Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What's in a Name? Part 2.

"It must be conceded...that the tendency to mislabel men and things is deep set in Jewish character." Henry Ford (1863-1947)

Henry Ford, that notorious anti-semite, would have loved the story of my father's name. "Solomon Levy becomes Charles B. Levery" would have fit right into the litany of Ford's essay, "The Gentle Art of Changing Jewish Names" (The Dearborn Independent, issue of 12 November 1921; WARNING: this link is to the text available at the Web-site of "The Church of True Israel"; beware of total hateful content if you follow this entry back to their Homepage and other content, which includes the full text of Henry Ford's writings, as well as "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and other shit).

My father's parents were Russian immigrants, and his name in their homeland would have been rendered something like "Zalman," or some variant thereof, with the "Z" sounding like "TS". Apparently what his mother called him as a boy sounded something like "Tsollie", and when she brought him to the local public school for the first time, the administrators thought she was referring to him as "my Charlie", so they registered him as Charles, a name he kept for the rest of his life, and eventually took with a legal change. However, as far as I can remember, when discussing him (in the past tense) my mother always called him Sol. Since my grandfather was also born with the name Salamon, at times I wasn't certain whether my mom was referring to her father or mine.

As a free-lance commercial artist, my father made a good living in the 1940s from a variety of commissioned art and design applications. I still have a collection of many of his working drafts, which includes designs for the backs of playing cards, greeting cards, menus, signage, advertisements, and book covers, as well as depictions of sophisticated high fashion and futuristic couture rendered in airbrush, a now obsolete technique at which he excelled. He was technically adept with charcoal and pencil, and often used these techniques for non-commercial art he worked on in his spare time. He married my mother in 1944, fathered two children, and died in 1949, when I was six months old.

Up to the time of his death, we apparently led a comfortable middle class life in the upper floors of a three-story house on a quiet street in Elmhurst, Queens, which we shared with my mother's parents, who lived downstairs on the first floor. Along with other comforts that I don't personally remember, we owned a new car that had been specially rigged to be driven by someone missing a leg, since my father was an amputee who got around (remarkably well, apparently) with a prosthetic. He'd lost his leg nearly to the hip before World War II, which understandably exempted him from military service and allowed him to pursue his artistic aspirations and career without interruption. His professional income, in any case, depended on a continuous supply of commissions, the most lucrative of which came from clients engaged in various forms of advertising. I haven't yet been able to document for certain that his occupation was one of those from which Jews were excluded under the "Gentlemen's Agreement" in effect during the 1930s and '40s, but his perception was undoubtedly that he would have trouble maintaining his working arrangements (not to mention buying a house in our overwhelmingly Christian neighborhood) while carrying an obvious Jewish surname like Levy. If you don't know what this was about, a good place to start would be by renting the movie "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947; directed by Elia Kazan; starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield, among others); or read the original novel (1946) by Laura Z. Hobson. The movie is not without its flaws, somewhat preachy but historically relevant, and a good chance to see an excellent, heartfelt performance by John Garfield (born Jacob Julius Garfinkle). It's worth noting that similar unwritten "Gentlemen's Agreements" excluded African Americans from Major League Baseball from 1887-1946, and from the National Footbal League from 1933-1945.

So my father inserted the letters "er" in his last name, and became Charles B. Levery (I honestly don't know what the "B." in his name stood for). Because of its synthetic origin, I grew up thinking that Levery was a unique surname shared by no one else on the planet except for my mother and brother. I sometimes encountered the similar name Lavery, but regarded it as close, but no cigar. Only later, when it became possible to search the Internet, did I become aware that there were other people named Levery, and that it is a respectably distributed surname of French origin, closely related indeed to Lavery, and in addition to other French family names such as LaPierre. There is a Levery in the French Academy, and a Google search will turn up a variety of Levery entries relevant to American history, including a Medal of Honor recipient for heroic actions during the Spanish-American War (William Levery, 1899). Obviously, none of these distinguished, French-derived Leverys have anything to do with me, my brother, or our immediate families.

So, was my father responding to some innate tendency for Jews to prevaricate and obscure, or acting in concert with that putative "International Jewish Conspiracy" to dominate the field of commercial art and advertising, or was he just trying to secure a continuing income and place to live for himself and his family in the face of perceivable exclusions?
(Note: This article was originally posted on 02 July 2006, and is being reposted now because the original author attribution was lost in the changeover to Google.)

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