The little house in the big woods
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The little house in the big woods

Artist's family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

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Mitzie and Irving Docktor in 2007. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY B. DOCKTOR

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

Then pull the camera back a bit. You’ll see that the river is the Hudson, the time the second half of the 20th century, and the town is Fort Lee.

The house, built in the 1920s, still stands – still hidden, still improbable, still offering views of jaw-dropping beauty. The children’s mother, formally Mildred Docktor but more often Mitzie, 93, lives there still.

Her husband, the Docktor family patriarch, Irving (and it was still a time and a place and a family where it was both fair and accurate to call him that), who died in 2008, was a painter and illustrator who created, among many other works, the iconic cover art for the paperback versions of “The Brothers Karamazov” and “War and Peace.”

The family did not come to that extraordinary place accidentally.

Both Mitzie Himmelstein, as she was then, and Irv Docktor, who was born in 1918, grew up in Philadelphia. Her family owned a restaurant in Center City, five blocks from Independence Hall, logically enough called Himmelstein’s. “There were three Jewish restaurants on the block,” she said. “The one across the street claimed to be kosher. We never made any claims. But we served Jewish food – meatballs, kishkes, brains, and gefilte fish on Fridays.” The restaurant seated 150 people on its ground floor, and reserved the second floor, the banquet hall, for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other parties. The family lived on the third floor.

Her father, Sam, also ran the restaurant at the Cosmopolitan Club in Atlantic City, and she occasionally would work there. A large sugar bowl, substantial, old, heavily engraved, reminds her of it. “The restaurant was on the ground floor, but the kitchen was in the basement,” she remembered ruefully. “There was a dumbwaiter, but still…”

Irv’s family owned a pet shop a few blocks away from Himmelstein’s. That venture grew out of his own entrepreneurial father’s work selling animal food. “He used to go around with a wheelbarrow to deliver it,” Mitzie said. “Finally, he opened the store.”

Irv and Mitzie did not know each other, although they lived close to each other. He went to Central High School, an academic boys’ school; she went to its mirror, the Philadelphia High School for Girls. He went on to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, and she went to the Philadelphia College of Optometry, where she was one of only a handful of women.

Irv Docktor went off to war – he was in the Philippines, doing aerial photography – when his father died. His mother, Bertha, continued to run the store, and she regularly stopped off at Himmelstein’s for supper. Mitzie, meanwhile, had become an optometrist, and she managed an optometry store.

The mothers got together, and soon Irv was writing to Mitzie regularly. (But not until he had requested and she had sent him a photograph of herself, and he decided that she was up to his standards, she recalled.) Finally he came home, the two met, there was a long, romantic trolley ride – and a few months later they were married.

Mitzie does not know if Irv was the same kind of unstoppable artist during his childhood that he was throughout their life together, but both she and her children knew him as someone who drew as naturally and constantly as he breathed – someone whose pens and crayons and brushes seemed as integral a part of his fingers as skin and nail and bone; someone who saw no opportunity as too insignificant or sight too minor to be worth capturing. He drew everything. All the time.

That is a roundabout way of saying that the pet food packaging in his family store did not escape his attention. He redesigned it.

In that expansive postwar world, pet ownership was growing, and so too did the store. Soon, the family moved into the wholesale pet business. Irv, Mitzie, and their oldest child, Mark, had been comfortably ensconced in the family’s above-the-restaurant Philadelphia home, but they went off to New York to grow their business.

The Docktors found themselves in Flushing, just a few doors down from his younger brother, with a pet store in Hempstead and another in Levittown, both on Long Island. As is often the case, though, there were family problems. The brother basically absconded. “We were left with certain bills and responsibilities that we shared with him, but he wasn’t there,” Mitzie said delicately. “We had a problem. I was worried about losing my house.”

As the pet business went south, Irv relied more on his art. He freelanced, showing his art to publishers, getting commissions, producing book covers. He got work through Grosset and Dunlop, and then from Harper’s – from a vanished world of once-independent publishers – but he did not take a full-time job. “He never liked having anyone over him,” Mitzie said.

His book-cover work, done mainly in the 1950s and ’60s, included genre fiction – thrillers by Patricia Highsmith, mysteries by Christiana Brand and John Dickson Carr, science fiction by Robert A. Heinlein and James Blish, children’s books by Christine Noble Govan and Emmy West – as well as American classics by Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and Erskine Caldwell. His covers have the period’s characteristic dark look, with faces and figures that demand that you, the viewer, compose your own stories about them even before you read theirs. Much of his work, starting then and continuing for the rest of his life, is both psychologically and visually complex.

