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How a Child of Immigrants Made
Her Way in the World
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How a Child of Immigrants Made
Her Way in the World
Sherlee Gloria Primack
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Chapter 1. FAMILY, OLD STYLE 1
Chapter 4. THE GOLDEN STATE 00
Chapter 7. FAMILY, NEW STYLE 00
Chapter 8. PARADISE LOST 00
Chapter 10. OPEN HOUSE 000
Chapter 11. THE BIG MOVE 000
Chapter 12. BACK TO THE FUTURE 000
Chapter 13. THIS IS YOUR LIFE 000
For my family
S   on the eve of the Great Depression. She celebrated V-J
Day among the revelers at an amusement park. She was a member of
the Young Communist League. She smiled at Frank Sinatra, and he
smiled back.
e great themes of the twentieth century can be found in history
books. And for one generation, they were the stu of everyday life.
Immigration, a world war, civil rights, and the changing role of women:
Sherlee Gloria Primack had a front-row seat to all of it.
e child of Jewish immigrantsborn in Revere, Massachuse s,
just outside Bostonshe became in some ways the quintessential
American: idealistic, outgoing, and eager to be her own boss. She
jumped in her car and drove overnight to New York City. She je ed o
to Los Angeles for six months with no particular plan in mind. She
started her own business. She married and had a child in her thir-
ties“old,” in the parlance of the times. And when she was actually
old, at the age when most people retire, she got bored and decided to go
back to work.
Independent? Yes, but never sel sh and never alone. Her social life
x Lucky
has always revolved around family. And the denition is generous: She
treats neighbors like cousins, friends like sisters, and co-workers like
kin. e human connection is key. Having moved to New York City,
she’s in her element when chaing with cabbies and complimenting
passersby on their style sense.
She has triumphs, she has regrets. She learned to use the internet,
and she learned to be on time. She boasts friends on several continents.
Her advice on maintaining a happy marriage is spot-on. She has a story
for every occasion.
Lucky us, the family and friends of Sherlee Gloria Primack, to get a
peek into the highlights of her lifeso far, anyway. Remember, she’s
only in Year Seven of her twenty-year plan.
Le er/word space half title
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list opposite p. i.
Elizabeth Esther Rubin, with her high school diploma
By the time Bessie earned her diploma, she had come far,
both geographically and intellectually. Born circa 1893,
she emigrated om Kamenka, a then-Russian town
near Lvov that had known Jewish inhabitants since the
eenth century.
Chapter 1
M   to this country as two youngsters from two
strange families.
My mother had a mother who must have been a genius. She was evi-
dently a well-to-do woman who came to marry this lile rabbi who had
nothing. e story was that everyone knew she must be a classy woman,
because she arrived at her wedding wearing gloves! She had six or seven
children with him. She taught Hebrew, she baked the challah every
Friday for the whole community. She was into so many dierent things.
My mothers mother came here in her ies, worn out, worried
about one of her sons who was very sick in New York. He had his appen-
dix taken out on a table. And she brought everybody across the country
with a couple of kids, to land in England, and go from England to New
York. And my grandmother died at y-three.
As a child, my mother slept alongside her mother. And then, all of a
sudden, she had nothing. She had her sister, who we called Tante, and
she slept between Tante and her husband for, like, a year. I mean, they
had a hard life in many ways. ey had a lot of kids, lile money. And I
guess, my line has always been: ey did the best they could for all of
us, as much as they could, as much as they knew.
My fathers family, they were butchers, I guess, which was outcasts.
ere must have been, like, ve brothers who came. ey must have
looked like [laughs], like Cossacks, because they were huge men. My
father was a big man and a hearty man. He could li half a ton of meat
at one time. He did that in his eighties. But they had a dierent life. My
mothers life was a lile bit more serene. Her mother was much more
genteel, and my fathers family was strictly outcasts.
ey met at a dance hall, and they never let go. He and my mother
evidently met on the dance oor. ey swam half the ocean together,
they were both great swimmers. ey just liked each other, I think. You
Rebecca (“Tante”) and Samuel Greenberg. Tante
was Bessie’s older sister and surrogate mother aer
their own mother died at the age of y-three.
