Tuesday, 21st May 2024

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Uncle Joe and Aunt Anisoara

Posted on 21. Apr, 2024 by in Articles

Samuel Wachtel

Anisoara and Joe at their Stony Creek, New York, house, c. 1950.


Two dreamers, with distinct worldviews, formed a strong partnership.


Uncle Joe and Aunt Anisoara
Dreaming Greenwich Village Eccentric Meets Truth-Bending Transylvanian Sentimentalist


CLUJ, Transylvania, Romania, and GREENWICH VILLAGE, New York

My uncle and aunt’s love affair illustrates the challenges of trying to decipher a relationship.

How could I not love an uncle who, when he babysat me, let me stay up well past my bedtime to watch wrestling (Antonino Rocca was my favorite) and horror movies (Boris Karloff’s The Mummy was the scariest)? How could I not love an uncle who lived in the middle of Greenwich Village, who took me to my first Broadway show, who tried to disprove Einstein? How could I not love an uncle who invented a slew of often-useless gadgets, and who chastised major corporations for their lousy ad campaigns — and then offered them new campaigns that were hardly better? How could I not love an uncle who married a wannabe Romanian noble and bought a farm in the middle of the Adirondack mountains because it resembled his wife’s native Transylvania?

Uncle Joe Rubin died of colon cancer in 1960 when I was 13. I was at an age when I was particularly incurious about life’s complexities and more than a little spooked by having a close family member wither away in our spare room.

* * *

Why is it that we neglect to ask the good questions when the opportunities arise?

* * *

Joe was my mother’s older brother. He was a gentle and generous soul. He nurtured me and took me into New York City to attend the theater, to eat in real restaurants, the ones with tablecloths. I loved it when he would babysit — he would defy my parent’s bedtime instructions, and together we would stay up late and eat ice cream. He was a Bohemian — after serving in the Navy in World War II, he lived smack in the middle of Greenwich Village — Barrow Street — at the time one of the intellectual hubs of America. He married a head-strong but sentimental Transylvanian, Anisoara Stan, a romance that no doubt caused raised eyebrows in both families.

* * *

I wonder if Joe was disappointed that I wasn’t a child prodigy, that I was just an acned  adolescent who didn’t fully appreciate the brave new worlds he was willing to show me.

How marvelous and intriguing are the secrets of relatives now gone. What genes of theirs do I have? What would I say to them if they were around today and we could speak adult-to-adult? Would I find Joe to be a charming and well-read companion? Or an eccentric dreamer just a few steps away from sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons?

* * *

Is there absolute truth?

A classic exercise used by law school professors introducing first-year students to the legal profession works like this. While the professor is making her opening remarks, a man rushes on stage, wielding a gun. A shouting woman runs after him, followed by police, bystanders, innocent children, and multiple bad guys. Shots are fired, people are wounded (spurting blood!), screams are heard, entreaties are shouted. The action is played by student actors, who, after a minute of mayhem, run out of the classroom. The professor then asks her students “What just happened?”  And not one student gets the story right. How many shots? How many people with weapons? What clothes did the shooter wear? What words were spoken? How many were injured? “That’s the job of a lawyer,” the teacher says. “Out of confusion you have to put your own spin on reality.” The teacher might have added that “fabricating truth” is also the job of the historian.

* * *

Anisoara died in 1954 when I was just seven. I hardly knew her; if I can dredge my memories (and who knows whether they are accurate), Anisoara was a sturdy and strange woman who wore unusual clothes and cooked weird food. Probably, if I had known her as an adult, I might have been drawn to her as an elegant, eccentric, cosmopolitan artist. A dreamer. A truth-bender. My kind of people.

But I was a child. I was taken to her funeral, which was held in an Eastern Orthodox church in Manhattan. My only vague memory is of getting nauseous from the incense and the overbearing otherworldly chanting. My mother had to take me out of the church before I vomited on the other mourners.

So basically I have no memory of her.

What I do have is a written record. Her 1947 autobiography They Crossed Mountains and Oceans ($3.75 hardback). Her 1951 gastro-autobiography, The Romanian Cookbook ($3). A number of her letters. The eulogy Uncle Joe gave at her funeral. This is far more documentation than I have for my parents.

