A Conversation with Sherman Yellen About His Latest Memoir ‘Spotless’

Happily, my work allows me to meet many interesting people.  Still, I wasn’t prepared for the powerful impact of meeting Sherman Yellen, author of the award winning Broadway musical The Rothchilds. I was invited to Sherman’s book party by his publicist. It was held in his spacious and elegant Upper East Side apartment given by his long-time friend Sheldon Harnick, the famous lyricist of Fiddler on The Roof.  Sheldon and Sherman are friends who go way back. They worked on the Tony award-winning play The Rothschilds together, and  are currently collaborating to modernize and update the characters of this superb script.

Sheldon Harnick, Sherman Yellen and me
Sheldon Harnick, Sherman Yellen and me

    Yellen is no stranger to the entertainment world. He is the writer and lyricist of multiple plays and books. Although, I was impressed with his long list of accomplishments, I was even more impressed with Sherman Yellen the person. I wasn’t the first to arrive at this lovely book party, but I was definitely one of the last to leave.  I loved speaking to all the special people in Sherman Yellen’s world, which included his elegant wife, Joan, a person I also found myself wanting to befriend.

    As a therapist, I’m always acutely aware of people who know how to live life well.  Those who know how to be mentally healthy, happy, and successful, and yet, handle it all with an admirable humility, and that is exactly what I was seeing. In addition to living life admirably, Sherman Yellen could also give lessons on how to be a model husband. He spoke about his wife of sixty-five years in the most touching and loving way. Yellen is clearly a man who lives life like it’s a creative adventure meant to be enjoyed, an adventure that he writes about in the most poetic and powerful way.

    When Sherman read a portion of Spotless, his memoir, he transported everyone in the room to another time and place, one that was intriguing yet simultaneously disturbing. I left this event, not only wanting to read Spotless (and become a playwright myself), but also wanting to learn more about the man who penned this captivating memoir. This is ultimately what inspired me to do an in-depth interview with, Sherman Yellen, a man I consider to be a legend and national treasure.

Spotless
Spotless

Dr. Robi: What inspired you to write about your childhood now?

S. Yellen: When I reached the age of eighty I found myself living with a fast disappearing past.  My parents Lillian and Nat and my older sister Simone were long dead.  Uncles, Aunts, cousins, all gone.  I was the only survivor of our original family, and I thought that the survivors of the world I had known, the New York of the 1930’s and 40’s in which I had grown up, were disappearing so fast that there would be nothing and no one left to recall it – other than some old photos of an Automat, some oddly dressed men and women in hats, and some round backed cars.   So many lives and a way of life would be lost to time.   For me – having lived through it – it was a world worth preserving.    

It has been said that a picture is worth a thousand words – but I disagree.  A picture can only show you how people and places looked but it cannot tell you how they felt, or offer the true shape of their characters and beliefs.  The photo of a homely face can conceal a marvelous, generous character. Only memory can remove the mask – one man or woman’s memory (as flawed as it might be).  I did not want my family who had undergone an exceptional journey from great poverty to middle class prosperity, people who had loved and fought and triumphed and failed - to disappear with my own passing.  

 Back cover Jigsaw puzzle of Yellen family
Back cover Jigsaw puzzle of Yellen family

My family’s pain and its pleasures were filled with the stuff of life – and I did not want it all to disappear with me.  I came to believe that they not only represented their unique selves but a generation of new Americans who arrived at the turn of the 20th century trying to make peace with a strange and difficult world, a Great Depression and then a prosperous America as WW2 raged across an ocean.  I felt I would be paying a debt to the past that had shaped me by trying to recreate it for future readers.  And personally, I wanted to leave a record of my young life, and the lives of my parents and grandparents for my granddaughters who live in such a different world than I did – and for them to understand that much of living is about forgiving.  I wanted to take a second, deeper look at my remarkable parents, not the fleeting glance that I had given them as I tried to make a quick escape from childhood into adulthood.   Plato wrote that the unexamined life is not worth living – and for once I both understand and agree with the great Greek.   

Dr. Robi: The title of your book, Spotless, has a special meaning that was inspired by your mother. Would you tell us more about that?

