Not long after meeting him for the first time, I told guerrilla photographer Jon Haeber that I was glad he had picked the remnants of my family’s hotel to shoot his portfolio rather than some other defunct Catskills resort (or random exotic ruins on the Earth); he was likewise fortunate to have happened upon an American antiquity with a homeboy whose sensibility complemented his own.
This self-congratulatory quip stays with me because it pokes at a deeper verity: Jon and I are not only parallel appreciators of Grossinger’s but fellow pilgrims to its shrine. Journeying there from dramatically different points of origin along equally divergent courses, we are separated by almost two generations as well as by the fact that I haunted the grounds when its terraces and lobbies were flourishing with activities, buffets, and buzz, while he examined only the debris: a rummaged carcass. They are ironically layers of the same meta-archaeology.
In forty meteoric years Grossinger’s morphed from the folksy Longbrook boarding house (opened in 1914 in Ferndale, New York, by immigrants from Poland, who were more recently refugees from the Lower East Side) to a rustic lodge and bungalow colony (1919, with the purchase of the nearby Nichols Estate and Terrace Hill House) to a small city with its own zip code (12734) outside the town of Liberty, to a fabled bastion of pomp and circumstance. It flatlined through the mid-fifties into the early sixties and then began a precipitous twenty-five-year decline, unravelling from gala resort and diamond of modernity to rambling barrio pimping oafishly on its reputation. Its decomposition was as unexpected and sudden as its blossoming. It happened so fast that Jon and I within the span of two generations could attend different levels of an excavation that usually takes a millennium or more to unfold. Somehow, despite our very different paths and spiritual commitments to the post-Grossinger landscape, he and I have arrived at approximately the same view. That is, as outsider and insider, respectively, we attend one transpersonal, transhistorical event: an abandoned crypt of exposed and evolving archaeologies.
The semiological layers generated by the Grossinger’s wreckage now trump any insider scoops or privileging of actual Grossinger-ness. Plus, as middle-class white boys, Jon and I already occupy this sadly imbalanced planet’s top percentile of ease, luxury, and power. So, despite our disparate lineages and trajectories to the G., we are equally kin and heir to “Grossinger’s as dowry” or “Grossinger’s as heirloom.” The meaning of my formal time there is balanced by Jon’s time at other anterchambers of Uncle Sam’s giant banquet hall qua transcontinental yardsale. At their summons we are Homo sapiens, raised inside the Americana dream where myths and realities flaunt each other’s illusions and converge. We have all—that is, the majority of our generations (and those in between and on their way)—been guests at the Dirty Dancing/Holiday Inn/Great Gatsby “Grossinger’s of the mind.” And much like The Eagles’ legendary Hotel California, “you can check out anytime you like/but you can never leave.”
Our links to Grossinger’s are also as time-warped as our childhood benchmarks of Cold War referentiality: e.g., the Sputnik era for me and the fall of the Berlin Wall for him. A few years before the G. went out of business for good in 1987, Jon was born a universe and a half away in California’s oil-and-gas badlands as they were transitioning from petrol boom into Mulholland’s well-irrigated orange groves. Soon vast tracts of So-Cal suburbs would cover the plowing under of trees and ranches, a slow-motion flash flood. If Grossinger’s ballroom-danced with Eleanor Roosevelt, Iwo Jima, and Ethel Merman; Fillmore, CA, of Jon’s adolescence moonwalked with Ronald Reagan, Chernobyl meltdown, and Michael Jackson.
In fact Jon first learned of the G well into the post-9/11 aughts, during W’s second term. His maiden visit there took place almost a quarter century after the demolition of the Main Building. “Grossinger’s after Grossinger’s”—cluttered fields of bizarre eroding tablets and cenotaphs—had become an Andy Goldsworthy experiment in the interplay of culture and nature. Its signature remaining menhirs—the Barney Ross and Milton Berle, the indoor pool, the Annabelle, the Baby Anabelle, the Lyman, the laundry, the Jenny G, the ice rink—had begun to collapse from disuse, neglect, and the elements; the effects of gravity, shear, and wind (not to mention the encroachments of generations of local creature life carting off reuseable and metabolizable booty while reclaiming the space to the degree that their anatomies allowed).
This advanced mortification followed the sale of the property to the first in a series of owners, none of whom had the imagination or financial wherewithal (let alone a bare-bones budget) to restore or maintain the G. or, failing those, at least to raze and clear its crumbling hodgepodge for fresh construction. Instead, they allowed a small town’s worth of buildings and plazas to decay and molder into a field of artifacts, an extended three-dimensional gallery of innate charm and intelligence for outlaw artists to scavenge by optical and digital device.
The ruins are weirdly aesthetic, not by their own original parameters or ambitions of refinement (according to which they are ugly ugly ugly as well as disgusting and sad—or worse) but according to the absolute erosion and descent of objects, again under wind and gravity and water against differential integrities, artistries, and implicit fatigue and fault-lines of their original, mostly machined craftsmanship. They have been recontextualized in a sculpture garden of cultural objects immense and tiny—some of them very large indeed (whole houses) and others as small as a piece of hanging plaster or a torn patch of wallpaper.
Jon and his colleagues recognized the exhibit’s strange and unique beauty, the comeliness that occurs as the Earth undresses the haberdashery of man and returns the land to its natural anatomy and rhythm. Each stage of this burlesque, especially while the strip-teaser is still more adorned than naked, is exquisitely and tantalizingly evocative of some hidden meaning or long-neglected rebus, some overlooked runic quality bedecked and denominated for transient seductive mirage without civilized awareness of its actual caliber under governance of Sun and Moon. Each relic is a seme, a meme, and a trope, located somewhere among the histories of metallurgy, industrial design, and social fashion, and the imagination of fun and romance. See how heavy metal pipes decompose into the eros of rust and rusted-out, en route to the meiotic syzygy of mere molecular mass.