So, based on Anisoara’s autobiography, written when she was 48 and living with Joe in Greenwich Village, I know the following:

  • She was from a good, perhaps noble, family from Cluj, Transylvania.
  • She was a protégé of Queen Marie of Romania (Queen Victoria’s granddaughter).
  • Queen Marie sent Anisoara to the States to promote Romanian culture, which she did with energy but mixed success.
  • While in the States, she became a favorite of the intellectual/diplomatic communities. (Harold Stassen, governor of Minnesota and nine-time Republican presidential candidate, was a reliable supporter).
  • She promoted the glory of the Romanian peasant and liked to wear peasant clothing.
  • She had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, who later attended one of Anisoara’s art exhibitions.
  • She gave Mrs. Roosevelt a Romanian peasant dress, which the First Lady wore to a White House ball.
  • She had a dream to set up the World Village of Peasant Art, which would showcase the colorful folk legends, customs, and handicrafts of ethnic groups from around the world. Her objective: peace and love, Yoko Ono style.
  • She was a poor writer.
  • She and Joe had no children.

So there it is, her life reduced to a few “facts.”

As it turns out, the above list is a combination of truth, opinion (trust me, she was a poor writer), and exaggeration. Her version of her life is riddled with speculation, embellishments, and mis-remembering. She presented alternative facts. Enhanced reality. Thoughtful balderdash. Or, to be less charitable, Anisoara lied. And I don’t blame her. We all lie when we tell our personal stories.

* * *

Memory is a tricky, unreliable resource.

Put simply, we all fib. Sometimes intentionally. Sometimes we forget things. Most often we skew the truth because we filter experiences through our own points of view. The film Rashomon explains how the same event will always be interpreted differently depending on who is telling the story.

Most of life’s background noise, found in day-to-day gossip, reports, memoirs, and chatter is merely foggy obfuscation, a cacophony of smoke and mirrors.

And the more we repeat a story, the truer it becomes. Psychologists call this the “illusory truth effect.” Say something frequently, with enough conviction, and the concept becomes embedded like quick-drying cement. And, in turn, the more you repeat something (hello “fake news”), the greater the chance the audience will accept your words as true. A related concept familiar to psychologists and political strategists is the term “confirmation bias.” Elizabeth Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker, describes this as “the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.” Or, as noted physicist Richard Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

* * *

I went to Transylvania to see if I could learn more about Anisoara’s life.

Once again, thank you to Tim Berners-Lee for inventing the internet. I found a site that lists private guides worldwide, and singled out a handful of possible individuals in Transylvania who might have been able to help in my quest. I corresponded with them and found one woman, Geta, who seemed to understand and appreciate that I wasn’t a normal tourist who wanted to see Dracula’s castle. When she picked me up at the airport, she said “I can help you, but you really should talk to my brother. I told him about your journey, and he has some ideas.” So I had dinner with her and her brother, Iosif (Joseph in Romanian, a happy coincidence), and we agreed that Iosif would take charge of me for a few days.

Iosif is a good teacher, which makes him a good student. He’s curious and energetic — one summer he went to Portugal and worked on an isolated farm. He explained that he already knew the languages of the far east of Europe, and thought that as a modern European he should similarly learn the languages of the far west.

What makes Iosif such an impressive historian is that he can interpret “factual” statements for historical accuracy as well as for political and social nuance.

We visited places Anisoara mentioned in her books, and he dissected Anisoara’s life story with the determination and skill of a physicist at CERN trying to figure out how to detect a Higgs boson. Iosif decided that “unravelling her deliberate exaggerations would be the key to deciphering Anisoara’s autobiography.”

He even took the time to write a 40-page analysis of Anisoara’s life, filtered through his knowledge of history, politics, and instinct. He noted dozens of anomalies, many dealing with Anisoara’s ancestors’ peasant roots, and her political aspirations. Based on details, such as the large open fireplace in her parents’ brick home, the fact that they raised chickens and cows, and other details — he concluded that she was one generation removed from a simple rural existence.

Iosif said, “Her parents were likely born in a poor environment, perhaps peasants, but rose in status. They were educated and lived well in turn-of-the-century Cluj, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They had well-placed friends. Her family was not noble, but perhaps they wanted to be. One might call them arrivistes. As a result, Anisoara grew up in a rich, powerful, and locally prestigious bourgeois family.”

These are biographical facts, admittedly, as suggested by Iosif. But behind the facts lies a more nuanced story of how she manipulated details to promote a political agenda that glorified the Transylvanian peasant.

