Our War with the Schanbergs
I was an active combatant in this ongoing dispute--which played itself out primarily in our backyards
Our War with the Schanbergs
A Great Neck Family Feud
By Kipp Friedman
From 1966 through 1972 there were two Cold Wars: one fought on the world’s stage and the other a lot closer to home, pitting my family against our neighbors the Schanbergs in an updated, suburban Jewish version of the Hatfields vs. the McCoys.
I was an active combatant in this ongoing dispute--which played itself out primarily in our backyards--and may have unwittingly fired the opening salvo and laid the groundwork (more on that later) for future skirmishes. But over time, everyone in both camps would take a role in this simmering family feud, down to the Schanbergs’ beautiful but annoying collie Putt Putt, whose incessant barking from within his wire cage would keep us awake at night.
Great Neck, New York, had once been a playground to the rich and famous, serving as the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Only 25 minutes from Manhattan, such luminaries as Groucho Marx, Eddie Cantor, Basil Rathbone and Ring Lardner had called it home during the Roaring Twenties. Our move there in spring of 1966 coincided with the arrival of a new generation of middle- and upper-middle-class, mostly Jewish professionals seeking more space and comfort in which to raise their families while maintaining close ties to Manhattan. My father was on the verge of quitting a Madison Avenue career in magazine editing to launch his successful full-time writing career when my parents bought a Tudor-style home in the Village of Great Neck Estates from the heirs to the King Kullen (America’s first supermarket) chain. Across the street from us was a Mediterranean red-tiled house where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived with his wife, Zelda, who, in a fit of histrionics, allegedly climbed on the rooftop, and could only be extricated by the local fire department.
Soon after moving to Great Neck, my mother would befriend the current owners of the former Fitzgerald home across the street--mainly, I suspect, so she could take a tour of the home and see the upstairs room where the famous writer did much of his work. While she was exploring the house, I remained downstairs with their daughter, a classmate of mine, who promptly invited me to play doctor in the first floor bathroom. I remember she tempted me with the proposition, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” which I readily accepted. But when it was time for her to reciprocate, much to my chagrin she backed out (years later, though, I would employ that line to greater success in college).
Our differences with our new neighbors the Schanbergs started innocently enough, as disputes often do. Shortly after moving in, we paid them a visit at their gray Colonial-style home with large columns where the silent screen star Pearl White (of “The Perils of Pauline” serial fame) once resided. A thin row of mature, prickly hedges separated our two properties, forcing us to pass through a narrow opening. There we met Dr. Seymour Schanberg, an intense looking short bearded man who had a psychiatry practice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; his taller, athletically built Swiss-born blonde wife, Marina; and their three sons: Jordan, 10, the same age as my oldest brother, Josh; Seth, who at seven was a year younger than my middle brother, Drew; and their youngest son, Reuben, who was a year younger than me at age five. For reasons I can no longer recall Seth and I took an instant dislike to each other. In the world of children, it doesn’t take much for a flare-up to occur, and I was the one who would provide the spark.
Only moments after being introduced, I challenged Seth, “I can beat you up.” Seth quickly responded, “No you can’t,” and the two of us collided like two dogs on a sidewalk, wrestling to the ground where we continued to tussle, taking turns rolling over each other in the dirt. Dismayed, our parents quickly separated us and the fight ended as suddenly as it had begun. But that awkward first meeting would set the stage for future bizarre interactions between our families. Indeed, Seth and I would resume our differences later that fall when he would grab my New York Mets baseball cap from behind. As I repeatedly lunged to grab it from his outstretched arm, he swirled like a bull fighter, causing me to lose my balance and fall on the concrete sidewalk, resulting in a bone fracture in my right forearm. When my mother confronted Mrs. Schanberg about this, Seth was forced to issue an apology, the sincerity of which was as convincing as a boy claiming the dog ate his homework.
I attended Clover Drive kindergarten and elementary school at the time and would occasionally walk the quarter-mile distance there and back, cutting through our neighbor’s backyards, sometimes stopping to pee in random bushes. Once, Mrs. Schanberg caught me urinating in her flower beds near Putt Putt’s cage. After scolding me, she brought it to my mother’s attention. My mother, however, did not see this as such an egregious offense and told her so, further souring any possible friendship between them.
Although both were housewives supported by successful professional husbands, Mrs. Schanberg and my mother were about as opposite as two women could be, both in appearance and in interests. Stoic and humorless, Mrs. Schanberg was a blonde, blue-eyed Nordic woman who belonged to the PTA and looked like she’d be comfortable on a pair of cross-country skis. My mother, on the other hand, was raised in Brooklyn and St. Louis and laughed at all my brothers’ bowel movement jokes. A former actress and model, she had dark brown hair and a sultry complexion, and was not known for her strict discipline. While Mrs. Schanberg enjoyed sports and the outdoors, often racing off in tennis whites to a match at the nearby Great Neck Estates tennis courts and was perfectly at home tending to her flower beds, my mother’s preferred form of sport was traversing the aisles at Macy’s and Saks or meeting her girlfriends for lunch at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
Like the ongoing Cold War between the Super Powers, there were brief moments of détente and even kind, neighborly gestures between our two families, but you could count these instances on one hand. I remember returning from school one day to an empty, locked house and crying hysterically. Hearing my cries, Mrs. Schanberg invited me over to wait with her in her kitchen (naturally, I declined) until the return of our live-in housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan. On another occasion, my father cut his hand changing a light bulb while standing on a ladder and Dr. Schanberg raced over to stanch the bleeding and apply emergency first aide. My father returned the favor by driving Mrs. Schanberg to the hospital after she had injured her arm in a fall.