What my professor Leo Marx called “the machine in the garden” back in 1962 during my stint in his classroom freshman year at Amherst College (and is still, under an anachronism of insufficient regret, calling “the machine in the garden almost fifty years later as an emeritus at MIT) by 1997 had become “the machine is the garden”, and then “the garden is eating the machine,” not only at Grossinger’s but across an extravagantly synthesized and grueled planet, in the crowded favelas of Rio and Mexico City, in the slums of Nigeria and Kenya, in polities built on landfill as other nations vanish beneath globally marned glacial melt, at illicit Asian dumpsites of toxic American computer garbage (hardware and software both), in the outskirts of Fargo, Topeka, Galveston, and Cincinnati as well as Liberty, New York, by 2007. It has become the “mutation in the jungle” and “the copse sucking marrow out of the midden.” But what is machine and what is garden, what is salvageable and what is septic forever (or indefinitely proxied and extinct) will need 2107 to tell our descendants for sure.
With its fake aristocracy, ephemeral wealth, high kitsch, and wanton braggadocio, Grossinger’s was the flagship once of a Borscht Belt principality, a milieu’s casino of winners and losers. (Despite the absence of actual blackjack tables and slot machines—gambling still isn’t legal in Sullivan County—a series of purchasers of the post-Grossinger’s property and jurisdiction tried to buy low and cash out high in hopes of the roulette wheel stopping at game-changing legislation during their tenures: all thus far have tired of waiting for the politicians to get greedy or desperate enough and bailed at a loss.)
My father Paul Grossinger—PG on the vanity plates of his black Cadillacs followed by a fifties upgrade to fashionable white Lincolns—enjoyed the trappings of post-War opulence in spades. Surrounded for years by his futuristic toys, he staked his entire fortune to the Hotel, never diversifying, so he died indigent after an auto accident in 1989, leaving zero inheritance for either me or my half-brothers (despite the fabulous claims and hopes that dominated our childhood).
In a riff in my 1997 book Out of Babylon: Ghosts of Grossinger’s, I “cast” PG to be played by Jackie Gleason of The Honeymooners (that is, if the Grossinger tale were ever to be scripted cinematographically). I would cast a different actor now in a role that didn’t exist at the time: James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. My father was Tony Soprano lite. PG, God forbid, didn’t “do” anyone or racketeer and steal (at least at mafioso scale), but the character study is otherwise on tune: proudly cynical and self-aggrandizing even when dead-wrong or caught lying; delivering pseudo-intellectual, well nigh smarmy sermons about power, entitlement, workers, dames, danger, obligation; dog-eat-dog, male prerogative, particularly in relation to younger women; chubby and smiley; strong and relentless as a bull; lewd streaks of prankish sadism; rage and violence intermittently erupting as his default posture against a patina of casual sentimentality. Dealt an insanely lucky hand, he blew all his chips in record time. Not entirely his fault, but it did happen on his watch—he was Grossinger’s biggest loser.
In the conventional version of this fairy tale I am PG’s first (and only) natural son, himself the only son of the daughter of the founder, that matriarch being Jennie Grossinger, the birth mother of iconic Grossinger’s. Soon after I came onstage in 1944—a late World War 2 Grossinger Tatler headline proclaiming me “His Majesty!”—my mother left PG for Bob Towers, his best buddy and the tummler at Grossinger’s, after which she raised me in Manhattan with my half-brother and half-sister as if we were all Towers (Bob changed his name from Ruben Turetsky to seek his fortune in the Catskills after breaking his Lower East Side family’s heart by not training as a rabbi and cantor).
I didn’t hear of the G. until I was eight; I didn’t see it until just before my ninth birthday. Until age twelve I was Richard Towers of P.S. 6 and 96th Street (to myself and the world). But Towers-to-Grossinger was only my first metamorphosis.
After my initiation to the sprawling pleasure dome, I explored its halls and alcoves, lawns and facilities, myriad plazas and pathways, labyrinths of lobbies and underground tunnels. I hung out on the fringes of its celebrity sightings, its celebrations of the invention and uses of fun, its thousand-person banquets, seders, and bar mitzvahs, its living splendor. I became a fanatic Grossinger apostle and cheerleader, a troubadour chanting its praises to whomever I could commandeer from among schoolmates, teachers, camp counselors.
What child summoned into Richie Rich Land from a darkly Dostoevskian family of more modest means (the Turetsky clan) wouldn’t herald likewise?
However, as a young adult, I switched sides to become a radical Grossinger detractor and muckraker, decrying its phoniness, abuse of immigrants and staff, crimes against humanity. From then on, Grossinger’s hung in abeyance for me, as I wavered between enjoying its merrymaking and beneficence, exploiting my privilege and status (sometimes shamelessly), and being disgusted by its grunge, greed, and gluttony, renouncing it both in the world and in me, as I fled it for other climes and identities.
When I was thirty, my mother committed suicide, jumping out her window into a courtyard off Park Avenue, an event that she was unconsciously planning even before she dated PG and put in seven years as spurious Princess of the G. I discovered in the aftermath of her death that she actually had me by an affair while married to Paul.
It took me a year and a half to sleuth out the identity of my genetic father. Initially I had high hopes for one of the luminaries of the era (like Ed Sullivan who sent her secret love letters that she saved and prized, though not Ed himself mind you). My progenitor turned out to be neither athlete nor actor, not a politician or a famous balladeer—instead (depending on who is purveying the myth) either a fancy businessman, lawyer, and real-estate baron, or a mobster and pornographer. “A shape-changing scoundrel, “a pinky-ringed piranha,” chided one observer of the era. “That wasn’t a man; that was an animal,” someone else declared in the same book. “He’d take young film-makers and then he’d screw them.”
Maybe that reporter had an axe to grind, for I have been told by other witnesses my progenior was a man of honor, a loving father, a generous boss, a mensch. He was probably neither as quixotic nor dastardly as reputed, but I have no firsthand knowledge: he was never willing to meet me.