Louis Primack’s parents, Shana-Giel
and Nachman Primack. e couple le
Russia and seled in the Boston area.
Familly, Old Style 3
know, right from the beginning, you can just see that they had that,
right from the beginning. And he was a nice-looking guy. And he had a
business, though it failed several times. ey would ght over a card
game, but it was a fun card game.
My mother always said, her sister wanted this kind of a wedding, and
his sister wanted that kind of a wedding. Nobody oered any money,
and so they eloped! And one day Tante was looking through her drawer,
puing some underwear away or something, and found a ring. And she
said, What’s this? And my mother, instead of saying, I’m waiting to get
married, so I’ve got the ring put away, instead she said, All right, so now
you know!
Oh, I hoped that I’d have [a marriage] like that. No maer who I
went out with, it was Where do you nd another guy like this and a
Far leFt: Louis Primack,
Sherlee’s father, as a young
man. He came om a family
of butchers and eventually
owned his own business.
leFt: Bessie and Louis
Primack were excellent
swimmers. ey regularly
swam to the breakers o
Revere Beach.
6 Lucky
And it wasnt that we didn’t go out for dinners on Sundays and to the
movies. We did, even when I was a lile kid. We went to the midday
show on Sundays. e early show was for kids, and the late show was
for adults, but they had a middle show on Sundays. So we would have
dinner on the street, in the Jewish restaurant, and then we would go
down to the movies.
ey were permissive, in the new style. But the old style was still
there. Old style was the latch that they had on their children. You know,
they were afraid to let go, and they knew they had to. So there was
always the ght, you know, to let go.
First of all, you couldn’t kiss my father. If you tried to kiss him, it was
on the run, because if you tried to kiss him, he did this [turns aside], so
you had to sneak under him. But I knew why. He was a man. Women,
you know But they eloped! ey had a hot love aair, and they forgot
about that!
When my mother was in the nursing home, she was probably in her
nineties, I said something to her: Ma, did you ever really love me? And
she said, Would I have taken care of you if I didn’t love you? She was
saying to me: Of course I loved you. Its just I couldn’t show it. She
couldn’t show it.
Well, she had a son [Sidney] who was gorgeous, number one. Tall
and handsome and smart and musical. She had a daughter [Vivian]
who was absolutely gorgeous, that everybody adored. And then she had
me, and I was fat. And my mother was obsessive with it and so was I.
She had lost [Vivian] in front of her eyes. And she wasn’t going to worry
about any more. I think she must have had all the damage to her mind
with that scenario. It was a child that everybody adored. I was the fat
lile kid that grew upand so what? at was the way I felt. And that
wasn’t really the way she felt. But that was the way I thought she felt.
I’m sure it was very hard for her. She didn’t want another child, to
begin with. She could not deal with another baby. And she did. And she
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toP leFt: Vivian and Sidney
Primack. Vivian’s death in an
accident was a tragedy their mother
struggled with for the rest of her life.
aBoVe: Vivian Primack, Sherlee’s
younger sibling, died in an accident
at the age of seven.
leFt: As a baby on the porch of the
Primack familys apartment in a
triple-decker, a Boston-area housing
Asian neighborhood. Always an immigrant neighborhood. Even now,
the Jewish area is all Asian, and doing very well.
In August there was Nickel Day. You got tickets in the newspaper,
youd ride everything and buy everything for a nickel. A hot dog was a
nickel. On Nickel Day you could go with a handful of coupons, from
the papers and everyplace. e movies were cheaper also, yeah, on
Nickel Day, oh my goodness.
And Fourth of July you sat on the beach with the sand bugs. ey
would say reworks at midnight, but they wouldn’t go on til one, two,
e Primack family on the occasion of a family wedding.
Familly, Old Style 13
three o’clock in the morning, and they went on for only een minutes,
but you sat with the bugs and lived with them because you couldn’t
miss it. You could see reworks from our back porch, but it wasnt the
same as being at the beach.
