FORMER LINDY DANCER, DAUGHTER OF A BOOTLEGGER AND A JAZZ RECORD AGENT. SHE WON A CHA CHA CONTEST AND A TRIP TO HAVANA IN THE 1950S HER MEMORIES OF FIRST LIVING IN THE BRONX AND THEN MOVING TO RIVERSIDE DRIVE WHERE SHE HEARD THE TRAINS AND REMEMBERED THE RESTAURANTS AND DANCE HALLS OF HER YOUNGER YEARS.
Phoebe Jacobs Interview
June 18, 2009
PHOEBE JACOBS: I was born June 21, 1918. at 1301 Hoe Avenue – that’s in the Bronx – on a kitchen table, Apartment 5B on the fifth floor walkup. My mother gave birth to me on a kitchen table because she was afraid to go to the hospital. She had heard that they give you the wrong baby after you give birth. And she didn’t want… [LAUGHS] to lose a gorgeous child.
My mother’s maiden name, was Beatrice Watkins. She was one of 12 children, the youngest of 12 children. Born in America, very dynamic woman, very positive and strong. And my father’s name was Hyman Pincus. He was originally an apprentice diamond cutter and then a diamond setter and eventually became a bootlegger and a gambler. Very suave, very charming, a Jewish Fred Astaire. Always extremely well dressed. He played golf like baseball, he’d hit the ball and run. And he was a dynamite man. I was madly in love with him and I was an only child.
We lived on Hoe Avenue until I was about five years old. And from Hoe Avenue we moved to 1478 Walton Avenue in the West Bronx near the Grand Concourse. –
My mother enrolled me in PS 64, which was a school about a block away from where we lived. And I guess we lived there for several years because when I was about 11 in 1929 – I guess it was around the financial catastrophes that occurred – my mother decided that she wants to live in Manhattan. She wanted me to have a better room and go to a private school. My father was doing extremely well so she took an apartment on 95th Street and Riverside Drive – 230 Riverside Drive, Apartment 10E.
I had my room overlooking the Hudson River and the railroad yards because there was no West Side Highway in those days, there were only freight trains. My father used to sleep all day and work all night. So when he got up the first morning in the apartment he heard chickens. And he said, where the hell are we living? And we looked out the window and there was a freight train loaded with chickens. [LAUGHS] Yeah, we heard and saw the chickens. And we used to watch the freight trains after that and then we watched the West Side Highway being built.
Well my mother enrolled me in Dalton – no, Ethical Culture, I’m sorry. My grandchildren went to Dalton. Ethical Culture, and I was there three days and my mother found out that we had a lesson on hygiene in the park naked. And the teacher made us take all these clothes off. So we were sitting naked.
I came home and I said, “Ma why don’t I have a birdie?” [LAUGHTER] Next day I didn’t go to that school. [LAUGHS]
So my father got the chauffeur, we had a car and chauffeur, ‘cause my mother said she’s gotta go back to PS 64, she has her friends there, she loves the school. We moved down here. You wanted to be a big shot, we gotta get her to that school.’ So we got back to PS 64 and the chauffeur used to take me every day to school. And I was embarrassed to get out of the car so they used to leave me off two blocks away at the delicatessen and I used to walk to the school.
At that time my father was involved with a man called Max Greenberg who had a brewery in Jersey. And he was involved with some guys from an S&J syndicate or S&G, the Jews and the Italians were having some problems in New York. And I remember that I came to school one day and a girl said to me, “Oh your father’s picture is on the first page of The Daily News.” And I became rigid, I was so disturbed about this. And sure enough, I see my father and it says, Wanted, Missing, Desperate Criminal, you know, some terrible things.
When I came home my father was in the bed. And I showed it to my father and my father found out, you know, realized what it was about and he went immediately to the police. And I went with him. And I was about 12 years old. And he kept saying, go home, go home and I kept running after him, Daddy, Daddy, please let me come, please let… And I finally went in with my father while he, you know, he said whatever they wanted to know he’d be willing to tell them
They were looking for I think a Scatagory killing or something, some congressman was molested by some mobsters. And my father had been seen in Dinty Moore’s Restaurant with these people. But they used to play Klabiash which I understood was some kind of a crazy Hungarian game that he knew quite well. He was a card shark. So he had been socializing with these people and somebody identified him as one of the men who was the last man to see this guy that was molested. But he was available for questioning.
Now this case was obviously a very hot case about this Scatagory stuff in Harlem. Because I do remember very well that I went to Saratoga with my father and he took this woman Doris Coppola. Her husband was Mikey Coppola. And my father had a piece of a club in Saratoga Springs called The Arrowhead Inn. It was a very high class gambling casino and Franklin Roosevelt was governor at the time – he used to come there. And we had a house on Union Avenue in Saratoga right next to Samuel Rosoff who was the subway tycoon.
In August we used to go. But this particular time that we went up my father took Doris Coppola. Mikey had asked him to take his wife out of New York so she would not be bothered by the police in questioning her about this Scatagory situation. She was pregnant and she was very hysterical and he trusted my father and he felt he was… And that was the time of the Jewish – as I said the S&J was Italians and Jews. I think S&J stood for something… one’s an Italian name and something else. S&J was like… the newspapers I guess coined the title because it represented the Italians and the Jews who were having conflict over territories. I don’t know whether it was about beer or whiskey. I don’t remember the details of it but I know that Max Greenberg, this guy I told you about that had the brewery in Jersey, was a partner and associate with a man called Longie Zwillman. This Max Greenburg I think was shot in the Park Sheraton Hotel barbershop.
It was a famous barbershop in the Park Sheraton Hotel, Park Central it was then.
And the guys used to go there, they’d like have a meeting. And then there was Lindy’s right near there where they used to go to eat.
And I’m trying to figure out how did this syndicate that they called S&J, how did it come about? I think it might have come about from Walter Winchell or one of the columnists. But that’s how they became identified every time they would tell different pieces of this story. As I remember it correctly, I think it was fighting over territories of power – that was the Italians and the Jews. I was just a teenager then.
I lived at 230 Riverside Drive until I was 16, 17 years old we moved back to the Bronx. Down to the West Bronx some place on 170th Street off Jerome Avenue – Macombs Road.
The reason we moved there, well my mother had a sister that she was very close to, Aunt Mary, and I was very close to. ‘Cause my mother had been run over when I was five years old and she had been in a hospital on and off for a year. And I had to go live with my Aunt because my mother wasn’t at home and she didn’t want just a servant to take care of me. So she had me go live in Aunt Mary’s house and Aunt Mary raised me that year and used to take me to school. Uncle Morris would get up, her husband, and take me to the school, pick me up every day.
And so when Aunt Mary got sick and something happened with my father, he was having problems, we moved to the Bronx. And we lived, moved a block away from Aunt Mary. I was 16. Because I remember having a sweet sixteen party, yes.
PK: Did you go to high school in the Bronx?
PHOEBE JACOBS: No I went to Julia Richmond High on Second Avenue – The building’s still there – at 68th Street. It was an all girl’s school, that’s why my mother sent me. I wasn’t allowed to be out after 11:00. I couldn’t wear high heels and lipstick like the rest of the girls. I used to go to my girlfriend’s house. I could smoke and put on lipstick and high heels. That’s what I wanted to do.
PK: Before you moved to the Bronx, tell me what the neighborhood on Broadway was like. 230 Riverside was at 95th Street.
PHOEBE JACOBS: Oh my god, it was posh. First of all we lived in what was the only new building. The Paris Hotel was on West End Avenue –and 97th Street.
