Good-Time Charley

A memoir by Elaine Greene Weisburg

My mother at the keyboard would sound like a player piano with that steady driving beat. At parties they wouldn’t let her stop.  She could also sing the lyrics. “I’ll be down to get you in a taxi, Honey, You better be ready ‘bout half-past eight.  And, Dearie, don’t be late, I want to be there when the band starts playing.”  I hoped that another of her favorites,  “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me, Honey,” could be the recessional at her funeral but the hired organist didn’t know the tune.

Bessie Katz was probably talked about in her Brooklyn neighborhood because of her car, a red Stutz Bearcat which her parents had given her in 1915 for her sixteenth birthday. I have some old snapshots of her driving the car while wearing a raccoon coat. She may have been the child of immigrants, but she was a thoroughly American girl. I always look for a Bearcat at classic car shows, and if I find one I always tell the owner about my mother. Sometimes she would be seen buzzing around town in the sidecar of John Fitcallo’s motorcycle. He was the family chauffeur who lived over the garage and took my grandfather to work in the Pierce-Arrow every day across the Brooklyn Bridge. He also drove the family to and around Saratoga during their summer vacations, encountering in his off hours a surprising number of pretty girl  “cousins.”  So my mother told me years later, still amused.

I don’t think there was a romance between Fitcallo and his boss’s daughter but he did egg her on in a big-brotherly sort of way. It was he who dared her to go up in an airplane when she was still in her teens (she went). Of the three sisters in the family, my mother was the one most avid for fun and new experiences, whether it was deep-sea swimming or going to the jazziest new nightclub. When my father nicknamed her Good-time Charley it stuck; my husband always called her Charley.

It took Bessie five years to finish high school (trouble with Latin) but she treated that as a joke and was very smart. Her assessments of my friends sometimes surprised me with their accuracy. She read people like a novelist and could tell you who was selfish, kind, honest, stingy, untrustworthy… and on short acquaintance.

After high school Bessie took a few extension courses at Columbia and then attended secretarial school. She got a job demonstrating the use of the typewriter but her father easily persuaded her to turn it down so she could join the family at Saratoga. She lacked the work ethic that governs my generation until much later in her life.

My parents “met cute” as they say in the movie business.  It was late one spring night and Bessie was driving some friends around in her Bearcat when they passed my father’s two-story house. He slept upstairs on a screened sleeping porch and one of the passengers asked my mother to stop the car so they could surprise him. Harry Greene came down, looked the scene over, and lit a match so he could see the driver’s face. This often-told encounter captured my imagination as a girl and I pictured it:  she sparkling, he quietly mysterious in the flare of light. They fell in love and married on her twenty-second birthday at the Savoy Plaza, which stood among the grand hotels around 59th Street and Fifth Avenue. Many of the women guests wore  “headache bands,” a headdress involving a broad ribbon around the forehead often sprouting a fancy feather or two at the side–part of the Flapper uniform. This can be seen in a panoramic photograph of the wedding guests at their dinner tables. I forget which couturier made my mother’s wedding dress but she told us more than once about buying some of her trousseau in the children’s department; she was just over five feet tall and weighed 89 pounds.

Bessie’s privileged youth was no handicap when the Great Depression demanded thrift, self-denial, and clever management. She still dressed my sister and me nicely and managed to find two dollars a week for my piano lessons while on a forty-dollar budget. We never heard a word about money worries.

My sister and I were quiet, obedient children, only occasionally driving our probably bored housewife-mother to yell or, rarely, to slap one of us on the forearm. I remember pink finger marks from her hand on my skinny white arm, and also remember pinching the marks to make them last longer so I could show her accusingly.

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A few years after my parents’ nest was empty, my mother became a part-time baby-sitter for her grandchildren, my sister and I delivering the first two only four days  apart. She gave us each a day off a week and our kids an additional loving parent. Graduation from a crib to a bed was celebrated with one of her perfect handmade afghans, no two alike; college meant another afghan each. They last, these pieces of family folk art, and have become heirlooms to be lent around and passed down.

After the last of her four grandchildren went to school, Bessie got her first job. She was sixty-five. She became a general assistant at the Art Nouveau gallery of her best friend since childhood, Lillian Nassau. Bessie was often in charge of the door buzzer and is famous in the shop and the family for refusing to let in a grungy fellow who turned out to be the then super-star musician Paul Simon. She did know enough to admit Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, all four Beatles (one at a time), Barbra Streisand, and numerous decorative arts curators. She is the only one in the family who has looked into the barrel of a gun in the hand of an actual criminal. The shop’s Tiffany lamps and Remington bronzes were the loot, never to be seen again. “Already on a plane,” said Volpe the renowned NYPD “art cop” an hour or so after each armed robbery, for there were two.  Lillian’s son Paul was running the gallery the second time, and when the gunman said  (his actual words) “This is a stick-up,” Paul and my mother rolled their eyes at each other.

After she turned 85, my mother, widowed five years and still working, told me she would love to go to Europe once more. She had made several overseas buying trips with Lillian when they were in their seventies. I liked the idea. We decided on a week in London, one of her favorite cities, with a few side trips. My husband thought it should be ladies only and I agreed. One of my nieces decided to join us. Separate rooms and separate checks all around for three generations in true harmony. It was one of the best things I ever did, especially because three months after we got back, a sudden vicious cancer struck my mother. Two months later, she was gone.

I have another memory that I replay sometimes when thinking about family life. It was the night before my wedding and my parents and I were sitting around in the living room with nothing more to do. I had never lived on my own, not even during college, so marriage was a bigger step for me than it is in these days of cohabitation. Although I had not planned to make a speech, I began to tell them what I was feeling. I told them I was happy to be getting married, but that I was sad because it meant leaving them. I told them how much I enjoyed being their daughter, and that I didn’t know how to repay them. My father said “You’ll repay us by doing the same thing for your children.” He made this a completely rounded and unforgettable conversation, and I am forever pleased to think I must have made them both very happy that night with my spontaneous, heartfelt tribute.

Everyone should have a daughter like me.


Elaine Greene Weisburg began to write personal essays only after decades of design reporting and editing. The first time she typed the word “I” she thought the roof would fall in.