The Secret Wife

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In 1953, nine years before I was born, my father fell in love with a young woman named Dorothy Gribetz. She was a beautiful Orthodox Jewish girl who was, at twenty-seven, startlingly old to still be single in the moneyed religious urban world of my father and his family. My father was fresh out of a miserable marriage, stinging from a custody battle for his six-year-old daughter, Susie.

He married Dorothy in the living room of her parents’ modest Brooklyn apartment on April 11, 1954. She wore ivory satin, and carried a bouquet of pale flowers streaming with ribbons. Her enormous blue-green eyes were hidden beneath her veil and a tiara rested on her dark, wavy hair. My father was handsome in a morning coat and silk ascot. His best friend and best man, Danny Schacter, stood behind him. The rabbi placed a glass wrapped in a cloth napkin on the floor, and my father raised his foot to perform the ritual that ends every Jewish wedding. He stamped hard and smashed the glass. The guests shouted “Mazel tov!” and applauded as he and Dorothy kissed.

My father was beginning his marriage with a secret that only a few people shared. At the end of the evening, after the dancing, cigars, and toasts-when he and Dorothy ran laughing out of the building and into the brand-new Oldsmobile coupe her father had given them as a wedding gift-Dorothy was bundled up in her sealskin coat and jaunty hat. A bit of black netting drifted over her pretty eyes. She looked the way any bride might, embarking on a life filled with plans and expectations.

Dorothy was my father’s second wife. My mother was his third. I was seventeen before I ever knew Dorothy had existed. My half sister, Susie, let it slip one day. “Once, when Dad, Dorothy, and I were upstate,” she began, and I interrupted her: “Who’s Dorothy?” The few details I learned that day of this marriage of my father’s, a marriage so painful he never spoke of it, were all I knew for a long time. But, still, it made deep, emotional sense to me. My father had been missing for most of my childhood. He had retreated behind a wall of pills and prayer. Occasionally, playing ball with him in the back yard on a beautiful summer morning, I would catch a glimpse of the young man he must once have been – a deep belly laugh, a crushing hug, a sudden sparkle in his eyes – and I would want to reach out and hold onto him and to make things better for him, without ever knowing what had gone wrong.

In a photograph snapped seconds before I was married last year, I am standing next to my husband-to-be under a canopy draped with my late father’s ivory-and-white-striped tallis. In front of us, the rabbi recites a blessing. My heart is racing. I know this isn’t a case of premarital jitters. I have no second thoughts, no doubts about the man I’m about to marry. Before we leave for Paris, I call my doctor and ask for a prescription for tranquilizers. I have never taken pills before. Pills make me think of my father. He was addicted to Valium, Percodan, and Empirin for most of his life. I have a childhood memory of him sitting at the kitchen table in front of a lazy Susan filled with prescription bottles, checking his pulse, two fingers pressed against the side of his neck, his face contorted with fear. I spend my honeymoon certain that I’m about to die. I feel this not in an abstract, intellectual way but in my bones. And I take the first tranquilizer of my life in order to get on the plane home.

I have been married three times – once at nineteen, then at twenty-eight, and now, for the third time, at thirty-five. My first husband was a shop owner, a boyish free spirit. He took off on buying trips for months at a time. I was a teen-ager, unprepared for marriage or solitude. I threw dinner parties, cooked the one dish I knew, and pretended to be a grownup. Less than a year after the wedding, I left. I don’t think either of us was surprised, but I was a divorcee at twenty, and ashamed of it. My second husband was an investment banker. He was exactly the man I’d been brought up to marry: Jewish, stable, financially secure, with a life planned down to the last millisecond. I felt numb. I was giving up at the age of twenty-eight. The marriages had just this in common: they marked the only times in my life when I have been governed by severe, crippling anxiety.

As soon as I met Michael, I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. The insanity of those earlier alliances became even starker when for the first time I realized what love actually felt like. Yet the panic persisted. Why did I equate being a wife with being destroyed?

