The Inns of Court: The Needelmans Talk Tennis
Interviewees: Ruth and Mort Needelman
Date: Nov. 26, 2011
Interviewers: Carl Lankowski and Joan Solomon Janshego
Location: Janshego residence in Chevy Chase DC
Transcribed (from audio recording) by: Carl Lankowski
Ruth Needelman passed away March 9, 2015 at age 82
Q – We will start with you, Ruth. When were you born?
RN- July 2, 1932.
Q – Where?
RN – In Newark, New Jersey
Q – When did you come to Washington?
RN – When Kennedy was president – in the early 60’s.
Q – Mort, are you from the same place?
MN – I am from Brooklyn.
Q – And your birthday?
MN – February 15, 1931.
Q – Ruth, can you describe your family?
RN – My parents were first generation Americans. They were both teachers because my father lost his work during the depression and he became a teacher. My mother was already a teacher.
Q – What did he do before he became a teacher
RN – He had his own business. He actually designed and built the ornamental gates and grills of the New York Public Library and then he lost his business during the depression. My mother’s parents were born in Russia, and they came here and she lived on Staten Island. Then they moved to New Jersey. My grandfather had a little grocery store with the best bread I ever put in my mouth and wonderful butter.
Q – Do you remember your grandfather?
RN – Yes – and my grandmother. Then we moved to the farm in New Jersey, because my father always wanted to live on a farm away from people and have lots of animals. I hated animals from the first time that I can remember – when people put little chickens into my hand. The day we went to look at the house the man who owned it put these little chickens into my hand. I remember that feel. I loathed it. My mother was a teacher, and she stopped working when we moved to the farm. In those days, wives didn’t complain. You did whatever your husband wanted you to do.
Q – What year was that?
RN – I was in 7th grade. I am now 79. I can’t figure out the math. About 1940. I went to a little 3-room school in a little town called Liberty Corner. It was very different from what kids go through now. The boys were all farmhands. I was very different. I was Jewish.
Q – Were there other Jewish families there?
RN – There were none. I was the only one and the police chief’s kids used to throw stones at me on my way home from school. It was a mile walk. I never told. Somehow I let it out after it had been going on for about a year. One of my neighbors called up the police chief and said you better stop your kids from doing that – and they did.
Q – Did you experience other discrimination when you went to school?
RN – I never experienced any other discrimination when I went to high school.
Q –Your mother and father’s family were both from Russia?
RN – Yes.
Q – Was Yiddish spoken in your home?
RN – Only when there were trying to hide something from me. My father never spoke Yiddish. He was a German Jew, and they are different from eastern Jewish people. They thought they were better than all those peasants – which is I am sure how he thought about it. They were just more assimilated which is the irony of the whole German experience. They were more assimilated into German life. They thought they were just as good as the Germans and when Hitler decided they weren’t so great, it was a shock. But my mother’s mother, who was Russian, used to give revolutionary speeches in some forest. That is how my grandfather met her. She used to give speeches on the pogroms and how we have to worry about the little people. She was a revolutionary. My grandfather fell in love with her in the forest.
Q – Do you know where the forest was?
RN – No. I have no idea.
MN – People didn’t know if they were born in Russia, or Poland. Borders shifted a lot
RN – I didn’t know this until I was old and when of my aunts told me this story. I did not pursue it enough. I just thought it was a great story, but I wasn’t analytical enough to find out when and where.
Q –It is a story you might want to pass on to your daughter who can pass it on to her children.
RN – I did tell Jenny the story.
Q – When did they come to this country – the early 1900’s?
RN– Yeah. That is when they came.
Q – Did you ever look at immigration records at the National Archives?
RN _No I never did. Did you ever check [to MN]?
MN – Yeah. I did. I found that they came from a port in Germany. I got the name of the ship and the date. My mother – not my father’s family.
Q – Where did they come from?
MN – Well, as I said, the borders were very unstable, and if a person said they were born in Poland, it could be just as easy have been Russia. They didn’t really know. First of all, they lived in the Pale. My mother was an immigrant. They lived in the Pale, which is the Jewish part of Russia and Poland. The Pale is Fiddler in the Roof country. They were confined to this huge area, and this is where they had to stay. They had lives as merchants and laborers. My mother’s family, they were middle class – I would say in the Pale. They came before the turn of the century. She came in the 1880’s, something like that. She came from Hamburg, Germany, and she was about 14. They also lied about their age. When they talk about illegal immigrants these days, 90% of all immigrants were illegal, because they lied about something. They lied about their age, they lied about work experience, about how large a family they had in the US. They lied about something.