Because of my triune paternity, I neither grew up a Grossinger nor was blood-related to the Grossinger family. My once-prized Grossinger pedigree (“His Majesty!”) is both a chimera and a fraud. I am even less a true Grossinger than my adopted half-brothers who at least were natives, born and raised there. I have a Manhattan childhood, a snobby prep-school/Ivy League education, and an elite literary ambition. I didn’t ever even really live there as my home or make the resort’s universe remotely congruent with my own.
On that uncertain and ambivalent basis I have composed two books encompassing my Grossinger identity (each with hundreds of pages on the resort and my adventures there). New Moon is a revision of a cumulative teenage/early-adult memoir, reclaimed some thirty years later. Out of Babylon, assembled a decade after the 1986 demise of Grossinger’s, is a bricolage of five generations of my family, maternal and paternal, known and unknown. In the course of these two texts, I have exhumed Grossinger’s triumphs, scandals, hoaxes, phantoms, romances, and shadow dramas. Nothing I can add here would recover the hotel’s complexity, texture, or scope as recorded in these texts, so I will not even try.
The books were written as literary nonfiction, representing my aspirations as an author in the lineage of Melville and Faulkner and transcending my Grossinger heritage. Their paternity owes more to Carl Jung and Charles Olson than Selig and Harry Grossinger. In that sense too I share a cross-cultural, semiological agenda with Jon. We are all scions of Andy Warhol when we gaze back at the world as artifact and icon.
Much of the upbeat pap was staged news and planted gossip spun from PR myths orchestrated by Milton Blackstone and precocious Madmen in collusion with house celebrities and our original Reality star, hotelier Jennie G.
It was (mostly) a well-intentioned, magnanimous scam, as those who created and fell for it needed a hangout like Grossinger’s, a saloon for their parties, a melting-pot stage for their undiscovered talents, an Arcadia for their romancing, for cooling out and celebrating after the Big War, a platform for nouveau riche exhibitionism. Grossinger’s provided a venue for fast-track naturalization into American pop culture, for catapulting from shtetl onto Main Street, for creating a country club more fabulous and glitzy than those from which they had been excluded. It evolved into a fabulous neutral zone to which Rocky Marciano, Nelson Rockefeller, Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, and Jackie Robinson could return as honorary sons and daughters of a Jewish grandmother from Baligrod, Poland.
Beneath the hoopla and hype, Grossinger’s also had actual substance and pith. After all, there was a real, if brief (by dynasty standards) aristocracy, with real guests, real fake Tudor buildings, real rhumba lessons, real love and betrayal, real children from couples who met during Singles Weekends, real romance and love, real lucre.
The decomposing ziggurats may be ostentatious husks of pseudo-Tudor emulations, but they are the gingerbread detritus of actual lives, vital exuberances and poignancies, like the shells of creatures washed onto beaches, or fur on bones along a highway. They are the relics, insignia, and runes of those same creatures, resonating with their exotic secrets and uncanny hopes, the marks of something obscure actually lived, synapses into ganglia.
In fact, it was realer by far than the Reality soap operas and bachelor-bacherlorettes of the present day, for it exuded the mysterious resonance and depth of the fifties during which the cosmos and night sky shone through our petty dramas and rituals into the kinds of inner spaces elicited by Hardy Boys searching for the Tower Treasure and Sinister Signpost—morphing along subway tunnels against Castro’s Cuba and the insistence of air-raid sirens into Janis Joplin singing “Bobby McGee,” into “the Wanderers” and “me and you and a dog named Boo, travelling and a-livin’ off the land….” We felt the deep cosmic jazz and scrumptious enigma of Earth’s incarnation. Each tarot card drawn in our era, even the terraces and lobbies of Grossinger’s, was its own reflection in a kaleidoscope of mirrors within mirrors, images within images…into infinity. Now it is truly the Clue in the Embers.
Grossinger’s is also like Jorge Luis Borges’ story of Samuel Coleridge’s unfinished poem of Kubla Khan’s unfinished palace. Though the actual resort was ostensibly finished and luxuriously provisioned (it must have been for its slogan to read “Grossinger’s has everything!” and for its semiology to be so vast and inscrutable), its actual substance and meaning were never disclosed before its derogation, and now the map is a pillaged remnant.
Neither of “Kubla Khan’s” ancient pleasure domes was finished, so their meanings lie in alternate versions (castle, poem, dream, story, rock song, virtual reality, science-fiction trope) of an ever-incipient manifestation. Likewise Grossinger’s remains unfinished even though an edifice and a façade were built, for there were many G’s: my Grossinger’s, Jon Haeber’s Grossinger’s, but also the Grossinger’s that Eddie Fisher took back into the cosmos, the Grossinger’s of Barney Ross and Irving Berlin and of the guests who vacationed in cottages named after those superstars—even the insipid Grossinger’s of Tania Grossinger’s six-decade-long whine (Growing up at Grossinger’s) about how badly (boo-hoo!) she was treated there as a child and how she might somehow cash in the rags of the sleaziest gossip that her crone brain can still remainder or reconstruct.
“The first dream added a palace to reality; the second, which occurred five centuries later, a poem (or the beginning of a poem) suggested by the palace…. If this plan does not fail, someone, on a night centuries removed from us, will dream the same dream and not suspect that others have dreamed it, and he will give it a form of marble or music. Perhaps this series of dreams has no end…. Perhaps an archetype not yet revealed to mankind, an eternal object, is gradually entering the world.”
Grossinger’s is an eternal object too, still entering the world even as its rubble suggests that its license and tenure have come and gone and are now elsewhere. Each new dream—Kubla Khan’s palace, Disneyland, Vegas, Neverland—arises necessarily within the Buddhist World Illusion. But, as myriad “Buddhist Marxists” and Judaeo-Christian Buddhists attest, reality’s ephemerality and illusion do not in the least undermine Marx’s materialism or his critique of capitalism. This may not be real, any of it, but that’s not the point. I defy you, having declared it not real, to figure out what goes in its place, and to put something else there as convincing or irresistible.