I used to go to the Thalia Theater on 95th Street. Symphony Space was another movie house.. Near 96th Street there were four movie houses and… what did they call them, not open air, where you could go to a movie house and sit out… on a roof, a roof garden. We went up there to see movies. I saw Flying Down to Rio there and, you know, pictures – Public Enemy with James Cagney. There was the – oh I forget the name of the movies houses but I used to go there all the time.
My parents went out to eat often. There was Pomerantz’s a restaurant on 95th Street. We went to Schrafft’s on 84th. And there was a Jewish delicatessen some place right across the street. Tip Toe Inn was there, a Garden Bakery. Oh wonderful Chinese restaurants, good shops, lovely places and there were places that made custom made hats for ladies and custom made clothes and furriers that would, you know, they were all wonderful craftspeople in the neighborhood.
After high school I enrolled at NYU. But during the summer in high school my best friend’s uncle was a… the evening gown manufacturer – 530 Fifth Avenue. His name was Stanley Kallman, And he had Kallmore Gowns. Kallman and Morris was the name of his firm. In fact I used to do the switchboard, I had a job there, you know, like helping out in the summer time. He gave his niece, you know, and myself a job , it was ’31 I think. The Depression was already on.
One of the models was June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister. And his designer was Ted, who became a very famous designer in California and worked with – no it was Don Loper was his designer, who worked with Kay Thompson in later years in California. And one day coming over and I’m at the switchboard and he says to me, come inside I need, I need somebody, I need a body. Naturally I got up and I plugged in the board and I went and he made me take off my blouse and he starts pinning fabric on me. But he’s a queer, I don’t know whether he’s queer or not but I’m standing there I’m shivering and sweating.
And he’s pinning and he puts on this strapless evening gown and he put… made it on me. And he pushes me out in the showroom – I don’t remember who was there to buy his whatever, but they bought the gown.
The gown was beautiful ‘cause the fabric was magnificent. And her uncle says to me, tomorrow you’re coming, you’re gonna be a model. I thought, oh what does a model do? [LAUGHS] I didn’t know what to… I was scared to tell my mother because my mother and father wouldn’t stand for it. I should get undressed.?[LAUGHS] But that’s what I did for the next month. And I became very friendly with June Havoc. She taught me what to do. And she took me to see her sister in the burlesque house.
42nd Street, Minsky’s.
So I started at NYU but I quit. I didn’t want to continue. ‘Cause I started to go out with a guy and I decided that I wanted to get married. Since this is the only way I can get out of my house.
Well somebody took me to a date. My girlfriend Leona went to Europe with her mother and her boyfriend. Her mother was a widow and she had rich boyfriend, a Shagitz who was the CEO of General Electric Maritime Division, refrigerated components. So he used to put refrigeration in steamships that sailed the ocean.
So when Leona was 16 he took her Europe. And when she came back – and, of course, we were very close because we were like sisters. She was an only child and so was I. Back when she got a soul kiss she told me she was pregnant. I said, “How do you know?” She said, “He stuck his tongue in my mouth.” [LAUGHTER] So we were worried about when she was going to give birth.
When she came back from Europe I heard all about the shipboard romance with the West Point cadet. And she was carrying a torch because her mother wouldn’t allow her to go with the Shagitz. And it was a terrible scene. So I got an invitation to a dance in a place called the Tabs on East Tremont Avenue. And I said, Leona we’re going to a dance cause we both loved to lindy
So we went to this dance and at the dance a guy, this guy that looked like Tyrone Power, he loved Leona ‘cause she’s a double D cup bra. [LAUGHTER] So she was quite the girl. She was also very attractive. So he picked her and I picked the guy that was playing the piano – or he picked me – and we danced and they took us home.
What happened eventually was that the guy, the Tyrone Power type liked me after the first two or three dates that we had. And he was romancing me and he had a big car and he was the best looking and all the girls wanted him. So I talked him into getting married. You know, I mean that… they want to know how a guy proposed. You run after him until you catch him – right?
So when I told my father and mother I wanted to get married naturally I couldn’t get married like any other Jewish girl in a nice temple or whatever. My father… I had the grand ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel, on 34th Street. Benny Goodman was playing there and Benny Goodman was my favorite bandleader. We went on our honeymoon on the SS Lafayette to Havana. I got married when I was 18 in 1936. And we took an apartment in the Bronx, 55 East 174th Street. Two and half room apartment, $52 a month.
It was right off Mt. Eden Avenue.
My mother took me to Grosfeld House, which was a very fine interior designer that had furniture in Best & Company and B. Altman’s and John Wanamaker’s. In fact those two tables I still have. And they gave me a $10,000 grand piano.
I played the piano. Played… like my mother used to say, let’s hear the $10,000 piece ‘cause that’s how much the piano lessons cost and the piano. [LAUGHTER] But I played terrible, like with two thumbs. But I played for my mother and father’s enjoyment.
My husband’s name was Carl Ostrow And he was an amateur golfer, excellent golfer. He was a lifeguard at that time at Jones Beach. He was a son of a lady that had four children. And he was in the retail automotive business, like Strauss Stores would be. He had a name for his… I forget. The store was on Second Avenue and Ninth Street.
next to a funeral parlor. The first new year’s eve I was married to him he said we were invited to a party. I’m married to a man who’s going to take me to a party New Year’s Eve. I don’t ask where. Where did we go? To the funeral home. [LAUGHTER] And they put all the champagne in where they had the bodies and we were having a party in the funeral home.
I was so depressed I couldn’t wait to get out of there. But these were his friends and that’s where they made the party. The band was playing. I expected any minute they were gonna put a stiff up.
I was married in April ‘35 and February 21st of ’36 I gave birth to my son Jerome. He was born in Wickersham Hospital. Dr. Samuel L. Jacobs delivered him. He was recommended to me by my mother’s physician. beause my mother’s legs were saved when she had her automobile accident and she just loved her doctor. Samuel Jacobs was a divine man. He was notorious for performing abortions but he also was an
obstetrician and gynecologist. So he was also famous for delivering children very well.
I stayed home, took care of the baby. And my mother lived on Townsend Avenue, I lived on East 174th Street so I used to wheel over to my mother every day. She had to… have her grandchild nearby.
We lived on east 174th street until my son was about… five, four. I had to get a bigger apartment. I only had two and half rooms. My father helped Carl get more stores so he was doing better. And everybody was moving to Forest Hills. So we moved to Forest Hills where I got a four and half room apartment, which in other words was two bedrooms and two baths. We paid $89 a month rent. We had my daughter Susie, she was born February 19, 1939.
My husband’s business is doing pretty good because he’s picking up some new stores and he’s very busy with his golf because he was an amateur champ. He could have been a professional. He used be invited to play golf by some very good golfers. He was dynamite.
And he loved to go fishing with his friend Ben Gelvin who owned a boat. And I guess… Ben was the kind of guy that always had extra afternoon sessions, you know, even though his wife was a dynamite girl. But in those days whoever knew about… but he… when he made a pass at me I knew that something’s going on with this guy.
So the minute my daughter was… before my daughter was born I guess and maybe when I was pregnant with my daughter I suddenly had a very great distaste for my husband. I couldn’t bear him. I mean just him swallowing food, sitting opposite me and eating I would cringe. I had no respect for him. To me he was… I could compare him to what black people told me pimps were like. When I’d say, Carl I believe we should get some furniture for the kids, I can’t keep Susie in a crib, she’s getting big. Well why don’t you ask your father? Carl I think the kids should go to camp. It’s summer, you know, we’re not going any place and the heat, whatever. Well ask your mother and father, they’ll send the kids to camp. That’s the way our marriage was.
