote back to tell him to come ahead, he could always use intelligent volunteers. Jake staked him to the trip. He remained in Africa for six months or so. When he returned, Jake asked him what he thought of Schweitzer. “He’s an asshole,” Jimmy said, “a complete phony.” He offered no further explanation.

Jimmy brought back two things from Africa: shoulder-length hair (the year was 1961, well in advance of the hippies) and a rhesus monkey he named Reb. The monkey went with him wherever he went, usually sitting on his shoulder, and if you invited Jimmy anywhere you apparently also got the monkey, who wasn’t house-trained. As you may have gathered from his comment about Albert Schweitzer, Jimmy’s language had also taken a solid stride or two downhill. Before now he never used profanity, or so at least Jake told me. Suddenly he didn’t utter a sentence not well supplied with it, even, according to Jakey, at dinner, in front of his mother and sister. “Pass the fuckin’ butter,” he might say, or “This soup tastes like piss.” Jake barred his son from the table until he had reformed his language, but he didn’t seem to mind eating alone in the kitchen or taking food down to his lab in the basement. The long hair, the monkey, the obscenity, Jake put up with all of it, which is more than I would have done.

That autumn, Jimmy enrolled at the University of Michigan. He blazed his way through the undergraduate math department there and stayed on as a graduate student, just in time for the student revolution of the Sixties. Michigan in those years, I’m told, was politically a Middle West branch of Berkeley. Jimmy was among the founding members of something called SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, and joined in every protest march, occupation of university buildings, and anything else they had on hand at the time. In between times, such was his intellectual talent, he managed to finish his work on his PhD.

Relations between Jimmy, Babe and Jake were more and more distant. It was a time with lots of federal money for graduate students, especially in the sciences, and Jimmy, who apparently had no expensive appetites, didn’t have to depend on his father financially. I asked Jakey why his son switched from biochemistry to mathematics.

“I’m not sure,” Jake said, “except that he told me that science, all science, was corrupt, contaminated. Mathematics was pure. I don’t know what he meant by that. Strange kid, my son.”

I lost touch with the Rosenheims for a bit. Jake had no need of my legal services, and I wasn’t a regular gambler, only a guy who took the occasional flutter, betting a couple of hundred on a pro football game when swept up by a hunch, and so a year or so went by without my seeing Jake. Then one afternoon at Tam O’Shanter, in the dining room, I saw Babe Rosenheim eating alone, greeted her, and asked if I might join her.

“How go things with you and Jake and the children?” I asked.

“Not so great,” she said. “Lindy, who married just last year, turns out to have breast cancer, and Jimmy is off teaching in Thailand.”

“How bad is the cancer?”

“Bad enough,” Babe said. “Apparently the younger a person is the more virulent the cancer, the more quickly it spreads. Poor girl is taking a heavy regimen of chemotherapy, which hasn’t been easy for her.”

“How come Jimmy’s teaching so far away?”

“I’m not sure I know. Before he left, he told off his father. I was there when he did it.”

“Told him off for what?”

“Jimmy told his father he thought he was ‘immoral.’ That was the word he used, ‘immoral.’”

“‘Immoral?’ How?”

“‘Immoral’ because of the way he made his living, mainly, but immoral generally as someone who lived only for himself and his family.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Our son, the little boy with the rabbits and frogs and mice in the basement, evidently fancies himself a revolutionary. His father, he said, is very much part of the problem.”

“What problem is that?”

“Mr Jacob Rosenheim, when all these years he thought he was doing his best for his family, is apparently standing in the way of the more perfect world envisioned by his son. Turns out in his son’s view his father is a crook.” Babe’s voice broke, her eyes went moist. I touched her hand.

Seven or so months later I read the notice of Lindy Rosenheim’s death in the obituary columns of the Chicago Tribune. I went to the memorial service at Piser-Weinstein on Church and Skokie Highway.

