Authors: Tony Curtis
The next time I took Alicia out she invited me back to her tiny little apartment, and we necked in the living room. Things were hot and heavy for a while, and then she said, “Excuse me a minute,” and went into the bathroom. When she came back out, she was wearing only her panties and her bra. I was stunned. She had an amazingly voluptuous body. I started to unbutton my shirt, and she sweetly took my hand and walked me over to her bed. This is what I had always imagined sex would be like, just like it was in the movies.
We began to touch each other, and after all these years I can still remember the smoothness of her skin and how great it smelled. I was worried about how I would perform the first time, but I made up for my inexperience with sheer enthusiasm. And Alicia made it easy for me. She was just so sweet and loving. I can’t imagine how I could have had a better first experience. I found myself thinking.
I’ve got to grow up in a hurry, so I can have more of this.
Even then I knew I wasn’t ready for a real relation ship.
Unfortunately, I was right. Alicia and I continued to go out, but the time between dates got longer and longer. Alicia was kind to me, which is to say that she didn’t dump me. But we both knew that what we had together wasn’t going to go any distance. We never made love again, but that one time was truly unforgettable.
hat same year
, two years after Julie’s death, my parents decided to have another child. I couldn’t understand what they thought they were doing. Maybe they were looking for evidence that God wasn’t punishing them. But as far as I was concerned, my parents had no business having another child. They had cared so little for the ones they had already had! But the next thing I knew, I had a baby brother, Robert.
My parents bought a carriage for Bobby, and I would push it up and down the street. One reason I enjoyed it was that the good-looking girls who sat across the street rocking their own baby carriages would look at me as I walked by. They were eighteen and nineteen, mothers already, and I kept hoping one of them would invite me into her apartment and have sex with me. It never happened.
If I felt remote from my family before Bobby was born, afterward I felt even more so. What little enthusiasm my parents had for child rearing went into Bobby, although I can’t say they treated him any better than they had Julie and me. My parents had mellowed a bit, and money wasn’t quite so tight, but I just don’t think they were cut out for raising children.
I tried to feel close to my new baby brother, but I didn’t have much success. I couldn’t help but compare him with Julie. Julie and I would fight and laugh and scream and hug each other. Without him, I was flying solo. Bobby just couldn’t begin to fill the hole that Julie’s death left behind. I was going to school, but I didn’t give a shit one way or the other. Fuck school. Fuck that whole system. I wasn’t going to get involved with it, not one bit.
I couldn’t wait until I could get out of the Bronx, even though I had no idea what my future would hold. What future? When I look back on those days, I wonder what might have happened if my parents had said to me, “We see that you’re interested in art and acting, so we’re going to send you to a special school that will help you develop your talents and interests.” My parents had no idea what my interests were. I try not to fault them for that, since they raised their kids much the way everyone else did in those days. But the bottom line was that I was lost, and the education I was getting was “fuck ’em and feed ’em fish,” although that wasn’t a line I’d understand until I was stationed in Guam during World War II.
When we were stationed there, the chief quartermaster was responsible for feeding all the sailors on the island. He oversaw the menus, and made sure they were followed and the meals were cooked properly. One day one of the men who acquired food rushed in and said, “Chief, we’re in trouble. I went out to get chicken and there’s not enough to feed the men.” The chief didn’t miss a beat, replying, “Fuck ’em, and feed ’em fish.” Word got out, and from that time on, we used that as our mantra.
Looking back, I can see that poverty also played a damaging role in my childhood. Lots of kids never get to know who they are or get a real chance at success in life because they don’t have the few advantages they need. Good things may still happen to you, but if they do, poverty tends to cancel them out. My mother was frustrated and bitter about the cards she’d been dealt in life. After she’d take some of that frustration out on me by slapping me around a bit, I wasn’t going to go out into the street and find a quiet place to practice the violin. That just wasn’t going to happen. It’s far more likely in that situation that you’re going to take that rage you feel and go push some other kid around. And if you’re lucky, you’ll stay out of jail.
fter I graduated
from the ninth grade, we moved back to Manhattan, near the corner where my father had had his old tailor shop. I was glad to be back in Manhattan, which was a much better place for me to live than the Bronx. I always liked the action there, so even when I lived in the Bronx, I would find my way to Manhattan. I liked the subways. There were always good-looking girls on them, and sometimes they would make eyes at me.
After we returned to Manhattan my father opened a new tailor shop. One time my father went a little nuts in the new store. Whether it was caused by alcohol or stress, I don’t know. I doubt it was alcohol. He kept it in the house, and he would take a nip now and then, but I never once saw him drunk. My father just couldn’t handle stress. He did the sewing, and my mother ran the store. If there was a dispute with a customer, she handled it.
On this day it was hot and muggy, a typical summer afternoon. I was hanging around outside the shop, when my mother called for me: “Bernie! Bernie!” I opened the door, and there was my father under the stairwell, gripping a knife in his hand as though he was going to kill himself. My father’s eyes were fixed in a blank stare; they didn’t move, or even blink. It was like he was hypnotized. When my mother tried to get his attention he didn’t seem to see her.
My mother asked me to go under the stairs to talk to him, and as I moved a little closer I could see him begin to come to grips with where he was. He looked genuinely surprised to find himself under the staircase with the knife. I sometimes think my father may have had some mental illness too. But maybe it was just that the pressure got to be too much sometimes, and he snapped.
The pressure in the larger world was building too. We started hearing stories about the way the Germans were persecuting Jews, about the Nazis’ Jew baiting and discrimination. I hated the Nazis. Once I started to hear about what Hitler and the Nazis were doing to the Jews, I would have recurrent nightmares about it.
A little ways uptown from where we lived was the part of New York they called Germantown. Here Americans who sympathized with the Nazis would march down First Avenue to show their solidarity with Hitler. When we knew that one of these parades was under way, a gang of my friends and I would make our way onto the rooftops, jumping from roof to roof until we overlooked the parade.
A year earlier I had discovered the existence of condoms, which now we filled with anything that would splatter on the German marchers. We’d fill them with water or piss or colored dye or dog food and drop them from the roof. We also took women’s nylons, filled them the same way, twirled them over our heads, and let them fly! We’d watch as our missiles struck the young kids and their parents marching in those stinking Nazi uniforms.
The first time we did it, we didn’t realize how angry they would get. The Nazi sympathizers ran up into the building in a rage, so we had to escape over the roofs to Second Avenue, where we climbed down a fire escape and dropped down to the street. Even then we couldn’t just nonchalantly walk away. We were a pretty ragged lot, so we drew some attention. Three tough-looking men cornered me, but I was able to dodge past the first one, and then I just took off like a bullet down Second Avenue. The men had bats in their hands, and it was one of the few times I felt really scared. Fortunately, I was able to outrun them. And so it was that I fought my own little war. Little did I know that in a short while our entire nation would be engulfed by the real thing.
Around this time I decided I didn’t like my last name, Schwartz, because it was German. Changing my name was my way of telling the Germans to go fuck themselves. I began experimenting with different names, calling myself David Street, or David Sparrow, or David Sorrow. Meanwhile, my parents enrolled me at Seward Park High School, which was so far downtown that the streets didn’t have numbers anymore. As it turned out, I never showed up there because I so desperately wanted to get away. I knew if I hung around much longer, I’d never escape. So I decided to join the Navy and see the world.
Performing in a musical while enlisted in the Navy, 1943.
n the spring of 1942
, I took the Lexington Avenue train from my home to downtown Manhattan. I walked over to Whitehall Street and entered a big red granite fortress of a building where you could enlist in the armed forces. I went in and asked, “Can I join the military?” Needless to say, they were only too delighted to help me.
There was a whole group of young guys signing up that day. A sergeant asked all of us to fill out a form indicating what branch of service we wanted to be in. I put down the Navy. After the sergeant collected our forms he said, “Sixty-five percent of you want to be in the Navy, thirty-five percent of you want to be in the Army, and just two of you want to be Marines. That means that except for you two, all of you other guys want to live forever.” I almost took the bait and switched my request to the Marines, but then I took a moment to consider whether I wanted to survive the war or not. I decided I’d take my chances with the Navy.
Because I was only sixteen, I had to get one of my parents to sign a form saying they consented to my enlistment. I had absolutely no intention of letting my parents get in the way of my escape, so I took the form outside, forged my mother’s signature, waited an hour, went back in, and gave it to the guy at the desk. He took the paper, glanced at the signature, and said, “Welcome to the Navy.”
That afternoon I went back home and told my parents I had enlisted and was due to report the next day. I’d been right about their reaction; they weren’t at all happy about what I’d done.
My mother said, “How did you get in?”
“I just went and signed up.”
“But you’re so young,” she said. “Why do you have to go into the war? Where are you going to go?”
“Mom,” I said, “it’s a great thing to join the Navy. You see the world. They’ll be sending me everywhere, and don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so,” she said.
I packed a few clothes and returned for my enlistment the next day. I had to take a physical to make sure I was healthy, and after I passed it, I was issued a duffel bag, some clothes, and some underwear. A group of us went into a big room, where a recruiter lectured us on what it meant to be a sailor and what was expected of us. Then they fed us.
I was filled with excitement. The way I saw it, people are like leaves that have fallen into a swift-moving stream. As the leaves get carried downstream, some are caught in rocks and never get any farther. Some are swept to shore. Others—the lucky ones—keep going, missing the stones, staying clear of the shore, staying afloat until they reach the river delta and break free into open water. I was that sort of leaf when I joined the Navy. It was the happiest day of my life.
The following day the Navy sent me to a recruiting station in the town of Samson in upper New York State. There we were given haircuts and started our training. We marched a lot, which I loved. Everyone was very friendly. I didn’t run across any animosity. A couple of guys didn’t seem to like me, but they didn’t like anybody, so I avoided them just like everybody else did. I made friends with a couple of Puerto Rican guys.
We were there for six weeks, and even though we had a couple of weekends off, I never left the base. They showed us movies and held dances for us. For the first time in my life, I tasted the unbelievable freedom of being on my own. My mother wasn’t screaming. My father wasn’t sitting there looking morose. All around me were the eager young faces of guys like me, and we all became friends.
I enjoyed the Navy because our country looked after us—I don’t know how else to put it. The Navy was my surrogate family. They gave us shots, fed us, and tried to make sure we were safe wherever we went. Some of us would get killed, but not for lack of effort on the Navy’s part. I have to say that I totally enjoyed the Navy experience.
Because I wasn’t yet eighteen, I couldn’t go overseas, so when I finished basic training, the Navy sent me to school to learn a specialty. I didn’t know how to do anything when I went into the service. I didn’t know how to fix an engine. I didn’t even know how to cook or sew, so they decided to send me to school to become a signalman.
The Navy signalman school was located on the Champaign-Urbana campus of the University of Illinois. I had a really good time there. I learned Morse code, and I learned how to wave semaphore flags so that if all else failed we could communicate messages on the open water.
There were a lot of guys in the Navy who had never seen a Jew before. One guy, Jack Petapalitta, who came from the Deep South, wanted to see my horns. Where he grew up, everybody believed that Jews had horns on their heads. I pulled my hair back and told him, “Jack, you can look all day, but you ain’t gonna find no horns.” The nice part was, he had no real feeling about it either way, and we got to be friends. But my antennae were always up for anti-Semites.
There were lots of beautiful girls at the Champaign-Urbana campus. Since I intended to go into show business after I got out of the Navy, I decided to try out for a part in a musical the college music department was putting on for the Navy base on campus. Here was a chance to pursue my dream of acting and meet girls at the same time. They had a casting call for sailors, and out of the hundred guys who tried out, eight or nine were chosen, and one of those lucky guys was me. I was ecstatic when the director picked me. I had just gotten to school, and already I had a part in a play!
Once again I found that I wasn’t intimidated at all by performing. I felt that being up on that stage was where I belonged. I danced. I sang. I even nuzzled a girl in one romantic scene. Nobody taught me how. I just did it, and it worked.
I don’t remember my lines from that show, but I do remember how much I loved showing off. I also know that the girls were just nuts about me, which caused one of the other guys in the play to really hate me. But by this time I was used to guys being jealous, and it didn’t bother me. Taking shit from a couple of jealous guys was a small price to pay for the good time I was having.
I was in the Navy when they showed us the Cary Grant movie
on base. Cary Grant was my idol. There was nobody in the movies like him. He was the personification of everything a man should be. Cary could be funny, sure, but he could also be smart, or tough. In
he played a hard man who didn’t take crap from anybody. He was like that in a lot of his movies. But Cary had manners, too. He would light a woman’s cigarette for her, and his clothes were always impeccable. He wore double-breasted jackets, and I noticed how high his shirt collars were.
I must have gone to see every movie Cary Grant ever made. It was clear that when I was in that movie theater, Cary Grant was talking to me. He was saying,
All right, Bernie, when you’re on a date and you get out of a cab, give the driver a five-dollar bill on a two-dollar ride and then get out and open the door on the other side and hold it while the lady gets out.
This was the priceless information I learned from him: how to behave when it mattered most. Cary Grant was talking to
and I was doing my very best to take it all in.
After I saw
with Cary Grant as the submarine commander, I was glad I’d made an unusual choice about what I wanted to do in the Navy. Only a handful of sailors picked the submarines. I was one of them.
When my time at Champaign-Urbana was up, I was promoted from Seaman First Class to Signalman Third Class. I’m not sure why I was promoted; maybe it was because for the first time in my life I had good grades. Or maybe it was because I got along with the girls running the place. As I was packing my clothes to leave, I can remember one of the other sailors saying to his buddy, “You can see why he got promoted.”