Anisoara grew up in Transylvania, in the north. But in her books she claims to remember performing dances that came from the south and would have been unknown to her. In her dust-jacket photo she wears a costume she implies is Transylvanian but which actually comes from southern Romania. But for her, accuracy was subservient to political correctness, since that type of dress was worn by Queen Marie to show solidarity with the peasants and earn their political support.

Iosif was clear about Romanian Peasant Politics: “The early twentieth-century rulers of the country needed the peasants (who formed more than 80 percent of the population) to obey and join the emerging nationalistic movement. But at the same time the leaders needed those peasants to feel proud enough of themselves so that they would obey the leaders without having the sentiment that they must obey.

“Then, just after the end of the First World War, when north-of-the-Carpathians Transylvanians (closer to Budapest and the moral authority of Rome) were uniting with south-of-the-Carpathians Romanians (with affinities to the dying Ottoman Empire), Anisoara and her family “switched sides” and became ardent nationalists — Anisoara was briefly imprisoned during the early days of this political changeover. And part of that nationalistic discourse, eagerly adopted by Anisoara, was the idealization of the noble, hard-working, artistic Romanian peasant.”

On the surface, her two books are prose Hallmark cards about Romanian culture and the goodness of the peasants. In her cookbook, she gushed: “With such tasty food, it is little wonder that the Romanian peasants are so healthy…. Good food puts one in a happy state of mind, the body becomes relaxed and the digestion improved. But equally important is their attitude towards life, a love of the soil and of nature’s work, their songs and dances, their fairy tales related to the children …  their famous evenings where the spinning and weaving takes on a festive air, their embroidery and carpet weaving, the making of the peasant costumes, the painting on pottery, and even the painstaking carvings on their wooden household utensils. All this gives them no time to feel bored. They are busy and happy.”

But her peasant adoration also had a political purpose.

In America, she tried to serve several cultural masters. She wrote her two books, no doubt, partly to enhance her position as an independent-thinking émigré America while not putting her Romanian family in jeopardy back home by the increasingly autocratic governments. (In 1938 Romania started to be governed by a long chain of dictatorships that lasted 51 years).

And she hoped her books would promote a Romanian national identity that gave her a calling card in America that would enhance her credibility with potential donors for her proposed museum of peasant art.

* * *

Her biggest fib, however, revolved around her purported relationship with Queen Marie of Romania and the reasons she went to America.

Throughout the book, Anisoara implies that Queen Marie sent her to America in 1922 as an unofficial ambassador to promote Romanian culture and values at a time when the country was striving for international recognition.

But that seems to be a big fib, loaded with unanswered questions.

She writes that she met Queen Marie at a public reception in Cluj in 1919 during the royal family’s first visit to Transylvania, following which the Queen invited her for a private chat the same evening. She met Queen Marie a second time in 1922 at a reception at the royal palace in Bucharest, shortly after Anisoara got her first passport.

She implies that the Queen gave her letters of introduction.

She implies that the Queen appointed her as ambassador.

“Grossly fictionalized,” is Iosif’s conclusion.

For a start, Anisoara was just 23 when she went to America, accompanied by her younger sister Flora and cousin Letitia. Anisoara had gone to a good school, had worked for high-level government officials, perhaps as a secretary, and had well-placed friends. But she was 23. She no doubt knew Romanian, Hungarian, French, and probably some German and a little English. She had never been out of her country; in fact, she had never been out of Transylvania until she went to Bucharest to get a passport (where she was surprised to learn that the southern Romanians had a baksheesh culture). She had virtually no contact with people outside her immediate circle. Did she have the profile of an ambassador? Certainly not. Did she do a good job anyway? Absolutely. I feel that she was a gutsy, smart, ambitious (and cunning) woman.

Look at the discrepancies. She was a travel virgin. She had no higher education and zero diplomatic experience. If she had been the envoy of Queen Marie, she wouldn’t have had to go all the way to Bucharest to get a passport (nor had to negotiate with the corrupt government servants in the passport office). She would have been given funds for the sea voyage, instead of having to ask her mother for the money. She wouldn’t have had to sleep on the couches of working-class Transylvanians in America. She would have had some “official” money, instead of being nearly broke during her early years — in one emotional scene Anisoara writes that she and her sister were staying in a cheap hotel in New York and running out of money. Her sister Flora revealed that she had some extra money (gold coins?) sewn into her dress to use in an emergency. And, most important, if she had been a true protégé of Queen Marie, Anisoara would have had the full support of Romanian diplomats in America. In fact, she was actively rebuffed by most of the diplomats whom she asked for support. Numerous times in her autobiography she recalls that her valiant energies and events were accomplished in spite of obstructions by Romanian officials.