As far as I was concerned, the marriage was on the way out. And, of course, I had a circle of friends and the women would… we would get pretty intimate and, you know, I got to understand a lot of different things. One summer I went to the beach with this girl that I grew up with, Leona, which I’m still friendly with. We used to go to Deal, New Jersey. There was a Hollywood Hotel owned by the Seidens ‘Cause my mother used to go to the Seidens, the Lido in Long Beach, but I couldn’t… Carl couldn’t afford that so I’d stay… across the street. There was a place where the women used to rent two or three rooms and I would then go over to the Hollywood for my meals.
Leona, she was having trouble with Dave. He would not show up or she found out that he was in New York dancing here or there. That was going on. And then my other friend Doris was… so we were all in the same kind of thing where all the marriages were falling apart. That must have been about ‘42 because I remember Carl was deferred because of his physical, he had something with his ear. I believe that’s why. But also Sam Craven who was Carl’s associate in the retail store, he was getting army surplus stuff that they were selling. So I guess it was just around that time.
But by that time we were only married in name. I couldn’t stand him. : I’d tell my mother I don’t want to live with him. Was he cheating on you? So she said – ‘cause you should look the other way. You’re still Mrs., you know, what are you gonna do. I said “Ma I wish he would cheat. I’d be thrilled to death. I don’t want any part of him.” She said, well if you leave him you’re leaving me too because your father and I are going to disown you. He’s a good man and we don’t want you to do any such thing. So I said to myself – it was an agonizing situation. I had Bessie Flowers, the housekeeper that I had employed and I got through my mother. My children adored her, she was wonderful.
At that time my girlfriend Helen Barrow became vice president of Simon & Schuster because of the war –She worked for a guy called Tommy Bevins who was one of the chief editors at Simon & Schuster. He was inducted in the army, she was raised to being executive of production. And I used to do her homework. She used to bring home things for me. It started off she brought home crossword puzzles and I used to take the black pen and fill up the squares. That was my job. [LAUGHTER] They’ve since made a machine to do that but in those days that’s what I did.
And I decided to learn, at night I went to school and learned shorthand and typing. And I decided I’m… So I told Carl, he’s gotta go. I’m going to change the lock on the door, I don’t care what he’s gotta leave. And with that my son was going to be Bar Mitzvahed. Well that was the straw that broke the back. He told me to go to my father to make the Bar Mitzvah… In the temple on Queens Boulevard in Rego Park. So I changed the locks on the doors and I got rid of him.
And I knew some people, some guys that had been… one guy had been after me while I was married because a couple of times I would be very discontented and one of my friends who was single used to be a rumba queen and she’d take me to the Palladium Ballroom on Wednesday nights, you know, on 54th Street and Broadway.
But anyway I used to go every Wednesday night to the Palladium, I won a cha cha contest and a rumba contest, a weekend in Havana. And I loved to dance. And Teddy’s was my single friend that I met… How did I meet Teddy ? Oh I met her when I was a model. She was… June Havoc’s roommate and she’s telling me, Saturday afternoon there’s a rumba matinee –Her father was a doctor in Monticello and they moved to New York and she owned a brownstone, a mansion on Grand Concourse. One of these marvelous old houses, old Victorian mansion. And she was a model and her boyfriend owned McGuiness’ Restaurant on Broadway and 48th Street. She was also a dance queen.
So she tells me I met a guy who’s so hot for you, unbelievable. You’ve got to meet him. And I said, look I’m married, you know, I wasn’t that sophisticated. Now it would be nothing but those days I was really goody two shoes. She called me from Florida, she’s says I’m here and you’ll never guess who I’m with. This guy Mack that I told you about that’s mad for you, he took me out and he bought me the most gorgeous pocketbook for $100. $100 for a pocketbook in those days was something. But I promised him that you’d have lunch with him when we come back. Promise me you’ll have a date. So we made a date to go to La Martinique for Saturday afternoon rumba matinee and I told my mother about it. Carl and I we were separated, working on a divorce. It was after the war late 40s, cause my son was bar mitzvahed in ’49.
Oh by the way during the war I was a volunteer for the USO and I drove an ambulance.
So I went with Mack. I knew Mack and he was in the whiskey business. Later we had a luncheon date and my mother met him, she thought he was such a nice man, which he was.
My parents eventually accepted the divorce. There were lovely children. And then my mother and father were divorcing, they were having their problems. So what happened is that – and there was a purpose I wanted to tell you this –: So Mack had a friend Moe. We used to go out every Saturday afternoon. But he wanted to be part of the act. So this girl Doris that I knew was having this big problem with her husband and she was already separated from him but was on a temporary thing. You know, he was living home but they were getting whatever. So I said, why don’t you come and meet Moe and so we made a foursome.
Moe had a liquor store so when my kid was Bar Mitzvahed they knew I had the bar mitzvah. These two men Mack and Moe sent all the wine and all the whiskey to the temple, never sent me a bill. That’s why I remembered him, thinking about them. And they became… they were my friends till they died. They were wonderful gentlemen.
About that time I moved up to Scarsdale where my mother lived and my daughter went to Scarsdale High.
My girlfriend Leona, the one I told you that I grew up with that I’m still friends with, she belonged to a club in New Jersey called the alpine Club.
Anyway, she belonged to this club and this guy was divorced and she said, oh God did I meet a guy for you. Loves to dance, he’s a sport, he’s got a big dress manufacturing business, he was father of two kids. He saw you at this and this affair and blah, blah, blah. And so they fixed me up with him and I got the rush from him.
So I introduced him… Milton Scharfman, I brought him up to mother’s house and he came up with car and chauffeur because his father was a very big shot in the garment center They had cotton club dresses with they did the swirled house dresses for $3.95. multimillion dollar manufacturers, big shots. His father was head of the Jewish temple on West End Avenue and his brother was head of the Baptist Calvary Church. His brother became a Baptist.
Milton worked with his father, dynamite gentleman, very, very intelligent, very bright. In fact Dave Carr, Leona’s husband, took him to Chicago and he was there on an insurance festival or some kind of get together, and he says to Milton, I’m going to pass you off as an insurance expert because he could… he was fascinated by Milton’s memory, how he could remember cards when they played bridge. He could tell you almost what you had in your hand. So he gave Milton some stuff and he introduced him as an authority on something and all the big shots were around. That was Milton’s mind and he was fun
So I brought him to my mother, he showed up with his father’s car and chauffeur and took my mother and her husband – my mother was then remarried – to Ben Marden’s Riviera in New Jersey, right next to the George Washington Bridge. And Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were featured there, it had been a speakeasy originally.
Well he called up after a while and said “Let’s go to Elkton Maryland. And get married”. This would have been in the early ‘50s. We got married and moved into my apartment at 96-11 63rd Drive in Rego Park.
And he came home, and my father was living with me then. So my father had to have that problem with the Kefauver investigating committee and that whole thing, and, I mean, I had a bedroom for myself with two beds in it, and my children had a room, and my father used to sleep in my kids’ room. And when I married Milton, and my father wanted to look him over, he looked – never looked anybody straight in the face that he didn’t like. Milton. He gave him one of those slant-y looks, you know
He had him figured out right from the beginning He said, “Black suede shoes?” [LAUGHTER] And he didn’t have to say anything after that, because my father was a man of few words anyhow. So he had to leave. My father had problems, something came up, because I was a wreck, because Bessie Flowers, who was my housekeeper then, and she knew that my father was in a lot of trouble, because he was kind of broke – and he wouldn’t accept anything from me, even though I had a lot of money that he gave me. He used to give me cash. I used to put it away in the cupboard and I figured, “One of these days, my old man’s going to really need it, and I’m going to help him out,” which I eventually did when he had his deportation trial. So Milton – so we married, and then Milton used to travel for Cotton Club Frocks, which was very big at the time. Biggest Cotton Club manufacturers of dresses in the United States.