Q – Did she come at that young age by herself?
MN – I think she came by herself, and I grew up in Brooklyn. My father died at a very early age. I think it was in his mid 40’s. I have practically no recollection of my father. My mother died quite old – in her 80’s.
Q – And your father’s family were they also from the same part?
MN – No. I believe they met here. My father, I believe first immigrated to Argentina and then came to the US. He was a millinery worker, and my mother worked in the garment industry all of her life.
Q – Do you know how they met?
MN – I have no idea. We didn’t ask that kind of intimate question.
Q – Did you have siblings?
MN – Yeah – an older brother and older sister. They both live in the New York area. My sister lives in Manhattan. My brother lives on Long Island.
Q – Ruth, do you have siblings?
RN – No, I’m an only-child.
MN – My mother lived a very hardscrabble life. She settled into the garment industry. She worked many years with my uncle, who had a garment business. He was a contractor. It was a good relationship. That was not a problem. It was a hard life.
Q – because her husband died…
RN – Right: she had to bring up three kids.
Q – And you grew up in Brooklyn?
MN – Yes, in the Bensonhurst section—probably the safest place in the United States, since it is the home base of the mafia. (laughter) It is divided into two parts: the Jewish part and the Italian part.
Q – And you lived in the Jewish part?
MN – We lived very close to the border. I had a lot of Italian friends.
Q – Did you suffer the discrimination that Ruth talks about?
MN – Not at all. There was no discrimination in Brooklyn because we were all being discriminated against. Italians, Irish, Jews—all of us. We were in the same boat.
Q – Literally… (laughter) So you went to school in Brooklyn?
MN – Yes and then went to Brooklyn College.
Q – Law school, too?
MN – No, for law school I went to Harvard.
Q – Do you remember your PS (public school)?
MN – 101
RN – I went to PS#3. We partly lived in the [Greenwich] Village, so that’s why I went to PS#3. That was just before moving to the farm.
Q – How big was the farm?
RN – We had 20 acres.
MN – It’s very interesting—you asked me if we had any discrimination. The discrimination we had when we were kids was in our own community. When we were getting beaten up it was by other Jewish kids. (laughter) There were bullies in each community. We didn’t have to go outside the community to get beaten up.
Q – Was there any rhyme or reason to it?
MN – There were just bullies—then as now.
Q – When did you meet?
MN – 1958 or 1957. It was in New York.
Q – Let’s go back to Ruth: did you go to school after high school?
RN – Yes, I went to the girls’ part of Rutgers. In those days it was called New Jersey College for Women. We fought that fiercely. I graduated with a degree in English. In those days, we all majored in English and we all went on to publishing.
Q – In New York?
RN – Yes.
Q – And who did you work for?
RN – Oh, there were several: Harcourt Brace, G.P. Putnam, Silver-Burdette…That was fun. I enjoyed it. We were all avid readers. That’s why we became English majors. It was very exciting. We published a lot of good books. And Morton and I met somewhere in there.
MN – Yeah: we met through mutual friends around 1957.
RN – We got married in 1959.
Q – So by then, Mort, you were a lawyer?
MN – Yes. I graduated from law school in 1954. I had been in the Army for two years. Got out of the Army and worked for a government agency in New York—the Federal Trade Commission as a trial lawyer and investigator. Then I was transferred to Washington in 1960. I was transferred to Washington by the Kennedy administration to work in the Justice Department on a huge case, which President Kennedy was bringing against the steel industry. Bobby put together a task force of lawyers from all over the country. After that ended, I stayed with the Federal Trade Commission. Eventually, I became an administrative law judge.
RN – It was very exciting in those days in Washington under Kennedy. Great years. You also worked for Defense Secretary (1981-1987) Caspar Weinberger for a while.
MN – I was his legal assistant. But I had a lot of jobs in different agencies. I also became a Special Master for the Fifth Circuit. So, I had a lot of different jobs, but my main field was anti-trust law. I was a trial lawyer, then a judge, and most of my cases were in the anti-trust field. But ALJ’s were farmed out to other agencies. I heard a black-lung case in West Virginia, I heard cases at the Justice Department, but mainly at the FTC.