You lived on the beach. It was hot? You went down the beach. If it
was low tide you swam in the water as best you could. Slept with the
sand bugs til midnight, til they got impossible and you nally went
home, if you were lucky enough to cool o. My folks swam every week-
end. ey swam to the breakers, they were great swimmers, my mother
and father. ey would chase each other across the water. ey were
great, and I didnt live up to their promise.
My mother was wonderful, teaching me to swim. I would get in the
water and she would say, Lay down, and she’d have one hand under my
belly and one on my bathing suit straps, and I would paddle in front of
her, face to face. And she would never let me go.
One day, I was doing very wellI was afraid to oat because I was
chubby and I sankand one day my father decided he would take me
Revere, Massachuses, is
famous for being the home of
the rst public beach in the U.S.
But it was also the home to a
huge population of immigrants
in the years bridging the 19th
and 20th centuries.
16 Lucky
You have to understand, when you worked in the summer as a teen-
ager, you started at twelve oclock and worked til two or three in the
morning, except on Saturdays. You couldnt work aer midnight; on
Saturdays everything closed down til one oclock on Sunday, that was
the Blue Laws.
I could go out with anybody. As long as I brought them home and my
mother knew who they were. My mother had her problems. And I think
she never forgave herself for whatever happened to [Vivian]. And so she
was never going to tie me down. She was never going to check me. I
could be out til midnight as long as she knew where I was and who I was
with. And that was a dangerous thing, really. We just never thought of it.
I could be in danger, for all she knew. But she didnt think. She already
had been through one disaster. She wasnt going to worry about a future
And during the war, I worked. I was thirteen and worked at the
beach. I was hired, oh God, to work at 13 Spook Street, I was the cashier.
When people when to lunch, I went to the Bubble Bounce or the Tilt-a-
Whirl, and then nally I went to the Dodgems, where the owner worked
with this older woman, who had been there with him forever. I took
second chair behind her, so that when people would go in, they would
buy a ticket. And if they stayed for more than one ride, they would
punch the ticket, and when they came out they came to the second
window and she would see how many punches they had and tell them
how much money they owed.
And I was there maybe a day or two and I went home and wrote a
lile scratch pad, one ride equals this amount, two rides equal that, and
I had it down to like ten rides, and I brought it to work, and I had it on
my shelf. And there they said to me, the woman said, Whats that? ey
would stand in line to get out, and when it was busy on weekends, it was
horrendous because people were trying to get out and they couldnt get
past the cars that were going, the Dodgems. And I said, Well, I gured
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mountains of sweets
I    that my mother made. She was a baker who
could just bake from her head. I used a box cake and added things to it.  at
was it. I had no recipes of my own.
She made doughnuts, in oil. She made pi ibulkies [yeasted cinnamon
rolls]. She didn’t make challah very o en, but she did make it.
And she made all kinds of cookies. Sheet cookies, where she cut the
dough on an angle, thin and light, like sugar cookies, to dunk in your tea.
Mandelbrot, all the time, oh, yeah. You cut it up and bake it again. Her
mandelbrot was wonderful, maybe with raisins and walnuts.
e other thing that she always made was taiglach, and my cousin Eadie
said, Your mothers taiglach were always be er than my mother’s! Taiglach
are a li le piece of dough, it was a so dough, and she would put raisins
and nuts in the middle and roll them
in balls and cook them in honey mixed
with water. And then she would roll
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right: e formal high school portrait.
Below: With her mother (in a rare smiling
shot) at high school graduation.
Bottom: Revere High School graduation,
Familly, Old Style 25
much. I thought I was wonderful, but I really wasnt. I was not a musi-
cian. But I loved playing, I loved fooling around with the piano.
Bess Levine was one of my oldest friends, and she was not an accom-
plished pianist, but she practiced her whole life. She was older than I
was. She was my friend for years a erward. She helped me remember
what I had to learn to get into the Elson Club at this secret meeting. We
had to learn what was on the plaque of Louis Elson, who was a music
teacher there, and you had to learn this whole thing. I had never looked
at it, but she had wri en it down, so that when we went in that night,
twenty- ve of us were entered into the Elson Club. It was a Jewish club.
leFt: e program  om this
New England Conservatory
recital shows Sherlee playing
Bach, Schumann, and the theat-
rical “Malaguena” by Lecuona.
