Sullivan County Historical Society History Maker Award 2002
Jennie Grossinger, like so many immigrants, had a great love of America and worked very hard to be worthy of her new country. At first her energy was consumed in learning to survive and assimilate American ways, but later in life her imagination and strength of character enabled her to take the raw materials of America and combine them into something new which was neither "old country" nor typical of the America of her time. America provided her and her family with an opportunity for success unthinkable in Eastern Europe, but her success in turn helped to transform the resort traditions of the very country which had welcomed her.
Jennie was born on June 16, 1892 in the area known as Galatia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father Selig was an estate overseer and her mother Malke a devout woman known for her exceptional cooking. In contrast to other areas of Europe and Russia, the reign of the Emperor Joseph was relatively benign and Selig and his family did not experience the fierce pogroms of other lands. Nevertheless, Selig could see the limitations of his family's future if they remained in Galatia. Like many young men of his time, he began thinking about America, for in every village one heard stories of men who had gone to America and if all went well, eventually sent money home to bring their families to the new world. Selig mulled over the risks in such a venture and finally in 1897 made the bold decision to go to America, work hard, save every penny he could and eventually bring his own family to an American home. He then announced his plans to his wife Malke and their two daughters, five-year old Jennie and two-year old Lottie. The separation from her father was painful for Jennie, although the family received letters from him expressing his love and the firmness of his intentions. One day, more than three years after his departure, a joyous event took place: a letter arrived with sufficient money to enable Malke and the two girls to travel to Hamburg and from there board a ship for America. The voyage was a difficult one, especially during the North Atlantic storms when all the topside exits from steerage were closed. Despite the difficulties of the trip, the family at last arrived in New York City and was soon reunited with Selig.
At first, they lived in the East side ghetto of the City. Despite the friendliness and helpfulness of their new neighbors, the adjustment to America was difficult. Their first apartment probably did not live up to their dreams of a new world and though Jennie was able to attend public school, she could not speak any English and was soon demoted from the third to the first grade with much younger children. As she grew up, she began to make a better adjustment to school, but at the same time, became more aware of the exhaustion of her father who worked twelve hours a day for meager wages as a pressman in the garment industry. Sensing the burden he had been carrying for years, Jennie at age fourteen insisted on dropping out of school to take a job to help with the family finances. She had become an adult at an early age. Today when we read about that world we primarily see harshness, poverty, and exhaustion, but at the same time there was much joy because of the closeness of family and friends. Jennie never forgot those people with whom she had shared the harshness and hope of those first years. Happily, her life began to change when her first cousin, Harry Grossinger, took an interest in her. Young Harry was respected by Selig, so there were no family obstacles. On May 25, 1912 Jennie and Harry were married.
Her father's health continued to decline due to the stress and working conditions. He tried several businesses, but these were unsuccessful. Finally, the family decided to leave the City and purchase a farm since that was a way of life Selig understood from his upbringing in the old country. Connecticut was their first choice, but a friend persuaded them to look for a farm in Sullivan County. The family had limited funds even with the help of loans from friends, but Selig carefully searched the area and was finally able in 1914 to find a farm in the Ferndale area they could afford. Alas, their initial enthusiasm about escaping from the City could not last, for they soon realized that what good soil Sullivan County had along its river banks had long since been taken; and even a hard worker like Selig could not make a living and raise a family from the rocky soil which he now owned. Fortunately, neighbors gave good advice to the effect that despite the poor land the family could survive by taking in boarders from the City. Soon they were busy contacting old friends in the City inviting them to come and enjoy the summer beauty and coolness of Sullivan County at the Grossinger farm.
There was nothing fancy about that first year in the resort business. There were chamber pots rather than modern toilets; the laundry facilities consisted of a nearby stream; and entertainment in the evening might feature a single guest strumming familiar tunes on a guitar or banjo. Looking back almost a century later, a summer vacation in that kind of Catskills does not sound inviting, but despite its simplicity the guests were happy. They had escaped the noise, dirt and summer heat of the City, if only for a week, to enjoy the rural ambience, the delicious food produced by Malke and the warm hospitality of the Grossinger family. Each summer there were a few more visitors as word of mouth advertising enticed people to the farm which was now known as Longbrook House. However, the life was exhausting for Jennie, because in addition to her hotel responsibilities she and Harry had two children: Paul born September 17, 1915 and Elaine born December 9, 1927.
