"The Catskills: Its History and How It Changed America" (Alfred A. Knopf, $45) made a change for Stephen M. Silverman as well. His 10 previous books, including biographies of directors David Lean and Stanley Donen, all concern the motion picture industry. He was initially skeptical when Knopf editor Victoria Wilson recruited him to write about the iconic American region best known in its mid-20th-century incarnation as "the Borscht Belt," home to lavish hotels that entertained their mostly Jewish guests with a dizzying array of soon-to-be-famous performers from Danny Kaye to Mel Brooks. Once he got into the research, however, the Catskills proved to be the perfect subject, as Silverman explained in a recent conversation punctuated with lively humor and much infectious laughter.
The book had its origins in a documentary about the Catskills that husband-and-wife team Raphael D. Silver and Joan Micklin Silver intended to make, is that right?
Yes. Ray and Joan started with some interviews, which are blended into my text, but the film never got done. Vicky Wilson edited my Stanley Donen book; we've known each other for years and have been looking for projects, but when she suggested this I said, "Are you crazy? I write about movies!" She said, "Something tells me you'll do a good job," and Vicky is the greatest editor; she knows exactly what buttons to push. It was challenging at first, but then I thought: Go at it as a series of personality sketches -- after all, I worked at People magazine for 20 years. And these characters are very colorful.
And they're not just hotel owners or entertainers. It was fascinating to learn that the 19th-century writers Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper set novels in the Catskills, and painter Thomas Cole depicted it as a mythic American landscape.
It was the frontier! We think only of the Wild West, but "The Last of the Mohicans" takes place in the Catskills. When I told people I was doing a book on the Catskills and they said, "Oh, the Borscht Belt," I said, "Actually, the Jews don't even show up until page 215." Nobody knows now that the Catskills was an anti-Semitic bastion; they were kept out of all the hotels.
So they built their own hotels. What made them so popular?
I think those hotels set the bar for hospitality -- and not just American hospitality. Cruise ships around the world take what went on at Grossinger's and the Concord and put it at sea: all you can eat, nonstop entertainment, all under one roof -- or ship. What they don't have is the great hostesses like Jennie Grossinger; that sort of person doesn't exist anymore. These women were not educated, they were not great conversationalists, but they had a magnetism and a driving personality and a terrific memory; they knew every guest and the accomplishments of that particular guest.
It was also surprising to learn that the Catskills was a hotbed of bootlegging during Prohibition.
The chapter on bootleggers and gangsters is one of my favorites. Who could ask for more? Names we know -- Legs Diamond, Dutch Schultz, Murder, Inc. -- and it makes sense, because the Catskills is such a perfect place to hide . . . and to hide bodies!
What do you think has attracted so many different kinds of people to the Catskills over the centuries?
I think it's because people were able to go up there and be free: become whatever they wanted and do whatever they wanted. The restrictions were off, and new identities could be forged. Now the region is totally economically depressed, and it really needs to revitalize.
Will the casino that's scheduled to open in 2017 help?
It seems like such a 1970s idea: It could have worked then, but now it's a big question mark -- look at what's happened to Atlantic City. Better means of gentrification are taking place: bed-and-breakfasts, bakeries, microbreweries, businesses that can take on the character of the Catskills a lot more than gambling. Las Vegas style hotels are not going to work here; people want a more intimate setting.