When the story broke, the parents in my neighborhood went wild. The schanda! This matinee idol picks our block to engage in his immorality? The yentas went up and down the street, wailing. One of the mothers on Jerome Avenue grabbed me by the collar and said, "Jerry, you're the younger generation, an American boy, what do you think of this actor with his chippies and his Mexican cigarette?"
I smiled with my hand out, because I had just made a delivery and was waiting for a tip.
"I'll never see another one of his movies," I told her. "He has shamed not just our neighborhood, but all of the Bronx."
Then, to tease her, I said, "And did you hear? He's Jewish!"
"No! It can't be, you're joking."
"No joke. My brother Melvyn says they pulled tefillin and a prayer book out of that dirty little room."
"Oh, God, I'm going to faint!"
"Not yet," I said, waving my hand. And the purse came out, followed by a few well-circulated nickels.
Of course, I wasn't really disgusted by Robert Mitchum's behavior. I was awed. What did I think? I applauded the man. In bed with two women in the middle of the day? That's the dream! That's Hollywood!
I was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx. When people ask where I'm from, I always say Brooklyn, though I spent only my earliest years in the borough. Brooklyn because when you hear the Bronx you think baseball, vacant lots, tenement fires, whereas, when you hear Brooklyn, you think guys. In my oldest memories, I am on the street, with a roving pack of kids. We hung out beneath the Jerome Avenue El, where the shadows made complicated patterns. The sidewalks were lined with Irish and Italian bars. On my way to school, I would see the drunks at their stools, having their first shots of the day. We stayed out there for hours, talking about what we wanted. We played stickball and stoopball, the Spalding bounding off the third step of the brownstone, arcing against the beams of the elevated. When a train went by, it rained sparks. If you listened to us, you would not have understood half of it, everything being in nicknames, slang, and code. My brother Melvyn was (and is) my best friend, two years younger, not a resentful bone in his body, though he had to pay for my sins in school: Mel Weintraub? Jerry's brother? You sit in back and keep your mouth shut.
The neighborhood was bounded by big roads to the south and the Hudson River to the west, with a distant view of the Palisades. Manhattan was just a twenty-minute subway ride, but a light-year, away. At night, when the IRT train went over Jerome Avenue, its windows aglow, I dreamed of going to the city. I was impatient to see the world. Now and then, tired of gray days in the classroom, I cut school and instead caught a train to Times Square, where I sat through two features and a floor show at the Roxy or the Paramount or one of the other grand show palaces. The velvet curtains, the plush aisles, the stars and stage sets and glamour—this is where I fell in love with movies. Back to Bataan with Robert Taylor; Pursued with Robert Mitchum; Here Comes Mr. Jordan with Robert Montgomery; Fort Apache with John Wayne; The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend with Betty Grable, with that body and those legs, each insured for a million dollars by Lloyd's of London. This was not a theater; it was a synagogue. Everything I wanted was up on the screen.