S. Yellen:   I chose the title SPOTLESS for several reasons.  First, it was a word I heard so often used by my mother in my childhood.  My mother would refer to a person’s character as spotless in her daily telephone conversations with her sister, Ida. A housekeeper’s abilities would be called spotless, a person’s character would be spotless, the sheets on our beds and the linoleum on our kitchen floor were spotless.  Coming as she had from a world of tenement filth and disease the word spotless had a special meaning for her.  The highest praise. My mother Lillian’s older brother Sam, her beloved sister Rebekah, and her mother Sarah, all died of the white plague (TB) the children died in sanatoriums in Colorado, the mother died in her bed in Rivington Street.  The spots on their lungs that killed them were the very opposite of life itself, they were not spotless.  So the word had a special significance for me – particularly since I had my own mid-life battle with tuberculosis (contracted while living in London, and defeated by the drugs that did not exist in my forebear’s time).   The title does not apply to that curious, judgmental child that I was - as seen on the cover of the book. Being sick with childhood asthma I had a lot of time to think about the world around me and to judge it – judges, large or little, are not spotless.  They are given to seeing the failings in others, and not in themselves – pretty much what most children do. So SPOTLESS it was.

Dr. Robi:  Did you learn anything new about yourself or your very loved family members as a result of writing this memoir? 

S. Yellen: Yes. Yes. Yes.  I learned how my parents helped to create a bond between me and my late sister than could never be broken – not even by her early death.   We fought with each other as most young siblings do but in moments of difficulty, anxiety, or even despair, during our adulthood, we were always there for each other.  This did not happen by chance.  My mother made it clear that we were never to “belittle” (her word) each other, or betray each other – and my father’s rages against us helped forge a natural alliance in childhood.  My sister would open the bathroom door for me as I fled into the bathroom to lock the door and escape one of my father’s unpredictable rages.  My father could not forgive us if we were not always happy and grateful for all he gave to us, and he punished us for any sign of ingratitude or sad face we might be wearing.  My sister and I were to make up for the lost childhoods that he and my mother had experienced.  Ours was to be filled with the finest toys from FAO Schwartz– the best clothes from Fifth Avenue department stores, the signs of his success.  We were ordered to be happy at all costs.  At times we could not obey these orders.

Nat Yellen (Sherman’s Father) with a young Sherman Yellen
Nat Yellen (Sherman’s Father) with a young Sherman Yellen

While investigating the past I began to understand what contributed to my father’s rage – he was the little boy sent out to work as a ten year old to support the family of a very fertile mother (six kids) and a gambler father as they struggled to survive on the Lower East Side.  He was neither rewarded with love or even appreciation for his labor.  It was expected of him as the eldest child.  The burdens placed upon this bright and loving child were internalized, and in later life they would emerge as depression or anger. Although I did not believe that I loved him in life, I came to love him posthumously by examining all that went into the making of Nat Yellen as I wrote this book.   As far as my mother went, those who knew her and her family considered her a beautiful, flawless angel – generous, charming, and infinitely charitable - ready to help anyone in need.  But I learned that this splendid woman had her limitations – that all was done in the service of her immediate family and its survival – that she was less a guardian angel than a lioness defending her cubs.  As a child I saw her as a victim of my hot tempered father, enduring his temper tantrums (he never hit her just shouted to the rooftops) as she called a halt to his current outburst, but in examining the past I saw how he was a victim of her willfulness, her inability to compromise with his needs, repeating the pattern of taking his labors for granted - denying him as an adult the very gratitude he did nor receive in his childhood -  a woman who placed all her love in the service of her children, with little left over for him; a man who adored her, but whose adoration she dismissed as a nuisance when it was not a convenience.  In one chapter, “A Polish Postage Stamp” I come to terms with her refusal to help a desperate family in Europe when in her mind she thought it might endanger her own.  A marvelous woman, but for all her “American” speech and beauty” she carried the fierce memory of a pogrom and all its danger that she had as an experienced as a three year old just before immigrating to America.  She was the ultimate survivor. She once told me that her older sister Rebekah had been "badly hurt" by a Cossack during a pogrom - and only later did I understand that "badly hurt" was her euphemism for raped.I came to understand my sister Simone as a bright spirit who was nevertheless a creature of her time – made to feel guilt for her very success in life as a designer – her Freudian male therapist had told her that she failed as a wife and mother because she worked at a job she loved - that it diminished her husband - yes, they did believe that nonsense in those days. And for all her intelligence she was far too influenced by the Hollywood values of her adolescent years.   

