By Dawn Watson
Writing her newest book, “Just Kids From the Bronx Telling It the Way It Was: An Oral History,” became more than a stroll down memory lane for Arlene Alda. It turned into a treatise on the message of hope.
As she set about sharing her childhood memories and those of her fellow Bronx-born-and-raised friends, the author began to realize that the accounts contained in the oral histories she was gathering were more than just fond recollections. They were success stories.
Being from the working-class borough shaped her into the person she is today, she says. And after meeting one of America’s most successful fashion moguls at a Hamptons dinner party a few summers ago, she discovered that she was far from alone in her thinking. Collecting Bronx-based stories from a swath of accomplished Americans—including Mickey Drexler, Carl Reiner, Jules Feiffer, Regis Philbin, Mary Higgins Clark, Colin Powell, Al Pacino, Bobby Bonilla, Dava Sobel, and a couple dozen others—the theme for “Just Kids” began to take shape.
“These stories are quintessential American success stories,” the author said during a telephone interview last Friday morning. “They all became part of the American dream. Their stories are examples of what is possible.”
The Water Mill-based author will share some of those stories during appearances at the East Hampton Library’s annual Authors Night on Saturday, August 8, and during a “Fridays at Five” book discussion at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on August 14.
The idea for “Just Kids” was planted when she overheard Mr. Drexler, the chairman and CEO of J. Crew, talking about his childhood, Ms. Alda, née Weiss, writes in the foreword of her 20th published book. Turns out, the two were not only from the same area in the Bronx but they also lived in the same building. So, a few months after meeting, the pair set off, with the author’s husband, Alan, and a few friends from old the neighborhood, to revisit their former home, the Mayflower.
“Standing with Mickey, a picture of confidence and success, in our shopworn surroundings, both of us excited about comparing stories about our pasts, started me wondering about other interesting and accomplished people from the Bronx,” she writes. “The idea for ‘Just Kids from the Bronx’ was beginning to hatch.”
Some of the tales are “happy and wonderful” and others are much darker than she could’ve expected, says Ms. Alda. But, in the end, it’s a “treasure trove of beautiful, beautiful stories,” she reports, noting in particular the stories of Erik Zeidler and Luis Ubiñas.
Mr. Zeidler, the director of New York Wild!, regaled Ms. Alda with memories of a childhood spent catching and studying snapping turtles in the Bronx River. His studies earned him the American Museum of Natural History’s Young Naturalist Award when he was still in high school and ultimately led him to his life’s work as a naturalist.
“When I was a kid, the river had mattresses and garbage floating in it,” recalls Ms. Alda. “And yet, years later, it was cleaned up and this kid found his life’s work in it. That’s really fantastic to me.”
Mr. Ubiñas’s story was much more difficult than the author would have known had she not interviewed him. The former President of the Ford Foundation and current Northwest Regional Chair for White House Fellows spent his early childhood in public housing. Life in the projects was tough for the second-generation Puerto Rican immigrant, but eventually he went on to earn enough scholarships and financial aid to put himself through Harvard, where he graduated magna cum laude. He was a Truman Scholar and a Baker Scholar.
“This man rose from abject poverty to being in charge of giving out hundreds of millions of dollars to advance the welfare of others in his position at the Ford Foundation,” Ms. Alda says. “What an American success story.”
Having strong role models and access to a solid education were common themes in her interviews, the author reports. From Mr. Powell, a retired four-star general, who spoke with candor of his boyhood shenanigans, to the iconic comedian, Mr. Reiner, who had the author in stitches with anecdotes from his earliest days as class clown, it became clear the old neighborhood provided crucial support.
“Education was first and foremost,” she says, recalling how even Mr. Drexler spoke of having his eyes opened to larger possibilities as he began to learn.
“I love that Mickey said that he had no idea that he could aspire to go to college,” she reports. He had a renegade aunt who encouraged him, and he began to realize that the world was much bigger than he thought.”
There’s something about being from the Bronx that sets a person apart, says Ms. Alda. “There’s a grit, a reality, there, she adds. And it’s a badge of honor that she and her fellow “Just Kids” contributors wear proudly, she adds.
“Joel Rosenthal said it best,” she laughs. “‘I’m glad you’re doing a book about the Bronx,’” she says he told her. “‘I’m sick and tired of hearing about Brooklyn.’”
Arlene Alda will appear at the East Hampton Library’s annual Authors Night book signing benefit on Saturday, August 8, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. and will give a talk during a “Fridays at Five” book discussion at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton on August 14. For additional information, visit www.authorsnight.org and www.hamptonlibrary.org.