* * *

Anisoara implies that she went to America to find better economic conditions. But Iosif notes “in my opinion, Anisoara hides something. It seems to me that it is highly probable that her first flirtations with the idea of going to America were triggered not only by economic necessities but also by some political purposes; she might have wanted to do something extraordinary in America to enhance the status of her family on the Romanian political scene at a time when there was such political confusion.”

The confusion assumed divergent aspects. One side of the political discourse was fiercely nationalistic, fueled by the late 19th-century poetry of Mihai Eminescu, the last great romantic poet in Europe. But in opposition, the old elite clung to an idea of Romantic dandyism — duels of honor were not unknown, and men were instructed, from French literary references, in the 30 ways to shape a moustache.

On December 1, 1918, the province of Transylvania united with the Old Kingdom.

Anisoara’s family walked a geopolitical tightrope of political alliances, and part of Anisoara’s unofficial mission to America no doubt involved lobbying Transylvanian expatriates to support one group or another. But her motives and ultimate goals are unclear. Iosif lists the possibilities: Perhaps she went to the States to persuade the large Romanian-Transylvanian diaspora (between 1890 to 1914, some 200,000 Romanian Transylvanians went to the States) to continue to support the Austro-Hungarian Habsburgs (even though the last Habsburg emperor, Charles I, “renounced participation” in state affairs in 1922). Or her goal might have been to support a rebellious Transylvanian independence movement. But maybe she wanted to support a more politically correct union of Transylvania with Greater Romania. I recall the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”

* * *

Queen Marie, who refused an offer of marriage to her cousin, the future King George V of England, was herself a political animal.

Queen Marie knew how to play the game of strategic marriages, a dance that has always been an entertaining part of European history. Her daughter Elisabeth became Queen of Greece, her daughter Maria became Queen of Yugoslavia, and her daughter Ileana, whom everyone expected to marry the future king of Bulgaria, surprised observers and married the Archduke of Austria. They were a cosmopolitan lot, comfortable speaking English, German, Romanian, and French. One can only imagine the royal gossip they exchanged (in what language, one wonders?) around the dinner table.

But no doubt part of her drive was to improve the image and credibility of Romania in America.

Uncle Joe remembered that at the time “Romania had an extremely bad press in America and was considered to be either a musical comedy country [due to the antics of Marie’s son King Carol and the salacious stories about Queen Marie herself] or anti-democratic. Life magazine said that Romanians were ‘hot blooded gypsies.’ Anisoara realized that it was essential for a small nation like Romania to make real friends of a powerful country like the USA.”

Josiah Brill, a lawyer in Minnesota with whom Anisoara worked on the World Peasant Art project, wrote: “She is a crusader, just like Mme. Curie.”

* * *

Anisoara sailed to America laden with trunks containing peasant dresses, handicrafts, carvings, paintings, embroidery and carpets, tablecloths, and head scarves, Orthodox icons, and jewelry. These objects were her tools of the trade as unofficial cultural ambassador. (They likely were also her dowry.) With these items and other costumes and crafts she collected from Transylvanian emigres in the States, Anisoara staged exhibitions throughout the country, culminating in a large and successful show at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC. This event was a turning point — Eleanor Roosevelt attended the exposition and not only bought one of the Transylvanian peasant dresses on display but wore it to a state dinner, an achievement for Anisoara that she proudly told and retold.

When Anisoara died, Joe donated her folk art collection to St. Mary’s cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio, where it still is displayed.

I have one physical memento of her, a hand-carved wooden box, decorated in an exuberant style.

I have just one physical object that belonged to Joe — his slide rule, constructed of wood and Bakelite, and made by “Keuffel & Esser Co. New York,” with a patent notice for “June 5, 1909.” It’s in a battered brown leather case on which he had etched in pen a monogram with his initials. (Yes, I know how to use it for simple multiplication and division.) Similar pieces can be bought on eBay for around $20. And I have numerous photos. In one picture he appears in military uniform, wearing a state trooper-style wide-brimmed hat, standing stiffly at attention with his rifle by his side. In another he stands on the steps of what could be a government building or a school. He reminds me of a between-the-wars spy, or lawyer, or businessman. Hard to tell.

* * *

Every Romeo needs a Juliet. Every artist needs a muse. Every hero in an adventure movie relies on a sidekick.

So it was with Joe and Anisoara. He needed her; she needed him.

