My grandfather, George Sagan, founded the New York Girl Coat Company in 1916. That was not his real name. He was born Gershon Liesenbaum in the Ukraine, a borderland between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Holy Russian one, between Kiev and Odessa.
Gershon became George in America. But until the late 20th century we did not know that our family name was not Sagan. My father had found George’s exit visa from Russia. It was for Liesenbaum.
My father searched for an answer in his own imagination. George had bought Mr. Liesenbaum’s exit visa. Or, George had murdered Mr. Liesenbaum for the visa. My father actually proposed this theory without irony. My grandfather’s power to impose his will was legendary and survived even his physical death.
The most likely answer was more mundane. My grandfather Gershon, a young teenager, was in the Ukraine with his sister and her three children. She died. He was entrusted with bringing his two little nephews and one niece to their father Louie in New York City. Louie may have already remarried at this point. It is likely that Louie’s last name was Sagan.
George tied nephews and niece together with a rope so he wouldn’t lose them on shipboard. At Ellis Island, it probably made sense to take their and his brother-in-law Louie’s last name, Sagan.
One of the children tied to the rope grew up. He attempted to get an education but by the Great Depression found himself working in the garment industry for George, as one of the prime cutters. His son was Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer. On his deathbed, Carl told one of my first cousins who was interested in family history: “You aren’t really a Sagan. The Sagans were the smart side of the family.” George’s descendants were educated and successful. But we’d been told, and had to believe, we weren’t smart like the Sagans, i.e. Carl. And in fact we weren’t Sagans, but Liesenbaums.
In his own way, my grandfather cared not just about material success but beauty and justice. However, it was the justice of a gangster and the beauty of a robber baron that drove him.
The iconic story told about him was George’s meeting with the famous if perhaps second-string Jewish gangster Lepke. When my grandfather opened for business, it was in a storefront on the lower east side. One of Lepke’s henchmen came around and dunned George for protection money, the price of doing business, to be paid every Wednesday. Of course he paid.
A few months later, a second henchman appeared, demanding protection money to be paid on Fridays. My grandfather rebelled. He, a callow youth, demanded a meeting with Lepke. He was taken to a dairy restaurant on Avenue B., a table in back, men in hats.
George made his speech about justice—he would pay once, but not twice.
Lepke nodded in his fedora. Then, he offered my grandfather a job working for him. George politely declined, paid protection but once a week, and went on to make millions.
This story was told in my family not so much as an example of how ballsy George was but of how he had a true sense of fairness. It was not until I was middle-aged that I realized the absurdity of this, crusading for the right to pay protection money only once.
My grandfather’s gangsterism extended to his philanthropy, which was itself vast and generous, yet self-serving. As a small child, I too had been encouraged to be
philanthropic. I had saved up part of my allowance week after week to join the Bronx Zoo. I would be a member, with free admission, discounts, and best of all, a member’s garden party with a private viewing of a rare platypus. I was about ten years old, and ready to give my money to the zoo, when Grandpa George got wind of my stash.
We were alone, on the wraparound screened porch of my parents’ house. He loomed over me and demanded I hand over my savings to donate to plant trees in Israel. But my goal was already set. Israel, no. Platypus, yes. George yelled and screamed, towering over me. My father appeared like a deus ex machina, also shouting, “Leave her alone! It’s her money!”
I went to the members’ party and ate finger sandwiches and chocolate cookies shaped like leaves. I saw the remarkable platypus. I was the only child there, the only young person who had bought herself a membership. Old ladies in hats smiled at me. I planted not one twig in Israel.
This first appeared in the memoir BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE from Red Mountain Press.