They had a factory outside of Philadelphia and one in Jersey, I think. And Milton used to travel for them. So after we were married several days – we had no honeymoon or anything – he had to go on a trip. While he’s away on the trip, the doorbell rings in my house, and there’s two men; they’re coming in to take my baby grand piano or whatever possessions I have, and I want to know what’s going on. And they show me some identification and tell me that he’s behind in his support of his two children. This is right a week or two after I married him
And I called my mother instantly, and she said, “I’ll be right over. You hold those guys there,” and whatever; she got very excited. “And John will straighten them out.” So they came over. John was my mother’s second husband, Italian and a shylock. Oh my God. He was real. He could have written The Sopranos. He was unbelievable. The only thing is he never used bad language in front of us. Italian men didn’t talk that way in front of the people they loved.
Anyway, he and Mom came out, and my mother said, “I bought this piano for my daughter when she was six years old. And this mink coat my husband bought her last year. I mean, these are her possessions This guy’s got a naked ass.” She said, “I didn’t care for him in the first place. And A, he’s a phony,” and, you know, she went on and on and on. But she didn’t want to make me too miserable, but she got rid of the guys for me and she straightened them out. Then Donna called, Milton’s ex-wife, after she found out
She lived two blocks from my mother in Scarsdale. And she called to say she did not know that these people were going to come, that she doesn’t know me, but she heard that I’m a very nice lady and we have a lot in common, since I’m also a divorced woman with two children, and she certainly didn’t want to make life –Difficult. She sounded perfect. But she says, “After all, his father is a millionaire.” She said, “I don’t know if you know how rich the Sharfmans are.” But she said, “And Milton gets paid very, very well. And the least he could do with 100 dollars the week that he’s supposed to give me for the kids.” I don’t know anything about it. She says, “Well, watch out, because he’ll gamble on anything.”
My friends only knew that he danced well and he dressed well and he was handsome.
I was only married to him six months, because he’d come back and I’d throw him out. And then he’d come back and he’d cry, and we went to a marriage counselor, and then we went to a psychiatrist. And the last time we went to the psychiatrist, it was like 88 degrees out and I had a scarf on my neck, [LAUGHS] because I had marks all over my neck from his fingers. He tried to choke me.
He found the bonds I had in the drawer. That was my father’s and he said, “If you don’t get me that money, I’m going to turn your father in to the district attorney
And he says, “Because I know how you got that cash.– I mean, he was hallucinating about my father. My father was not a doll. He was not a gangster in the sense that he wasn’t involved with dope or prostitution or killing people. I mean, the most I ever saw my father do was punch somebody in the nose. But, I mean, I admit he must have been a tough guy because he grew up – it was survival of the fittest. Anyway Milton was out and gone and the marriage was over.
But my life changed for the better when I met Lou Jacobs.My friend Helen Barrow was a vice-president in charge of production at Simon Schuster. She used to give me freelance work And I worked for her, and she had a boyfriend by the name of Dutch Heinemann who was the brother of Mrs. Richard L. Simon. of Simon and Schuster. Carly Simon was his niece, Joanna Simon and Lucy Simon. And Dutch was a fantastic gentleman. I adored him.
Dutch was just a boyfriend. Helen Gelber divorced Ben Gelber; that’s a whole other story. But she started to go with Dutch when she met him at a Christmas party of Simon and Schuster’s, and she was a drop-dead chick. She was a Paulette Goddard and Sophia Loren – I mean, built, everything. And also, very sexy, even though she had a standoffish way about her, because her father died when she was 13 and she was horribly poor. Helen and I met at a dance at the Tabs on East Tremont Avenue. Well, they only came back from Europe after she had that romance with the West Point cadet. And she was very depressed, and I took her to this dance. Helen Barrow – or Helen, at that point, her maiden name was Barrow, right. Helen Barrow was then going with Ben Gelber, and Ben Gelber was – a friend of Dave Carr’s and Carl Ostrow my first husband. So that’s how we became friends. And then in later years, when I moved to 96-11, Helen Barrow lived on the fifth floor; I lived on the fourth floor.
So Dutch Heineman says to Helen and I both, “Oh, have I got a guy for you.” So I said, “Dutch, I’ve had it. I mean, my experience with Milton has been so horrendous.”
And Dutch was saying, “Listen. I got a New York guy for you. He’s out of sight. The one thing you’re going to love about him is he’s got more jazz records than you have.”
And it was true. Lou had a collection of Jimmy Lunsford and ErskineHawkins and Billy Daniels and stuff I didn’t have. So she said she was making a party, because Frank Musician had sent her a suckling pig.
Frank Musician was a publisher or something, a printer that she did business with. And every year he used to send her some gargantuan present, like a big goose or a big ham. This year, he sent a suckling pig. She said, “I’m making a suckling pig party. I don’t know how to cook it, so I hired a West Indian guy who’s going to come over and do it.” So she didn’t tell me that she’s got a guy for me. Dutch didn’t say anything. But the party was at 2:00 in the afternoon. I was living in Scarsdale at my mother’s. And I came to the party, and they told Lou that the most attractive brunette at the party is for him. There was a very attractive brunette at the party, but it wasn’t me. [LAUGHTER] I mean, Pauline could knock me right over for Lou. She was a fantastic-looking lady. And built and dressed, and very flirtatious. And she and Lou hit it off, until her husband got there.
When her husband got there, she gave him the gate which I don’t know if he ever got connected with her or whatever. But after the party was over, about 5, 6:00, Dutch and Helen didn’t want the party to end, so they knew that Tommy Dorsey was playing at the Statler, 33rd Street, across the street from Pennsylvania Station. And Tommy Dorsey was playing there, and they knew I loved Tommy Dorsey.
So they said, “Come on, let’s all go over there.” It was only eight of us. So Lou and I were a couple. It was sometime in the 50s because I gave him Simon and Schuster Circle 5 6400 as my telephone number. Until about a month before he got sick, he had that piece of paper in his wallet. He never took it away. And so we went and we danced, and I was wearing a cincher, you know how they push your bubbies up. So I was wearing this cincher, and he said to me, “I’d love to dance with you when you haven’t got this armor on.” [LAUGHTER] So I said to Helen, “This guy is a wise guy. And, you know, men are not for me anymore. I’ve had it. I’ve had it up to here with them all.”
She didn’t say anything further, but that Saturday, Lou called me up. And he said, “I’m playing tennis up in New Rochelle or wherever. I’d love to take you for lunch.” So I said, “I spend Sunday with my children.” He said, “I’d love to take you all for lunch.” Well, it seemed to me like a good idea. My kids could have used male companionship, and he was like a wholesome guy, you know, had never been married, and he was asking if my kids like ice-skating and bicycling. So I said to him, “Alright. We’ll go.” And my kids flipped for him. In fact, they hardly paid attention to me at all.
And from that, we developed a relationship. It was strictly friendship. I mean, I don’t think that Lou and I exchanged an intimacy of a kiss or a hug – maybe I knew him about a year. And that’s how I met Lou.
PK: Tell me how you moved into this apartment.