Q – What happened with the steel anti-trust case?
MN – The FTC had an order against the steel industry, an attempt was made to show it had violated the order. Much research into industry records ensued. It was about getting the steel industry to drop some price increases. That’s what Kennedy had in mind. Inflation was a big concern. We spent months going through records.
Q – Where did you live when you first came to Washington?
RN – First we were in Virginia briefly, then at the Berkshire Apartments on upper Massachusetts Avenue. Then we rented a tiny house from Georgetown University in Georgetown.
Q – Then what?
RN – Then we moved to Chevy Chase, since we needed to get something bigger after the baby came.
Q – When was that?
RN – She was two, so it was 1969.
MN – It was the year after the riots occasioned by the killing of Martin Luther King. They were practically giving away real estate then. Everyone was fleeing the District. We could have bought a mansion for a song.
RN – coulda, shoulda, woulda…I still think about that in the middle of the night…
MN – The sure sign of the flight was that when we moved here there were no kids.
RN – No kids. There wasn’t anyone for ours to play with for quite a while. It was very different.
Q – What made you decide to come here?
RN – We could afford the house.
MN – It was the cheapest house we could find.
Q – Do you recall what you paid for it?
MN – $36,000. For $50,000 we could have bought a house on Highland Street in Cleveland Park. I thought it was too big, that it would cost too much to heat it. Anyway, we didn’t believe in going into debt, so we found a house we could afford.
Q – What do you know about the house before you moved in?
MN – It was built in 1927. We are quite unique in this neighborhood, because we are only the second family to live in that house. The original owner and her sister had two houses built next to each other on Patterson Street. There have been more than a dozen owners of the twin house. Ours was the better of the two, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Martin. The owners were in the insurance business. Our house was a hangout. There were a lot of boys in the family. How they managed with five boys, I don’t understand. All the Blessed Sacrament crowd hung out here, including Pat Buchanan.
Q – How did you find out about that?
MN – The neighbors told us and the Martin kids returned from Virginia for a visit and told us this.
RN – I can still remember the mortgage payment. It was something like $183.67.
MN – We paid it off long before it was due. We thought we had a great deal at a rate of 6.25%.
Q – What was the neighborhood like then?
MN – There were few young kids. The Blessed Sacrament crowd dominated the neighborhood. It was a heavily Irish-Catholic neighborhood. But we had no discrimination. On the tennis courts the talk on Sunday was “are you going to the 10 o’clock or the 12 o’clock?’
RN – When did the kids come back?
MN – Several things happened. People got over the race riot. It was gradual. But then, there was a torrent of kids over the last ten years. Young people began pouring into this neighborhood.
Q – Commuters from suburbia despaired and wanted to live closer to work, too…
MN – Could be. Also, the schools improved. They were upgraded. There was huge construction at Lafayette Elementary. It doubled in size. Our kid went to Lafayette. It became a very desirable school. It was actually run by the parents, like a private school.
Q – Did she go to Deal after finishing Lafayette?
RN – No, because at that time, there was a feeling that there were too many drugs over there. I just couldn’t cope with that worry.
MN – She also had special needs. She was a dancer and spent all of her junior high and high school years at Washington School of Ballet. She was in a split program. Public schools wouldn’t do that. She went to National Cathedral School.
RN – And they did it. They rearranged their entire schedule so that she could get out of school at one o’clock and go to ballet. So, they really accommodated her.
Q – Did she continue her ballet?
RN – No. At one point she had to make up her mind. You can’t do both.
MN – And New York City Ballet decided she did not have the right turnout. They are very tough.
Q – So, she went on to college?
RN – Yes, she went to Harvard. And then New York University Law School.
Q – Following in her father’s footsteps…
MN – Not really: she is a much better lawyer than I.
Q – What is she doing now?
MN – Still a lawyer; and a mother and a wife. Living in Manhattan. They love it. There you have it: our story.
Q – Do they have children?
MN – Yes. One. Charlie. They have become good friends with Spencer and Sarah, the Joneses, who live near your house.
