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.