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Book Review: Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland and Interior Decorating by Elliot Tiber

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Before reading Palm Trees on the Hudson: A True Story of the Mob, Judy Garland and Interior Decorating, I couldn’t retain the title for more than a couple minutes. After reading it, the title springs to mind with strong imagery because it is tied to a milestone event for author Elliot Tiber. Tiber is a highly sought-after lecturer who has written and produced numerous award-winning plays, musical comedies, television shows, and films. As a professor of comedy writing and performance, he has taught at the New School University and Hunter College in Manhattan. His first novel, Rue Haute, was a bestseller in Europe and was published in the U.S. under the title High Street. His 2007 book Taking Woodstock was made into a motion picture from director Ang Lee in 2009. With Palm Trees on the Hudson, Tiber offers up a prequel memoir to his fans.

Born Eliyahu Teichberg, teacher-writer-producer-artist-decorator Tiber gives readers his background story in this sometimes plodding but more often picturesque and always informative book about the family he couldn’t really leave behind and the life he created for himself in 1960s Manhattan. The story Tiber tells is memorable. He lived through and participated in a time of great upheaval in American society, when homosexuality was closeted and AIDS was underway but not yet comprehended.

The upheaval in society was matched by Tiber’s own coming of age, as he left his family home in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, to find his own way as a semi-closeted (mostly just to his parents) gay man making a living through his art, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit. He became one of New York’s top interior decorators. In the spring of 1968, he landed a job that called on all he had learned up to that point. That is the job has given the book its subtitle (The Mob, Judy Garland & Interior Decorating).

Tiber’s first apartment was roach-infested — which I could relate to, having suffered the same shock during one move of my own — but Tiber got rid of the roaches the same day through a helpful encounter with a knowledgeable fellow tenant, Loki. Loki helped him clean the place up and introduced him to people and methods that led to cheap or free objects for decorating his first apartment. From that introduction to Greenwich Village, Tiber grabbed hold happily. Determined to keep his new-found freedom-to-be, he put massive energy and creativity into building a career that required lots of hard work and a growing number of connections and referrals.

” [M]y pattern of constantly switching companies had officially begun,” Tiber writes. “I was courted by several design firms, all of which offered good pay for the fun of creating imaginative in-store displays. I … got to see my designs featured in Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus … it was heaven.”

With enough security in his regular jobs, Tiber simultaneously started his own enterprise, Plaza Interiors, which eventually led to enough work that he could devote full time to it. He also accepted an offer from his alma mater Hunter College to teach art. “For the first time in my life, my mother was speechless.” Even though his work had been featured in major department stores, and he had been making enough money to send some home each week, his mother had never understood or approved of what he did. Teaching she understood. If her son couldn’t be a rabbi or a doctor, teaching would do. She was thrilled.

Tiber tells about living the duality of a wildly gay and upwardly mobile lifestyle in Manhattan during the workweeks, and then on weekends shifting into dutiful-son mode and helping his parents manage their own business. When they asked for his financial and physical help getting a new motel up and running near White Lake, New York, he provided it. Tiber does a good job relating the stark contrast between the two environments he was immersed in. One way he dealt with the weekend work was to start a summer theater in the barn where he could perform comedy monologues.

“At my first performance, nobody showed up. Scratch that; Momma dropped in for a few minutes to watch me as I stood there talking, talking, talking to the empty air … She demonstrated support for my creativity as only she could: ‘Yutz! I told you not to make a theater! Who needs a theater? And you, Mr. Comedian, you’re not even funny. Nobody wants to hear your stories!’ And with that, she ran back to the motel. Pretty amazing. I thought. No audience and I still had a heckler.” 

Back in the city, along with building his career, Tiber yearned to find true love. Failing that, to relieve his sexual frustration, he spent a lot of his leisure time “in the Times Square ‘grindhouse’ movie theaters, which showed porno movies, Westerns, and old foreign flicks. But nobody came to see the films. The draw was the sexual activities in the theater itself … I made out every time I went there.” He also visited the piers, and “a former 1920s speakeasy called Lenny’s Hideaway,” a gay club that the police often raided and outside of which homophobic thugs hung out “for the sole purpose of beating up patrons as they left for home.” During the time period covered in this memoir, Tiber doesn’t find a serious boyfriend. “I still hungered for love and cried myself to sleep more often that I care to remember.”

Battling depression, Tiber saw several psychologists during those years, but what finally worked for him was the disastrous job of the subtitle, which sent him home to the motel. His downtime that summer led to Tiber having an epiphany while sitting in a lawn chair on the bottom of an emptied pool listening to a Judy Garland album.

I enjoyed Palm Trees on the Hudson, even though it was often facile. I never got the feeling, for instance, that Tiber ever really tried to see the world from his mother’s viewpoint, and this made certain passages in the book frustrating as he aimed more for humor than compassion. But that would have worked against his comedic style and his own messages, so I let him off that hook and enjoyed the book for the story he wanted to tell. I do wish there had been some photographs in this memoir, including some of his artwork, which included murals, and some of his room designs.

Having been in publishing in some form or other all my adult life, I’m probably one of the few people who actually reads the small print on the copyright page, the page verso to the title page. I especially enjoyed the small print this time because it includes a note from the author. Tiber writes, “You may be wondering why a nonfiction work would have a disclaimer. Well, it boils down to a nervous publisher who worries about using real names when describing a crooked judge, a connected restaurateur, and their cronies….”

I can’t say I blame Tiber’s publisher for asking for pseudonyms. Tiber does suggest, however, “… for those curious readers who want to know the real names of bad guys, there’s always Google.” I decided, for my part, to leave well enough alone.

 

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About Meredith Ann Rutter