There is not a gap of meaning (or anything else) between Grossinger’s as grandiloquent pleasure dome qua utopian mirage and Grossinger’s as early mall plexus of cheap and decaying architectures of mid-twentieth-century nightmares—the sheer stark and skeletal beauty of the City of Refuge and Illusion (to give it Jon’s tag). He and I are once and future visitors to a dream, a map, a geography, a myth, and an archetype of an eternal object not yet revealed. Not yet revealed!
In late July of 1999, our family—moi, my wife Lindy, our adult son and daughter (Robin and Miranda), Robin’s wife Erica, and Miranda’s partner of the time, rocker Calvin Johnson—went on a group sightseeing escapade to the ruins of Grossinger’s, a side pilgrimage off a longer one from California to see Miranda perform her multimedia piece Love Diamond at Lincoln Center—that is, at the cusp of our children’s leaving home and inventing their own universes, the great-grandchildren of Grossinger’s writing new myths well beyond any legend or reverberation of Jennie. The next afternoon we reconvened ninety miles northwest at the foot of Grossinger Hill, ancient signage and entry kiosk still marking the grand threshold. This was a portal to the past, and each of us entered at a different vibration.
More exoterically Lindy and I arrived from Poughkeepsie in the company of Albert Rosenblatt, a judge on the New York Court of Appeals. From 1954 to 1960 Albert paid his way through college and law school by working, mostly as a bellhop, at Grossinger’s. After reading Out of Babylon, he contacted me and we talked on the phone a number of times. In our fourth conversation he proposed exactly such an expedition for a future undetermined venue and occasion. He knew about illegal forays onto the grounds, as he had already participated in several himself. Grossinger’s was private property (and not our property anymore), but Albert guessed that a member of the State’s highest court would be an ideal accomplice if we were confronted by the constabulary.
There was little need for concern. Though eight years earlier I had tried to enter and been stopped by a guard who refused to admit me to my family’s burial grounds (despite my picture ID California Driver’s License denoting at least the obvious), now the kiosk was unmanned, all 1,200 acres apparently a free zone, unpoliced; we soldiered right in and probed wherever we wanted for almost three hours. During this unauthorized raid Miranda came away with props for future art pieces: guest cards, stray photos, staff records. Robin liberated a still-working manual typewriter.
Grossinger’s in its half-life was both shocking and ordinary. As we fashioned our own tour the grounds, indoors and out (insofar as there was still a distinction), I found the landscape soporifically familiar, yet surrealistically eerie, in part because I hadn’t been there for thirteen years—the longest diaspora of my life. The basic constellation of buildings was exactly as I had recollected them, but everything is more capacious and sententious in memory. Though distorted and shrunken, the map itself was basically intact.
When one dreams of a former habitation that no longer exists, populated with people no longer alive, the landscape takes on a mysterious transdimensional ambience, as shifting layers of chronological distance introduce lacunae of other orders. Time and meaning complicate inextricably, leaving the intimation of something crucial forgotten or undone, inaccessible. The actual layout becomes a toy subset: a model train or architectural mock-up in a plastic case, a depleted semblance or facsimile of an imaginal one. One proceeds in a trance as if everything were normal except for that UFO-abduction classic cue: “missing time.”
Having softened already in my dreams, the stelae of Grossinger’s were now unravelling as plaster and sun-lit mosaics, monoliths lauding dilapidation and casualty.
We have all seen, firsthand or on video, ghost towns and disaster zones. Jennie’s cornucopia had become one of those: a petri-dish fossil, kin to Tombstone, Arizona, or Chernobyl, USSR. Viewing the mutilation of my once-beloved childhood sanctum, I felt longing and sadness with tones of other uncategorizable emotions and nostalgias. Those were archived deep in me for, even when Grossinger’s was operating at the top of its game. Even when flooded with its luxury, dazzle, and the epiphanies of delight, I would feel homesick there, for some other secret, magical place. It was as fake and cloying and wedding-cake in 1959 as in 1999’s sunlit cameo.
As we walked along, Albert likened the metamorphosis at hand to Thomas Cole’s Course of Empire series, a series of paintings of the same site in five phases of evolution and devolution, from hunting grounds to Arcadian village to colonnaded marble temples to barbarian invasion, destruction, and desolation. Course of Empire was set metaphorically just miles down the Hudson River from Grossinger’s, on a scale of centuries rather than decades—but America’s empires, like its trademarks and shops in their ceaseless corporate takeovers and incestuous mergers and bankruptcies, have become as synoptic as they are evanescent.
To me, Grossinger’s 1999 evoked a precinct of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone: cryptozoological entities might pop out at any minute from behind façades and wreckage, odd little mome raths and tribbles, an occasional small yeti. I was reminded of the made-for-television flick of Stephen King’s The Langoliers in which sleeping people on an LA-to-Boston red-eye pass through an electromagnetic disturbance over Nevada and end up slightly displaced from the continuum of time such that they arrive at each instant a few minutes after it has already happened. When they finally land at the deserted airport in King’s adopted hometown of Bangor, Maine, the scenery is dead, stale, and empty, though its stanchions and human edifices, stale doughnuts and coffee cups with coffee remain.
However, since King is a raconteur of horror, this falsely reassuring residue is about to decay and be eaten by merciless creatures, the langoliers, who inhabit the interzone between presence and memorabilia, feeding off vestiges of concrete moments after they have passed. What the langoliers cannibalize are the energy bodies of molecular records, since the actual artifacts persist (like Grossinger’s) to degrade in a more conventional way. Langolier Grossinger’s hovered at a frequency of the secular landscape’s garbage-dump-modern emanation.
Grossinger’s always opposed its legend, as its were was never more than a fusion of tawdry junk and elegant and alluring props—sentimental compositions, menial attitudes—a cramped composition of human possibility. It was never a real Fontainebleau or Shangri-la with priceless imports and antiques, actual marble and rubies; it was cheap drywall and maché replica. Yet Grossinger’s still somehow harbored solace and grandeur—an actual joy factory and oasis was sequestered inside the bogus one.
