Even after unexpectedly inheriting millions from his apparently poverty-stricken but workaholic uncles, Mort Zachter continued to peddle his trade as a certified public accountant and tax attorney. That is, until September 11. “After 9/11,” says Zachter, “I realized I was as crazy as my uncles. I could do what I really dreamed about — write— and didn’t have to work as a CPA.” Having spent nearly five years on the 101st floor of 1 World Trade Center, he felt the tragedy very personally.
After Zachter, a Princeton resident, earned his MBA from New York University in 1984, he worked for some smaller CPA firms, then took a job with Deloitte, Haskins, and Sells, whose offices were then located on the 101st floor of 1 World Trade Center. Zachter worked there until 1988. “On 9/11 I was working in my shared office space in Princeton Forrestal Village. When I heard that the second pane had hit, I immediately knew it was an act of terrorism.”
Zachter, who moved to Princeton in 1996, with his wife, Nurit, to be closer to her family, will read from his new memoir, “Dough,” on Tuesday, October 9, at the Princeton Public Library. Zachter has submitted several stories and poems to U.S.1’s summer fiction issue: his story, “A Tale of Urban Renewal,” published in 2001, became a chapter in “Dough.”
Zachter’s tale opens with a strange revelation — that his family, while pretending to a genteel poverty, is either sitting on millions, in the case of his bachelor uncles, or in full knowledge of the family fortune, in his parents’ case. But he, an only child, is kept in the dark — until one day — with his father in the hospital and his remaining uncle stricken with Alzheimer’s — he answered the phone at his parents’ home.
After confirming that he is speaking to Mr. Zachter, a stockbroker says to him, “There is a million dollars in the money-market account. I suggest you buy a million dollars’ worth of treasuries to maximize the return.”
Zachter is dumbfounded. He writes: “I was hearing things. No one in my family had that kind of dough. The heat had gotten to me. It must be a misunderstanding. A practical joke. I stared at the river of stains running down the walls from the ceiling. When I had lived here as a child, sleeping in the dinette with my head next to the Frigidaire, the upstairs apartment bathroom had leaked. Some things never change. But some do.”
He then explains to the caller that his father (who is at that point acting as trustee for his uncle) is in the hospital, and the conversation continues:
“‘Mr. Geary, did I understand you correctly? Did you say my uncle has a brokerage account with a million dollars in the money-market fund?’
‘I let that settle in for a minute. I didn’t know how to respond. Growing up I had felt poor — not a homeless, hungry, dressed-in-rags poor, but a never-discussed sense that we simply couldn’t afford better. Not better than our one-bedroom apartment, not better than vacations in Art Deco dives on Miami’s Collins Avenue only in the summer, and not better than view-obstructed seats behind a pole at the old Yankee Stadium. At 36, I knew lives of not-better-than plus a million dollars didn’t add up.”
The essence of the book, though, is not the revelation itself but how Zachter works through the dynamics of this family secret. He shares the process of moving beyond his sense of betrayal about his parents’ secretiveness; his anger at his uncles who forced his mother to work without pay at “the store,” a wholesale bakery; his dismay at his own apparent entrapment in the workaholic ethic of his family; and, yes, even his guilt at the possibility of using the money that he eventually inherited to follow his own dream of becoming a writer.
Zachter has always loved writing. Even in high school he wrote many of the sports articles in his class yearbook and got the award for best English student in his graduating class. He wonders whether he might have gone on to become a college professor if things had been different. But it wasn’t to be.
Although his mother adamantly opposed having Zachter work with his uncles in the family business, in the end his parents pushed him toward accounting, and that’s what he did at Brooklyn College. Zachter attributes their insistence to their growing up in the 1930s. “They were both products of the Depression,” he says, “so having a job was very important to them.”
Zachter also muses about whether his parents, who were aware that Zachter would one day inherit the family money from his bachelor uncles, were perhaps “preparing me in some way to have the responsibility,” and indeed his accounting and tax expertise saved him a bundle of money when the time came.
Zachter is now philosophical about his CPA and believes that it was, in fact, better preparation for writing than an academic track. “It gave me the opportunity to meet lots of different people and see a lot of different businesses,” he says. Had he pursued an academic path, he says, “I would have a narrower focus in my life. Maybe I would have been much better read but might not have the insights into people that I have now.”
Central to the saga of the money are his uncles, who Zachter describes as being, “like characters out of a play.” His Uncle Harry, “the outside man” who picked up merchandise from wholesale bakeries and delivered to customers, was a guy with long, flowing gray hair flying all over the place, carrying boxes overflowing with bread from his ’63 Oldsmobile.
