INTERVIEW: Elaine Grossinger Etess - Grossingerís Resort Hotel


There are few people around who can tell the real story of those Classic Catskill days better than Elaine Grossinger Etess. She followed her mother, Jennie, as the face of the famous Sullivan County resort. In 2013 she shared her memories:


 

Your grandparents Selig and Malke Grossinger arrived here from the Lower East Side to do what?

He wanted to have a farm because he had been an overseer on an estate in Austria and so he figured he could do farming and he got up there and in 1914 bought this ramshackled building on 35 acres near Ferndale. It wasn’t fertile for doing farming. My grandmother was a great cook, so they took in boarders.

 

When did your mother (Jennie Grossinger) take on the role of hostess?

From the beginning, because at the boarding house she was the one who gave people their rooms; she was “the hostess” and she had that wonderful ability to do those kinds of things and that was always her role. She just had it; it was innate to her. I could see her go into a room and she said to me one day, “There are no strangers in this world, there are just people we haven’t met, friends we haven’t met,” and that was her philosophy.

 

Helen Kutsher told me it took her a while to adjust to that role.

I had to do like Helen did; I had to bring myself to do it. When I was a teenager, even when I was first married, I was very quiet, very pleasant to people, but I wasn’t outgoing or anything and I had to learn. I guess I learned pretty well. And I enjoyed it. But it’s hard to step into somebody else’s shoes.

 

One of the early secrets to Grossinger’s was the publicist Milton Blackstone.

Milton’s idea was to get Barney Ross. He heard that Barney Ross, who was a boxer, was wanting to come east. He was from Chicago. But he didn’t want to train in a traditional schoolmen’s kind of gym and the wheels went on in Milton Blackstone’s head: fresh air, food – wat could be better than Grossinger’s? We hbuilt a training camp. This was a sport of kings, this was like what basketball finals are today, and all the reporters came up to see Barney train. And when my mother was around they started chatting with her and they were enchanted with her. So when they got back to New York, they wrote about Barney and then they started writing about my mother. And the people who read the columns thought, “You know, we’ve gotta go and see what this is all about.” It sounds like a fairytale but that’s really and truly what happened.

 

Talk about the hotel’s expansion.

The needs of people. The reason we had tennis courts was that my mother was standing in the lobby one day and she heard these women talking and they said although they loved the hotel, they’re not coming back because they’re gonna go someplace because they had tennis courts. My mother heard that and we had a busboy who was a very good tennis player so she got hold of him and she said, “What do I need?”

She called the maintenance people and said, “Build me a tennis court.” What did she know? They built a fence with a net. The busboy looked and said, “Jennie
we can’t; that’s not a tennis court,” so he supervised making the tennis courts. And of course it grew from like two courts to the indoor complex that we had.

My father went all over the country to see indoor swimming pools, and he had the architect build ours the way the one at Yale University did, with the big observation window. The same thing with the golf course. We used to send our people to the Sullivan County golf course in Liberty and people wanted something
on the grounds, so this is what people wanted and you had to learn from what your guests want. Very often you’ll want something but they’re really not interested and you have to give them what they want because they’re the customer.

 

There are numerous pictures of Eddie Fisher with his young bride Debbie Reynolds.

They got married in my home. That was an experience. They were both number-one stars and I guess Coca Cola was his sponsor and I guess the movie studio decided if they were gonna get married, why not get married at Grossinger’s and they’ll make “an event.” They got married the night after Yom Kippur.

Our house was perfect because David (Etess) had just come back from the service and we didn’t have any furniture downstairs. Susan comes downstairs and she says, “Mommy, look outside” and my front lawn was full of reporters. We couldn’t have them all come in so we called the hotel, fixed up the basement so they could have food and drink and they had one pool reporter and one pool photographer and there were a few of their friends and family and Judge (Lawrence) Cook married them. And Debbie wore her dress from Bundle of Joy. But she forgot to bring her shoes.