I loved this place despite its “fun” tropes and saccharine Jewish provinciality. I loved it as a child when I first came there—a candy-cane, baseball-card village; a gentle rendition of Oz and Alice’s Wonderland. That tarot card held an eternal Christmas morning with new snow on evergreen branches.
I loved it again as a daydreaming teenager hanging out in the Nightwatch at the fringes of its jukebox dating ritual, watching celebrity concerts by Leslie Gore, The Tokens, and endless wannabe pseudo-doo-wop/”Dion-and-the Belmonts” groups ferried through by Hartford disc-jockey Gene Kaye. It was still always special by being Grossinger’s.
It was my sanctuary to which I brought my girlfriend and wife-to-be Lindy Hough in 1964 and, after scaling the coffee-shop partition, made six-flavored milkshakes for us past midnight (my prerogative as a family member). I renewed my loyalty and fondness during our many visits as a married couple with young kids. In the hotel’s shabby and senescent era, we brought our growing children to sweet, faded paradise from homes in Maine, Vermont, and Northern California, for weeks at a time. That migratory pattern ended abruptly with the distress sale of the entire dominion on the verge of bankruptcy when Robin was sixteen and Miranda eleven.
Now we and they were back on the grounds together, at a different phase of each of our lives—no more Grossinger daycamp, no more chocolate Christmas-tree cookies, no more raids on the goodies, no more milk shakes and searching for turtles around the lake. Just the rinds and dirty dishes and other clabber.
The compass of Grossinger’s, while spacious and intricate, is not complicated. A main road hooks right after entry and then scissors at a fork by where my father used to live in a sunny three-story house, home base for many of the definitive events of my childhood and adolescence. One branch of the road continues from there up the hill onto the Lakeside Inn property annexed in the late fifties and turned into a children’s camp, staff quarters, a softball field, and holes for a second golf course; the other veering left and downhill to a second fork at the entry to the ice-skating rink, its lower branch of mixed plazas and neighborhoods proceeding past the laundry and back of the kitchen and tennis courts to the gardens and outdoor pool; the upper partition traversing a greenhouse, handball court, toboggan, and the original clubhouse and golf course before, after a long dogleg right then left, arriving at Grossinger Lake.
PG’s house is still there, in fact better preserved than any other structure, for it serves as the golf pro’s domicile, and he is the overseer of the sole office of Grossinger’s still in session: thirty-six holes of luxury sport. The global economy doesn’t throw away whole links, for golf is now a primo destination of corporate jaunts and jets—quite a turnabout for a game once played (at its advent centuries ago) with a makeshift ball and wooden clubs by peasants through wild fields and farming towns, the holes and pars changing from year to year (it is played that way now only in expanding-universe sectors of Alaska).
The astonishing thing to me in 1999 was that, as I stood at the nostalgic crossroads in front of my father’s house on the hill overlooking the wooded countryside where Grossinger’s was born as the Nichols Estate and Terrace Hill House, the spot from where my life once unfolded with mysteries and wonders, I experienced an elation and epiphany; I was filled anew with powerful emotions and intimations.
On the surface, I felt despair and outrage at the trashing of Grossinger’s, plus guilt for not stepping in somehow to prevent this carnage (as if I would have had even the impact of a butterfly’s wings in Tokyo). I found it so damn sad that my adult children had not known the Hotel in its glory years and then had lost it so soon after they came enough of age to appreciate its weirdness and wonder. I regretted that the extended Grossinger family had heedlessly squandered its reunion headquarters and clan hearth.
At the level of my pilgrimage to the clan cemetery I was a witness to more than the dismemberment of a palatial country club and palace. I beheld a shrine, the collective symbolic corpse of my kinfolk (blood and genes aside), and a violated and picked-at one at that.
Yet at the same time, on a spiritual level, no doubt on another plane, I experienced something entirely opposite—that not only had the landscape’s intrinsic beauty and joy not diminished, but it had increased exponentially and bountifully, and the land was even more lovely and primal without the “burden” of Grossinger’s, its vestigial debris and dismemberment notwithstanding.
Grossinger’s had occupied unknowingly an elf and fairy spa, a pure astral zone and wonderland to which native American scouts had probably come pre-1492 to meet spirit presences, on which other inns and estates, forerunners of Grossinger’s, had been built with uncomprehending capitalist fervor; on which Grossinger’s itself had arisen and come to fruition as the prototype luxury lodge and “holiday inn” for a generation or two.
It had never been just my family or a mythological Catskill resort or even the alembic whereby the G. became transcendentally the Jewish Yale and Harvard as well as the Jewish Broadway and Polo Grounds—though it was all those things too.
New Moon and Out of Babylon were prescient in a way I didn’t come close to realizing in writing them. They hinted at how Grossinger’s was a cover story, a mnemonic trigger for something else—something truly luminous and sacred—not only for me but for my family, generations of guests, and even the staff living in slums, even the underpaid Puerto Rican Polish, and Chinese workers.
In an epitome episode from around age thirteen, one of the few seams along which New Moon and Out of Babylon overlap, I depict my arrival at Grossinger’s, after a lonely, hazing-filled summer at nearby Camp Chipinaw. I was making a stab at the enigma of the pleasure-dome, Grossinger’s of my imagination. First I wrote in New Moon:
“It was rapture, just to walk by the sparkle of the pool among the chattering crowds, to look up into the sky and watch the white cumulus exploding forever.”
