You might think about a one-man, one-act play, performed by the writer on a completely plain stage, and think about better things you could do that night than see it. Maybe wash your hair. Or the car. Or the dog.
You would be entirely wrong.
If you were to have a chance to see “Uncle Philip’s Coat” and you do not jump at it, you will miss the unfolding of a complex character, reflexively funny, reluctantly sad, irrefutably tragic, that is also deeply woven into the 20th-century Jewish immigrant experience.
Matty Selman wrote “Uncle Philip’s Coat,” and most of the time he performs it as well. (There are three characters in the play; a quick change of accessory and of tone and accent tells the audience which one is in front of them.) Mr. Selman, who was born in Jersey City, grew up on Staten Island, and now lives in Manhattan, has told an only-sort-of-embellished version of his own family’s improbable, only-in-America, could-only-be-Jews, right? story. It’s got gunslingers, war stories, operatic divas, left-wing politics, dancing chickens, and nursery schools, among many other elements. Not all these stories end up in the play, but they all undergird it.
To spend time with Mr. Selman is to be regaled with stories, to be almost pelted with stories, to hear so many stories that they come together in a glorious jumble. It’s impossible to retell all of them, although it was necessary for him to know all of them and live through many of them to come up with “Uncle Philip’s Coat,” but here are some of them.
Mr. Selman’s grandfather, Sam, came off the boat on Ellis Island as a teenager; “a guy came right up to him and said ‘For $35, which I know you don’t have right now, you will have a cemetery plot.’ This was real. My grandfather started paying it off. It’s in Passaic Junction.”
Sam was a “New York kind of wheeler dealer,” Mr. Selman said. Before the Great Crash, he owned stores, and he was rich. “He had a car, with isinglass windows and a running board, and a driver who wore a leather cap and was named John. He was in one of the first cars to go through the Lincoln Tunnel.” The family lived in Harlem, on 121st Street near Amsterdam Avenue, in what was then a ritzy neighborhood.
Sam’s wife, Millie, came from upstate New York (or at least the part of New York that downstaters call upstate, Beacon, and then Newburgh). “If there is any artistic bent in me, it comes from Millie’s mother, Dora Goodman,” Mr. Selman said. “She was from Vienna, and talk about stereotypes. She was elegant, she sang, she married a guy who looked like a Hungarian Clint Eastwood, made money in Galveston, shot cougars, and kept his guns in a wooden chest.
“I still have that chest,” he added. The guns, though, are long gone.
Dora and Millie ran a store upstate; when Millie and Sam married, there was a cultural clash that had to be negotiated. Sam was used to small stores, “where you bought two peaches and three apples. Where my grandmother grew up, you buy by the bushel,” Mr. Selman said.
To get ahead of the story, when Mr. Selman’s father, Jerome, came home from the war, he brought a booklet with him that “showed how to prepare meals for a platoon,” Mr. Selman said. “She’s reading this, sees 3,400 eggs, 200 pounds of toast, and she’s going, ‘Yeah. That’s just about right.’”
When the crash brought Sam Selman’s retail empire down, he became an insurance agent with Prudential, and the family moved to Bayonne. “There’s a picture of him in the late 1930s, what they called the Old Guard, with first line of Prudential insurance men,” Mr. Selman said. “They all looked like mobsters.” (That picture is on the bottom of this page.)
Jerome Selman was the oldest of the family’s three sons. “They were all really bright,” Matty Selman said. “They were all valedictorians. They were the smart Jewish boys who were going to save the family.”
Jerome Selman went to Cooper Union as an undergraduate, and became a civil engineer. In April 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 187th Infantry as a machine gunner. He was deployed in November of that year and shipped overseas in December to the Battle of the Bulge, and on January 1945 he was wounded. He nearly died, and his life was changed.