RN – But the change in this neighborhood you really can’t believe unless you lived here. It became a very different place. When they had the fair, everybody cooked. It was wonderful. None of us worked at the time. The food was fabulous. There was no such thing as serving something store-bought. They turned one of the Lafayette classrooms on the main floor into a French café. One year, my friend Debbie and I made blintzes. The electricity failed, so we had to run back and forth to her house to heat things up and these old Jewish ladies who were coming to our booth said it was the best blintzes they every had, better than their mother’s! (laughter)
MN – Thirty years later, as I was walking over to the tennis courts, a man approached me, asking whether my wife was making blintzes for that year’s fair.
Q – I’ll have to get your recipe. Are you still making them?
RN – No.
MN – There was a lady from Texas who made the best chili I have ever had in my life.
Q – Tell us more about the fair.
MN – It is still going on. Not as much home-cooked food, but still some. It is a fund-raiser (for Lafayette??). Someone had a good idea in having the Broad Branch Market grill things.
RN – The Broad Branch years ago was a nice little store. It had good meat. And they delivered—very nice if you had a baby. But now it has became a central point. The younger people with kids who have recently moved to the neighborhood adore it. It has been made into a store that they flock to. We know one family who made proximity to the store a key criterion in moving when they needed a bigger house.
MN – But people were also very much attached to the Bondareff’s [prior owner’s] market. I attended the ANC meeting when the new owners sought approval for their plans. (ANC commissioner) Allen Beach kept questioning these people—“are you still going to have Twinkies…because when I was a kid, I was over there every day at three o’clock for my Twinkies.” It went downhill after the Bondareffs left. That happened after a family tragedy involving the death of their grandchild. They were shattered and could not live here any longer.
RN – A generation ago we thought of the Broad Branch simply as our market. It was easier than going to the Safeway. Nowadays, on Saturdays in the warm weather they put on wonderful cookouts; there is the new candy section, too.
MN – It had been mostly famous for the meat. It had one of the best butcher shops in Washington.
Q – When did the fair start?
RN – It was already going on when we arrived.
Q – What were its aims?
MN – It was to raise money for Lafayette for the library and things like that.
RN – In daughter Jenny’s day, someone decided that open classrooms were needed. It was awful, because the rebuilding was undertaken while the kids were going to school. After all the chaos, people did not like it. It didn’t work. That was not a good time. Later I think the walls were put back.
Q – What was the quality of the school when Jenny attended?
RN – It was a good school.
Q – Were you involved in the school?
RN – Oh yeah—I always volunteered. I graded essays and pitched in a lot. It was fun. I pitched in at National Cathedral School, too. That was a hard school with very strict standards.
Q – When you first moved in, had most of the neighbors been here a long time already?
MN – Yes. That was the case for most of the people on Patterson Street.
Q – What sorts of occupations did the neighbors have?
MN – I don’t know. I saw the kids on the tennis courts.
Q – OK. Let’s talk about the tennis courts. You are a tennis player, Mort, right?
MN – Yes, at least until recently. My tennis days are probably over because I have a torn rotator cuff. In 1969 when we moved here, it was not yet the height of the tennis phenomenon, but it was coming up fast. Stan Smith was the big tennis star then. I had never played tennis before. In the 1970s there was a ten-year boom in tennis that has never been matched in this country. There was MacEnroe, Connors, and it carried over to local courts. The tennis courts at Lafayette became the center of a lot of things. Controversy also. A center for friends. We developed friends on Lafayette tennis courts, who have been with us all the rest of our lives. We were a very closely-knit group.
RN – They hogged the courts.
