In 1981 I made my paternal grandmother into a superstar.
Now you may not recall the famous Sylvia Ginsberg of North Miami Beach, but most of her fellow celebrities of that era—people like Suzanne Somers and Erik Estrada—no longer grace the covers of supermarket tabloids, and they don’t have Grandma Sylvia’s excuse: she died in November of that year.
My grandmother’s impending death was one reason I decided to make her into a media star. The day after Thanksgiving 1980, I took her to a Miami doctor who diagnosed a heart aneurysm that would eventually burst and kill her quite suddenly.
“How long does she have?” I asked Dr. Reinstein while Grandma was in the other room. We were definitely not going to tell her.
“Hard to say,” he replied. “Six months maybe. A year at most.”
Grandma Sylvia hadn’t had the easiest life. She’d been in and out of hospitals for more than two decades as she suffered with colon cancer, although repeated surgeries managed to keep her alive. Her arthritis got so bad she could no longer walk—until her deteriorated hips were replaced with artificial ones. She suffered from all kinds of severe pain and sought out treatment from the first doctor licensed to practice acupuncture in New York’s Chinatown.
She had even brought back from death once, following some internal bleeding in 1972. When I went to her room at New York Hospital a few days later and said I was surprised to see her looking so good, she promptly shot back: “You’re really just surprised to see me at all.” She was not one for mystical near-death experiences featuring blinding light. If she’d seen one, she would have complained that the brightness was giving her a migraine.
In 1977, my grandfather, in a moment of self-directed rage at a stupid play during a poolside pinochle game, suffered a stroke that left his brain damaged after being deprived of oxygen for the few minutes it took paramedics to get to him. Grandpa Nat ended up a near-vegetable in the North Miami Convalescent Home.
By the time she was in her late seventies, my grandmother had gone through a lot. But did she complain?
Constantly. She taught me everything I knew about kvetching.
I grew up with a full set of grandparents who lived long enough so that I knew them when I was a quasi-adult. I adored them. Yet both my grandmothers loved nothing better than to sit me down and tell me all the tsuris they’d seen. I sometimes envisioned the following entry in that staple of my childhood Sunday comics section, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not:
“Mr. Richard Grayson of Davie, Florida, had two grandmothers—neither of whom ever had a good day in her life!”
But Grandma Sylvia, complainer or not, seemed to me as worthy of media attention as any TV star, socialite or business mogul in a celebrity-obsessed culture.
Annoyed with the publicity given the shallow and the superficial, I decided that an ordinary person of substance—even if that substance was bile—deserved superstardom. Grandma Sylvia was ready for her fifteen minutes of fame, even if she didn’t know I was engineering it.
The first step, of course, was a slick press release in which I announced the formation of the Sylvia Ginsberg International Fan Club. (I thought the “International” was the crucial touch.) Since my employment at the time was limited to teaching a single course in remedial English at Broward Community College, I had plenty of free time to devote to being president of the fan club.
A fan club has got to have a publication, of course, so the press release also announced the forthcoming first issue of Sylvia Ginsberg Magazine, with features such as:
“Shocking: Why Sylvia Switched Supermarkets!”
Sylvia’s Struggles with the Social Security Administration
The Untold Story of Sylvia’s Artificial Hips
Sylvia’s Love Quiz: Can You Pass It?
There was also a contest in which the winner would receive a piece of my grandmother’s famous honey cake (famous mostly because of its dryness). And there was an article ghost-written by me under the byline of my great-aunt, Mildred Cohen, which began:
“Sylvia is the kind of sister-in-law that everyone loves to visit for half an hour!”
A bonus feature in the issue was exclusive photos of Grandma getting a flu shot at the board of health.
My press release extolled my grandmother as “a superstar we can respect. She doesn’t snort cocaine, doesn’t get into fights in bars—doesn’t even go to bars—and never uses drugs, except for arthritis medicine . . . She lives the kind of life millions dream of: driving around, getting her hair done, visiting her husband in the nursing home.”
Two days after I mailed out the batch of press releases, a Miami News reporter called. As I had predicted, the public was hungry for a different kind of celebrity. My grandmother was turning out to be big news.
The paper wanted a photo of Grandma Sylvia and me, but unfortunately I couldn’t find a suitable one of us together. So I gave them a 1958 photo of my brother Marc and our other grandmother, Ethel Sarrett, and I told them it was Sylvia and I. They ran it on page one, cropping it in the shape of a star. The headline: “Grandson Fans the Flames of Stardom for Sylvia.”
For people tired about reading about Jackie O. and Burt Reynolds, here was the perfect antidote: an eighty-year-old great-grandmother living in a North Miami Beach condominium.
And so the Sylvia Ginsberg frenzy was off and running.
Associated Press picked up the Miami News story and it turned up on front pages in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Charlottesville, Virginia.