 Sherman shown here in his baby carriage - was born the week of the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Sherman shown here in his baby carriage - was born the week of the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Dr. Robi: You described most eloquently and poetically the boy we will meet inside of you who will not let go. How are the two of you still the same? And how are the two of you different?

S. Yellen: That boy was fascinated by all types of human behavior as a six year old, and is still intrigued by it eight decades later.   We both tend to distance ourselves from pain by finding the humor in some personal catastrophe, crying at the death of a friend, but laughing at some mishap that we cannot change.   We are both quick to recognize injustice, but the boy was helpless to change his world; only the man can make an effort to correct it.  And I do this in my own small way through political engagement.  We both remain infinitely curious about the world and why others behave as they do, as well as why I act as I do.   We are both judgmental, but the boy wanted payback for what he suffered, the man has learned to live with a very imperfect world, change what he can, and accept the imperfections in himself and others.  

Dr. Robi: In meeting you, you are clearly a gratified man who enjoys and appreciates his life. I would have never guessed that your father suffered from depression. How do you think this impacted you emotionally and professionally?

S. Yellen: My father’s depression was part of his rage at life and its injustice – a rage that turned in upon himself – at least that is how I view it.   As a young man starting out in my career as a playwright/librettist I believe that I used my work as a way to get through my own depression, which often ambushed me, coming as it did - often without some apparent life change or reason.  Working on a play or a script I could project my whole being into creating a character, and a world distant from my own, and literally work my way back into a better state of mind. I truly believe that writing saved my life.  I do not hold my father’s behavior as fully responsible for my own bouts of depression - yes, there may be a genetic disposition to depression, but bad as they might have been my depressions was were never as severe as his were – and together with the bad I learned some great good from my father.  He was a humanitarian who hired the disabled, and during the Depression many African Americans earned a living in his showroom.  Perhaps his own painful youth made him identify with the suffering of others – but this sometimes “monster” given to rages was also one of the best human beings that I had ever known, beloved by all who worked with him and for him, and most of those who knew him.  My progressive beliefs and activism today owes a debt to my father’s example.  Life is complicated – that’s for sure.  Old age has been enormously kind to me – insofar as that old devil depression has not made a house call in years.  I have learned that the less I dwell upon myself and the more I reach out to a larger world the happier my life has become.  And I find a source of everlasting joy in my family, particularly my two sons and three young granddaughters.      

Dr. Robi: Through your book, you effortlessly transport your readers back in time. In some cases back to a time when anti-Semitism was alive and well. Sadly, anti-Semitism has reared its ugly head again, do you think this type of ethnic scapegoating will ever go away?

S. Yellen:  No, I do not think that the hatred for a minority will ever go away.  Hate is a shape-shifter; it can turn its attention from a Jew to a Muslim to an African American or a Native American and rest there for a while.  All it takes to flare up is an accomplished demagogue to light the spark – sometimes covertly, sometimes openly.  There is no coincidence that the number of anti-Semitic acts has increased remarkably in recent months.  It doesn’t take much of a spark to travel from hatred for Muslims or Mexicans to Jews.  Saying that, I still believe that anti-Semitism is a chronic disease that can never be cured, it has a long history from the Romans to the Medieval Christians to the Tsars and the Nazis– one that still lingers – it can only be kept under control –a brush fire rather than a wildfire.  I write about some experiences with anti-Semitism when I was a child, and one as a young adult in Italy, but since I was an American Jewish boy, living in the safe Jewish world of NYC in the thirties and forties we experienced little of it as long as we stayed within the city's safe confines - while it raged in Europe killing millions of children my age.  

Sherman’s mother Lilian on the left at 14 years old (The year she cut her hair and became a runway model) and a formal photo
Sherman’s mother Lilian on the left at 14 years old (The year she cut her hair and became a runway model) and a formal photo of Sherman’s wife Joan at 20 years old

Dr. Robi: Every man should talk about the women in his life the way you do. Perhaps that can be your next book. How have the women in your life shaped you?

S. Yellen: How the women in my life shaped me?  That is a book in itself.   My mother taught me the value of loving-kindness – sheer goodness – capable of rising above the worst conditions of childhood.   She was a saint with some real flaws – the kind of saint I admire.  A saint with a series of contradictions.  A beautiful fashion model who had no vanity.  A woman of infinite charity who could not forgive her husband’s family for their beggary.  My sister taught me that siblings might fight like hell as children yet become the most loyal of allies as they mature.  The unbreakable bond that even death cannot break.    

