With the top down, Joel, drove his gold, spanking-brand new 1966 Pontiac GTO toward the Concord Hotel.
As the summer wind parted my hair, I appreciated warm Catskills summer nights.
The thrill of being 17 and riding in a cool convertible wasn’t lost on me.
We were headed to Kiamesha Lake to see Bobby Vinton in the Concord’s Imperial Room.
Yes, Mr. Blue Velvet played the Concord.
Yes, Joel and I, in his GTO, accompanied Bobby as his voice resonated from the speakers mounted in the back of the car:
She wore blue velvet
Bluer than velvet was the night
Softer than satin was the light
From the stars
Yes, 8-track stereo players were all the rage in 1966.
And yes, Joel’s uncle, who was in charge of the Concord’s massive kitchen, was able to sneak us into the biggest and best Borscht-Belt hotel.
And yes, the Concord booked the biggest and best entertainers in the mountains.
Through the wood-framed screen back doors of the Concord’s kitchen, I observed the staff function like an ant army supplying the queen with all her needs.
A kitchen that prepared 3,000 breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, seven days a week for the 3 months of summer.
And on Saturday nights, the staff cooked up a midnight buffet for the thousands that exited the theater.
(Fifty years later, I can still taste the powdered white sugar-coated challah French toast with its soft doughy egg center.)
Wearing thin blue ties, and tan sports coats, two Catskill Mountain country boys tried to blend in with NYC’s elite Jews.
Trying to be inconspicuous, we took seats in the back of the theater.
We watched as MC took the stage and after a few formalities introduced the dignitaries in the audience.
“Tonight the Concord Hotel is honored to have in our audience, one of the world’s most talented movie stars, a superb cabaret singer and overall great guy—Mr. Maurice Chevalier”
An elderly, white-haired Maurice Chevalier slowly rose from his seat, waved at the crowd as the room exploded into thunderous applause.
As Maurice slowly sat down, Joel said, “Wow, he was one of the stars in “Gigi” with Leslie Caron.”
Then he broke out in song, “Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise. The birds in the trees seem to whisper Louise.”
I laughed at his miserable attempt at a French accent.
“I’ll forgive you for that song but please no more or I’m going to sing, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
“I don’t need forgiveness. I nailed it.”
Then I asked, “Joel, you know what’s interesting?”
“No Mort, what’s interesting?
That Bobby Vinton is playing the Concord.”
“No, Joel, what’s interesting is that approximately 3,000 Jews just gave Maurice Chevalier enough applause that my ears hurt and in France he was considered a Nazi collaborator.”
“Say what?” Joel replied.
“In the early 40s, when the Nazi’s occupied Paris, Mr. Birds-in-the-Trees entertained German soldiers. He did a revue, “Bonjour Paris” in the Casino de Paris. The Nazis used his performances as propaganda to assure the French that nothing had really changed during their occupation.
When over 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up and crammed into the Vélodrome d’Hiver for shipment to Auschwitz, Mr.-Thank-Heaven-for-Little-Girls, sang, tipped his boater hat, and danced the old soft shoe for the Wehrmacht. He played rooms full of Nazis.
The French underground created a list of collaborators to be killed during the war or tried after it and Maurice’s name topped the list.”
“I guess the Jews and the French are pretty forgiving people.
After more than 20 years they have forgiven the old man for singing and dancing with the enemy.
Mort, what happened?
Why did they forgive him?”
I don’t know.
He supposedly hid a Jewish family in country home in Vichy—for which the Germans threatened him.
He helped get some French prisoners of war out of captivity in Germany.
So after the war, a French court acquitted him.
I bet most of the 3,000 Jews in this room, have no idea about his past. If they did, I think the applause would have been tepid.”
Mort, don’t be a schmeckle, these rich Jews don’t give a hoot that Maurice sang and danced for the Nazis.
Those days are long gone and forgotten.
Time, distance and victory are the tools of forgiveness.”
Joel, I hope at least this audience are followers of Thomas Szasz.
Thomas Szasz, he’s a psychiatrist, said, “The stupid neither forgive nor forget; the naive forgive and forget; the wise forgive but do not forget.”
“I get it. To forgive does not mean you should forget. I like that quote.”
As Joel drove his GTO back to Woodridge, I craned my neck and stared at the dark blue velvet sky, focusing on the light of the stars and wondering, “What was Maurice Chevalier thinking as he slowly rose out of his chair and accepted the adoration of a room full of Jews.”