Bruce Jay Friedman, as Remembered By His Sons

Genius comic writer and terrific dad

Bruce Jay Friedman
Bruce Jay Friedman on set. (Photo courtesy of Drew Friedman)

A few weeks before rivals gunned him down while he was eating dinner at Umberto’s Clam House in New York’s Little Italy, mafia hit man Crazy Joe Gallo was at a party in Jerry Orbach’s East Village townhouse shooting pool with a 12 year-old kid. Recently out of prison, where he nurtured an interest in the arts, Gallo insinuated himself into hanging out with some actors and writers, who apparently couldn’t take no for an answer.

The kid he played pool with that night didn’t know he was a mafia hit man, an ex-con, or a criminal of any sort. In fact, he thought the large, hulking man who showed him some neat shots on the pool table was a pretty nice guy. That kid was Kipp Friedman, the youngest son of the writer, Bruce Jay Friedman, who occasionally shlepped his kids around with him to star-studded dinners at Elaine’s, to Las Vegas, and elsewhere. Kipp Friedman’s pool game with Crazy Joe Gallo is just one of numerous captivating anecdotes found in Barracuda in the Attic, his heartfelt memoir of growing up with a famous father. BJF, it turns out, wasn’t just a great writer, he was also a terrific dad.

Bruce Jay Friedman, who passed away last week at the age of 90, was a multi-genre author, best known for having written screenplays like Splash and Stir Crazy, but also Off-Broadway hits like Steam Bath and Scuba Duba. His novels, among them Stern, and A Mother’s Kisses, garnered stellar reviews, to the point where The New York Times Magazine christened him “hottest writer of the year” for 1968.

But it’s Friedman’s short stories, most of which can be found scattered throughout popular magazines like Esquire and Playboy, that are among his most exceptional works. “I’m an impatient man, so the short story is a convenient form: you get in and you get out. God knows what you’re going to get into if you write a novel,” he remarked in a 2014 interview on the Virtual Memories Podcast. Best known of his stories is A Change of Plan, the kernel that became the celebrated Neil Simon/Elaine May film, The Heartbreak Kid. The story, which involves a young newlywed impetuously dumping his wife on their honeymoon for a girl he meets at the pool, whom he stalks and eventually marries, only to find himself sexually drawn to her mother.

The bizarre and ironic twists BJF developed in his stories became comedic markers of his style of “Black Humor,” also the name of an anthology he edited and filled with his friends’ stories, the likes of Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, and Thomas Pynchon, among others. You can glean the nature of his work from a throwaway example from the introduction to his literary memoir, in which he also expresses surprise at his success: “It was a glum time for me. In a devil-may-care spirit, I threw away what little money I had in all-night poker games and had a spiritless affair with a Stephens College history major. As we made love, or what passed for it, she said: ‘You don’t really care much for this, do you?’”

A father who rubbed elbows with the greats

Writers take much of literature from real life and then decorously enhance it. While not an uncommon trait among writers, BJF was a master at cracking the shell of an actual event and letting its contents spill out onto the page as fiction, though it would take a detective to figure out what’s real and what’s invented, although if you ask any of BJF’s three sons, they can sometimes place themselves in his stories.

His eldest, Josh, author of one of the best exposés of Times Square in its lurid, pre-Disney incarnation, explains to Book and Film Globe:

“There’s a story called ‘The Partners’ which ran in Esquire, and later became a chapter in the novel, About Harry Towns, in which a father takes his 11-year-old son to Las Vegas. In 1967, my father took me out of 5th grade for a week for a trip to Las Vegas. He played lookout while I threw quarters into slot machines (a $200 fine if a minor was caught). The whole time, my dad spoke in a drawling, mid-Western accent, like Bing Crosby, explaining this was how they talked out West. We stayed at three different hotels, saw Shecky Green at the Sahara, and I collected handfuls of Morgan silver dollars, which were in general circulation in Las Vegas then (each dollar would be worth a hundred bucks the next year). I met Sonny Liston in the Sahara Hotel gym, where he told me to ‘watch out with those weights, son.’ I loaded the barbell unevenly, it swept up and knocked me out cold. My father summoned the hotel doctor.

“It was a marvelous trip, I was in heaven. But then the short story emerges in Esquire, a darker episode of a guilt-ridden father neglecting his boy, running off to gamble with hookers. This never seemed to happen in real life. And thus, the modus operandi of my father’s supposedly autobiographical work. He painted dark versions of characters in fiction that were the opposite of what he was really like.”

