Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2015

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

Back in 2007 I wrote a piece titled “Jews and American Popular Culture” that was based on a lecture Paul Buhle gave to the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. As is often the case with Paul’s lectures, it was accompanied by a slide show that prompted this observation:

During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)

This prompted a query from Stanley Krauson: “Does anyone remember the name of Joseph Greenstein’s (The Mighty Atom) bungalow colony?”

I now have an answer to that question that took me eight years to the day to put together. But before I get to that, I should explain that soon after writing the article I shared my memories of the Mighty Atom  with Harvey Pekar, who was a houseguest one evening in 2008. As it turns out, Harvey and Paul had begun collaborating with each other on comic books revolving around Jews and the left, among other topics.

Harvey was very interested in the Mighty Atom story since he had been reading about Jewish professional strong men at the time. (He was an amateur strong man himself with an appetite for brawling in high school seemingly at odds with his shy and retiring demeanor.) He also was fascinated by my recollections of life in the SWP that were pretty atypical. For example, I had a relationship at one point with a woman in the Houston branch who had been a topless dancer.

Harvey was so fascinated by my tales that he gave me a ring and proposed that we do a comic book memoir that would be published by Random House. To make a long and sad story short, he died before the book was published and his widow Joyce Brabner decided to dump the memoir because she did not think it should be part of the Harvey Pekar legacy. She has never admitted as such but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.

Here is a page devoted to my encounter with the Mighty Atom:

mighty atom

Now, getting to Stanley Krauson’s question, the identity of the Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony can be found in Ed Spielman’s “The Mighty Atom: The Life and Times of Joseph L. Greenstein; Biography of a Superhuman“, a book that I took out from the Columbia Library recently. It was the Panoramic Health Farm, a small colony about a mile from my father’s fruit store. Ironically, although the Mighty Atom sang the praises of vegetables, I wouldn’t go near them. Who knows? Maybe it was a defense mechanism against my father. I should advise you that Spielman’s narrative has a Paul Bunyanesque quality, no doubt a function of his own desire to put together a biography with “wow factor”, plus the Mighty Atom’s (nee Joseph Greenstein) sideshow/circus background leading him to embellish what was likely a remarkable life to begin with. In any case, I did see a man about as old as me at the time bending an iron bar across his nose. You don’t see that every day. Below are passages from Ed Spielman’s book. I am sure that there is more than a grain of truth in these tales.

The Mighty Atom’s bungalow colony:

In the late 1940s, the Atom took savings of $18,000 and founded a health resort where he could put his ideas into action. Where better to advocate health and vitality than in bucolic surroundings, far from the noise and dirt of the city? In upstate Woodridge, New York, he purchased a seventy-acre tract of land with a twenty-three room hotel, four apartments, and two bungalows and established his Panoramic Health Farm. The plan was that he would run the place all summer until Labor Day, when he and Leah would take their traveling lecturemobile south for the winter. Leah had her doubts about an entire hotel being a simple husband-and-wife operation. With his usual enthusiasm, Joe approached the idea as if it were nothing more difficult than a mom-and-pop candy store. He was not to be dissuaded. He put down the cash and took title.

Of panoramic view there was plenty, of water there was none. A week after he took over, the sole spring went dry. The seller (who had paid $7,000 for the place a few years before) had neglected to mention the periodic problem.

After several weeks of carting water from town in barrels and cans, Joe went to the library to research the problem. He found reference to individuals who did nothing more for a living than discover water for such unfortunates as himself. These “dowsers” were supposedly gifted with the ability to sniff out H2O with nothing more than a divining rod.

In Pennsylvania, he found just such a pair of “water smellers.” Dressed in black, and possessed of an appropriately mysterious manner, the pair immediately made him suspicious. Instead of your everyday divining rod, they did their dowsing with an upended pliers. At last, they stopped at a miserable patch of weeds and pronounced with finality that they had found water. As the pliers were jiggling with wild and spastic enthusiasm, he took them at their word. They returned to Pennsylvania, his cash in their pocket.