MN – It was called the Lafayette Tennis Club, but people who were not members called it “The Hogs.” In fact, there were two groups. There were The Hogs and there were those who were trying to get on the court. And then there was Chico of Lafayette. When Chico died, there was a mass for him, because he was a hugely popular guy. The mass at Blessed Sacrament was crowded, because every parent who ever sent their kid to Chico for lessons was there and all the tennis players were there. Besides, the tennis players adopted Chico. Chico never paid a cent in taxes. So, we had to create a huge superstructure of lies to get him into Medicare. Or Medicaid. We had to get him into a home when he became disabled. We had to have lawyers from big downtown firms threaten the Social Security Administration that we were going to sue them if they took away Chico’s benefits. In any event, when Chico died, the padre gave this long, long sermon. A fine man. He contributed some of the major lies to get Chico Social Security. And he went on at length about how Chico was this marvelous tennis teacher. Actually, he was a terrible tennis teacher, but he went on and on about tennis. I was one of the pallbearers at Chico’s funeral. Another pallbearer sitting next to me was Sal Arrigo. I said to Sal Arrigo “if this guy goes on another five minutes there is going to be a riot in this church, because there were those two groups—the Lafayette Tennis Club and those who could never get on the courts. We called it the Lafayette Tennis Club because of an incident that happened. One of the players was Karen Bopna. I believe he played as a blue at either Oxford or Cambridge. He went back to India. He worked for one of the big Indian corporations. He applied for membership in the fanciest tennis club in Bombay and he put down for his affiliation “Lafayette Tennis Club”—Al Ortlieb, my friend from across the park, “Al Ortlieb, Manager. “ When they looked at this they said “OK, that’s fine, we’ll take him.” After that we decided to call ourselves “The Lafayette Tennis Club.” Now, when Al Ortlieb died, he died on the tennis court. He died while I was playing with him. The Washington Post obit notice read “Al Ortlieb, a captain in the nuclear submarine corps, and beloved member of the Lafayette Tennis Club. “ It was a very close group. To this day we tell stories about Al Ortlieb and we all miss him.
Q – So, this was an entirely ad hoc group?
MN – I wrote a history of the Lafayette Tennis Club, which I will not give to you to spare you its rich stream of obscenities. It was written to a friend of mine—it was a personal thing, not to be published.
Q – But you could tell us some of the highlights?
MN – I can do that. The Lafayette Tennis Club was pretty much founded by Jack Nazarian, a pretty important guy, in the neighborhood. Jack was a rug merchant. I don’t know if his store still exists, near Pearson’s liquor store in upper Georgetown. I understand that Jack applied all sorts of political pressure, and he used a lot of political know-how, to get the tennis courts built. The courts were built before we moved here. They have since been rebuilt and resurfaced many times. So, Jack is known as the father of Lafayette Tennis Club. His argument was that the courts would be great for the kids of the neighborhood. Of course, there were very few kids in the neighborhood then. Once the courts were built, Jack’s main function was to shoo the kids off the courts. (laughter) So, Jack was the father of the club. The mother was Marie Russell. Marie Russell was a legendary person who used to dominate the courts. She would assign who could play and who could not play. In the midst of the tennis boom, when twenty people were always waiting to get on the courts, she would be down in the lower left court – on the rotting benches down there. People were playing doubles, rotating in. Other people were waiting to get on a court. If she spotted one of her friends, she would say, “oh, come on down: we’re going to rotate in.” Those waiting wanted to kill her.
RN – And she got away with it, I don’t know how…
MN – They would complain to the police, who responded to the complaints with the advice, “we don’t screw around with that mother.” (laughter) The only reason she ever allowed me in was that there came a point where she had to use our bathroom. She knocked on the door. What happened was people used the bushes near the courts. But Captain Ortlieb’s house overlooks the tennis courts. Dressed in full Navy regalia and peering with spyglasses, he called out “Marie! I see what you are doing!” (laughter) Captain Al Ortlieb was a legendary figure in this neighborhood. We continue to tell stories about him. Here’s a typical story about Captain Ortlieb. One year they were resurfacing the courts. So, we went to play at the Naval base. He signed us up for an hour. When the hour was not quite up, these two high-ranking Naval officer nurses appeared and queried the party: “when are you gentlemen going to get off?” Ortlieb: “what do you mean get off? We still have 15 minutes. Did you sign up for a court?” The Navy nurse said, “yes, we did. But the people over here are overstaying their time.” Ortlieb: “Well, tell them to get off.” The nurse said, “come over here and look.” She pulls the curtain to afford a view and it’s the secretary of defense and the chief of Naval operations. Ortlieb yelled “Fellows! I think your time is up.” And they got off. (laughter) That’s Al Ortlieb. He died on the court.
RN – I was off on some errand and came back, not knowing what had happened. There were fire engines and a commotion. I asked what had happened and somebody said someone had died. I asked who was playing. They said “a big guy.” But was it big TALL or big HEAVY? I didn’t know who it was until I found Marie Russell, who told me it was Al and Mort had gone with him in the ambulance.