Irv began to teach art at night at the Newark School of Fine Arts. He loved the work, but it was a nasty trip from Flushing. So, in the mid-’50s, he began searching for a house that met his specifications.

“It had to have a water view,” Mitzie said. “We looked in Glen Cove,” on Long Island Sound, “and in Yonkers,” on the Hudson in Westchester; they looked at just about everywhere in between, too. Nothing was right – “and then he found this house,” Mitzie said.

The only problem was that there already were people living there, and they had not been thinking of moving.

But Irv was a charismatic man, and he wanted the house. So he introduced himself, charmed, schmoozed, and waited.

Soon, it turned out that its owners were nearing retirement age, the husband hunted and fished, and Florida beckoned.

Not long after that, they were on their way south, and the Docktors – Irv, Mitzie, Mark, then 10, Paul, 7, and Barbara, 3 – moved to New Jersey.

Fort Lee was very different then, Mark Docktor said. “It was a quaint little town.” None of the high rises had been built yet – the tallest building, which still stands but now is dwarfed by its neighbors – boasted six stories. The site where one of the high rises now stands was a pig farm when the Docktors moved to town. The Fort Lee Jewish Center already had opened – the boys became bar mitzvah there – but Jews were not as large a presence there then as they are now.

Soon after the family moved to Fort Lee, Mitzie became certified as a teacher; she taught middle-schoolers math in Fair Lawn for 29 years. (She earned $4,300 in 1962, her first year as a teacher, she said; she was very proud of it, and continues to be proud of the pension her teaching earned her.)

Irv continued to make both more and less commercial pieces. He did the artwork for “The Illustrated Book of American Folklore,” using his children and their dog as models. (Mark takes great pleasure now in leafing through the book, showing his face and body morphed into a surprising range of legendary American heroes and ragamuffins.) He designed a book cover for Bergdorf Goodman with a drawing that perfectly encapsulated understated New York postwar glamor. He worked on his Heritage series, which showcased legendary Eastern European heroes, without as much emphasis on ragamuffins. His continuous fascination with faces, and whatever it is that lies behind them, always is evident.

He also taught high school students. For 15 years, he taught at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan – “his only real full-time job,” his widow said – getting to school at least an hour before it opened and staying after it closed, working with the students whose energy and love revitalized him. Many of them figure in his work from that period.

In 1980, the Docktors added a studio to the house. Now it has three levels. The bottom-most is at street grade, with what anyone else would think is a spectacular view. The second has a deck that provides an even better, wider, clearer view of river and sky. “Our father would have an art class here on the patio,” Mark said. “When he would have a nude model, when we were young kids, my brother and I would play stickball, and then sneak back through the woods where we could see the class…”

The third level, though, is the astonishment. From up there, the view is unbeatable; close enough to be able to understand the vastness of the ships and the river itself, far enough away to overlook miles of it. And the light pours into it through windows and skylights as if it were a tangible substance, like gold.

There are lovely old wooden cabinets along some of the walls. Each cabinet drawer holds troves of sketches and prints and pastels and paintings and playbills.

Playbills?

Irv and Mitzie loved the opera; they went to listen to music almost every week. At each performance, Irv would draw on his playbill, using one of the many pens he always had in his breast pocket. “Wherever we were, at the opera, at a concert, at the theater, at the ballet, he would be busy sketching,” Mitzie said.

“At the ballet, I’d poke him,” she added. “I told him that he really should have been paying attention and watching.”

Some of the drawers hold a small representation of the thousands of those playbills. Others hold still-undiscovered treasures.

Mark, the oldest of the three Docktor children, is a dentist. (Reader, now is the time for the obligatory Dr. Docktor jokes. In fact, even more hilarity might ensue when you learn that Paul Docktor is an orthopedic surgeon. Another Dr. Docktor. Out of your system? Good. Let’s move on.)

Mark remembers his childhood and adolescence in Fort Lee with great nostalgia. By the time he started high school, he began to contribute to the family’s budget. “I had just about every job you could think of, and I knew everyone,” he said. One summer he worked for the town, renewing the yellow marks on curbs. He also delivered pizza and worked at the local root beer stand, and then at the pet shop.