Now we have to find shoes on Yom Kippur day, where even though the shopkeepers aren’t all Jewish, the stores are all closed and David finally got a hold of a friend who had a shoe store. When they broke up he brought Elizabeth, and my mother wasn’t there; they stayed in her home and Elizabeth dedicated the indoor swimming pool. And Eleanor Holm did the outdoor pool and Sonja Henie dedicated the indoor skating rink.

 

What was the relationship between your family and the other hotel-owner families?

We were friendly competitors. I mean, everybody’s in business to be the best. I think the older generation was not ascompatible as my generation and certainly as Mark and Mitchell’s because they began to realize that what was one person’s problem was really the area’s problem. We go back to that word “gaming.” The first go-around for casinos, I mean Bobby Parker (Concord) and Jimmy and Mark and Charlie Slutsky (Nevele), Jerry Ehrlich (Pines), and Harry
Dinnerstein (Stevensville), they all worked together. They realized that in unity there is strength. I think that the older, my generation, we were friendly socially; businesswise, so so. Because my generation was sort of the in-between one.

 

What about with the Concord as it was being built?

We were aware of what was going on. I mean you’d have to be blind not to, and, perhaps it was very very good because there is nothing better to make you stand up straight and walk properly than to see somebody else doing it and I think it was good for both properties.

I think one of the things that was good about the area was that it was close enough so everybody knew what was happening and you know some people were more … some were more ethical than others. But you get that wherever you go. But when the chips were on the table, we wanted what was good for the area.

 

What was the area like in those days?

If you speak to my kids, you speak to me, it was the greatest place to grow up. The town was wonderful, the community was very good and it was lovely and before a lot of the hotels, we didn’t have shops, so you’d have hotel guests coming into Monticello or Fallsburg or into Liberty. They would shop at Marsha’s and they would go to Katz’s and get cake. My kids and I talk about it today and they say they would not have wanted to grow up anyplace else. I went to Liberty, my brother went to Liberty school, my husband, my children all did. When my grandchildren started there, I was on the school board.

 

Not all the locals liked the hotels.

The retail people liked it, but some of the other people – just like anything else, they could live without it; what do we need them for? They just overcrowd
our streets in the summer; you have to wait forever in the hospital. I mean it’s the same story I heard 50 years ago as I’m sure you hear today. You can’t live with them, you can’t live without them. I think now they realize how important we were to them, even though “What do we need them for?”

 

You saw the smaller hotels close in the ’60s and ’70s.

Broke my heart because, first of all, these people worked so hard. Second, they were a place for people of those financial means to go out of the city and it’s not healthy when you start to see decay, because decay spreads. There but by the grace of God they go, in my family, and we always felt that way. We didn’t feel it was coming to us and we were very grateful.

 

But you saw the writing on the wall?

We began to realize, and we also had our own family problems where I couldn’t stay up there all winter long because David had to be out of the cold weather, Paul wasn’t well, Mark had gone to Atlantic City, Mitchell would have stayed, whatever, and I said to Paul, “You know neither one of us wants to give what has to be given” – not that we don’t even want to; we’re not able to for personal reasons and financially it was becoming a problem and we decided that it was time. All the dreams about gaming and everything and I remember Mark calling me after he left and said Bobby Parker called him and said, “Tell your mother and your uncle not to sell because there’s gonna be gambling.” And Mark said to him, “Bobby, my mother and my uncle know exactly what they’re doing.” We knew it was then or never and it was hard but I also ... it was at the expense of my family. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep traveling back and forth to Florida every other weekend and so forth. It was time.

 

What did you think the last time you saw the hotel?

We went up to the hill and we went to turn right to go up toward my house and I took a look at my mother’s house with the broken windows – just forget it. That just killed me. We went past the skating rink and there are weeds growing, the railings were all messed up and then you look into the indoor swimming pool and it’s all mossy and moldy and I thought, “This is what’s happened?” I mean, at least come in and bulldoze the whole thing and just have rubble, but don’t have skeletons there.

Going up the golf course, at least that was refreshing because it was beautiful; it reminded you of the days that were. I didn’t go into the clubhouse. The golf course was gorgeous. I’m glad something positive remains.

 

           




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