Eventually, the number of guests outgrew the farm and the family had to find a larger place. They were fortunate in being able to purchase a portion of the Nichols Estate and in 1919 moved into the main house, a handsome structure, which was renamed Grossinger's Terrace Hill House. At first, some neighbors were not happy to see the home of one of the country's respected families taken over by an immigrant family, but the relations of Selig and his family with the community were so honorable that these negative feelings soon died out.
Now that the Grossinger family had acquired a reputation for providing exceptional service to summer visitors and had land on which to expand, they embarked on the great adventure of developing their own brand of Catskill hospitality. County Historian John Conway uses the phrase Silver Age to describe the hotels which existed before the First World War. Some of these buildings were physically impressive, but the activities available to the guests were limited and not very exciting. These hotels emphasized the quiet, relaxed enjoyment of nature with hikes, picnics and other outdoor pursuits. Jennie and her family and others of the new breed of hotel owner came to realize that the New York City people who constituted the largest part of their clientele were becoming more affluent and sophisticated and the older vacation style based on the simplicity of country life was no longer attractive.
What followed over the succeeding decades was a revolution in resort hospitality, as the Silver Aged preceding WWI was replaced by the Golden Age known both affectionately and somewhat condescendingly as the Borscht Belt. The core idea was simple: no guest should ever feel bored. To accomplish this, the hotel had a variety of activities going on from morning to night-in a sense, mirroring the fast pace of New York City. Further, activities were designed for different ages and interests. If there were "wallflowers" or people who didn't fit in, the staff was trained to notice and to help them find compatible friends and enjoyable activities. The list of these activities grew with the years. In the area of sports it included swimming, golf courses, horseback riding, tennis courts, impromptu ball games of all sorts and professionals to provide instruction; and as the hotel evolved from a summer to a year-round resort, winter sports such as indoor swimming, skiing and ice skating were added. The evenings were fun-filled with dance orchestras, popular singers and comedians, who would eventually acquire national reputations, to provide entertainment. Sitting at a nearby table could be a well-known celebrity, a national politician, a leader from Israel, a Hollywood actress or boxers such as Barney Ross, Max Baer, or Rocky Marciano who trained at the hotel. Of course, there were the famous meals lovingly prepared in the tradition of Malke, delicious and seemingly endless; and if one wished a change of pace there were shops built into the hotel to provide the latest in clothes, beauty aids, sports equipment, etc. There were serious matters as well. Speakers came to discuss the new state of Israel and the needs of Jewish philanthropy. Over the years, particularly after WWII, a vacation at Grossinger's became something special. Cadillacs pulled up at the main gate; women stepped out in their fur coats; and everyone was well dressed for an evening in the nightclub doing the latest Latin dances. A generation of immigrants and their children could note with wonder and understandable pride how far they had come in a few decades.
What was happening at Grossinger's was happening elsewhere in the county, though some would say that Grossinger's was doing it better; and therefore, we cannot say how much of all this evolution was due to Jennie. The decisions were made by the entire family. What Jennie did accomplish was to provide a face for Grossinger's. With her natural, unassuming charm, her extraordinary memory for names and faces, her spontaneous kindness toward both guests and staff, her name in time became a legend. Young summer vacationers fanned out across the country as employment doors opened and a Jewish doctor in Los Angeles who had earned his tuition for medical school by working summers in the "Mountains" would naturally reminisce about Jennie and Catskill summers when sitting with friends by the Pacific Ocean. Because of the good memories that guests took home with them and the family's extensive charity work, which was particularly appreciated by the armed forces, "The G" became the national, even international symbol of that extraordinary world of hundreds of hotels which grew up west of the Hudson in the foothills of the Catskills.
As Jennie aged, her children, Paul and Elaine, took over the leadership of the hotel and developed new audiences by attracting business conventions, advertising single weekends and reaching out to various fraternal groups. However, despite their efforts the golden Age of the Catskills, like all Golden Ages, gradually came to an end, as the grandchildren of the immigrants could now travel, thanks to modern jets, to any point on the globe. Fortunately, Jennie did not live long enough to see the end of her era. However, she was certainly aware of how many young people who had begun their careers in the Catskills as comedians, writers, producers, singers and dancers went on to share what they had learned in the Catskills with the rest of the nation, especially in the new worlds of radio, films and television. In that respect the hotel lived on.
If she could see the deserted hotel today, she would certainly be sad, but ever the optimist she would probably look ahead to the day when a new or restored hotel would rise on the site of the old Terrace Hill House in which the traditions which she carefully nourished of concern for guests and staff, of a quest for excellence in details and generosity to the community would continue to inspire.
In recognition of the achievements of this remarkable woman, the Sullivan County Historical Society is pleased to honor her as one of Sullivan County's History makers.