How did it happen? “There were war stories that he just couldn’t talk about,” Mr. Selman said, but there are some that he did know. His father’s sergeant had been very upset because someone had taken his Walnettos — a popular caramel candy — so “he wasn’t thinking clearly, and he sent my father and another GI out to what they called the ammo dump, about 45 minutes on the other side of where they were, toward the German front, to get more ammo.
“That was right at the Maginot line. It was nighttime. The sergeant didn’t estimate how long it would take them to get there. It was something that they did under cover of darkness, and he estimated wrong.
“By the time my father and this other guy started trudging back, it was 4, 4:30, and light enough for the guys in the German pillbox, 1,500 feet away, to see them. So as soon as it was light, they were strafed, and his friend was hit in the head, and my father gave him all his morphine pills. And then they were strafed again, and the other guy died, and a bullet shot through my father’s left calf and through his knee.
“My father said that when he was shot, he didn’t feel pain immediately. It felt like someone had hit the bottom of his boot with a cold wet hammer. It was cold out, so cold that his blood froze. That’s what saved him.
“He had to remain on that hillside for 14 hours, until it was dark again.
“Sometimes, when I am alone with my thoughts, when I am afraid of doing something, no matter how small or how big, I think about what it must have been like for my father during those 14 hours. You don’t know what the next minute will bring. And it was 14 hours.
“When nighttime did come, he took his carbine, and he walked away.”
Jerome Selman was taken to a field hospital, “where they didn’t have ambulances, just jeeps. So they would take the stretchers and tie them onto the hood of the jeeps. And whenever they were shelled, the drivers would jump out, and there he’d be, lying across the hood.”
After he was well enough to leave England, he was sent to Halloran Army Hospital on Staten Island. He crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. He wasn’t in a position to appreciate it, though — he still was in traction. Halloran later became Willowbrook, the state hospital notorious for the way it warehoused and mistreated children with Down’s Syndrome.
“He’s in the paraplegic ward, and all of the guys there with him were in traction, and the nurses would come and scratch their backs. There was this cute little nurse named Ruthie, who was from Staten Island and happened to be Jewish.
“She saw that my father had a bag tied to the side of his bed, stuffed with books and literature.”
Matty’s father had been a poet and a painter. “He wrote a beautiful short story that was published with a compilation of Whit Burnett’s,” he said. The story was called “A Sword for Serena,” and it was in “Story: The Fiction of the Forties”; although not many people today know about Whit Burnett or his literary magazine, called “Story,” the magazine was prestigious. To have a story in it was a major coup.
Ruthie — who of course was Matty’s mother, Ruth — “won the English award at Lincoln High School. Of course she’ll be attracted to the guy who was literate.”
Ruthie’s last name was Corey, he said, but “her real last name was Zhivatovsky.”
The two started a writers’ group at the hospital. As their relationship continued, “my mother saw that his leg was deteriorating, and there was talk of amputating it. She was adamant that it would not happen, and she provided physical therapy, and he credited her with having saved his leg.
“It’s funny,” Matty continued, not talking about anything that is at all ha-ha funny. “At the end of his life, my father was in a VA hospital, and during the course of that time I felt like he was living the war over again. What happened was that those guys were young and strong, and so despite their injuries they were okay, but with their wounds this gets compromised, and that gets compromised, and then 50 years later these things start echoing. And then suddenly the war comes back.
“One of the sad things that happened to my father was when he was wounded, because he had that kind of brain, he got fascinated with medicine, and he wanted to be a doctor,” Matty continued. “He claimed that it wasn’t anti-Semitism, but apparently none of the medical schools in the United States would consider his degree from Cooper Union as something that would get him into medical school. His only option was to go to Switzerland.” He didn’t.
Ruth Corey Selman’s mother was one of a pair of sisters, Lillian and Anyuta, who came off the boat from Russia together. Lillian was the revolutionary, the firebrand, “like Perchik in ‘Fiddler,’”; the maybe wise, maybe know-it-all sister who “would go up to women with their babies in the park and snatch the pacifiers from their mouths and tell them ‘You’re ruining their teeth!’”
