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By © by Sonia Pressman Fuentes 1997
My parents were saddened by the fact that as I passed my twenties and
then my thirties, there was no prospective husband in sight. But whenever
my mother reached her lowest point, my father would hearten her with the
story of "the Coat." In Berlin, in the 1920s, in my father's men's
clothing store, there hung for many years a long, black overcoat. It
had already passed through several cycles of men's fashions and was at a
stage beyond fashion and above style. There was nothing really wrong
with it, but the years passed and "the Coat" remained. Periodically,
Mother and Father would discuss "the Coat." Should they throw it out?
Should they give it to someone? It was difficult for them to just give
away such a fine-looking coat made of such excellent wool. They always
decided to wait just a bit longer. Perhaps they could still sell it to
someone someday for 40 marks ($10). And, besides, my father's watchword
had always been, "There's a customer for everything."
They were considering what to do with "the Coat" one evening shortly
before closing time when a customer walked in. He said he was looking
for a coat -- but not just any coat. He wanted something special -- a
coat that would make his friends sit up and take notice. "Lina," said
my father, with a gleam in his eye, "Go bring `the Coat.'" My mother
hastened to bring "the Coat" to the customer. My father helped him put
it on. It was a perfect fit! The customer admired himself in the
mirror. He was plainly delighted. He admitted that this was indeed
something different. This was the coat he had been looking for.
"How much for this coat?" he asked.
"Three Hundred Fifteen Marks ($75)?" inquired my father, in a voice
that indicated the matter was open for bargaining.
A broad smile flashed across the customer's face. Not only was this
coat something special, something none of his friends had, but it was
also expensive. "I'll take it," he said. A few minutes later, he was
happily walking out of the store with his package under his arm and a
satisfied smile on his face.
That was the story I heard my father tell through my adult years to
remind my mother that when one had gute skhoyre (good merchandise),
a customer would always come along. It didn't especially cheer me up to
be compared to a coat that had hung unwanted for years in their store,
but at least it served to take the pressure off my need to find a
The story of "the Coat" led to my contretemps with Harry Golden.
Golden, a short, rotund, Jewish, cigar-smoking colorful writer, was also
a bit of a rogue. In 1929, when he was in his late twenties, he pled
guilty to mail fraud charges in connection with his activities as a
stockbroker in New York City. After serving a four-year prison
sentence, he changed his name from Goldhurst to Golden and moved to
Charlotte, North Carolina, a most unlikely setting in what became a most
unlikely career. As he put it, he was "a Northerner living in the
South, a Jew in the most Gentile community on the continent, [and] an
integrationist among white supremacists." (1)
In Charlotte, he became the founder, publisher, editor, and writer of
the *Carolina Israelite*. In that slight newspaper, with charm and
humor, he waxed nostalgic about life on the Lower East Side of New York
and railed against racial bigotry in the South. The *Carolina
Israelite* became world renowned, and Golden's writings were compiled in
over fifteen books. Three of them, *Only in America*, *For 2¢ Plain*,
and *Enjoy, Enjoy!*, became best-sellers.
I enjoyed reading *For 2 Cents Plain*, and, in November 1959, I wrote Golden
to tell him so. He answered with a postcard and a copy of the *Carolina
Israelite*. In that newspaper, I noticed an anecdote sent in by a
reader that related to a story called "Buying a Suit for Hymie" that had
appeared in one of Golden's books. The anecdote reminded me of "the
Coat" story, so I wrote up the story and sent it to Golden with a
The following year, I picked up a paperback copy of *Enjoy, Enjoy!*,
and what did I find on page 82 but my story under the title, "The
overcoat." I was flabbergasted. I immediately wrote to Golden,
expressing my outrage, and requesting compensation. Golden responded
and said it was possible that "sometimes an idea remains in your mind
that you might have read somewhere and you are not quite sure, and this
is particularly true of a man who writes entirely from `the top of his
head' without ever getting out of his chair to look into a dictionary, a
reference book, or someone else's work of any nature."
Mr. Golden and I then exchanged letters, but he did not agree to compensate
me for the unauthorized use of my story. I then consulted several
lawyers, but it was not easy finding a lawyer to handle a matter of such
small moment. Ultimatedly, I succeeded in securing the services of Amy
Ruth Mahin, who was with the prestigious Washington, DC, firm of
Covington & Burling. Ms. Mahin agreed to represent me in seeking a
settlement of my claim for copyright infringement against Golden. She
said that no fee would be due unless money was recovered from Golden,
and in that event, she would be entitled to $50 or 25 percent of the
gross sum recovered, whichever was larger. In addition, I would be
responsible for any out-of-pocket expenses.
In this momentous literary legal battle, Golden was represented by the
well-known New York City law firm of Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst. In July
1961, a representative of that firm wrote Ms. Mahin that after studying
"the correspondence closely, . . . the only conclusion to which we can
come is that Miss Pressman's claim is without legal merit." Ms. Mahin,
not to be undone by so cavalier a dismissal, wrote back the following
In your letter of July 28 with regard to Miss
Pressman's claim to infringement by Mr. Golden, you do not address
yourself either to the controlling facts or to the legal injury
actually involved. We trust you will consider the matter further.
Mr. Golden did not take, and Miss Pressman does
not ask to be compensated for, merely and [sic] idea for a story. As
must be apparent to you or anyone comparing the two works, Mr. Golden
took substantially both the literary form and content of Miss
Pressman's literary piece -- to [sic] and including her mother's given
name, the sequence of narrative and incident, and the actual phrasing.
Moreover, Miss Pressman does not seek compensation for the use of
her work on any theory of express promise to pay by Mr. Golden. His
use was wholly without notice of any kind to her. And even if
inadvertent on his part, it would nonetheless be an appropriation of
her rights in the literary piece.
You employ the phrase "unsolicited letter" in describing the
original manuscript of Miss Pressman's story. If by this you mean to
suggest that the law gives an addressee freedom to make an
unauthorized publication of any part or version of the contents of
such a letter, you are of course in error.
Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst did not change its opinion, but Golden did.
He offered to write a story in the *Carolina Israelite* about me. He
also said that when his publishers published a two-volume work entitled
Collected Writings of Harry Golden scheduled for 1962, he would begin
the story of "the Coat" as follows: "Here comes a fine story from a
delightful girl in Washington, D.C., Miss Sonia Pressman." Finally, he
offered to pay me "fifty cents a line which is what the publishers
charged me for using some words of Ernest Hemingway."
I accepted Golden's offer. Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst sent Ms. Mahin a
check for $13 made out to me for the twenty-six lines of my story. The
next issue of the *Carolina Israelite* carried the following story:
Sonia Pressman Should Write a Book
Sonia Pressman is a lawyer in Washington and has been writing me
some nice letters across the years. One of her letters, a true story,
eventually found its way into my book ENJOY ENJOY. It was the story
of a "schlock" store (a cut-rate clothing store) and how an unmarried
daughter figured in a sales secret between the proprietor and his wife.
Sonia should sit down and write herself a book.
Since I was paid only for my story and did not receive any damages, Ms.
Mahin determined that I did not owe her any fee. She did, however,
request $3.20 for xeroxing, which I forwarded to her. In 1973,
President Richard M. Nixon granted Golden a full presidential pardon for
his crime of mail fraud. I could do no less.
(1.) Harry Golden, "Enjoy, Enjoy!" (New York: World Publishing, 1961),
"Credo" in frontispiece of Permabook ed.
The above story, an excerpt from Ms. Fuentes memoirs, "Eat First -- You
Don't Know What They'll Give You", was published in "Jewish Currents",
June 1997, 16.
from the October 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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