Our very brief brush with fame
Late afternoons on the Sundays of my childhood found my family at our pale-green japanned dining room table, passing platters of the roast chicken, beef brisket, and oven-browned potatoes Mother had spent the day making.Skip to next paragraph
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Mother, Dad, my sisters Audrey and Barbara, and I would take our places on the matching pale-green chairs. Cousin Harry Jacobson always knew when it was Sunday dinnertime and would appear at our door after the five-block walk from his rooming house. There was always a pale-green chair waiting for him.
Harry was a frugal man who made what Dad called "a good living" by selling mail-order fountain pens and using the profits to buy stocks. We usually could expect a lively exchange between Harry and Dad about "wise investing." But one Sunday Harry was looking glum. He was worried, he told us, about his sister Annette.
Several years before, Annette, for reasons unclear to me, moved from Michigan to Los Angeles. In my early days, California was considered as remote a concept as Australia, or the baseball stadium downtown.
Anyway, there she was, probably in her late 20s or early 30s, living the fresh, new life she'd apparently sought, periodically sending Harry a newsy letter - and even having the rare, 1940s long-distance phone conversation with him.
"She's met somebody," Harry said. "I don't know. I just don't know."
It seems, he went on to report, that on a recent day Annette was waiting for her bus when another bus stopped and a passenger who saw her scribbled a phone number on a scrap of paper and threw it out the window. In years to come, the Sunday newspaper magazines would delight in telling - and retelling - the story of his scrap landing in the crook of Annette's arm, a kind of paper-wad kismet.
"She says he's a musician," Harry told us. "She says he wears a toga. She says he lives in someone's backyard. She says he eats only nuts and berries."
Picking at his roast chicken without his usual enthusiasm for Mother's home cooking, Harry went on to tell us that this man told Annette he'd written a song that he thought could become a hit. "He wants someone to record it. She said he took it to some piano player who sings. Cole, I think she said. Nat King Cole."
Things happened quickly in the few weeks after Harry's report. His sister, my cousin Annette Jacobson, married "eden ahbez." We later learned that his name was the lowercase assumed identity of Alexander Aberle, supposedly born in Brooklyn, N.Y., some 30-plus years before.
About the same time, Nat King Cole, charmed by "Nature Boy," the song ahbez had left in his theater dressing room one day, recorded it, turning this simplest of tunes and gentlest of lyrics into a classichit still played more than a half century after its release in 1948. "Nature Boy" was the first song ever to start its run in first place on the weekly radio show "Your Hit Parade," and it stayed there for what seemed an eternity.
On future Sundays, Harry told us that after visiting in California with Annette and ahbee (as her composer-husband was called), he felt better about things. He was pleased with the song's success and the flow of money his sister would presumably enjoy.
"And ahbee sent these for you," he said, handing to me - and to each of my sisters - a wallet-size autographed sketch of the self-proclaimed "nature boy."
By this time, ahbee and the song were so well known that my sisters and I rightly felt that we, too, had risen from commonplace to celebrity. The sketches were our badges of recognition.
But the next day, when I showed the sketch at school, my spirit of prominence drained quickly. My boasting was widely rejected as some kind of fraud. "Who are you kidding," one classmate said while munching a lunch of Hostess Cup Cakes from the nearby candy store. "Hey, no one from our neighborhood gets famous."