A number of people sent in their five-dollar membership dues to join the fan club. A Cuban-American woman in Hialeah who owned a printing firm offered to do the fan magazine for free, and we were able to get out the twenty-page magazine by publication date, April 15, Grandma’s birthday.
(Actually, that was the day she and my grandfather celebrated their birthdays. They came from Russia as children and had no idea when their actual birthdays were; they settled on April 15 so they’d remember to pay their income taxes.)
More newspaper stories started appearing. The Miami Herald wanted a photo of me kissing Grandma, and we both complied, although my grandmother always abhorred being kissed. “I have a cold, so don’t kiss me,” she’d usually say. Sylvia Ginsberg was learning the price of fame.
How did my grandmother react to this instant fame? Here’s what she told one newspaper:
“After my husband got sick, I wasn’t doing much of anything. One day Richard says, ‘Grandma, you’re going to be a superstar.’ I said, ‘Richard, I should be a celebrity? What are you talking about?’”
“My Richard is a wonderful boy for doing it. He’s so brilliant. I told him to get on Tic Tac Dough because he’s so brilliant.”
“And he writes. Oh, he can write.”
“The only thing I don’t like is his beard. I say, ‘Richard, please take that beard off. You’d look 25 years younger.’”
I was thirty years old at the time.
Even those around Sylvia Ginsberg basked in her reflected glory. “I didn’t realize how glamorous she was,” said her next-door neighbor, Teddy Dietz, in a Miami Herald story. “She just seemed like a nice, intelligent woman.”
When my grandmother went into Eckerd Drugs, the pharmacist recognized her and asked for her autograph.
Morry Alter, the human interest reporter from Channel 10 news, called to beg her for an interview.
“My grandmother has never been involved in a single scandal,” I told the Fort Lauderdale News. “She’ll do for South Florida what Anita Bryant failed to do. She’ll give us a good image—classically elderly, glamorous, yet laid back. And she does have to lay down a lot. When you’re eighty, it’s par for the course.”
The fan magazine was only the beginning. I had a great idea for a TV movie, a biopic called “The Sylvia Ginsberg Story: From Minsk to North Miami Beach.” I exaggerated a little and told a Hollywood Sun-Tattler columnist—that’s Hollywood, Florida, by the way—that Sylvia Sidney, who was in Miami performing in a play, had asked for a copy of the script.
I thought about a line of Sylvia Ginsberg designer jeans for senior citizens. (“Sylvia’s got the look you want to know better / She’s got the octogenarian look that’s all together / Shopping, kibitizing, day and night / The frail-cheeked look that’s right.”)
And maybe Grandma would consent to a bid for public office.
After all, the Hallandale Digest called my grandmother “South Florida’s condo queen for the Eighties.”
But Grandma Sylvia got tired of celebrity soon enough. As one newspaper story began:
Everything was going so smoothly for Sylvia Ginsberg. She spent her days visiting her beautician or her doctor or her husband, who is in a nursing home. Evenings, she would watch Tic Tac Dough, her favorite show, on television. But then her grandson decided that Sylvia Ginsberg should become a superstar.
“I’m not up to this, Richard. I’m not up for being a celebrity. I don’t need this,” Mrs. Ginsberg tells her grandson.
“That’s why you should be famous, Grandma,” replies Richard. “You’re the only person in America who doesn’t want to be famous.”
The young reporter who wrote this story later called me up to say she’d been expecting to interview a cuddly Jewish grandmother but instead got “someone with the sensibility of an angry, bitter punk rocker.”
Grandma Sylvia told the press that she never had a sense of humor, didn’t know how to tell a joke, and wouldn’t appear on Johnny Carson’s show. “It’s too late,” she was quoted as saying. “Who needs it? I go to bed early.”
And so the clock ran out on Sylvia Ginsberg’s fifteen minutes of fame.
Was I disappointed? Not really. I respected my grandmother more than I ever had because she wasn’t seduced by superstardom.
She went about her life once again, although health problems made things increasingly difficult.
On Thanksgiving, I picked her up to take her to a holiday dinner at the home of family friends. She’d been bedridden with bad chest pains for a week, but for some reason that day she felt fine. At the dinner she was more friendly and talkative than usual, and she ate heartily rather than just picked at her plate. My brother Jonathan told me he couldn’t remember our grandmother looking better.
I had to leave early. As I said my good-byes and was about to go, my grandmother waved to me from across the room and mouthed the words “I love you.” She had never done that before.
That night, one year to the day that Dr. Reinstein had given as her maximum life span, Grandma Sylvia died.
Though she may have been in the public eye for a very brief period, Sylvia Ginsberg will always be my favorite superstar.
And as she would have said to Erik Estrada and Suzanne Somers: Eat your hearts out.
**2005 Identity Theory Nonfiction Contest Winner**