By Out of Babylon the memory had deepened and come to its apotheosis, so I went for the essence:
“The next morning, strolling past tennis courts en route to lunch at the pool, I felt as though the Earth had changed utterly, from a pit of hell to Shangri-La. I had a different body, so much denser, crammed with joyful, excited feelings, each one different and strange, rolling inside like oceans off a far horizon. It was amazing, beautiful, tropical, not just because of luxuries and gala events all around but because I could feel myself floating up into the blue sky across cloud armadas that tinged the horizon far beyond Grossinger’s. It was the best that things ever got, happier than happy, more colorful than blue, red, yellow, more golden than Indian summer, more euphoric than September wind eddying in maple and oak, because everywhere I looked, peace and hope extended inside me, all the way to P.S. 6 and Chipinaw, even to my brother Jon, even to the Cropsey Maniac….
“Grossinger’s was where Yankees came as real people. It was where Milty shut the canteen in order to throw me balls and I made impossible diving and leaping catches among the marigolds because I suddenly had the energy and timing of Superman. It was where Grandma bought clothes for poor workers. It wasn’t Grossinger’s. It was creation, but Grossinger’s was where I had to be for it to happen.”
The site itself, 1999—bare, disheveled, rolling transdimensionally, populated with wildflowers and frogs—had numinous power. The spirits of these hills and the tiny loch bulldozed into a lake for scenic boating, despite turds of blasphemy and golf-course fertilizer that had been deposited on their doorstep, the desecration of their abode on the physical plane, were so gracious, compassionate, and forgiving, so irrepressibly generous, that they had made a gift of “Grossinger’s” to the human race and were continuing to, and would do so again. That is why it rose once and again as a paradisal and ecstatic kingdom above its funky assemblages and institutionalization. That’s why it became a sort of archetypal mini-Jerusalem in our kabbalistic apostasy. That is why it has been resurrected as a nouveau salon and art gallery rather than just blotching the landscape as a vapid dump.
The Jewish habitants back then mistook it for their own mecca rather than a local condition of nature spirits who were too high and ecumenical to favor any tribe. Perhaps that’s why they lost it, in grasping what wasn’t theirs. Those unnamed entities were initiating me back into their wisdom and conferring on me their absolute grace. Now that I was no longer distracted by the “Hotel” or the legacy of my name and ephemeral heritage or the curse of my lost inheritance or the eyesore ruins, I could simply appreciate the majesty and wonder of the Earth itself, the awe-evoking blue-green planetoid with its DNA legerdemain and esoteric mounds and springs.
That was the home vibration resonating through that site; it had filled my heart as a child and teenager, without me knowing what it was, though I tried to photograph it with box cameras and then my first Minolta as a teenager and with an 8 mm. Bolex in college (Jon finally got it under the surface decay). I smelled the vapors of hot tomato leaves as I picked their luminous fruits (1954), played solitaire roofball with a Spaldeen for hours at a time (1956), photographed berries with winter snow on them (1959), and had the courage to make my first date with a girl from a phone in our bright yellow den (1961).
Put more simply, I realized that the Grossinger’s site had great feng shui and had always had it. Not just great—super-incredible, Sedona, Heart Chakra, Stonehenge, Damanhur, Ayres Rock, Dreamtime-level feng shui—and this had made the wealth and luxury and Joy Factory, the fame and romance of Grossinger’s explode in place as elucidations or disseminations of the archetype. The invisible astral geyser drew Babe Didrikson, Florence Chadwick, and Irving Jaffee, Michael Spinks, Jo Stafford, and Ingemar Johannsen; Bob Towers and Eddie Cantor; Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Joey Gray, plus millions of other guests and pilgrims. And then the elementals had taken it away in order to fashion something else of great depth and beauty.
Enter Jon Haeber. His photographs are planetarium-quality galactic imagings of the Zone in the sense of recording the new stars and mini solar systems being born out of the debris of old ones. In the Grossinger litter he has uncovered an emergent embryonic landscape.
Jon has brought me up-to-date on a fad that has boomed exponentially since Albert Rosenblatt’s and our foray, one that has come to characterize “Grossinger” eponymies of the post-hiphop, meta-digital era. The G. is the site not just of Jon’s own portfolio; it has become a magnet for freelance photographers of ruins, Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) aficionados, increasingly so each orbit of the Earth. It is now a museum, not only a museum with standing exhibits but a museum constantly altered and recreated by weather, gravity, animals, and spirits in hyperspace, constantly changing its exhibits and rearranging the random kaleidoscopes in the halls of debris that have already been made signature and famous.
An iconoclastic cadre of pure Grossinger’s hobbyists and connoisseurs—all in all, hundreds of documentarians, voyeurs, raiders, conceptual artists, and memento-collectors—swarm over the grounds unlawfully. Whole websites are devoted to documenting Grossinger’s decay. As long as it is posted, you can check out my favorite: http://www.joe4speed.com/grossingerhistory.htm. Joe Lehman discovered Grossinger’s as a boy, the young son of the Florida executive dispatched by Servico, the proximal purchaser of the resort from PG and Elaine, to oversee the renovation of the property from a chrysalis, the first of many, ever-more-feeble attempts to restore and improve the grounds.
Servico may have done little other than to blow up a few buildings (on their second or third try) and erect some ersatz concrete that came right back down, but Joe grokked the real mission; he got the bug and served the indigenous leprechauns, exploring and documenting the artifacts with the enthusiasm of a colonist on Mars. He and his growing legion of colleagues continue to uncover the treasures of nature emerging with culture to ply obscure symbols and hybrid glyphs. For instance, at the time of my writing this epilogue, you can take a video tour (with postcards and flashbacks to the fifties scenes): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5fAdKshdaI.
As long as it is playing online, you can also take the Yahoo tour entitled “Grossinger’s abandoned resort”: http://beta.news.yahoo.com/photos/grossinger-s-abandoned-resort-1308604839-slideshow/.
So the Hotel is a mecca anew, but this time for curio tracking by “guests” who, mostly, weren’t born or hadn’t heard of the G. in its heyday. These nonpaying aficianados don’t require Simon Sez or Dirty Dancing; they are conducting art, hermeneutics, and bricolage of an entirely different order.