My father’s first wedding, to Susie’s mother, had been a gala, candlelit affair in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, marking the union of two powerful Orthodox clans. Elaine Brody was from a textile and real-estate dynasty whose properties included the Essex House and the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Her great-grandfather had been the chief Orthodox rabbi of New York. My father never even proposed to Elaine; his parents proposed to hers. After the wedding, he began to work at his father’s silk mill, in Blackstone, Virginia, and would travel there for two weeks of each month. My grandfather was a self-made millionaire, and my father was firmly under his control. He didn’t even receive a salary. Whatever he needed in the way of money he had to petition for. When Susie was a toddler, my father and Elaine moved into an apartment on Park Avenue. But Elaine never accepted the role of traditional Jewish wife. She had been a serious pianist before getting married and wanted to continue to perform and even, perhaps, to pursue a doctorate. Nine years into their marriage, my father returned home from a trip to Blackstone to find the apartment empty. His wife and child were gone. The furniture was gone. Only his clothes remained, folded neatly on the top shelves of the closets. Divorce was unheard of in their circle, a rarefied community of Eastern European Jews who had brought their Old World values with them to America. Everyone pitied my father, but also backed away from him. What had he done to deserve such bad luck? Everyone knew something about it: Elaine had always been too ambitious for her own good, people gossiped over ice-cream sodas at Schrafft’s or lunches at the Tip Toe Inn, on Broadway and Eighty-seventh. She had left my father without even a bed to sleep in. And then there was talk that she had been having an affair with Susie’s pediatrician.

My father first met Dorothy Gribetz at the Brunswick Hotel, in Lakewood, New Jersey. Since his separation, he had been trying to meet eligible Orthodox women, going to Kosher resorts like Grossinger’s or the Concord, in the Catskills, or the Brunswick, where Dorothy was staying with her parents. She was devout, educated (with a degree from Cornell and a master’s from Columbia), and warm. She was kind to Susie. Orthodox Jews in the nineteen-fifties weren’t as strictly observant as they’ve since become, and my father and Dorothy had a courtship typical of its time. She saved the orchids he sent her each week and pinned them to her bedroom wall. On their Saturday-night dates, after Shabbos, they’d stop into a cocktail lounge for Cuba libres. They’d go ballroom dancing at the Plaza or the Pierre. For a nice kosher dinner they’d go to Lou G. Siegel’s, on Thirty-eighth Street. My father presented Dorothy with an emerald-cut diamond engagement ring–and this time he proposed himself.

The summer before she met my father, Dorothy had a cough she couldn’t shake. Her doctor told her it was whooping cough, and he hospitalized her briefly. While Dorothy was having tea at the Waldorf-Astoria, the winter before her wedding, my father’s younger sister, Shirley, noticed her carefully examining her cup before taking a sip. Dorothy explained that she had caught a virus in Nantucket the summer before, and she believed it was from drinking tea out of a cracked cup. My father’s family became concerned. Dorothy would grow suddenly pale, and unnaturally dark circles would appear under her eyes. On the advice of his parents, my father called Dorothy’s internist. The doctor assured him that Dorothy was fine.

But a distant cousin of my father’s who was an intern at the same hospital had interpreted Dorothy’s pattern of symptoms, and he didn’t think she was fine. He stole a peek at her medical records, and saw page after page of scrawled blood-test results: she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, at the time a uniformly fatal illness. Once diagnosed, most patients could be expected to live about a year. Not knowing what to do with this information, the cousin called my father’s best friend, Danny, and told him what he had learned. Danny was married to the daughter of the renowned rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, and he immediately went to his father-in-law for advice. The rabbi was emphatic: Danny had to tell my father what he knew.

The wedding was two weeks away. That night, Danny went to see my father, who was camping out in his parents’ study, a black-and-gold book-lined room twenty-seven floors above Central Park West. Oil portraits of the Shapiro ancestors – men with white double beards and black skullcaps — hung on the walls. There he broke the news to him. Dorothy was dying. She didn’t know. Only the doctors and her father knew the truth, and a decision had been made to protect her. Danny advised him not to marry Dorothy, for the sake of his future–his reputation was already tarnished as a divorced Orthodox man in 1954–and for the sake of his six-year-old daughter, who had already lost enough.

The morning after Danny’s visit, my father took a Checker cab to Brooklyn to see Dorothy’s father. Louis Gribetz was a short, wiry man, a respected attorney who had written a book about Mayor Jimmy Walker and made an unsuccessful run for City Council. He had studied for the rabbinate. He would have known the Talmud generally prohibits telling a terminally ill patient the truth about her condition. Dorothy was the oldest of his three children. Eleven years earlier, the youngest, a son named Stanley, had died at the age of seven, of rheumatic fever. Louis, in his living room high above Grand Army Plaza that night, explained to my father that he hadn’t told him because he wanted his daughter to know happiness in the last months of her life.