* * *

When they first met, Anisoara was smitten. Sounding like a teenager writing in her diary, Anisoara later wrote in her autobiography: “God brought me a prince charming, a young man who smiled so devilishly not only with his whole face but his eyes as well and who had what we call vino incoace — a ‘come here’ look. Was it love at first sight? Yes, yes, it was. We met [perhaps at Joe’s sister Jeanne’s home in Bedford Hills, New York] on  , May 30, and spoke only a few words.”

Joe apparently felt the same. In his eulogy of Anisoara he said: “I saw her for an instant, and in that brief moment, knew no other girl could ever exist for me. She had outer beauty, of course, but it was her inner beauty that captivated me. In our first conversation, I realized I was speaking to one of the few chosen people of the earth, and with the years, this feeling has grown and grown.”

Anisoara continued her retelling of Joe’s courtship. “Before he said goodbye, he asked for my name and address.” She played hard to get and told him: “What for? I do not see any reason for it. I am leaving the United States on my return to the city. I am glad I met you, but no name, no address. Goodbye.”

According to Anisoara Joe replied: “Just one word. When do you leave for Europe?”

“Thirteenth of September.”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Joe said. “You will hear from me.”

And she did, writing: “After a few days I got a note from him with a little pressed violet enclosed.”  Joe’s missive said: “Hello, Ann — I am at my sister’s [Jeanne’s] country place in Bedford Hills. Found this in the garden and, as I thought of you, I am sending it along. Won’t you please write just a few words?”

But Anisoara continued to be aloof. “No, and I didn’t [write back]. But how did he find my name? Oh, well, I won’t think of him. Funny, I didn’t even know his name… After a few days, a small package arrived. It was a book in leather binding in my favorite color, dark red wine. It was A Pair of Blue Eyes, by Thomas Hardy, with a neat inscription, ‘To Anna, the most beautiful girl I ever met. From Joe, June 2, 1930.’”

So, here’s the dating conundrum. Anisoara (Ann, or Anna, to Joe) didn’t want to get involved. Nevertheless, she confessed: “I feel so funny inside of me about this fine American with his so humane eyes and that characteristic smile of his, which causes little wrinkles at the corners… and his so handsome dark oval face.”

She liked his style: “He wore his clothes nonchalantly, in a devil may care way.”

And what might have sealed the deal was the Thomas Hardy book, which she loved.

But Anisoara was no stranger to being courted. She wasn’t a seductress in the modern sense, but she had an energy that some men appreciated. She recalled that she had almost been engaged to a millionaire, a half-American, half-English man, living in South America who wrote to her parents asking for her hand  Anisoara’s mother wrote to her daughter that although he was no doubt rich and good-looking, “you don’t love that man, you are just attracted to him. Don’t do it.” And Anisoara didn’t.

And so it went. Joe persisted, Anisoara resisted. He called and sent her letters; she refused all contact. A lesser man would have given up.

Finally she agreed to have dinner with him at Enrico & Paglieri, a noted (and now defunct) Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, with her sister Flora as chaperone.

The following morning after their dinner, Joe visited her again and asked her to marry him.

She said “No, I’m going home in six days.”

“All right,” Joe said. “Marry me and then you can go.”

Anisoara was conflicted. “I saw him only three times, and yet I don’t give a hoot about anything (as you Americans say) but him. But I refused again. I told him, ‘First I must go back home. Let this be our secret engagement. I’ll come back.’”

But Joe was both determined and a deal-maker. “No,” she said he said. “Either you marry me now, and I’ll be sure of you, or I will not marry you at all.”

She agreed. They were married on Saturday, September 13, 1930, the day she had earlier told him she was leaving.

Anisoara then went to Romania for a year. On her return, Joe said he would support her work to promote Romanian folk art. He agreed she could use her maiden name.

Yet in her 1936 US passport  and her 1948 US passport (“invalid for Germany, Austria, Japan, Korea and Yugoslavia”), she used Joe’s family name: Anna Rubin.

* * *

One dream occupied Anisoara more than any other.

I went through her papers and found notes and proposals for her grand project, which she alternatively called the Outdoor Museum of Villages of All Peoples, the World Village of Peasant Art, the Ethnographic Museum of Peasant Art and (in the hope she could gain UN recognition), the United Nations Ethnographic Museum. She wrote dozens of letters to ambassadors and high-ranking officials requesting support, and Joe dutifully would take them to the post office, sometimes at two in the morning.