I find Jon’s portfolio (http://www.terrastories.com/grossingers/) and his Grossinger’s: City of Refuge and Illusion (Furnace Press 2010) absolutely stunning, though the G is but a single chapter in his overall oeuvre documenting the interaction of nature and culture, land and its use, the raw and the cooked. He had previously photographed ghost ships in Suisun Bay’s mothball fleet, a vacant art-deco skyscraper in San Francisco, Cold War missile bunkers, missile launch sites and gantries, and the shuttered theme park rides of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. He worried initially that I might be offended by the invasion of privacy implicit in his photographs, especially as some of them spy on the degradation of Joy Cottage, where my father and stepmother dwelled at the end. But I don’t look at them that way. My only pique is with the publisher of Furnace Press who made such a big fucking, self-aggrandizing deal out of not including this preface that I wrote, at Jon’s invitation, for his book, and never even bothered to call me back, as promised, to tell me so. She is the one who abused the dead, not Jon. She is the one who wanted to claim the material for her own use and essentially told me that it was her property now—thanks! A menial, grabby spirit still haunts the grounds, just like then, only downsized from the corporate to the curatorial level. (Okay, that’s out of the way, but it glosses where this essay comes from.)
In Jon’s documenation I see a number of layers and scales all at once and sequentially: the evolution, interpolation, and deterioration of human landscaping and archaeology; the ubiquity of pure form (and color) in nature (even where nature is artificial and culturally circumscribed); the shifting meaning of form and object when symbol and language underlie them in multiple tiers; plus a just and respectful rendition of the macabre decay-crumble of Grossinger’s in its current mega and micro states, ten years further down the road from our Love Diamond/Halo Benders tour docented by Albert Rosenblatt.
As discouraging and deflating as the present lay of Grossinger’s with its reliquaries is on one level, it is beautiful on another in the gaze of Jon’s lens. There are chiaroscuro pinks and pale yellows of tiles and shower curtains with the fancy G. insignias, now in a dirt setting; luxury guest-rooms turned into campsites with plaster indistinguishable from blown snow; crappy wall prints converted into exotic art by fungus, with the sheet rock behind them under redesign by the same cosmic artist; numbered barrels of Leo LeBel’s fifties barrel-jumping triumphs crushed into tinted numerology; exquisitely soft new cushions of snow on barstools; rainbow-rust bathrooms; icicled lounge chairs (in yellow); former guest-rooms that are now Jackson Pollack canvasses; vast interior plazas that have become a literal deconstruction of one-time construction sites that were finished, lacquered, sealed, and decorated, now back to girders, platforms, and mounds of plaster; plus hosts of miniatures: mimeo paper; wallpaper; irregular patterns of keys on hooks as crisp as a Hopper intaglio; arrangements of stripped tile, paint, wallpaper, rust, and shredding; patches of blue, violet, indigo, and lavender at various scales and degrees in blended smudges of biology and synthetic decay; and assorted windblown, thermodynamic splatter, spill, and spray.
Jon captures the stark electric-chair agenda of the average beauty-parlor station clawed to its essentials by the paws of time. Machines of cooking, laundry, heat, and ice-making have become dead robots, seeking new identities in a cyborg future. They linger amid views from unshot Al Jolson and Jimmie Stewart films in lobbies and arcades stripped of upholstery, conviviality, and light, hence drained of density, texture, and meaning, taking on new light, emergent subtlety, unexamined allusions, colors not in any familiar palette (a promiscuity of midtoned oranges, grays, browns, and tans, intrusions of midnight black and bleached white). In decrepitude their iconography has become intrinsic to the local landscape. In most of these shots, outdoor nature, resplendent and naked or peeking through crusts of rubbish retains its bright, fresh Kodachrome intensity: blue skies, virginal clouds, and verdant trees smiling innocently across wrecked foregrounds, stages and plazas and pods of abstract impressionist stains and litter. Some of the old rooms look more like exotic mass-murder scenes beyond forensics than mere dehumanized cubicles.
My favorite Haeber is the outdoor pool and its veranda. In 1999 it was already a humungous incipient pond; now it is a completely overgrown Roman aqueduct qua Mayan temple, or perhaps something that might be found on an extinct planet of Alpha Centauri—a mixture of the hieroglyphically stained off-whites of the original concave surface and surrounding pavement, glyphed with two- and three-dimensional clusters of photosynthetic green. Photographed as a diagonal in a rectangle, the panorama is classic enough to hang in the Louvre, yet as ciphered as a barcode and intricate in fine alphabetic detail as the embossing on a money note. Every nuance is indispensable and indelible, yet none of them mean anything. Each one encompasses atomistically a million of the old-fashioned postcard-blue, bathing-suit pools. Like in the Big Bang, the cosmic returns to the atomistic, which gives birth to the cosmic again.
For me Jon’s portfolio stands in most absolute balance with my book New Moon, for if you were to reverse time and do a speeded-up lapse cinema, the overgrown foliage would retreat, the pool would fill with antiseptic robin’s-egg water, and the beautiful and not-so-beautiful people would return from my pages and engage in their daffy and erotic intrigues. I believe in my interior version as much as I believe in Jon’s depiction of the post mortem crime scene. Anyway I never could get at the secular fun palace and fleshy Grossinger’s that so many people, most of them now dead, honored and indulged as their favorite bacchanalia and country club—and he never had to, thank goodness.
I would like to believe that my Grandmother Jennie, the person most identified with and committed to the conventional success and maintenance of this property (but also no slouch intellectually and a grand woman in unexpected ways) would have, yes, been shocked by the demise, saddened to the root of her soul by the loss and deterioration but, after one viewing of Jon’s portfolio and a moment’s contemplation, would have shaken his hand and, with tears in her eyes, thanked him for preserving the integrity and dignity of her manor. After all, he had nada to do with the disarray (others plentifully oversaw that), but he addressed it at exactly the level required to keep it real, to give it the honor it still had, to render it “Grossinger’s.”