My father postponed his wedding to Dorothy for ten days. He had a boil on his stomach, and he checked into Beth Israel Hospital on Friday morning to have it removed, and to buy some time. He didn’t get in touch with Dorothy to let her know, and once it was sundown on Friday, the Sabbath, he wouldn’t be able to call her until at least sundown on Saturday. In the meantime, his sister Shirley made arrangements to come down on the overnight train from Boston. My father was determined that his parents shouldn’t be told about Dorothy’s illness. He had been under his father’s thumb his whole life. This time, he was going to make his own decision. But he needed advice. The next day, through a series of favors and connections, Shirley reached and made an appointment to see the Grand Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. In 1954, decades before he was thought of as the Messiah by many in the Lubavitcher community, Rabbi Schneerson was already a mythic figure. While my family were considered Orthodox by most standards, Hasidim would have considered them assimilated. The Shapiros and their crowd kept their religious practices private. They didn’t wear yarmulkes on the street; they ate dairy or fish in regular, non-kosher restaurants; men and women danced together cheek-to-cheek. Shirley and my father knew that their parents had met Schneerson and respected him, but in turning to him they were moving outside their social circle.

Shirley is now seventy-four, and the grandmother of twenty. Her oldest son is an Orthodox rabbi, and most of her male grandchildren wear payess and dark clothes. I haven’t visited her often. By the time I was born, my father had moved–or perhaps was pushed–away from the Orthodox fold as Shirley and her family became even more deeply involved in it. My father had been divorced, then widowed, and had then married a woman–my mother–who wasn’t religious. With each move he drifted further away from the Manhattan shuls of his youth and the community that went along with them. “That day, I took a taxi to Crown Heights,” Shirley told me. “I was wearing my suit from Saks, but I was worried that I didn’t look religious enough to meet the Rebbe. So I had the taxi stop at a store on Delancey, and I ran inside and bought a tichel, a black rag. I took off my fancy hat and tied the tichel under my chin. When I got to 770 Eastern Parkway, I was shown straight into the Rebbe’s study. He was such a handsome man, with clear, clear eyes and a snap-brim fedora. His desk was absolutely clean. He sat quietly while I told him the whole story. And when I finished he was quiet for a few minutes. And then he said, ‘Tell your brother to postpone and postpone.’ ”

When Shirley got back to Beth Israel, prepared to convey the Rabbi’s advice to my father, there was Dorothy, sitting on my father’s bed, holding his hand, looking incandescent in a coral colored dress that set off her dark hair, and a black velvet hat. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes shone. “Shirl, can you imagine? I was trying on my wedding veil when I heard Paul was in the hospital!” My father was ashen, propped up in bed, still weak from his surgery. His head was bowed, and he was stroking the inside of Dorothy’s wrist, tracing the map of pale-blue veins. Later, when Dorothy left, Shirley told my father about Schneerson’s advice. “I can’t do that to Dorothy,” he said.

After the wedding, Dorothy said she wanted to start a family as soon as she felt better, but late that summer she was hospitalized. She had a lymph node removed from under her arm, and she was treated with mustard gas. When she came home, she had weakened considerably. She was no longer able to get up in the morning on Shabbos to set the table, so she did it with Susie’s help the night before. She never complained, but my father told Susie to be especially gentle with Dorothy. She wasn’t feeling well. Just before the High Holidays, my father and Dorothy moved into an apartment at 50 Plaza Street, on the same floor as Dorothy’s parents. It was an apartment big enough for a family, and it had views of Grand Army Plaza and the Brooklyn Museum. For Dorothy, it was an exciting new beginning. She began to furnish the apartment lovingly, ordering curtains, sofas, rolls of wall-to wall carpeting. But, for my father, being near Dorothy’s parents probably meant that he’d have more help with Dorothy when the time came.