MN – I made a list of the members. Practically all of them are dead now. A wonderful, colorful group of people. We used to meet socially all the time. To this day one of my closest friends is Frances Ogg –, who no longer lives here. She now lives in Potomac MD. There was Chico, Al, George Ogg, Jeff and Evelyn Cohelan. Jeff and Evelyn lived in this huge house across from the Broad Branch Market. It used to be a single house; now it is two. Jeff was a former Congressman. Jeff and Evelyn’s family are very well known in California. A very active, liberal political family. Very well known in the San Francisco area. Jeff was a wonderful, courageous liberal-Democratic Congressman, who lost his seat in Congress by taking on the Hearst papers. He challenged the Hearst papers in a field I was involved in—the Newspaper Preservation Act. I had been involved in newspaper preservation cases. Evelyn is a legend in the nursing field in Washington. She was the founder of the George Mason University nursing school. I believe she was also one of the founders of the League of the Washington Hospice.
Q – Is she still alive?
MN – No. Everyone I am now talking about has died. There was also Clay Mitchell. Remember his father, Henry Mitchell? The gardening king. Burt Dunne-a very colorful guy. Burt used to hang out with a group from Kuala Lumpur. Somehow that group thought Burt was a countryman of theirs, so they allowed him to play tennis in their group. I don’t know where they got that idea. Lorenzo – my friend, Lorenzo Vellocorte. – an artist and art teacher. A very close friend of mine. He died a couple of years ago. Lambert Joel, an extremely colorful guy. The worst tennis player in the area, but a brilliant mathematician. Laura Robinson. Now, Laura Robinson couldn’t care less about the huge real estate business she had, which her daughter now runs. Laura Robinson was the dominant real estate person in this area. But she only cared about tennis. She would have traded the entire real estate business for a good backhand. I already talked about Jack Nazerian. These two Indian guys should still be alive—Bakshi Singh, another mathematician, who went to Canada, don’t know where, and Karein Bopsa, who I mentioned before. And of course in the later years we had Cheryl Douglas—you know about Cheryl Douglas. Do you know?
Q – no.
MN – Cheryl Douglas is an old partner of mine who had this terrible tragedy in her life. She had an infection that made her a quadruple amputee. No one has managed this kind of tragedy as Cheryl Douglas has. She has been written up in magazines and newspapers. The way she lives her life puts us all to shame.
Q – Is she still alive?
MN – Yes. She lives in the neighborhood. She lived somewhere off Nevada then. Now she lives in an apartment.
RN – She is younger than us. They moved to The Irene apartments.
MN – Cheryl Douglas was a great tennis player—a California girl and wonderful athlete.
RN – She was in a coma for weeks, if not months.
MN – In fact, we were supposed to play indoors on 16th Street and she never showed up. I knew something was wrong. If Cheryl didn’t show up at a tennis game, something had to be wrong. So, that’s what happened. It’s the way she has handled this that is just one of the greatest stories that could possibly be written about this neighborhood—the way she has survived and flourished. She and her husband, Paul. They travel all the time, have a condominium in Hawaii. I talked to Paul last week and they plan to go by car cross-country.
RN – Just the way she handled the diagnosis. Awaking from the coma, not knowing where she is, a doctor giving her the news, “you have no limbs.” It’s not easy. Endless irritations and problems. But she smiles through it all.
Q – She was a great competitor on the court. Now she is a competitor in another way, I guess.
RN – She was also a wonderful special education teacher in the Arlington public school system.
MN – friends of hers tell us that.
Q – Ruth, do you play tennis, too?
RN – No.
Q – Let’s return to Chico for a moment. Did you say he lived at the school?
MN – Yep. He lived in the basement of the school. That was his home. And our garage was his pro shop.
Q – And was he there a long time?
MN – Many, many years. Chico was a boxer, I understand, when he was a young man. He could never have been a tennis player. He was the world’s worst tennis player. But Chico only charged a quarter. You know what they charge now? It’s $20 an hour. Everyone loved Chico. He was a great old guy. The neighborhood all banded together for Chico. He had all kinds of medical problems. We banded together to make sure he was taken care of. Medicaid sent him once to this terrible house on the other side of Georgia Avenue. We got him out of there and into the Washington Home. I think Evelyn Cohelan probably had a role to play there.
RN – Loretta Kiron helped out. You should talk to her. She lives on Oliver Street. She brought up at least three boys.
Q – Do you have any particular memories of events in the neighborhood—4th of July, Halloween…
MN – on the 4th – Miton Kotler now an entrepreneur in China – had a band that played in the gazebo. I don’t remember Halloween being very big because there were few kids back then.
