The Feeling of a Conqueror
Growing up in the 1930s, he fell in love with the railroads. The great locomotives, puffing and panting as they hauled their unimaginable loads, seemed less like machines than mythical creatures-"some species of mastodon," as a book of the time put it.To watch the beam of light from the great monster's headlamps, to glimpse the hellish fire lighting the interior of the cab, to see the shadow of the fireman silhouetted against the glow-all this was to experience the thrill and terror of industry and progress, to see precisely what was meant by the American century. From around the age of eleven, the young Alan collected train timetables, memorized the routes and the towns along the way, and imagined himself traveling the continent: Duluth to Minneapolis, Minneapolis to Fargo, and then onward and westward to Helena, Spokane, and finally Seattle. It was a way of conjuring a world beyond Washington Heights, the neighborhood of immigrants he inhabited on the northern tongue of Manhattan; a way of escaping the squat redbrick apartment building with its ornate stucco moldings, of freeing his mind from the too-familiar streets filled with European accents-Yiddish, Irish, and German. Washington Heights had been developed just a few years earlier, after the New York subway stretched north to reach it in 1906. But although the subway had arrived, you could still see horses on the streets and men who cleaned up after them. No wonder the railroads seemed romantic.
Alan lived with his grandparents Nathan and Anna Goldsmith and with his doting mother, Rose. They shared a one-bedroom apartment at 600 West 163rd Street; Nathan and Anna had the bedroom, while Alan and Rose slept in what had been built as the dining room. It was a modest accommodation for four people, but it seemed a reasonable lot-better than the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side, where other immigrants lived, and not bad given that the country was in the grip of the Depression. The Goldsmiths lived on the west side of Broadway, the dividing line that separated the salubrious part of the neighborhood from the rough-and-tumble east. "The . . . gentility of the neighborhood . . . along with the style of the buildings, the parks nearby, and the cool breeze from the Hudson in the evening carried vague reminders of the bourgeois sections of German cities," a contemporary wrote. German immigrants flocked to Washington Heights in such numbers that the area was sometimes known as Frankfurt on the Hudson.
To Nathan and Anna, born in Russia, driven to migrate to Hungary and then from Hungary to America, life in New York must have seemed a blessing almost divine-they had boarded their grandson's imaginary train, and after much adventure had arrived safely. As for Rose, born in Hungary though now as American as baseball, there was much to celebrate, too. She had a steady job as a salesperson at the Ludwig-Baumann furniture store in the Bronx, which paid enough to meet the rent of $48 each month, keep food on the table, and even spare Alan a quarter a week for pocket money. Besides, she was happy to be living just half a block away from her sister, the well-to-do Mary. In summer Alan would stay with Mary at her vacation house close to Rockaway Beach, on the near end of Long Island. Alan and his cousin Wesley would spend hours walking the sands with their heads down, searching doggedly for lost coins. Then they would spend the fruits of their labor on candy.
Rose's greatest blessing was young Alan himself, born on March 6, 1926, the product of her brief marriage to Herbert Greenspan. The boy naturally expanded to fill the gaps in Rose's life-the husband who had left when their son was still small, the absence of other children. Each morning her young hero with his perfectly even features and broad smile would soldier off to the P.S. 169 elementary school on Audubon Avenue, and each afternoon he would return with extraordinary things. From very early on, he could add large numbers in his head, and seemed even to enjoy it. Rose trotted him out in front of aunts and uncles to perform. "Alan, what's thirty-five plus ninety-two?" she would ask. "A hundred and twenty-seven," came back the answer.
A few years after he turned addition into a performance art, Alan developed a passion for baseball, and it was hard to say what thrilled him more: the excitement of listening to the radio commentary of the 1936 World Series or the discovery of a world that could be reduced to the statistics and symbols of a prodigious ten-year-old's devising. The statistics were straightforward, but pleasing all the same: a player who got a hit on three out of eleven appearances had a batting average of .273; one who succeeded five out of thirteen times had an average of .385; it was thanks to baseball that Alan memorized the conversion tables for fractions into decimals. But the symbols were where the creativity came in. Alan invented a notation that allowed him to track each play of the big games. If a player hit a ground ball, he would inscribe a careful x on his green scoring sheet. If the player hit a line drive, he would enter an ellipse; a circle with an x through it meant a high fly, and an alpha meant a deep hit into the outfield. Each fielder's position was assigned a number that could be combined with the symbols to create a precise record of the play: for example, an ellipse next to an 11 meant a line drive to right center field. Reflecting on his childhood some seventy-five years later, Alan remained convinced that his system was better than anything that even the newspaper writers had invented. Rose, no doubt, had agreed with him.