Ruthie grew up as a wunderkind, the marvel in a family of marvels; a socialist madcap in a family of madcaps and socialists. Like her aunt Lillian, Ruthie learned high culture, and particularly loved music; in fact, one of Matty’s strongest school memories is the time he didn’t get into the orchestra in fifth grade. “I walked the three blocks to the house and my mother is standing at the door, with a big smile on her face, and she asks me how I did. When I say I failed, she grabs my hand — I still have the marks! — and literally pulls me back to school and up the stairs to the principal’s office.
“My mother was barely five feet tall, and the principal was an impressive Irish woman, six feet something tall, who always wore these suits. She was magnificent. My mother stands in the doorway, and says ‘I am Mrs. Selman, and this is my son Matthew. I am not leaving until my son is in the orchestra.’ There was total silence. It was like David and Goliath. There was no way she could survive unless she gave in to the little lady.”
That’s how Mr. Selman learned to play the trombone, and why today he is a composer.
So the Selman sons grew up on Staten Island; Jerome worked for the government, and Ruth, who went to college after her sons were in their teens, spent 50 years in the Montessori preschool movement; in fact, some of Matty’s most poignant stories about her come from the teachers, parents, and students whose lives she lit.
Matty Selman was born in 1949, and the Staten Island on which he grew up was a remote place. The Verrazano Bridge had not yet been built. And it was not very Jewish. In fact, “it was a hotbed of conservatism, where I learned about anti-Semitism,” Mr. Selman said. On the other hand, it held wonders. “The Revolutionary War started on Staten Island, when King George had his Hessian soldiers bivouac in Richmondtown, and they attacked Brooklyn from there,” he continued. “When I was a kid, my father used to take me to dig, and we would find soldiers’ spoons.
“It was very provincial, and closed off from the rest of the world,” he said. “All farms and golf ranges. There was a strange amusement park and restaurant called Al Deppe’s. It had a dancing chicken. You put in a quarter, and the chicken got an electric shock, and it danced. There was a farmer’s market that was open only at night, where in the dark, out of nowhere, you’d see tents strung with light bulbs, and guys selling comic books with half their covers torn off.
“It was like a Fellini movie.”
Mr. Selman remembers a trip he and his family took. “We took a cross-country trip in 1954. My father had an assignment to do some inspections in Bakersfield, so we drove in a 1951 Oldsmobile. The car was a light minty green, and there was a lot of chrome, and in the center of the drive shaft there was a little three-dimensional diorama of a rocket ship.
“And there were electric windows — they were hydraulic, and they leaked.” It was an innocent, almost prelapsarian time — a fancy way of saying that there were no seatbelts, and no ideas about safety. “I went cross-country lying in the back window of this tank, looking out the window. It was like being in a moving Hayden Planetarium.”
It was very hot, and the family drove across the Mohave Dessert. “It was way before car air conditioning, but my father found this thing, in a place called Pep Boys.”
“It was like an oversized shoebox, made of anodized aluminum,” he continued. It was all very Rube Goldberg. The box was filled with ice, which the family bought at every gas station they passed, and one hole in it was plugged with a sponge. They also plugged a fan into the cigarette lighter, and the fan whirred and blew the cold air around the car.
“It was 110 degrees out. My mother is sitting in the front seat, in her brassiere, nursing the baby” — his mother was very progressive, in that as in so many other ways — “and the front seat of the car is like a sectional sofa. It’s like a living room that can steer.”
The Selman took Route 66 down through the South — from Chicago to L.A.! — and they slept in motels. “There was no speed limit then, and we were going at 60 miles an hour. We pulled into a lot, one night, at about 7, and there was still a bit of twilight, and we paid and went into a tent, and saw a production of ‘Porgy and Bess.’”
Mr. Selman pauses when he tells the story. The wonder of the twilight and the tent and the music and the strangeness and the beauty are still alive for him. “We sat on bales of hay, and it was lit by torches,” he said, with reverence.