RN – what about the time you protested Allen Beach’s proposal to put lights on the court?
MN – That was about five years ago. I protested. We didn’t want lights. What happened was this. Lafayette Park used to be a hangout. There used to be a group known as the Friday night gang. It was kids from all the Catholic schools—St. John’s, Gonzaga, Good Counsel, and the girls’ equivalents. They would come here and it was terrible.
RN – awful.
MN – They were out all night making noise.
Q – what years were those?
MN – The ‘70s. They came from Maryland and from all over the District. The cops couldn’t stop it. Every weekend we would file a complaint. It took years, but finally they stopped it. And just then Paul Rosenberg, the tennis coach, got the brilliant idea to have tennis lessons at night. I told him: “you’re bringing back the problem we had to live with for ten years.” So I opposed it. First of all, the way they went about doing it raised serious questions about the legality. There was no notice, no community input. ANC Commissioner Allen Beach would have all the details.
Q – ultimately you were successful?
MN – Yes.
Q – When did Paul enter the scene?
MN – Paul used to be a player. He was an average player and then he decided he was good enough to coach.
RN – You should get other perspectives on the tennis group. There were other opinions.
MN – The tennis courts used to be the gathering spot for all sorts of characters. An extremely colorful group. There was one guy named Leon. A full-mooner back in the days when there weren’t too many of them—extreme right wing. A writer for Newsweek or Time Magazine—can’t remember which. A very important political commentator. He had been a colonel in the Russian air force. They way I remember the story, he flew his airplane over Yugoslavia, bailed out, crashed the plane, then defected to the United States, and became this full-mooner. Leon used to play on the courts every Saturday. More often than not, he would play either with or against Vladimir, the cultural attaché of the Russian [Soviet] embassy. They would trade insults the entire morning, the two of them. Vladimir was transferred back to Moscow, just as he and I were planning to open the first bunny club in Moscow. Vladimir’s main interest in culture was girls.
Q – were most of the players Chevy Chase neighbors?
MN – Mostly yes, but there were others, too. There were a lot of people who came from elsewhere. One player was a cop. One boiling hot day a big time lawyer from the other side of Western Avenue went over to the sideline and picked up this towel, only to exclaim “there’s a gun in this towel!!” He had picked up the wrong towel. (laughter)
Q – Had you played tennis before you came here?
MN – Never. Marie Russell finally allowed me in. I hit against the wall for five years. Then she had to use the bathroom, so that was my chance. I think she is still around, living maybe in Wheaton.
Q – She had been living here?
MN – No. She came here. She couldn’t possibly have lived here. They wouldn’t tolerate her.
Q – What attracted so many people from outside to these particular courts?
MN – They knew they could get a game here. They knew there were some superb players. – like Karin Bopna. Marie Russell had a paramour, Ernie, who used to show up wearing high black sneakers and this old-fashioned T-shirt. He would play smoking a cigar. Ernie was the ranking senior tennis player in the District. A magnificent tennis player. He and Bopna would put on a match worthy of Wimbledon.
Q – Did people watch them sometimes?
MN – When those two played, we watched them. That was really great tennis. They always knew they could get a game. That’s the big thing with tennis players—you need someone to hit with. First of all, they knew that no matter what time they showed up, Marie Russell would be there. From 0700 until it was dark. She was here all day. Always playing. Never waiting on a court.
Q – What occasioned the writing of your tennis courts essay?
MN – Bakski Singh was going off to teach at the University of Vancouver. So I wrote a letter of introduction for him to Frances Ogg, our friend in the diplomatic service who had been transferred to Vancouver. Bakski was a real gentleman, courtly manners. I told Frances: “To get you through the dog days, I am writing this history for you.”
Q – Well, what a stroke of luck that you settled for the house in Chevy Chase!
MN – Yeah—when Ruth thinks about the four million dollar house in Cleveland Park, I think about the 40 years I had playing tennis.
Q – It works out to $100,000 a year. (laughter)
MN – Just one more thing. The house next door to ours has turned over many times Once Bob Wright, a distinguished academician, lived there. He wrote a famous book, the Zero-Sum Game, there. He has written a book about God, about social Darwinism, they’re best sellers. I think Maureen Dowd of the New York Times lived in this neighborhood, too. In one of her columns she made a passing reference to her brothers knowing Pat Buchanan.
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