Retro review: Famous playwright chronicled tenement life of Lower East Side
Before she was Bella Spewack, the playwright who penned the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit, “Kiss Me, Kate,” she was Bella Cohen, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who grew up in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
She was born in 1899 in Bucharest, Transylvania (now Romania). When Bella was just two weeks old, her father abandoned her 17-year-old mother. Three years later, Bella and her mother arrived in New York, hoping for a better life.
What they found instead was extreme hardship and desperation borne out of abject poverty. Her mother bounced from job to job, from tenement to tenement.
Spewack’s book, “Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side” is divided into chapters named for the Lower East Side streets in which she and her mother launched a daily struggle for survival. The world about which Bella writes so vividly has vanished, including many of the streets where she lived.
Upon coming to America, their first residence was on Cannon Street; an editor’s note states that the street is no longer in existence.
“Thousands of people lived on Cannon Street, occupying rear houses and front houses from basement to top floor. The houses are sour with the smell of human flesh. So many words were spoken that words meant little. Blows meant more.
On this street, I spent the first ten years of my life.
On this street, I learned to fear people.”
Bella’s young, uneducated mother had no choice but to take on a series of low-paying, back-breaking jobs just to keep their heads above water. Often, they would be forced to share tiny rooms with strangers or to take in equally downtrodden boarders. Bella was often exposed to the dregs of humanity, leading her to develop a thick skin and a tough, exterior side to her personality.
Bella’s mother refused to allow her to quit school, wanting her to “be a lady.”
Her mother eventually remarried, to a man that Bella despised. She had two more children, Bella’s half-brothers, though one of the sons had an unnamed disfiguring illness. Eventually, that marriage crumbled too, and once again, her mother was abandoned but with two additional mouths to feed. At times, they had to rely on charity to help pay their rent, while Bella took on more responsibilities at home.
When she wasn’t in school or helping her mother make ends meet, Bella spent her time with various friends, sharing adventures. Once, she and some friends decided to walk to Andrew Carnegie’s home but never made it there, instead wandering into a department store, only to become distracted by the never-before-seen escalators.
Bella experienced a crisis of faith during her young life, at one point announcing to her mother that she is a Krisht (Christian). “I felt no everyday kinship with the synagogue. I had an idea that it belonged to the menfolk only.”
In that Bella wrote her memoir soon after she escaped her tumultuous life’s circumstances, the book is raw and unsentimental. The memoir ends abruptly, following a tragic event in young Bella’s life.
Although Bella’s life may have seemed small, having rarely left the confines of the Lower East Side, she had big dreams. After high school, she talked herself into a job as a reporter for the now defunct Yorkville Home News.
Bella met and married Sam Spewack, and the two ultimately became a prolific playwright team. In addition to “Kiss Me, Kate,” the duo wrote “Boy Meets Girl” and “My Three Angels,” the basis for the 1989 Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn movie, “We’re No Angels.” They also wrote Hollywood screenplays, including “My Favorite Wife.”
She was a strong supporter of the Girl Scouts of America and is widely credited with originating the Girl Scouts cookie sales idea.
Bella Spewack died in 1990 at the age of 91. Her husband predeceased her by 19 years; the couple did not have children. Though she wrote this memoir at the age of 22, it remained unpublished until 1995.
Though not nearly as compelling, “Streets” is somewhat reminiscent of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” in its depiction of a family struggling for survival under bleak circumstances. In the language that was the vernacular of her day, Bella Spewack’s memoir captures a bygone era. Though there are some lighthearted and amusing moments that she recalls, the book, for the most part, is melancholic. For those who have romanticized the Jewish immigrant experience, this book will bring that notion crashing down.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.