He called the local well driller, a Sicilian who arrived on the scene with well-founded cynicism, as in the very place where the dowsers had predicted water, he had already dug a dry well for the previous owner.

Now out a couple of hundred dollars for a pair of sham water smellers, and a good chunk of his life’s savings for the health farm itself, Joe nevertheless did not despair. He would find water . . . or throw himself off the nearest bridge. Somehow, a wet death seemed almost pleasant under the circumstances.

He took a large flat rock and a sixteen-pound sledgehammer, placed the rock on the ground in various locations of the property, and smacked it soundly with the hammer. He reasoned that if there were water below somewhere, there might be an underground echo or other indication. He found an area that responded. The more he hit the rock, the more he became convinced that this was the spot. Immediately, he summoned the well driller.

“Here?” The man was not encouraging. “Are you kiddin’? I already drilled right here, too. I didn’t find enough water to rinse out my mouth.”

Joe could not be dissuaded, and after signing a contract guaranteeing payment, he told the man to go to work. The bits were sunk into the ground, and there was nothing. The driller looked at Joe blankly. “Dig deeper,” Joe ordered, and gave him more money. Nothing. “Deeper!” He doled out the cash from the piggy bank.

At last came a gathering gushing sound, and a geyser of water sprayed high into the air coming up at the rate of seventy gallons a minute. The little Sicilian crossed himself.

“How did you know?”

Joe shrugged.

“Mister Atom”—the man pointed heavenward—”you got some-body upstairs.”

With a bit of borrowing and some juggling of finances, Joe fitted a pump on the site, made a small lake, stocked it with fish, and put two boats on it. He enlarged the approach road, constructed another two-story guest house, and built a pool. He was working seventeen hours a day and by now his investment had gotten out of hand, about $55,000 out of hand. He began alternating one week at the Panoramic, one week of pitching night and day to try to pay the previous week’s bills.

The Panoramic Health Farm was no mom-and-pop candy store; the clientele was an eccentric and demanding bunch. For the first time in her life, Leah started visiting doctors. The diagnoses were the same: overwork.

After a decade, rather than have the Panoramic Health Farm kill them, Joe sold out for such a disastrously low figure that he needn’t have drilled for water; he ended taking a bath in his own money. He gladly returned full-time to the life of a pitchman.

In August of 1938, a German Day rally had drawn a turnout of forty thousand wildly cheering spectators for a parade of two thousand uniformed Nazis. Not in Munich but in Yaphank, Long Island. Joe Greenstein’s anti-Nazi battles had begun as soon as Hitler’s supporters had attempted to sink American roots. He had an idea of what was coming. “Throughout time, for the Jews it never changes. Fight to live. There is no alternative.” The Nazi was a creature of the streets, and there Joe lowered himself to meet them.

The Mighty Atom takes on the Nazis:

He revised and augmented his lectures. In addition to his discourse on clean living, he talked of current events. Pinned to his metal-covered board of 2-inch pine was a caricature of a pig wearing a swastika arm band. The head of the pig was that of Adolf Hitler. After a few choice comments about the German in question, the Atom would take a twenty-penny spike in his hand and smack it through the Nazi pig’s heart. The crowd cheered its approval, but certain others didn’t think it quite so funny.

About forty years later, Norman Jacobs, Joe’s son-in-law, remembered an incident of that time. “I was sitting in their Park Place kitchen with my wife Mary and Leah, when we heard a wild commotion outside. We looked out the window to find Pop mixing it up with four men in the alley. I started out the door to help, but Leah ordered me to stay put. ‘Pop will take care of it. But you . . . she warned, ‘if you go out, you’ll get hurt.'”

When the sounds of battle had subsided, the family went into the alleyway where they found the first combatant sprawled unconscious, his arm and leg broken. The second assailant was discovered in a garbage can, head and legs down, having been folded up and deposited like a discarded sandwich, the can cover neatly on top of him. The third man fled. Joe sat atop the fourth bruiser, putting the finishing touches on him.