PHOEBE JACOBS: My Uncle Zig who got me this apartment, in 1958 I think I got this apartment. My uncle lived in this building on the fourth floor. In fact this building now has 80. And I’m living in the servant’s quarters. So my uncle said, Phoebe you know Harry Rosenbloom. He’s going to a function at the Waldorf Astoria, needs a date. Why don’t you go with him? You’ll like Harry. I loved Harry. He was a good guy, but Lou Jacobs was always around. He knew all about my dates and everything else. So Harry calls me and he says, you want to go with me to this thing? I said, I didn’t come dressed, He said, what are you worrying about, I’ll get you something. A big box comes with a silver fox stole and a black strapless dress and a beaded bag. I mean he knew how to get women’s clothes. He built the Virgin Island Hilton Hotel. Harry had a rum business in the Virgin Islands.
So we went out and he had a house across the street from the diet doctor that was killed. He lived right across the street from that guy. He had an estate there with tennis court and stables and a guest cottage and a swimming pool.
He’d come over to my house in Scarsdale or wherever I was and we’d go out together. And I dug him. And then one day he says, let’s… come on down to the Virgin Islands, I’m building a house and it’s going to be for you. I know you’d love the Virgin Islands. ‘Cause I had told him I made a will and I want ashes sprinkled in Caneel Bay.
I said I’d love to go for the weekend. So I went down the Virgin Islands and he proposed to me. gave me a ring on the plane. And I wrote Lou a letter that I’m going to be married. And he’s been wonderful and he’s been full in my life and this is just the greatest. My kids love him, my family… he knows my family, I know him. And when his wife died he kept her mother. And, you know, I mean he was that kind of a human being.
So I’m in the Virgin Islands and Harry has asked me to go furnish the house. So I walk around and I’m on the main street and I see a jeep coming towards me. You know, and you’re on Main Street in the Virgin Islands you see everybody. And this man with a suit and a felt hat in this broiling sun. And I take a look, a double take, it’s Lou. I don’t know what to do. And I said – well the car stops and I said, Lou what are you doing here? He said, I got your letter, I want to make sure I can meet this guy. ‘Cause I, you know, I wanted to make sure I could catch the pieces if something happens.
So where are you staying? He said, the Virgin Island Hilton and I expect you and Harry to come over and have dinner. So that night when I got home I told Harry. So Harry says, you go ahead, that was your old boyfriend. He says, go with him, I don’t have to be there. I said, Harry I want you to meet him. Well he got jealous and mad and annoyed and he started to drink. And we went anyway.
And when we got there I had two martinis. Do I have to tell you anything else?
So between the two martinis and he getting high, I took off the ring and I gave him back the ring. I told Lou to go drop dead. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I was ugly and evil and mean and rotten and I’d had the two of them… And I called when I got back to the house to get a ticket to go home.
What happened is that before I left I had booked Duke Ellington into the Virgin Islands, a concert at St. Thomas and one in St. Croix and one in Puerto Rico. And it was my plan to go from St. Thomas to St. Croix to meet Duke Ellington there the next day. So I figured I’ll go home from St. Croix because the band will probably be going home from Puerto Rico. At least I won’t be by myself ‘cause I was so depressed.
So when I get to St. Croix who’s in St. Croix but Lou Jacobs. Now look he said, come on, we’ll have a good time together and get over it. I mean Harry’s a very nice guy. Give him another chance, he couldn’t handle it. You know, Harry said I’m younger, He said to me in front of Lou, Lou is more for you, he’s young, he’s vibrant, he’s never been married, he has no excess baggage, I got two sons, I got an ex-mother in law, whatever. Harry was very dear, he was a classy man. I was very lucky to know him.
So when we were in St. Croix we go to the Duke Ellington thing. And Duke knew Lou from Basin Street because he used to come to the music all the time. So Duke says, what do you say kids, why don’t you get married and I’ll play at your wedding. So Lou says, “I’m ready, she don’t want to get married. She don’t want me.”
So I said, Lou don’t ever say that I didn’t want you. I said you never made any overtures that you wanted to take on responsibilities of a family. I mean you have your mother and your father and your sister and you seem very happy the way you are. I want somebody who wants us. I need somebody that’s gonna care for us. I’m tired. Meanwhile I was very close to Peggy Lee and I was speaking to Peggy and she says, the hell with all of them, just come out here will you? and I’ll get you in a lot of trouble and we’ll have some fun. I loved Peggy, she was a dreamboat. My son was going with her niece at the time.
So Duke working on Lou, when we get to Puerto Rico he says, okay I’ll try to get you a marriage license right here. Then you had to wait three days. Called my mother, my mother said to me, listen, you’re coming home. Forget this number unless you get married. I don’t care who it is [LAUGHS] you gotta get yourself a guy. She said “I’m sick of it. I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna live, I’d like to see you married already.”
So I came home. Leona and Dave got Sam Spiegel, who was their buddy, to marry us. Judge Trafalco got Sam Spiegel. And he married us and we made a wedding dinner in… two steps down, an Italian restaurant. Grotto Azzurra.
That’s where we had our wedding. And we never went on a honeymoon, What happened? Lou moved… Oh yeah, he wanted me to move where his mother was . I said, no I’m never leaving Manhattan. But he came here and we lived here.
I moved in here in 1956 I think. The rent was $110, been here ever since.
Lou had a hardware store which was his father’s. It was in… well if you were going to give New York an enema you’d stick the pipe where his business was, College Point in Queens. Okay? The sidewalk had the Jacobs name in brass letters because his father had started there with a horse and wagon when he first came to America. And he was an electrician in the old country and he and his brothers, Harry and Sam and I forget the third brother, had changed the gas lamps in Flushing to street lights.
And when he opened his store – he used to sell hardware stuff on his wagon – but when he got a location in Queens, in College Point, they lived in back of the store. And that’s where Lou was born.
PK: Okay, now you mentioned something before that I want to come back to. You were working at Basin Street? How did you get involved in, other than listening to jazz, how did you get involved in meeting these people and representing them and doing the things you did?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Well when I worked… Well first of all you’ve gotta know that in my family we always had music. I mean my mother had a subscription to the opera, a series for symphony orchestra, chamber music. In our house we had a Victrola, we had a pianola. On Friday nights we’d have music my uncle would scribble on the violin. My cousin Ralph would come with his saxophone, somebody else would come with their trombone We had another cousin with a flute. There was always music going on in the family. And the women used to sing, they were disgusting, they were awful. We loved the music. [LAUGHTER]
And my mother’s brother Benny Watkins owned a brewery, King’s Beer in Brooklyn. And his son Ralph played the saxophone, was my cousin. And Ralph was in a jazz orchestra in Long Beach and then he worked in Ben Marden’s Riviera for a while and had his own band. And then he opened nightclubs. And I used to go over to that house and they’d play Duke Ellington for me and Count Basie and all this. And that’s how I learned about jazz.
In fact he got me a lot of records which my mother would never want to have in the house. And through Ralph I was able to go and be a hatcheck girl when he opened Kelly’s Stable because I was too young. Kelly’s Stable was on 52nd Street opposite the Hickory House.
52nd Street was the live jazz street. And it was during wartime. And I used to go do hatcheck. Billie Holiday was his feature, which I adored her. And her piano player was Nat King Cole. And, oh I’ve heard lots of wonderful things there – Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine, Louie Armstrong, Benny Goodman. And they’d take us to the Famous Door. And he had Count Basie there.
The Famous Door was down the street from Leon and Eddie’s, across the street from 52nd Street. And next to the Famous Door was the Three Deuces where he brought Errol Garner in from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So I got exposed to all this music.