Bottom: Sherlee won a schol-
arship to the New England
Conservatory of Music, where
she studied piano.
26 Lucky
We had one girl who was not Jewish, and we hadduring my year
there, year and a halfprobably three Jewish boys and twenty boys
who were usually Italian. It was fun, but I did not accomplish much as
a musician, sad to say.
en I went to the Burroughs Company school. I went for six weeks.
My friend and I went to school. And I remember going there the rst
time, when they showed us the billing machines, she said, Which nger
do I start with? You know, you only have four on each hand. But I
learned very quickly. And my rst job was a billing clerk. I was there for
a couple of years, and when the boss wanted to hire somebody new for
bookkeeping, I was doing the billing. My bossGod, this wonderful
womansaid to him, No, Sherlees going to do the bookkeeping, and
Sherlee (le) with Bess
Levine at Tanglewood.
ey met at the New
England Conservatory,
where Bess had become
a iend by coaching
Sherlee through the
initiation into the Elson
Familly, Old Style 27
were going to train a new billing clerk. So I knew I was doing well. And
when I rst started on the bookkeeping machine, if I had a problem, she
would always come and help with it. She was the head bookkeeper of
everything, and it was Sagamoc Shoes. ey made shoes up in Maine,
and they had the bookkeeping in Boston.
When Sagamoc closed, I went to get another job on Lincoln Street
in Boston. It was a shoe place, and they hired me for billing. And I was
there for three days. And the oce manager, the woman, every piece of
paper had had to go through her hand when you nished.
Sherlee in LA. Sherlee on the shores of
Lake Pearl.
28 Lucky
And I le. And I got a call from the boss. And he said, We dont know
what happened. I said, Im sorry, your oce manager made me insane.
He said, What happened? And I said, I was doing my billing, and I
knew what I was doing. She had showed me what I had to do. I had
done it for Sagamoc for several years. I said, And she insisted on check-
ing every bill, every piece of paper that anybody handled, and it was
slowing the work, and I was not happy with it. He said, Would you like
to be the new oce manager? And I said, No, I dont think I want that
job at your particular place. Because it was not a happy workplace to
begin with.
I was in my twenties, I thought I owned the world. e only thing I
wasn’t lucky with was men, at that point, and that was my own problem.
Well, I was interested in somebody who ran a summer hotel. I was think-
ing, I would love to run this hotel, I would like to be at the beach like this
all the time. But that didnt happen. And I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t sure what
I was going to be doing, but I was always doing something. I kept doing
the same things over and over [laughs]. I had had a weight problem for
so long, and then I didnt. And I just couldn’t believe any part of it. It was
a problem. Other than that, at work, I was always condent.
Chapter 4
I   under twenty. ere was a very popular maga-
zine, like the New Yorker would be, and they did a big piece on Frank
Sinatra. And I had been a Frank Sinatra fan from the time I was maybe
twelve. And I wrote them a leer of thanks. And I got a leer from a
girl in Chicago, whose name was Sherlee Primack. And she said she
worked at some government oce, and she went to look for her war
bonds to see how many she had. And when she looked up Sherlee
Primack, she found mine. And so she wrote me a leer, she wasn’t sure
how old I would be, she was about twenty-ve, and we started a corre-
She had a sistera younger sisterand a younger brother, and evi-
dently her father had a business and moved the family to California.
And we wrote. Until then, I spelled my name S-h-i-r-l-e-e. I had asked
her if she minded if I changed the spelling of my name to hers, and she
said no, she did not mind.
And they invited me to come to California, which sounded so out-
landish to a teenager. But we wrote for a long number of years, and one
day I said, I think I just want to leave home for a lile bit. It came my
father went into bankruptcy at that time, and my mother was upset
32 Lucky
And we had a lovely place, it was on a great street in a great area, up
in the hills in LA. And there were movie stars on every corner. I mean,
their houses were on every street. Youd go just a half mile beyond us,
and there was Mulholland Drive and all the rest. And one of the girls
had an automobile. ats all we needed. It was halfway to Frank
Sinatras house, which made it very good for me!