Alan was too young to remember his father's departure, but the separation affected him deeply. To be a single child can be character forming. To be the single child of a single mother can be overwhelming. It has been said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the statesman who loomed over the America of Alan's youth, drew his confidence and ambition from his widowed mother's unrelenting attention: he was the work of her life, her monument.Fortunately for Alan, his mother was far less controlling than the imposing Sara Roosevelt, who thought nothing of installing her married son in a town house adjoining hers, then cutting a door from her large bedroom through her daughter-in-law's much smaller one in order to gain access to Franklin's quarters. But though Rose was mild by comparison, her son was nonetheless the sole outlet for her love, and it seems likely that his sense of what he might achieve expanded correspondingly. "A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success," Sigmund Freud declared, possibly with more intuition than evidence. At a minimum, Alan was prepared to believe that he could beat baseball writers at their own game, and that one day he might ride a train as far as the Pacific.
Yet if Alan felt confident in his intellectual abilities, he was less comfortable with people. He could master baseball through force of intellect; human chemistry was different. Part of his self-doubt may have come from his mother, for Rose was a hard act to follow. Pretty, vivacious, and gregarious, she could easily have made any child feel tongue-tied by comparison. At family gatherings, Alan's uncle Murray, who now went by the name of Mario and tried to pass as Italian, would play the piano with great flair; he had achieved success as a writer of musicals in Hollywood. But it was Rose who provided the accompaniment, a repertoire of period songs performed in the loose and haunting manner of a torch singer. Leaning over the baby grand piano in the living room of their apartment, flashing her infectious smile, Rose could make herself the center of the party. Alan would be left feeling that he was somehow off toward the side-a "sideman," he would call himself.
But the most obvious explanation for the young Alan's diffidence lay with his father. Herbert Greenspan had arrived in the United States as the four-year-old Haim Grunspann, a lowly "steerage alien" aboard a ship that docked in Ellis Island in August 1906. Like Rose, he was good-looking, with the aquiline nose and fine cheekbones of the film star Gene Kelly. But while Rose was unfailingly sunny, Herbert could be awkward and withdrawn, and he may have passed down to Alan a tendency to live inside his own head. The fact of Herbert's absence reinforced that tendency greatly. After the divorce, Herbert moved back in with his family in Brooklyn, barely twenty miles away. But though he would promise to take Alan on outings, he often failed to keep his word."Alan hardly got to see him. But I do remember the ecstasy that Alan exhibited on those rare occasions when his father visited," his cousin Wesley remembered.The experience of being let down by his father taught Alan that depending on the love of others could be a path to pain. It seemed safer to retreat into his own mind, to the controlled world of baseball statistics and railroad timetables.
As a very young child, Alan expressed his longing for a father directly. His stern grandfather was no substitute-Nathan spoke in a forbidding Yiddish accent and was consumed by the world of his synagogue, which Alan found so alien that he later came close to refusing the bar mitzvah.But Alan's uncle Irwin, the father of Wesley, was a more approachable figure.Sometimes Irwin would set out for a walk holding Wesley with one hand and Wesley's younger sister with the other, with Alan tagging alongside. Pretty soon Alan would worm his way between uncle and cousin until his hand was being held, and Wesley was left to keep up independently. But as Alan grew older, these transparent pleas for love were less frequent; he dealt with the gap left by his father by withdrawing into himself, and found that spending time alone made him feel comfortable and happy.Even his school friends could see that he was unusually self-contained. Irwin Kantor, Alan's closest companion at the Edward W. Stitt Junior High School on 164th Street, spent hours at his apartment, absorbed in a game the two boys invented, a form of baseball with dice. Years later, Irwin remembered Alan as a strange loner-no siblings, no father, a mother who was out at work, and grandparents who seemed stuck in an old world in which children spoke only when spoken to.
