I was 15 years old when Rosenzweig discovered me at the Frick Collection. We were standing in front of Rembrandt's Polish Rider, and he came up to me like Count Dracula bathed in perfume and said, "Young man, have you ever modeled before?"
Some nabob with a boutonniere was always trying to flirt with me at the Prick But Rosenzweig was all business.
"I'm a freshman at the High School of Music and Art," I said.
He handed me his card--Rosenzweig & Co., with showrooms on Seventh Avenue-and said his chauffeur would pick me up after class.
I wouldn't want a young gentleman such as yourself to miss a day of school, even flit might make him rich.
And then he was gone with that bloodless look of his, like a man made of whitewash. There was a limo waiting for me after class on Monday. We rode down off St. Nicholas Terrace, away from the gargoyles of Music and Art, and into the heart of Manhattan. Rosenzweig & Co. was the Cadillac of clothing cataloguers at the time, occupying a manufacturer's loft near the tiny synagogue for tailors at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 36th Street. It was like having an assault team on a single floor--showrooms, a printing press, photography studios, and a rat's maze of little offices where Rosenzweig's proofreaders and editors worked from dawn to dusk spitting out catalogues.
The racket was relentless; I had never seen such a hub of activity, with male and female models prancing about half-undressed. I had a terrible omen the minute after entering Rosenzweig's world of frosted glass. I recognized one of his models--Beth Bacharach, the Bronx bombshell who had dropped out of junior high last year and vanished from our streets. We assumed Beth had either been knocked up or kidnapped, and here she was on Seventh Avenue, modeling brassieres. She couldn't have been much older than 16, but she had the dazed look of someone who was mortally wounded. She didn't even glance up when I said hello.
I should have taken Beth with me and run from Rosenzweig, but I walked right into that labyrinth and was photographed wearing a muscle tee shirt. I blame Marlon Brando. He had worn a muscle tee in The Men, playing a paraplegic with biceps bigger than ostrich eggs, and suddenly haberdashers all over town had tee shirts in their windows instead of bow ties. The photographer, called Gabe, stood behind his tripod with a little black cloth over his head. He couldn't stop muttering to himself.
"The cheekbones, the cheekbones-finally we have our Tartar look."
I was hired on the spot, before they had the chance to gaze into the developer. Rosenzweig and his accountant told me not to worry about working papers. I would be paid off the books, but I wasn't supposed to utter a word to my teachers at Music and Art. I would never have to skip a class, or ride the subway at night; a limo would carry me door-to-door. Of course I suffered-I was an art student who dreamt of Gauguin's tropical sun and Van Gogh's missing ear, and I had no time to paint. I had to read Hamlet after midnight, in the limousine, under the glare of a shivering lamp. But I had $200 in my pocket every week--it was 1953, and we were in the middle of a recession. My father hadn't worked in years. He'd fallen into his own dark time. My kid brother was too young to shine shoes. My mother was blind in one eye and losing her sight in the other. I was our sole support.
I didn't wear as many muscle tee shirts after the Brando mania began to fade. I modeled turtlenecks, bow ties, sport coats, vinyl jackets, or whatever leapt into the national clothing craze. I never saw Beth Bacharach again, and I wondered if she was on the scrapheap of worndown Rosenzweig models.
Needless to say, I lived in the "narrow" of a schoolbook and the blinking eye of a camera. But I did have one friend, also a freshman at M & A. Miles Neversink. He was a runt, and I would protect him from certain seniors, who might have preyed upon Miles, except that I was tall for my age and had the Tartar cheeks of Rembrandt's Polish Rider. (I would return to that portrait at the Frick whenever I had the chance, since it was like looking at some ancestor of mine, with his quiver of arrows and his riding crop.)
Miles's dad, Arthur Neversink, was the most celebrated criminal lawyer in Manhattan; a menace in open court, he could flay any government witness, but he couldn't keep Frank Costello out of jail. Prosecutors were still frightened of Arthur. And policemen waved to him whenever they saw his silky white hair. There were rumors that he'd once been a taxi dancer in Hell's Kitchen and that Costello himself had sent him through law school. But I also heard that he'd grown up on the Grand Concourse, that his father had been one of the most prominent manufacturers on Seventh Avenue. I suspect he didn't need Frank Costello's largesse to finance his legal career.
He lived in one of those Art Deco palaces on Central Park West with gangsters and Jewish millionaires who had been shunned by all the palaces on Fifth Avenue and now formed their own incredible clique. They were the new lords of Manhattan. Much of the West Side was still a slum, but they had their golden mile across the street from the park. And there were no muggers or highwaymen along this golden mile. Not because of the police, but because Frank Costello lived in the same Art Deco palace as Arthur Neversink, lived there on his short furloughs from jail.
That building would soon become my second home. On some evenings I was driven...