Murray Simon, now 88 years old, wasn’t originally my first choice of interview subject. Until Thursday, I’d never heard of him. I’d found myself in a desperate situation as my first, second and third prospective interviewees postponed our appointments via call, text and email. In a panic, I’d turned to Google. Eight hours and some deep Googling later, I’d discovered a tiny article on an NYU-run website about Harlem’s oldest synagogue, Old Broadway. The author had quoted a “Murray Simon, an 85-year-old retired educational advisor and social studies teacher, who grew up in Harlem from 1925 to 1942.” I decided to take a chance and call him, leaving a message at his house in Maryland. He called me back.
The link between Murray Simon – a young Jewish boy growing up in a predominantly European street in East Harlem in the 1930’s – and the subject of my book, Stephanie St. Clair – a black Harlem Renaissance numbers queen – isn’t necessarily immediately clear to the uninitiated; when I asked, Simon confessed he had never heard of her. But St. Clair and Simon inhabited worlds that overlapped. Simon’s father, a Bessarabian (Romanian) immigrant with a small dry goods store on 114th Street named Max, also ran his small business under the watchful eye of the Italian gangs. Simon’s father paid a regular protection commission to someone named “Angelo Cheesecake,” just as St. Clair had shared her profits with Lucky Luciano and other assorted mafiosi. Like St. Clair, Simon’s father was ultimately betrayed by the gang system too, after a robbery destroyed his business in 1936 or 1937. After being robbed, his business never recovered, and he died in 1939, leaving his family penniless. Essentially, Simon’s father, just like St. Clair, was an immigrant underdog trying to make it in a corrupt and criminal New York City.
Simon’s Jewishness also impacted on the politics of St. Clair’s world. St Clair was briefly married to Sufi Abdul Hamid, also known as the “Black Hitler of Harlem,” a Buddhist-Islamic spiritual leader and virulent anti-Semite. While I have yet to find evidence that St. Clair shared Hamid’s politics, it is worth noting that her self-proclaimed arch-nemesis and notorious gangster Dutch Schultz, was also a jew.
By talking to Simon, I got some insight into the relationship between African Americans and Jews in Harlem in the ’20’s and ’30’s. As a part of a children’s gang of mixed European heritage dominated by the Italian, Jewish and Polish people in his street, Simon used to rumble with the rival black gangs of the next street over when he was as young as 11 years old. He fought with wooden planks and leather belts. He spat out the ‘n’ word, and became inured to shouts of “kike” greeting him on every street corner. If it hadn’t been for a kind neighbor who straightened him out and introduced him to her college-bound son (“a nice jewish boy like you shouldn’t be fighting on the street…”), Simon might have stayed in this racially fraught atmosphere indefinitely, entering the criminal underworld just as St. Clair, also a onetime gang member, had.
In the ’30’s and ’40’s, Simon said that a group called Nazi Bund (officially named The German American Bund) used to parade up and down the streets of Manhattan displaying prominent anti-Jewish propaganda. He seemed to suggest that Hamid’s attitude, though mostly out of place with today’s understanding of the world, was very much a part of his contemporary zeitgeist.
Unfortunately, we had to cut our interview short after just barely 40 minutes, because Simon had another meeting. He promised to mail me his memoirs, though, and he let me know I could call him back some other day. I’d like to meet him face-to-face, eventually.
It wasn’t an interview that gave me a tonne of new information about St Clair’s life. But I felt like I got a flavor for some of the tensions of the time. Although I haven’t fact-checked everything he said, the level of detail Simon provided was astonishing, and I got to hear the origin stories of most of his immediate family and the Jewish and ethnically mixed communities around them. Though he couldn’t always give me exact years, and often didn’t remember major social happenings, probably because we were discussing things that happened more than a half century ago when he was very young, he remembered addresses down to the street number. Simon also relayed snatches of conversation, though whether those were recreated or verbatim is impossible to tell – likely the former. As we talked, I felt like I was diving into his life and, although it had never actually intersected Stephanie St Clair’s (as far as he can remember) there’s value in the fact that it had once followed a trajectory that could have.
by Sumi Naidoo