One of her patrons, Harold Stassen, the governor of Minnesota, proposed that his state’s Whitewater State Park would have been an appropriate home for the venture.

She hired an architect named Martin Lowenfish to prepare a drawing of the proposed complex. His sketches show a  mélange of cultural stereotypes — a Dutch village with a windmill, a Chinese community with a pagoda, a Mexican village with a Mayan ziggurat, and a Turkish settlement with a minaret. Anisoara said the museum “would symbolize the peaceful pursuits and neighborliness of all nations. Each village would be peopled by first- or second-generation Americans, familiar with old-country crafts.”

Sally MacDougall, a journalist with the New York World-Telegram, described Anisoara’s project as “a miniature world in which representatives of all nations would be neighbors in a rustic community spread over 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) containing villages, each demonstrating typical  crafts, arts, inns, houses, churches, clothes, cooking, modes of living, and also a central college of folk arts with workshops and classes for students.”

It was the eve of  , and Anisoara revealed her geo-political strategy of trying to wave the American flag while promoting an idealized version of European solidarity. She wrote: “The method of the ‘melting pot’ does not work…. We now know that not sameness, but diversity is what we need most. The very differences between the many groups making up the country are a source of strength, not weakness. The reason for establishing the museum now is that it would be democracy’s answer to dictatorship. It would be the most powerful argument that could be used to convince the European peoples that we are for free cultural expression of all peoples. They will then know that we must also be for free political expression, as one cannot exist without the other.”

NBC reporter Robert St. John covered the plan by calling Anisoara “a practical dreamer, who was a protégé of the late Queen Marie of Roumania [sic].”

According to Iosif’s understanding, Anisoara positioned the World Village as a “forerunner of the peaceful utopia of the subsequent flower power movement. It rather makes me think that it appeared out of pragmatism, and it had a well determined political purpose; it was meant to facilitate the integration of the immigrants into the American society at a time when inter-national/ethnical conflicts were putting everyone’s mind ablaze.”

* * *

Joe was the most intellectual of three siblings. Perhaps Anisoara recognized this and politely referred only to the physical characteristics of Joe’s sisters. Anisoara described my mother: “His kid sister, Edith, was dainty, filigree, and a beautiful brunette, with big black shining eyes, and the same captivating smile like Joe. And Joe’s sister, Jeanne, with auburn hair and vivacious spirit.”

* * *

Joe wanted me to do well in school. At some stage I had to write a series of reports on various countries (using information mostly cribbed from the Encyclopedia Britannica). Joe contacted one of his artist friends who sent me hand-drawn title pages with the country names — Tibet, Japan, and India — written to resemble the distinctive calligraphy of each country. This was the trigger for my later realization that, just as almost every food can be improved with sugar, pepper, and salt, reports always benefit from graphics. Those visually improved reports, along with his support, also spurred my fascination with Asia at a time when it was just a vague, distant entity to me.

* * *

Joe had three patents (that I’m aware of).

In 1939 he received a patent for a “non-slip erasing shield to give a very sharp erasure and which will require no effort whatsoever to keep the shield from sliding.”

In 1941 he came up with a “traffic control device,” which featured “a visual representation of the time a light will remain on so that one can tell at a glance whether he can safely cross.” It featured a descending light so a pedestrian could judge how much time remained before the green light changed to red. It’s sensible, and this concept, if not the design, is used today worldwide in pedestrian lights, which count down the seconds remaining until the change of light.

And in 1944 Joe invented a “self-supporting luminaire globe,” a sensible improvement to make light fixtures easier to use.

In his correspondence I also found notes from 1941 (but no patent) for a shark repellent but haven’t found indication of its composition or whether he applied for a patent for this invention.

* * *

Joe was a polymath, and the world of advertising fascinated him.

I found an undated, hand-written pamphlet he wrote promoting a “completely new advertising technique” called Copy Analysis, which would evaluate advertising copy. There is no explanation what the “technique” was.

In 1953 he wrote an eight-page analysis of an Amoco tire ad, telling the company how they could improve their advertising by using his new slogan, “Sure Footed Safety,” accompanied by a visual showing a cat walking on a fence.

He wrote a treatise on why “ketchup” was a better word to describe the tomato condiment than “catsup.”

In 1954 he sent a letter to Julian Snyder of Erwin, Wasey & Co. advertising agency (whose creative successes included “Singin’ Sam ,” for Barbasol shaving cream, and the coining of the term “athlete’s foot,” for Absorbine Jr. foot liniment), proposing an advertising idea for their client Havoline lubricating oil. Joe suggested a headline:

Slipperiness, the only true measure of a lubricating oil’s worth.

