2003-07-04 / Community

New Book Celebrates Rockaway Father

A Wave Review
By Elizabeth Roth
New Book Celebrates Rockaway Father A Wave Review By Elizabeth Roth

As executive vice president, Ira Ellenthal sits at one of the more important desks available at the NY Daily News. He is the author of a book on the newspaper business and is generally a distinguished city resident. Few people know he grew up in Far Rockaway, but really, why would they?

Now, however, they will. Ellenthal has written a book, titled "Slootie’s Wars" (Trafford Publishing) about his father, a local ex-boxer and newspaper deliveryman who lived here for most of his life. This aggravating, fascinating man, who trashes all stereotypes about Jewish life to hell and back, spent his years here raging against most of the world, while fiercely protecting his family.

The book itself is an odd contradiction; a totally personal, intimate portrait of a family as it was affected by Ellenthal Sr. and a message in a bottle from Far Rockaways past. The setting for all this will be as foreign to most of the books local readers as a description of a different country. It will also be as uncomfortable as it is unfamiliar. Ellenthal, Sr. was unapologetically racist, and ranted vividly about his disappointment with the changing face of his neighborhood. The ex-prizefighter’s opinions were loud and immovable.

His son manages to disagree with him without blunting his edges. Ellenthal Sr. was a good father, but his opinions and ideas were immovable, and not always either rational or easy to deal with. The life of a former bootlegger and prizefighter does not lend itself to a gentle personality and living in that house sounds like negotiating a field of land mines.

However, it is the problems with "Slootie" Ellenthal that make the book worth reading, and while most people would never want to live with the man, spending an afternoon with him must have been fascinating. It is equally interesting how he affected his wife.

Long-suffering is an abused description for the wives of difficult men. I think it evokes a docile woman in an apron, who might roll her eyes at her husband, or raise her voice occasionally, but loves the old son-of-a-gun really, and wouldn’t leave him if she had the choice. This does not fit Frieda Ellenthal as much as the original definition of the phrase. This was a woman who had to fight for basic privileges, and the ones she failed to suit up for scream of the desperation that would eventually lead her into a total emotional breakdown.

Among the things her husband would not let her do were talk to most of her family, talk to any men at all outside approved family members, and go to the bathroom without giving him an update. Having spent 32 years with a man who had the approximate empathy level of a large Boston Fern, it is a minor miracle that she did not kill herself as threatened.

The real surprise about Frieda Rosenthal’s breakdown is that she did not use it to improve her situation, to get some leverage against her husband. Slootie seems to have honestly loved his wife very much and was horrified by her depression. She could have asked for and received much better treatment. But she did not.

"He was a great father without a lot of role models" Ira Ellenthal, said of his father, who he loves, but not blindly. On the topic of his mother he muses "She didn’t have an ego in the sense that a person has to have an ego in order to stand up to people."

For Ellenthal, writing the book was a natural process that he is incredibly glad he started. The reaction to the book has been very positive, most no­tably in a recent radio show where "Slootie’s Wars" was offered as a better alternative to Hillary Clinton’s record setting "Living History". A scattered few have questioned the inclusion of some of the more intimate facts in the book, but he does not regret it "People have asked, ‘why would you write about such personal detail?’ and I answer them with a question, ‘Why would I leave it out if I thought it was important to the story?"

That leaves the question, what is the story? Why should you read about this guy and his son, above or instead of any of the other memoirs on the market? I think this book is about the changing of the guard; the generation shift. As Ira Ellenthal grows from a hesitant kid to a confident, successful adult "Slootie" Ellenthal starts the process from a powerful man in total control of his world to one of the last of his type. The journey is a ride worthy of anyone’s time.

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