Discover more from Contrarian's Notebook, by Dan Rottenberg
Vol. 35: Two New York women, two different destinies
A friendly place, until it wasn’t
The date— Saturday, July 21, 1973— is stamped indelibly on my memory for its extreme combination of exhilaration and horror.
That morning I left my wife and two small daughters in Philadelphia for a day in pursuit of a missing piece of my past. While researching my family tree, I had discovered a rare find for a 31-year-old like myself: a living woman who was a first cousin of my great-grandmother. Gertrude Kirschbaum Lippsett and her husband had invited me to visit them in Brooklyn, so on this morning I boarded an Amtrak train to New York and then hopped a subway to their home.
At the age of 76, Gertrude was actually younger than my own grandmother, Rosalie Margulies Rottenberg of New York, who had died of cancer 15 years earlier at the age of 61. But because generations in large families tend to overlap, Gertrude was a generation ahead of my grandmother. Rosalie’s mother— my great-grandmother Lottie Schwartz Margulies— had died of a heart attack in 1919 at the age of 44. Gertrude had been 22 at that time. As Lottie’s first cousin, she held the key to a long-lost chunk of my personal heritage.
The visit exceeded my expectations. Gertrude had prepared for my visit by unearthing old family photos, which she displayed in her living room for my benefit. After a sumptuous lunch served by my gracious hosts, we spent the entire afternoon perusing her memorabilia while I took copious notes. As a parting gesture, the Lippsetts took me out to dinner at a nearby restaurant. After such a memorable day of human reconnection and warm hospitality, not to mention good food, I floated down the three-block hill from the Lippsetts’ apartment to the station where the subway carried me back to Manhattan.
A face I recognized
At Penn Station, I picked up several New York newspapers to read on my return train to Philadelphia. As the train inched forward, I sat back and opened up the New York Post.
At that moment, all of my day’s elation came crashing down. Splashed across three columns of the Post’s second page was a face I instantly recognized, above a headline:
New girl in town stabbed to death
According to the accompanying story, a 21-year-old Indiana woman, who had moved to New York just three months earlier to study acting, had been fatally stabbed the previous night in the entrance hall of her apartment building on a quiet, fashionable street in Brooklyn Heights. Deborah Phemister had been found about 5:30 a.m. by the milkman, lying on her back with six stab wounds in her chest and four in the back. No motive for the murder was readily apparent: She was fully clothed, still wearing a watch and some costume jewelry, and the small amount of money she customarily carried— a few dollars, change, and some subway tokens— remained among the spilled items strewn around her.
Anne Frank in Indiana
Let me tell you about Debbie Phemister. In the ‘60s, when Barbara and I lived in the county seat town of Portland, Indiana, Debbie’s father was the administrator of the local hospital, and Debbie was our baby sitter of choice: a slender, dark-haired, vivacious, and talented teenager who seemed clearly headed for bigger things. At the age of 15, Debbie had been crowned “Girl of the Limberlost” at an annual pageant named for the famous novel by Gene Stratton Porter, who had lived 12 miles up the road in the town of Geneva. Contestants in this pageant customarily performed songs or dance routines, but Debbie’s winning entry was a reading from The Diary of Anne Frank— you know, the famous passage that concludes, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are good at heart,” written less than a month before the Nazis arrested Anne and her family and sent them to concentration camps.
Debbie’s reading that night was unusual for rural Indiana but not for Debbie. There was something about her that was a cut above most kids her age. Nobody in our small town of 7,000 souls was surprised when, five years after Barbara and I left Portland, Debbie headed for New York to pursue an acting career.
Barely two weeks before her death, Debbie had visited us in Philadelphia. I can still see her, sitting in our living room and smiling indulgently at our concerns for her safety in New York. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I can take care of myself.”
Doors without locks
Obviously, she couldn’t. She was taking acting classes in Manhattan at night and often returned to her Brooklyn home by subway around midnight. She had spent her last evening with friends on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and had boarded the subway to Brooklyn shortly after 2 a.m.
Just as a native New Yorker like me develops street smarts by osmosis, residents of towns like Portland often instinctively trust that the world will work as it should. When Barbara and I lived in Portland, even the richest families in town left their doors unlocked. Many homes didn’t even have locks. When we built a new house there in 1965, the builder was baffled by our request for a front door lock. He had none in stock, he said, and would have to special-order one.
If you grow up in such a community, it may not occur to you that riding a New York subway alone at 2 a.m. isn’t a great idea.
Debbie’s murder briefly exposed her parents to a mass media spotlight. When they came to New York to retrieve her body, Mayor John Lindsay invited them to Gracie Mansion, where he apologized on behalf of the city and even offered to put them up overnight (they declined). Debbie’s father, Warren Phemister, told the New York Times that he bore no grudges against New York. “Deborah felt it was a friendly place and she liked it,” he said, echoing much the same faith that Anne Frank had expressed in the passage Debbie had read. “The same thing could have happened in Indiana.”
New York’s blessings
When I think about it now, New York City has been good to my family for almost 150 years. Where else could my father have transformed himself from a knitted wear manufacturer into an international folk dance impresario? Where else could my mother have sung in world-class choruses like the Collegiate Chorale (which appeared regularly with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra) and the New York Choral Society? Where else could my grandfather have helped organize a medieval music group like the New York Pro Musica Antiqua?
My two daughters, born in the Midwest and raised in Philadelphia, moved to New York straight out of college and have lived there ever since. In places like the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn, they found friendly, vibrant communities. They made careers as, respectively, a TV writer (”Sex and the City” et al) and a personal trainer to affluent clients (e.g., Don Hewitt of “Sixty Minutes”). Their husbands developed esoteric careers as, respectively, an animation special effects editor for clients like Estee Lauder, and an installation artist whose inventive works— at the intersection of music, technology, and the humanities— can be found in places like the New York Times lobby and the Public Theater. Their kids have attended some of America’s most challenging schools at no cost. Almost nowhere else on Earth could they have found such an abundance of opportunities.
Debbie Phemister might have made the most of such blessings. She might have stood the New York stage on its ear. More likely, she might have seized entirely different opportunities in New York that never would have occurred to her until she got there. She might have met a man who measured up to her ambitious standards and raised an eclectic New York family with him. If only…
In my recent memoir, The Education of a Journalist, I wrote that a life in journalism is like rafting along a fast-moving river: If you possess the necessary navigational skills, the raft will take you on a lifelong high-speed journey from one adventure to another; but if you lack those skills, you may drown. The same could be said about a life in New York.
The ultimate price
Fifty years have now passed since Debbie’s death. Her murder was never solved. Had she lived, she’d be past 70 now— almost as old as Gertrude Lippsett was when I discovered her.
Gertrude, meanwhile, survived another five years after that same July weekend, long enough to introduce me to her children and grandchildren— my distant cousins. Two New York women— one young and newly arrived, the other older and settled, with New York roots stretching back to the 1870s— two very different destinies.
Anne Frank maintained her faith in humanity while hiding from the Nazis. Debbie Phemister echoed that faith and paid the ultimate price. She never enjoyed the full benefits of the world-beating metropolis that continues to offer such rich experiences to my family. She isn’t forgotten, as you can see. But if you lived in Portland and knew Debbie, you could be forgiven for thinking: We gave New York the best that we had, and New York gave us a corpse.
To browse the complete archive of Dan’s past columns:
Enjoy Dan Rottenberg’s new memoir, The Education of a Journalist: My Seventy Years on the Frontiers of Free Speech. You can also visit his website at www.danrottenberg.com
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