No other oil in the whole world is as slippery as HAVOLINE.

And body copy:

No other oil in the whole world permits the engine parts to slide so effortlessly as HAVOLINE.

No other oil in the whole world puts less strain on your engine than HAVOLINE.

No other oil in the whole world reduces wasteful friction like HAVOLINE.

No other oil in the whole world increases power so much like HAVOLINE.

With a sign-off:


The Slippery Oil

It will keep your motor young.

And the visual:

A dignified gentleman sitting on the sidewalk after having slipped on a banana peel

Keeping with a motoring theme in 1953 he proposed a campaign for Mercury automobiles:

Trouble Free Mercury

With the tagline:

You’ll be Worry Free with a TROUBLE FREE MERCURY

The Car with No Regrets


* * *

While Anisoara was a skilled political animal, Joe was a well-intentioned do-gooder. In 1939 he received a reply from Goldsmith, Jackson & Brock law offices acknowledging that they would agree to represent Joe’s complaint against the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. I don’t have Joe’s initial letter, but I enjoy the notion that Joe was an early anti-cigarette campaigner. He also wrote a 1931 paper stating that “cholesterol starvation” was the cause of loss of hair, a subject of particular interest to Joe, who was bald.

* * *

I have Joe’s manuscripts and notes for his papers debunking Albert Einstein. When I first thumbed through them, I thought “this man is a genius.” Then I reconsidered, thinking “This man writes with the manic energy of a serial killer from the movies.” Typescripts. Dozens of notes scribbled on scraps of paper. Long treatises written on yellow legal pads with complex equations and diagrams. Strong red gashes where he excised text. He was in over his head with the physics, and his correspondence file contains polite letters from leading journals and scientists telling him to stick to chemical engineering, his day job. I was reminded of a quote attributed to Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman: “Anyone who claims to understand quantum theory is either lying or crazy.”

In his 21-page 1956 paper “The Determination of Absolute Motion,” Joe boldly challenged Albert Einstein. “Pondering over the meaning of [failure to detect the ether] led Einstein to develop the Relativity Theory…. The postulate that it is impossible to detect the absolute motion of a body through space by any physical experiment… I will attempt to show that … on the contrary, relative motion has no fundamental meaning, that the Relativity equations being based on the concept of relative motion are not true and that an absolute frame of reference does exist. New equations will be developed, ones that do not lead to contradictions.”

I have no idea what any of this means.

He jotted down thoughts for a paper titled “Absolute Space, Absolute Time, Absolute Motion.”

His notes on items such as “Calculations on Size and Collapsing Atoms” explain that: “Vol of proton = 1/25 x 10 12 = 1/91125 x 10 45.” His ideas are written on scraps of colored paper. Maybe this is the unheralded work of a genius, similar to a lost folio for an undiscovered Shakespeare play or sketches for Beethoven’s never-achieved Tenth Symphony.

In another paper, “On the Velocity of Propagation of Gravitational Force,” he again challenges Einstein: “It is therefore the purpose of this article to prove that gravitational force is propagated, not with the speed of light, but with infinite velocity.”

What struck me is not that he’s got his physics wrong, but the civility of the people he dealt with. The letters on file include numerous letters from journal editors who thanked him for his contribution, politely disagreed with him, and took the time to offer several pages of notes.

Even when people were rude, they were polite. In 1956 a James A. Coleman, of the department of physics at Connecticut College replied to Joe’s paper: “I think that you show good general reasoning ability, but due to your meagre knowledge of elementary physics, your work has no scientific value…. I strongly recommend that you take an evening course in general physics.” In the margin, Joe wrote “What nonsense! He misses the whole point.”

* * *

In another exchange, in 1959 Joe sent a short handwritten informal note to the Harvard Observatory in Climax, Colorado:

“Dear Sirs, I would like very much to get some information on the sun’s atmosphere… The first layer, I believe, is the reversing layer, then comes the chromosphere, and finally the corona. I would like to know for each of these layers 1. its height, 2. its chemical composition and 3, its temperature. Assuring you of my thanks, I am, Yours sincerely .”

The director of the observatory (which was the High Altitude Observatory of the University of Colorado, with no association with Harvard University) sent him a detailed letter apologizing for the delay in responding and giving detailed answers to his questions. A kinder era in our society.