And the next thing I knew, I had an apartment, I had friends, I had
memberships, I was going to dierent theaters and dierent things, and
I went in to see Mickey Rooney seing up a show. I had a lot of contacts
that I didnt realize. I had a hairdresser, I mean!
I was seled for six months. I especially had a fun job. Aer three
weeks of oating around in LA, I thought I would go to work. I called
the National Bookkeeping Company, because I had used their equip-
ment and I loved it. And I called and I said, I’d like to sell your equip-
ment, the oce equipment, and they said, Well, this is wonderful. We
talked for a lile while. She said, Why don’t you come in and we can
talk and then we can send you to Minneapolis for six weeks’ training
if youre hired. And I hung up. I said to myself, No, I just got here, I’m
not going anywhere.
I found a job with a company called US Divers. And they were sell-
ing deep-sea equipment, which was something new. And I was hired as
a billing clerk, but there were no bills to be made, but I was playing with
the machines.
And one day, the boss, who was French, René Bussoz, came out and
said, Can somebody type a sentence for me for the catalogue? And
nobody seemed to be available except me, so I typed his sentence. I
couldn’t bring it into the boss because the oce manager wouldn’t let
me. She was the only one who could speak to the higher-ups. e next
day, the boss came out and said, Could you type a paragraph for me? I
said, Of course. I typed a paragraph, and I looked the oce manager
right in the face and walked into Renés oce.
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Le er  om her mother [sic throughout]: “Well, I
guess you win, I mean I’m so sleepy right now that
I was going to lie down right a er dinner, but I
desided that if I don’t write now, I wont write today,
so here goes.”
Le er  om her mother, with her
usual banter: “Do you really want
me to believe that you got up seven
o’clock and went in to work before
8? Or even le the house before 8?
What did you do,  y?”
Sherlee and her mother
wrote  equently during her
time in California. She was
not highly educated, but her
English was idiomatic and
almost unaccented. Still, she
could joke: “P.S. I may even
learn to spell yet.”
34 Lucky
And I said to him, this is an interesting paragraph, but its really not
for a sports catalogue. It’s very stilted English. Which he knew. He said,
Well, why don’t you write it the way you think it should be? I said, Yes,
and I did that. And two days later, aer his general manager went on
the road to get some business, I wound up siing opposite him. He had
gone out and ordered a machine to make copies of things, and I could
work on the catalogue and run things o, and I was not in the main
oce most of the day. I was siing with the boss. Who had all these
questions about sex: Did I know anything? And how come I wasnt?
And how come I did? And should I do? And we still did the cata-
logue. He was wonderful.
ey sent this out so that people could see what they were buying,
and the catalogue was set up so that you had the actual cost of some-
thing, and if you had a discount there was another column, and I was
using, like, carbon paper to strip it out to run dierent versions of the
catalog. He spent $900 for this machine just because he wanted me to
work on the catalog. I could do it, but nobody else could handle it.
He knew Jacques Cousteau, and they had an arrangement where he
was doing business with them. e equipment, I went downstairs and
saw it. I wouldnt go anywhere near it. ey were selling the Aqua-Lung
and all the equipment that went along with it. It was quite the thing.
People were thrilled to get to use it. It was just a really big deal at the
And Cousteau went on to do so many deep-sea things. I was fortu-
nate to take a phone call from him at one time. He said, [French accent]
is is Jacques Cousteau. And I went, Aarrgghh. I was terried. He
said, Is René there? And I said, Yes, sir! Fortunately, at home I had been
used to answering phones, but of course I couldn’t speak French. I
could say Bonjour. at was about it.
And there were two levels downstairs, there were twenty men, either
French or Belgian or something. ey talked to each other constantly,
Familly, Old Style 35
many of them were gay and they were wonderful. René had a young
fellow who was his secretary. Up until that point, everybody who worked
for him as a secretary would type a leer and leave blank spaces to ll in
whatever words he said. But Al had his leers down. At one oclock, he
was nished for the day and went downstairs with the other guys.
It was like a mud hole half the time downstairs, with the Aqua-Lungs
Her chay co-worker, Al, kept up a faithful correspondence aer
Sherlee returned to Massachuses.