My Brother, My Friend, My Hero
I grew up in a dining room filled with relatives, but always closest to me were Chuck and Jack, my two older brothers. The principal lesson Chuck and I were taught was: Take care of Jack. We always thought we were doing that, but in retrospect, I can see it was loving but misdirected advice. Jack needed no special care from us, only our love, which he always had.
Jack, who was born with a hearing impairment, taught himself to lip-read without any of us knowing. He got left behind in school a little, and the kids teased him terribly at times, but he always seemed to smile, always was eager to be your friend.
He certainly had plenty of practice. Someone would ask Jack what time it was, and if he couldn't see his questioner's face (climbing out of a taxi, for instance), he might answer, "Thank you, and nice to have met you, too." This might put off some people, but for some reason it never bothered a remarkable merchant prince in New York named Adam Gimbel.
As president of Saks Fifth Avenue, Mr. Gimbel hired my brother as a buyer for women's sportswear in New York, and kept a fatherly eye on him. Once, when Saks' main store on Fifth Avenue caught fire and people were evacuating, Mr. Gimbel stopped a young lady who was an assistant buyer, and told her that she was to go back into the building and look for Jack. He was sure Jack had not heard the fire alarms. She was terrified, but like most everyone at Saks, she did what Mr. Gimbel told her to do. She ran back into the building and up the stairs to the third floor. Sure enough, she found Jack in his little cubbyhole office, doing his figures over a wheezing adding machine. The two ran out of the building and into the outstretched arms of Adam Gimbel.
Jack had one iron rule with his small staff: Whenever his favorite client, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, came in for a fitting, he was not to be disturbed. Mrs. Onassis trusted Jack's sense of style and taste, and Jack just loved her. So one day when the store operators were frantically paging him over the PA system because he didn't answer his telephone, an assistant ran to him. They thought he hadn't heard it. He had heard it. He seemed to always hear what he needed to hear. He just didn't want to be disturbed as he worked with his world-famous client.
When told it was an emergency and he simply had to answer the telephone, he excused himself reluctantly and went to a house phone. "Now what's so important?" he demanded of Mildred, a Saks telephone operator. "Jack, I'm sorry," Mildred said, "It's Mrs. Gimbel calling from their estate in Long Island, and she said it was urgent." Jack was not in the business of saying no to Sophie Gimbel, so of course he took the call eagerly. "Yes, Mrs. Gimbel? How can I help you?"
"Jack," came the familiar voice over the long-distance wire, "did you say I'm to blend just the two egg yolks together, or the yolks and whites together? I'm trying out your cake in our kitchen right now."
I forgot to tell you that my brother loves to cook. His favorite rapture is in the world of desserts, and he had a recipe for a Russian lemon tea cake that drove his friends into a muted frenzy.
One day, Mr. Gimbel came into his office with a woman carefully scarfed and sunglassed. Mr. Gimbel introduced her proudly to Jack. It was Greta Garbo. My brother had baked one of his famous cakes the night before and had brought it into the office. Would Miss Garbo like to taste it? "I don't eat cake," said one of the most famous voices in the world. He tried again. She replied with the same answer again. The third time, Miss Garbo, not to make a scene, nibbled a tiny piece of it.
A few weeks later, I called Jack to say hello. Mildred gave me a telephone number, and said: "Jack told me that if either of his brothers called, I could give you this number."
"Jack, where are you? Are you all right?" I asked when he came to the telephone. "I'm in Greta's kitchen baking some things for her." "Greta?" "Greta Garbo," my brother said, "and I have to go now. I've got a cake rising in the oven and the Mixmaster is ready with the icing. Call me at home tonight."
They remained pals for years. Jack was a friend of the famous without calculation, without effort, and without much delay. He offered them something few others could: the genuine article, at once.
Years later, after Jack retired from Saks, he said to me that he'd always dreamed of going to the famous Culinary Institute of America in upstate New York. He wanted to learn how to bake professionally.
Nothing seemed more unlikely. He was late for enrollment. He had no funds. He knew no one in the school. He was softly sighing on the telephone. "It's just impossible," he kept saying. This was not like Jack. He never admitted defeat. "Oh, no, it's not," I shouted back. "You're going to that school." Everyone joined in to make it happen. Friends paid for his airline ticket. I think I paid for the new sport coat at some men's shop in San Diego, where my brother was living. Or was it the new trousers I paid for and Chuck paid for the coat? I can never remember.
When he got to the CIA's administrative offices, the receptionist said that since he had no appointment, he'd have to wait. He sat obediently in a chair all afternoon. Finally, the president's secretary came out and said the president would see him "for five minutes." When Jack left the president's office 40 minutes later, he was wearing a huge smile and carrying an application. One of the chef-teachers helped find Jack a room in a boarding house, another found him a used car to drive to his classes. We took up a collection for some of his costs, and the president got him a student loan.
A YEAR later, Jack graduated, and Chuck and his wife, Phyllis, and I flew from California to New York to see the ceremonies. My brother and his class walked out in a long line. Each was wearing a chef's uniform with a single yellow rose in the buttonhole. Each stood behind his particular food creation in a long buffet line as family and friends crowded around. Jack stood behind some kind of chocolate castle he'd made. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.
He told me for the first time that his classmates had helped him all through the year. They got him a seat closest to the teacher, to be sure he heard every word. They loaned him their notes and made sure he got to class on time. Everyone helped him, even the teachers. So there he sat now, about three times as old as the oldest graduate in his class.
One by one, the class walked to the front of the hall to receive their diploma and shake hands with the president. When his name was called, six graduates turned to say, "Jack, get up!" Jack rose uncertainly and walked down the aisle. "This next graduate ... well ... what can I say? Jack has taught us that if you want something badly enough, you can achieve it. Jack, congratulations," and handed him his certificate. But instead of shaking his hand, the president put his arms around Jack and hugged him. The entire class stood up to applaud.