Bruce Jay Friedman
10 year old Bruce Jay Friedman up on stage with his favorite comedian Jackie Miles, at the Laurels Country Club, Loch Sheldrake, NY, 1940. This photo hung for years in the front hall of BJF’s parents’ Bronx apartment. (Photo courtesy of Drew Friedman)

All of his boys have similar stories, having had the great good fortune to have had a father that rubbed elbows with everyone from classic comedians to literary greats. When New York City was home to restaurants like Elaine’s and Toots Shor’s, BJF frequently had his kids in tow. And before he found fame as a writer, he toiled for years in the nondescript offices of Magazine Management Co., where he edited men’s magazines. While a dreary 1950s era office environment (think clacking typewriters and overflowing ashtrays) might not be of interest to kids, or anyone at all, for that matter, it just so happened that BJF’s desk sat next to that of not-yet-legendary comics writer, Stan Lee, who once told his middle son, Drew, a budding artist, that he would one day work for Marvel. For a family of kids that were comics-obsessed, this was a dream come true.

Borscht out of the belt

Drew never did work for Marvel, but he did become a famed comics artist and illustrator, well-known for his finely detailed, down to the liver-spots, portraits of Old Jewish Comedians, among many others. Known as “the Vermeer of the Borscht Belt”, Drew traced his obsession with comedians to his father, who loved the comics he heard on the radio when he was growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s, among them Fred Allen, Bob Hope, and Jack Benny. But the one he loved the most was one named Jackie Miles (Jacob Miloff), who BJF called the “Joe Dimaggio of comedy.”

BJF got to see Jackie “Miles and Miles of Comedy” in the Catskills as a kid. According to Drew, his favorite bit was “when Miles would turn his back to the audience before doing an impression, pretending to be changing his appearance and clothes, and then turning around exactly the same as he had been, a gag created to lampoon bad mimics.” According to BJF, this was a howler for a ten year old.

While a throbbing vein of Jewishness runs through much of BJF’s work, people didn’t necessarily know him as a Jewish writer, at least not like Philip Roth. When Gil Roth asked him on his podcast in 2014 if he felt a part of the pantheon of American Jewish writers, he laughed, “that’s not exactly my kind of pantheon.” But Jewishness eventually crept up on him. “At a certain age,” he told Roth that he experienced “a torrent of Yiddish phrases and language,” that he hadn’t used in decades and wanted to know what triggered it. Mentioning phrases like, tokhes afn tish, which he translates as “put up or shut up,” but which literally means, “put your ass on the table,” he claimed there are Yiddish phrases that don’t quite have an equal in English.

Old age has a tendency to draw us back to our earliest memories. For BJF, many of those memories existed in the Yiddish Bronx. Like many of the writers of his generation, he left both Yiddish and the Bronx behind to create a wildly funny, neuroses-based, and very original American literature of his own. But he kept returning to it. In his literary memoir, Lucky Bruce, BJF describes the reason for the only literary pilgrimage he ever undertook–to meet Isaac Bashevis Singer. “I knew Singer,” he writes, “though I can’t say that we were buddies. He did not have buddies. If anything, he had “cronies.” Most lived on upper Broadway in Manhattan or had been left behind in Cracow. Still, it intrigued me that he was the only Nobelist who had used his $250,000 in prize-money to buy a condo on Miami Beach. I needed to see that condo.”

The condo must not have been terribly interesting. But BJF loved Singer’s writing, which he called “a giant stewpot brimming over with knaves and scoundrels, innocents, schemers, the faithful and faithless, a great broth of humanity all of it stirred up with wonder and stubborn insight.” BJF has left us much of the same, although of a different place and of a different era. Overlooked, perhaps, by literary canonists, his stories are still fresh and still funny, nothing like  Jackie Miles’ forgotten shtick. He may not have wanted a spot in the pantheon of American Jewish literature, but he is certainly deserving.

Bruce Jay Friedman
Caption: The entire Friedman family, Kipp, Molly, Bruce Jay Friedman, Josh, and Drew, celebrating BJF’s 80th birthday in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Drew Friedman)

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Eddy Portnoy

Eddy Portnoy is the Academic Advisor and Director of Exhibitions at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is the author of Bad Rabbi and Other Strange but True Stories from the Yiddish Press (Stanford University Press 2017).

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