A large crowd was in attendance, maybe four hundred or so people. No surprise, since everyone, as I’ve said, who knew Jakey liked him, and Babe also had many friends of her own outside her marriage. The loss of a child is horrendous at any time, but Lindy Rosenheim was just twenty-five, starting out in life, and her death seemed especially unjust. I hesitated passing before the Rosenheims before the service began. What, after all, could one say in the least consoling about so unreasonable a death as their daughter’s? As I passed, Babe’s head was down. She was now initiated in that most dolorous of societies, mothers who have had to bury a child. Jake grasped my hand, looked up at me, and said, “Thank God Lindy had no children.” Jimmy, I noted, wasn’t there.

Roughly three years later, Babe Rosenheim died, at fifty-eight, of a heart attack, though, some said, probably more accurately, of a broken heart. Jimmy flew in for his mother’s funeral, but he was nowhere to be seen at the shiva I attended that night at the house on Coyle.

When next I saw Jake he told me he was thinking of closing down his book. Computer gambling was on its way in, and the Syndicate in Chicago was on its way out. He was in a dying business, he said, a blacksmith in the age of the automobile. What would he do, I asked?

“I was offered a job as a greeter at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. I thought I might try that for a while. Maybe a change of scene will do me good.”

As the man who did his will, I knew Jakey didn’t need the money, but it wasn’t easy to imagine Jakey, as the gamblers say, “out of action.” Perhaps being in Vegas would, even if in an indirect way, keep him if not exactly in action at least near the action.

“You’ve been more than a lawyer, Harry,” Jakey said to me, “you’ve been a friend, and I’m grateful to you.”

“I’ll miss you, Jake,” I said. “You’re a mensch. Always were, always will be.”

As I drove off I thought of Jake’s situation. Wife and daughter gone, a son who had cut off all communication with him. (If he had any connection with his sisters, he never mentioned them to me.) His work had dried up on him. He was leaving the city he had grown up in and all the friends he had made over the years. He was nearly seventy. I couldn’t think of anyone lonelier than the always sociable Jake Rosenheim.

There remained the matter of Jake’s will. Now that Babe and Lindy were gone, his son Jimmy was his sole beneficiary. Over the phone, I asked Jake if he wanted Jimmy to continue as such.

“I don’t really have any other options, do I, Harry? I don’t have a pet dog or cat to give my money to.” Last Jake had heard, Jimmy was still teaching somewhere in south-east Asia, Laos, maybe, or Cambodia, possibly Vietnam. Pearl, my secretary was able to track down his address in Phnom Penh. I wrote to him there to tell him he needed to keep me informed of his current address because of the arrangements in his father’s will. I never heard back from him.

Something like a year and a half later Pearl walks into my office to announce that there is a Mr James Rosenheim in our waiting room. Right off I was struck by the resemblence between Jimmy and his father. The son had the same winning smile as his father; they moved alike, with the easy grace of the former athlete; the son’s hair was receded in nearly identical ways as his father’s. Good Lord, I thought, Jake Rosenheim’s son, the science prodigy Jimmy, must himself be nearly fifty or so by now.

After Jimmy introduced himself, I asked what could I do for him.

“I’m here for a mathematics conference at the University of Chicago,” he said. “I thought I’d call my father, but was told his number was out of service. He’s not in a hospital or a nursing home or anything like that?”

“Your father is in Las Vegas,” I told him. “Has been for the past nearly two years now.” My having to inform him of this showed how little the two, father and son, were in touch. “I have his phone number and address if you need it.”

“Thanks all the same, but I don’t,” he said.

“This comes under the category of none of my goddamn business, I know,” I heard myself saying, “but I think your father would like to hear from you.”

“Yeah, he probably would,” Jimmy answered.

“What do you have against him, exactly,” I asked.

“I have his corruption against him,” he said. “He was in business with thugs, and that makes him little more than a thug himself.”

“He provided a service, your father. So far as I know he didn’t cause anyone to go broke or be beaten up, or anything of the kind.”

