Grossinger, Jennie (1892–1972)
Grossinger, Jennie (1892–1972)
American hotel executive and philanthropist . Born in Baligrod, Austria, on June 16, 1892; died in Ferndale, New York, on November 20, 1972; eldest daughter and oldest of three children of Asher Selig (an estate overseer) and Malka (Grumet) Grossinger; attended public school in New York City; married Harry Grossinger (a laborer in a garment factory), on May 25, 1912 (died 1964); children: one child (b. 1913, died in infancy); Paul Grossinger (b. around 1915); Elaine Grossinger (b. 1927).
Called "one of the world's great hostesses," Jennie Grossinger was a guiding force behind America's premiere resort, the opulent Grossinger's Hotel, located on 700 acres in New York's Catskill Mountains and catering to a largely Jewish clientele. At the height of its success, Grossinger's hosted over 150,000 guests a year, including numerous world celebrities. Featuring strictly kosher cuisine, the resort had its own airport, post office, newspaper, ski slope, Olympic-size swimming pool, golf course, and riding academy. Night life at Grossinger's featured some of world's top entertainers, many of whom received their first big break performing at the hotel. (Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Sam Levenson, Morey Amsterdam, Red Buttons, and Eddie Fisher all launched their careers from the Grossinger's stage.) Joel Pomerantz, author of Jennie and the Story of Grossinger's, calls Grossinger's a Jewish institution, a "symbolic representation of an affluent life style for an entire ethnic class that rose from the ghettoes to positions of wealth, power, and importance during the first half of the 20th Century." For many, he added, "coming to Grossinger's was indisputable evidence of having 'arrived'—of having 'made it!'" Canadian novelist, Mordecai Richler defined the resort in less erudite terms, calling it, "Disneyland with knishes."
Jennie Grossinger was born in Austria in 1892 but migrated with her family to America in 1900. Her education was cut short at age 13, when she quit school to take a job as a buttonhole maker. Working 11 hours a day while attending night school, she helped support her sister and father, and sent money to her mother who had returned to Europe to find medical help for her brother, who was profoundly deaf. In 1912, Jennie married her cousin Harry Grossinger, a production man in a garment factory, and went to work as the cashier in the family's new enterprise, a small restaurant. The business was abandoned in 1914, when her father suffered a physical and mental breakdown. At the doctor's suggestion, he moved the family to a run-down farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains, where they hoped to make a living by growing crops. When that failed, they began to take in summer boarders, most of whom were fellow Jewish immigrants from New York City who were looking for low-cost vacations in the country. A small hotel emerged, with Jennie's mother Malka Grossinger overseeing the kosher kitchen, and Jennie acting as chambermaid, bookkeeper, and host. Jennie's husband Harry remained at his job in New York, but assisted by doing the marketing in the city and also recruiting guests from his acquaintances. During the summer of 1914, their first season, the Grossingers hosted nine boarders who paid a total of $81. A year later, they built a new wing, adding six rooms and providing for 20 guests.
Despite its modest facilities, the hotel, called Longbrook House, soon became known for its wonderful food and inexpensive rates. In 1916, Harry Grossinger quit his job in New York to join the growing enterprise. Meantime, Jennie balanced her long hours on the job with caring for her son Paul, who was often put in the care of the hotel guests while she worked. (Jennie's first child, born in 1913, died in infancy. Her daughter Elaine was born in 1927. By then, Jennie could afford a governess.) In 1919, the family sold the original farmhouse and bought a larger property nearby with a better equipped hotel building. That same year, they also purchased a lake and 63 acres of woodlands, so as to provide their guests with fishing and other sporting facilities.
Over the next decade, the business steadily expanded and, by 1929, had a guest capacity of 500. That year, Milton Blackstone was hired to promote the hotel. It was he who originated the idea of offering a free honeymoon to couples who met at the facility and came up with the slogan "Grossinger's has everything." Jennie Grossinger, however, remained the hotel's greatest asset, serving as host and business manager and somehow managing to retain the hotel's family-run ambiance even as it expanded into a year-round luxury resort.
Throughout her career, Jennie was plagued by ill health, suffering severe headaches, chronic high blood pressure, back problems, and bouts of depression. In 1941, and again in 1946, she
underwent major surgery. Beginning in the 1930s, she began to delegate many of her former responsibilities and to devote more of her energy to philanthropic causes, both Jewish and non-sectarian. Much of her charity work focused on the Jewish homeland of Israel, where she helped to build a convalescent home and a medical center. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem also benefited from her charity, reflecting her lifelong interest in education. Jennie also contributed to the National Association to Help Mentally Retarded Children, the Deborah Tuberculosis Hospital, and the Leo N. Levi Memorial Hospital for Arthritic Patients. During her lifetime, she received many awards and honors for her philanthropy, including honorary degrees from Wilberforce College in Ohio and New England College. In 1954, she was the subject of the popular television show "This Is Your Life."
After World War II, Jennie presided over the resort's further expansion into a more diversified clientele. Now catering to guests who were not Orthodox Jews, the resort, in 1948, began to provide entertainment on the Jewish Sabbath. In 1964, following the death of her husband, Jennie turned the business over to her children, who had long been involved in its management. She died of a stroke in her cottage at Grossinger's on November 20, 1972.
Grossinger's remained a family-run enterprise until 1986, when it was sold to Servico, Inc., who razed the old buildings to make way for a more up-to-date facility, with a gourmet dining room, a spa, and an 8,000-square-foot "action lounge," targeted to a young clientele. Several old-timers were on hand to watch the implosion of the old Grossinger Playhouse, where so many young entertainers had broken in their acts. "If Jennie were here, she'd cry," remarked comedian Mal Z. Lawrence, who had often played the "G." Lou Goldstein, the director of daytime social and athletic activities at the old resort for 37 years, tried to keep his sense of humor. "I look at it with mixed emotions," he said. "It's like watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff—in your new Cadillac."
Current Biography 1956. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1956.
Kanfer, Stefan. "NY: Bulldozers Have the Last Laugh," in Time. October 27, 1986.
Pomerantz, Joel. Jennie and the Story of Grossinger's. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1970.
Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.
Grossinger, Richard. Out of Babylon: Ghosts of Grossinger's. Berkeley, CA: Frog, Ltd., 1997.
Grossinger, Tania. Growing up at Grossinger's. NY: D. McKay, 1975.
Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts