|The Fortune Academy, on upper Riverside Drive in Manhattan, houses ex-prisoners and gives them a new start.|
Before he was out of his early 30s, David Rothenberg had escorted Elizabeth Taylor, who was by then a friend, to the opening night of her husband Richard Burton’s star turn on Broadway as Hamlet.
He’d worked and socialized with Bette Davis, John Gielgud, and Ingrid Bergman, to name-drop just a few. He was a frequent visitor at S.J. Perelman’s farm in Bucks County, and later would have breakfast with him each week. (That might not mean anything to most readers, but to the ones who remember the New Yorker humorist, who wrote screenplays for the Marx Brothers and who crafted his essays to be perfect miniature works of pure art, it is an extraordinary distinction.)
But within a few years, the young theatrical agent, who had come very far very fast, gave it all up in favor of social activism. Prodded by a play he had represented, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” he founded and led the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that advocates for prison reform and helps convicts once they are released.
|David Rothenberg with Fay Wray, then far removed from her King Kong days.|
Rothenberg’ extraordinary path began in Bergen County, and on April 14 he will be back at the Teaneck Public Library, where he got his first library card, to talk about it.
David Rothenberg was born in 1933 in what was then known as Hackensack Hospital. His family, he said, was the first Jewish one in Teaneck; his uncle, Murray Rothenberg, was an all-county quarterback in the 1930s, although he never was allowed to start a game because the coach did not want a Jewish player showing up on the roster; his aunt, Hilda Rothenberg, was the captain of the cheerleaders’ society. (Murray Rothenberg later went on to own a used car dealership in Little Ferry called Don’t Worry, See Murray; other relatives include an aunt, Ruth Rothenberg Eby, who is married to a dentist, Harold Eby, and still lives in Haworth.)
Rothenberg’s memories of Bergen County Jewish life sound straight out of Philip Roth, although perhaps more suburban. He talks about his mother playing mah jongg with other Jewish women, and remembers, the next morning, before his mother cleaned them up, ashtrays full of “cigarettes – always for some reason Parliaments, they must have marketed to women – stained with bright red lipstick.” He went to Hebrew school at Temple Emanuel of Ridgefield Park, he was the editor of Teaneck High School’s newspaper, and he spent Friday nights at the movie theater on Cedar Lane.
Next, he went to college at the University of Denver. “There was just one plane a day that went there,” he said. “My father said that if I didn’t want to go there, there also was a school in Guam….” He had chosen Denver, though, because it was so far away. He loved his family deeply, but “I went to Denver so that I finally could get a word in edgewise. At home, to do that you needed a reservation.”
At college, in the early 1960s, Rothenberg began to be politicized, and became politically active. After he graduated, he was drafted into the army; he edited the newspaper at Fort Bragg. Then, free, young, deeply ambitious, not a performer but deeply in love with the theater, he came to New York for a career on Broadway. He worked so hard that he made himself irreplaceable – that much he acknowledges – and he was not only lucky, but brilliantly gifted as a publicist (that he comes nowhere close to saying, but the results made the cause clear) and he flourished.
It was while he was doing publicity for “Hair,” a very successful production that filtered rock music through Broadway gauze and allowed some brief, tastefully shadowed nudity on a legitimate stage, that Rothenberg’s life was transformed by “Fortune and Men’s Eyes.”
(The play’s title comes from William Shakespeare’s sonnet 29, which begins:
“When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcase state.”)
The play, about a young man imprisoned for the first time, climaxes in an offstage but nonetheless audience-traumatizing rape. It was far blunter and bolder than anything that preceded it. It was written by an ex-con, but still the actors searched for ever more authenticity.
“They wanted to go to a jail to see what it was like, and so we went to Riker’s Island,” he said. Each of them, including Rothenberg, was locked into a cell for a short time. It was one of the linked experiences that changed his life.
After the play opened, to mixed reviews but spectacular word of mouth, the actors and Rothenberg frequently would hold question-and-answer sessions after the final curtain. Through those sessions, Rothenberg met the people who spurred on the creation of the Fortune Society.
“When I look back, I don’t know how it all happened,” he said. “I couldn’t have planned it. When groups start now, they get foundation grants. We didn’t even know what a nonprofit is. We were trying to raise money, but we were really naÃ¯ve.”
Rothenberg’s theatrical background and connections were invaluable. At one fundraiser, Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman, and Bella Abzug, the outspoken Jewish feminist and member of Congress, co-hosted a program. Another time, “Bobby Short was singing Stephen Sondheim songs, and Stephen was turning the pages of the music for him. Can you imagine a party like that?” he asked, still sounding awestruck himself by it, all these decades later. But the glamour was in the background, in service to his work, and the people he helps are a universe away from his theatrical friends.
Rothenberg also is gay, a fact he kept secret until he was about 40, although the Stonewall riot and the gay liberation movement it set off happened a few years before. At first, he worried that coming out would nullify all the work he had done for prison reform. Eventually, he realized that he wanted to live honestly, and was gratified to realize that his colleagues supported him. Possibly, some of his intuitive identification with prisoners comes from his own feeling of having been imprisoned.
When Rothenberg is asked what he got from his Jewish background, he is quick to answer. “Humor,” he said. “Humor and a sense of family.” In fact, he is very funny; less of his humor comes through in his book, but it is hard to talk to him on the telephone without laughing often.
It does seem, though, that the strong Jewish imperative toward social justice, toward healing the world, is at least in part at work.