One tale from two perspectives

by | Aug 14, 2016 | Book Reviews

Nathan’s Famous: The First Hundred Years
William Handwerker with Jayne A. Pearl Morgan James, 2016
192 pages, $17.95 Paper

Famous Nathan
Lloyd Handwerker and Gil Reavill Flatiron Books, 2016
306 pages, $26.99

As a child growing up in New York during the Great Depression, i experienced no hardships; my father had a steady position and drove a late model car. Frequently, on pleasant Sundays, we drove out to long Beach, just for the ride. As a seven-year-old, the high spot of the day was eating at the Roadside Rest, which was the second Nathan’s hot dog emporium (after the original in Coney island). The taste and smell of the orange drink and the “snap” of the hot dog can still be evoked after all these years.

To this reviewer’s knowledge, nowhere is it written that the disagreements of the fathers shall be revisited upon the sons. Yet the simultaneous publication by two cousins, grandsons of the legendary creator of Nathan’s Famous Frankfurters, reflects the conflicts that separated their fathers, Murray and Sol, sons of Nathan Handwerker.

Both books offer the interesting saga of Nathan Handwerker’s upbringing under conditions of extreme privation in the Galician shtetl of Narol, and for some years in the larger town of Jaroslaw. Apprenticed to bakers, primarily as a means of fending off starvation, Nathan develops excellent sales experience and, ultimately, is able to assist his mother’s small business selling vegetables. And both tell the story in detail of Nathan’s immigration, after the outbreak of WWi, to the United States, his early struggle to be independent, and his opening of a tiny hot dog stand in Coney island.

But then the interpretation of events starts to differ somewhat. This is understandable since lloyd’s grandfather, Sol Handwerker, harboring irreconcilable differences with both Nathan (viewed as a tyrannical father) and Nathan’s brother Murray (William’s grandfather) left the business and went out on his own. Thus, Lloyd’s book, Famous Nathan, is based on research and interviews, while William’s book, Nathan’s Famous, reflects the experience and biases of a grandson who worked beside his father and grandfather for 30 years.

Lloyd’s book covers in some detail the patriarch’s relationship with local politicians, resulting in his ability to get special treatment for his hot dog business in Coney island. William, in somewhat greater detail than Lloyd, covers the expansion of Nathan’s to a public corporation and its subsequent decline, resulting in loss of control by the family. in truth, both books offer an interesting tale of incredible success by an unlettered immigrant, driven by ambition and a willingness to work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, only to be diminished in the next generation by profound disagreement between the brothers. Either book will provide the reader with a poignantly nostalgic journey.

A reader who enjoyed Russ & Daughters learned that for a family business to survive through five generations requires the involvement of nephews and nieces. Many businesses brought along by one or two generations of immigrants failed to survive into the third generation as the grandchildren earned college and graduate degrees and drifted into professional lives or more trendy businesses.

It is still possible to buy Nathan’s Famous all beef hot dogs with a “natural casing.” Bite into one: “SNAP”!

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.