On Rosh Hashanah morning, Dorothy and her sister, Grace, were dressing for shul in their old girlhood bedroom. Dorothy was wearing an ivory silk blouse with silk-covered buttons. Suddenly she sat down on the bed, her face white, the black circles appearing. “I’m too sick to go to shul,” she whispered. Then she unbuttoned her blouse with shaking fingers. “Grace, will you wear this to shul for me? That way, at least a part of me will be there.” As Grace was putting on Dorothy’s blouse, Susie came bouncing into the room in a new dress, excited about going to temple, wanting to see what was taking so long. “Susie, I can’t go to shul,” Dorothy told her. “But will you say a prayer for me?” “You can’t say a prayer for another person,” Susie replied. “You have to pray for yourself.”

In October, on Sukkoth, the holiday that celebrates the autumn harvest, Dorothy was in bed reading a magazine when she began to have trouble breathing. My father sent Susie outside to roller-skate. He called an ambulance, and Dorothv was taken into Manhattan, to Memorial Hospital. My grandfather came up from Virginia when he heard the news. He stood in the doorway of the waiting room and looked at Shirley through his pince-nez. He was an imposing man, portly and bald, and most people’s first reaction to him was fear. “What’s wrong with Dorothy?” he asked. Shirley looked up at him, shaking her head slightly. The word “cancer” was never uttered. “She’s very, very sick, Dad.” My father led my grandfather into Dorothy’s room. She was propped up in bcd, and there were tubes and wires everywhere. Finally, she looked every bit as sick as she was. She was drawn and terribly thin, and her eyes were sunken. “I wanted to say this in front of you, Dad,” she said to my grandfather. “I wanted to thank Paul for giving me the happiest six months of my life.”

Afterward, when it was all over, my father returned to the apartment, stepped over the still rolled-up carpeting Dorothy had ordered only weeks before, and headed down the long corridor into their bedroom. There on the bed was the magazine she had been reading just before she was taken to the hospital. It was open to an article about Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“After the ambulance came and took Dorothy away, I didn’t see Dad for two weeks,” Susie says, as we sit in her East Village apartment. “He called me every night, and every night I’d ask him where he was. And he’d say, ‘Where do you think I am?’ And I’d say, ‘The hospital.’ And then I’d ask how Dorothy was, and he’d tell me she was resting. “He picked me up on a Wednesday night after those two weeks had gone by. He looked like hell, and he was quieter than usual. We were in a taxi going through Central Park on our way to Grammy and Grampy’s when I asked him how Dorothy was. And he told me that Dorothy had died. She had died a week before. They had the funeral, buried her, sat shivah-all without telling me.”

My parents kept secrets. Dorothy was only one of them. My mother’s first marriage, an aunt’s nervous breakdown, an uncle’s attempted suicide–all were kept secret. On the surface, everything seemed perfect, but why was my father so unhappy all the time? Why did my mother seem so constantly on edge? Some of the friction between my parents had to do with my father’s strict religious beliefs. My mother was funloving and glamorous, the head of her own small advertising agency when she met my father. She had no idea that becoming Orthodox meant more than keeping a kosher home and going to shul on holidays. Orthodoxy was its own universe-a universe as suspicious of her as she was of it. As the years went by, we rarely saw my father’s family, and when we did they seemed foreign to me, with their yarmulkes and thick glasses. They were pale and wan with something called “yeshiva pallor.” On our way home from visiting, my mother would make fun of them, and my father would become even quieter than usual.

I grew up in a house full of fear. We were protected by three different kinds of alarm systems: pads on the floors under the rugs, a motion detector, and panic buttons that could be pressed in an emergency. I wasn’t allowed to run barefoot on the lawn; I was slathered with sun lotion year-round; if a bee buzzed near me, my mother would swoop down and rush me into the house. I never had chicken pox, measles, or mumps-any of the childhood diseases. I wasn’t around children enough to have them. But the real dangers were inside our house. What I remember is the silence. Most of the time it was as quiet as a wax museum, and my parents spoke to each other, at least in front of me, with brittle politeness. And then every once in a while there would be the booming sound of my father’s voice, or the loud slam of the back door as my mother went outside to sit on the cold aluminum of the milk can and smoke a cigarette. These fights didn’t seem to have beginnings or ends. But I knew my parents would never divorce. I couldn’t have articulated it back then, but my parents seemed to be holding their fragile world together with some sort of tacit agreement that their histories and secrets–the whole of their past lives–could be kept from each other, and from me. Once I knew about Dorothy, from time to time I would ask my mother about her. “They tricked your father into marrying her,” she’d say. “It was a terrible thing they did.” For my mother, it was as if my father’s second wife had barely existed. But Dorothy was very real for my father. The one time I asked him about her, I glimpsed pain in his eyes so intense I never asked again.

