Irv’s Top Secrets

Posted on July 5, 2012 by

My father’s first wife cheated on him while he was serving in Italy in World War II.  He was an airplane mechanic and sergeant with the 9th Air Force which invaded Sicily in the summer of 1943.  I assume he worked on the P-40 Fighters which had flown over from Tunisia.

He spoke very little to me about his past.  I know a few details from the photos he took home from the war and from the patches on his uniform.  His former marriage was kept secret from me until my mother – his second wife – died of cancer in 1975.

Sitting at the kitchen table a couple of days after my mother’s funeral, my father started to laugh nervously.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“I was married before.  Before I met your mother.”

I started to laugh, too.

“What do you mean?”

He delivered the story quickly.

He got back from Europe after the war.  He found out in New York that the woman he had married before he left hadn’t been faithful.  He moved out and they divorced.

“She was always all mixed up,” he explained about his first wife.  “She became very depressed.”

There was more:  “So she put towels under the door and then turned on the oven.  And that was that.   Your mother didn’t want me to tell you.”

Now that both marriages were in the past, Irv could get the big news off his chest: that he had a wife who killed herself.   And, there was something else he wanted me to know.

“If anything happens to me, everything you need is in the box in the bank vault,” he said.  “It’s all taken care of and it’s all for you.”

He wouldn’t be worrying at his age – he was 61 – about finding another women.  “I’m not looking, let’s put it that way.  What do I need the aggravation?”

A year later, he moved into a spare bedroom with friends Buddy and Esther who lived upstairs from their grown kids and grandchildren on Staten Island.  I would visit from Vermont several times a year and was impressed with how well he was doing.  “I have it pretty good here,” he would tell me.  “I have my room, my food, my laundry.  What else do I need?”

He took the bus on weekdays to his civil service job with the New York State Insurance Fund on Church Street in lower Manhattan.  He was never a big spender, had no expensive tastes and rarely bought clothes.

Besides paying rent, he bought a new washing machine for the house, covered repairs on Buddy’s Buick, was generous with their grandkids and promised Esther he would re-carpet the entire upstairs.  Treated like one of the family, he began to act like Esther’s other husband.

I noticed small things at first.  He carried her pocketbook up the stairs and kept track of when she needed to take her pills.  He and Esther would wash the dishes together and then sit in the kitchen and laugh while Buddy smoked cigarettes in the living room and fell asleep at the T.V.

After my father died in 1981, Esther confessed:  “Irv used to tell me that he really had a problem and that I was his problem,” she said.  “Your father would make me very nervous. I would say ‘Look Irv, I already have a husband.’”

My father was hoping that Buddy – who was overweight and heavily medicated – would go first.  Buddy knew what was on my father’s mind and perhaps could even accept that Irv was waiting for him to drop out of the picture.  The fact is that Irv made Esther feel special and kept her off Buddy’s back.  And there was the money.

After my dad’s funeral, I discovered that most of it was going to Esther.

She felt guilty and was willing to talk.

I’d known her all my life.  She and Buddy lived in Bensonhurst about a mile from our apartment.  My dad was friends with them years before he met and married my mother – Sally – in 1948.  Sally resented Esther.  “You’re always running to twenty third avenue” she would say to Irv.  “Why don’t you stay home for a change?”

The two couples would vacation together at Kutshers Country Club in the Catskills.  “When the four of us went to the mountains, your mother would always tell the same story,” Esther confided to me.  “Sally would say that whenever we were all together, Irv would become very sexually aroused.  I told your mother it must be the mountain air.  So help me God, I didn’t know he felt that way about me then.”

Weeks after Irv died, Esther and I went with a tax auditor to my father’s safety deposit box.  Though its contents were now in her name – contrary to Irv’s promise to me five years earlier that “it’s all taken care of and it’s all for you” – I had become “executor” of the small estate even though I was a secondary beneficiary.

Esther would eventually relinquish some control over my dad’s accounts and belongings.   When we opened the vault box though, I was appalled – and Esther embarrassed – to find that a gold-engraved bracelet Irv had given my mother several years before had  Sally’s name rubbed off; Esther’s name was now inscribed on the piece.

Buddy and Esther would  give back some of what Irv had turned over to them, but not without a showdown.

“Sometimes a guy leaves all he’s got to a doorman or even a dog or cat,” Buddy would say later.  “I understand how you feel as a son, but Irv always said he spent the happiest years of his life here.”

I didn’t want to fight with these people.  They were decent and kind.  We were starting to work something out. But the whole matter felt a little strange and sordid.  And I was hurt – and broke.

Although I wasn’t kicking up a big fuss, a few of my relatives chimed in: according to my father’s brother’s wife, “as soon as Esther knew how Irv felt about her, she should have asked him to move out.  As far as I’m concerned” said my Aunt Lee, “they’re taking him for all he had.”

The whole matter was complicated by the fact that no relatives were present the day my father died suddenly of a heart attack.  The police had the authority to search his room and impound from his top drawer his keys, wallet and financial records.

It took weeks to get a death certificate in order to recover these items from the property clerk’s room at the 122nd precinct on the south shore of Staten Island.  I also needed to see someone from the New York State Tax Department at the World Trade Center.  The  benefit of all these complications  was that I was in control of gathering the important documents and that the delays  gave Buddy, Esther and me a chance to work out a deal without lawyers or going to court.