Mark put himself through college and dental school by working at a pet store in the Willowbrook Mall – family connections can be helpful, he said. It was a different time, he added, and regulations were very different. Pet stores in malls sold animals that no one now would think of seeing locally outside a zoo.

“I sold anteaters and chimps and a white-cheeked gibbon that I used to bring home at night,” Mark said. “Its name was Jasper – Jasper and I really clicked.

“Remember that a gibbon is an ape, not a monkey,” he added; in evolutionary terms, it is closer to us.

“On Sundays, when the store wasn’t crowded, I’d spin Jasper around,” holding him by the arms and whirling, as a parent might do with a small child.

“Sometimes a kid would walk by with an ice cream cone, and Jasper would” – he made a noise, and mimed the cone being gone and the child’s astonishment.

“Once I got to the front desk at the clinic at NYU,” where he was in dental school, “and the front desk said ‘You need to call the store in Willowbrook Mall.’ I did, and they said ‘You need to get here right away. Jasper got free, and he is swinging from the chandelier in Marcus Jewelers.’

“So I ran to the mall from the clinic, and I got him down.”

What happened to Jasper? “Eventually someone bought him.”

Another time, he said, he went to a store in the Bronx, called Bronsons, that “imported exotic wildlife.

“They let me go out there and pick things up. I picked up a chimpanzee, and he was banging the cage in the car, so I let him out. He sat on my lap, but then he grabbed the directional signal and bent it.

“So I said, ‘Bad boy!’ and put him back in the cage, and then luckily I was able to bend the directional signal back.”

Perhaps because the house in which he grew up set the bar very high, the house in which Mark and Maggie Docktor now live, and where their three daughters grew up, is unusual, too. Its core was built in 1804; the Docktors are just the seventh owners, and he has collected a copy of most of the deeds that transferred the house from one family to the next, along with maps that show Tenafly’s changes over the last two centuries. The house is full of his father’s art – hanging on the walls, piled in folders, put neatly away in drawers.

Irv and Mitzie’s Docktor’s daughter, who now is called B. and lives in Ancram in upstate New York, is a professional photographer; like her father, in much of her work she concentrates on faces, finding truth and beauty in the absolute individuality of each of her subjects.

Growing up in that Fort Lee house was “phenomenal,” B. said. “We had so much privacy and freedom. To both be in the woods and have that view of the city – it was the house that everybody wanted to be in.

“It was a magical place.”

Fort Lee has undergone a “huge transformation – and not one I’m happy with,” she added. “It kind of breaks my heart. Really, they paved Paradise, and put in a parking lot.”

Although much of the magic was inherent in the house, another part came from her family. Everyone loves her mother, she said; as for her father, “he was a creative force. His output was phenomenal. He was just so stimulated by everything visual. He couldn’t ever get enough of looking at things.

“He was insatiable visually.”

Although she chose a different medium than her father did, she thinks it is no accident that she followed him into the visual arts. “When we would go places, the thing to do with my father was go to museums,” she said. “He could never get enough.

“He would stand in front of something for a really long time, and he would have you look at it, and really explore it.”

He taught her how to really look, how to go down through layer after layer to see the underlying structure, and not to forget the surface either. “I remember a lot of time his saying, ‘Do you see this? Or this? Or this?’ A lot of the time I couldn’t see it at first, but then I could see it, and then I’d see more and more.”

He taught her to appreciate shapes, too.

“A lot of his work has complex, interwoven figures,” she said. “You’re not exactly sure where one starts and the other leaves off.”

Like her father’s, many of B.’s images are of faces. (Some of them are posted on her website, www.bdocktorphotography.com.) She has taken many pictures of farm animals, and they are entrancing. They seem to know things. (It’s odd, she mused, that the most popular of her photos are her farm animals. Those are the images that people are most likely to buy and hang on their walls. They will buy photos of their own dogs, not of anyone else’s, she said, but they are entirely comfortable with random farm animals.)

“My imagery is very simple and graphic compared to his, but I learned about composition from him,” B. said. There is something about the way I see and compose an image that is a direct result of my father’s influence on me.”

And she still is diving through the layers of the visible, to keep on learning.

“I have one piece of his where I can still see more and more,” she said. “Every time I look at it, I see more.”

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Irv Docktor painted his daughter, B., cycling in Ireland.
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