Friday, July 03, 2009

Murray Kostant, Of Blessed Memory

My Uncle Murray, Moshe ben Chaim Shmuel, died this past Sunday, 6 Tammuz 5769 [June 28, 2009], at age 89. Murray was my father's younger brother, the last surviving member of "the Greatest Generation" in our family, both on my wife's side and my own. He was always my favorite uncle. My wife Laura loved him dearly as well.

Murray was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. He and his high school buddies at Dewitt Clinton High School formed a sports and social club, called the Spartans, and they continued to meet annually until only very recently, when time, distance and mortality combined to discontinue their reunions. One member of the group was the late Marty Balsam, a talented actor who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1966 for his role in A Thousand Clowns.

My grandfather, Benjamin Kostant, owned a haberdashery in the Bronx in the 1930s, Kostant Hats, and my grandmother Esther, my father Eli and Murray all worked there. Benjamin Kostant died in August 1941. Four months later came Pearl Harbor, and the United States entered World War II. Murray and my father reasoned that if Murray enlisted in the Navy, my father would not be drafted, because he was the sole support for my mother and ran the family business. So Murray enlisted, but Eli was drafted anyway. They sold the family business at a fire sale price. Murray served on a destroyer throughout World War II. After the war ended in Europe, his ship was slated for duty in the Pacific. Murray used to joke that the Japanese surrendered not because of the atomic bomb, but because they heard he was coming to the Pacific.

After the war, Murray lived with his mother for the next 30 years or so, in the Morris Avenue apartment where he had grown up. The neighborhood, which once had been almost entirely Jewish, became almost entirely Puerto Rican. Murray and Grandma were the last Jewish family in their building. Happily, the Puerto Rican families in the building were repectful and caring of their elderly, Yiddish-speaking neighbor, my grandmother Esther. There were still two synagogues in the neighborhood in 1976, but they both shut their doors within a few years thereafter. Murray stayed in the old apartment until my grandmother had to enter a nursing home in the 1970s. Murray worked in the garment industry, always for someone else. The sale of Kostant Hats in 1941 spelled the end of Kostant family entrepreneurism until I opened my law office in 2002.

As a youngster, I always imagined Murray, my bachelor uncle, to be some sort of a playboy, and indeed he was a favorite with the ladies. (In his last years living in an Upper East side apartment, when my daughters, his grandnieces, Esther and Elise would visit him and go out with him for dinner, he would proudly walk up the street with one beautiful girl on each arm.) But the truth was that he had fallen in love in the 1960s with a beautiful woman, Marta Kovacs, who had married someone else. Marta was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. As a young woman in Budapest before World War II, she had won a beauty contest, and she was still a head-turner when I met her some 40 years later. Like many Hungarian Jewish women of her age and class (she knew the Gabor sisters, Magda, Eva and Zsa Zsa, and their Mama Jolie), she loved the finer things in life, and could not see herself marrying a working class guy like Murray who could not provide her with the comforts she felt she needed. Then Marta's marriage ended in a divorce and a financial settlement, but she would have lost her income if she had remarried. So Marta and Murray reunited, and lived together for over 35 years until Marta passed away in 2007. On Sunday, Murray was buried next to his long-time love.

Marta was very good for Murray. During their time together they traveled to Las Vegas, Palm Springs, and even took a trip to Israel. They had an apartment in Miami and spend months there each winter. If it had not been for Marta, Murray probably would never have left New York City except for summer weekends at the Concord golf and tennis resort in the Catskills.

Around 2005, Marta had a series of strokes that so decapacitated her that she descended into nearly a vegetative state, and she entered a nursing home some blocks away from their Upper West Side apartment. Murray visited her every day--his life consisted almost entirely of his visits to see her, shopping and running errands. At the same time, Murray's own health began to decline and he began to show symptoms of dementia.

Two of my daughters lived in New York at the time, and called me to express concern over Murray's mental and physical health, and his living conditions. I visited him, made legal arrangements to assume responsibility for his financial affairs, but found he was still capable of living independently. Then, near the end of February 2007, while walking on an icy street on his way to visit Marta, Murray slipped and fell, injuring his shoulder.

The paramedics who took him to the hospital found him dazed and confused, and unable to say who should be called on account of the emergency. Eventually they contacted a friend in his apartment building, who had the phone numbers of my daughters for emergencies. Fortunately, my wife Laura was in New York City at the time, visiting my daughters. She took up residence in Murray's apartment for about the next 5 weeks, setting up home nursing care and meals on wheel, and enrolling Murray in a emergency call button program. That stabilized Murray's situation for some months, but then he fell ill and was hospitalized again, and at that time the hospital physicians informed us that due to his advancing dementia, he should have full-time nursing care. Laura was in New York again--she always seemed to be in town for Murray's crises--and arranged for him to enter the Manhattan campus of the Jewish Home and Hospital on 106th St., where he resided until his death.

Murray was quite a guy, always ready with a joke, always laughing at our jokes. Just a regular guy, who never attained fame or fortune, he is nonetheless one of the most memorable characters of my life. In particular, I will remember his love and devotion for Marta. Despite the rocky start to their relationship, they grew old together. Although they never married, their relationship could serve as a role model for many married couples. Now they are together again.


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