I was working as a hatcheck girl, but I was only temporary. I got introduced to people around. The first man I met involved with music was Sy Oliver. And Sy Oliver knew, you know, he was working at Decca Records at the time. And I said I would love to go work at the record company and he, you know, he didn’t say anything. But it was nice, we had like a little nice rapport. But I was also working at Simon & Schuster where we were doing books. And one of the books that I was doing a paste-up on was a Rodgers and Hart songbook. And I knew about Ella Fitzgerald was doing a recording of Rodgers and Hart songs.
So I asked Sy Oliver if he could show Ella Fitzgerald this… the art work. Maybe we could make a deal with her. And then he got her manager, Norman Granz, so we started to talk. And he thought it was a good idea because we used to do our books in Liberty Music Shop on Madison Avenue if we did music books. because Simon & Schuster was such a high class publisher. So we packaged Ella in that so that’s how I got friendly with Norman Granz. Although I’d just met Ella, said hello and goodbye.
So when Ralph opened Basin Street on Broadway I started to work there at night. He had a ticket booth where he sold tickets. And it was just about I was breaking up with Milton my second husband, when Ralph had the Basin Street on Broadway. Milton worked as a bartender there and the bartender told Ralph that the guy pocketed $400. He said, look I’m short, I know he’s your relative but I’m telling you it happened. [LAUGHTER] So Ralph said me, what’s with this guy, you know, he… I didn’t really realize then what was going on and how bad it was.
So I was doing whatever jobs I could get to get my hands on some money because he would rob me in the morning, I had nothing in my pocketbook. The only thing I had on me was my gold wedding band on my ring finger. So for whatever it was worth Ralph offered me a steady job, which I was scared to take because nightclub business was so precarious and I had to be sure of an income. So Sy Oliver said I’ll tell you… when you really want to come to work for us you can come over to Decca.
So he got me job at Decca. And in order for me to have an income, even though I was getting my $42 a week, he named me a contractor. And then for every record date that I could contract musicians for him I’d make $82. And he was very good to me. So he took me to the union and you had to play an instrument so he taught me chopsticks. I knew a little bit about the piano but he just said you just do this and I’ll tell ‘em you got a boogie-woogie arrangement and whatever. I mean they loved Sy Oliver and he was very well respected musically. Our first deal I had to contract musicians for Sammy Davis, Jr. But he’d give me this list –and, I’d call them up, I’d say I’m calling… are you available April 1st at 6:00? We have a Sammy Davis, Jr. record session. And they’d say yes or no. But he gave me all the musicians to call. And he’d give me… this is the first list you call. If he says no, this is second, this is third. And that’s the way I’d get it together and I’d get my money. So sometimes I could have three record dates a day. That’s how I got to meet all those artists. Milt Gabler the boss would say to them whatever you need just ask Phoebe. People would trust me.
PK: Tell me about Ella Fitzgerald, how you met her.
PHOEBE JACOBS: Yeah, well first I got her a wig. She was perspiring profusely and I said to her, it’s kind of dumb, your hair gets straight. Why don’t you try it, what have you got to lose? You know, so I would do that or hey, how about going to the corner, you get me a corned beef sandwich. Whatever it was. I was there to do a job. You know, it had to be a whole bunch of experience. I mean I didn’t really get tight with Ella until I got to answer the phone when her sister was dying.
And they called me. She says, she told the operator from the hospital, whenever you call the club you ask for Miss Phoebe. She’ll know where I am and she’ll take the message. So she would trust me with little confidences. So I got the message that her sister died. When I went in to tell her – I waited till after the show was over and everything – and I said Ella, I’m ready to go to Philadelphia with you, your sister passed.
So I knew she was going to go to Philadelphia and I didn’t want her to go alone.
So she says, you’d go with me? I said, well I like Philadelphia.
I said I got to watch your bank statements and bills. So she threw something at me. She, you know, could… I didn’t want to make her feel like a… But we never went ‘cause she… the next morning she said, look I have to work, I have five kids I have to worry about. My sister’s got five kids. So you make all the arrangements, talk to the funeral directors and I’ll pay all the bills and I did everything for her.
And with Ella it was Miss Phoebe, good afternoon or whatever. I knew Ella Fitzgerald 10 years before she invited me to have a cup of coffee with her.
I mean Ella… Don’t forget we’re talking about a racist country. And they don’t trust anybody. You can’t blame them. So I was whitey.
When I got to meet Ella on a different level I was working at Basin Street East and we were lucky the doorman would drive her to the Algonquin Hotel where she stayed. And then he’d take me home. So this night I’m walking out with her and she looks at her watch and she says, you can wish me a happy birthday. So I said, oh Ella, happy birthday, how wonderful. Tell me about a party that you had.
So she says, party? What are you crazy? I was never any place where I could have a birthday party. There weren’t enough people that I knew to even invite.
So when I got home I called Ralph, it was 3:00 in morning. And I said, Ralph it’s Ella Fitzgerald’s birthday. He said, what kind of nut are you to wake me up. Go make her a party, leave me alone, I’ll see you – bang. So I decided to make her a party, which I did. She didn’t know anything about it. I wanted to get every celebrity that I could get. And I knew the greatest thing I could do for her is get her Mickey Mantle.
Oh she was mad for baseball and she loved Mickey Mantle. So I had made friends with all the concierges of all the hotels because Basin Street was a hot place. And they would call me and say, Phoebe… Jack would call over from the 21, I got $50 if you can get me a table. You know how the clubs used to be.
When Ella told me about her birthday, I called the Waldorf Towers where I got gotten Peggy Lee an apartment the year before and Mr.Delagnasi was the manager of the Waldorf Towers. And I asked Mr. Delagnasi if he would tell me what celebrities he has in the Towers. I wanted to invite them to a surprise birthday party – Ella Fitzgerald was magic. Mr. Delegnasi gave me the people that were there and one of them was Richard Nixon. I invited him. And I invited… who else was at the Waldorf Towers at the time? I’ll have to think about it. And I got Johnnie Hartman, who she loved. I got Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and Stan Kenton and Mickey Mantle and… Well it’s one of the pictures over there where she’s holding my arm because I would never take a picture with a celebrity. I always stayed in the background. And she said this time you’re taking a picture with me. And that’s when we became friends.
And about five or ten years later – I used to, of course, I would meet her whenever she’d come to New York. She’d tell me when she’s coming, she’d say the limousine will pick up home, come out to the airport and wait for me. And we can at least have time ‘cause she was always very busy. So we would talk from the airport till we got to her hotel. And we’d go to eat and we’d do maybe shopping. We like, you know, she wanted to know what’s happened with Carmen McRae, did you see Della Reese, is she getting married to this guy, you know, what’s happening with you, who are you going out with? She’d tell me about her cop friend. You know, we’d be ladies.
We’d talk about things. And she trusted me.
So she has this gig at Carnegie Hall and it’s my birthday. She knows it’s my birthday and she gives me six tickets for my family, they were all in New York ‘cause they were in California. And I’m in her dressing room helping her. And after the show my kids come out to tell me that she stopped the show before the intermission and says, you don’t know her but I love her and it’s her birthday. And so she sang “Happy Birthday” to me. But I wasn’t in the audience.
She was a dreamboat. many years later I’m again in the – she’s staying now at the Great Northern Hotel which is now on 57th Street down the street from Carnegie Hall.
