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From Riches to Debt: The Fall of my Family's Fortune
Not Easy Come but Easy Go--Rags to Riches to Rags Again
This is a personal story of my family history. It goes back quite a way, to a time when my family was rather rich. Sadly, it didn't last. This story concerns my mother's side of the family. My father's side was interesting too, but for now, this is a cautionary tale of how one fatal personality flaw left a well-to-do family nearly penniless.
The tale begins way back to the late 1800s, when a father-and-son team of tailors left Catanzo Italy to make their fortune in the United States. The father was Anthony G. (My great-great grandfather) and his son was Frank G. (My great grandfather.) They were accompanied by Frank's wife Ernesta. (My great-grandmother) They arrived in America just before the turn of the 19th century. They were experienced tailors. (Anthony was the second generation of tailor in the family and Frank the third.) Using the money they'd saved up and whatever they could borrow, they opened a tailor shop in Brooklyn, NY. Their work was so good that word spread quickly and the shop became very successful. Within 10 years, they'd opened a second shop (One run by Anthony and the other by Frank.)
The twin shops were exceptionally successful. The father/son team was making more money than they'd ever imagined. At a time when the average salary for a worker in this country was less than $10.00 per week, my family was making over $400.00 per week. That was an exceptional amount for the early 20th century. They were written about in the paper as successful local businessmen.
By 1910, the family owned three brownstones in the area which is today called Park Slope. (It's become a very upscale area and those brownstones would be worth millions today.) They also owned many acres of land on an old country road near Hauppage, which would today be part of Smithtown NY. (Another upscale area. My family would own a chuck of that thriving town today.) My grandfather (who was born in 1903) used to tell me about his childhood on the farm, which he loved. Anthony and Frank also each owned a nice house of their own. Life was good.
Things turned bad in 1913 when my great-great grandfather Anthony died, leaving the business totally in the hands of his son Frank. This was a problem because Frank had a gambling problem. Frank kept his compulsion in check while his father Anthony was still head of the family and President of the company because Frank feared his father's disapproval. But once his dad was gone, my great-grandfather Frank was in total control and had no one to keep him in check.
Frank's gambling quickly went out-of-control. He was just no good at it and nearly always lost. The first thing he lost was his father's house. Then he lost the first of the three brownstones, and soon lost a second. After than he lost the farm (much to my grandfather's dismay) and then the final brownstone was gone. After that, he had so many debts he sold one of his tailor shops. Soon after, they lost the house and moved into an apartment. Finally, the debts piled up so (and he owed money to some ruthless people who wouldn't take "I don't have the money to pay you" for an answer) so that he was forced to sell his remaining shop. The business was gone and Frank had spent the last of their savings on the horses races.
The family was left with nothing but debts and the arrival of the Great Depression did nothing to ease their struggles, especially since Frank never did stop losing money gambling. My grandfather got a job in someone else's tailor shop (making him a fourth generation tailor) to support the family. Frank worked odd jobs for the rest of his life, never holding them very long, frequently borrowing money (including from the family of his second wife) until he died broke in 1954.
In the early 1930s, my grandfather got married to my grandmother and moved out on his own. He had a nearly forty year career working at Lord and Taylor, raising two daughters (my mother was the younger one, born just before WW2) and managing to buy a house of his own, which he lived in until he died at age 91, in 1994. My grandmother lived there until she passed in 2003, after which my aunt (their eldest daughter) sold the house.
Before that, my mother and father used to rent the the upstairs of my Grandfather's house when I was growing up. Grandpa used to tell me about the farm he loved so much as a kid and how sad he was that his father Frank had lost it so stupidly. I could tell by the sound of his voice how much he missed that land in Hauppauge/Smithtown. He wasn't an emotional or effusive man by any means (most men of that era were very stoic) but when he mentioned that farm, the regret was evident. Even though I, myself, never got to see the farm (It was long gone by the time I was born in the 60s) I feel strangely deprived of the pleasure of spending time on the family farm. Also, it would have been nice if someone had left me one of those brownstones in their will.
My family has been struggling since the 1930s, as blue-collar workers. My grandfather managed to do right for his family, as did my father, but life has been a struggle. Ever since my parents died, I've been struggling too, I often think about how awesome my life would have been if I didn't have these money worries hovering over me so I could just write for fun and not have to worry about selling.
Oh well; maybe my family story will make a good book someday. Wouldn't it be wonderful irony if my great-grandafather's addiction made me some money 100 years later. But for now, I offer this story as a cautionary lesson in addiction.