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November 29, 1985 - Image 48

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1985-11-29

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48

Friday, November 29, 1985 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

Stephen Birmingham was in Detroit
recently to promote his latest Jewish
book.

Observer
Of The
Family Tree

Curiosity about a patrician
college roommate has been
parlayed by Stephen
Birmingham into best-seller
status.

BY SUSAN WELCH
Special to The Jewish News

"Having written now three books
of Jewish social history, plus a novel
with a Jewish theme," says the best-
selling author of Our Crowd, The
Grandees and The Rest of Us, one
question I'm asked a lot is What was
your name before it was Birming-
ham?' "
It's not surprising that readers of
Stephen Birmingham's "Jewish tril-
ogy" should find it hard to believe that
these extensively researched, gossipy
chronicles of Jewish immigrant suc-
cess were written by the grandson of
an Irish Catholic refugee from the
potato famine, or that they should
wonder how a man who grew up in the
small farming community of Andover,
Conn. could know so much and choose
to write so prolifically about Jewish
life.
"Why not?" says Birmingham, re-
cipient of the 1984 Israel Culture
Award, who was in Detroit recently to
speak at the Jewish Community Cen-
ter and to promote the new paperback
edition of The Rest of Us: The Rise of
America's Eastern European Jews. "I
felt that, as a non-Jew, I could ap-
proach the theme of Jewish social his-
tory with a completely open mind,
with no prejudices, no axe to grind and
with a great deal to learn and to dis-
cover."
Not all of Birmingham's books
have been about Jews. Since he sold
his first published short story for $50,
the 53-year-old author has written six
novels (frequently compared by re-
'viewers to those of F. Scott Fitzgerald),
numerous magazine articles and short
stories and several non-fiction books,
most of them exploring the history and
lifestyles of America's rich and
famous. Irish-Catholics, New York
WASPs, the "black elite," even the
residents of Grosse Pointe have come
under his scrutiny.

"I made a lot of people in Grosse
Pointe very mad," he admits remem-
bering a chapter in The Golden
Drama: Suburbia in the Seventies. "I
think," he adds, somewhat tenta-
tively, "It's all changed now."
His latest books, however, have
all had a Jewish theme and have been
very successful, particulatly Our
Crowd, which, with no publicity and
virtually no reviews, went to the top of
the best-seller list and stayed there for
a year. The book relates the history of
the wealthy, powerful but reticent
German-Jewish banking families of
New York — among them the
Lehmans, the Lewisohns, the War-
burgs and the Schiffs — into whose
world Birmingham was introduced by
school friends, especially his room-
mate at Williams College, Bob Ber-
nhard, whose mother was the former
Dorothy Lehman.
From the start "I realized there
was something different and exciting
- about these families," says Birming-
ham, who was intrigued by their cele-
bration of Christmas, for example, and
fascinated by the dynastic inter-
relationships of the families and their
businesses. "At a party, in a roomful of
250 people, everybody would be some-
how or other related to everybody
else."
It was a strong contrast to his own
background. "My family was very
much divided. Perhaps that's why
family ties and connections are so ap-
pealing to me. My father was a
Catholic and my mother a Protestant.
Both sides terribly disapproved of the
union. Nobody spoke to anybody else; I
have aunts and uncle-s- that I never
have met. My sister and I grew up with
just my mother and father and that's
it. All our other relatives disowned

Continued on Page 50

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