They got to California in July of 1955; by pure chance, they ended up at Disneyland on opening day. “I remember a traumatic thing,” Mr. Selman said. “I was on the Dumbo ride, and it got stuck. They had to take a ladder to get me down from it. My first image of Disneyland was that it was broken. But I also remember being held by a guy in a space suit.”
Staten Island might have been an isolated place, but it was not without culture; in fact, there was a lot of it, centered on Wagner College, which “has one of the top theater programs in the country,” Mr. Selman said. His mother took him to see all sorts of plays; he remembers seeing John Carradine, the father — “He had a face! All craggy and weathered. I saw him in ‘A Man For All Seasons,’ in a red gown, parading across the stage. I was a little kid, and I remember staring in awe.”
He saw Richard Kiley in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” and he saw Richard Burton in “Hamlet.” “The color of his smoking jacket was the exact color of my grandmother’s drapes,” he remembers.
Mr. Selman went to the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan — not an easy feat if you live on Staten Island, but “there was a group of us that went there,” he said. It was an hour and a half each way, but it was worth it. He graduated in 1969, and had to figure out how to deal with the draft, which might have sent him to Vietnam. “My father was a war hero, but he didn’t want me to go,” Mr. Selman said. “He discovered that there was a legal loophole other than the student deferment. It was a loophole set up for the sons of statesmen and ambassadors who found themselves abroad at 18.” Matty’s father was neither a statesman nor an ambassador, but his parents decided that he would find himself abroad on his birthday, which was in May, nonetheless. So, just before he turned 18, Matty, who had never been abroad before, went to London. He was going to study theater there, his parents decided, and he was going to sign up at the American embassy as a conscientious objector.
His parents had figured everything out except what he was going to do when he got off the plane, where he would live, what he would eat, and, most importantly, how he would register. They gave him $50 and their ceaseless confidence in him. Many misadventures later — chief among them his being assigned a fleabag hotel room already given to someone else, and his being thrown out of that room at 4 in the morning — it worked.
And then he went back and finished high school, and then he drove across the Manhattan bridge and into an accident that kept him in stitches — not in the good way — and away from graduation, and then he went to Woodstock. But he had gone there with his cousin, who was 14 to his 18, and she vanished in the crush of people at the start of the festival, only to reappear at its end, so he spent the whole time worrying. “It wasn’t pleasant, but it was memorable,” he reported.
So what about “Uncle Philip’s Coat”?
It’s the story of his mother’s brother, a sad man of great but lost promise. His mother loved him. “She always took him in and fed him,” he said. “He’d sit at the table in a blue serge suit, so grateful for a meal. He’d come for Shabbes. She really loved him, but the rest of the family didn’t. You could pick up her empathy for him.
“After every dinner, my parents would clear the coffee table and he would start displaying the things in his pockets, things he’d try to sell — kazoos, beautiful pens, all sorts of things. He was like a walking display case. During the day, he’d be on the boardwalk on Coney Island, selling these things. Sometimes he’d sleep in the basement. His shoes would be polished with Vaseline, and he’d leave the bathroom spotless. It was never cleaner than when it was cleaned by a homeless guy.”
Uncle Philip died in 1994; his story sat inside Matty for some time. Matty’s a writer, mainly — a playwright, lyricist, and composer, and the creator of “The Gefilte Fish Chronicles,” which has played in venues including the White House — but he had been a performer at one point too. Although “Uncle Philip’s Coat” had been written for another actor, he ended up performing it. The play has won many awards; it was named 2015’s best production — the top award! — out of 150 finalists, from six continents, in the United Solo Festival, held in Manhattan.
It’s playing around the country, sometimes starring Matty Selman. It’s the distillation of many of his stories; it’s Jewish, funny, sad, and true. If you can see it, do. If you can see anything else of Mr. Selman’s do that too.
To learn more about Matty Selman, go to www.mattyselman.com.