I’m digging through some old papers and imagine what I found out

Our parents were very politically aware. Our dad [Pierre Bourdain; born 1930, died 1987] went to an amazingly globalist school, the Birch Wathen School, when he was a kid, in Manhattan. It was founded by these two very progressive individuals who were all into the obligation of the citizenry to be informed in a proper democracy. Our dad spoke French with his parents, at home, growing up. And our mother [Gladys Bourdain; born 1934, died 2020] grew up in a very middle-class Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, surrounded by a lot of very progressive and hypereducated people. When we were kids, we did not know that our mother was Jewish. I mean, in the fifties, if you were Jewish and came from New York City and you wanted to live in a proper suburb, there was a lot of prejudice and redlining, and you were not welcome in a lot of places. So, I know other people whose parents also kind of glossed over the fact they were Jewish to real estate agents, or changed their name to something more WASPy sounding, so that it wouldn’t cause any questions when they were moving out of the city. I know plenty of people who went that route, but then, once they got their house and were all settled, they asked, “Where is a synagogue near here? Let’s go.”

Our mom buried it completely. She swore our dad to secrecy. She swore old friends, who might have known her when, to secrecy. Her maiden name was Sacksman, but she told us, growing up, that it was Saxon, like “Anglo-Saxon.” I would see her filling out applications for shit, and she would type in her typewriter, S-A-X-O-N, Saxon. She never wanted to talk about it, ever. I don’t think Tony and I found out until late in high school. We found some piece of paper that had her maiden name spelled the way it actually was spelled. One of us said, “That sounds kind of Jewish. Was your family Jewish?” And she went blank and said, “No, no, of course not,” or maybe, “No comment.” And just to give you an idea of how absurd it got, our parents had a wedding picture up on their dresser in the bedroom that we grew up seeing, this wedding photo. It was just always there, and after they separated, my mom lived alone, she still had that photo around. So, our mom died in January 2020, and I’m digging through all her old papers, and bugger all, I did not know that that photo we’d seen our entire lives, which looked like a happy couple standing on the steps of a church, it was the steps of a synagogue, on the Grand Concourse.

I did not find that out until after she’d died. It was about wanting to fit in with the “right people.” Our mom created a whole thing. First off, she’s marrying this up-and-coming, dashing French American who seemed to be going someplace, and was working in the classical records business, and loved opera just like her, and actually took her to the opera, which her parents never did. She was going places, and she had, now, a French last name, Bourdain, so she could bury anything that spoke of a less-distinguished upbringing in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx. We also were never quite told that she grew up in the Bronx. She always said, “I grew up on the Upper West Side.” Not really. From what I can tell, she was actually born in her parents’ apartment in the west seventies, but after her brother died—she had an older brother who died when she was about four years old—her parents apparently couldn’t stand being around that place anymore, so they moved to University Heights, which was a perfectly middle-class Jewish neighborhood in those days. There are a lot of famous Jewish New Yorkers who come from that area— but I don’t think we found out until well into high school or college that she spent part of her childhood in the Bronx. She also told us, “I went to Hunter College for two years.” Now, we all know a Hunter College on Lexington Avenue in the sixties [in Manhattan], so I always assumed it was that, and she never said anything to refute that.

I found out, only many years later, that what’s now Lehman College in the Bronx, it used to be called Hunter College in the Bronx. So she went to Hunter College near where she lived; she walked there. She really loved both her parents, especially her mom, and she would always say that they were very close. They died when she was pregnant with Tony, both of them. She had the theory that because Tony always seemed somehow anxious, always had a sort of dark view of things, she blamed it on the fact that she had that double tragedy when she was pregnant with him. The only grandparent we ever knew was our father’s mother, who was old and infirm when we knew her. We would go visit her, near Columbia University, on Sundays. She had very bad arthritis and could barely move, so she would sit there on the couch and our dad would chat with her. I can’t remember a single conversation I had with this woman. Our parents were both very into film, including foreign films. We had books about Fellini, and Bergman, and Truffaut, and Kurosawa sitting around in the living room. We all read them. We all watched the occasional Bergman rerun week on channel eleven, and Japanese films. They were both totally plugged into politics.

They were antiMcCarthyism, and they were pro–civil rights, they were anti–Vietnam War, they were pro rights of workers, all those things. Not in a flaming radical way, more just what’s fair, and what’s just. That was the backdrop we grew up in. That was the backdrop Tony was a young adult in, and I think you can certainly see in his shows, where he would go to troubled spots, places that had had a civil war of some kind, earthquakes and famine—he was just continuing to inform himself, and us, about all of these things that we kind of grew up hearing about. Our parents had their friends who, of course, had the same views, and they’d all be grumbling, “Oh, can you believe Nixon?” or whatever, the same way we all do now. We would certainly talk about Vietnam. And we still had the draft. I remember Tony was definitely worried. We went to public school in Leonia, New Jersey, to grammar school. Some kid was verbally and emotionally tormenting Tony in his early grade school years. I don’t know all the details, but he was just a mean bastard. And also, Tony was way ahead of the class. He was reading fifth- and sixthgrade stuff in second grade, and he was bored to tears. And then he had this kid tormenting him. I’m not sure the order of events, but some of the teachers at the public school said to our parents, “You know what, if you have a chance, there’s the private school in the next town, and we think Tony would do better there.”

Around that same time, our grandmother did us the economic favor of dying. She left our dad a bunch of money, and so they thought they could afford private school for a long time, and they sent Tony, starting in fifth grade. And they sent me the following year.

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