Excerpted from Sweet and Low by Rich Cohen. Copyright © 2006 by Rich Cohen. Published in April 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Everyone in my family tells this story, but everyone starts it in a different way. My mother starts it in the diner across from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where my grandfather Benjamin Eisenstadt, a short-order cook, invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low, and with them built the fortune that would be the cause of all the trouble. My sister starts it with his wife, Betty, the power behind the throne, the woman who, in this version, found in Ben a vehicle for her dreams. Whenever anyone asks what Betty was like, I say, “Betty had her name legally changed to Betty from Bessie.”
My father starts the story in downtown Brooklyn, in the courtroom where my Uncle Marvin, the first son of the patriarch, a handsome, curly-haired man who insists on being called Uncle Marvelous, is facing off against federal prosecutors. After assuming control of the Cumberland Packing Company, which makes Sweet’N Low, Sugar in the Raw, Nu-Salt, and Butter Buds, Marvin, among other things that caused a scandal, put a criminal on the payroll, a reputed associate of the Bonanno crime family. That criminal made illegal campaign contributions to Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who sponsored legislation that kept saccharin on the market. Saccharin, a key ingredient of Sweet’N Low, had been found to cause cancer. In the end, Marvin cut a deal with prosecutors, testifying for the government and keeping himself out of prison.
In other words, Uncle Marvelous turned rat.
I start this story at the Metropolitan Club, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where my cousin Jeffrey, the oldest son of the oldest son, the scion of the third generation, is getting married for the second time. Jeffrey, a burned-out surfer, a bloodshot member of the high school class of ’78 whose yearbook picture still tells the story, is earmarked to inherit the empire. If Jeffrey read more widely, he would know that he is fated to screw the pooch, lose his grip, open his hands and let the money blast back into the whirlwind.
Or I start with Uncle Ira, the youngest son of Ben and Betty, a vice president of the company, who controls 49 percent of the stock. Ira, who has always struck me as an extreme eccentric, is years younger than his siblings, a pampered, interesting kid who grew into a genuine nut, a man who carries a purse, wears sandals, follows whims, sports an unruly red beard, and lives in an East Side town house with his wife and many cats. Ira has been to his office at the factory just twice in the last ten years. (Though he says he works many hours a day from home via phone and fax.) He is the trick that fate played on empire, the inscrutable brother who has to be watched.
At Jeff’s wedding, he approached me in the bathroom. Standing next to me at the urinal, he said, “What is the last thing you want your crazy uncle to say to you in the bathroom?”
My brother starts the story in Flatbush, in the icebox chill room of my aunt Gladys, a woman who, for mysterious reasons, had not been out of the house—her childhood home, where she still lived with Ben and Betty—in almost thirty years. I once heard a politician describe a rival’s tax scheme as “the crazy aunt hiding in the attic,” and I said to myself, “She actually lives on the ground floor.” Whenever I asked what was wrong with Aunt Gladys, why she never left her room, words were muttered about arthritis, psoriasis, lack of confidence. Even though she is the least physically active of the Eisenstadt siblings, Gladys, with her telephone, drives the action of this story. In a way I am still trying to fathom, Gladys is its protagonist. When I was briefing my brother-in-law on his new family and told him that Gladys had not left the house since the Nixon administration, he said, “You mean mostly she stays in the house but now and then she leaves the house to go to the store?” I said, “I mean mostly she stays in her room but now and then she leaves her room to go to the bathroom.”
As I mentioned, my aunt’s room, for reasons I still do not understand, is kept as cold as a meat locker. To this day, if we are in a movie theater or a mall where the AC is really cranking, my brother will say, “It’s like Aunt Gladys’s room, it’s so cold in here.” By which we know him to mean more than just the temperature: Gladys’s room is where my brother, Steven, learned the nature of things. Once a week, before I was born, my brother and sister were taken to Flatbush to visit their grandparents, aunt, and cousins.
There was an ancient form of primogeniture at play in the family; as the son of the oldest son, Cousin Jeffrey was golden. One week, Grandma Betty decided that a grandchild would, for no particular reason, have a party thrown in his or her honor, complete with cake and gifts. While standing in my aunt’s room, Betty wrote the names on a slip of paper and dropped the slips in a hat. A winner was drawn: Jeffrey. Since Jeffrey seemed to win many such contests, my brother grew suspicious. When he picked up the hat, Betty said, “Don’t look!” Unfolding the slips, he had the great early shock of his life. Every ballot was marked “Jeffrey.” Later, when my brother refused to follow some instruction, Ben led him upstairs and spanked him—a grandfather who spanks!—ending, for my brother, the sweet ignorance of childhood.
In 1995, when my grandfather collapsed in the hospital, the first relative on the scene was my brother. In a nice twist of fate, Steven found himself charged with making life-and-death decisions for the man who had helped him recognize the unfairness of the world. And the winner is? Jeffrey! In the months following Ben’s collapse, the family battle moved into its titanic phase, with Ben shuffling from doctor to doctor and everything up for grabs: the money, the legacy, and the story itself. When Grandma Betty died, I found out that my mother had lost this battle and that she and all of her children had been written out of the will—the factory and assets of the company are worth an estimated several hundred million dollars. Betty’s last words came in a legal document: “I hereby record that I have made no provision under this WILL for my daughter ELLEN and any of ELLEN’S issue for reasons I deem sufficient.” Her issue? It was like being called discharge, or refuse, or excrement. She swallowed a dime but it came out in the issue. So fate has placed me in the ideal storytelling position: the youngest son of the once-favorite daughter. Outside but inside, with just enough of a grudge to sharpen my sensibility. I am Napoleon staring at Paris from Corsica. All they have left me is this story. To be disinherited is to be set free.