Grace Gribetz Glasser, Dorothy’s younger sister, wasn’t easy for me to track down. She’s married to I. Leo Glasser, the federal judge who presided over the John Gotti trial, and they lead a quiet, private life in a prosperous, protected section of Rockaway Park, facing the ocean. But when I visited her, almost a year into my new marriage, she seemed entirely unfazed that her late sister’s husband’s daughter would have come looking for her. “Hello, dear,” she said, as if she had been expecting me. I recognized her face from wedding photos, a wide-eyed young woman holding her sister’s bouquet. She is now sixty-nine, with silver hair. “You look like your father,” she said, ushering me in. It was a few days before Purim. Between us, on her kitchen table, was a shoebox full of photographs of Dorothy. Grace was twenty-five when Dorothy died. She has four children and nine grandchildren. Her oldest daughter is named Dorothy. Together we shuffled through the photographs. Dorothy on a picnic blanket with one boyfriend, on the beach with another. Dorothy and my father at their wedding. Grace handed me a photo of my father in a navy-blue suit, white shirt, and silver tie, his hands resting on the back of a chair as he turns to the camera, laughing. I had never seen this expression of pure, unadulterated joy on my father’s face. “I used to meet your father for lunch every once in a while,” Grace said. “I remember he called me when you were getting married. When was that?” I knew she was referring to my first marriage–the only one for which my father was alive. “He was worried,” she continued. “He wasn’t happy about it at all.” I wondered if my mother knew that my father stayed in touch with Dorothy’s sister. I doubt it.

Now I followed her down a hall and into her bedroom. The life she has: the children, the grandchildren, the hamantaschen in the oven–that was the life my father was supposed to have had with Dorothy. Dorothy and my father would have lived in Brooklyn, or on Central Park West, or on the beach at Rockaway Park. They would have been active in their local synagogue, had a bunch of children, and lived an observant life. Grace opened a walk-in closet, and I heard the scrape and rattle of hangers. She emerged from’the closet carrying a blouse. It was once ivory silk, with ivory silk-covered buttons. Now it was yellow and stained, and much too big for her small frame. “I’ve worn it to shul every Rosh Hashanah for forty-four years,” she said. Her voice was sweet and sorrowful. “It’s so stained now I can’t even take off my jacket. “I wish my sister were here to meet you,” she said. “But, if she were here, you wouldn’t be.”

After Dorothy died, my father looked for a new apartment. There was a building going up on East Ninth Street near Broadway, and he went with his sister to see it. They were sitting in the rental office when an impeccably dressed dark-haired woman in her early thirties walked in the door. Shirley noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, and nudged my father. A few months later, after my father had moved into that building, he saw the dark-haired woman on the street. It was Shabbos, and she was carrying a hammer, modern girl that she was, on her way home to install bookcases. Obviously, she wasn’t observant–a hammer? on Shabbos?–but he was pretty sure she was Jewish. They stopped and chatted, and he caught her first name, Irene. He knew she lived on the block, and the next day he spent his morning poring through the Manhattan phone book looking for Irenes on East Ninth Street. During my parents’ courtship, my father continued to spend weekends at Grossinger’s and the Concord, in search of an Orthodox woman. It was unheard of to marry outside Orthodoxy–it was almost like marrying out of the faith. But on September 4, 1957, he and Irene were married, at Young Israel on Sixteenth Street. A photograph of my parents at their wedding hangs over the desk where I write. They are walking up the aisle, and my mother is smiling triumphantly. My father’s hand is balled into a fist. Within a year, he had injured his back and became addicted to painkillers and tranquillizers. For all the years of my childhood, my father walked gingerly, as if constantly aware that collapse was possible, and as the tension in our home grew he became quieter and quieter. Sometimes I would try to catch his eye, to wink at him, to let him know I understood. But I didn’t understand. And he continued sliding away.

  • Shani Gilchrist

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon this essay. Thank you. The honesty about family secrets is something bold, uncomfortable and inspiring. I’m glad you’ve shared this journey.