Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
According to NPR -- and a lot of other places, I should add -- "having policy proposals" is just one of many "brands" for a presidential candidate as opposed to an essential and basic requirement:
It's kind of nuts to think that having ideas aimed at addressing the pressing issues of the day is a just another type of branding like, say, being a "straight talker" or being "someone voters would like to have a beer with." Nuts and, I might add, corrosive. For a politician to have a "brand" is consistent with a view of the voter as a consumer, not a citizen. I think we've already done quite enough to commercialize existence without doing do to democracy as well, but I'm probably a few decades too late in objecting.
In other news, I am extremely impressed by Warren's campaign thus far. Maybe that puts me in the minority but, again, I'm someone who actually wants to fix the problems in this country rather than simply feel better about the country in some vague, intangible sense the likes of which Don Draper types might appreciate when applied to laundry detergent or frozen entrees, which is what most of the other candidates seem to be offering.
A profile of Nancy Pelosi in the New York Times appeared over the weekend which outlines her "coldblooded plan" for leading the Democratic Party, defeating Trump and forging a new path forward. The plan is cynical and cowardly. I likewise suspect it will ultimately lead to failure, either at the polls in 2020 or, barring that, in a toothless, uninspiring Democratic presidency should whoever is nominated adopt her thinking and win the election.
The most striking part of it is just how strongly Pelosi is leaning into fear as a justification for an unambitious Democratic candidate and platform:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment — the only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so “big” he cannot challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory.
Can we acknowledge how remarkable this is? Not the part in which the leader of the opposition party is saying, in public, that she legitimately thinks the President of the United States of America is planning a literal coup, because hell, I wouldn't put that past Trump at this point. No, the remarkable part is that her response is to to try to "inoculate" against that in political terms by hoping for a rare-in-this-age landslide election.
I would like to think that, in addition to just hoping such a thing doesn't happen, she has used the considerable powers and resources at her disposal to begin to forge some sort of legal, institutional plan rooted in her status as he most powerful member of a co-equal branch of government to prepare for such an unprecedented act and to warn Trump against even considering it. If so, I feel like it'd be best for her to give it voice. Trump's casting aside of the rule of law these past few years has been a very public exercise in which he has always tested the waters via tweets and ideas floated via media surrogates, forging ahead with his lawlessness once he realizes that no one will effectively push back. As such, If Pelosi legitimately fears Trump will usurp power after losing an election, maybe it'd be a good idea to warn him against it now in terms that he will fully understand.
Let us also acknowledge that all of this talk of a coup, couched in an article in which she talks about her well-known issues with the left wing of her party, not so subtly lays the groundwork for her to place the theoretical blame for such a coup on that left wing rather than, you know, the guy she thinks is going to stage the coup. "If young Democrats get their way we'll tack too far to the left and create Generalissimo Trump!" Pelosi is clearly arguing. I'll grant that we live in a scary age, but so blatantly basing her political strategy on fears like that, and so cynically saying that those most vocally opposed to Trump would be responsible for it all, is pathetic, especially for a figure of Pelosi's stature.
Short of worrying about a coup, Pelosi is worrying about how Republicans will react if Democrats offer anything in the way of ambition when it comes to policy or make efforts to hold Trump or Republicans to account in any real way:
[Pelosi] offered Democrats her “coldblooded” plan for decisively ridding themselves of Mr. Trump: Do not get dragged into a protracted impeachment bid that will ultimately get crushed in the Republican-controlled Senate, and do not risk alienating the moderate voters who flocked to the party in 2018 by drifting too far to the left.
While reasonable people can disagree on the wisdom of impeachment, Pelosi's comments later in the article about how it's convenient to be able to attack Attorney General Bill Barr rather than go directly after Trump, reveal just how afraid she is to get into any sort of confrontation with him. She has thus far shown no willingness to take even moderately aggressive efforts to investigate him or hold him to account in the wake of the Mueller Report or any of the numerous ethics scandals which have infested Trump's presidency. She seems to embody the concern, voiced fairly often these days, that it's best to avoid doing anything to draw Trump's ire or motivate the Republican media machine which would take shrill, hysterical aim at Democrats.
Nowhere in here, however, does Pelosi appear to acknowledge that Democrats could do nothing more provocative than cut ribbons at veterans hospitals and host the annual Easter egg hunt and Republicans and their surrogates in the media would still accuse them of being radical Stalinists hellbent on destroying America. Nowhere does she acknowledge that there is no act or policy position that Democrats could adopt that Trump will not rant and lie about and distort into something horrifying with the Fox News brigade throwing gasoline on the fire. He and they have done it countless times before and they will, with 100% assurance, do it again.
It is utterly pointless, then, to take a hands-off approach to Trump and Republicans, let alone to make that the lodestar of your political philosophy. Even if impeachment is a non-starter given the Republican Senate, using the full power of the Democratic majority in the House to investigate, subpoena and oversee the Executive is imperative. Not just because it's the right thing to do as a matter of basic governance, but because whether Democrats do that or not, Trump and the Republicans will claim they are doing it anyway, casting themselves as victims and casting Democrats as radical tyrants. If that's going to happen, you may as well do your damn job in the process and hold this administration's feet to the fire.
The policy strategy she advocates, such as you can even call it that, may be the saddest part of it all. Pelosi makes it clear here, as she has made it clear previously, that she would prefer that Democrats offer no substantive policy positions that might inspire voters and harness the energy of the party's motivated and highly organized base, all in the name of persuading the most swingy, uncommitted voters on a platform of platitudes and "alienation"-avoidance. The mythical "moderate swing" voter who, to the extent such beasts even exists -- and there's a lot of data suggesting they don't -- almost always swing right when they do, in fact, swing.
The absolute best that can be said about Pelosi's "coldblooded strategy" is that it's cynical. That she is counseling caution and moderation in the runup to 2020 in order to attract all of those swing voters and get a big, coup-negating victory but, once in power, Democrats will do good things, fix our nation's many problems and govern in such a way that makes our lives and the lives of subsequent generations better. That's the best case.
The more likely case: any Democrat taking her cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision strategy now, if they even manage to win, will govern in a cautious, make-no-waves, offer-no-vision way. Partially because, if they promise nothing over the next 18 months, they will have no mandate to do anything ambitious whatsoever, even if they secretly wanted to all along. Mostly, though, because such an approach will be best adopted by someone who, in reality, has no ambition or concern about the future. Such as, I dunno, a nearly 80-year-old candidate who says he "doesn't have time" to lay out a healthcare plan and who "has no empathy" for the problems faced by the nation's largest living adult generation. For example.
It doesn't have to be this way.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who stand for things other than winning the next election for its own sake.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who support not simply getting rid of Trump, which is a given and the bare minimum that must be done to get us out of the nightmare of the past few years, but in taking the fight to him directly.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left invested in creating an affirmative vision of a better nation and society and doing what it takes to achieve that vision once in power.
There are numerous candidates, leaders and voters on the left who believe that achieving all of these things require that we not simply quietly tiptoe past the bully in the hallway and hope to God he doesn't see us, but who know that to stop a bully you have to punch him in the goddamn mouth.
Support them. Don't accept Nancy Pelosi's sad, cynical and fearful "plan" or anyone who thinks that's the best path forward. We can do better. And we should.