Our group spent several hours during our 1999 gambit uncovering one curiosity after another. The overall incursion of vegetation, mold, and wildlife was the most phenomenologically radical and compelling element, ceaselessly confounding what was indoors with what was outdoors in unimaginable ways, hastening the transformation of what had been taken from the earth as mineral and stone, alloyed and molded subsequently into resort props and commodities, now in the process of being swallowed back into the earth in fresh, toxic veins of mongrel chemistry (paint, rug filaments, wallboard, plastic, early fiber optics, etc.). Among the items that stick in my mind are the exorbitant, no doubt lethal fungi on various soaked carpets and dissected walls, the endlessly crumbling plaster and broken glass in decadent poses, states of affairs left in process as if the mythic neutron bomb had been exploded there and even the skeletons had been vaporized, leaving the furniture and paraphernalia intact for successor occupants, invaders who never came.
More than Alpha Centauri 2999, Grossinger’s had the mood of the Earth after the extinction of man, as viewed by visitors from another Solar System. Intelligent creatures greeting them at the outdoor pool were frogs, lily pads, birds feeding on cracks in patios where jungles were growing up—outdoor and indoor natatoria merely the most recent of “manmade” ponds. This fate will befall all of civilization sooner or later—New York, Caracas, Teheran, Lagos, and Mumbai likewise, to be scrubbed and razed by the brush of time that has worked on the probably apocryphal Monuments of Mars: 500 million years or so of its swooshes (by meteorite count anyway).
As noted, the golf course was intact and thriving at the end of the twentieth century. We stopped by the clubhouse, where players were gathering competitively as if the collapsing monuents around them were of no concern (they weren’t). I understood that Japanese Koreans owned the place at the time and ran golf holidays there for mostly tourists from Japan, as rolling pastures with water to spare for eighteen holes of indulgence are harder to come by than excursion rates in the suburbs of Tokyo. However, on this weekday, there were no Asians, only locals, some of whom I recognized through a glass darkly; for instance, Alan Gerry. He used to arrive in his battered van on house call to repair my father’s TVs; now he was a hundred times wealthier than PG ever was, from the profits of a cable-television empire. He looked more than a few decades wasted in his golfing duds, but at least he had ascended from “go-fer” to elite guest.
I will acknowledge here that PG was right about manufacturing a second course out of perfectly good hill and dale. At the time, I thought it was a scandalous waste of scarce capital and a heretical trashing of local wilderness and green space, but in truth the golf component of Grossinger’s was all that survived the denouement in operating mode.
To its Asian owners Grossinger’s was no longer “Grossinger’s,” but “The Famous Grossinger’s Resort,” a slab of Americana now owned by proud descendants of samurai from the Pacific Theater of an era when George Gershwin and Babe Didrikson Zaharias traipsed heroically through these greens. Though it wasn’t showing on that day, I was told that the owners occasionally ran the movie of my Aunt Elaine’s wedding over the karaoke bar, a celluloid spool they had found somewhere among the storerooms, basements, and attics, dusted off, and transferred to video.
Here is a strange aftermath: a number of years later, as I was telling people about my visit to the ruins of Grossinger’s, I described how trees had grown up through the tile floor of the beauty parlor, lifting the old-fashioned hooded driers into the air, along with cans of beauty products like dada decorations on Christmas trees. Likewise in the coffee shop, tables had been raised by branches, the last ice-cream sodas and milk shakes hardened in their glasses stuck to the formica.
I wondered why I never saw such things thereafter in the many online galleries. Then, after looking at Jon’s work, I guessed the truth: these actual events didn’t exist. Yes, trees had compromised and breached the architecture, and faded bills and menus were strewn in various states of parchment and mosaic splatter. A few caked plates and half-emptied glasses had been left by the last waiters and busboys, their fossilized debris hard to characterize culinarily. But no branches were hoisting up whole tables, glasses, and driers. So why had I remembered such surreal hangings?
It was because I had dreamed them and then conflated the dreams with my memories of the 1999 excursion. That is the way the unconscious settles: oneiric spells cast alternate landscapes that strike at essential truths; they embellish reality with its latent aspects, as they carry the intrinsic energy of scenes onto different planes and into different mediums.
The converted and sublimated quality of degraded and concealed Grossinger’s landscapes was mutatitive enough under alien sorcery that it was hard to distinguish “meta” from physics inside my dreamlife following the 1999 tour. Energetically, hair driers were suspended from trees: in this regard the magical realist version is more correct than the photorealist one.
I am reminded of another anomaly. Though New Moon and Out of Babylon contain mainly my personal accounts of being “a Grossinger at Grossinger’s,” they also retell stories and calumny I merely heard. Jon retells a few of these in his own narrative, proving that he and I share obscure and perhaps apocryphal sources, plus he includes one that is whistle-blown by me: the account of the disappeared millions from my grandfather’s vault.
Because I reported this stuff, elevating rumor to factoid, several family members associated with the event will no longer talk to me.
One of my adopted half-brothers will have nothing to do with me either; in his case, apparently because of my portrayal of our father, though I don’t know for sure because he won’t talk.
My picture of PG was a honest rendition of my memory of him—not only “Tony Soprano” but a charismatic Babe-Ruthian benefactor, a joyful scamp, a corny and sentimental patriarch, and a Dickensian hotelier with his own eyepatch-wearing barrister Jaggers named Lazarus Levine (a barrister more akin to Algonquin J. Calhoun of Amos and Andy than Hunter Thompson’s Raoul Duke and who sold PG down the river with assorted execs in the end). Other myths and legends, including ones of PG and other family members, are tidbits that I was merely passing on. They might be true, partially true, or narrative traces that stand for quite different myths embodying their own truths.
I think that this is finally the enduring and archetypal value of Grossinger’s: it transcends time and space, dream and reality, use and interpretation. It always did, but now that is all that is left. And so the artists of another generation flock to it the way that Eddie Fisher, Rocky Marciano, Kim Novak, and Roger Maris did in their time—for curios and mementos, for jewels and heirlooms, and for memes of the elusive and illusory American paradise.