All the assets combined were worth about $50,000 and on paper Buddy and Esther controlled more than two-thirds.

“Ten thousand dollars in the account came from my mother’s pension pay out,” I began, as Buddy, Esther and I sat with coffee and cake at their kitchen table.  “How would you feel if this happened to your children?”

“We don’t know where that money came from,” said Esther.  “Your father wanted us to have it.  That’s all there is to it.”

“I spent more than $3,000 on the funeral,” I countered, “and I’ve been stuck in New York, not working for weeks, while I straightened everything out.”

“When your father was sick, I rubbed Bengay on his back,” Esther revealed in what could have been a tactical mistake.  Retreating quickly from any implication that she led him on, she added, “I don’t need to tell you all we did for him.  I cooked his meals and washed his clothes.”

Next, I pushed the envelope a bit:  “I don’t really understand why my father left you so much to begin with.”

“He wanted Es to have it,” Buddy shot back.  “You don’t know how much she meant to him.”

“That’s just the point,” I said, knowing that this hint that Irv and Esther were involved in some way would keep us talking.  “It was a funny situation.”

That remark seemed to turn the corner.  “Look Buddy, I’ll handle this,” Esther said, pointing at her husband, “so don’t you open your mouth.”  Then, looking at me: “Al right, Louis, let’s split it in half,” she offered.  “We’ll go to the bank and see what’s what.”

Everything was settled and now Esther would make dinner.  “I’ll cook the roast beef,” she said to me, “just the way you like it.”

At the stairs, I kissed her goodbye and shook Buddy’s hand.  “We’re still good friends,” Buddy said.

“That’s important to me,” I said and meant it.

I now had enough money to travel and move to California.  But I was mad at my father for entangling me with his friends and for disrespecting my mother. Apparently, Irv had been obsessed with Esther for 50 years (in his wallet I found a very provocative photo of her at a mirror with her legs crossed).

Only to his mother did Irv show similar devotion.  He was the middle son and always insecure about how she regarded him.  My father would become furious if anybody even mildly criticized her.

Sally, he took for granted.  He almost never treated her to a movie or a restaurant and on his days off he would either sleep or go visiting (to twenty third avenue).  When Sally was very ill, he carried on as a dutiful husband.  Weeks before she died, the strain on him was apparent but he didn’t break down.  “I won’t cry on anyone’s shoulder,” he told me, his eyes bloodshot.  “If I want to cry, I’ll cry alone.”

Five years later and two weeks before he died, I saw him in New York.  I was on my way back to Vermont.  He had a terrible flu and looked very frail.  “Your father’s getting old,” he said to me.  “But in general I can’t complain.”

I wrote a version of this story 30 years ago when the details were fresh in my mind.  The dialogue is obviously compressed and approximate but I tried to recreate how we sounded talking to each other.  I’ll admit to a few slight exaggerations but this account is mostly true and there’s no-one left but me to fact-check.

Comments (8)


  1. DK McLeod says:

    You’re not alone in being told of a parent’s previous marriage only as an adult: My late actress mother didn’t confess her own brief, unhappy first marriage to an abusive dentist who stole her “movie star money” until I was nearly 30. I think in those days divorce was still considered shameful, or a huge life failure, in a way that are sometimes hard for us to appreciate these days. But it does make it hard for even adult children to get a real “read” on that parent, and their real life motivations, with such a big hole in their “official” bio — emotionally disorienting, to say the least (One much more extreme example: In an ironic foreshadowing of the plot of his later work in Chinatown, Jack Nicholson found out as a teenager that his older “sister” actually was his mother — a “big reveal” that could hardly be more dramatic, and which may in part explain why he chose to become an actor at all. So sometimes there are silver linings to these things).
    In any case, this brief vignette is very vivid, and your dad, whatever his secrets, sounds like a modest, brave, patriotic, hard-working, stand-up guy — traits I’ve long recognized in his son, the author of the portrait.

  2. Leonard Clark says:

    Thanks for this story it makes me think and remember my parents as well.

  3. celia says:

    Enjoyed the story very much.. :)

  4. Christina Perez says:

    I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but you had me laughing out loud. Why, because you have proven once again that the human condition can be at once complicated and painfully funny too. My father just died and we buried him with “other life” secrets I have been trying to get him to divulge for decades. From the comments thus far, sounds like these kind of stories would make great reading material.
    You’re a fabulous story-teller Lou.

  5. ron says:

    Great story, Lou. Thank you.

    In just a few paragraphs, you capture a time, places and people–sweet and wistful.

    I respect you for standing up for yourself (diplomatically), and for taking a good deal when it was presented to you. Clearly, you valued the relationships as much as the money, and in some ways, so did they.

  6. JannWhetstone says:

    Very interesting story, my parents also have had some unusual/or interesting relationships, to tell stories about. Thank you for sharing. I hope you’re well.

  7. Linda Dilworth says:

    I loved this story. Your Father was an asshole, but I loved the story just the same. Very interesting. My Father too had many secrets. Some we found out about before he died, but many he took to the grave. I once went out with a guy and on the first visit to my house, my Father took us for a ride and informed us that my date’s Mother was my Father’s half sister.

  8. Stella Resnick says:

    You write so beautifully about such a painful time. As your sister, I know the whole cast of characters you write about and, as you know, I suffered as a child in that family. I marvel at what a loving, deep, capable, and righteous human being you have become. I’m so proud of you and I love you very much.

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