The final time my parents had any formal interaction with the Schanbergs was when they held a summer evening party in our backyard garage area. This was in 1968 when my father’s play Scuba Duba was an off-Broadway hit and he thought he spotted Dr. Schanberg at one performance. In a neighborly gesture he decided to invite the Schanbergs to the party. My mother hung strings of colorful lights around the garage and set up a bar and food table inside the garage. Partygoers gently swayed to the comforting sounds of bossa nova music coming from strategically placed speakers. The normally sullen Dr. Schanberg quickly opened up and got into the party spirit, downing a vodka martini. He may have been working on a second cocktail when he made an unsuccessful swipe at my mother’s breast. He then locked target on my mother’s Israeli girlfriend, Bracha, a veteran of Israel’s War of Independence. He made a sudden lunge at Bracha and they both tumbled to the ground. When they got up, it soon became apparent that Dr. Schanberg in his excitement had emptied his bowels, which were now streaming down his pants legs. At this point my father and some other guests quickly escorted Dr. Schanberg, and his mortified wife, back to their house. That unfortunate incident would forever strain relations between our parents and the cold war between our families would occasionally flare up, spurred by the oddest of circumstances.
Perhaps the most bizarre instance for me was when a red ball floated over the hedges while I was playing in the backyard with my best friend Bruce Altman. When I went to retrieve the ball, all three Schanberg boys suddenly emerged through the narrow hedge opening. With military precision, each silently took a position: Jordan first neutralized me by grabbing hold of me, while Seth stood guard keeping a watchful eye on Bruce as Reuben went to retrieve the ball. Once the ball was safely in their possession, they disappeared as quickly as they had arrived.
About this time I became friends with a neighbor boy who was preparing to leave for college in the fall. He lived several houses down the street and he drove a Volkswagen Beetle. I reminded him of his younger brother, he told me, and he used to fret about the possibility of being sent to fight in Vietnam. One Friday afternoon I invited him over to our house. Josh brought out his electric guitar and amplifier and started an impromptu jam session in our garage. My friend began singing into a microphone and my father joined in. Each took turns on current pop songs such as It’s Not Unusual and The Girl From Ipanema as well as older standards like Misty favored by my father, who had a tendency to croon, while Josh tried gamely to keep pace on guitar. This went on for about an hour as their concert reverberated throughout the neighborhood.
The following morning, around 6 a.m., our housekeeper Mrs. Sullivan overheard from her window Mrs. Schanberg barking out orders like a field marshal for her sons to get ready for something. A few moments later, while we were all still in bed, we learned what it was that they had been preparing. They had positioned radios and record players in their window sills and yard so that they faced our house and at Mrs. Schanberg’s signal, they began playing at full blast a cacophony of orchestral music. This barrage of music lasted for about 10 minutes and then came to an abrupt halt, again on Mrs. Schanberg’s order. Afterward, we could hear their celebratory laughter.
Down the block from us was “Food Fair Hill” where children from our neighborhood would go sledding in the wintertime. On snowy days, my brothers and I would join the parade of children who passed by our sidewalk dragging their Radio Flyer sleds, toboggans, saucers and a variety of hand-made sleds fashioned out of cardboard, garbage can lids and whatever else they could think of. There were no rules at the sledding hill; you simply waited your turn in line and descended the bumpy hill. If you were fortunate, your ride would take you as close as possible to the rusty, discarded carts in back of the Food Fair grocery store at the bottom of the hill; most rides, however, stopped about midway down the hill, which was pockmarked with depressions.
While lugging my sled slowly up the hill one snowy day, I heard Jordan Schanberg shout at me to speed up and get out of the way. Ignoring his shouts, I continued at the same slow pace. Not wishing to wait any longer, his brother Seth began his ride and when I looked up I saw him and Reuben aboard their toboggan bearing down on me. I managed to shift my body enough so the toboggan only ran over my right leg, which still caused me to cry out in pain. From the top of the hill I could hear Jordan laughing when my brother, Josh, confronted him, and they soon began trading blows. Meanwhile, Seth advanced toward me, and my friend Bruce Altman came to my defense and almost got into a fight with Seth.
At this point, Reuben ran off while Jordan and Josh continued to fight. By the time Reuben returned with Mrs. Schanberg, a crowd of children had gathered around both boys who were now on the ground trading kicks and punches. For a moment Jordan got the upper hand, and Mrs. Schanberg exulted like a cheering fan at a boxing match. When Josh reversed his position, finally gaining the upper hand, her expression darkened and she quickly pulled Josh off, calling him a number of obscenities I can no longer recall. I couldn’t help notice, with satisfaction, that Josh had bloodied Jordan’s nose (to this day, I still consider it the noblest thing Josh has ever done on my behalf).
Following the great “Food Fair” fight, relations remained tense between our families. We spied each other warily but basically kept our distance, our prickly hedges serving as a demarcation line. If we passed them in our car neither family acknowledged the other with even as much as a wave or nod. It was as if we were invisible to each other. For the final year we lived in Great Neck, the cold war between our families settled into a familiar state of containment--like the two Koreas--with neither side striking any noticeable blows. Perhaps we were suffering from a form of neighbor fatigue. We basically ignored each other and went about our own business, and when our house finally sold, we packed up and moved away to nearby Manhattan.
But that’s not the end of the story. Years later, we discovered that the party that bought our house had misrepresented their purposes and turned around and sold it to a developer, who promptly subdivided the property. For almost a year, construction crews tore up the backyard and then built a new house and driveway behind our old house. Word also reached us that the Schanbergs were furious about the tumult caused by the new construction and its potential impact on their property values. This tumult may or may not have led to their eventual divorce. But only someone of less than noble character would take satisfaction in knowing that our family’s moving had inadvertently delivered the final blow in our war with the Schanbergs.