Harry Golden & the Coat

    October 1998         
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Harry Golden & the Coat


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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 spouse.

  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 letter.

  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 month:

  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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