Zachter concedes that his uncles were incredible businessmen. Probably the most lucrative part of their business, he says, was supplying restaurants like the Second Avenue Deli with bread and cake, where the markup was higher than retail. But part of their business success, he says, was their day-and-night devotion to the bakery. Between the two uncles and his mother, the store was open from 5 or 6 in the morning until midnight. “They gave up having a family life for the sake of being in the bakery,” he says, with some sadness. “In a sense the bakery, for my uncles, was their family life.” He notes that only one uncle actually came to his bar mitzvah.
‘They never went out and socialized but knew everyone in the neighborhood and everyone knew them,” recalls Zachter. He sensed tremendous loneliness in his Uncle Harry, who he says asked customers to send postcards to him when they traveled.
Cleaning up the apartment after both uncles had died, Zachter found not only hundreds of postcards from all over the world but also dozens of unopened boxes containing “gifts” that banks used to give for opening passbook savings accounts, and piles of passbooks.
Zachter suggests that this collecting and hoarding was “some type of pathos in the obsessive, compulsive realm” and, beyond a Depression mentality, may have contributed to their frugality. But much of what troubles Zachter is the sacrifice the work entailed. “Ultimately five people gave the full extent of their lives to work and eventually that added up to this money,” he says, including his grandmother. Even his father, who was a senior claims examiner in an unemployment insurance office, would pick up merchandise from the wholesale bakeries on Monday nights, and of course he was not paid either.
Zachter feels keenly that his mother “really got the short end of the stick,” not so much financially but because she “missed out on the opportunity to do what she wanted in life, to teach.” She had a degree in education from Hunter College and had begun teaching when her father died. Because she was living at home and felt sorry for her mother, she went to work in the family business.
After Zachter’s parents got married and Uncle Harry took over the business, he only paid her with whatever cookies and baked goods she could carry home.
Although the discovery of his parents’ secretiveness was a huge disappointment, he admits to learning a lot from them. First of all, he says, they taught him humility. His mother used to tell him, “Never compare yourself to another person in a face-to-face conversation because then one of you is going to walk away feeling second best.” And the corollary was “do the best you can.”
From his father’s side, he learned persistence and attention to detail. Zachter’s grandfather, Jacob, was a furrier, and he remembers his father explaining to him that furriers had to be the most meticulous kind of tailors — they couldn’t waste any of the material because fur is very expensive. Similarly Zachter sees himself as thorough and meticulous.
Zachter admits that his initial reaction to learning he was a millionaire was one of elation. But his happiness cycled with remorse “for them and for myself about what could have been.” But, as a CPA and a tax attorney —he had earned his J.D. during four years at night school, as his father had done before him — he was a pragmatic guy. “It is against my nature to buy expensive clothes or cars,” he says. “To me, a house is a good investment.”
His first responsibility with the money, he says, is to ensure that his two children, Ari, 16, and Aleeza, 12, are well taken care of. But he has also given money to charity. He relates that his uncles’ synagogue, the first Roumanian shul, was torn down last year after 100 years because the roof leaked and eventually collapsed, and the congregation didn’t have the money to repair it. A few years ago, when his own synagogue, Beth El in East Windsor, had a leaky roof and badly needed renovations, he and his wife got involved. Zachter says: “That was my way, perhaps, of making up for some of the things my uncles could have done but didn’t do with the money.”
Eventually Zachter was even able to allow himself to be a little extravagant. For a special anniversary, he and his wife, Nurit, treated themselves to a memorable three-day trip to Paris on the Concorde. “In retrospect,” he says, “it is now something very special, a memory we would never forget, a thing we could never have done in our wildest dreams.”
But of course the most significant decision he made after receiving the money was to pursue a new career as an author. When he decided to start with a memoir, he says he took the advice of one of his favorite writers, Calvin Trillin, who follows “the Dostoevsky rule”: When you write nonfiction, you shouldn’t write anything that’s terribly bad about anyone unless you write as well as Dostoevsky.
He took writing classes at the 92nd Street Y in New York and at the Arts Council in Princeton, with Anne Neumann. Esther Schor, a professor at Princeton University, read an early version of “Dough.”
Zachter is already hard at work on his next book, a biography of Brooklyn Dodgers player, Gil Hodges. He says of his new writing profession: “I love what I do, and I’m blessed.”
Author Event, Tuesday, October 9, 7:30 p.m. Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Mort Zachter, author of “Dough: A Memoir.” 609-924-8822.