“Really? How do you know that? How do you know he didn’t turn guys who owed him money over to Mafia guys who beat the hell out of them, killed them maybe? How do you know there haven’t been men who racked up big gambling debts with him and had to steal to pay him off or even take their own lives? You know that for sure, do you?”

“I don’t,” I said. “But I know your father. Whatever you may think, he is an honourable, a decent man.”

“Sorry, but we’re going to have to disagree about that.”

Changing the subject, I asked, “Are you married? Have any children?”

“Negative to both questions. Why would I want to bring children into this world?”

 “Too bad you don’t care much for the world as it is, and want to change it. The problem is that some of us rather like that world, consider it an amusing and interesting place, and even, in its own crude way, a fairly sensible arrangement. You, I gather, would like to smash it all.”

“That’s putting it pretty starkly, but I suppose I wouldn’t completely disagree.”

“Smash away, but I still don’t see why you have to smash your dad along with it.”

“Sorry you don’t get it,” he said.

I was waiting for him to attack me as a lawyer, a man who earned his livelihood off other people’s miseries. Before he did, I said, “You know that you’re your father’s only legatee, the sole benefactor in his will?”

“I don’t need my father’s money. Tell him to leave it to Gamblers Anonymous, or the Anti-Cruelty Society.”

When next I talked with Jakey over the phone I decided not to mention his son’s turning up in my office. Jakey was in his mid-seventies now, his health breaking down — it was about his will that he called me — and I saw no point in depressing him further.

Jake Rosenheim died four days before his seventy-seventh birthday, in Vegas, alone, so far as I know, in a nursing home, of congested heart failure. I’m told this can be a fairly easeful death. I hope in Jakey’s case it was. Losing a wife and daughter to early deaths, a son to radical politics, he had had more than his share of grief.

Not long before he died, Jakey asked me to add a codicil to his will.

“Here’s the thing, Harry, my kid gets all the money at once he’s likely to give it all to a rest home for old Trotskyites or some damn thing. Better he just get the interest on the money in monthly instalments. Conservatively invested, as I have the money invested now, this should come to some four grand or so a month. If he turns this down, then after my death give my money to the Chicago Jewish United Fund.”

“I’m sure you’ve thought about taking your son out of your will altogether,” I said.

“Jimmy’s my son, Harry, however little pleasure his being so has given him. He’s entitled to his patrimony, if that’s the right word.”

“It’s the right word,” I said, “I’m just not sure it’s the right thing.”

“My mind’s made up,” Jake said.

So far as I know Jimmy didn’t turn the money down. The monthly cheques were sent out to him in Cambodia, came back duly countersigned, and so I gather he kept and, I assume, derived some pleasure from the money his father earned, however corruptly. This pleasure, sad to report, didn’t last for all that long, barely three years by my reckoning.

This past week I had a registered letter from Jimmy Rosenheim. I copy it in full here:

Dear Mr Kaplan,

This is to inform you that, though I was never a smoker, I have inoperable lung cancer. So much, then, for the world’s justice. This is a cancer, oncologists tell me, that frequently metastisises to the brain. I have decided not to wait for mine to do so, and so tomorrow, a few days before you receive this letter, I plan to take my life. (By pistol, if you’re curious about such matters.) This being the case, there will be no need to continue sending monthly cheques from my father’s estate. I suspect my father and you have devised some contingency plan in the event of my death.

Finally, I should like you to know that, though I would have wished for a longer life, I have no regrets about the life I have lived. I only hope that my father, at the end of his life, felt the same.

James M. Rosenheim

Where Jimmy Rosenheim is buried, if buried at all — more likely he chose cremation, which I’m told is standard in Buddhist countries — I have no idea. Nor do I know how to account for why Jakey Rosenheim, a man so happily at ease in the world, gets a son who wants to change that very world, and the son winds up with a father he feels he is duty bound to despise. The older I get, the more impressed I am with life’s mysteries, and the more I recognise my inability to solve any of them. I’ll thank you, please, not to mention this to any of my clients.  

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