Chapter 2 - South Beach, 1940s and Commie coffee katches

America was a different place and civility ran rampant


We spent the 1940-41 winter on Miami's South Beach during the heyday of the Art Deco hotel boom there.

A winter on Collins Avenue, return to WW2 and political polemics

This bucolic boyish existence was interrupted by the lack of antibiotics in 1940.

While penicillin had recently been discovered, it along with the other early antibiotics, was not available to the civilian population as America geared up for World War 2.

When a second winter laid me low with extremely painful earaches, our next door family doctor suggested to my mother that the only thing which might help would be to break the cycle by getting me to a warm climate for several months away from New England's wretched winter weather.


Mom drove the green Ford "Woody" while I rode shotgun reading a map and making sandwiches for several days.

My mother immediately did four things;

  1.  She bought a 1940 Ford Woody Station Wagon,
  2. Loaded it with a big tin container filled with salami and bologna tubes, cheese, fruit and bread,
  3. Left my Uncle John in charge of her business, and
  4. She & I drove off to Miami Beach down U.S. Route 1.

Those of you who have grown up using the Interstate Highway system's super highways like I-95 which can take a speedy driver from New England to Miami in a day or two, can not imagine what driving old U.S. Route 1 the same distance was like in 1940.

It must have taken us a week to get to Miami Beach where mom immediately went to work as a licensed dietitian in one of the hotels, and I attended the local elementary school.

This was the heyday of the South Beach Art Deco era with some of America's most attractive and exotic hotels  being built along Collins Avenue. It was here I developed my lifelong hatred for New England weather.

After we returned north in the Spring of 1941, I never had another earache.

War fever and an oasis of plenty in a rationed land


This is typical of the WW2 posters which covered walls in every town in America

But back in Woodbury CT, America was preparing for World World Two, and after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, our country rapidly built up the armed forces to 11 million men and women, all of whom needed to be fed and cared for by the government.

That is when everything changed on the home front.

The government rationed everything, especially the most pleasurable products like gas, tires, coffee, meat, sugar and butter. This is the era when margarine became widely accepted as a substitute, and synthetic tires were introduced because the Japanese forces had occupied the Southeast Asian areas where most the world's rubber tree plantations were located.

Everything went to our servicemen and women first, and life changed drastically for everyone I knew, except at the Brooks house.

Since dad was an editor which was a priority occupation, he had a special gas card, and since mom ran a restaurant, we never lacked for coffee, butter or steak.

For the first time women began to replace men who went off to war, but my mother had always employed strong women like herself, so the Female Liberation movement happened forty years earlier at my home.

Growing up I never experienced gender, ethnic or racial bigotry until I went to prep school in the eighth grade. There were only one Black and two Italian families in Woodbury in the 1940s, and they were among the most well-liked.

Communist, Socialist and Republican scuttlebutt

Litchfield County where many of New York City's wealthy had summer places, and by late Friday evening many of them would stop for a drink and to argue politics at Mrs. Brooks' Green Acre Grill.

Stiring this pot was my Uncle John who had come to live with us during my early childhood.

John Bowen had been a vaudeville  star in theaters across America until that form of live variety was replaced by movies in the 1930s.

Uncle John was a brilliant raconteur, and he was my surrogate father since dad's newspaper hours meant he was seldom home when I was awake.

John and mother would start the ball rolling during these political powwows with these  Friday night owls.

The most memorable members of the coffee klatch were Bill Burke, a New York Communist Party secretary, and Jasper Mc Levy who for twenty-four years was the Socialist mayor of Bridgeport CT.

It's hard to believe how friendly and good-hearted these discussion were. Both the Soviet Union and communism were popular with most Americans until after the allied victory in 1945. America had entered the war with its Pacific fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and the Russians were the only one facing Nazi Germany in Europe until the allies landed in Italy and France in 1944.

Bill Burke's wife was the personal assistant for Michael Lerner, of store chain fame (now New York & Co.), who was a notable big game hunter of the era. They lived in his apartment on Park Avenue, NYC, and used to have me visit this exotic penthouse where all the furniture was custom built using the skins and limbs of the African wildlife Lerner had dispatched. In  retrospect, Lerner must have been a wealthy supporter of the Communist Party, as were many other idealistic Americans before the Cold War.

About the time the discussion slowed down, my Republican father would get back from his newspaper which went to press about 10PM. He joined what became a decade long political salon where voices were never raised, and genuine friendship was obvious despite strong differences in opinions.

It was a heady experience for a young teenager.

After America declared war on Germany, the Soviet Union became our ally, and no one under fifty can believe how civil the discourses were then between the far left and the far right.

It took Joseph McCarthy and the Religious Right to destroy this civil discourse between Americans who held different opinions.

We are the lesser for it.

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