He walked over to me and said, “Hey, gigolo, what about us?” Meaning, why hadn’t
gotten promoted—as though it was somehow my fault. He was about my size, and he was looking to pick a fight. Before he could move, I pushed my hand into his face and shoved him, and he fell over backward. He got up, and we threw a couple of punches at each other. He hit me on the side of my head, and I hit him in the mouth a couple of times before the other guys came over and broke it up. Fortunately, no one reported us. That was the end of that, but I still remember the guy’s face.
he Navy sent
fifteen of us to New London, Connecticut, the main U.S. submarine base. They bunked us down in the barracks, and I went to all kinds of classes to qualify as part of a submarine crew. I couldn’t believe they would trust me with that kind of responsibility, so I decided to take my new role seriously. I paid close attention to everything they taught us, and I tried hard to do well in my classes.
This felt very different from the days in New York when I had hated school. I had hated school because I had hated my life. But I liked my life in the Navy. They treated me well, and for the first time ever I felt like I had a purpose. I also found I had an aptitude for it. Before the Navy, I had some idea that I might be bright, but I hid the feeling. I didn’t want to be even more different. Also, the Navy appealed to your sense of honor, which resonated with me. So once I decided I wanted to be in subs, I vowed I would do the best I could because my honor was at stake. The washout rate for sub school was pretty high, but I was determined to make it all the way through.
Three subs were tied up at the base in New London, huge, intimidating, steel-plated monsters. Two weeks after arriving in New London, I went into a submarine for the very first time, along with four other new recruits. As we climbed down the conning tower, my first thought was,
I wonder if I did the right thing.
It was so tight in there that I couldn’t help but feel claustrophobic, especially after they locked down the watertight door to the outside world.
Once we were amidships I couldn’t believe how little room there was. The inside of a submarine looks a lot bigger in the movies. The training officers took us into the control room, where we were told all about the submarine: what class it was, how much range it had, how deep it could go, etc. Then we went forward to the torpedo room. We saw the engine room, the mess hall, and where the sailors slept. I couldn’t believe how tight everything was. To get into a bunk I had to grab the bar above it and pull my butt and legs onto the mattress. It felt like I was resting in a chest of drawers.
Our trainers told us that submarine duty wasn’t for everyone, and that if we wanted to opt out, now was the time to say something. I imagined myself spending long stretches of time at sea, sliding in and out of those tiny bunks, eating in a crowded little mess area, not to mention living with the danger of having the sub blown apart by depth charges. I admit it was daunting, but I was damned if I was going to be drummed out because I couldn’t take the pressure. I owed it to myself to make this work.
Once you elected to stay, you still had to pass some rigorous physical tests before you qualified for sub duty. But I was ready. As it turned out, all those times I had climbed up the steel beams of the El to beat the fare would serve me well. The toughest test of all was a simulated escape from a submarine. In the middle of our training camp a ten-story tower had been constructed and completely filled with water. You had to start at the bottom with a Munson lung, the predecessor to the scuba tank. Your job was to make your way gradually up to the top, using a guide line. If you floated up too fast, you could get the bends. A lot of guys couldn’t do it; they panicked, let the rope go, and would have to be rescued by divers. I had no trouble at all.
Those of us who passed the physical and written tests were crammed like cattle into old-fashioned rail cars. Then we rolled and rattled across the country for five long days until we got to San Diego, California. The Navy purposely kept the train moving slowly in order to stagger the arrival of sailors all around the country who were converging on San Diego. Sometimes the train was so slow we could get out and walk alongside it to get some exercise and relieve the boredom. Along the way girls from small towns would hop on the train and ride with us as far as they felt like going. We’d play cards or charades with them, or we’d kiss a little.
Finally we arrived in San Diego, where I was assigned to another base for more schooling. One weekend a group of us drove up from San Diego to Los Angeles, where we went to the famous Hollywood Canteen restaurant and nightclub. Movie stars came there to entertain the troops, and on this occasion the headliner was Gloria DeHaven. She was a real beauty. At one point our eyes locked; I was smiling, and she smiled back at me. I thought, if I wasn’t in this sailor suit I could talk to her a bit, and we could have a drink, and who knows? Her hair was almost blond, and I was struck by the way her dress clung to her voluptuous body—to her full breasts, her tiny waist, and her curvaceous hips. Then it was back to San Diego, where I completed my training. Before I knew it, I was boarding a huge transport ship for the long journey to Pearl Harbor.