* * *

One curious aspect of Uncle Joe’s life was that he and Anisoara bought an isolated farm in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains. Joe didn’t drive, and it took at least a day by train and bus for the couple to travel to the farm from Manhattan. I’m not sure whether they had indoor toilets. I remember Joe as a city boy and can’t figure out why he would buy such a large — 115 hectares (284 acres) — rustic property. Maybe he had an idealized dream of living a modified-Thoreau existence, if only for a few weeks at a time. (I really like the idea of Joe as an unlikely woodsman.) Or maybe, and this explanation makes more sense, he bought the farm to keep Anisoara happy, since the landscape reminded her of her youth in rural Transylvania. I have some photos taken at their seven-room house; he is wearing a plaid lumberjack shirt, and she is wearing a tunic-like dress and styles her hair in a sort of Transylvanian Princess Leia-like coif.

In 1955, after Anisoara died, Joe wanted to sell the property (asking price $15,000); he described the place to a realtor as having “soul stirring views on top of Thompson Mountain.”

I vaguely recall my first visit to the Adirondack house, in the village of Stony Creek, about an hour from Lake George. I was a young child, maybe four or five. It had taken us all day to drive from New Jersey in my father’s Buick. It was an old house, smelling of the forest and dead mice. There was a pond, which I was warned not to go too close to. Then a long drive back to New Jersey.

In 2015 my wife and I returned to Uncle Joe’s and Anisoara’s farm. I not only found the Stony Creek website (town slogan: “The road to a friendly town is never long”) but also contacted the town’s historian, Cindy, who was intrigued by my quest and took a day off work to show us around.

The big red house is still there but was unoccupied when we visited. Cindy said she thought the owner was coming up a few days after we were scheduled to leave, and I left a note for him under the front door explaining my interest and asking him to please contact me. I have no idea what I expected, maybe an invitation to stop by for coffee next time I’m in the neighborhood. I just wanted a connection with the old place. Never heard from the guy.

Joe had made a map of the property showing the house and pond. We looked around, in the rain, but couldn’t find the pond. Then we went back the next day, and it was right there, right where it should have been if you turned the map on its side, just a few meters off the driveway. Smaller than I remembered. Still full of frogs and newts and little fish. Everything a boy needs for a summer holiday.

I posited my theory to Cindy that they bought the farm because it reminded Anisoara of Transylvania. Cindy suggested a different explanation. The area had several Americana museums and a thriving colony of craftsmen. In the post-war years, many New York intellectuals and artists bought summer places in Stony Creek, and Joe and Anisoara probably joined their friends in the summer exodus, perhaps planning to add a Romanian folk arts museum to the town’s attractions.

When Joe died, my father, who was the executor of his estate, sold the farm. I remember that I bravely protested the sale, arguing that it belonged in the family, real estate would always increase in value, we could go there on vacation, and I could have it when I got older. Even though I was still a child (well, a man if you count a bar mitzvah as a genuine coming-of-age ritual), I had a bit of Joe’s wanderlust and desire to live an unordinary life.




D.C. Comics


Universal Pictures

Uncle Joe tried (without success) to disprove Einstein, and broadened my cultural horizons by introducing  me to wrestler Antonino Rocca and the Mummy.


* * *

Two very different people — the brainy, idealistic, good-hearted New York Jewish nerd who lived in Greenwich Village and the complex, exotic Eastern Orthodox woman from eastern Europe with a political agenda and a sentimental heart. Did they love each other? Almost certainly. Did each make the other partner better? Absolutely. Will we ever know what their relationship was really like and what emotions they felt? Of course not. I’m the last surviving relative with even a smattering of interest in Uncle Joe. Anisoara’s relatives have disappeared in the forgotten file cabinets of Romanian history. They left no children, only some documents. But through their writings we can imagine what their lives were like, and perhaps that’s good enough. If Joe and Anisoara were to appear in a dream, I might see Antonino Rocca delivering a flying kick on the lumbering Mummy while eating Anisoara’s mămăligă cu brânză și smântână in a pavilion in the World Village of Peasant Art, just as my parents cruise into the driveway, looking at their watches and happily grumbling “Joe is going to spoil that boy.”


This article is adapted from a chapter in:
Quests: Searching for Heroes, Scoundrels, Star-Gazers, and a Mermaid Queen

ISBN: 978-2-940573-43-1 (paperback) | 978-2-940573-44-8 (ebook)
Available end May at Amazon or independent booksellers