Tony Curtis, one of the last of the great Hollywood stars, was also one of those legendary celebrities who rediscovered Jewish roots and decided to give back.
Born Bernard Herschel Schwartz in the Bronx, Tony grew up with immigrant Hungarian parents, Helen Klein and Emanuel Schwartz who was a tailor in Manhattan. Tony had Hungarian on his tongue until he went to public school.
So it was no wonder that his personal passion later in life — his primary passions were acting and painting — was the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, named for his father. Tony visited his father’s birthplace, Matszalka, in 1987 and saw the shul and cemetery in total disrepair.
“A lot of the stones were toppled over, not from vandals as much as from time,” he told me in 1992 when he filmed “Naked in New York” for Martin Scorsese. “There they sit, silent survivors of that period of time. We must maintain those monuments as an education for all Hungarian young people.”
Through the Emanuel Foundation, Tony focused on Budapest where he helped restore the ancient Dohany Synagogue, erected a Holocaust memorial tree on the grounds, and built a Raoul Wallenberg Park to honor righteous gentiles who saved Jewish lives.
He embarked on his mission out of respect for his parents’ heritage, which they passed on to him. He said that heritage was private. He didn’t wear his religion as a cloak visible in public.
“When you live in a society where everybody is equal, your Jewishness or gentileness, or whatever you are, becomes a very personal experience. It’s like prayer, it’s personal.”
He said he would go to the temple on the High Holy Days. On a trip to Israel he’d go to the Western Wall every morning. “I put my notes in the Wall. A guy came up and helped me lay tefilin. I like that environment.”
The Emanuel Foundation held its annual fundraising dinners in New York. In 1995 Tony addressed the guests at the Pierre Hotel. He was accompanied by a statuesque beauty, Jill Vandenberg, a 25-year-old horseback instructor. She was a picture of whiteness: white satin gown with white gloves, and platinum blonde hair that complemented Tony’s silvery mane.
“I’m not an actress,” she said. “That’s why we get along.”
Dr. Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University whispered, “It’s interesting to see how everyone’s trying to get close to her — the women with envy and the men with jealousy.”
Tony made Jill his sixth wife three years later.
The foundation’s late executive vice president, Andor Weiss of Brooklyn, revealed how he enlisted Tony. Andor wrote a letter: “Why aren’t you doing something for the Jewish community in Hungary?” Tony invited him to meet in Los Angeles.
“I told him he has to come to the Beverly Grand Hotel which has a kosher restaurant,” Andor recalled. “While we talked he drew a picture on the tablecloth of a woman lighting two Shabbos candles, with challah on the table. I knew then that his answer would be positive.”
At the foundation’s 1998 dinner at the St. Regis Hotel, Kelly Curtis filled in for her father. Kelly and Jamie Leigh Curtis are daughters of Tony’s first wife, Janet Leigh Curtis.
She told me she went to church with her Presbyterian mother, but also to temple with her friends. She connected to her identity when she went to Hungary with her father in 1987.
“When I look at myself, I feel Jewish,” she said. “I have a very strong Jewish identity running through me — it’s my legacy.”
Tony Curtis died of a heart attack at age 85 on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at his home in Henderson, Nevada.
Tim Boxer is editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com.