She’s staying there and I’m with her. And Don Loper would make her these gorgeous clothes with this… Chanel jacket this beaded skirt and a little – I forget what you call them – blouse that she wears underneath. And she’s gonna wear these suits, it’s stunning she lost all this weight. At intermission she goes to change her clothes, she’s got this skirt, she’s got the jacket but they left the shell at the hotel. All these people that are helping her and carrying on. So this one’s… everybody’s looking, her road manager – what the hell was his name – Pecavella and Margaret the dresser and… So I leave the dressing room and I run back to the hotel, go the desk, I gotta have a key to her room. The man looks at me, I take out a $100 bill and put it down there. I said, look I was just with Miss Fitzgerald, she’s performing and I gotta go and get her piece of clothing. You’re gonna go with me, you can call a cop, but I gotta get it and time is of the essence.
So I gave… the man took the $100 and let’s me upstairs and he’s gonna go with me to Carnegie Hall. And I get the blouse. Now when we get to the dressing room I said, now you wait right here. I’ll send somebody out from there. You know her manager. And I didn’t want her to know what happened. I just brought it in. I said, oh I just found it behind, it fell on the floor, whatever. She got dressed.
I don’t know how she found out about it but as was our custom she used to pick me up before she went to the airport and we would drive to the airport together. We would discuss her performance and where she’s gonna go and if she’s gonna keep the apartment in Switzerland and what’s happening with her son and her sister’s kids and all the other stupid stuff that go on in both our lives.
In the limousine she hands me something, Kleenex. It was the day here I’m with her with Benny Carter. Where is the picture? Here is it, right here. Benny Carter, me and Ella. That was the day she hands me this piece of Kleenex, puts in my hand and she says, look when you get home you open this and we’ll talk about it. So get to the airport, watch her leave, get home, open the Kleenex, it’s a diamond bracelet. I think well maybe something’s loose and she wants to have it fixed. I’ll talk it to Leon, her jeweler on 47th Street. Show him the bracelet.
He looks at it, says Phoebe, just doesn’t even look it was ever worn, there’s nothing wrong with it, the lock is perfect, there are no stones are loose, I said it’s Ella’s. So he says let’s call her up and find out what we should do with it. I said alright. I called her. Ella this is Phoebe. What do you want? That’s just how she would be, she’d get high and low. I said, I’m here with Leon and I got the bracelet here. She said, don’t bother me with that. I don’t want it, it’s for you. And she hung up on me. And that was Ella. Unbelievable lady
PK: So you got a profession, your profession was booking musicians, finding them, getting to know them and finding a place for them.
PHOEBE JACOBS: I was an expert in hot air and bullshit.
PK: It paid off. Now how did you meet Louie Armstrong?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Decca. My first day at Decca in the 50s they gave me music to go in the recording studio. So I put a piece on the piano, the drum, bass, everybody put out the music. I didn’t have a trumpet part. Walk back in the office and I said, I lost the trumpet part for Mr. Armstrong. And everybody cracks up. Laughing. With that he walks in and they say, Pops she lost the trumpet part, He cracks up. I became the girl that lost his music. But what they didn’t tell me is that nobody ever wrote a piece of music for him. He listened to it and he improvised.
PK: So of the musicians that you knew in all those years, was Ella your closest friend? Who else were you very close to?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Peggy Lee. Sarah Vaughan. I traveled with Sarah, I got Sarah her record contract, after she hadn’t recorded for eight years. I got her a $10,000 advance and three LPs with Clayton Thomas. and Nat King Cole. Nat Cole was always an accompanist. He never sang when he was at Kelly’s. It was only the night that Billie got sick that Ralph made him sing. And he wrote about it in his autobiography. That was the first night he ever sang.
The restaurant that we all used to go to was the Hickory House. And that’s where Billy Taylor and Marion McPartland played. The music was above the bar, like it was very awkward but very nice. And they had great food. Popkin owned it, John Popkin. And I used to go there a lot with Duke Ellington. He loved the kosher calves liver.
Mr. Glazer used to go there also, Joe Glazer from Associated Booking. He handled Louie. And across the street was Kelly’s Stable. Then there was the Yacht Club where a very famous quartet was introduced in New York – I forget them now.INK SPOTS_PAPER DOLL? Then the next there was the Club Samoa, there was the Famous Store, there was the Three Deuces, there was Zombie’s I think.
all those places were playing jazz. one on top of the other. And you could go to the bar, for 50 cents for a beer and hear all the music, was out of this world. And New Year’s Eve the street would like be closed and you’d walk in the gutter and everybody would be friendly – like New Orleans. Everybody would talk to everybody else. You know, and nobody was hit on the head, there was… I mean I didn’t know of any problems.
The House of Chan was the Chinese restaurant on Sixth Avenue that a lot of us used to meet if you’d want to go for good Chinese. There was a place across the street from the House of Chan called Pickin Chicken or something like that, or Pick a Rib.
At that time also I met a lot of the piano players. Errol, Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck. Ralph Watkins introduced Dave Brubeck for the first time in New York. Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck, “Canadian Sunset,” Eddie Haywood, Dorothy Donegan,
And Eubie Blake. I only met Eubie Blake when he was 86 years old working in Carnegie Hall. I met him through Duke Ellington. Oh Eubie was divine. He was a class act. He was the classiest man I know.
For me I could only be friendly if people would respond to me and I’d respond to them, that I could something in common with. There had to be something that would draw us together, like a portable radio that picks up some airwaves. And Thelonious Monk wasn’t for me. He was like a kook, like that other… that guy that… Miles Davis. And he’d turn his backside to the audience and scratch his ass and then… No I couldn’t get friendly with these people. Or Lenny Bruce. I mean he worked in the club. I would just do my job and do whatever I had to do. But the people that I could see some bit of warmth and humanity to, I sought them out and we felt good together.
PK: Did you get to know Billie Holiday?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Well as much as any, you could know anybody that’s drugged up, yeah. Alright, I’m going to tell… you asked me “do you know.” I said to somebody, yes I know them but ask them if they know me. Now I’m sitting in the Blue Note last week. James Moody I know for 35 years. Who sits next to me, who comes in to sit next to me is Bill Cosby, Camille and Ed Lewis from Essence Magazine and his wife. They sit down.
Bill Cosby had asked me to be his witness when he went to marry Camille in Elkton, Maryland. He was working at Basin Street East. Bill Cosby used to see me all the time in Eubie Blake’s house. He called me up to ask me what I should get, he should them for Christmas. Did I know Bill Cosby?
Okay? He’s sitting there. James Moody goes over to Bill Cosby and he says to Bill don’t you know who’s sitting there – Phoebe. So Bill goes like that. He says to Camille, you don’t remember Phoebe? Camille comes over and she said, oh I’m sorry I… I said, you did get married in Elkton, Maryland didn’t you? I mean what am I gonna say, you gonna remember me? You meet so many people, I know, you wouldn’t remember me. The stars are very funny. Some don’t remember.
Now look it, if I tell you that I met this man in Eubie Blake’s house when I took Eubie Blake to the “Johnny Carson Show,” Bill Cosby’s office would call, we’re going to have Mr. Cosby chauffeur pick you up in LA and you’re staying with Mr. Cosby in his house.
I said, you know, Eubie Blake will not do that. He wants to go to a hotel. We thank you very much. I mean they knew me. They saw me. You know, this is ridiculous.
Eubie lived to 101. Oh the man was… he was such an experienced pro. He’d call Lou and he said… he called my husband, boy. He loved him. He said, boy what are you doing the first weekend in April? Lou said, I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow Eubie. What do you need? If you tell me what you need you’ve got it. He said, I want to go with me to Washington. We used to see him every Sunday. He was family – my mother died, Eubie adopted us. because we used to go my mother’s every Sunday and he said every Sunday you come up to our house.