"I think he really grew up with the radio, with his own thoughts," Greenspan's wife, Andrea Mitchell, would say later. "I don't know if it made him sad and lonely, but it certainly shaped the person he is. He's not easily accessible to people and he's very shy.
"Very shy," she added.
If AlanÕs circumstances fed his natural introspection, they also nourished his ambition. A powerful voice inside him whispered that he was capable of greatness-his facility with numbers showed that this was so, and his motherÕs adoration removed all doubt of it. Yet he also understood that the world would never recognize his greatness unless he demonstrated it beyond doubt, for he lacked the levity and carefree charm necessary to attain status without effort. If he was ever going to be someone, he would have to work hard. By doing things, achieving things, the sideman would be noticed.
His father had a clear idea of how Alan's ambition might be directed. In 1935, Herbert published a tract called Recovery Ahead!, a paean to the New Deal that likened Roosevelt to a grand general leading the country to the "Delectable Mountains of prosperity." Herbert's motives for writing were commercial, not literary or scholarly; an ad for the book in the New York Times promised "a chart in which the writer predicts the month by month fluctuations of the stock market during 1935 and 1936."Unembarrassed by this startling claim of foresight, Herbert presented a copy of Recovery to his son, with an inscription hoping that the nine-year-old would take an interest in economics. "At your maturity you may look back and endeavor to interpret the reasoning behind these logical forecasts and begin a like work of your own," Herbert wrote. But although his son would ultimately follow his suggested path, the advice meant nothing at the time. Alan read a few pages of the book and then gave up. It was too much for a nine-year-old.
Pushing the New Deal to one side, Alan focused his ambitions on baseball-as well as analyzing the game, he played it. As he entered his teens, he developed an athletic frame, and his agility and reflexes gave him what the sport demanded. He was a left-hander, which made him a natural first baseman; playing in a local park with older kids one day, he hit a curveball so confidently that an impressed high schooler declared he was headed for the major leagues. The compliment filled Alan with a powerful pride. He would go to Yankee Stadium and gaze down at his heroes: Lou Gehrig on first, Joe DiMaggio in the outfield, Lefty Gomez or Red Ruffing pitching-seventy years later, he could still recite the lineup from memory. And as he watched those champions playing, he sometimes imagined a fantastic reversal of his role. One day, instead of looking down at that exquisite diamond, he might be down there himself. Instead of gazing, he would be gazed upon. He would take his position at the center of the universe.He would be a major league first baseman.
Alan completed junior high school in 1939, having skipped one year on the advice of his teachers. His next port of call was George Washington High School, a formidable structure with Italianate columns perched on a hilly promontory overlooking the Harlem River; the dramatic setting reinforced the building's mass and height, as if it were some temple lifted from antiquity. The school was among the best in the city: it boasted excellent teachers, and it served a neighborhood of ambitious immigrants determined to succeed in their new land by excelling in the classroom.Alan continued to play baseball in high school, no doubt replaying that scene of himself at Yankee Stadium inside his head. But the truth was that his athletic progress began to taper off, and gradually he came to realize that his ambition needed a new outlet. This time he found it in music.
Alan's focus on music confirmed his mother's influence-and his father's lack of it. As well as presenting the boy with his book on economics, Herbert had taken him to visit an uncle, an accountant who lived in enviable splendor in an apartment on Central Park South; given Alan's aptitude for math, he might have decided in his teens to adopt this uncle as a role model. But nothing about the father appealed much to the son; he was far more drawn to his maternal family. Grandfather Nathan was a cantor in a synagogue in the Bronx; Uncle Mario could play the most complex piano pieces on sight; Cousin Claire was on her way to becoming a professional singer. And, of course, music was Rose's love. The sound of a Bach concerto or a music-hall ballad transported Alan to a happy place, where his mother was singing and the rhythm and melody bound the two of them together.
Copyright © 2016 by Sebastian Mallaby. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.