Brooklyn Heights author Geraldine Gross
began her writing career when she was just 10 years old.
"I wrote a weekly newspaper for which I charged a penny and a monthly magazine that cost a nickel. My brother did most of the typing," she tells GO Brooklyn in an interview from her Brooklyn Heights apartment.
Now 74, Gross, whose "The Persecution of Tante Chava and Other Stories" (Jay Street Publishers, $12.95) was recently released, recalled that as she grew, her inclination leaned toward the academic.
"My intention was to go to school and become a teacher," she says. "But that never happened."
Instead Gross got her first job with a company that produced educational films.
"There were two writers - one was 80; the other was me. I was 16, but I lied and said I was 18. I was 18 for three years," she says.
When Gross was still in her 20s, she wrote her first novel, "The Door Between," published by Dodd Mead. It helped her get her foot in the door for better jobs: although she still couldn’t show prospective employers a college degree, she could show them her published novel.
Gross worked in the communications departments of Chemical Bank and J.P. Morgan, but she never published another novel. Her endeavors were forever plagued by bad luck.
Her second novel, based on the life of the famous Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, was stymied when her publisher discovered that Nijinsky’s wife was still alive, and vindictive, and decided not to publish and risk a lawsuit, says Gross.
Her third novel was a mystery that died on the vine when, after extensive rewrites, her editor was fired and his replacement wasn’t interested in her book.
"I was so disgusted I threw the whole thing in the garbage," Gross says.
Her fourth novel, a fictionalization of the civil rights movement based on the life of James Meredith, the first black student at Mississippi State University, and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was held by her publisher so long that by the time it might have been released, blacks in southern colleges were not so unusual.
"After that, I got involved in more demanding jobs and wrote short pieces," says Gross.
From 1990 to 1996, she wrote a weekly column for The Brooklyn Papers. "I enjoyed doing them," she says. "And they got me off jury duty."
She explains that when she was asked what she did and she replied that she wrote "columns on whatever made me angry the week before, they threw me off the jury."
"The Persecution of Tante Chava" is her first book of short fiction. Although it is not autobiographical, the stories are based on "what I’ve seen or heard," she says.
They are mostly about Jews living in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods during World War II - which is pretty much the kind of environment Gross grew up in.
Perhaps to compensate her lack of toys as a child, she is an inveterate collector - mostly of music boxes and dolls. The dolls, displayed on her abundant bookshelves, are handcrafted and come from all over the world. Her favorite is a Shirley Temple doll her husband, George, bought for her at the former Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan several years ago.
"When I was a child I entered every contest to win that doll. But I never did," Gross remembers.
Echoes of that disappointment can be found in the story, "Rachel and God," in which a second-grader fails to win three oversized crayons in her teacher’s lottery.
Rachel’s disappointment causes her to lose faith in God. Like Rachel, Gross says she didn’t believe in God for a while.
"George brought me back to religion," she says. "I came to see the relationship between God and me as a partnership."
The title story, "The Persecution of Tante Chava," is based on people whom Gross has known who "called everything bad that happened to them a product of anti-Semitism."
The last story in the book, "The Last Jew in Holzburg" is the only one based on a true event. One day Gross read a small item in The New York Times about a man who, after the Holocaust, returned to the town where he was born and raised, lived there for a while, and thanks to his prickly character, became known as the town’s "Jewish Problem." The Times related that he eventually committed suicide and reported the lines from Psalm 129 that were recited at his funeral.
"I clipped the item. Every once in a while I would look at it. I felt I had to do something with it, but I didn’t know what. About a year ago, I pulled it out again, and suddenly I knew what to do with it," Gross says. She ends her story with the very same lines quoted in the Times article.
Gross’ stories evoke a time and place that no longer exist. But her vivid depiction of human beings with all their faults, frailty and wisdom gives the reader an insightful and enduring picture of humanity.
"The Persecution of Tante Chava and Other Stories" (Jay Street Publishers, $12.95) by Geraldine Gross is available through Jay Street Publishers, 155 West 72nd St., NY, NY, 10023. Call (212) 580-9700 for more information.