So we’re out to Eubie’s on Sunday and he shows us a wire that he got from President Reagan to come to the White House, he’s getting a Medal of Freedom. And Eubie and Marion wanted to take Lou and I with them. So we said, look, you know, Eubie we love you but you and Marion have friends much longer than you know Phoebe and I. We understand if you want to take somebody. We understand. So Eubie puts up his bony finger to Lou and he said, listen boy it’s the quality of a relationship that matters not the quantity. You better get your ass ready to come with me.
And he takes us to Washington, DC.
PK: How did you become Executive Vice President of the Louis Armstrong Foundation?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Well when Louie Armstrong in 1969 told me that he wanted to arrange a luncheon for his lawyer and his wife and his agent and so forth to do whatever – I didn’t ask him what he wanted to do. And he started a foundation. And in this foundation he… I asked why he’s doing it. He said I want to give back to the world some of the goodness I got. And I want you to help me. It’s going to be music and education.
So he appointed his own board. He didn’t put me on the board. Evelyn Cunningham, who’s 96 and still very much alive, a dynamite lady you should meet, she’s still alive and on the board. Oscar Cohen is the only other one on the board. And when the foundation really became active he appointed David Gold the head of it to handle his finances and everything else. I don’t how it happened that Mr. Gold asked me to be the executive vice president.
PK: how long ago did Lou pass away?
PHOEBE JACOBS: Lou died in, I think, ’87 or ’88. And I’d noticed some things about him as we were living together with regard to his holding his head on the side to see – if you’re driving a car, you kind of look straight out at something. It seemed to me that maybe there was something wrong with peripheral; I didn’t know what it was. And Lou was not the kind of a guy that you could pull around.
He was extremely devoted to me and my family. He was the most giving, loyal, generous, caring human being I’ve ever known, with more style and grace than I could ever imagine. I mean, here’s a man – my mother had no hospitalization when she went to the hospital. He got my mother a private room, nurses around the clock, paid all the bills, and never once said to me, “What I do for your family.” He never said a word.
I mean, that was Lou. When it came time to take Susie’s kids – when Susie’s husband and she split, the two little babies, he’d take the boys into Barney’s, dressed them from top to bottom. When they had to go to school, put them in private school. There was no two ways. I mean, this was not a man that was a rich man. His father had a little hardware store.
He had a tumor of the brain. He was operated on at NYU Hospital. I called Benny Goodman to tell Mr. Goodman that Lou was diagnosed and I can’t get this Doctor and Benny says, “Who the hell is he? I don’t know him.” But I knew Benny was very close to Dr. Arthur Localio who was the head of surgery.
Benny said, “Where are you, Phoebe?” I said, “I’m in a telephone booth.” And he said, “Give me the number.” I gave him the number. “Well, put Muriel on; give her the number.” I got the number. I waited in the phone booth. It took 15 minutes. Mr. Goodman asked Muriel to call me back. “Tomorrow morning at 9:30, go over to Bellevue on the fourth floor, operating room dah-dah-dah, waiting room. Dr. so and so will see you.” Well I saw him. I brought with me the MRIs that they got, and he said, “Bring your husband in tomorrow.” Three months, they had told me when I called the office, I’d have to wait. I brought Lou in and he operated on Lou. As a result of the operation, Lou lost his ability to swallow. So it was touch-and-go. It was terrible. Lou was in his 70s then.
And Lou was having so much trouble with his eyes, as you know, that I took him to Boston, where I took Ella Fitzgerald, to Dr. Smithwick, who was the head of the Ophthalmology Institute in the Boston Hospital. And he told me that Lou had some peripheral problems. And then there was all, as a result of this and these examinations going back and forth with his eyes, until we got him an MRI. And then, after his operation, we had him in Rusk Institute adjacent to the hospital., rehab. And I hired his own therapist that would be with him constantly. And Lou did not talk to me. He’d look at me I would like – with love and pity and shame, and he’d break my heart. Well, in that period I lost 40 pounds, and I was drinking. I never allowed the nurses to cook any food. They had to go in there and eat, because his bed was here and the nurse’s cot was there, and there was a toilet. And I just couldn’t bear it.
And it got to a point where the doctors said, “Look, he needs a place where there’s some better care than just this.” We got him into the Riverdale Nursing Home. And there I also had attendants for him, nurse’s aides, but he was in the hospital wing. And I visited him every day. And he had his own private room overlooking the Hudson. And I’d bring nice clothes. He was alert but I don’t think he wanted to talk.
I really don’t think so, because Lou at his best was not flowery. If I’d say to him, “Lou, how do I look?” he says, “Come on, stop the bullshit. Let’s go.” You know, I’d say, “Lou, why can’t you tell me something” – “Come on, now, get lost.” You know. He was always the tough guy. Well, he came from this European background. His mother and father were that way. I don’t think they ever told him they loved him.
I said, “You have never told me you loved me.” I mean, before I went to bed with him, I thought to myself, “Jesus, I don’t know what’s going to go on with this guy. He doesn’t register anything. I mean, I’ve got to get him a bell or a horn so I’ll know what’s happening.” [LAUGHTER] So he was the kind of – he just did not – and he was also very private and he didn’t like demonstrations. Like, when I would go over and sit on his lap, he’d say, “Now, come on.” Yet I know he loved me. I could feel he cared about me.
I could feel by the way he treated me and my family. How caring he was. He was beautiful. And he was a warm guy that had a lot of humility and a lot of class.
I tell you, when Ella Fitzgerald met him – now, he was not a Stage-door Johnny. I had to fight with him. “Come meet me at the club, and I’ve got to do this.” But it was Ella’s birthday, so he went and he got her something, and he brought it in and he gave it to her. And she just flipped for him. The two of them were giggling, and he was telling her about Erskine Hawkins or some other record he had that he loved. And she said to me, “Oh, this guy is delicious.” She said, “If he wasn’t your boyfriend, I’d be on the make for him.”
Well he got worse and I took him to Mt. Sinai. And when I brought him into Mt. Sinai, the emergency room, I never felt so alone in my life. And I went in, waited for the ambulance, and Dr. Lebowitz – I called him and I said, “Arthur, they told me not to put him on any life support, whatever, whatever.” And Arthur said, “Phoebe, you have to let them put him on life support. Otherwise, I know you, you’ll never be able to forgive yourself.”
So I did what he told me. I said, “Arthur, come.” He said, “If I thought I could do something, I’d come.” I said, “How could you let me be here alone?” He said, “You’ve got Lou. Take care of it. You’re strong.” And when I went into the room and when he expired and I touched his – he had wonderful feet – his toes, I touched his toes, and I said, “Lou, you’re never going to leave me.”
And I walked out and went into the elevator, and there I meet a man who was the brother of my very dear friend Muriel Zuckerman, who was Benny Goodman’s right hand. And I said, “Arnold, what are you doing here?” He said, “I’m visiting Muriel.” I said, “Muriel? What is she doing here?” He said, “You know her Alzheimer’s worse.” And he had to put her in the hospital.
So I just walked the street that night and called Lou’s sister. She broke down, because they had a tremendous attachment for one another. And his father had – Lou had bought a plot out in Long Island; it’s got about 20 graves, about 18 graves there. And I don’t know who’s ever going to use them, but that’s what we did.
And I moved on, yeah. And I guess I did feel that Lou was always with me.
I really felt that way.