The Mighty Atom had spent the afternoon making one of his anti-Hitler speeches; the Nazi quartet had followed him home and waylaid him in the alley. “Who are they, Pop?” Leah asked him.

Joe got to his feet, brushed off his pants, and surveyed the men in the alley. “Nobody,” he said.

There were dispiriting moments on mornings when he considered the number of well-organized Nazi goons that he might have to go up against that afternoon. At these times there was a passage in the Bible that revitalized him. His was the same secret weapon with which Joshua and Israel had overcome the terrifying horde arrayed against them:

. . . I will be an enemy unto thine enemies, and an adversary unto thine adversaries. For mine angel shall go before thee…

—Exodus XXIII:22: 23

Shortly after a huge Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in February, 1939, the Mighty Atom found himself walking through Manhattan’s Yorkville German section on a business matter. He stopped in his tracks at a sign in bold letters posted on a building’s second floor: “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED!”

He stared at it for a while before inquiring of a passerby, “What the hell is that?” He was informed that a Nazi Bund meeting was being conducted upstairs. He went across the street to a paint store, where with a three-dollar deposit, he rented an 18-foot ladder. Back he came and opened it beneath the sign. Returning across the street, this time to a sporting-goods store, he purchased a Louisville slugger baseball bat—a “Hank Greenberg Model.” He parked it in the doorway beneath the sign.

He went up the ladder, tore the sign down, and tossed it into the gutter. The operation had not gone unnoticed. Several of the Nazis looked out aghast from the second-floor window. The action which followed was in the best tradition of a Popeye cartoon. Before the Atom could climb down from his high perch, the entire Bund assembly had come charging down the stairs into the street.

The Mighty Atom was shaken off his ladder, but he came up bat in hand. They came at him singly and in numbers, frontally and encircling; all to no avail. “It wasn’t a fight,” Joe said later, “it was a pleasure.” He sent eighteen of them to the hospital in various stages of extreme disrepair. He sustained a black eye.

Hauled into court on a charge of aggravated assault, mass mayhem, and so forth, a bedraggled but surprisingly cheerful Joe Greenstein stood meekly and alone before the bench, his only compatriot the “mouse” under his eye. A white-haired judge looked solemnly down as the charge was read. The jurist could hardly believe that the mild, little man before him could have perpetrated such an assault. Then, he surveyed the victims before him, a veritable parade of broken joints, purple contusions, and awkwardly plastered and wired limbs. The battered Aryans filled half the courtroom.

“You mean this little man . . . did that . . . to all of them?” the judge inquired in disbelief.

“Yes, Your Honor,” nodded an eyewitness police sergeant. “Them that ain’t still in the hospital.”

The judge turned his attention to the defendant. “Mr. Greenstein, these are serious charges. Do you have anything to say?”

“Yessir, Judge.” The Atom brightened. “Every time I swung the bat it was a home run!”

Quietly, the judge inquired of the sergeant what had provoked such a clash. “Them’re Nazis, Your Honor,” the officer whispered. “They went after him.”

“NOT GUILTY! CASE DISMISSED!” The judge banged his gavel.

“But, Your Honor . . .” the Bund’s lawyer protested. “I said, case dismissed.” The gavel boomed again with finality, and the judge retired to his chambers.

Photos from Spielman’s book:

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.42 AMThe young Mighty Atom

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.05.11 AMThe Mighty Atom stops an airplane tied to his hair from taking off

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 10.06.08 AMThe Mighty Atom pulls a fire engine

 

Screen shot 2015-03-16 at 11.39.18 AM

1 Comment »

  1. What’s that??!! No pontificating about long hair on men (especially old men)?!

    My, but you’re getting soft, Louis!

    Comment by Todd — March 18, 2015 @ 3:42 pm


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