Sherman and Joan Yellen on their wedding day in 1953. They married right after college.
Sherman and Joan Yellen on their wedding day in 1953. They married right after college.

And my wife, Joan?  We have been together for sixty-five years – we were little more than kids who fell in love when we first met at college – yet from her I have learned that some women have incredible courage – that they will go beyond the confines of family and view the good of the larger world as an obligation they are willing to take on.   I have seen her protest unjust wars and fight against poverty.  I have seen her help an impoverished student, taking him into our home for years while he attended college; I have watched her fight and win the right of an undocumented young mother to remain in this country and rejoice as this woman went on to great success – with a family who realizes the best of the American dream – and I have been the beneficiary of so many blessings that come from her as she saw me through my various illnesses, failures and triumphs.   I have learned from her that beauty, even great beauty, can be more than skin deep – it can be intelligent and compassionate.  Now about my small granddaughters, the twins and their older cousin, my world lights up when they come for a visit.  Nothing unusual in that.  A common grandfather trait. 

Sherman and his three beautiful granddaughters.
Sherman and his three beautiful granddaughters.

But I have the good fortune of having my grandchildren living nearby.   Far better than Prozac for dealing with the blues.  When I was a child in the thirties most families lived in clusters - there was always some Aunt Ida down the street from you to put a bandaid on a scraped knee - some Uncle Frank to toss a ball to you or take the family out for a drive in the country.   And the city itself, mostly in the outer boroughs but even in Manhattan, was a group of small villages - neighborhoods with their candy stores, delis, bakeries, churches, schools, movie theaters (the center of our world).  The "city" more or less meant midtown Manhattan - all the rest were neighborhoods like the Yorkville where I spent my teen years.  There was a sense of community then, even though neighborhoods were often self segregated; Italian, German, Jewish, Irish, African-American, and not all were equal in their amenities.   But they were all connected by the elevated trains and the trolleys - the arteries that led to Manhattan.   One grew up with a sense of place, a feeling of permanence in your life that seems lost today.  I have so many friends whose children and grandchildren are scattered throughout the country - work and life making for an American diaspora to the suburbs and taking many New Yorkers further afield after WWII - and I feel for them.  

Dr. Robi: Where do you think your gift of writing comes from? Did it stem from any family members that you've mentioned in your book?

S. Yellen: I believe I inherited a sense of drama from my father who turned every event into a “scene.”  He loved to dramatize his actions and the world around him.   Unlike my mother who made the plain truth her guiding force, my father loved to embroider his reality, never maliciously, but to improve upon the bland reality, and he loved the theater where this was done onstage. He took our family to the theater every Saturday matinee as soon as I could sit still in my seat – and the remarkable plays that I saw as a child and adolescent helped to create and shape my love of drama.  Whatever writing skills I may have I attribute to my love of reading.  Books not only take us out of our own humdrum lives, but into the world of others.   Dickens, Balzac, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and my friend and teacher at Bard College, novelist William Humphrey – these were my teachers – and my writing masters.   And the lesson I learned from family and life was that self-awareness is not enough – indeed, too much attention to the self and too little to the world around you can be fatal in a writer.  Curiosity rules.   

Dr. Robi: Would you ever consider turning Spotless into a play?

S. Yellen: No. If someone wished to turn SPOTLESS in a play I might consider letting them do that – but I meant for it to be a memoir – to come alive in a reader’s mind not on a stage.   I don’t believe that I would care to write it myself.   Perhaps I am too close to it in all its pain and pleasure.

Dr. Robi: What do you want your readers to know or learn as a result of reading about you and your family?

S. Yellen: The lesson of SPOTLESS?  I didn’t write it as guidebook for living – or a lesson in surviving one’s difficult childhood. I wrote it to entertain my readers with some remarkable stories of a boy’s life in what is now the long ago New York.  If there is anything to learn in it – perhaps that somehow we can get through the most difficult times – and we should try for forgiveness as we make an attempt to understand the lives of others.   I believe that most childhoods are like living in some Gothic novel – children are too often helpless in a world of giants – some friendly giants – some ogres – some fluctuating between both.   Most of us have the good fortune to survive our childhoods, and perhaps even love and forgive the giants who kept us captive there on a diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and malted milkshakes.    

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